The Samovar


What makes science work?
November 5, 2010, 3:30 am
Filed under: Academia, Epistemology, Manifesto, Philosophy, Science | Tags: ,

You often hear people responding to the claims of homeopathists and the like with a request to see the peer-reviewed literature supporting their claims. The idea is that peer review is a unique characteristic of proper science that is essential to make science work. I recently read a history of peer review in science (subscription to Trends in biotechnology is unfortunately required) that throws some doubt on this. Fascinatingly, peer review didn’t really take off until 1959 with the invention of the photocopier: before then, it was just too expensive to make copies of the papers to send out for peer review. There was something like peer review before then, in that the editor would ask the opinions of friends and colleagues, but this was far from the standard we have for peer review today. A few journals would make the effort to make copies of papers and send them out for review, but it was rare.

Since science before 1959 was, in fact, extremely successful, and able to develop very well, it cannot be the case that peer review is an essential component of science. That’s not to say we should do away with it: it serves an important function today, essentially that of reducing the workload of the editor. So many papers are submitted for publication that some method for choosing which papers should and shouldn’t be published is necessary, and the reviews help the editor make that decision. What the exact function of peer review today ought to be, and how it should evolve, was the subject of an interesting debate in Nature in 2006 (no subscription needed for this one, I think).

So the people demanding peer-reviewed papers from the homeopathists should perhaps question what it is exactly that they’re doing. My guess is that they use it as an easy, but wrong way to distinguish science from pseudoscience. It makes for a good quip. The danger, though, as argued in this article, is that in fact it’s easy to cherry-pick bad ‘scientific’ papers that have passed the peer-review process. By using peer review as the ‘gold standard’ of scientific enquiry, they allow the justification of all sorts of nonsense.

This poses a problem though: if it’s not peer-review, what is it that makes science work? There have been many theories about this, most focussing on methodological aspects of scientific enquiry, for example Popper’s falsifiability criterion. I want to suggest an alternative point of view that doesn’t focus on methodology:

Science is the study of problems that can be addressed with the techniques available to us.

Techniques here should be understood to include both technology and, for example, mathematical or statistical tools. In this view then, physics is the ‘hardest’ science because the problems it looks at are the easiest. The variables in physical problems are much less interdependent, there are many fewer of them, and their interactions are much simpler than those in, for example, the study of social systems or economics. Our simple, mostly linear mathematical techniques and statistical methods based on independent variables then apply very nicely to physical problems.

Why does science work in this view then? The answer is that science is part of a social process: scientists do science, they are genuinely interested in finding out what happens, and even though individual scientists will sometimes be very wrong, will try to promote a bad theory that doesn’t have much support, or will attack a rival theory, eventually the egotistical motives involved will fade whereas the usefulness of good theories will last. This process may take a generation before change happens, but it eventually works. This process relies on there being at least some bias in favour of good theories over bad ones, even if the bias is small in comparison to the egotistic biases in favour of established theories. However, if available techniques are not good enough to introduce this bias, the good theories won’t win out over the bad ones, even in the long run. Thus, in unscientific subjects we shouldn’t be surprised to see cyclical variations in theories, where the period of the cycle is related to the duration of a scientific career. Young researchers will look at the work of the old researchers with disdain and propose radical alternatives, to which they will become attached. In turn, their theories will be rejected by those that come after them, and so on without ever stabilising.

In a way this is obvious: if there is no evidence to support or reject theories, then we cannot improve them. But it’s important to note that whether there is or is not any evidence to support or reject theories is to a large extent a function of how easy the problem being studied is. The fact that evidence in physics is so much stronger than it is in economics is hardly a reason for scorn of economists.

This point of view on why science works may help scientists look at researchers in other fields both more humbly and more reasonably. Humbly, in that they should realise that the reason their field of study is so advanced is that the problems are so easy, and reasonably, in that it should help them to see more accurately why it is that some fields make better progress than others, without getting distracted by methodology.

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“Belief” – la revanche!

A couple of years ago I wrote a post cheekily entitled Nobody believes in God which, following some recent conversations with friends, I want to revisit. This will actually make the third time I’ve gone back to this idea (see the first and second). I think this is because there’s an important kernel of a good idea there, but also much that is unclear.

Unfortunately, and perhaps to some tediously, the biggest problem is that the term “belief” is not well-defined. In my original article I wrote that “To believe something, you have to act in a way that is consistent with the belief being true. Otherwise, you’re just saying that you believe it.” This is an important sense of the term “belief”, somewhat akin to Daniel Dennett’s notion of the “intentional stance”, but it became clear that this isn’t a definition most people would agree with, and is problematic. It’s not necessarily detrimental that most people wouldn’t agree with it, but there are other problems. Notably, it assumes a certain consistency and unitary quality that people don’t have. All of us have beliefs that are inconsistent, and we wouldn’t want to say we don’t have beliefs just because of that. Similarly, all of us take actions that are inconsistent with our beliefs. Imagine that someone tells you that if you move your leg they will kill you, and then they tap you just below your knee with a hammer – you will, despite your sincere belief in what they say, move your leg. It’s not possible for you not to – the signal never even reaches your brain but is instead turned into a motor command by your spinal column. This is a trivial example, but suggests a general point: we do not have a single identity that we could ascribe our beliefs to, we have multiple systems in our brain that are sometimes under conscious control and sometimes not, etc. Ramachandran describes the case of a split brain patient who had one half of the brain which believed in God, and one that didn’t.

So using an individuals actions as a guide to their beliefs cannot give us the full story on belief, but that still leaves us in a quandary: what can we go on? Since people lie, we obviously can’t uncritically go on what they say. So if we can’t go on what they say or what they do, what is left? The only option remaining, it seems, is to give up the idea of a single, unitary thing called “belief” that people have, and admit that belief is a vaguely defined, context-specific thing that can, depending on specific circumstances, violate almost every single intuition we might have about it. Again there is a risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and giving up usage of the term completely. No, clearly the idea of belief has some use, but we have to be careful about saying what type of belief we’re talking about, and when reasoning about statements involving “belief” be aware of the practical consequences of the different types of belief in different contexts. The next task is to unpick some of those types of belief and how they affect our actions. In the remainder of this entry I’ll discuss some of the types of belief that have been suggested to me in recent discussions that are relevant to religious/theistic belief.

The first conception of belief I’ll talk about is my original one, broadly corresponding to Dennett’s intentional stance, that someone believes something if they act consistently with it being true. For example, the shortest way from my office to the street is through the window, but I take the more laborious route via the stairs because I believe in gravity. There’s no doubt this is a useful conception of belief that has practical consequences. And, I stand by my original contention that most religious people don’t believe in God in this sense.

There is a complication though, which is that in this sense stated as above, I “believe” there is a china teapot orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars: I never do anything that is inconsistent with there being one. Somehow we want to exclude such beliefs as this, but this quickly becomes problematic if we want to talk about religious beliefs, for obvious reasons. There is a kernel of religious belief that cannot ever come in conflict with our actions. The idea that God “exists” and “created the universe” cannot be in conflict with anything we do. Many people today will, when questioned on their religious beliefs, agree only to this minimal kernel of faith and nothing more, but will vehemently defend the idea that they do believe in God. So do they believe in God or not? Here’s where context comes in handy: we can say of these people that although they may believe in God in some highly rarified symbolic context, in the everyday context of the real world, they have no belief in God. If God didn’t exist, nothing they did would be any different.

One suggestion for defining belief was precisely this: by the term “belief” we mean exactly that component of our thoughts that doesn’t come into conflict with reality. If it could be proved (or disproved) we wouldn’t have to believe it. This corresponds nicely with the notion of faith developed in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” where the Babel fish causes God to cease to exist by proving his existence and thereby eliminating faith. I feel that this definition does indeed correspond to some aspect of what we ordinarily mean by the term “belief”, and it has some resonance with the Christian relationship with “doubt”, but I’m not sure there are many theists who would be happy with a definition of belief as that which is inconsequential.

The second conception of belief that came up was several ideas around a common theme: the idea that belief is a form of post hoc rationalisation of our actions. This is related to the notion of confabulation in psychology. This is easily shown in an experiment with split brain patients where you tell one half of their brain to go and get a coffee (by whispering in one ear so that the other ear can’t hear it), and then you ask the other half of the brain why they went to get a coffee: they will typically reply that they were thirsty, or felt like a coffee, or something like that. In other words, having observed their own actions, they create a rationalisation for them. With probably a minimum of reflection, we can see that this isn’t just a peculiarity of split brain patients: we all do this from time to time.

Jacques Ellul used this notion of belief following action as an explanation for an important part of the power of propaganda, what he called “integration propaganda” (which I discuss in the last paragraph of this entry). Essentially, if you can get people to engage in certain actions, especially ones with a powerful emotion attached to them, then they will tend to create their own beliefs for why this was the right thing to do. The alternative to believing that it was right is believing that it was wrong, or meaningless, and most people don’t want to do this (cognitive dissonance). This form of belief applies very nicely to religion, in which you are first enculturated into various patterns of behaviour (going to church, prayer, etc.) and are thereby integrated into the social community of the Church. There is a strong incentive later in life not to admit, even to yourself, that you don’t believe in God, because to admit that would be to admit that all those actions were meaningless, or even worse, actually wrong.

So what type of belief is this? At first glance, it is a purely symbolic form of belief: you will say “I believe in God” if asked. Does the belief have consequences though, and in what contexts? It’s difficult to distinguish, in this case, because a belief such as this came with a period of social integration, which, especially in the case of people raised as religious, will have defined their whole moral outlook. Which consequences of this process are due to the belief, and which to the social process of creating the belief? It was put to me that religious people often do extraordinary things, such as not having sex before marriage, hating gay people, reading the bible, and praying, and that shouldn’t we take this as evidence that they believe? I countered that we can equally well explain those as consequences of their being brought up and part of a religion which encourages these sorts of behaviour (think of the extraordinary things that people did and thought in atheist Soviet Russia). I don’t think either of us was satisfied with this answer, it’s too difficult to pick apart why people did those things.

The question then, to me, is what explanatory power does the idea of “belief in God” have beyond membership of a religion? My argument is that it has very little power to explain behaviour because social pressures are able to explain so much. Twisting Laplace, I have no need of the hypothesis that people believe in God. You can say that I’m trying to have my cake and eat it – or rather, eat my cake and have it, as the expression should be in order to make sense – on the one hand I want to say that belief in God doesn’t lead to any actions, but when faced with an action that does appear to stem from a belief in God I want to write it off as the consequence of religious enculturation. How could I be proved wrong? But the defender of the idea that people really do believe in God has the same problem: when a religious person does something that isn’t consistent with their beliefs, they want to say that it’s because they are inconsistent, or weak, or because their belief doesn’t really apply in that case. I will put forward a few reasons, that may not be conclusive, to suggest that the social process is more important to explaining behaviour than the belief:

  • Historically, behaviour by religious people is very inconsistent. In the past, and still very frequently today, Christians hated gay people, abhorred them as sinful, sometimes citing some of the nastier bits of the Bible in favour of this. These days, more liberal Christians will cite rather sophisticated theological reasoning to explain away the passages in the Bible that refer to killing gay people (apparently, Jesus “fulfilled the law” so we don’t have to follow it – if you can make any headway on that good luck to you). In any case, if both of these types of Christian “believe in God” in the same sense, then this belief clearly isn’t reflected in their attitude towards gay people. “Belief in God”, in other words, has no explanatory power with respect to attitudes towards homosexuality. We can play the same game with any number of attitudes and behaviours. What is left?
  • In my original entry, I argued that if you really believed in hell, you would never sin, and yet people often do. It has been countered, innumerable times, that these days most Christians either don’t believe in hell, or don’t believe that they’ll be going there. But, this is sophisticated theological reasoning, and I’m pretty sure that throughout most of the history of Christianity, the masses certainly did believe in hell, and thought that they might well go there. And yet, they sinned. Is our “belief in God” so different to theirs? Could it be that they didn’t believe in God, but that Christians today do? Perhaps, although that makes belief in God a very recent phenomenon, which seems somewhat counterintuitive. I would rather say that the belief (or lack of it) in God is the same, but that there has been an innovation in the language game of belief, coming about as a response to the increased interaction of religious people with atheists. Since the belief in God is the same we can apply my arguments about belief in hell to people a couple of hundred years ago and find that they don’t believe in God (beyond their membership of the religion in question), and that consequently, neither do people today.

Although I may be able to explain the actions of people raised as religious without using the idea that they believe in God, and therefore show that the post hoc rationalisation form of belief exists only at the symbolic level, there is still a problem with saying that there is no such thing as consequential belief in God. The problem is: what about people that come to believe in God later in life, perhaps having been raised as atheist? They didn’t experience a correlative moral training by theists, and so their actions, such as they are, must be explained by the belief in God. And since these actions are often similar to those of the people brought up as religious, shouldn’t we interpret both as stemming from their belief in God? This is certainly a conundrum, and perhaps even an antinomy, but it applies equally to those who believe that people believe in God (see bullet points above). I suspect that people who have converted later in life are often those who have experienced some sort of psychological trauma, and want the safety and acceptance of a social group, and perform the actions because they are an entry requirement to the social group. If anything, we would expect them to be more extreme in their performance of the rituals, because they have more to prove: they are trying to come in from outside, rather than being allowed to stay in by default of having grown up inside. This does seem rather supercilious though, and I have little to no evidence that it’s the case.

To finish with, I want to outline a position similar to my first followup to the original article, which is also similar to a suggestion made to me recently, and that at least partly resolves some of these difficulties. The position is this: we hypothesise that we think at a symbolic and non-symbolic level, and that there are interactions between these levels, but that they are not tightly integrated. The reality is undoubtedly more complex than this, but perhaps this hypothesis can shed some light anyway. Belief in God then impacts only directly on our thinking at the symbolic level. Typically, this symbolic belief in God is instilled by integration into a community (although it can also occur through other means). Normally, our actions are guided by pragmatic reasoning, or by routine, and these actions can be correlative with our thinking at the symbolic level having both been influenced by our upbringing.

The suggestion that was put to me was this: Infrequently, a decision presents itself which cannot be decided by either pragmatic reasoning or by routine. For example, what do we think about stem cell research? Stem cells are sufficiently far removed from anything we have ever thought about before that neither pragmatic reasoning nor routine thinking can enable us to come up with an answer to this. It is in these unusual instances that our belief in God can have an effect, because we are forced to pass from our beliefs to our actions rather than the other way around. My response to this though is that belief in God doesn’t have strong explanatory power here: the situation is really that the stated set of (self-contradictory) principles that someone believes in have to be resolved in a particular case by making a choice one way or the other. The fact that these decisions can sometimes go one way, and sometimes another (for example, in religious schisms that come about in these situations) shows that the resolution is to some extent arbitrary, or at least decided by other factors.

In conclusion then, I prefer to look at religion as a purely social phenomenon, which happens to include the notion of God, but that could equally well be replaced with any other purely symbolic object and serve all the same purposes. Everything that I’m interested in as regards religion can be understood in this way: we can see how it is that religion is capable of both great evil, and great good, just as any other form of power can be exercised in ways that are harmful or beneficial. In fact, we can treat religion purely politically, and I think if we do this we’ll see that it’s harmful and beneficial precisely where political systems are harmful or beneficial. Harmful when hierarchical, centralised, authoritarian, and beneficial when democratic and driven by ordinary human needs and desires. See also my old manifesto entry on religion, and followup on religion, atheists and hierarchy.

Why is this important? Because it changes the stance that atheists should take towards theists. For a start, we should probably not expend much energy in trying to undermine the idea that God exists because this is probably not primary for most religious people. It may have some use as a focal point for atheistic communities, may serve as a hook on which to hang ones atheism, and may help to give the final push to people who have already decided to give up their religion, but is unlikely to be a major force in converting people. More important than this rhetorical or didactic reason for not focussing on God, we shouldn’t do so because belief in God is largely inconsequential in comparison to religion as a political phenomenon. If the atheist community could apply their considerable talents to political analysis, perhaps really great things could be achieved. As it stands, atheists are as likely as not to be politically reactionary and supportive of authoritarian and hierarchical structures.

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More on arationality and honesty
January 10, 2009, 3:38 am
Filed under: Ethics, Morality, Philosophy, Politics | Tags: , , , , ,

I got the following criticism of my previous entry on arationality and honesty. Consider the case of car drivers. On any individual drive, there is a very small chance of causing a death that is not their fault (there’s also a much larger chance of causing a death that is their fault, but let’s leave that aside). Now, according to my theory, how is a car driver supposed to behave? In the two cases where (a) their drive doesn’t end up killing anyone, and (b) it does end up killing someone. The criticism is that the theory appears to say that in case (b) the person should feel bad and personally responsible, even though it was only random that it happened to them rather than someone else.

I have various responses to this. The first thing is to point out that the theory doesn’t tell people how they should feel, it speaks more to how they should act and more importantly how they should integrate actions and their consequences into their ongoing thinking. You can’t exert the same sort of conscious control over how you feel about something as you can over how you act and think about something. (That said, you can exert a less direct form of control over feelings and I’ll get back to that at the end of this entry.)

With that in mind, let’s first consider the decision before the drive: whether or not to take the drive knowing that there is a small chance of killing someone. It seems that the decision here is a straight up cost benefit analysis of whether the importance of making this journey by car rather than another form of transport outweighs the cost of killing someone multiplied by the probability of it happening. It’s already unlikely that most people think about it as clearly as this. More likely, they just think “it’s very unlikely” and drive whenever they want to. But even this level of analysis misses the full picture. As well as the external consequences of the action, you also have to bear in mind the internal consequences. You know that if you kill someone with your car you will feel guilty about it, even if it is not your fault. Most likely, that guilt will live with you the rest of your life. So there is a selfish component to the cost benefit analysis as well, which is to take account of how it will make you feel in both cases. Alright so where does this get us? Well, it is a demonstration of the method of not modelling ourselves as rational agents. Our own emotional reactions are a particular case (and not one I wanted to focus on in the previous entry) of our arational cores. We can understand these, and take them into account in our actions. Incidentally, doing so doesn’t make us any less human; we would still feel those emotions we would just better take account of them in our planning.

The next decision to analyse is the decision about what to do in the case that you have just accidentally killed someone with your car. Your feelings about it are a given (although see the last bit of this entry): guilt. The question is: what should your actions be and how do you integrate this into your ongoing thinking about the world? One reaction would be to reorganise your way of thinking so that the unavoidable feelings of guilt you would have would be suppressed or at least not contribute to your ongoing thinking. Another reaction would be to become permanently depressed about it. The former makes it possible to go on living your life relatively normally, at least outwardly, but would most likely completely change the nature of the way you relate to the world. For example, you might reorganise your thinking so that guilt feelings generally were suppressed. But what would the consequences of that be? The latter reaction, on the other hand, makes it difficult to go on living which doesn’t appear to be a valuable thing to do for anyone. A better option would perhaps be to accept the feelings you have but channel them into a positive activity (like becoming a road safety campaigner, or public transport proponent). This option can potentially be one that doesn’t involve becoming self-delusional, but does allow you to continue living your life. It’s not delusional because you accept responsibility for the consequences and you know that you are doing the campaigning work as a way to assuage your guilt, but it still helps you to go on living and has positive social effects.

The example of the car driver came up in a conversation about fascism and integration propaganda. I was arguing that if people take responsibility for their actions more, fascism couldn’t have happened. In other words, if people didn’t allow themselves to excuse themselves from fighting fascism for various reasons, and accepted responsibility for the consequences of it, it wouldn’t have happened because dictatorships require passive consent to continue functioning. Like the case of the car driver, there are three options when a fascist or dictatorial state is taking power: go along with it and rationalise it as the right thing to do; become depressed and inactive (which is essentially going along with it too); fight it, at possibly great cost to yourself. These are somewhat analogous to the three options the car driver above who has accidentally killed someone faces, and like in that case, the third option is the best.

So that about sums up my response to this criticism. I want to finish by saying a few words about psychology. I’ve made some pretty strong assumptions in this entry about the ways in which we can or can’t exert control over ourselves. I’ve assumed that we can exert control over the way we act, the way we think, and the way we integrate knowledge and events into our ongoing thinking, but that we can’t exert control over the way we feel. None of these assumptions are likely to be completely correct. For example, an addict cannot control their actions (or at least, that is one way of looking at it). And we know that we can affect the way we feel about things (although this process can take many years). Worse, in my previous entry I was advocating a theory that said we can’t make use of this sort of grammatical construct – “we can control the way we think” – because the “we” is the same object and so the verb “control” doesn’t have the usual semantics here. Indeed so, but despite that it feels as though by reading about and trying to understand the world, our modes of thought can be affected by ideas, and these ideas have greater or lesser effect when directed at certain parts of our thinking rather than others. An idea that tries to change the way we feel about things, it seems, is less likely to be effective than an idea that tries to change the way we reason about things at a more conscious level. This consideration may provide a way out of that difficulty.

Despite it being based on assumptions which are likely false, it still seems as though they might be true enough that the conclusions derived from them might be useful. Whether or not that is so is an empirical question, but at least to me it feels like there is something there worth considering.

Now I’ll end on a question.

If there were a pill you could take that would mean you would never again do a bad thing, would you take it?



Arationality and honesty

Perfect rationality is impossible, and the limit of the scope of the concept of rationality is important. I start from an observation that many would not agree with, that there is no such thing as truth (which I’ve argued elsewhere to some extent). It’s just a heuristic concept that helps us to function in everyday situations. Dropping the notion of truth involves us in some considerable difficulties, which I discuss in the previous link, but these difficulties are not insurmountable. It is possible to have a useful conception of epistemology free from the notion of truth. In this entry, I criticise the idea that we can be ultimately rational, and look at the consequences of taking this seriously for ethics and morality.

Epistemology in some sense is a specific form of rationality, it concerns only thoughts and ideas whereas rationality is supposed to also encompass actions. An action can certainly be instrumentally rational. Someone is thirsty, so they pick up a glass and turn on the tap and drink – this is instrumentally rational, rational with respect to a given set of goals which are not in themselves analysed. But actions cannot be rational in and of themselves, they must be relative to a set of ends, and ultimately these ends cannot be described in terms of rationality. In consequence, people cannot be rational (ultimately). One consequence is that Vulcans couldn’t exist – you cannot act by logic alone. I call the aspects of our behaviour that cannot be analysed in terms of rationality, arational. This is in distinction to irrationality, which is about doing the opposite of what rationality dictates. Examples of arationality abound: emotions, tastes, etc. But also at the boundary, things like the fact that we keep breathing rather than just stopping.

So can we analyse the arational? To a certain extent yes, we can say more about it than nothing, but there are no complete answers. Later, this leads on to the ethical concepts of honesty and responsibility which I believe are related to arationality.

To start with, let’s take the trivial observation that we humans are nothing so special. We’re essentially “meat machines”, machines built by our genes to replicate themselves (this too is a simplification, but bear with me). We’re built on a physical substrate subject to physical laws. It’s surprising that we can do anything like thinking at all. It’s instructive to think about the extent to which we could call the behaviour of other animals as rational. Is a dog rational? What about an amoeba?

So given that, rather than talk using high level concepts like “reasons” (X believed Y and so took action Z) that presumably are supposed to be understood in some undefined way as related to the internal state of the central nervous system, I’m just going to talk about decisions which can be analysed externally. We can say in some way unambiguously that individual X took action Z, they made a decision to take that action. The decision need not be conscious, remember we’re not talking about internal states here. So we repeatedly make the “decision” to breathe, just as the amoeba makes “decisions” to extend its pseudopodia, or what have you.

Now this way of looking at things helps us to see what we can or can’t say about arationality. To some extent it can be analysed. Obviously we mostly keep choosing to breath because we would be unsuccessful meat machines if we didn’t, and so our genes wouldn’t be replicated. This isn’t to say that we must do these things, just that you would expect to see that most individuals would make these sorts of decisions most of the time because they’re meat machines formed from recombinations of genetic material that tended to act in this way (there are some assumptions there, but that’s another story). Evolution also gives us a point of view on when we can’t analyse arationality. A new individual, either because of a particular recombination of genetic material or because of a mutation, exhibits a new type of behaviour. This happened for reasons we can understand (maybe just chance), but until the individuals interactions with the environment determine the success or otherwise of the individual in reproducing, we can’t say whether it was a good behaviour or not (from the point of view of the genes). Until that point, the behaviour just is a behaviour, and the individual is just an individual that exhibits that behaviour. What more can be said before the success of the behaviour is tested in the world? In conclusion, looking at arationality in terms of behaviours, we can obviously analyse much of arationality in a scientific way, but ultimately in certain cases all we can say is that such-and-such is the behaviour exhibited by such-and-such individual.

At this point I want to bring in the moral and ethical aspects. We like to think of morality and ethics as being about right and wrong, but just as there is no truth, and just as rationality is not entirely straightforward, there is no such thing as right and wrong. There are only decisions. There are decisions individuals make for themselves, and decisions that a political entity makes for others (social mores, codes of conduct, rules, punishment, etc.). A poor person steals from a rich person, the rich person is so rich they never notice they’ve had something stolen. Has a wrong been done?

Rather than talk about this from the point of view of whether or not the poor person made the right decision, I want to just talk about the types of decisions that have been made here, by whom, and what considerations bear on them. First of all, the thief has made a decision to break the rules. Secondly, the society has made a decision to punish people who are caught breaking the rules. We wouldn’t like to say the thief did wrong because nobody was hurt by the action, and the thief’s life was made better as a consequence. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean the decision was necessarily right because if it was right then surely the society would be wrong to make the decision to punish people who are caught. It’s clear that talking about this case in terms of right and wrong is a surefire way to end in confusion. Instead it’s a calculus. The society makes its choice to punish thieves because if they didn’t – they believe – there would be a breakdown of order. The thief makes the decision to break the rules knowing the decision of society, and must take responsibility for this action. If they are caught, they will face punishment, if not then they won’t.

Suppose now that the thief was a rich person stealing from a poor person. The analysis above seems unchanged, and indeed it is. One thing that may change is that the society may choose to allocate its resources differently towards catching the one or the other sort of thief. For example, a society may decide to put more resources into catching poor thieves stealing from the rich than rich thieves stealing from the poor, or it may do it the other way round. That’s politics. In my view, society today tends more towards the former whereas it ought to tend more toward the latter, and I make political decisions based on that. These are my decisions, which are ultimately arational. I could put forward reasons for this view, but those are ultimately judged on arational criteria. Others may differ.

Equating the identity of an individual with the actions they decide to take in the circumstances in which they find themselves gives us a useful way of looking at two problems: free will, and morality. There is a classical problem which is that free will cannot be consistent with determinism (if an action was determined by physical laws it cannot have been freely chosen because it couldn’t have been otherwise). There is an extension that says that all decisions must either be determined or random. It goes like this. If an action wasn’t determined by physical laws, then it would effectively meet the physical definition of randomness. In exactly the same circumstances (including the experiences, desires, preferences, state of mind, etc. of the individual concerned at the time of making the decision) you could have different outcomes, making the decision effectively meaningless (not dependent on anything at all), or random in short. However if we identify an individual with the decisions they make it doesn’t matter whether they are determined (or random), they are still the decisions of that individual (it is just that the identity of the individual is also determined). A forced (unfree) choice would be one that no individual in the same circumstances could have made differently (e.g. you cannot choose to ignore the force of gravity).

This last point has a moral and ethical component. If we accept all the choices we actually make are not forced in this sense, then we have to take greater responsibility for them. An ugly choice that we were put under great psychological pressure to make is still our own choice because it is we ourselves who are choosing to respond to that psychological pressure. It is not an external thing acting on us in the same way that gravity is. Even if we were offered the choice between one option which would lead to our death, and another option, it’s still a free choice because we are free to choose how to weight the significance of our own death. Evolutionary processes explain why so many people will weight the significance of their own death so highly, but since the identity of the individuals themselves is the output of that process, we cannot consider that process as an external force acting on us.

The general point here is one of taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and being honest about their status as one’s own actions. Often, we attempt to excuse our actions by giving the reasons why we took them, as if these reasons were themselves external forces acting on us which we couldn’t ignore. However, as we have seen, an action itself cannot be rational, it can only be instrumentally rational with respect to an arational core. We rarely think to deeply analyse our own arational cores, but the considerations given here suggest we ought to be more aware of them and identify with them more explicitly. It may be that to do so, we must become more aware of our own logical inconsistency (even incoherency). We are often in the situation, for example, of wanting a thing and also wanting not to want it or even believing that we don’t want it. If we make the mistake of thinking of ourselves as having a core identity that is coherent and consistent in some sense, then we are inevitably led into confusion. It may be this that underlies the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.

Following this logic through and acting on it is actually a very difficult thing to do. It means really coming to terms with the inconsistency of our very identities (which the word alone suggests the difficulty of). It means realising that much of what we do we do without reason (our arational cores), and that we  have made choices that we both like and dislike not by mistake or because external forces acted on us, but because that is our nature. It means taking responsibility for every choice we have made, being honest about them, and analysing ourselves. Self-analysis is unavoidable if we do not have a consistent and coherent unitary core (and can be done by introspection and by looking at our choices and identifying those choices with ourselves). Finally it means living with all that inconsistency.

In particular, it can be very difficult to honestly appraise the inequality of society, our own place in it, and live with that. Most reading this will have been the recipients of more than their fair share of luck and will have benefited disproportionately from the work done by everyone. Born into (relatively) wealthy families, receiving (relatively) good educations, etc. It would be easy to fall into the habit of thinking, as many do, that we deserve what we have because that is an easier idea to live with. Choosing not to engage in this sort of self deception requires us to honestly face up to our arational cores, and the experience may not be pleasant. Why do we not give away all our wealth to those who are in need? If we even asked ourselves the question, we would probably find some reason that explained how it couldn’t be otherwise. Perhaps the prospective recipients of our wealth wouldn’t be able to make correct use of it, perhaps charities are essentially corrupt and wasteful, etc. I don’t want to say that we don’t do this because we are selfish. It is more like the choice to keep breathing, there is no need to find a reason for it, it is just a decision we keep making. The danger in finding a reason why we don’t give all our wealth away to others who need it is that it may stop us from giving any away. If there were a good reason why we shouldn’t give our money away, then presumably we shouldn’t give any away. Similarly, if there were a good reason why we should give our money away, we probably ought to give almost all of it away. If we must act by the one sort of reason or another, then we’re faced with the choice of giving away all or nothing, and most would give nothing in that situation.

This may explain why the poor tend to give more money away than the rich. Suppose the choice were not between all or nothing, but between nothing and everything except the minimum necessary for my own survival and that of my family, dependents, etc. For the rich, this choice would then be between nothing and maintaining their lifestyle, or of changing their lifestyle to one of poverty. For someone who is already poor, it wouldn’t involve any change of lifestyle to give away enough money to leave them poor as they already are. By choosing to live by the idea that we do what we do because we have reason for doing so, we put ourselves in the absurd situation that those for whom it would be easiest to give are least likely to do so. The alternative is to say that the amount we choose to give away is our own choice and is not dictated to us by our reason. To take responsibility for the choice, and not to try to pretend that we are acting by a coherent code that dictates our behaviour.

Knowledge, here particularly self-knowledge, is always better than delusion, even when it hurts. When we allow ourselves to be deluded, things always end worse than when we are clear and honest about what is going on. There are many applications of these ideas: religion in this view is obviously problematic because it attempts to externalise our moral choices (indeed, our wish to externalise them may explain why religions are so prevalent); much ethical and moral philosophy, secular or otherwise, is problematic for the same reason, it supports the pretence that there is a coherency or could be such a thing, which stops people from coming to terms with the lack of it. Finally, I want to focus on just one more example, propaganda.

In a previous entry I talked about Jacques Ellul’s book “Propaganda” and the idea that intellectuals are most subject to propaganda because they want to believe that they understand the world, but lacking sufficient time to really do so they rely on answers provided to them by others (putting them in the power of those others). The other aspect of propaganda is what Ellul calls “integration propaganda”. The idea is that once you have participated in an action, you will rationalise that action and create a justification for why it was the right thing to do. The propagandist only needs to get you to participate in an action and you will do the intellectual reorganisation yourself. This is an aspect of propaganda that most people don’t understand (believing that propaganda is just a way of getting people to believe something by repeatedly saying it, or some other such simplification). This is essentially a form of cognitive dissonance: nobody wants to consider themselves the bad guy. Or in the framework of this essay, people want to think of themselves as coherent and consistent, so if they took an action they must have had reason for doing so. Recognising that we are not consistent, rational beings working to some perhaps unknown moral code then has the potential to free us from integration propaganda. Taking our own arationality and inconsistent as a given, we would no longer feel the same requirement to create a self-justifying rationalisation, and so the propaganda would not have its desired effect.



Ethical vegetarianism
November 10, 2008, 6:17 am
Filed under: Ethics, Philosophy, Politics | Tags: ,

amerikanbeat blog has an interesting article on Marxism and “ethical” vegetarianism that is worth reading.

The difference in my current thinking has to do with the connection between opposing the killing of animals, and being a vegetarian. I don’t think there is much of a connection, in fact. That is, the fact that it is wrong to kill animals does not mean one ought to be a vegetarian. It doesn’t even make vegetarianism a good idea.

I previously wrote something slightly silly about vegetarianism on this blog, but the discussion it led to what was quite interesting. The focus of the discussion was different to the focus in the article linked to above, but in the comments I wrote the following which I think is somewhat relevant to the Marxist take of the article:

I do think though, that at some point in humanity’s future we will all choose (but not be forced by law) to stop eating animals for ethical reasons… The more general issue is about what and who you care about. As our personal circumstances improve (we’re lifted out of poverty for example), we gain the possibility to be compassionate towards others that we didn’t have before.



Happiness
November 8, 2008, 5:04 am
Filed under: Philosophy | Tags: ,

I just had a thought about happiness which is a bit of a mindfuck.

If you think about the evolutionary function of happiness, the obvious thing to think is that evolution selects a meaning for happiness so that if we attempt to maximise it that will maximise reproductive fitness. (This formulation could well be wrong.) Now presumably if we were quite happy most of the time, we wouldn’t put much effort in to things and so we wouldn’t be very fit. On the other hand someone who was pretty unhappy would put lots of effort in and so would be very fit. Therefore evolution will tend to select unhappy people (but presumably not totally depressed people, there has to be a possibility of happiness for it to work). Now that’s already a mindfuck because it means that the driving force behind our existence wants us to be unhappy. Shit.

But you might think, maybe that’s not so bad. Evolution will have chosen some things that make us happy that in the environment in which we evolved were fairly rare, and maybe with better technology etc. we can get more of those things and that would make us happy. In other words, perhaps a happy world is possible. Yeah, well, maybe (although the evidence rather suggests that more wealth and technology makes us less happy). But there’s another nasty possibility which is that we habituate to our current level of happiness. Just as you cease to hear a noise when it’s played constantly or smell an odour that is present constantly, and only detect it when it goes away or gets louder or stronger, maybe you cease to feel happy about the things that make you happy when they’re always there. In other words, you’ll always be tending towards unhappiness and only feel happy briefly in moments of change when things improve. Double shit.

So is it true? And if so, what the fuck do we do about it? I mean, what do you do differently if you know that happiness can only ever be a short lived thing and not something permanent? I can think of a few ideas but I’d be interested to hear what others think.



The science-technology fallacy
August 31, 2008, 12:47 am
Filed under: Academia, Epistemology, Neuroscience, Philosophy | Tags:

On the comp-neuro mailing list, James Schwaber writes about the science-technology fallacy:

A lot of the discussion about the ‘right way to model’ or what to model may be a version of what my friend Mike Gruber has termed a version of the science-technology fallacy, the idea that you have to understand a process analytically before you can use it, and he always quotes Carnot here–thermodynamics owes more to the steam engine than ever the steam engine owes to thermodynamics. Obviously, humans used and controlled fire for 100,000 years before Lavoisier explained what fire was, and planes flew for decades before there was a theory to explain how they did it. In fact theory ‘demonstrated’ that heavier-than-air flight was impossible.

This is an interesting point. Is it true? If so, what is the point of science?

I have some ideas, but I’d like to see what others have to say.

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