The Biology of Moral Systems (III)

This will be my last post about the book. It’s an important work which deserves to be read by far more people than have already read it. I have added some quotes and observations from the last chapters of the book below.

“If egoism, as self-interest in the biologists’ sense, is the reason for the promotion of ethical behavior, then, paradoxically, it is expected that everyone will constantly promote the notion that egoism is not a suitable theory of action, and, a fortiori, that he himself is not an egoist. Most of all he must present this appearance to his closest associates because it is in his best interests to do so – except, perhaps, to his closest relatives, to whom his egoism may often be displayed in cooperative ventures from which some distant- or non-relative suffers. Indeed, it may be arguable that it will be in the egoist’s best interest not to know (consciously) or to admit to himself that he is an egoist because of the value to himself of being able to convince others he is not.”

“The function of [societal] punishments and rewards, I have suggested, is to manipulate the behavior of participating individuals, restricting individual efforts to serve their own interests at others’ expense so as to promote harmony and unity within the group. The function of harmony and unity […] is to allow the group to compete against hostile forces, especially other human groups. It is apparent that success of the group may serve the interests of all individuals in the group; but it is also apparent that group success can be achieved with different patterns of individual success differentials within the group. So […] it is in the interests of those who are differentially successful to promote both unity and the rules so that group success will occur without necessitating changes deleterious to them. Similarly, it may be in the interests of those individuals who are relatively unsuccessful to promote dissatisfaction with existing rules and the notion that group success would be more likely if the rules were altered to favor them. […] the rules of morality and law alike seem not to be designed explicitly to allow people to live in harmony within societies but to enable societies to be sufficiently united to deter their enemies. Within-society harmony is the means not the end. […] extreme within-group altruism seems to correlate with and be historically related to between-group strife.”

“There are often few or no legitimate or rational expectations of reciprocity or “fairness” between social groups (especially warring or competing groups such as tribes or nations). Perhaps partly as a consequence, lying, deceit, or otherwise nasty or even heinous acts committed against enemies may sometimes not be regarded as immoral by others withing the group of those who commit them. They may even be regarded as highly moral if they seem dramatically to serve the interests of the group whose members commit them.”

“Two major assumptions, made universally or most of the time by philosophers, […] are responsible for the confusion that prevents philosophers from making sense out of morality […]. These assumptions are the following: 1. That proximate and ultimate mechanisms or causes have the same kind of significance and can be considered together as if they were members of the same class of causes; this is a failure to understand that proximate causes are evolved because of ultimate causes, and therefore may be expected to serve them, while the reverse is not true. Thus, pleasure is a proximate mechanism that in the usual environments of history is expected to impel us toward behavior that will contribute to our reproductive success. Contrarily, acts leading to reproductive success are not proximate mechanisms that evolved because they served the ultimate function of bringing us pleasure. 2. That morality inevitably involves some self-sacrifice. This assumption involves at least three elements: a. Failure to consider altruism as benefits to the actor. […] b. Failure to comprehend all avenues of indirect reciprocity within groups. c. Failure to take into account both within-group and between-group benefits.”

“If morality means true sacrifice of one’s own interests, and those of his family, then it seems to me that we could not have evolved to be moral. If morality requires ethical consistency, whereby one does not do socially what he would not advocate and assist all others also to do, then, again, it seems to me that we could not have evolved to be moral. […] humans are not really moral at all, in the sense of “true sacrifice” given above, but […] the concept of morality is useful to them. […] If it is so, then we might imagine that, in the sense and to the extent that they are anthropomorphized, the concepts of saints and angels, as well as that of God, were also created because of their usefulness to us. […] I think there have been far fewer […] truly self-sacrificing individuals than might be supposed, and most cases that might be brought forward are likely instead to be illustrations of the complexity and indirectness of reciprocity, especially the social value of appearing more altruistic than one is. […] I think that […] the concept of God must be viewed as originally generated and maintained for the purpose – now seen by many as immoral – of furthering the interests of one group of humans at the expense of one or more other groups. […] Gods are inventions originally developed to extend the notion that some have greater rights than others to design and enforce rules, and that some are more destined to be leaders, others to be followers. This notion, in turn, arose out of prior asymmetries in both power and judgment […] It works when (because) leaders are (have been) valuable, especially in the context of intergroup competition.”

“We try to move moral issues in the direction of involving no conflict of interest, always, I suggest, by seeking universal agreement with our own point of view.”

“Moral and legal systems are commonly distinguished by those, like moral philosophers, who study them formally. I believe, however, that the distinction between them is usually poorly drawn, and based on a failure to realize that moral as well as legal behavior occurs as a result of probably and possible punishments and reward. […] we often internalize the rules of law as well as the rules of morality – and perhaps by the same process […] It would seem that the rules of law are simply a specialized, derived aspect of what in earlier societies would have been a part of moral rules. On the other hand, law covers only a fraction of the situations in which morality is involved […] Law […] seems to be little more than ethics written down.”

“Anyone who reads the literature on dispute settlement within different societies […] will quickly understand that genetic relatedness counts: it allows for one-way flows of benefits and alliances. Long-term association also counts; it allows for reliability and also correlates with genetic relatedness. […] The larger the social group, the more fluid its membership; and the more attenuated the social interactions of its membership, the more they are forced to rely on formal law”.

“[I]ndividuals have separate interests. They join forces (live in groups; become social) when they share certain interests that can be better realized for all by close proximity or some forms of cooperation. Typically, however, the overlaps of interests rarely are completely congruent with those of either other individuals or the rest of the group. This means that, even during those times when individual interests within a group are most broadly overlapping, we may expect individuals to temper their cooperation with efforts to realize their own interests, and we may also expect them to have evolved to be adept at using others, or at thwarting the interests of others, to serve themselves (and their relatives). […] When the interests of all are most nearly congruent, it is essentially always due to a threat shared equally. Such threats almost always have to be external (or else they are less likely to affect everyone equally […] External threats to societies are typically other societies. Maintenance of such threats can yield situations in which everyone benefits from rigid, hierarchical, quasi-military, despotic government. Liberties afforded leaders – even elaborate perquisites of dictators – may be tolerated because such threats are ever-present […] Extrinsic threats, and the governments they produce, can yield inflexibilities of political structures that can persist across even lengthy intervals during which the threats are absent. Some societies have been able to structure their defenses against external threats as separate units (armies) within society, and to keep them separate. These rigidly hierarchical, totalitarian, and dictatorial subunits rise and fall in size and influence according to the importance of the external threat. […] Discussion of liberty and equality in democracies closely parallels discussions of morality and moral systems. In either case, adding a perspective from evolutionary biology seems to me to have potential for clarification.”

“It is indeed common, if not universal, to regard moral behavior as a kind of altruism that necessarily yields the altruist less than he gives, and to see egoism as either the opposite of morality or the source of immorality; but […] this view is usually based on an incomplete understanding of nepotism, reciprocity, and the significance of within-group unity for between-group competition. […] My view of moral systems in the real world, however, is that they are systems in which costs and benefits of specific actions are manipulated so as to produce reasonably harmonious associations in which everyone nevertheless pursues his own (in evolutionary terms) self-interest. I do not expect that moral and ethical arguments can ever be finally resolved. Compromises and contracts, then, are (at least currently) the only real solutions to actual conflicts of interest. This is why moral and ethical decisions must arise out of decisions of the collective of affected individuals; there is no single source of right and wrong.

I would also argue against the notion that rationality can be easily employed to produce a world of humans that self-sacrifice in favor of other humans, not to say nonhuman animals, plants, and inanimate objects. Declarations of such intentions may themselves often be the acts of self-interested persons developing, consciously or not, a socially self-benefiting view of themselves as extreme altruists. In this connection it is not irrelevant that the more dissimilar a species or object is to one’s self the less likely it is to provide a competitive threat by seeking the same resources. Accordingly, we should not be surprised to find humans who are highly benevolent toward other species or inanimate objects (some of which may serve them uncomplainingly), yet relatively hostile and noncooperative with fellow humans. As Darwin (1871) noted with respect to dogs, we have selected our domestic animals to return our altruism with interest.”

“It is not easy to discover precisely what historical differences have shaped current male-female differences. If, however, humans are in a general way similar to other highly parental organisms that live in social groups […] then we can hypothesize as follows: for men much of sexual activity has had as a main (ultimate) significance the initiating of pregnancies. It would follow that when a man avoids copulation it is likely to be because (1) there is no likelihood of pregnancy or (2) the costs entailed (venereal disease, danger from competition with other males, lowered status if the event becomes public, or an undesirable commitment) are too great in comparison with the probability that pregnancy will be induced. The man himself may be judging costs against the benefits of immediate sensory pleasures, such as orgasms (i.e., rather than thinking about pregnancy he may say that he was simply uninterested), but I am assuming that selection has tuned such expectations in terms of their probability of leading to actual reproduction […]. For women, I hypothesize, sexual activity per se has been more concerned with the securing of resources (again, I am speaking of ultimate and not necessarily conscious concerns) […]. Ordinarily, when women avoid or resist copulation, I speculate further, the disinterest, aversion, or inhibition may be traceable eventually to one (or more) of three causes: (1) there is no promise of commitment (of resources), (2) there is a likelihood of undesirable commitment (e.g., to a man with inadequate resources), or (3) there is a risk of loss of interest by a man with greater resources, than the one involved […] A man behaving so as to avoid pregnancies, and who derives from an evolutionary background of avoiding pregnancies, should be expected to favor copulation with women who are for age or other reasons incapable of pregnancy. A man derived from an evolutionary process in which securing of pregnancies typically was favored, may be expected to be most interested sexually in women most likely to become pregnant and near the height of the reproductive probability curve […] This means that men should usually be expected to anticipate the greatest sexual pleasure with young, healthy, intelligent women who show promise of providing superior parental care. […] In sexual competition, the alternatives of a man without resources are to present himself as a resource (i.e., as a mimic of one with resources or as one able and likely to secure resources because of his personal attributes […]), to obtain sex by force (rape), or to secure resources through a woman (e.g., allow himself to be kept by a relatively undesired woman, perhaps as a vehicle to secure liaisons with other women). […] in nonhuman species of higher animals, control of the essential resources of parenthood by females correlates with lack of parental behavior by males, promiscuous polygyny, and absence of long-term pair bonds. There is some evidence of parallel trends within human societies (cf. Flinn, 1981).” [It’s of some note that quite a few good books have been written on these topics since Alexander first published his book, so there are many places to look for detailed coverage of topics like these if you’re curious to know more – I can recommend both Kappeler & van Schaik (a must-read book on sexual selection, in my opinion) & Bobby Low. I didn’t think too highly of Miller or Meston & Buss, but those are a few other books on these topics which I’ve read – US].

“The reason that evolutionary knowledge has no moral content is [that] morality is a matter of whose interests one should, by conscious and willful behavior, serve, and how much; evolutionary knowledge contains no messages on this issue. The most it can do is provide information about the reasons for current conditions and predict some consequences of alternative courses of action. […] If some biologists and nonbiologists make unfounded assertions into conclusions, or develop pernicious and fallible arguments, then those assertions and arguments should be exposed for what they are. The reason for doing this, however, is not […should not be..? – US] to prevent or discourage any and all analyses of human activities, but to enable us to get on with a proper sort of analysis. Those who malign without being specific; who attack people rather than ideas; who gratuitously translate hypotheses into conclusions and then refer to them as “explanations,” “stories,” or “just-so-stories”; who parade the worst examples of argument and investigation with the apparent purpose of making all efforts at human self-analysis seem silly and trivial, I see as dangerously close to being ideologues at least as worrisome as those they malign. I cannot avoid the impression that their purpose is not to enlighten, but to play upon the uneasiness of those for whom the approach of evolutionary biology is alien and disquieting, perhaps for political rather than scientific purposes. It is more than a little ironic that the argument of politics rather than science is their own chief accusation with respect to scientists seeking to analyze human behavior in evolutionary terms (e.g. Gould and Levontin, 1979 […]).”

“[C]urrent selective theory indicates that natural selection has never operated to prevent species extinction. Instead it operates by saving the genetic materials of those individuals or families that outreproduce others. Whether species become extinct or not (and most have) is an incidental or accidental effect of natural selection. An inference from this is that the members of no species are equipped, as a direct result of their evolutionary history, with traits designed explicitly to prevent extinction when that possibility looms. […] Humans are no exception: unless their comprehension of the likelihood of extinction is so clear and real that they perceive the threat to themselves as individuals, and to their loved ones, they cannot be expected to take the collective action that will be necessary to reduce the risk of extinction.”

“In examining ourselves […] we are forced to use the attributes we wish to analyze to carry out the analysis, while resisting certain aspects of the analysis. At the very same time, we pretend that we are not resisting at all but are instead giving perfectly legitimate objections; and we use our realization that others will resist the analysis, for reasons as arcane as our own, to enlist their support in our resistance. And they very likely will give it. […] If arguments such as those made here have any validity it follows that a problem faced by everyone, in respect to morality, is that of discovering how to subvert or reduce some aspects of individual selfishness that evidently derive from our history of genetic individuality.”

“Essentially everyone thinks of himself as well-meaning, but from my viewpoint a society of well-meaning people who understand themselves and their history very well is a better milieu than a society of well-meaning people who do not.”


September 22, 2017 Posted by | Anthropology, Biology, Books, Evolutionary biology, Genetics, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion | Leave a comment

The Biology of Moral Systems (II)

There are multiple really great books I have read ‘recently’ and which I have either not blogged at all, or not blogged in anywhere near the amount of detail they deserve; Alexander’s book is one of those books. I hope to get rid of some of the backlog soon. You can read my first post about the book here, and it might be a good idea to do so as I won’t allude to material covered in the first post here. In this post I have added some quotes from and comments related to the book’s second chapter, ‘A Biological View of Morality’.

“Moral systems are systems of indirect reciprocity. They exist because confluences of interest within groups are used to deal with conflicts of interest between groups. Indirect reciprocity develops because interactions are repeated, or flow among a society’s members, and because information about subsequent interactions can be gleaned from observing the reciprocal interactions of others.
To establish moral rules is to impose rewards and punishments (typically assistance and ostracism, respectively) to control social acts that, respectively, help or hurt others. To be regarded as moral, a rule typically must represent widespread opinion, reflecting the fact that it must apply with a certain degree of indiscrimininateness.”

“Moral philosophers have not treated the beneficence of humans as a part, somehow, of their selfishness; yet, as Trivers (1971) suggested, the biologist’s view of lifetimes leads directly to this argument. In other words, the normally expressed beneficence, or altruism, of parenthood and nepotism and the temporary altruism (or social investment) of reciprocity are expected to result in greater returns than their alternatives.
If biologists are correct, all that philosophers refer to as altruistic or utilitarian behavior by individuals will actually represent either the temporary altruism (phenotypic beneficence or social investment) of indirect somatic effort [‘Direct somatic effort refers to self-help that involves no other persons. Indirect somatic effort involves reciprocity, which may be direct or indirect. Returns from direct and indirect reciprocity may be immediate or delayed’ – Alexander spends some pages classifying human effort in terms of such ‘atoms of sociality’, which are useful devices for analytical purposes, but I decided not to cover that stuff in detail here – US] or direct and indirect nepotism. The exceptions are what might be called evolutionary mistakes or accidents that result in unreciprocated or “genetic” altruism, deleterious to both the phenotype and genotype of the altruist; such mistakes can occur in all of the above categories” [I should point out that Boyd and Richerson’s book Not by Genes Alone – another great book which I hope to blog soon – is worth having a look at if after reading Alexander’s book you think that he does not cover the topic of how and why such mistakes might happen in the amount of detail it deserves; they also cover related topics in some detail, from a different angle – US]

“It is my impression that many moral philosophers do not approach the problem of morality and ethics as if it arose as an effort to resolve conflicts of interests. Their involvement in conflicts of interest seems to come about obliquely through discussions of individuals’ views with respect to moral behavior, or their proximate feelings about morality – almost as if questions about conflicts of interest arise only because we operate under moral systems, rather than vice versa.”

“The problem, in developing a theory of moral systems that is consistent with evolutionary theory from biology, is in accounting for the altruism of moral behavior in genetically selfish terms. I believe this can be done by interpreting moral systems as systems of indirect reciprocity.
I regard indirect reciprocity as a consequence of direct reciprocity occurring in the presence of interested audiences – groups of individuals who continually evaluate the members of their society as possible future interactants from whom they would like to gain more than they lose […] Even in directly reciprocal interactions […] net losses to self […] may be the actual aim of one or even both individuals, if they are being scrutinized by others who are likely to engage either individual subsequently in reciprocity of greater significance than that occurring in the scrutinized acts. […] Systems of indirect reciprocity, and therefore moral systems, are social systems structured around the importance of status. The concept of status implies that an individual’s privileges, or its access to resources, are controlled in part by how others collectively think of him (hence, treat him) as a result of past interactions (including observations of interactions with others). […] The consequences of indirect reciprocity […] include the concomitant spread of altruism (as social investment genetically valuable to the altruist), rules, and efforts to cheat […]. I would not contend that we always carry out cost-benefit analyses on these issues deliberately or consciously. I do, however, contend that such analyses occur, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, and that we are evolved to be exceedingly accurate and quick at making them […] [A] conscience [is what] I have interpreted (Alexander, 1979a) as the “still small voice that tells us how far we can go in serving our own interests without incurring intolerable risks.””

“The long-term existence of complex patterns of indirect reciprocity […] seems to favor the evolution of keen abilities to (1) make one’s self seem more beneficent than is the case; and (2) influence others to be beneficent in such fashions as to be deleterious to themselves and beneficial to the moralizer, e.g. to lead others to (a) invest too much, (b) invest wrongly in the moralizer or his relatives and friends, or (c) invest indiscriminately on a larger scale than would otherwise be the case. According to this view, individuals are expected to parade the idea of much beneficence, and even of indiscriminate altruism as beneficial, so as to encourage people in general to engage in increasing amounts of social investment whether or not it is beneficial to their interests. […] They may also be expected to depress the fitness of competitors by identifying them, deceptively or not, as reciprocity cheaters (in other words, to moralize and gossip); to internalize rules or evolve the ability to acquire a conscience, interpreted […] as the ability to use or own judgment to serve our own interests; and to self-deceive and display false sincerity as defenses against detection of cheating and attributions of deliberateness in cheating […] Everyone will with to appear more beneficent than he is. There are two reasons: (1) this appearance, if credible, is more likely to lead to direct social rewards than its alternatives; (2) it is also more likely to encourage others to be more beneficent.”

“Consciousness and related aspects of the human psyche (self-awareness, self-reflection, foresight, planning, purpose, conscience, free will, etc.) are here hypothesized to represent a system for competing with other humans for status, resources, and eventually reproductive success. More specifically, the collection of these attributes is viewed as a means of seeing ourselves and our life situations as others see us and our life situations – most particularly in ways that will cause (the most and the most important of) them to continue to interact with us in fashions that will benefit us and seem to benefit them.
Consciousness, then, is a game of life in which the participants are trying to comprehend what is in one another’s minds before, and more effectively than, it can be done in reverse.”

“Provided with a means of relegating our deceptions to the subconsciousness […] false sincerity becomes easier and detection more difficult. There are reasons for believing that one does not need to know his own personal interests consciously in order to serve them as much as he needs to know the interests of others to thwart them. […] I have suggested that consciousness is a way of making our social behavior so unpredictable as to allow us to outmaneuver others; and that we press into subconsciousness (as opposed to forgetting) those things that remain useful to us but would be detrimental to us if others knew about them, and on which we are continually tested and would have to lie deliberately if they remained in our conscious mind […] Conscious concealment of interests, or disavowal, is deliberate deception, considered more reprehensible than anything not conscious. Indeed, if one does not know consciously what his interests are, he cannot, in some sense, be accused of deception even though he may be using an evolved ability of self-deception to deceive others. So it is not always – maybe not usually – in our evolutionary or surrogate-evolutionary interests to make them conscious […] If people can be fooled […] then there will be continual selection for becoming better at fooling others […]. This may include causing them to think that it will be best for them to help you when it is not. This ploy works because of the thin line everybody must continually tread with respect to not showing selfishness. If some people are self-destructively beneficent (i.e., make altruistic mistakes), and if people often cannot tell if one is such a mistake-maker, it might be profitable even to try to convince others that one is such a mistake-maker so as to be accepted as a cooperator or so that the other will be beneficent in expectation of large returns (through “mistakes”) later. […] Reciprocity may work this way because it is grounded evolutionarily in nepotism, appropriate dispensing of nepotism (as well as reciprocity) depends upon learning, and the wrong things can be learned. [Boyd and Richerson talk about this particular aspect, the learning part, in much more detail in their books – US] Self-deception, then may not be a pathological or detrimental trait, at least in most people most of the time. Rather, it may have evolved as a way to deceive others.”

“The only time that utilitarianism (promoting the greatest good to the greatest number) is predicted by evolutionary theory is when the interests of the group (the “greatest number”) and the individual coincide, and in such cases utilitarianism is not really altruistic in either the biologists’ or the philosophers’ sense of the term. […] If Kohlberg means to imply that a significant proportion of the populace of the world either implicitly or explicitly favors a system in which everyone (including himself) behaves so as to bring the greatest good to the greatest number, then I simply believe that he is wrong. If he supposes that only a relatively few – particularly moral philosophers and some others like them – have achieved this “stage,” then I also doubt the hypothesis. I accept that many people are aware of this concept of utility, that a small minority may advocate it, and that an even smaller minority may actually believe that they behave according to it. I speculate, however, that with a few inadvertent or accidental exceptions, no one actually follows this precept. I see the concept as having its main utility as a goal towards which one may exhort others to aspire, and towards which one may behave as if (or talk as if) aspiring, which actually practicing complex forms of self-interest.”

“Generally speaking, the bigger the group, the more complex the social organization, and the greater the group’s unity of purpose the more limited is individual entrepreneurship.”

“The function or raison d’etre [sic] of moral systems is evidently to provide the unity required to enable the group to compete successfully with other human groups. […] the argument that human evolution has been guided to some large extent by intergroup competition and aggression […] is central to the theory of morality presented here”.

June 29, 2017 Posted by | Anthropology, Biology, Books, Evolutionary biology, Genetics, Philosophy | Leave a comment

The Biology of Moral Systems (I)

I have quoted from the book before, but I decided that this book deserves to be blogged in more detail. I’m close to finishing the book at this point (it’s definitely taken longer than it should have), and I’ll probably give it 5 stars on goodreads; I might also add it to my list of favourite books on the site. In this post I’ve added some quotes and ideas from the book, and a few comments. Before going any further I should note that it’s frankly impossible to cover anywhere near all the ideas covered in the book here on the blog, so if you’re even remotely interested in these kinds of things you really should pick up a copy of the book and read all of it.

“I believe that something crucial has been missing from all of the great debates of history, among philosophers, politicians, theologians, and thinkers from other and diverse backgrounds, on the issues of morality, ethics, justice, right and wrong. […] those who have tried to analyze morality have failed to treat the human traits that underlie moral behavior as outcomes of evolution […] for many conflicts of interest, compromises and enforceable contracts represent the only real solutions. Appeals to morality, I will argue, are simply the invoking of such compromises and contracts in particular ways. […] the process of natural selection that has given rise to all forms of life, including humans, operates such that success has always been relative. One consequence is that organisms resulting from the long-term cumulative effects of selection are expected to resist efforts to reveal their interests fully to others, and also efforts to place limits on their striving or to decide for them when their interests are being “fully” satisfied. These are all reasons why we should expect no “terminus” – ever – to debates on moral and ethical issues.” (these comments I also included in the quotes post to which I link at the beginning, but I thought it was worth including them in this post as well even so – US).

“I am convinced that biology can never offer […] easy or direct answers to the questions of what is right and wrong. I explicitly reject the attitude that whatever biology tells us is so is also what ought to be (David Hume’s so-called “naturalistic fallacy”) […] there are within biology no magic solutions to moral problems. […] Knowledge of the human background in organic evolution can [however] provide a deeper self-understanding by an increasing proportion of the world’s population; self-understanding that I believe can contribute to answering the serious questions of social living.”

“If there had been no recent discoveries in biology that provided new ways of looking at the concept of moral systems, then I would be optimistic indeed to believe that I could say much that is new. But there have been such discoveries. […] The central point in these writings [Hamilton, Williams, Trivers, Cavalli-Sforza, Feldman, Dawkins, Wilson, etc. – US] […] is that natural selection has apparently been maximizing the survival by reproduction of genes, as they have been defined by evolutionists, and that, with respect to the activities of individuals, this includes effects on copies of their genes, even copies located in other individuals. In other words, we are evidently evolved not only to aid the genetic materials in our own bodies, by creating and assisting descendants, but also to assist, by nepotism, copies of our genes that reside in collateral (nondescendant) relatives. […] ethics, morality, human conduct, and the human psyche are to be understood only if societies are seen as collections of individuals seeking their own self-interests […] In some respects these ideas run contrary to what people have believed and been taught about morality and human values: I suspect that nearly all humans believe it is a normal part of the functioning of every human individual now and then to assist someone else in the realization of that person’s own interests to the actual net expense of those of the altruist. What [the above-mentioned writings] tells us is that, despite our intuitions, there is not a shred of evidence to support this view of beneficence, and a great deal of convincing theory suggests that any such view will eventually be judged false. This implies that we will have to start all over again to describe and understand ourselves, in terms alien to our intuitions […] It is […] a goal of this book to contribute to this redescription and new understanding, and especially to discuss why our intuitions should have misinformed us.”

“Social behavior evolves as a succession of ploys and counterploys, and for humans these ploys are used, not only among individuals within social groups, but between and among small and large groups of up to hundreds of millions of individuals. The value of an evolutionary approach to human sociality is thus not to determine the limits of our actions so that we can abide by them. Rather, it is to examine our life strategies so that we can change them when we wish, as a result of understanding them. […] my use of the word biology in no way implies that moral systems have some kind of explicit genetic background, are genetically determined, or cannot be altered by adjusting the social environment. […] I mean simply to suggest that if we wish to understand those aspects of our behavior commonly regarded as involving morality or ethics, it will help to reconsider our behavior as a product of evolution by natural selection. The principal reason for this suggestion is that natural selection operates according to general principles which make its effects highly predictive, even with respect to traits and circumstances that have not yet been analyzed […] I am interested […] not in determining what is moral and immoral, in the sense of what people ought to be doing, but in elucidating the natural history of ethics and morality – in discovering how and why humans initiated and developed the ideas we have about right and wrong.”

I should perhaps mention here that sort-of-kind-of related stuff is covered in Aureli et al. (see e.g. this link), and that some parts of that book will probably make you understand Alexander’s ideas a lot better even if perhaps he didn’t read those specific authors – mainly because it gets a lot easier to imagine the sort of mechanisms which might be at play here if you’ve read this sort of literature. Here’s one relevant quote from the coverage of that book, which also deals with the question Alexander discusses above, and in a lot more detail throughout his book, namely ‘where our morality comes from?’

“we make two fundamental assertions regarding the evolution of morality: (1) there are specific types of behavior demonstrated by both human and nonhuman primates that hint at a shared evolutionary background to morality; and (2) there are theoretical and actual connections between morality and conflict resolution in both nonhuman primates and human development. […] the transition from nonmoral or premoral to moral is more gradual than commonly assumed. No magic point appears in either evolutionary history or human development at which morality suddenly comes into existence. In both early childhood and in animals closely related to us, we can recognize behaviors (and, in the case of children, judgments) that are essential building blocks of the morality of the human adult. […] the decision making and emotions underlying moral judgments are generated within the individual rather than being simply imposed by society. They are a product of evolution, an integrated part of the human genetic makeup, that makes the child construct a moral perspective through interactions with other members of its species. […] Much research has shown that children acquire morality through a social-cognitive process; children make connections between acts and consequences. Through a gradual process, children develop concepts of justice, fairness, and equality, and they apply these concepts to concrete everyday situations […] we assert that emotions such as empathy and sympathy provide an experiential basis by which children construct moral judgments. Emotional reactions from others, such as distress or crying, provide experiential information that children use to judge whether an act is right or wrong […] when a child hits another child, a crying response provides emotional information about the nature of the act, and this information enables the child, in part, to determine whether and why the transgression is wrong. Therefore, recognizing signs of distress in another person may be a basic requirement of the moral judgment process. The fact that responses to distress in another have been documented both in infancy and in the nonhuman primate literature provides initial support for the idea that these types of moral-like experiences are common to children and nonhuman primates.”

Alexander’s coverage is quite different from that found in Aureli et al.,, but some of the contributors to the latter work deal with similar questions to the ones in which he’s interested, using approaches not employed in Alexander’s book – so this is another place to look if you’re interested in these topics. Margalit’s The Emergence of Norms is also worth mentioning. Part of the reason why I mention these books here is incidentally that they’re not talked about in Alexander’s coverage (for very natural reasons, I should add, in the case of the former book at least; Natural Conflict Resolution was published more than a decade after Alexander wrote his book…).

“In the hierarchy of explanatory principles governing the traits of living organisms, evolutionary reductionism – the development of principles from the evolutionary process – tends to subsume all other kinds. Proximate-cause reductionism (or reduction by dissection) sometimes advances our understanding of the whole phenomena. […] When evolutionary reduction becomes trivial in the study of life it is for a reason different from incompleteness; rather, it is because the breadth of the generalization distances it too significantly from the particular problem that may be at hand. […] the greatest weakness of reduction by generalization is not that it is likely to be trivial but that errors are probable through unjustified leaps from hypothesis to conclusion […] Critics such as Gould and Lewontin […] do not discuss the facts that (a) all students of human behavior (not just those who take evolution into account) run the risk of leaping unwarrantedly from hypothesis to conclusion and (b) just-so stories were no less prevalent and hypothesis-testing no more prevalent in studies of human behavior before evolutionary biologists began to participate. […] I believe that failure by biologists and others to distinguish proximate- or partial-cause and evolutionary- or ultimate-cause reductionism […] is in some part responsible for the current chasm between the social and the biological sciences and the resistance to so-called biological approaches to understanding humans. […] Both approaches are essential to progress in biology and the social sciences, and it would be helpful if their relationship, and that of their respective practitioners, were not seen as adversarial.”

(Relatedly, love is motivationally prior to sugar. This one also seems relevant, though in a different way).

“Humans are not accustomed to dealing with their own strategies of life as if they had been tuned by natural selection. […] People are not generally aware of what their lifetimes have been evolved to accomplish, and, even if they are roughly aware of this, they do not easily accept that their everyday activities are in any sense means to that end. […] The theory of lifetimes most widely accepted among biologists is that individuals have evolved to maximize the likelihood of survival of not themselves, but their genes, and that they do this by reproducing and tending in various ways offspring and other carriers of their own genes […] In this theory, survival of the individual – and its growth, development, and learning – are proximate mechanisms of reproductive success, which is a proximate mechanism of genic survival. Only the genes have evolved to survive. […] To say that we are evolved to serve the interests of our genes in no way suggests that we are obliged to serve them. […] Evolution is surely most deterministic for those still unaware of it. If this argument is correct, it may be the first to carry us from is to ought, i.e., if we desire to be the conscious masters of our own fates, and if conscious effort in that direction is the most likely vehicle of survival and happiness, then we ought to study evolution.”

“People are sometimes comfortable with the notion that certain activities can be labeled as “purely cultural” because they also believe that there are behaviors that can be labeled “purely genetic.” Neither is true: the environment contributes to the expression of all behaviors, and culture is best described as part of the environment.”

“Happiness and its anticipation are […] proximate mechanisms that lead us to perform and repeat acts that in the environments of history, at least, would have led to greater reproductive success.”

“The remarkable difference between the patterns of senescence in semelparous (one-time breeding) and iteroparous (repeat-breeding) organisms is probably one of the best simple demonstrations of the central significance of reproduction in the individual’s lifetime. How, otherwise, could we explain the fact that those who reproduce but once, like salmon and soybeans, tend to die suddenly right afterward, while those like ourselves who have residual reproductive possibilities after the initial reproductive act decline or senesce gradually? […] once an organism has completed all possibilities of reproducing (through both offspring production and assistance, and helping other relatives), then selection can no longer affect its survival: any physiological or other breakdown that destroys it may persist and even spread if it is genetically linked to a trait that is expressed earlier and is reproductively beneficial. […] selection continually works against senescence, but is just never able to defeat it entirely. […] senescence leads to a generalized deterioration rather than one owing to a single effect or a few effects […] In the course of working against senescence, selection will tend to remove, one by one, the most frequent sources of mortality as a result of senescence. Whenever a single cause of mortality, such as a particular malfunction of any vital organ, becomes the predominant cause of mortality, then selection will more effectively reduce the significance of that particular defect (meaning those who lack it will outreproduce) until some other achieves greater relative significance. […] the result will be that all organs and systems will tend to deteriorate together. […] The point is that as we age, and as senescence proceeds, large numbers of potential sources of mortality tend to lurk ever more malevolently just “below the surface,” so that, unfortunately, the odds are very high against any dramatic lengthening of the maximum human lifetime through technology. […] natural selection maximizes the likelihood of genetic survival, which is incompatible with eliminating senescence. […] Senescence, and the finiteness of lifetimes, have evolved as incidental effects […] Organisms compete for genetic survival and the winners (in evolutionary terms) are those who sacrifice their phenotypes (selves) earlier when this results in greater reproduction.”

“altruism appears to diminish with decreasing degree of relatedness in sexual species whenever it is studied – in humans as well as nonhuman species”

October 5, 2016 Posted by | Anthropology, Biology, Books, Evolutionary biology, Genetics, Philosophy | Leave a comment

The Emergence of Norms

“Put very crudely, the main thesis of this book is that certain types of norms are possible solutions to problems posed by certain types of social interaction situations. […] Three types of paradigmatic situations are dealt with. They are referred to as (1) Prisoner’s Dilemma-type situations; (2) Co-ordination situations; (3) Inequality (or Partiality) situations. Each of them, it is claimed, poses a basic difficulty, to some or all of the individuals involved in them. Three types of norms, respectively, are offered as solutions to these situational problems. It is shown how, and in what sense, the adoption of these norms of social behaviour can indeed resolve the specified problem.”

I should probably before moving on apologize for the infrequent updates – you should expect blogging to be light also in the months to come. With that out of the way, the book to which the title of this post refers and from which the above quote is taken is this Oxford University Press publication. Here’s what I wrote about the book on goodreads:

“The last chapter wasn’t in my opinion nearly as good as the others, presumably in part because I was unfamiliar with a lot of the literature to which she referred, but also because I could not really agree with all the distinctions and arguments made, and I was close to giving the book 3 stars as a result of this [I gave the book 4 stars on goodreads]. I think she overplays the ‘impersonal’ nature of norms in that chapter; if a norm based on sanctions is not enforced then it is irrelevant, and to the extent that it is enforced *someone* needs to impose the sanction on the transgressor. The fact that it’s actually in some contexts considered ‘a problem that needs explaining’ to figure out exactly how to support a model with sanctioning in a context where enforcement is costly to the individual (it’s a problem because of the free-riding issue – it’s always easier to let someone else do the sanctioning…) seems to have eluded Margalit (for details on this topic, see e.g. Boyd and Richerson).

It’s probably helpful to be familiar with basic game theoretic concepts if you’re planning on reading this book (it has a lot of game theory, though most of it is quite simple stuff), as well as perhaps having some familiarity with basic economics (rationality assumptions, utility functions, etc.) but I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary – I think the author does cover most of the basic things you need to know to be able to follow the arguments. The first three chapters are quite good.”

I should point out here that when I was writing the review above I had been completely unaware of how long ago the book was written; the book is pretty self-contained and I hadn’t really noticed when I picked up the book that it’s actually a rather old book. If I had been aware of this I would not have been nearly as vocal in my criticism of the content of the last chapter in my review as was the case, given that some of the insights I blame the author for being unaware of were only discussed in the literature after the publication of this book; the unaddressed problems do remain unaddressed and they are problematic, but it’s probably unfair to blame the author for not thinking about stuff which probably nobody really had given any thought at the time of publication.

In the post below I’ll talk a little bit about the book and add some more quotes. It probably makes sense to start out by giving a brief outline of the problems encountered in the three settings mentioned above. The basic problem encountered in prisoner’s dilemma-type situations is that unilateral defection is an attractive proposition, but if everybody yields to this temptation and defect then that will lead to a bad outcome. The problem faced is thus to figure out some way to make sure that defection is not an attractive option. In the co-ordination setting, there are several mutually beneficial states, none of which are strictly preferred to the others; that is, there is a coincidence of interests among the parties involved. The problem is that it’s difficult to come to an an explicit agreement as to which of the states to aim for. An example could be whether to drive in the right side of the road or the left side of the road. It probably doesn’t really matter much which side of the road you’re driving on, as long as you’re driving in the same side of the road as the other drivers do. The coincidence of interests here need not be perfect; one person might slightly prefer to drive in the right side of the road, all else equal, but even so it’ll be in his or her interest to drive in the same side of the road as do the other drivers; there’s no incentive for unilateral defection, and the main problem is figuring out how to achieve the outcome where behaviour is coordinated so that one of the available equilibria is reached. In the third setting, there’s some inequality present and one party is at an advantage; the problem here is how to maintain this advantageous position and how to fortify it so that it’s stable.

Some quotes and a few more comments:

“[One] angle from which it may be illuminating to view the account of norms offered here is that of evolutionary explanations. […] I propose to regard the argument underlying this book as, in a borrowed and somewhat metaphorical sense, a natural selection theory of the development of norms.”

“Norms do not as a rule come into existence at a definite point in time, nor are they the result of a manageable number of identifiable acts. The are, rather, the resultant of complex patterns of behaviour of a large number of people over a protracted period of time.”

“it is proposed that the main elements in the characterization of norms of obligation be: a significant social pressure for conformity to them and against deviation – actual or potential – from them; the belief by the people concerned in their indispensability for the proper functioning of society; and the expected clashes between their dictates on the one hand and personal interests and desires on the other.”

It should be noted here that far from all norms qualify as norms of obligation; this is but one norm subgroup, though it’s an important one. The author notes explicitly that norms encountered in the context of coordination problems are not norms of obligation.

“A situation of the generalized PD variety poses a problem to the participants involved. The problem is that of protecting an unstable yet jointly beneficial state of affairs from deteriorating, so to speak, into a stable yet jointly destructive one. My contention concerning such a situation is that a norm, backed by appropriate sanctions, could solve this problem. In this sense it can be said that such situations ‘call for’ norms. It can further be said that a norm solving the problem inherent in a situation of this type is generated by it. Such norms I shall call PD norms. […] the smaller and the more determinate the class of participants in a generalized PD-structured situation, and the more isolated the occurrence of the dilemma among them, the more likely it is that there might be solutions other than (PD) norms to the pertinent problem […] And conversely, the larger and the more indeterminate the class of participants, and the more frequent the occurrence of the dilemma among them, the more likely it is that a solution, if any, would be in the form of a PD norm. […] the more difficult (or costly) it is to ensure […] personal contact, […] the more acute the need for some impersonal device, such as social norms, which would induce the desired co-operation.”

You can easily add more details to the conceptual framework underlying the analysis in order to refine it in various ways, and the author does talk a little bit about how you might go about doing that; for example it might not be realistic that nobody ever deviates, and so you might decide to replace an unrealistic stability condition that nobody deviates with another one which might be that at most some percentage, say X, of the population deviates. Such refined theoretical models can incidentally yield very interesting and non-trivial theoretical results – Boyd and Richerson cover such models in The Origin and Evolution of Cultures. It should perhaps be noted that even relatively simple models dealing with these sorts of topics may easily end up nevertheless being sufficiently complicated for analytical solutions to not be forthcoming.

“there are norms whose function is to maintain social control on certain groups of people through preventing them from solving the problem inherent in the PD-structured situation in which they are placed. That is, these norms are designed to help keep these people in a state of affairs which, while disadvantageous to them […] is considered beneficial to society as a whole. A conspicuous example of norms of this type are anti-trust laws.”

In the context of coordination problems, the author distinguishes between two solution mechanisms/norms; conventions and decrees. Broadly speaking conventions can be thought of as established solutions to coordination problems encountered in the past, whereas decrees are solutions to novel problems where no equilibrium has yet been established – see also the more detailed quotes below. In the context of sanctions an important difference between coordination norms and PD norms is that sanctions can be said to play a primary role in the context of PD norms but only a secondary role in the context of coordination norms; nobody has a unilateral incentive to deviate in the context of coordination-type situations/problems and so defection so to speak carries its own punishment independent of the potential level of an associated sanction. If everybody else drive in the right side of the road, you don’t gain anything from driving in the left side of the road – and it’s unlikely to be the size of the fine which is the primary reason why you don’t drive in the left side of the road in such a context.

“It is worth noting that within the large class of problems of strategy (i.e. problems of interdependent decision), the problems of co-ordination stand in opposition to problems of conflict, the contrast being particularly acute between the extreme cases of pure co-ordination on the one hand and of pure conflict (the so-called zero-sum problems) on the other. Whereas in the pure co-ordination case the parties’ interests converge completely, and the agents win or lose together, in the pure conflict case the parties’ interests diverge completely, and one person’s gain is the other’s loss. […] [Shelling argues] that games of strategy range over a continuum with games of pure conflict […] and games of pure co-ordination as opposite limits. All other games […] involve mixtures in varying proportions of conflict and co-ordination, of competition and partnership, and are referred to as mixed-motive games.”

One thing to add here, which is of course not mentioned in the book, is that whereas the situation does play a sometimes major role in terms of which setting you find yourself in, there’s also a relevant mental/psychological aspect to consider here; in the context of bargaining, it’s a very well-established result that bargainers who conceive of the bargaining situation as a zero-sum (‘conflict’) game do worse than bargainers who do not.

“Very generally, where communities which have their own ways of going about things – their own arrangements, regularities, conventions – come into contact, and where the situation demands that barriers between them be dropped, or that one – any one – of them absorb the other, various co-ordination problems are likely to crop up and to call for […] decree-type co-ordination norms to solve them.”

“Conventions are, typically:

(1) Non-statutory norms, which need not be enacted, formulated, or promulgated.
(2) They are neither issued nor promulgated by any identifiable authority, and are hence what is usually called impersonal, or anonymous norms.
(3) They involve in the main non-institutionalized, non-organized, and informal sanctions (i.e. punishments or rewards).

Decrees, in contrast, are, typically:
(1) Statutory;
(2) Issued and promulgated by some appropriately endowed authority (not necessarily at the level of the state);
(3) The sanctions they involve might be organized, institutionalized, and formal, even physical.”

Conventions and decrees are quite different, but in terms of what they do they solve similar problems:

“Since a co-ordination problem is a situation such that any of its co-ordination equilibria is preferred, by all involved, to any combination of actions which is not a co-ordination equlibrium, each of those involved is interested in there being something which will point – in a way conspicuous to all and perceived to be conspicuous to all – to one particular co-ordination equilibrum as the solution. This precisely is what our co-ordination norms, whether conventions or decrees, do.”

“Thibaut and Kelley note that norms ‘will develop more rapidly and more surely in highly cohesive groups than in less cohesive groups’ – assuming that the majority of the members have about the same degree of dependence on the group […] To the extent that norms reduce interference, cut communication costs, heighten value similarity and insure the interaction sequence necessary for task performance, norms improve the reward-cost positions attained by the members of a dyad and thus increase the cohesiveness of the dyad”

“[I]n so far as conformity to a co-ordination norm ensures the achievement of some co-ordination equilibrium, which for everyone involved in the corresponding co-ordination problem belongs of necessity to the group of preferred outcomes, it is rational for everyone to conform to it. Are we to conclude from this, however, that the social choice to which the co-ordination norm is instrumental is itself rational? My answer to this question is that although it is rational to conform to a prevailing co-ordination norm, the social choice resulting from it is not necessarily rational. […] it may not be optimal, for some or for all involved. It can in principle be changed into a better one, only this involves an explicit process which is not always feasible. […] The changing of an existing convention in favour of a ‘better’, more rational one, has to be explicit. It can be achieved through an explicit agreement of all concerned, or through a regulation (decree) issued and properly promulgated by some appropriately endowed authority. Where communication, or promulgation, is impossible, it is difficult to see how an existing convention (which is a co-ordination norm) might be changed. It is of some interest to note that whereas an ‘act of convening’ is not necessary for a convention to form, it might be necessary for an existing convention to be exchanged for an alternative one.”

“The difference in the role played by the two types of norms might now be formulated thus: a co-ordination norm helps those involved ‘meet’ each other; a PD norm helps those involved protect themselves from damaging, even ruining, each other.”

“[T]here are states of inequality which appear on the surface to be stable but which are, in a somewhat subtle and complicated way, strategically unstable. They may be in equilibrium, but it is a rather flimsy one; far from being self-perpetuating, they are susceptible to threats. Now the assumption that the party discriminated in favour of is interested in the preservation of such a status quo leads reasonably to the assumption that he will seek to fortify it against its potential undermining. […] it is the central thesis of this chapter that [a] significant device to render the status quo stable [is] to fortify it by norms. The idea is that once it is in some sense normatively required that the status quo endure, the nature of the possible calculations and considerations of deviance fundamentally changes: it is no longer evaluated only in terms of being ‘costly’ or ‘risky’, but as being ‘wrong‘ or ‘subversive‘. […] the methods of norms and force as possible fortifiers of the status quo in question are functionally equivalent […] provided the norms are effective, they both amount to making deviance from the status quo more costly through the impositions of sanctions.”

“Once norms are internalized, one abides by them not out of fear of the pending sanctions associated with them, but out of some inner conviction. And when this is so, one is likely to conform to the norms even in one’s thoughts, intentions, and in what one does in private.”

“The function of norms, generally speaking, is to put restraints on possible courses of conduct, to restrict the number of alternatives open for action. When a certain course of conduct is normatively denounced (is considered ‘wrong’), it becomes a less eligible course of conduct than it might otherwise have been: although through lying, for example, one might quite conveniently get away with some misdeed, its being recognized and acknowledged as normatively (morally) prohibited normally makes it a less attractive way out, or even precludes its having been considered an alternative in the first place. In this sense, then, norms might be said to be coercive, to the extent that they function as constraints on actions; that is, to the extent that they prevent one for doing an ation one might have done had there been no norm denouncing it, or at least to the extent that they render a certain course of action less eligible than it might otherwise have been.”

“[N]orms are rather easily accepted as part of the ‘natural order of things’. To be sure, one might be quite resentful of this natural order, or of one’s lot therein, and regard it as discriminating against one. But usually there is very little one is going to do about it unless – and until – the object of one’s resentment is personified: only few will start a revolution against an elusive oppressive ‘system’; many more might revolt against an identifiable oppressive ruler. […] These norms have to apply to the privileged as well as to the deprived, or else they lose much of their effectiveness as a disguise for the real exercise of power underlying them. […] The absence of any precedents in which someone privileged was spared the sanction, the absence of any loopholes which might facilitate a discriminatory application of the norms, contribute to their deterrence value”.

February 13, 2016 Posted by | Anthropology, Books, Evolutionary biology, Game theory, Philosophy | Leave a comment


i. “By all means think yourself big but don’t think everyone else small” (‘Notes on Flyleaf of Fresh ms. Book’, Scott’s Last Expedition. See also this).

ii. “The man who knows everyone’s job isn’t much good at his own.” (-ll-)

iii. “It is amazing what little harm doctors do when one considers all the opportunities they have” (Mark Twain, as quoted in the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine, p.595).

iv. “A first-rate theory predicts; a second-rate theory forbids and a third-rate theory explains after the event.” (Aleksander Isaakovich Kitaigorodski)

v. “[S]ome of the most terrible things in the world are done by people who think, genuinely think, that they’re doing it for the best” (Terry Pratchett, Snuff).

vi. “That was excellently observ’d, say I, when I read a Passage in an Author, where his Opinion agrees with mine. When we differ, there I pronounce him to be mistaken.” (Jonathan Swift)

vii. “Death is nature’s master stroke, albeit a cruel one, because it allows genotypes space to try on new phenotypes.” (Quote from the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine, p.6)

viii. “The purpose of models is not to fit the data but to sharpen the questions.” (Samuel Karlin)

ix. “We may […] view set theory, and mathematics generally, in much the way in which we view theoretical portions of the natural sciences themselves; as comprising truths or hypotheses which are to be vindicated less by the pure light of reason than by the indirect systematic contribution which they make to the organizing of empirical data in the natural sciences.” (Quine)

x. “At root what is needed for scientific inquiry is just receptivity to data, skill in reasoning, and yearning for truth. Admittedly, ingenuity can help too.” (-ll-)

xi. “A statistician carefully assembles facts and figures for others who carefully misinterpret them.” (Quote from Mathematically Speaking – A Dictionary of Quotations, p.329. Only source given in the book is: “Quoted in Evan Esar, 20,000 Quips and Quotes“)

xii. “A knowledge of statistics is like a knowledge of foreign languages or of algebra; it may prove of use at any time under any circumstances.” (Quote from Mathematically Speaking – A Dictionary of Quotations, p. 328. The source provided is: “Elements of Statistics, Part I, Chapter I (p.4)”).

xiii. “We own to small faults to persuade others that we have not great ones.” (Rochefoucauld)

xiv. “There is more self-love than love in jealousy.” (-ll-)

xv. “We should not judge of a man’s merit by his great abilities, but by the use he makes of them.” (-ll-)

xvi. “We should gain more by letting the world see what we are than by trying to seem what we are not.” (-ll-)

xvii. “Put succinctly, a prospective study looks for the effects of causes whereas a retrospective study examines the causes of effects.” (Quote from p.49 of Principles of Applied Statistics, by Cox & Donnelly)

xviii. “… he who seeks for methods without having a definite problem in mind seeks for the most part in vain.” (David Hilbert)

xix. “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice” (Shakespeare).

xx. “Often the fear of one evil leads us into a worse.” (Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux)


November 22, 2015 Posted by | Books, Mathematics, Medicine, Philosophy, Quotes/aphorisms, Science, Statistics | Leave a comment

The Nature of Statistical Evidence

Here’s my goodreads review of the book.

As I’ve observed many times before, a wordpress blog like mine is not a particularly nice place to cover mathematical topics involving equations and lots of Greek letters, so the coverage below will be more or less purely conceptual; don’t take this to mean that the book doesn’t contain formulas. Some parts of the book look like this:

That of course makes the book hard to blog, also for other reasons than just the fact that it’s typographically hard to deal with the equations. In general it’s hard to talk about the content of a book like this one without going into a lot of details outlining how you get from A to B to C – usually you’re only really interested in C, but you need A and B to make sense of C. At this point I’ve sort of concluded that when covering books like this one I’ll only cover some of the main themes which are easy to discuss in a blog post, and I’ve concluded that I should skip coverage of (potentially important) points which might also be of interest if they’re difficult to discuss in a small amount of space, which is unfortunately often the case. I should perhaps observe that although I noted in my goodreads review that in a way there was a bit too much philosophy and a bit too little statistics in the coverage for my taste, you should definitely not take that objection to mean that this book is full of fluff; a lot of that philosophical stuff is ‘formal logic’ type stuff and related comments, and the book in general is quite dense. As I also noted in the goodreads review I didn’t read this book as carefully as I might have done – for example I skipped a couple of the technical proofs because they didn’t seem to be worth the effort – and I’d probably need to read it again to fully understand some of the minor points made throughout the more technical parts of the coverage; so that’s of course a related reason why I don’t cover the book in a great amount of detail here – it’s hard work just to read the damn thing, to talk about the technical stuff in detail here as well would definitely be overkill even if it would surely make me understand the material better.

I have added some observations from the coverage below. I’ve tried to clarify beforehand which question/topic the quote in question deals with, to ease reading/understanding of the topics covered.

On how statistical methods are related to experimental science:

“statistical methods have aims similar to the process of experimental science. But statistics is not itself an experimental science, it consists of models of how to do experimental science. Statistical theory is a logical — mostly mathematical — discipline; its findings are not subject to experimental test. […] The primary sense in which statistical theory is a science is that it guides and explains statistical methods. A sharpened statement of the purpose of this book is to provide explanations of the senses in which some statistical methods provide scientific evidence.”

On mathematics and axiomatic systems (the book goes into much more detail than this):

“It is not sufficiently appreciated that a link is needed between mathematics and methods. Mathematics is not about the world until it is interpreted and then it is only about models of the world […]. No contradiction is introduced by either interpreting the same theory in different ways or by modeling the same concept by different theories. […] In general, a primitive undefined term is said to be interpreted when a meaning is assigned to it and when all such terms are interpreted we have an interpretation of the axiomatic system. It makes no sense to ask which is the correct interpretation of an axiom system. This is a primary strength of the axiomatic method; we can use it to organize and structure our thoughts and knowledge by simultaneously and economically treating all interpretations of an axiom system. It is also a weakness in that failure to define or interpret terms leads to much confusion about the implications of theory for application.”

It’s all about models:

“The scientific method of theory checking is to compare predictions deduced from a theoretical model with observations on nature. Thus science must predict what happens in nature but it need not explain why. […] whether experiment is consistent with theory is relative to accuracy and purpose. All theories are simplifications of reality and hence no theory will be expected to be a perfect predictor. Theories of statistical inference become relevant to scientific process at precisely this point. […] Scientific method is a practice developed to deal with experiments on nature. Probability theory is a deductive study of the properties of models of such experiments. All of the theorems of probability are results about models of experiments.”

But given a frequentist interpretation you can test your statistical theories with the real world, right? Right? Well…

“How might we check the long run stability of relative frequency? If we are to compare mathematical theory with experiment then only finite sequences can be observed. But for the Bernoulli case, the event that frequency approaches probability is stochastically independent of any sequence of finite length. […] Long-run stability of relative frequency cannot be checked experimentally. There are neither theoretical nor empirical guarantees that, a priori, one can recognize experiments performed under uniform conditions and that under these circumstances one will obtain stable frequencies.” [related link]

What should we expect to get out of mathematical and statistical theories of inference?

“What can we expect of a theory of statistical inference? We can expect an internally consistent explanation of why certain conclusions follow from certain data. The theory will not be about inductive rationality but about a model of inductive rationality. Statisticians are used to thinking that they apply their logic to models of the physical world; less common is the realization that their logic itself is only a model. Explanation will be in terms of introduced concepts which do not exist in nature. Properties of the concepts will be derived from assumptions which merely seem reasonable. This is the only sense in which the axioms of any mathematical theory are true […] We can expect these concepts, assumptions, and properties to be intuitive but, unlike natural science, they cannot be checked by experiment. Different people have different ideas about what “seems reasonable,” so we can expect different explanations and different properties. We should not be surprised if the theorems of two different theories of statistical evidence differ. If two models had no different properties then they would be different versions of the same model […] We should not expect to achieve, by mathematics alone, a single coherent theory of inference, for mathematical truth is conditional and the assumptions are not “self-evident.” Faith in a set of assumptions would be needed to achieve a single coherent theory.”

On disagreements about the nature of statistical evidence:

“The context of this section is that there is disagreement among experts about the nature of statistical evidence and consequently much use of one formulation to criticize another. Neyman (1950) maintains that, from his behavioral hypothesis testing point of view, Fisherian significance tests do not express evidence. Royall (1997) employs the “law” of likelihood to criticize hypothesis as well as significance testing. Pratt (1965), Berger and Selke (1987), Berger and Berry (1988), and Casella and Berger (1987) employ Bayesian theory to criticize sampling theory. […] Critics assume that their findings are about evidence, but they are at most about models of evidence. Many theoretical statistical criticisms, when stated in terms of evidence, have the following outline: According to model A, evidence satisfies proposition P. But according to model B, which is correct since it is derived from “self-evident truths,” P is not true. Now evidence can’t be two different ways so, since B is right, A must be wrong. Note that the argument is symmetric: since A appears “self-evident” (to adherents of A) B must be wrong. But both conclusions are invalid since evidence can be modeled in different ways, perhaps useful in different contexts and for different purposes. From the observation that P is a theorem of A but not of B, all we can properly conclude is that A and B are different models of evidence. […] The common practice of using one theory of inference to critique another is a misleading activity.”

Is mathematics a science?

“Is mathematics a science? It is certainly systematized knowledge much concerned with structure, but then so is history. Does it employ the scientific method? Well, partly; hypothesis and deduction are the essence of mathematics and the search for counter examples is a mathematical counterpart of experimentation; but the question is not put to nature. Is mathematics about nature? In part. The hypotheses of most mathematics are suggested by some natural primitive concept, for it is difficult to think of interesting hypotheses concerning nonsense syllables and to check their consistency. However, it often happens that as a mathematical subject matures it tends to evolve away from the original concept which motivated it. Mathematics in its purest form is probably not natural science since it lacks the experimental aspect. Art is sometimes defined to be creative work displaying form, beauty and unusual perception. By this definition pure mathematics is clearly an art. On the other hand, applied mathematics, taking its hypotheses from real world concepts, is an attempt to describe nature. Applied mathematics, without regard to experimental verification, is in fact largely the “conditional truth” portion of science. If a body of applied mathematics has survived experimental test to become trustworthy belief then it is the essence of natural science.”

Then what about statistics – is statistics a science?

“Statisticians can and do make contributions to subject matter fields such as physics, and demography but statistical theory and methods proper, distinguished from their findings, are not like physics in that they are not about nature. […] Applied statistics is natural science but the findings are about the subject matter field not statistical theory or method. […] Statistical theory helps with how to do natural science but it is not itself a natural science.”

I should note that I am, and have for a long time been, in broad agreement with the author’s remarks on the nature of science and mathematics above. Popper, among many others, discussed this topic a long time ago e.g. in The Logic of Scientific Discovery and I’ve basically been of the opinion that (‘pure’) mathematics is not science (‘but rather ‘something else’ … and that doesn’t mean it’s not useful’) for probably a decade. I’ve had a harder time coming to terms with how precisely to deal with statistics in terms of these things, and in that context the book has been conceptually helpful.

Below I’ve added a few links to other stuff also covered in the book:
Propositional calculus.
Kolmogorov’s axioms.
Neyman-Pearson lemma.
Radon-Nikodyn theorem. (not covered in the book, but the necessity of using ‘a Radon-Nikodyn derivative’ to obtain an answer to a question being asked was remarked upon at one point, and I had no clue what he was talking about – it seems that the stuff in the link was what he was talking about).
A very specific and relevant link: Berger and Wolpert (1984). The stuff about Birnbaum’s argument covered from p.24 (p.40) and forward is covered in some detail in the book. The author is critical of the model and explains in the book in some detail why that is. See also: On the foundations of statistical inference (Birnbaum, 1962).

October 6, 2015 Posted by | Books, Mathematics, Papers, Philosophy, Science, Statistics | 4 Comments

An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge

“The theory of knowledge, or epistemology, is one of the main areas of philosophy. […] This book is intended to introduce the reader to some of the main problems in epistemology and to some proposed solutions. It is primarily intended for students taking their first course in the theory of knowledge, but it should also be useful to the generally educated reader interested in learning something about epistemology. I do not assume that the reader has an extensive background in philosophy.”

I’ve read Lemos’ book. It’s always bothersome to blog philosophy and I’ve been uncertain how to best blog this. At the end I decided to add some links covering a lot of the material covered in the book as well, and then add a few comments about the book. I haven’t quoted very much from it, frankly because life’s too short for that. I didn’t rate the book, but would have given it either one star or two if I could make up my mind. If you read all the links below I think you’ll have a pretty good idea about what kind of stuff’s covered in this book. No, I haven’t read the stuff in the links, but from a brief skim of the material included in those articles they seem to deal with many of the same topics and specific issues encountered in the book coverage. I’ve read about many of the topics covered in the book before, but generally in much less detail.

Okay, links first – you should note that most of these links are not to wikipedia articles, but rather to articles from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which I’ve talked about before, as that site has much better coverage of the relevant topics than does wikipedia:

Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? (‘The Gettier problem‘).
Foundationalist Theories of Epistemic Justification.
The Coherence Theory of Truth (/or perhaps better: ‘…of justification’).
Virtue Epistemology.
Inference to the best explanation (/abduction).
Internalist vs. Externalist Conceptions of Epistemic Justification.
A Priori Justification and Knowledge.
The Analytic/Synthetic Distinction.
Naturalized Epistemology.

A quote from the book:

“There are many forms of naturalized epistemology [NE] and it is hard to say exactly what it is. The various forms have different views about the relations between natural science and traditional epistemology. In its most radical forms, naturalized epistemology holds that traditional epistemology should be abandoned or at least replaced by some empirical science, such as psychology. Other less radical forms of naturalized epistemology don’t call for the abandonment of traditional epistemology but hold that the empirical sciences, especially psychology, can solve or help to resolve many of the problems confronting traditional epistemology. […] In general, proponents of naturalized epistemology stress the importance of the natural sciences for epistemological inquiry. […] Instead of focusing on the justification of our beliefs, [Quine, one of the proponents of NE, thinks] we should rather be seeking a scientific explanation of how we get those beliefs. Instead of being concerned with the normative or evaluative status of beliefs we would be concerned with a descriptive inquiry about the psychological processes that produce them. […] Traditional epistemology is concerned with normative or evaluative concepts such as justification, reasonableness, and knowledge. It asks, for example, how do our sensory experiences justify our beliefs about the external world. In contrast, Quine seems to propose that we set aside these normative or evaluative questions, and ask how our sensory experiences cause or bring about our beliefs. Traditional epistemology and the sort of inquiry Quine advocates are thus concerned with different relations between sensory experience and belief.”

This quote is from the last chapter. The word ‘science’ is mentioned exactly once in the first 182 pages of this book. This is perhaps the easiest way for me to express how irrelevant I think many of the thoughts included in the book are to anything ‘real’ or ‘useful’. My impression is that these people are using ill-defined concepts to talk about other ill-defined concepts in order to solve theoretical problems of limited relevance to anyone. Even the chapters and approaches that make some sense are way too lacking in detail to be anywhere near informative enough to be all that interesting; the author uses a lot of pages to say little, and he frequently repeats himself.

The author frequently states in the chapters that ‘it’s obvious that we know X’, where X is some specific thing the author considers it to be obvious that we know, even though the whole book is basically about how we can even determine how to justify knowledge claims in the first place, making it far from obvious whether and how we actually do know what he claims that we know. I often thought along the way when he came up with specific examples of things we obviously knew: ‘…we do? How? You have not defined your terms in a manner clearly enough that that claim can even be evaluated.’

The author often takes it as a given throughout most of the book that what people claim to know and supposedly feel justified in knowing is relevant to how to optimally justify beliefs, or whatever it is he and his colleagues are hoping to do, even though an inquiry like this one really ought to address whether this is even true. It’s not like this problem is not addressed at all, but to say that it is remotely satisfactorily addressed would certainly be a statement with which I would disagree. It’s really problematic because sometimes knowledge beliefs people are claimed to hold are used as arguments justifying approaches to justifying beliefs (‘it’s common for people to believe X (…think themselves justified in believing X), so it must be good and proper to believe X (…)’), without those belief claims being at all closely scrutinized. There’s (almost) no science included in this book on how often people are wrong, what they’re likely to be wrong about and in which situations they’re most likely to be wrong, in which direction they’re likely to be wrong or anything like that, though reliabilism does sort of step closer than the others to such things. The idea of explicitly including such stuff in epistemological research is briefly addressed in the last chapter, as also implied in the quote mentioning Quine above (see also below).

The first nine chapters and most of epistemology is almost exclusively dealing with justification (and arguments), not the question of why people hold the beliefs they do. What you get is a lot of arguments about why X (or Y, or Z…) is clearly the best way to justify evaluating beliefs in a specific manner which is dissimilar from the other approaches available, and why Y (…or X, or Z) is clearly inferior – some are directly related, with one approach being in some sense ‘the opposite’, along some relevant dimension, of one of the others. Arguments are mostly based on very simple logic and/or examples of various kinds meant to illustrate certain aspects which are potentially problematic, or not, to a given argument. There is pretty much zero science to test which of the methodological approaches are more likely to yield accurate beliefs as far as we can even test those, though the literature on the reliabilism methodology, an approach of belief justification where justification is based on whether the processes causing the beliefs are likely to be reliable and so yield accurate beliefs, might have some stuff on that (which is not included in the book).

Some of the claims in the book I have no idea how they even justify making in the first place, which makes it awkward to criticize the ideas presented, especially as some of the most problematic hidden assumptions are implemented implicitly, in some sense before the analysis even begins; you’re supposed to agree on this part for any of the stuff that follows to even make sense, and if you don’t agree, or would perhaps prefer to understand some of the implications of what it might mean to agree before moving on, then you’re in trouble. There seems to me to be a huge number of assumptions hidden all over the place in this book, and it’s really annoying that these assumptions are not addressed; I have a distinct impression that I believe some of those hidden assumptions to be either stupid, wrong, or some combination of the two.

Most of the work in this book, and most of epistemology, it seems from the coverage, apparently deal with the question of how best to justify believing things while completely ignoring all data about how people actually go about forming the beliefs they hold. I find this approach frankly incredibly stupid. But then again this may just relate to the fact that I’m a lot more interested in the latter question than in the former, and some people will find said approach perfectly reasonable. I’m actually really uncertain about who ignores what in the main chapters because it seems to me that a reliabilism approach not informed by actual knowledge about belief formation is completely meaningless, yet the author seems to claim later on that the only people who do not implicitly deliberately ignore data like this are the people belonging to various schools of the naturalized epistemology-branch of epistemology. I’m not confused enough to find out what’s going on here, because I don’t really care.

Although I’m as mentioned not completely certain about the details, it does seem that many epistemologists find it reasonable to ignore where the beliefs people hold come from. I feel like I should remind people reading along that from what I’ve gathered so far, in other areas of research people have often found that when you answer some of the types of questions I’m most interested in in this context, questions about stuff like where beliefs come from, you also automatically tend to answer some of the questions the ‘let’s not use science’ crowd likes to ask (like the question of how justifiable various approaches really are); either that or you demonstrate how some of those questions don’t make sense. It seems to me that the more you know about how beliefs are actually formed, the easier it gets to substitute theoretical models with actual variables of interest; the more you know about why people hold the beliefs they do, the easier it may well be to evaluate specific approaches to how to judge them because as you proceed, you’ll gradually substitute your judgmentalism with actual knowledge. It doesn’t make sense to me to fault people for using a specific approach to belief evaluation which is less likely to yield accurate estimates of what the world is really like than a competing approach, demonstrated in a theoretical framework to be more accurate, if the optimal theoretical framework derived from ‘pure epistemology’ is based on an infeasible model of belief formation. If you’re not justified in believing that flying elephants are real when you’ve been drinking a lot of alcohol, then it might be a good idea to address whether or not you’ve been drinking alcohol when evaluating the beliefs you hold. If you’re more likely to become religious if your parents were religious and if the religious beliefs you hold seem to be socially mediated to some extent, then that likewise seems like relevant information in terms of evaluating how to justify religious beliefs. Stuff, including beliefs and belief-formation processes, whether or not the beliefs in question are ‘moral beliefs’ or not, which you can explain (using data) may be easier to justify, or not justify, whatever the case may be, than stuff you can’t explain. These remarks of course pertain not only to stuff like epistemology but also to other branches of philosophy, like moral philosophy. Of course I’m aware that some people from this field might argue/object that you can’t know that you actually know what I implied that we might get to know from data (like alcohol leading to people being more likely to observe flying elephants) – this stuff is complicated. My point is that I think a lot of it is needlessly complicated, and/or perhaps that it’s ‘the wrong complications’ people are looking at.

Should we justify our beliefs based on whether they agree with other beliefs we have? How can we say, before we’ve figured out to which extent we actually do that? If humans don’t do that kind of thing, then why would you ask a question like that in the first place? If you can’t figure out the extent to which they do, the same question apply – why should we care about the answer to that question? Yet according to the book coherentists don’t seem to care much about how people form beliefs; they mostly care about how people justify their beliefs. Analogous stuff seems to be going on in other contexts. Do note that it’s possible to obtain data both on which beliefs people hold and data on how they justify holding said beliefs, at least in theory (you can just ask people – but there are other ways to approach such questions as well, and you needn’t always have to make do with the lies and confused feedback people might come up with when asked questions like those…); regardless of whether you think epistemologists should only concern themselves with the question of justification (many philosophers seem to hold this view) or whether you’d like them to also address questions pertaining to which beliefs people actually do hold (and how they get to hold them), there is both a ‘descriptive justificationalism’ and a ‘normative justificationalism’ (the latter is just classical epistemology, it seems, judging from the coverage), and if you’re doing only one of those you’re probably missing out on some relevant stuff. Instead of having all those arguments about what’s the proper way to think about these things, why not at least try to address the descriptive part – find some data and figure out how people justify believing the things they do? At first I thought this was the approach called reliabilism in the book, but now I really am not sure what that stuff’s about. Anyway collecting data and starting to figure out how people justify their beliefs would seem to me to be a necessary starting point for any sort of analysis of these sorts of things; the sort of thing these people should have done a long time ago. There are lots of claims about what people may justify believing in the book and how they should go about doing it, but there’s not much data and this field really could use some of that stuff. What if people tend to use some approaches (e.g. coherence) to justify some types of beliefs, but other approaches (reliabilism) to justify others? How is that not potentially relevant? Do some of the main claims of specific theories even make sense, in light of scientific discoveries made over the years? Here’s a related quote from the Stanford Epistemology-article:

“According to an extreme version of naturalistic epistemology, the project of traditional epistemology, pursued in an a priori fashion from the philosopher’s armchair, is completely misguided. The “fruits” of such activity are demonstrably false theories such as foundationalism, as well as endless and arcane debates in the attempt to tackle questions to which there are no answers.” (my emphasis).

I had an impression that foundationalism might just be ‘complicated bullshit’ while reading the book, but I found it really hard to even figure out exactly what these people were actually trying to argue so I decided to withhold judgment. I’m still not sure what exactly they’re arguing, nor for that matter do I understand why they’d ever think it’s a good idea to approach these sorts of questions in the proposed manner, but it’s safe to say that the proponents haven’t exactly convinced me that this framework is the right one. Maybe it goes without saying but I am of course somewhat sympathetic to naturalistic epistemological approaches.

One of the main problems I think I have with this book is a problem the book shares with some other philosophical works I’ve encountered; in this field people seem to have a tendency not to evaluate ideas or arguments based on how well they explain data, but instead mainly on how internally consistent and logically coherent the various theories are. These people consider it to be very relevant if a given theory can handle all potential counterexamples and counterarguments etc.; if you can find a clever idea illustrating that the theory doesn’t work in some specific context because of some implication of what’s already been assumed and/or some contrived example, then you’re golden, but very few people go out to pick up data and look at how the theories relate to those, because data is not the currency of philosophy. If you write a philosophical text, you’d better have an argument ready to explain an elephant carrying around a radio playing Tchaikovsky (an actual example from the book included in one of the chapters to illustrate a problem with a specific theory). Nobody knows if the elephant is relevant because nobody ever seems to bother to look at the data and try to figure out how often people encounter elephants carrying around radios playing Tchaikovsky. I find this frustrating.

I have added one more quote from the book’s last chapter below, as well as some related remarks:

“The limited naturalist holds that defining or giving an analysis of central epistemic concepts such as knowledge, justification, or evidence is a properly philosophical activity. There are also normative questions and issues that are appropriate topics for philosophical investigation. Thus, it is the business of philosophy to discover what makes beliefs justified or reasonable, to discover criteria for justified belief. […] So far this sounds very much like traditional epistemology. But now suppose that we want to know, for example, whether a belief is an instance of knowledge. In order to know whether it was we would need to know whether it met our standard. We would need to know whether it did in fact come from a cognitive process with the appropriate degree of reliability. Presumably, empirical psychology would be relevant to telling us whether our beliefs did in fact meet that standard. Empirical psychology could identify what cognitive processes did in fact produce our beliefs and tell us whether those processes met the requisite standard of reliability. So, according to this view, empirical psychology can be relevant to whether some belief of ours counts as knowledge.”

The above seems, judging from the book, to be ‘as far’ as most epistemologists seem to want to go at the moment. It’s very curious to me that they seem to think cognitive processes is the only thing that may matter, and that cognitive science and psychology is all you really need in order to evaluate beliefs and belief-formation processes. I wonder if these people have ever heard about the problem of how different sources may not be equally reliable in terms of telling you stuff about the world, stuff relevant to belief formation and how to evaluate the knowledge one possesses (Daily Mail vs New England Journal of Medicine)? How sources of different reliabilities may be mixed up with each other in a non-trivial manner, and yet you’re still supposed to come up with some idea about what to think about X? Have they perhaps even heard about statistical analysis?

It seems to me that a lot of scientists these days are working really hard to do exactly the sort of work epistemologists (claim) they’re trying to do, yet repeatedly fail at. Or if you’re more gracious to the work being done in that field, the scientists are doing complementary work of some importance. Are you better justified trusting a scientific report than a random newspaper article, and in which cases might or might you not be? Might there be some sort of systematic way to approach the question of which types of evidence is best when making judgments; might there perhaps even be some sort of natural hierarchical ordering of the scientific evidence (prospective studies > retrospective studies, all else equal? Meta-review of prospective studies > one prospective study, all else equal) available to us, which might be helpful in terms of promoting accurate belief formation (/and belief formation strategies)? This field could be very broad. Perhaps it really is, and some people are working on these sorts of questions. But you wouldn’t know that from this book, and I’m not sure people addressing such far more relevant questions than many of the ones addressed in the book go by the name of epistemologists.

November 27, 2014 Posted by | Books, Philosophy | Leave a comment

The True Believer (II)

Here’s my first post about the book, which has a few general remarks and comments – the most important of which is probably that: “It is my opinion that most people would be likely to benefit from reading this book, and it’s a very easy read compared to the books I usually cover on this site.” I’m well aware most people can’t be bothered to start out on books with scary headings like: ‘Mechanisms of hormone action: I Membrane receptors’ (from Greenstein et al.) or ‘Balance equations for spatially explicit models’ (Gurney & Nisbet), and although regular readers of this blog are presumably not ‘most people’ I have no good way of really knowing how different most of you are as you provide very little information about yourselves in the comments. I’ve been asked before here ‘which book(s) I’d recommend’, and such questions are usually difficult for me to answer in part because it’s hard for me to assess how comprehensible many of the books I’m reading really are to people who don’t know what I know. This book is much easier than usual to assess because it doesn’t take any prior knowledge (people do not already have) for granted and can basically be read by anyone who’s not a dyslexic in a few hours – and there are a lot of ideas in there. I’m not in the five-star territory, but if I had been the number of people who might benefit from reading the book would probably have been significantly lower than it is. You can interpret these remarks as a qualified recommendation of the book.

I have added some observations from the second half of the book below, but I think if this stuff seems interesting to you, you should go pick up the book and read all of it.

“A pleasant existence blinds us to the possibilities of drastic change. We cling to what we call our common sense, our practical point of view. Actually, these are but names for an all-absorbing familiarity with things as they are. The tangibility of a pleasant and secure existence is such that it makes other realities, however imminent, seem vague and visionary. Thus it happens that when the times become unhinged, it is the practical people who are caught unaware and are made to look like visionaries who cling to things that do not exist.”

“Those who fail in everyday affairs show a tendency to reach out for the impossible. It is a device to camouflage their shortcomings. For when we fail in attempting the possible, the blame is solely ours; but when we fail in attempting the impossible, we are justified in attributing it to the magnitude of the task. There is less risk in being discredited when trying the impossible than when trying the possible.”

“One of the rules that emerges from a consideration of the factors that promote self-sacrifice is that we are less ready to die for what we have or are than for what we wish to have and to be. It is a perplexing and unpleasant truth that when men already have “something worth fighting for,” they do not feel like fighting. People who live full, worthwhile lives are not usually ready to die for their own interests nor for their country nor for a holy cause.[9] Craving, not having, is the mother of a reckless giving of oneself. […] Dreams, visions and wild hopes are mighty weapons and realistic tools. The practical-mindedness of a true leader consists in recognizing the practical value of these tools.”

“All active mass movements strive […] to interpose a factproof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it. […] It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible. What we know as blind faith is sustained by innumerable unbeliefs. […] It is the true believer’s ability to “shut his eyes and stop his ears” to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence. Strength of faith, as Bergson pointed out, manifests itself not in moving mountains but in not seeing mountains to move.[13] […] Thus the effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is. What Pascal said of an effective religion is true of any effective doctrine: it must be “contrary to nature, to common sense and to pleasure.”[14]”

“The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude. No doctrine however profound and sublime will be effective unless it is presented as the embodiment of the one and only truth. It must be the one word from which all things are and all things speak.[15] Crude absurdities, trivial nonsense and sublime truths are equally potent in readying people for self-sacrifice if they are accepted as the sole, eternal truth. It is obvious, therefore, that in order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. […] The devout are always urged to seek the absolute truth with their hearts and not their minds. […] If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable. One has to get to heaven or the distant future to determine the truth of an effective doctrine. When some part of a doctrine is relatively simple, there is a tendency among the faithful to complicate and obscure it.”

“It goes without saying that the fanatic is convinced that the cause he holds on to is monolithic and eternal — a rock of ages. Still, his sense of security is derived from his passionate attachment and not from the excellence of his cause. The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justness and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. Often, indeed, it is his need for passionate attachment which turns every cause he embraces into a holy cause. The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging suddenly and wildly from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted. His passionate attachment is more vital than the quality of the cause to which he is attached. Though they seem to be at opposite poles, fanatics of all kinds are actually crowded together at one end. It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet.”

“Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.”

“The act of self-denial seems to confer on us the right to be harsh and merciless toward others. The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is that the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth […] There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom — freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse. Herein undoubtedly lies part of the attractiveness of a mass movement.”

“There is hardly an example of a mass movement achieving vast proportions and a durable organization solely by persuasion. […] It was the temporal sword that made Christianity a world religion. Conquest and conversion went hand in hand, the latter often serving as a justification and a tool for the former. […] It also seems that, where a mass movement can either persuade or coerce, it usually chooses the latter. Persuasion is clumsy and its results uncertain. […] Proselytizing is more a passionate search for something not yet found than a desire to bestow upon the world something we already have. It is a search for a final and irrefutable demonstration that our absolute truth is indeed the one and only truth. The proselytizing fanatic strengthens his own faith by converting others. The creed whose legitimacy is most easily challenged is likely to develop the strongest proselytizing impulse.”

“In order to be assimilated into a collective medium a person has to be stripped of his individual distinctness. He has to be deprived of free choice and independent judgment. Many of his natural bents and impulses have to be suppressed or blunted. […] Faith organizes and equips man’s soul for action. To be in possession of the one and only truth and never doubt one’s righteousness; to feel that one is backed by a mysterious power whether it be God, destiny or the law of history; to be convinced that one’s opponents are the incarnation of evil and must be crushed; to exult in self-denial and devotion to duty — these are admirable qualifications for resolute and ruthless action in any field.”

“Self-contempt, however vague, sharpens our eyes for the imperfections of others. We usually strive to reveal in others the blemishes we hide in ourselves.”

“The fact that mass movements as they arise often manifest less individual freedom[18] than the order they supplant, is usually ascribed to the trickery of a power-hungry clique that kidnaps the movement at a critical stage and cheats the masses of the freedom about to dawn. Actually, the only people cheated in the process are the intellectual precursors. They rise against the established order, deride its irrationality and incompetence, denounce its illegitimacy and oppressiveness, and call for freedom of self-expression and self-realization. They take it for granted that the masses who respond to their call and range themselves behind them crave the same things. However, the freedom the masses crave is not freedom of self-expression and self-realization, but freedom from the intolerable burden of an autonomous existence. […] They do not want freedom of conscience, but faith — blind, authoritarian faith. […] The immediate result of a mass movement usually corresponds to what the people want. They are not cheated in the process.”

“Said Oliver Cromwell: “A man never goes so far as when he does not know whither he is going.”[8] When a mass movement is set in motion to free a nation from tyranny, either domestic or foreign, or to resist an aggressor, or to renovate a backward society, there is a natural point of termination once the struggle with the enemy is over or the process of reorganization is nearing completion. On the other hand, when the objective is an ideal society of perfect unity and selflessness – whether it be the City of God, a Communist heaven on earth, or Hitler’s warrior state – the active phase is without an automatic end. […] Where a mass movement preserves for generations the pattern shaped by its active phase (as in the case of the militant church through the Middle Ages), or where by a successive accession of fanatical proselytes its orthodoxy is continually strengthened (as in the case of Islam[1]), the result is an era of stagnation — a dark age.”

“In the eyes of the true believer, people who have no holy cause are without backbone and character — a pushover for men of faith. On the other hand, the true believers of various hues, though they view each other with mortal hatred and are ready to fly at each other’s throats, recognize and respect each other’s strength.”

September 4, 2014 Posted by | Books, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion | Leave a comment

The True Believer (I)

“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”

“However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing.”

“[This] book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences. It merely tries to explain; and the explanations — all of them theories — are in the nature of suggestions and arguments even when they are stated in what seems a categorical tone. I can do no better than quote Montaigne: “All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice. I should not speak so boldly if it were my due to be believed.” […] The reader is expected to quarrel with much that is said in this […] book. He is likely to feel that much has been exaggerated and much ignored. But this is not an authoritative textbook. It is a book of thoughts, and it does not shy away from half-truths so long as they seem to hint at a new approach and help to formulate new questions.”

I’d rather have read an authoritative textbook on these topics, which both the rating I gave the book and the review I wrote on goodreads reflect. That said, this is not a bad book, and it’s very ‘quotable’ – the attentive reader will recall that I’ve quoted Hoffer multiple times before in my quotes posts. In my quotes posts I usually search the blog for all the quotes I intend to add to the new posts before I add them, in order to avoid repeating any quotes I’ve already posted here; it would however be a lot of work to try to avoid repeating anything posted in quotes posts in this post and to limit coverage to stuff I haven’t already blogged. This would also be somewhat counterproductive, as some key points made in the book would likely have to be left out of this post coverage simply on account of having been covered elsewhere on the blog before.

As I pointed out in the goodreads review, “Paraphrasing what I said about Kuhn’s book, ‘it’s a model.’ I don’t think it’s a bad model as such, but there’s a lot of stuff he’s left out of the picture. This, and the speculative nature of the coverage and the over-reliance on anecdotes, makes it difficult for me to give the book a higher rating, despite the fact that I quite liked this book. ” In a way this is a slightly inaccurate way to put it, in the sense that there’s arguably more than one model presented here (there’s a receptiveness model, a model of the evolutionary path of mass movements, a behavioural model, etc.) – this is relevant because some model aspects are more ‘correct’ in hindsight than are others, and this is of course again relevant because it makes it even harder to evaluate the book as a whole. It is my opinion that most people would be likely to benefit from reading this book, and it’s a very easy read compared to the books I usually cover on this site.

I have added some ideas and quotes from the book below.

“This book deals with some peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions or nationalist movements. It does not maintain that all movements are identical, but that they share certain essential characteristics which give them a family likeness. All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and singlehearted allegiance. […] This book concerns itself chiefly with the active, revivalist phase of mass movements. This phase is dominated by the true believer — the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause — and an attempt is made to trace his genesis and outline his nature.”

“The powerful can be as timid as the weak. What seems to count more than possession of instruments of power is faith in the future. Where power is not joined with faith in the future, it is used mainly to ward off the new and preserve the status quo. On the other hand, extravagant hope, even when not backed by actual power, is likely to generate a most reckless daring. For the hopeful can draw strength from the most ridiculous sources of power—a slogan, a word, a button. No faith is potent unless it is also faith in the future […] Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope. It matters not whether it be hope of a heavenly kingdom, of heaven on earth, of plunder and untold riches, of fabulous achievement or world dominion. […] When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them.”

“There is a hope that acts as an explosive, and a hope that disciplines and infuses patience. The difference is between the immediate hope and the distant hope. A rising mass movement preaches the immediate hope. It is intent on stirring its followers to action, and it is the around-the-corner brand of hope that prompts people to act. […] Later, as the movement comes into possession of power, the emphasis is shifted to the distant hope — the dream and the vision. For an “arrived” mass movement is preoccupied with the preservation of the present, and it prizes obedience and patience above spontaneous action […] Every established mass movement has its distant hope, its brand of dope to dull the impatience of the masses and reconcile them with their lot in life. Stalinism is as much an opium of the people as are the established religions.”

“The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.”

“When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program. In pre-Hitlerian Germany it was often a toss up whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis. […] This receptivity to all movements does not always cease even after the potential true believer has become the ardent convert of a specific movement. Where mass movements are in violent competition with each other, there are not infrequent instances of converts — even the most zealous — shifting their allegiance from one to the other.”

“One mass movement readily transforms itself into another. A religious movement may develop into a social revolution or a nationalist movement; a social revolution, into militant nationalism or a religious movement; a nationalist movement into a social revolution or a religious movement. […] It is rare for a mass movement to be wholly of one character. Usually it displays some facets of other types of movement, and sometimes it is two or three movements in one. […] The religious character of the Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions is generally recognized. The hammer and sickle and the swastika are in a class with the cross. The ceremonial of their parades is as the ceremonial of a religious procession. They have articles of faith, saints, martyrs and holy sepulchers. The Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions are also full-blown nationalist movements. The Nazi revolution had been so from the beginning, while the nationalism of the Bolsheviks was a late development.”

“The problem of stopping a mass movement is often a matter of substituting one movement for another. A social revolution can be stopped by promoting a religious or nationalist movement. Thus in countries where Catholicism has recaptured its mass movement spirit, it counteracts the spread of communism. […] In general, any arrangement which either discourages atomistic individualism or facilitates self-forgetting or offers chances for action and new beginnings tends to counteract the rise and spread of mass movements.”

“It is sometimes difficult to tell where a mass migration ends and a mass movement begins—and which came first. […] Every mass movement is in a sense a migration—a movement toward a promised land; and, when feasible and expedient, an actual migration takes place. […] whether in the form of foreign conquest, crusade, pilgrimage or settlement of new land it is practiced by most active mass movements.”

“Misery does not automatically generate discontent, nor is the intensity of discontent directly proportionate to the degree of misery. Discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable; when conditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach. A grievance is most poignant when almost redressed. […] It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt. […] The intensity of discontent seems to be in inverse proportion to the distance from the object fervently desired. […] Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some. We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing.”

“Freedom aggravates at least as much as it alleviates frustration. Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual. And as freedom encourages a multiplicity of attempts, it unavoidably multiplies failure and frustration. Freedom alleviates frustration by making available the palliatives of action, movement, change and protest. Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual? We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility […] They who clamor loudest for freedom are often the ones least likely to be happy in a free society. The frustrated, oppressed by their shortcomings, blame their failure on existing restraints. […] If they clamor for freedom, it is but freedom to establish equality and uniformity.”

“we can never have enough of that which we really do not want, and […] we run fastest and farthest when we run from ourselves.”

“the technique of a mass movement aims to infect people with a malady and then offer the movement as a cure.”

“The vigor of a mass movement stems from the propensity of its followers for united action and self-sacrifice. When we ascribe the success of a movement to its faith, doctrine, propaganda, leadership, ruthlessness and so on, we are but referring to instruments of unification and to means used to inculcate a readiness for self-sacrifice. It is perhaps impossible to understand the nature of mass movements unless it is recognized that their chief preoccupation is to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrifice. […] With few exceptions,1 any group or organization which tries, for one reason or another, to create and maintain compact unity and a constant readiness for self-sacrifice usually manifests the peculiarities — both noble and base — of a mass movement. On the other hand, a mass movement is bound to lose much which distinguishes it from other types of organization when it relaxes its collective compactness […] The technique of fostering a readiness to fight and to die consists in separating the individual from his flesh-and-blood self—in not allowing him to be his real self. This can be achieved by the thorough assimilation of the individual into a compact collective body […]; by endowing him with an imaginary self (make-believe) […]; by implanting in him a deprecating attitude toward the present and riveting his interest on things that are not yet […]; by interposing a fact-proof screen between him and reality (doctrine) […]; [and] by preventing, through the injection of passions, the establishment of a stable equilibrium between the individual and his self (fanaticism)”.

“To ripen a person for self-sacrifice he must be stripped of his individual identity and distinctness. […] The fully assimilated individual does not see himself and others as human beings. When asked who he is, his automatic response is that he is a German, a Russian, a Japanese, a Christian, a Moslem, a member of a certain tribe or family. He has no purpose, worth and destiny apart from his collective body; and as long as that body lives he cannot really die.”

“Not only does a mass movement depict the present as mean and miserable—it deliberately makes it so. It fashions a pattern of individual existence that is dour, hard, repressive and dull. It decries pleasures and comforts and extols the rigorous life. It views ordinary enjoyment as trivial or even discreditable, and represents the pursuit of personal happiness as immoral. To enjoy oneself is to have truck with the enemy — the present. […] The very impracticability of many of the goals which a mass movement sets itself is part of the campaign against the present. All that is practicable, feasible and possible is part of the present. To offer something practicable would be to increase the promise of the present and reconcile us with it. […] All mass movements deprecate the present by depicting it as a mean preliminary to a glorious future; a mere doormat on the threshold of the millennium. To a religious movement the present is a place of exile, a vale of tears leading to the heavenly kingdom; to a social revolution it is a mean way station on the road to Utopia; to a nationalist movement it is an ignoble episode preceding the final triumph.”

“A glorification of the past can serve as a means to belittle the present. But unless joined with sanguine expectations of the future, an exaggerated view of the past results in an attitude of caution and not in the reckless strivings of a mass movement. On the other hand, there is no more potent dwarfing of the present than by viewing it as a mere link between a glorious past and a glorious future. Thus, though a mass movement at first turns its back on the past, it eventually develops a vivid awareness, often specious, of a distant glorious past. Religious movements go back to the day of creation; social revolutions tell of a golden age when men were free, equal and independent; nationalist movements revive or invent memories of past greatness.”

“It is futile to judge the viability of a new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of its promises. What has to be judged is its corporate organization for quick and total absorption of the frustrated. Where new creeds vie with each other for the allegiance of the populace, the one which comes with the most perfected collective framework wins.”

September 1, 2014 Posted by | Books, Philosophy, Psychology, Quotes/aphorisms, Religion | Leave a comment

The Problems of Philosophy

Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?

This text is included in Pojman’s book; I read it (Russell’s contribution to the book that is, not the book itself – that book has a lot of stuff…) a while back, but I haven’t really talked about it here on the blog. You can read it here.

I have included a few quotes from the text below. I also added a few personal remarks at the bottom of the post as well.

“In one sense it must be admitted that we can never prove the existence of things other than ourselves and our experiences. No logical absurdities results from the hypothesis that the world consists of myself and my thoughts and feelings and sensations, and that everything else is mere fancy. […] There is no logical impossibility in the supposition that the whole of life is a dream, in which we ourselves create all the objects that come before us. But although this is not logically impossible, there is no reason whatever to assume that it is true”

“Of course it is not by argument that we originally come by our belief in an independent external world. We find this belief ready in ourselves as soon as we begin to reflect: it is what may be called an instinctive belief. […] All knowledge, we find, must be built up upon our instinctive beliefs, and if these are rejected, nothing is left. But among our instinctive beliefs some are much stronger than others, while many have, by habit and association, become entangled with other beliefs, not really instinctive, but falsely supposed to be part of what is believed instinctively.
Philosophy should show us the hierarchy of our instinctive beliefs, beginning with those we hold most strongly, and presenting each as much isolated and as free from irrelevant additions as possible. It should take care to show that, in the form in which they are finally set forth, our instinctive beliefs do not clash, but form a harmonious system. There can never be any reason for rejecting one instinctive belief except that it clashes with others; thus, if they are found to harmonize, the whole system becomes worthy of acceptance.
It is of course possible that all or any of our beliefs may be mistaken, and therefore all ought to be held with at least some slight element of doubt. But we cannot have reason to reject a belief except on the ground of some other belief. Hence, by organizing our instinctive beliefs and their consequences, by considering which among them is most possible, if necessary, to modify or abandon, we can arrive, on the basis of accepting as our sole data what we instinctively believe, at an orderly systematic organization of our knowledge, in which, though the possibility of error remains, its likelihood is diminished by the interrelation of the parts and by the critical scrutiny which has preceded acquiescence.
This function, at least, philosophy can perform. Most philosophers, rightly or wrongly, believe that philosophy can do much more than this”

“Nothing can be known to exist except by the help of experience. […] Rationalists believed that, from general consideration as to what must be, they could deduce the existence of this or that in the actual world. In this belief they seem to have been mistaken. All the knowledge that we can acquire a priori concerning existence seems to be hypothetical: it tells us that if one thing exists, another must exist, or, more generally, that if one proposition is true, another must be true. […] the scope and power of a priori principles is strictly limited. All knowledge that something exists must be in part dependent on experience. When anything is known immediately, its existence is known by experience alone; when anything is proved to exist, without being known immediately, both experience and a priori principles must be required in the proof. Knowledge is called empirical when it rests wholly or partly upon experience. Thus all knowledge which asserts existence is empirical, and the only a priori knowledge concerning existence is hypothetical, giving connexions among things that exist or may exist, but not giving actual existence.”

“We may believe what is false as well as what is true. We know that on very many subjects different people hold different and incompatible opinions: hence some beliefs must be erroneous. Since erroneous beliefs are often held just as strongly as true beliefs, it becomes a difficult question how they are to be distinguished from true beliefs. […some talk about the correspondence theory of truth] […] minds do not create truth or falsehood. They create beliefs, but when once the beliefs are created, the mind cannot make them true or false, except in the special case where they concern future things which are within the power of the person believing, such as catching trains. What makes a belief true is a fact, and this fact does not (except in exceptional cases) in any way involve the mind of the person who has the belief.”

“to a great extent, the uncertainty of philosophy is more apparent than real: those questions which are already capable of definite answers are placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy. This is, however, only a part of the truth concerning the uncertainty of philosophy. […] The value of philosophy is […] to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect. […] Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation”

I know I’m repeating myself because I’ve said similar things in the past, but I still consider it an important point to add: Many people over time have wasted their lives pondering questions which they would not have been asking themselves if only they had known more stuff about the world. In my model of the world, people need to rely on knowledge to ask good questions, and the more one knows about the world, the better one gets at asking the right questions about it. Thinking about stuff is different from knowing stuff, and the payoff schedule related to ‘knowing more stuff’ for most people will look very different from the payoff schedule related to ‘thinking more about stuff’. People in general have much less knowledge than they ought to have in order to support the opinions they already hold.

On a related matter, if you’re repeatedly engaging yourself in the activity of asking questions to which no answers exist, you’re in my mind – I know some philosophers will disagree – quite likely to be asking the wrong questions and to be wasting your time.

August 12, 2014 Posted by | Books, Philosophy | 5 Comments

Utilitarianism (and some comments about ethics)

“The system of normative ethics which I am here concerned to defend is […] act-utilitarianism. […] Roughly speaking, act-utilitarianism is the view that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends only on the total goodness or badness of its consequences, i.e. on the effect of the action on the welfare of all human beings (or perhaps all sentient beings).”

The book is simple: The first half tells you why (act-)utilitarianism is great, and the second half tells you why utilitarianism sucks.

I’ve been unsure how to blog this book, and as I’m writing this I have still yet to decide what’s the best approach. It probably makes sense to start out with some general remarks. The first general remark is that I liked Smart’s half (the first half) better than Bernard Williams’ half, and I did that to a significant degree because it is in my opinion much easier to read and understand than especially the first half of the second half of the book – regardless of the merits of the arguments, I simply think J.C.C. Smart is a much better writer than is Bernard Williams. There are some important points hidden away in Williams’ account, but in my opinion he waffles so much you sometimes don’t really care one way or the other. Trained philosophers may disagree, but I’m not used to read philosophical texts and stuff like that is part of the reason.

The second general remark is that this book reminded me why I don’t really care about moral philosophy in the first place. Moral judgments don’t really interest me very much. Coming up with elaborate systems (or, in some cases, not-so-elaborate systems) of thought which allows some action patterns and disallows others, evaluated by considering how these systems perform in hypothetical scenarios which may or may not ever happen to anyone you know (“the common methodology of testing general ethical principles by seeing how they square with our felings in particular instances”, as Smart puts it in the book..), or perhaps evaluated by figuring out if the systems are self-consistent or not, simply seems to me a strange approach to how to identify good decision(/justification) rules.

I have come to realize that my opinion of the coverage – but perhaps especially Smart’s account – is influenced by some thoughts I had a while back and discussed with a friend last week. I was at the time considering blogging some of those thoughts, but I decided against it. Anyway these thoughts relate to how knowledge may shape how you think about stuff; this specific topic is actually covered in the book, though from a very different angle. I hold to the view that thinking which is more or less unconstrained by knowledge will most often be a very inferior type of thinking to the kind of (‘directed…’ was the word my friend used, a good word in this context I think) thinking which is constrained by data. What I came to realize along the way was that what I was really missing in this book was some actual knowledge about how humans behave, some understanding of why people behave the way they do, and how such aspects intersect both with which types of behaviours may in theory be ‘permissible’ or not, and why people think the way they do about the thoughts they have and the actions they engage in. We know some stuff about those kinds of things, books have been written about such things – for a neat little book on related topics, see Tavris & Aronson’s account. Smart mentions in his part of the book that: “If […] act-utilitarianism were put forward as a descriptive systematization of how ordinary men, or even we ourselves in our unreflective and uncritical moments, actually think about ethics, then it is of course easy to refute […] [But] it is precisely because a doctrine is false as description and as explanation that it becomes important as a possible recommendation.”

‘People don’t seem to make moral judgments the way I’d like them to, but if they did the world would be a better place’ may be true or it may not be true, but when your argument is founded on logic and you don’t really have good data to suggest that this approach to making moral judgments actually leads to better ‘moral outcomes’ (whatever that may mean – but then again the proponent of such a view is free to define his terms and then argue why his system is better, as that is how people do in other areas, so this caveat may not be important) then I don’t really think you have a very strong case. People (well, some people – it’s probably mostly other economists…) occasionally criticize economists harshly when they fail to take general equilibrium effects into account when making policy recommendations based on partial-equilibrium analyses (‘the employment effects of a job programme involving 500 people may be very different from the employment effects of the same type of job programme scaled up so that it involves 50.000 people’); what these guys are doing is in some sense even worse, as they’re really arguing without any data at all – “I think this”, “I think that”.

I’m sure this kind of stuff related to things like how you approach the topic of meta-ethics and where people stand on things like the non-cognitivist approach Smart talks about in his introduction, but I’m not well-versed in such matters. What I will say is that given what I know about many other topics (primatology, (/behavioural) economics, medicine, psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, …), I think the sort of approach these guys have to all of this stuff is not very ‘useful’; in my opinion you need to know and understand a lot of stuff about why people behave the way they do in order to even be in a position where you are justified in having any sort of opinion about how to evaluate the things people do or think in the first place. And these guys have not convinced me they know a lot about things aside from the sort of things philosophers know about this sort of stuff. I’ll go into more detail about these aspects below, but before doing that I would point out that another way to approach moral questions from the one they apply would be to identify/define specific outcomes, behaviours or motivations of interest, analyze variation in data on these variables, and figure out if there are some useful patterns to be found. Perhaps people who commit murder have things in common, and perhaps some of the variables they have in common can be addressed/modified by policies and/or behavioural change at the individual level. I’m not a philosopher, this is more along the lines of ‘where I’m coming from’.

In terms of ‘the stuff I know’ I alluded to above, a few examples are probably in order to get at some of the issues:

i. “Research on parent-child conflict during the first decade of life most often has focused on emotional outbursts, such as temper tantrums […] and coercive behavior of children toward other family members as evidence of conflict. The frequency of such behavior begins to decline during early childhood and continues to do so during middle childhood […] The frequency of episodes during which parents discipline their children also decreases between the ages of three and nine […] research on conflict management in this period has focused on the relative effectiveness of various parental strategies for gaining compliance and managing negative behaviors.” (link)

ii. “The result of an interview is usually a decision. Ideally this process involves collecting, evaluating and integrating specific salient information into a logical algorithm that has shown to be predictive. However, there is an academic literature on impression formation that has examined experimentally how precisely people select particular pieces of information. Studies looking at the process in selection interviews have shown all too often how interviewers may make their minds up before the interview even occurs (based on the application form or CV of the candidate), or that they make up their minds too quickly based on first impression (superficial data) or their own personal implicit theories of personality. Equally, they overweigh or overemphasise negative information or bias information not in line with the algorithm they use.” (link)

iii. “many doors in life are opened or closed to you as a function of how your personality is perceived. Someone who thinks you are cold will not date you, someone who thinks you are uncooperative will not hire you, and someone who thinks you are dishonest will not lend you money. This will be the case regardless of how warm, cooperative, or honest you might really be. […] a long tradition of research on expectancy effects shows that to a small but important degree, people have a way of living up, or down, to the impressions others have of them. […] judges use stereotypes as an important basis for their judgment only when they have little information about the target. […] When you know someone well you can base your judgments on what you have seen. When you have little information, you fall back on stereotypes and self-knowledge.” (link)

iv. “The need for closure (NFC) has been defined as a desire for a definite answer to a question, as opposed to uncertainty, confusion, or ambiguity […] People exhibit stable personal differences in the degree to which they value closure. Some people may form definitive, and perhaps extreme, opinions regardless of the situation, whereas others may resist making decisions even in the safest environments. […] Taken together, the research on intrapersonal processes demonstrates that people who are high in NFC seek less information, generate fewer hypotheses, and rely on early, initial information when making judgments.  […] The manner in which people interpret their own and other people’s behaviors and outcomes is linked predictably with their self-esteem and self-concepts. […] a large body of research on attribution processes shows that people high in self-esteem take credit for their successes and blame their failures on external factors […] In contrast, people low in self-esteem are less inclined to take credit for their successes and more inclined to assume responsibility for their failures” (link)

v. “All addictive drugs are subjectively rewarding, reinforcing and pleasurable [1]. Laboratory animals volitionally self- administer them [2], just as humans do. Furthermore, the rank order of appetitiveness in animals parallels the rank order of appetitiveness in humans […] it is relatively easy to selectively breed laboratory animals for the behavioral phenotype of drug-seeking behavior (the behavioral phenotype breeds true after about 15 generations in laboratory rodents)” (link)

vi. “Psychological autopsy studies in the West have consistently demonstrated strong associations between suicide and mental disorder, reporting that 90% of people who die by suicide have one or more diagnosable mental illness” (link)

vii. “Evolutionary explanations are recursive. Individual behavior results from an interaction of inherited attributes and environmental contingencies. In most species, genes are the main inherited attributes, but inherited cultural information is also important for humans. Individuals with different inherited attributes may develop different behaviors in the same environment. Every generation, evolutionary processes — natural selection is the prototype — impose environmental effects on individuals as they live their lives. Cumulated over the whole population, these effects change the pool of inherited information, so that the inherited attributes of individuals in the next generation differ, usually subtly, from the attributes in the previous generation. […] Culture is a system of inheritance. We acquire behavior by imitating other individuals much as we get our genes from our parents. A fancy capacity for high-fidelity imitation is one of the most important derived characters distinguishing us from our primate relatives […] We are also an unusually docile animal (Simon 1990) and unusually sensitive to expressions of approval and disapproval by parents and others (Baum 1994). Thus parents, teachers, and peers can rapidly, easily, and accurately shape our behavior compared to training other animals using more expensive material rewards and punishments.” (link)

viii. “When two people produce entirely different memories of the same event, observers usually assume that one of them is lying. […] But most of us, most of the time, are neither telling the whole truth nor intentionally deceiving. We aren’t lying; we are self-justifying. All of us, as we tell our stories, add details and omit inconvenient facts […] History is written by the victors, and when we write our own histories, we do so just as the conquerors of nations do: to justify our actions and make us look and feel good about ourselves and what we did or what we failed to do. If mistakes were made, memory helps us remember that they were made by someone else. If we were there, we were just innocent bystanders. […] We remember the central events of our life stories. But when we do misremember, our mistakes aren’t random. The everyday, dissonance-reducing distortions of memory help us make sense of the world and our place in it, protecting our decisions and beliefs. The distortion is even more powerful when it is motivated by the need to keep our self-concept consistent; by the wish to be right; by the need to preserve self-esteem; by the need to excuse failures or bad decisions; or by the need to find an explanation, preferably one safely in the past” (link)

ix. “The basic idea behind self-signaling is that despite what we tend to think, we don’t have a very clear notion of who we are. We generally believe that we have a privileged view of our own preferences and character, but in reality we don’t know ourselves that well (and definitely not as well as we think we do). Instead, we observe ourselves in the same way we observe and judge the actions of other people—inferring who we are and what we like from our actions. […] We may not always know exactly why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or feel what we feel. But the obscurity of our real motivations doesn’t stop us from creating perfectly logical-sounding reasons for our actions, decisions, and feelings.” (link)

One key point is that people are different, in all sorts of ways. They’re systematically different in terms of behavioural dispositions, and some behaviours may to a great extent be simply the result of biological factors (drug abuse is certainly relevant here, and suicide probably is as well. These are relevant to the discussion not just because there are relevant differences in behavioural dispositions, but also because people tend to think they ought to have views about the ethics of these behaviours). If individuals are different and such differences are important in terms of which actions the individuals are likely to engage in, it might be natural to suggest that taking such differences into account may be an important component in the evaluation of the ethical properties of a given behaviour. That was actually not the point I was going for, as I’m not sure I really care a great deal about how moral systems should look like. However it does seem to me that people are taking many individual-level differences into account, to varying degrees, when making moral jugments, whether or not they ‘should’.

The basic point is that people are different, and so they have different moral systems. This is not a new idea of mine, and I’ve previously touched upon factors of relevance in this analysis; see for example this post (key point: “If you’re better able to handle complexity you’re able to make use of more complex moral algorithms.”). Another way to think about it, which also relates to the quotes above, would be to say that as people use their moral systems repeatedly to justify their own behaviours and as people behave in different ways, it’s really beyond doubt that people have different moral systems which incorporate different stuff. When looked at from that point of view, utilitarianism is really just one system (or family of systems), which appeal to some specific people due to specific reasons related to why those people are the way they are and behave the way they do. This is my observation, not an observation made in the book, but Williams does touch very briefly upon related aspects, in the sense that he talks about “the spirit of utilitarianism, and […] its demand for a rational, decideable, empirically based, and unmysterious set of values”, and at the end of his contribution charges the system with “simplemindedness”.

The social dimension alluded to in the quotes above seems relevant as well. Individuals are different from each other, but so are different groups of individuals (see e.g. vii). Groups are particularly important because stuff like social feedback systems are really important determinants of individual behaviours, and important determinants in terms of how individuals approach various questions and actions. For example people may act differently when they’re in a group than they do when they’re on their own – ethicists may or may not agree that such differences are relevant to the ethical judgment of behaviour, but there’s a potential variable lurking here which some people may consider to be important. Another related example might be that some people may search out social environments that contain people who are likely to approve of their behaviours and avoid social environments including people who do not – they may, in short, behave in a manner which may make enforcement of ethical systems more difficult. Some people may also respond differently to social feedback than do other people. If some people do consider such variables to be important when making moral judgments, and you’re planning to discuss ethics with such people, then you probably need to have some knowledge about how groups of people work, and how social aspects impact behaviour (i.e. you need to know some stuff about social psychology, sociology and related fields).

One argument here which is implicit is that if you have a moral system which makes judgments without regards to the knowledge we actually have of how people behave and why they behave the way they do, you’re likely to end up ‘left behind’ in the long run. You end up with something like religious rules, where you have a system of behavioural rules which perhaps sort of made sense, kind of, during a period where people didn’t really know anything about anything, but which makes a lot less sense now because we know better. It’s not hard to argue, though I’m sure some moral philosophers might disagree with me, that it is better to medicate the schizophrenic than to deem him mad and incarcerate him. I make this point explicit because at least judging from this book, I got the impression that the philosophical approach to how to handle ethical systems and evaluate their attributes seems to me to have many things in common with the religious approach, and much less in common with a behavioural sciences approach. Thought-experiments asking questions like how you would/should behave if you happened to find yourself in front of a guy who’s threatening to shoot 20 other people unless you shoot one of them yourself may be useful in terms of illustrating key aspects of an ethical system, but is this kind of analysis really likely to lead you very far? Some of this stuff seems to me not that different from theology. ‘People who act friendly and non-threatening in social situations are more likely to find friends and keeping them’ (or whatever) seems to me to be much more useful information, in terms of how to answer questions such as ‘what is a good (‘ethical’) way to live your life’, than are thought experiments like these and discussions about key assumptions related to those thought experiments. It seems to me that a lot of what these people are doing is adding new floors to the ivory tower and not much else.

In terms of the risk of being left behind comment above, I should note that I’m aware this is perhaps a problematic way to think about things. Some people (especially religious people, presumably) would certainly argue that it makes a lot of sense to adopt sort of a Darwinian approach to meta-ethics and consider the moral systems likely to persist and ‘survive’ to be ‘better’ than the alternatives; in which case religious systems have a lot of things going for them, in part because they’re very good at constraining thinking and suppressing certain lines of thought likely to weaken the systems (like the thought that all this stuff is just made up). Williams talks about related stuff in his coverage – his view is incidentally that such implicit constraints on moral thinking is a good thing, and he considers the absence of such constraints to be a problem with utilitarianism – I decided to include a few relevant quotes on that matter below:

“It could be a feature of a man’s moral outlook that he regarded certain courses of action […or thought, US] as unthinkable, in the sense that he would not entertain the idea of doing them […] Entertaining certain alternatives, regarding them indeed as alternatives, is itself something which he regards as dishonourable or morally absurd. But, further, he might equally find it unacceptable to consider what to do in certain conceivable situations. […] Consequentialist rationality, however, and in particular utilitarian rationality, has no such limitations: making the best of a bad job is one of its maxims”

Something I found interesting in that part is that Williams does not make clear that constraints on moral thinking have the potential to lead to both good and bad ‘outcomes’ (‘lead to ‘better’ or ‘worse’ performing moral systems’ would be a statement inclusive enough to also incorporate non-consequentialist ethical systems, it seems to me, but then a different problem related to what we mean by ‘better’ or ‘worse’ of course pops up. Anyway if you have difficulty conceptualizing this idea it probably makes sense to just model it this way: Constraints on moral thinking may stop you from thinking that it might be a good idea to kill all the jews (the argument being that where people are free to think this thought, the associated outcome becomes more likely), but such constraints may also stop you from thinking that killing jews is wrong, if you happen to live in a society where killing jews is the morally enforced norm), even though a related symmetry argument seems to be used by both proponents and opponents of utilitarianism in the context of events taking place in the far future. Note incidentally on a related, if different, note that when people make moral judgments about a given action, in terms of how long time has passed since the event in question, may have a significant influence on the judgment in question (see viii).

I do not think people use utilitarian systems of thought to decide upon which actions to engage in, and as mentioned previously neither does Smart; he’s careful to point out in his coverage that what he’s defending is a normative system, not a descriptive system. In my view people often don’t know why they do the things they do, and even when they think they do, they probably don’t, really, because there are an incredible number of aspects which are relevant, and people probably often don’t know about half of them. “But the obscurity of our real motivations doesn’t stop us from creating perfectly logical-sounding reasons for our actions, decisions, and feelings”, as pointed out in ix. We’re not rational creatures, but we are rationalizing creatures. People may use a utilitarian framework to present the decision context and the decision process, but it’s just a model. I probably differ from Smart also in the sense that Smart may be a lot more optimistic about the feasibility of even applying such a scheme than I am. Smart would probably think about a hypothetical situation in this way: ‘I have thought about this potential action X, and it seems to me that the consequences of this action X would be that one person is made much better off and another person is made slightly worse off. If I do nothing instead, no-one is made either better off or worse off. I wish to maximize average happiness, and so this action seems justified. Thus I shall now proceed to do X.’ I would be more likely to think along these lines: ‘Smart’s primate brain had decided after 2/10ths of a second that Smart wanted to do X. Smart’s primate brain is good at making Smart think he’s in charge, so now Smart’s brain will engage in a bit of work which will yield him the answer ‘he’ already decided upon.’

The utilitarian model is just a model, and/but it’s the type of model which appeal to some types of people more than others. When you look at it like this, it sort of changes how you view the question of whether the question of whether ‘people should use utilitarian systems of thought more’ even makes sense. A book like this will probably in some ways tell you more about the personalities of the authors than it will tell you about the desirability of the more widespread ‘implementation’ (whatever that may mean) of a specific ethical system of thought. There’s no data here, just arguments, so neither of the authors really have a clue, would be my contention, and they probably would not be able to agree about how to even evaluate competing systems if they did. It is not perfectly true that they ‘have no clue’, as e.g. the information problems pointed out in Williams’ account towards the end, where he talks a bit about collective decision making rather than individual-level decision making in a utilitarian framework (the point being that you need a lot of data, which is not available, in order to engage in utilitarian analyses and semi-sensible utilitarian-inspired decision making at e.g. the population level), certainly do have at least some real-world relevance, but I think it’s close enough. One aspect that really irritated me about this coverage is that although there are some potentially valuable distinctions made along the way (people may employ the correct decision rule yet end up with a bad outcome anyway, and such things may be important when making moral judgments (…or judgments about how to best set up compensation schemes in organizations, I’ll add…); when deciding whether or not to praise an action a potentially relevant distinction is to be made between the desirability of the action and the desirability of praising the action), they don’t really get very far. If I ever find myself facing a Mexican who’s about to kill 20 people, I’ll know what to do, but…

Some people might have read some of the stuff above and thought to him/herself that if you’re a hardcore consequentialist/utilitarian who does not care about anything but the consequences of actions and the utility derived from them, then you probably don’t care about whether or not the individual made the decision because he was sleep-deprived or had high levels of testosterone in his blood due to an untreated medical condition. That’s the whole point, that you disregard irrelevant factors like intentions and similar stuff, right? I have sort of assumed this would not be the utilitarian’s reply because in that case the system seems to me to devolve into a caricature very fast (on account of the ‘and similar stuff’ part, not the intentions part), where you lock away the schizophrenic. I think there’s a big difference between including in the analysis people’s explicit justifications for their actions (leading to a ‘you meant well’ judgment) and other, implicit, factors which might also have influenced behaviour (‘the cancer patient was tired and in pain, and that was why she yelled at her neighbour when his dog ran into her garden’). There’s a difference between explaining and explaining away, but they sort of go hand in hand. In case you were not aware of this, this objection does not only relate to individual-level decision-making, as objections with a similar structure can be made in the contexts of population-level decision making, where the behaviours of groups of people may also have explanations/reasons which are relevant to the ethical judgment yet unrelated to the explicit justifications people forward for behaving the way they do. I’m not sure how I feel about the validity of some of the specific arguments to be made in the latter case and how relevant they are/ought to be to the moral judgments to be made, but I did want to mention this aspect to preclude people from perhaps assuming erroneously that even if there are problems at the level of the individual, such problems go away when you start looking at groups of people instead. I don’t think this is true at all, though of course details are different in different social contexts.

I know that I have not really talked a great deal about the actual contents of the book in this post, and if you’re really curious to learn more about what’s in there you’re welcome to ask and maybe I can be persuaded to provide some more details. I was planning to perhaps include a few quotes from the book in a future quotes post, but aside from that I’m not really considering spending any more time on the book here on the blog.

Feedback to the thoughts and ideas presented here are very welcome.

July 23, 2014 Posted by | Books, ethics, Philosophy | 5 Comments


The stuff below is excerpts and quotes from Pojman‘s reprint of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. I wasn’t quite sure how to blog this, and in particular I was not sure if I should wait with covering Ayer to I’d also finished reading Russell (I’m currently reading Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy from the same book. I may decide to read William James later on as well), covering both in one post. I somewhat dislike writing long posts based on paper-books, so in the end I decided to just post what I’d got. I haven’t really commented much on the stuff below and given my own views, partly because I’m lazy, but I guess I don’t mind going on the record here as someone who’s probably not exactly a big fan of metaphysics (…to the extent that I even know what it is; it’s not like I’ve wasted a lot of time on this kind of stuff.).

“Like Hume, I divide all genuine propositions into two classes: those which, in his terminology, concern “relations of ideas,” and those which concern “matters of fact.” The former class comprises the a priori propositions of logic and pure mathematics, and these I allow to be necessary and certain only because they are analytic. That is, I maintain that the reason why these propositions cannot be confuted in eperience is that they do not make any assertion about the empirical world, but simply record our determination to use symbols in a certain fashion. Propositions concerning empirical matters of fact, on the other hand, I hold to be hypotheses, which can be probable but never certain. […] no proposition, other than a tautology, can possibly be more than a probable hypothesis. […] A hypothesis cannot be conclusively confuted any more than it can be conclusively verified.”

“I adopt what may be called a modified verification principle. For I require of an empirical hypothesis, not indeed that it should be conclusively verifiable, bu that some possible sense-experience should be relevant to the determination of its truth or falsehood. If a putative proposition fails to satisfy this principle, and is not a tautology, then I hold that it is metaphysical, and that, being metaphysical, it is neither true nor false but literally senseless. […] much of what ordinarily passes for philosophy is metaphysical according to this criterion […] The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful. [I included this quote in the recent quotes post as well] […] philosophy, as a genuine branch of knowledge, must be distinguished from metaphysics.”

“the fact that a conclusion does not follow from its putative premise is not sufficient to show that it is false.”

“We say that the question that must be asked about any putative statement of fact is not, Would any observations make its truth or falsehood logically certain? but simply, Would any observations be relevant to the determination of its truth or falsehood? And it is only if a negative answer is given to this second question that we conclude that the statement under consideration is nonsensical.”

“It must, of course, be admitted that our senses do sometimes deceive us. We may, as the result of having certain sensations, expect certain other sensations to be obtainable which are, in fact, not obtainable. But, in all such cases, it is further sense-experience that informs us of the mistakes that arise out of sense-experience. We say that the senses sometimes deceive us, just because the expectations to which our sense-experiences give rise do not always accord with what we subsequently experience. That is, we rely on our senses to substantiate or confute the judgments which are based on our sensations. […] Consequently, anyone who comdemns the sensible world as a world of mere appearance, as opposed to reality, is saying something which, according to our criterion of significance, is literally nonsensical.” [On a related note I have always found it hard to figure out what’s the point of discussions about ‘whether we really live in a simulation or not’, and I’m slightly mystified by how many presumably very smart and in other respects seemingly sensible people consider exploring such questions in depth to be a good use of their limited time here on Earth.]

“existence is not an attribute. For, when we ascribe an attribute to a thing, we covertly assert that it exists: so that if existence were itself an attribute, it would follow that all positive existential propositions were tautologies, and all negative existential propositions self-contradictory; and this is not the case. […] In general, the postulation of real non-existent entities results from the superstition […] that, to every word or phrase that can be the grammatical subject of a sentence, there must somewhere be a real entity corresponding. For as there is no place in the empirical world for many of these “entities”, a special non-empirical world is invoked to house them. To this error must be attributed, not only the utterances of a Heidegger, who bases his metaphysics on the assumption that “Nothing” is a name which is used to denote something peculiarly mysterious, but also the prevalence of such problems as those concerning the reality of propositions and universals whose senselessness, though less obvious, is no less complete. […] The metaphysician […] does not intend to write nonsense. He lapses into it through being deceived by grammar, or through committing errors of reasoning”


July 14, 2014 Posted by | Books, Philosophy | Leave a comment

Open Thread

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of these. This is where you share interesting stuff you’ve come across since the last time I posted one of these things (or perhaps it is where you don’t share interesting stuff; the latter is by far the most common decision, after all). I don’t really have anything interesting to share here myself, but I figured I should post something anyway, so… :

I was considering adding this lecture as well, but it’s not a particularly good lecture so that seemed like a bad idea.

A friend of mine recently made me aware of the existence of this resource, which one of two of you may consider to be worth checking out.

June 28, 2014 Posted by | Cancer/oncology, Lectures, Medicine, Music, Open Thread, Philosophy | 7 Comments

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

I read the book yesterday. Here’s what I wrote on goodreads:

I’m not rating this, but I’ll note that ‘it’s an interesting model.’

I’d only really learned (…heard?) about Kuhn’s ideas through cultural osmosis (and/or perhaps a brief snippet of his work in HS? Maybe. I honestly can’t remember if we read Kuhn back then…). It’s worth actually reading the book, and I should probably have done that a long time ago.”

I was thinking about just quoting extensively from the work in this post in order to make clear what the book is about, but I’m not sure this is actually the best way to proceed. I know some readers of this blog have already read Kuhn, so it may in some sense be more useful if I say a little bit about what I think about the things he’s said, rather than focusing only on what he’s said in the work. I’ve tried to make this the sort of post that can be read and enjoyed both by people who have not read Kuhn, and by people who have, though I may not have been successful. That said, I have felt it necessary to include at least a few quotes from the work along the way in the following, in order not to misrepresent Kuhn too much.

So anyway, ‘the general model’ Kuhn has of science is one where there are three states of science. ‘Normal science’ is perhaps the most common state (this is actually not completely clear as I don’t think he ever explicitly says as much (I may be wrong), and the inclusion of concepts like ‘mini-revolutions’ (the ‘revolutions can happen on many levels’-part) makes things even less clear, but I don’t think this is an unreasonable interpretation), where scientists in a given field has adopted a given paradigm and work and tinker with stuff within that paradigm, exploring all the nooks and crannies: “‘normal science’ means research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for it further practice.” Exactly what a paradigm is is still a bit unclear to me, as he seems to me to be using the term in a lot of different ways (“One sympathetic reader, who shares my conviction that ‘paradigm’ names the central philosophical elements of the book, prepared a partial analytic index and concluded that the term is used in at least twenty-two different ways.” – a quote from the postscript).

So there’s ‘normal science’, where everything is sort of proceeding according to plan. And then there are two other states: A state of crisis, and a state of revolution. A crisis state is a state which comes about when the scientists working in their nooks and crannies gradually come to realize that perhaps the model of the world they’ve been using (‘paradigm’) may not be quite right. Something is off, the model has problems explaining some of the results – so they start questioning some of the defining assumptions. During a crisis scientists become less constrained by the paradigm when looking at the world, research becomes in some sense more random; a lot of new ideas pop up as to how to deal with the problem(s), and at some point a scientific revolution resolves the crisis – a new model replaces the old one, and the scientists can go back to doing ‘normal science’ work, which is now defined by the new paradigm rather than the old one. Young people and/or people not too closely affiliated with the old model/paradigm are, Kuhn argues, more likely to come up with the new idea that will resolve the problem which caused the crisis, and young people and new people in the field are more likely than their older colleagues to ‘convert’ to the new way of thinking. Such dynamics are actually, he adds, part of what keeps ‘normal science’ going and makes it able to proceed in the manner it does; scientists are skeptical people, and if scientists were to question the basic assumptions of the field they’re working in all the time, they’d never be able to specialize in the way they do, exploring all the nooks and crannies; they’d be spending all their time arguing about the basics instead. It should be noted that crises don’t always lead to a resolution; sometimes the crisis can be resolved without it. He also argues that sometimes a revolution can take place without a major crisis, though the existence of such crises he seems to think important to his overall thesis. Crises and revolutions need not be the result of annoying data that does not fit – they may also be the result of e.g. technological advances, like the development of new tools and technology which can e.g. enable scientists to see things they did not use to be able to see. Sometimes the theory upon which a new paradigm is based was presented much earlier, during the ‘normal science’ phase, but nobody took the theory seriously back then because the problems that lead to crisis had not really manifested at that time.

Scientists make progress when they’re doing normal science, in the sense that they tend to learn a lot of new stuff about the world during these phases. But revolutions can both overturn some of that progress (‘that was not the right way to think about these things’), and it can lead to further progress and new knowledge. An important thing to note here is that how paradigms change is in part a sociological process; part of what leads to change is the popularity of different models. Kuhn argues that scientists tend to prefer new paradigms which solves many of the same problems the old paradigm did, as well as some of those troublesome problems which lead to the crisis – so it’s not like revolutions will necessarily lead people back to square one, with all the scientific progress made during the preceding ‘normal science’ period wiped out. But there are some problems. Textbooks, Kuhn argues, are written by the winners (i.e. the people who picked the right paradigm and get to write textbooks), and so they will often deliberately and systematically downplay the differences between the scientists working in the field now and the scientists working in the field – or what came before it (the fact that normal science is conducted at all is a sign of maturity of a field, Kuhn notes) – in the past, painting a picture of gradual, cumulative progress in the field (gigantum humeris insidentes) which perhaps is not the right way to think about what has actually happened. Sometimes a revolution will make scientists stop asking questions they used to ask, without any answer being provided by the new paradigm; there are costs as well as benefits associated with the dramatical change that takes place during scientific revolutions:

“In the process the community will sustain losses. Often some old problems must be banished. Frequently, in addition, revolution narrows the scope of the community’s professional concerns, increases the extent of its specialization, and attenuates its communication with other groups, both scientific and lay. Though science surely grows in depth, it may not grow in breadth as well. If it does so, that breadth is manifest mainly in the proliferation of scientific specialties, not in the scope of any single specialty alone. Yet despite these and other losses to the individual communities, the nature of such communities provides a virtual guarantee that both the list of problems solved by science and the precision of individual problem-solutions will grow and grow. At least, the nature of the community provides such a guarantee if there is any way at all in which it can be provided. What better criterion than the decision of the scientific group could there be?”

I quote this part also to focus in on an area where I am in disagreement with Kuhn – this relates to his implicit assumption that scientific paradigms (whatever that term may mean) are decided by scientists alone. Certainly this is not the case to the extent that the scientific paradigms equal the rules of the game for conducting science. This is actually one of several major problems I have with the model. Doing science requires money, and people who pay for the stuff will have their own ideas about what you can get away with asking questions about. What the people paying for the stuff have allowed scientists to investigate has changed over time, but some things have changed more than others and what might be termed ‘the broader cultural dimension’ seems important to me; those variables may play a very important role in deciding where science and scientists may or may not go, and although the book deals with sociological stuff in quite a bit of detail, the exclusion of broader cultural and political factors in the model is ‘a bit’ of a problem to me. Scientists are certainly not unconstrained today by such ‘external factors’, and/but most scientists alive today will not face anywhere near the same kinds of constraints on their research as their forebears living 300 years ago did – religion is but one of several elephants in the room (and that one is still really important in some parts of the world, though the role it plays may have changed).

Another big problem is how to test a model like this. Kuhn doesn’t try. He only talks about anecdotes; specific instances, examples which according to him illustrates a broader point. I’m not sure his model is completely stupid, but there are alternative ways to think about these things, including mental models with variables omitted from his model which likely lead to a better appreciation of the processes involved. Money and politics, culture/religion, coalition building and the dynamics of negotiation, things like that. How do institutions fit into all of this? These things have very important effects on how science is conducted, and the (near-)exclusion of them in a model of how to conceptualize the scientific process at least somewhat inspired by sociology and related stuff seems more than a bit odd to me. I’m also not completely clear on why this model is even useful, what it adds. You can presumably approximate pretty much any developmental process by some punctuated equilibrium model like this – it seems to me to be a bit like doing a Taylor expansion, if you add enough terms it’ll look plausible, especially if you add ‘crises’ as well to the model to explain the cases where no clear trend is observable. Stable development is normal science, discontinuities are revolutions, high-variance areas are crises; framed that way you suddenly realize that it’s very convenient indeed for Kuhn that crises don’t always lead to revolutions and that revolutions need not be preceded by crises – if those requirements were imposed on the other hand, the underling data-generating-process would at least be somewhat constrained by the model (though how to actually measure ‘progress’ and ‘variance’ are still questions in need of an answer). I know that the model outlined would not explain a set of completely randomly generated numbers, but in this context I think it would do quite well – even if it’s arguable if it has actually explained anything at all. Add to the model imprecise language – 22 definitions… – and the observation that the model builder seems to be cherry-picking examples to make specific points, what you end up with is, well…

The book was sort of interesting, but, yeah… I feel slightly tempted to revise my goodreads review after having written this post, but I’m not sure I will – it was worth reading the book and I probably should have done it a long time ago, even if only to learn what all the fuss was about (it’s my impression, which may be faulty, that this one is (‘considered to be’) one of the must-reads in this genre). Some of the hypotheses derived from the model seem perhaps to be more testable than others (‘young people are more likely to spark important development in a field’), but even in those cases things get messy (‘what do you mean by ‘important’ and who is to decide that? ‘how young?’). A problem with the model which I have not yet mentioned is incidentally that his model of how interactions between fields and the scientists in those fields take place and proceed to me seems to leave a lot to be desired; the model is very ‘field-centric’. How different fields (which are not about to combine into one), and the people working in them, interact with each other may be yet another very important variable not explored in the model.

As a historical narrative about a few specific important scientific events in the past, Kuhn’s account probably isn’t bad (and it has some interesting observations related to the history of science which I did not know). As ‘a general model of how science works’, well…

June 13, 2014 Posted by | Books, Philosophy, Science | Leave a comment

What Did the Romans Know? An Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking (II)

I finished the book.

I did not have a lot of nice things to say about the second half of it on goodreads. I felt it was a bad idea to blog the book right after I’d finished it (I occasionally do this) because I was actually feeling angry at the author at that point, and I hope that after having now distanced myself a bit from it perhaps I’m now better able to evaluate the book.

The author is a classics professor writing about science. I must say that at this point I have now had some bad experiences with reading authors with backgrounds in the humanities writing about science and scientific history – reading this book at one point reminded me of the experience I had reading the Engelhardt & Jensen book. It also reminded me of this comic – I briefly had a ‘hmmmmm…. – Is the reason why I have a hard time following some of this stuff the simple one that the author is a fool who doesn’t know what he’s talking about?‘-experience. It’s probably not fair to judge the book as harshly as I did in my goodreads review (or to link to that comic), and this guy is a hell of a lot smarter than Engelhardt and Jensen are (which should not surprise you – classicists are smart), but I frankly felt during the second half of this work that the author was wasting my time and I get angry when people do that. He spends inordinate amounts of time discussing trivial points which to me seem only marginally related to the topic at hand – he’d argue they’re not ‘marginally related’ of course, but I’d argue that that’s at least in part because he’s picked the wrong title for his book (see also the review to which I linked in the previous post). There’s a lot of stuff in the second half about things like historiography and ontology, discussions about the proper truth concept to apply in this setting and things like that. Somewhat technical stuff, but certainly readable. I feel he’s spending lots of words and time on trivial and irrelevant points, and there are a couple of chapters where I’ve basically engaged in extensive fisking in the margin of the book. I don’t really want to cover all that stuff here.

I’ve added some observations from the second half of the book below, as well as some critical remarks. I’ve tried in this post to limit my coverage to the reasonably good stuff in there; if you get a good impression of the book based on the material included in this post I have to caution you that I did not think the book was very good. If you want to read the book because you’re curious to know more about ‘the wisdom of the ancients’, I’ll remind you that on the topic of science at least there simply is no such thing:

“Science is special because there is no ancient wisdom. The ancients were fools, by and large. I mean no disrespect, but if you wish to design a rifle by Aristotelian principles, or treat an illness via the Galenic system, you are a fool, following foolishness.”

Lehoux would, I am sure, disagree somewhat with that assessment (that the ancients were fools), in that he argues throughout the book that the ancients actually often could be argued to be reasonably justified in believing many of the things that they did. I’m not sure to which extent I agree with that assessment, but the argument he makes is not without some merit.

“That magnets attract because of sympathy had long been, and would long continue to be, the standard explanation for their efficacy. That they can be impeded by garlic is brought in to complete the pairing of forces, since strongly sympathetic things are generally also strongly antipathetic with respect to other objects. […] in both Plutarch and Ptolemy, garlic-magnets are being invoked as a familiar example to fill out the range of the powers of the two forces. Sympathy and antipathy, the author is saying, are common — just look at all the examples […] goat’s blood as an active substance is another trope of the sympathy-antipathy argument. […] washing the magnet in goat’s blood, a substance antipathetic to the kind of thing that robs magnets of their power, negates the original antipathetic power of the garlic, and so restores the magnets.[15] […] we should remember that — even for the eccentric empiricist — the test only becomes necessary under the artificial conditions I have created in this chapter.[36] We know the falsity of garlic-magnets so immediately that no test [feels necessary] […] We know exactly where the disproof lies — in experience — and we know that so powerfully as to simply leave it at that. The proof that it is false is empirical. It may be a strange kind of empirical argument that never needs to come to the lab, but it is still empirical for all that. On careful analysis we can argue that this empiricism is indirect […] Our experiences of magnets, and our experiences of garlic, are quietly but very firmly mediated by our understanding of magnets and our understanding of garlic, just as Plutarch’s experiences of those things were mediated by his own understandings. But this is exactly where we hit the big epistemological snag: our argument against the garlic-magnet antipathy is no stronger, and more importantly no more or less empirical, than Plutarch’s argument for it. […]

None of the experience claims in this chapter are disingenuous. Neither we nor Plutarch are avoiding a crucial test out of fear, credulity, or duplicity. We simply don’t need to get our hands dirty. This is in part because the idea of the test becomes problematized only when we realize that there are conflicting claims resting on identical evidential bases — only then does a crucial test even suggest itself. Otherwise, we simply have an epistemological blind spot. At the same time, we recognize (as Plutarch did) how useful and reliable our classification systems are, and so even as the challenge is raised, we remain pretty confident, deep down, about what would happen to the magnet in our kitchen. The generalized appeal to experience has a lot of force, and it still has the power to trick us into thinking that the so-called “empirically obvious” is more properly empirical than it is just obvious. […]

An important part of the point of this chapter is methodological. I have taken as my starting point a question put best by Bas van Fraassen: “Is there any rational way I could come to entertain, seriously, the belief that things are some way that I now classify as absurd?”[45] I have then tried to frame a way of understanding how we can deal with the many apparently — or even transparently — ridiculous claims of premodern science, and it is this: We should take them seriously at face value (within their own contexts). Indeed, they have the exact same epistemological foundations as many of our own beliefs about how the world works (within our own context).”

“On the ancient understanding, astrology covers a lot more ground than a modern newspaper horoscope does. It can account for everything from an individual’s personality quirks and dispositions to large-scale political and social events, to racial characteristics, crop yields, plagues, storms, and earthquakes. Its predictive and explanatory ranges include some of what is covered by the modern disciplines of psychology, economics, sociology, medicine, meteorology, biology, epidemiology, seismology, and more. […] Ancient astrology […] aspires to be […] personal, precise, and specific. It often claims that it can tell someone exactly what they are going to do, when they are going to do it, and why. It is a very powerful tool indeed. So powerful, in fact, that astrology may not leave people much room to make what they would see as their own decisions. On a strong reading of the power of the stars over human affairs, it may be the case that individuals do not have what could be considered to be free will. Accordingly, a strict determinism seems to have been associated quite commonly with astrology in antiquity.”

“Seneca […] cites the multiplicity of astrological causes as leading to uncertainty about the future and inaccuracy of prediction.[41] Where opponents of astrology were fond of parading famous mistaken predictions, Seneca preempts that move by admitting that mistakes not only can be made, but must sometimes be made. However, these are mistakes of interpretation only, and this raises an important point: we may not have complete predictive command of all the myriad effects of the stars and their combinations, but the effects are there nonetheless. Where in Ptolemy and Pliny the effects were moderated by external (i.e., nonastrological) causes, Seneca is saying that the internal effects are all-important, but impossible to control exhaustively. […] Astrology is, in the ancient discourses, both highly rational and eminently empirical. It is surprising how much evidence there was for it, and how well it sustained itself in the face of objections […] Defenders of astrology often wielded formidable arguments that need to be taken very seriously if we are to fully understand the roles of astrology in the worlds in which it operates. The fact is that most ancient thinkers who talk about it seem to think that astrology really did work, and this for very good reasons.” [Lehoux goes into a lot of detail about this stuff, but I decided against covering it in too much detail here.]

I did not have a lot of problems with the stuff covered so far, but this point in the coverage is where I start getting annoyed at the author, so I won’t cover much more of it. Here’s an example of the kind of stuff he covers in the later chapters:

“The pessimistic induction has many minor variants in its exact wording, but all accounts are agreed on the basic argument: if you look at the history of the sciences, you find many instances of successful theories that turn out to have been completely wrong. This means that the success of our current scientific theories is no grounds for supposing that those theories are right. […]

In induction, examples are collected to prove a general point, and in this case we conclude, from the fact that wrong theories have often been successful in the past, that our own successful theories may well be wrong too.”

He talks a lot about this kind of stuff in the book. Stuff like this as well. Not much in those parts about what the Romans knew, aside from reiteration and contextualization of stuff covered earlier on. A problem he’s concerned with and presumably one of the factors which motivated him to writing the book is how we might convince ourselves that our models of the world are better than those of the ancients, who also thought they had a pretty good idea about what was going on in the world – he argues this is very difficult. He also talks about Kuhn and stuff like that. As mentioned I don’t want to cover the stuff from the book I don’t like in too much detail here, and I added the quotes in the two paragraphs above mostly because they marginally relate to a point (a few points?) that I felt compelled to include here in the coverage because this stuff is important to me to underscore, on account at least in part of the fact that the author seems to be completely oblivious about it:

Science should in my opinion be full of people making mistakes and getting things wrong. This is not a condition to be avoided, this is a desirable state of affairs.

This is because scientists should be proven wrong when they are wrong. And it is because scientists should risk being proven wrong. Looking for errors, problems, mistakes – this is part of the job description.

The fact that scientists are proven wrong is not a problem, it is a consequence of the fact that scientific discovery is taking place. When scientists find out that they’ve been wrong about something, this is good news. It means we’ve learned something we didn’t know.

This line of thinking seems from my reading of Lehoux to be unfamiliar to him – the desirability of discovering the ways we’re wrong doesn’t really seem to enter the picture. Somehow Lehoux seems to think that the fact that scientists may be proven wrong later on is an argument which should make us feel less secure about our models of the world. I think this is a very wrongheaded way to think about these things, and I’d actually if anything argue the opposite – precisely because our theories might be proven wrong we have reason to feel secure in our convictions, because theories which can be proven wrong contain more relevant information about the world (‘are better’) than theories which can’t, and because theories which might in principle be proven wrong but have not yet been proven wrong despite our best attempts should be placed pretty high up there in the hierarchy of beliefs. We should feel far less secure in our convictions if there were no risk they might be proven wrong.

Without errors being continually identified and mistakes corrected we’re not learning anything new, and science is all about learning new things about the world. Science shouldn’t be thought of as being about building some big fancy building and protecting it against attacks at all costs, walking around hoping we got everything just right and that there’ll be no problems with water in the basement. Philosophers of science and historians of science in my limited experience seem often to subscribe to a model like that, implicitly, presumably in part due to the methodological differences between philosophy and science – they often seem to want to talk about the risk of getting water in the basement. I think it’s much better to not worry too much about that and instead think about science in terms of unsophisticated cavemen walking around with big clubs or hammers, smashing them repeatedly into the walls of the buildings and observing which parts remain standing, in order to figure out which building materials manage the continual assaults best.

Lastly just to reiterate: Despite being occasionally interesting this book is not worth your time.

March 28, 2014 Posted by | Books, History, Philosophy, Science | 5 Comments

What Did the Romans Know? An Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking (I)

“It is not that the Romans knew only a little and were puzzled about a whole lot, [rather] they thought — just as we do — that they had a pretty good idea of what was going on in the world.”

“The main theme of this book […] is about what it means to understand a world […] If we look to the Roman sources, we find an exceedingly rich and complex tangle — every bit as rich and complex as our own, but very, very different. Sometimes startlingly so: different entities, different laws, different tools and motivations for studying the natural world. So, too, different ways of organizing knowledge, and sometimes different ways of understanding even the most basic levels of sensory experience. This book is an inquiry into how and why the Romans saw things differently than we do, or to put it more pointedly, how and why they saw different things when they looked at the world.”

Here’s one (brief) review of the book – I disagree with the last sentence and I would not have given it 4 stars based on what I’ve read so far, but aside from these objections I cannot find much in there with which I disagree.

I’ve read half of the book at this point. If not for the fact that I hadn’t updated the blog in a while I probably would not have covered this book before I’d read it all – I’m not really sure it ‘deserves’ two blogposts. Incidentally this might be a good reminder of the fact that what you read here on the blog is not what I read in order to write these posts – the post here is based on 130 pages of academic writing and however much of it I decide to include in my coverage here on the blog, reading 130 pages actually takes a while. If you want to update a book blog frequently you need to either read some pretty interesting stuff, or you need to read a lot (preferably presumably both).

The book is sort of okay but nothing too special. In my opinion the author uses a lot of words to say not very much, but some of the points he does make are really rather interesting which is why I’m still reading. The world looked very differently to people who lived in Rome around the time of Cicero, and a lot of the ways in which their perceptions of the world differed from ours may well be surprising to the modern reader, as will surely some of the ways in which specific beliefs about the world were justified – as pointed out in the book, “relatively innocuous-looking assumptions about how phenomena are related, and how those relationships enable possibilities for interaction, can have major effects on how the world itself looks to be put together, and on what kinds of things are possible or impossible, patently obvious or patently ridiculous, in that world.”

The book’s coverage centers around the writings of people such as CiceroLucretius, Galen, Ptolemy, and Seneca, and it’s most certainly not a book about what the average guy on the street knew and thought about stuff during Roman times – such a book would be exceedingly hard to write.

Parts of the book are hard to cover here in detail due to what might be termed the contextual nature of the arguments presented, and I’ve actually decided against covering a few things which I’d sort of planned on covering here on account of not wanting to have to bother with explaining terms in the quotes with other quotes, but I have added what I believe to be a few interesting observations from the book below:

“when Cicero finally comes to laying out the details of the specific laws of the ideal state, we find the mapping out of the duties of people to gods as the first order of business. Not just any gods, but public gods, for the public good. Thus at the outset, Cicero establishes not the existence of the gods, for he thinks that is a given, but the parameters and responsibilities of the state religion […] what emerges repeatedly is an insistence that the maintenance of the official cult is absolutely central not just to the maintenance of the state as it stands, but […] to the maintenance of justice itself, and of all human society. […] Only when we come to know nature — perhaps better, Nature — can we fully understand religio, our duty to the gods, and the core of the best possible state. […] careful observation of higher-order aspects of nature (its beauty, its order) leads inevitably to proper ethical behavior, both between people, and between people and the gods. […] today, it is often taken as definitional that ancient science begins where ancient theology ends,[38] and many treatments of ancient political philosophy tend to downplay the foundational roles of the gods, even though natural-law theory is saturated with theology for most of its history. […] the gods are never very far away in ancient science.”

“the big schools of philosophy that had developed in the Hellenistic period were in large part […] dedicated to ethics as the primary focus of the school’s teaching. Many schools saw their physics and their logic as deeply connected with, and in some cases primarily as instruments in the pursuit of, ethical ends. […] Looking to Seneca’s works on nature, we find ethics front and center.”

“Ancient optics is not about light, it is about vision. The modern idea that visual information is carried in the first instance by the action and movement of light has become so ingrained for us that it is often difficult to set this assumption aside and to allow some room for the very foreign mechanisms of sight in ancient optics […] In antiquity light played some very different roles in seeing, and not every account of seeing seems to have even felt the need to invoke or explain the role of light in any detail. Perhaps the oddness of ancient light is seen most clearly in Aristotle, for whom light was nothing more than the actualization of the inherent (but passive) tendency of air to be transparent.[12] That is: air (or water) is potentially, but not always, see-through. At night, the potential transparency is unactivated, and the air is accordingly nontransparent, so we cannot see through it. Light is just the actualization of the air’s potential transparency, which thus allows visual forms to pass.
This is a very foreign idea, indeed.
Turning from physics to mathematical optics, we find virtually universal agreement on a different model. Unlike the modern model, where the eye takes in light and thence information, for ancient mathematical opticians the eye instead sends out some kind of radiative visual force that contacts objects in the world and somehow then passes information back to the eye. The details of this radiation vary from writer to writer, but the basic model is one of extramission out from the eye, rather than intromission into the eye.[13]”

March 26, 2014 Posted by | Books, History, Philosophy, Religion | Leave a comment

David Hume: Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul

Here’s a link to the text, here’s a goodreads link. I read Hume’s essays and parts of the responses. The responses make it more clear which kinds of competing mental frameworks people applied back then and so they are of historical interest; but I didn’t have to read a lot of that stuff to figure out that the competing mental frameworks were quite stupid and so were not worth my time reading in full. The quotes below are from Hume’s essays:

“A man who retires from life does no harm to society: He only ceases to do good; which, if it is an injury, is of the lowest kind. — All our obligations to do good to society seem to imply something reciprocal. I receive the benefits of society, and therefore ought to promote its interests; but when I withdraw myself altogether from society, can I be bound any longer? But allowing that our obligations to do good were perpetual, they have certainly some bounds; I am not obliged to do a small good to society at the expence of a {19} great harm to myself; why then should I prolong a miserable existence, because of some frivolous advantage which the public may perhaps receive from me? If upon account of age and infirmities, I may lawfully resign any office, and employ my time altogether in fencing against these calamities, and alleviating, as much as possible, the miseries of my future life: why may I not cut short these miseries at once by an action which is no more prejudicial to society? — But suppose that it is no longer in my power to promote the interest of society, suppose that I am a burden to it, suppose that my life hinders some person from being much more useful to society. In such cases, my resignation of life must not only be innocent, but laudable.”

“That Suicide may often be consistent with interest and with our duty to ourselves, no one can question, who allows that age, {21} sickness, or misfortune, may render life a burthen, and make it worse even than annihilation. I believe that no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping. For such is our natural horror of death, that small motives will never be able to reconcile us to it; and though perhaps the situation of a man’s health or fortune did not seem to require this remedy, we may at least be assured that any one who, without apparent reason, has had recourse to it, was curst with such an incurable depravity or gloominess of temper as must poison all enjoyment, and render him equally miserable as if he had been loaded with the most grievous misfortunes.”

In related matters I recently watched this lecture and the first half of this. I wouldn’t really recommend them and I didn’t embed them here because I don’t think those lectures are very good; he uses a lot of words to say very little.

August 29, 2013 Posted by | Books, Lectures, Philosophy | 23 Comments


i. PlosOne: Underestimating Calorie Content When Healthy Foods Are Present: An Averaging Effect or a Reference-Dependent Anchoring Effect?

“Previous studies have shown that estimations of the calorie content of an unhealthy main meal food tend to be lower when the food is shown alongside a healthy item (e.g. fruit or vegetables) than when shown alone. This effect has been called the negative calorie illusion and has been attributed to averaging the unhealthy (vice) and healthy (virtue) foods leading to increased perceived healthiness and reduced calorie estimates. The current study aimed to replicate and extend these findings to test the hypothesized mediating effect of ratings of healthiness of foods on calorie estimates. […] The first two studies failed to replicate the negative calorie illusion. In a final study, the use of a reference food, closely following a procedure from a previously published study, did elicit a negative calorie illusion. No evidence was found for a mediating role of healthiness estimates. […] The negative calorie illusion appears to be a function of the contrast between a food being judged and a reference, supporting the hypothesis that the negative calorie illusion arises from the use of a reference-dependent anchoring and adjustment heuristic and not from an ‘averaging’ effect, as initially proposed. This finding is consistent with existing data on sequential calorie estimates, and highlights a significant impact of the order in which foods are viewed on how foods are evaluated.” […]

The basic idea behind the ‘averaging effect’ above is that your calorie estimate depends on how ‘healthy’ you assume the dish to be; the intuition here is that if you see an apple next to an icecream, you may think of the dish as more healthy than if the apple wasn’t there and that might lead to faulty (faultier) estimates of the actual number of calories in the dish (incidentally presumably such an effect is possible to detect even if people correctly infer that the latter dish has more calories than does the former; what’s of interest here is the estimate error, not the actual estimate). These guys have a hard time finding a negative calorie illusion at all (they don’t in the first two studies), and in the case where they do the mechanism is different from the one initially proposed; it seems to them that the story to be told is a story about anchoring effects. I like when replication attempts get published, especially when they fail to replicate – such studies are important. Here are a few more remarks from the study, about ‘real-world implications’:

“Calorie estimates are a simple measure of participant’s perception of foods; however they almost certainly do not reflect actual factual knowledge about a food’s calorie content. It is not currently known whether calorie estimates are related to the expected satiety for a food, or anticipated tastiness. The data from the current studies fail to show that calorie estimates are derived directly from the healthiness ratings of foods. Other studies have shown that calorie estimates are influenced by the restaurant from which a food is purchased [12], as well as the order in which foods are presented [current study, 11], very much supporting the contextually sensitive nature of calorie estimates. And there is some evidence that erroneous calorie estimates alter portion size selection [13] and that lower calorie estimates for a main meal item have been shown to alter selection for drinks and side dishes [12].

Based on the current data, a negative calorie illusion is unlikely to be driving systematic failures in calorie estimations when incidental “healthy foods”, such as fruit and vegetables, are viewed alongside energy dense nutrition poor foods in advertisements or food labels. Foods would need to be viewed in a pre-determined sequence for systematic errors in real-world instances of calorie estimates. A couple of examples when this might occur are when food items are viewed in a meal with courses (starter, main, dessert) or when foods are seen in a specified order as they are positioned on a food menu or within the pathway around a supermarket from the entrance to the checkout tills.”

ii. A couple of reddit book lists that may be of interest: AskHistorians book list. AskAnthropology reading list. I’ve added a couple of books from those lists to my to-read list.

iii. You can read some pages from Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations here. A few quotes:

“I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appeared to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refused to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still ʺun‐analysedʺ and crying aloud for treatment.

The most characteristic element in this situation seemed to me the incessant stream of confirmations, of observations which ʺverifiedʺ the theories in question; and this point was constantly emphasized by their adherents. A Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history; not only in the news, but also in its presentation ‐ which revealed the class bias of the paper ‐ and especially of course in what the paper did not say. The Freudian analysts emphasized that their theories were constantly verified by their ʺclinical observations.” […] I could not think of any human behaviour which could not be interpreted in terms of either theory [Freud or Adler]. It was precisely this fact ‐ that they always fitted, that they were always confirmed ‐ which in the eyes of their admirers constituted the strongest argument in favour of these theories. It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness. […]

These considerations led me in the winter of 1919 ‐ 20 to conclusions which I may now reformulate as follows.
(1) It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory ‐ if we look for confirmations.
(2) Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory ‐ an event which would have refuted the theory.
(3) Every ʺgoodʺ scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.
(4) A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is nonscientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of theory (as people often think) but a vice.
(5) Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability; some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.
(6) Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of ʺcorroborating evidence.ʺ)
(7) Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers ‐ for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by re‐interpreting theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status. (I later described such a rescuing operation as a ʺconventionalist twistʺ or a ʺconventionalist stratagem.ʺ)

One can sum up all this by saying that the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.”

iv. A couple of physics videos:

v. The hidden threat that could prevent Polio’s global eradication.

“Global eradication of polio has been the ultimate game of Whack-a-Mole for the past decade; when it seems the virus has been beaten into submission in a final refuge, up it pops in a new region. Now, as vanquishing polio worldwide appears again within reach, another insidious threat may be in store from infection sources hidden in plain view.

Polio’s latest redoubts are “chronic excreters,” people with compromised immune systems who, having swallowed weakened polioviruses in an oral vaccine as children, generate and shed live viruses from their intestines and upper respiratory tracts for years. Healthy children react to the vaccine by developing antibodies that shut down viral replication, thus gaining immunity to infection. But chronic excreters cannot quite complete that process and instead churn out a steady supply of viruses. The oral vaccine’s weakened viruses can mutate and regain wild polio’s hallmark ability to paralyze the people it infects. After coming into wider awareness in the mid-1990s, the condition shocked researchers. […] Chronic excreters are generally only discovered when they develop polio after years of surreptitiously spreading the virus.”

Wikipedia incidentally has a featured article about Poliomyelitis here.

August 24, 2013 Posted by | Infectious disease, Medicine, Papers, Philosophy, Physics, Psychology, Random stuff, Science | Leave a comment

Mechanism and Causality in Biology and Economics

First, here’s a link. Some quotes below, some comments in the last part of the post:

“I refer to an account of causal order based on Simon’s seminal analysis as the structural account.2 It is structural in the sense that what matters for determining the causal order is the relationship among the parameters and the variables and among the variables themselves. The parameterization – that is, the identification of privileged set of parameters that govern the functional relationships – is the source of the causal asymmetries that define the causal order. The idea of a privilege parameterization can be made more precise, by noting that a set of parameters is privileged when its members are, in the terminology of the econometricians, variation-free. A parameter is variation-free if, and only if, the fact that other parameters take some particular values in their ranges does not restrict the range of admissible values for that parameter.
Defining parameters as variation-free variables has a similar flavor to Hans Reichenbach’s (1956) Principle of the Common Cause: any genuine correlation among variables has a causal explanation – either one causes the other, they are mutual causes, or they have a common cause. Since we represent causal connections as obtaining only between variables simpliciter,we insist that parameters not display any mutual constraints. […] the variation-freeness of parameters is only a representational convention. Any situation in which it appears that putative parameters are mutually constraining can always be rewritten so that the constraints are moved into the functional forms that connect variables to each other.” […]

“John Anderson’s (1938, p. 128) notion of a causal field is helpful (see also Mackie 1980, p. 35; Hoover 2001, pp. 41–49). The causal field consists of background conditions that, for analytical or pragmatic reasons, we would like to set aside in order to focus on some more salient causal system. We are justified in doing so when, in fact, they do not change or when the changes are causally irrelevant. In terms of representation within the structural account, setting aside causes amounts to fixing certain parameters to constant values. The effect is not unlike Pearl’s or Woodward’s wiping out of a causal arrow, though somewhat more delicate. The replacement of a parameter by a constant amounts to absorbing that part of the causal mechanism into the functional form that connects the remaining parameters and variables.” (From chapter 3, ‘Identity, Structure, and Causal Representation in Scientific Models’. This was one of the better chapters).

“Certain substantial idealisations need to be taken also when the RD model [replicator dynamics model, US] is interpreted biologically. A different set of substantial idealisations needs to be taken when the RD model is interpreted socially. By making these different idealisations, we adapt the model for its respective representative uses. This is standard scientific practice: most, and possibly all, model uses involve idealisations. Yet when the same formal structure is employed to construct different, more specific mechanistic models, and each of these models involves different idealisations, one has to be careful when inferring purported similarities between these different mechanisms based on the common formal structure. […] the RD equation is adapted for its respective representative tasks. In the course of each adaptation, certain features of the RD are drawn on – others are accepted as useful or at least harmless idealisations. Which features are drawn on and which are accepted as idealisations differ with each adaptation. The mechanism that each adaptation of the RD represents is substantially different from each other and does not share any or little causal structure between each other.” (From Chapter 5: ‘Models of Mechanisms: The Case of the Replicator Dynamics’).

“Before formulating [a] claim, it is necessary first to clear up some terminology. Leuridan[‘s] definition ignores three traditional distinctions that have brought much-needed clarity to the discussions of laws in the philosophy of science. First, we distinguish laws (metaphysical entities that produce or are responsible for regularities) and law statements (descriptions of laws). If one does not respect this distinction, one runs the risk (as Leuridan does) of unintentionally suggesting that sentences, equations, or models are responsible for the fact that certain stable regularities hold. In like fashion, we distinguish regularities, which are statistical patterns of dependence and independence among magnitudes, from generalizations, which describe regularities. Finally, we distinguish regularities from laws, which produce or otherwise explain the patterns of dependence and independence among magnitudes (or so one might hold). […]

Strict law statements, as Leuridan understands them, are nonvacuous, universally quantified, and exceptionless statements that are unlimited in scope, apply in all times and places, and contain only purely qualitative predicates (2010, p. 318). Noting that few law statements in any science live up to these standards, Leuridan argues that the focus on strict law statements (and presumably also on strict laws) is unhelpful for understanding science. Instead, he focuses on the concept of a pragmatic law (or p-law). Following Sandra Mitchell (1997, 2000, 2003, 2009), Leuridan understands p-law statements as descriptions of stable and strong regularities that can be used to predict, explain, and manipulate phenomena. A regularity is stable in proportion to the range of conditions under which it continues to hold and to the size of the space-time region in which it holds (2010, p. 325). A regularity is strong if it is deterministic or frequent. p-law statements need not satisfy the criteria for strict law statements.” (From chapter 7: ‘Mechanisms and Laws: Clarifying the Debate’)

“This section has illustrated two central points concerning extrapolation. First, it is not necessary that the causal relationship to be extrapolated is the same in the model as in the target. Given knowledge of the probability distributions for the model and target along with the selection diagram, it can be possible to make adjustments to account for differences. Secondly, the conditions needed for extrapolation vary with the type of claim to extrapolated. In general, the more informative the causal claim, the more stringent the background assumptions needed to justify its transfer. This second point is very important for explaining how extrapolation can remain possible even when substantial uncertainty exists about the selection diagram. […]

I should emphasize that the point here is definitely not to insist upon the infirmity of causal inferences grounded in extrapolation and observational data. Uncertainties frequently arise in experiments too, especially those involving human subjects (for instance, due to noncompliance, i.e., the failure of some subjects in the experiment to follow the experimental protocol). Such uncertainties are inherent in any attempts to learn about causation in large complex systems wherein numerous practical and ethical concerns restrict the types of studies that are possible. Consequently, scientific inference in such situations usually must build a cumulative case from a variety of lines of evidence none of which is decisive in isolation. Although that may seem a rather obvious point, it does seem to get overlooked in some critical discussions of extrapolation. […] critiques which observe that extrapolations rarely if ever constitute definitive evidence sail wide of the mark. Building a case based on the coherence of multiple lines of imperfect evidence is the norm for social science and other sciences that study complex systems that are widely diffused across space and time. To insist otherwise is to misconstrue the nature of science and to obstruct applications of scientific knowledge to many pressing real-world problems.” (From chapter 10: ‘Mechanisms and Extrapolation in the Abortion-Crime Controversy’.)

“In 1992, Heckman published a seminal paper containing ‘most of the standard objections’ against randomised experiments in the social sciences. Heckman focused on the non-comparative evaluation of social policy programmes, where randomisation simply decided who would join them (without allocating the rest to a control group). Heckman claimed that even if randomisation allows the experimenters to reduce selection biases, it may produce a different bias. Specifically, experimental subjects might behave differently if joining the programme did not require ‘a lottery’. Randomisation can thus interfere with the decision patterns (the causes of action) presupposed in the programme under evaluation. […] Heckman’s main objection is that randomisation tends to eliminate risk-averse persons. This is only acceptable if risk aversion is an irrelevant trait for the outcome under investigation […] However, even if irrelevant, it compels experimenters to deal with bigger pools of potential participants in order to meet the desired sample size, so the exclusion of risk-averse subjects does not disrupt recruitment. But bigger pools may affect in turn the quality of the experiment, if it implies higher costs. One way or another, argues Heckman, randomisation is not neutral regarding the results of the experiment.” (…known stuff, but I figured I should quote it anyway as it’s unlikely that all readers are familiar with this problem. From chapter 11: ‘Causality, Impartiality and Evidence-Based Policy’. How to deal with the problem? Here’s what they conclude:)

“To sum up, in RFEs [Randomized Field Experiments – US], randomisation may generate a self-selection bias; we can only avoid with a partial or total masking of the allocation procedure. We have argued that this is a viable solution only insofar as the trial participants do not have strong preferences about the trial outcome. If they do, we cannot assume that blinded randomisation will be a control for their preferences unless we test for its success. We will only be able to claim that the trial has been impartial regarding the participants’ preferences if we have a positive proof of them being ignorant of the comparative nature of the experiment. Hence, in RFEs, randomisation is not a strong warrant of impartiality per se: we need to prove in addition that it has been masked successfully.1”

On a general note, I found some of the stuff in this book interesting, but there was some confusing stuff in there as well. I had at least some background knowledge about quite a few of the subjects covered, but a lot of the stuff in the book is written by people with a completely different background (many of the contributors are philosophers of science), and in some chapters I had a hard time ‘translating’ a specific contributor’s (gibberish? It’s not a nice word to use, but I’m tempted to use it here anyway) into stuff related to the science/the real world – I was quite close to walking away from the book while reading chapters 8 and 9, dealing with natural selection and causal processes. I didn’t, but you should most certainly not pick up this book in order to figure out how natural selection ‘actually works’; if that’s your goal, read Dawkins instead. A few times I had an ‘I knew this, but that’s actually an interesting way to think about it’-experience and I generally like having those. As in all books with multiple contributors, there’s some variation in the quality of the material across chapters – and as you might infer from the comments above, I didn’t think very highly of chapters 8 and 9. But there were other chapters as well which also did not really interest me much. I did read it all though.

Overall I’m a little disappointed, but it’s not all bad. I gave it 2 stars on goodreads, and towards the end I moved significantly closer to the 3 star rating than the one star rating. I wouldn’t recommend it though; considering how much you’re likely to get out of this, it’s probably for most people simply too much work – it’s not an easy book to read.

August 19, 2013 Posted by | Books, Economics, Philosophy, Science, Statistics | Leave a comment

The Ethics of Belief and Fixation of belief

I blogged a quote from the first one, by W. K. Clifford, a while ago, but I recently decided to reread it. I have not covered the Peirce text at all before. If you were wondering how I came across those texts, I’ve recently been browsing Pojman’s Classics of Philosophy. Some quotes from the texts below – first the Clifford text:

“it is not possible […] to sever the belief from the action it suggests as to condemn the one without condemning the other. No man holding a strong belief on one side of a question, or even wishing to hold a strong belief on one side, can investigate it with such fairness and completeness as if he were really in doubt and unbiased; so that the existence of a belief not founded on fair inquiry unfits a man for the performance of this necessary duty.

Nor is that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it. […] No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may some day explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever. […]

Habitual want of care about what I believe leads to habitual want of care in others about the truth of what is told to me. Men speak the truth of one another when each reveres the truth in his own mind and in the other’s mind; but how shall my friend revere the truth in my mind when I myself am careless about it, when I believe thing because I want to believe them, and because they are comforting and pleasant? […]

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it — the life of that man is one long sin against mankind. […]

Inquiry into the evidence of a doctrine is not to be made once for all, and then taken as finally settled. It is never lawful to stifle a doubt; for either it can be honestly answered by means of the inquiry already made, or else it proves that the inquiry was not complete.

“But,” says one, “I am a busy man; I have no time for the long course of study which would be necessary to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain questions, or even able to understand the nature of the arguments.”

Then he should have no time to believe.”

I liked Clifford better than Peirce, so I shan’t quote too much from the latter (even though it’s significantly longer). However here’s a little stuff from the text:

“We generally know when we wish to ask a question and when we wish to pronounce a judgment, for there is a dissimilarity between the sensation of doubting and that of believing. […]  Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe.

Thus, both doubt and belief have positive effects upon us, though very different ones. Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises. Doubt has not the least such active effect, but stimulates us to inquiry until it is destroyed. […] the sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion. We may fancy that this is not enough for us, and that we seek, not merely an opinion, but a true opinion. But put this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false. […] The most that can be maintained is, that we seek for a belief that we shall think to be true. But we think each one of our beliefs to be true, and, indeed, it is mere tautology to say so.” […]

“the instinctive dislike of an undecided state of mind, exaggerated into a vague dread of doubt, makes men cling spasmodically to the views they already take. The man feels that, if he only holds to his belief without wavering, it will be entirely satisfactory. Nor can it be denied that a steady and immovable faith yields great peace of mind. […] And in many cases it may very well be that the pleasure he derives from his calm faith overbalances any inconveniences resulting from its deceptive character.” […]

“above all, let it be considered that what is more wholesome than any particular belief is integrity of belief, and that to avoid looking into the support of any belief from a fear that it may turn out rotten is quite as immoral as it is disadvantageous. The person who confesses that there is such a thing as truth, which is distinguished from falsehood simply by this, that if acted on it should, on full consideration, carry us to the point we aim at and not astray, and then, though convinced of this, dares not know the truth and seeks to avoid it, is in a sorry state of mind indeed.”

July 16, 2013 Posted by | Books, ethics, Philosophy, Quotes/aphorisms | 1 Comment