A blog about belief

Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

Believing in evolution

In Philosophy, Science on June 29, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Via Language Log: A Philadelphia Inquirer article questioning whether “Do you believe in evolution?” (asked of Miss USA contestants) is the right question to be asking.

“I have attempted, largely through spurring on from several colleagues . . . to never use the word belief in talks,” said Arizona State University physicist and writer Lawrence Krauss.

“One is asked: Does one believe in global warming, or evolution, and the temptation is to answer yes,” he said, “but it’s like saying you believe in gravity or general relativity.”

“Science is not like religion, in that it doesn’t merely tell a story … one that one can choose to believe or not.”

I agree that what science asks of us is not belief and that talk in those terms can therefore be misleading, but I don’t think this means that the concept is inapplicable to scientific claims. To believe something (a proposition, a story, etc.) is to be in a condition in which one is compelled to act on its implications, which can, but which doesn’t necessarily have to be a consequence of holding the thing to be true. In many cases, I think that it’s good to believe (in this sense) the things that science tells us, in addition to knowing them in the way appropriate to scientific claims. Do I myself believe in the theory of evolution? I would say that I do, since I care about it and am willing to incur costs in order to defend it politically. It’s just that “it’s good to believe this” is a non-trivial statement, and one that’s outside of science’s domain.

As a result, it might indeed be best that science avoid referring to belief in its public face. This does not, however, mean that science education should have nothing to do with belief. Education is about the formation of persons, not just the transfer of information, and an important part of the schoolteacher’s job is to encourage students to develop an active interest in whatever subject they teach. This doesn’t mean that schools can try to force all students to believe in the value of science, but at least they have the responsibility of making sure that the beliefs students end up with are based on correct information.

Coersion and motivated reasoning

In Philosophy, Science on June 24, 2011 at 7:08 pm

The argumentative theory of reasoning could shed light on a scenario that I hinted at in my first post about freedom.  Suppose that you are about to be presented with two options, 1 and 2, and that you have decided to choose option 1.  Person B, not knowing this, attempts to coerce you into choosing that option.  You change your decision to 2, even though it is the less attractive option, in order to in some way assert your independence from B.  The argumentative theory could offer the explanation that reasoning about this situation would lead you to choose 2 if you think it would be easier to justify that choice than it would be to respond to accusations that you were too-easily swayed by B.

This decision isn’t necessarily irrational.  It may be that your choosing option 1 after the attempt at coercion really would damage others’ opinions of you, or that it would encourage B to attempt further coercions in the future.  Presumably, the greater the difference in utility between 1 and 2 the less inclined you will be to change your decision, not least because other people will be less likely to accuse you of being manipulated if the choice you made is obviously the better one.

I don’t have experimental evidence to back up this example, though there may be some that I don’t know about.  If it proves true, it might give us some insight into what it is we desire when we desire to be independent.  It suggests a way of thinking about independence that avoids unclear talk about choice, if not one that would serve particularly well in a definition of freedom.

“Compassionate libertarianism”?

In Philosophy on June 24, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Brian Leiter points out an interview with Robert Nozick from 2001.  Some of Nozick’s comments in this very late interview suggest that he didn’t turn away from the libertarianism of 1974’s Anarchy, State and Utopia as sharply as the recent Slate writeup claims.  However, it does illustrate a difference between Nozick, a respectable philosopher with whom I disagree, and Ayn Rand, who has intellectual rabies:

JS: You outline a series of different “levels of ethics,” as you call them, the most basic being characterized by, as you said, “voluntary cooperation for mutual benefit,” and the higher levels involving more responsiveness and caring for others and positive aid. Yet you say, and this is what seems particularly libertarian, that no society should go further than enforcing that most basic requirement of peaceful cooperation.

RN: Yes, and libertarianism never really claimed that all of ethics was exhausted by what could be enforced, by what one could legitimately be coerced to do or not do. That’s the political, interpersonal realm that libertarian principles were about, not what might be the highest ethical aspiration.

You mean the highest ethical aspiration might not be to make as much money as possible?


In Music on June 23, 2011 at 8:49 pm

The “’80s revival” has now lasted longer than the ’80s, and it’s beginning to get silly to keep referring to it as a “revival.” I’m sure that Lady Gaga’s appropriation of hair metal on her most recent album is a conscious anachronism, but Eurythmics-like synthesizers have been cropping up in current pop music long enough that nostalgia and irony are wearing thin as explanations. Maybe, I offer, people just like that sort of sound.

By definition, what a “revival” is not doing is carrying on a tradition. I’ve argued in the past that tradition becomes most oppressive when it’s imagined as enduring through time, present in its entirety at each moment of existence. A view that instead imagines each stage of a tradition’s existence as a distinct part of it – a perdurantist view – offers a clear answer to a question that T.S. Eliot strains hard to address in his endurantist model, how one can be part of the same tradition as one’s forbears without being stuck repeating their customs. But I’m beginning to worry that the focus on continuity over repetition that the perdurantist view entails can lead to problems of its own. It’s not good to say that the present stage of a tradition can only contain the new. If we don’t imagine the resources of the past as somehow staying with us, cycles of fashion will chop our tradition into pieces.

And now Simon Reynolds has a new book that calls us a culture addicted its own past. I’ve yet to read the entire book, but I think the way it frames the problem is misguided. What we really are is a culture addicted to the concept of pastness. Instead of carrying on and enriching traditions, we relentlessly index cultural inventions with particular historical times, and this prevents us from engaging with them except as seen through a distorting lens – we see things as parts of our cultural past where we could simply see them as parts of our culture. The problem is not that fixation on the past stifles novelty, but that the nervousness with which many people view their relationship to tradition leads us to value a presentism that we can’t possibly uphold.

In the same way, what’s really dehumanizing about the 21st Century is not that we are treated as animals by science, but the persistent worry that to be really human we have to be something other than animal.

Argumentative theory of reasoning

In Science on June 22, 2011 at 9:00 am

Last time I promised a more detailed post about Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber’s argumentative theory of reasoning, which I’ve found quite interesting.  Looking back at the New York Times writeup after reading the paper, I’m amazed (though I shouldn’t be) at how completely wrong they get it.  A lot of the informal commentary I’ve seen (including the article I mentioned in my last blog post) seems to follow the Times in thinking that the paper says there’s something “irrational” about the way humans argue, and that, as the Times puts it, our ability to reason evolved as a “weapon” for use in persuading people rather than as a “path to truth”.  What the paper actually argues is that human reasoning is better suited to collective than individual problem solving, albeit only within a context that involves disagreement:

When one is alone or with people who hold similar views, one’s arguments will not be critically evaluated. This is when the confirmation bias is most likely to lead to poor outcomes. However, when reasoning is used in a more felicitous context – that is, in arguments among people who disagree but have a common interest in the truth – the confirmation bias contributes to an efficient form of division of cognitive labor. (65)

The conclusion is not that debate is some sort of battle in which each side tries to “defeat” the other in order to gain something by altering their beliefs.  If this were so, why would anyone listen to anyone else’s arguments?  The conclusion of the paper is that a vigorous debate is the best way we have of finding the truth.

Mercier wrote a response in the Times, so I won’t beat this dead horse any further.  There is plenty to say about the claims that the paper actually does make.  The authors give not just an explanation for the confirmation bias (in addition to the phenomenon of motivated reasoning) but the suggestion that, by working together in a certain way, we can make the bias a virtue.  One’s mind immediately turns to politics, although figuring out a way of encouraging this productive sort of debate on political issues is not an easy matter.

As I understand it, the type of debate that would make the confirmation bias a virtue would, in Mercier & Sperber’s dual-process model of reasoning, play out like this.  A group of people would have a common problem that they all have an interest in solving.  Each collaborator would form (through intuitive inference) an opinion about what the solution is, and then have two jobs (and only two) involving conscious reasoning: first, they are to come up with arguments in favor of their opinion, and second, they are to look for ways of falsifying the other opinions put forth.  The people would also listen to the arguments that others make, evaluating them on an intuitive level and changing their opinions if the arguments prove persuasive.  If one of the collaborators becomes convinced that their original opinion was wrong but is not convinced of an alternative, then they might intuitively come up with a new one, which would help in cases where none of the collaborators initially had the right solution.  Assuming a whole truckload of conditions, everyone will eventually come to accept the right answer.

As far as I know, the exact conditions under which this sort of debate could work well have not been determined.  In the experimental situations cited in section 3 of the paper, there was a clear definition of the problem that was understood by all participants, it was known that a single solution existed, there was a known method for falsifying prospective solutions, and all participants had an interest in finding the correct answer.  Setting up a debate that meets all these criteria would be near-impossible for most political problems, but we might be able to make the confirmation bias productive under less-strict conditions.  A more difficult complication is that, while the participants in the experiments presumably have little interest, apart from vanity, in what particular solution turns out to be correct, the concepts involved in politics are tied into people’s economic and emotional lives in immensely complex ways.  Even if everyone has an interest in reaching the best solution, there may be other factors that motivate the participants to act counterproductively to debate.

These are issues that I was already thinking about before this paper came along, and I’m not yet sure whether an argumentative theory of reasoning, which is primarily a diachronic theory about evolution, adds something significant to a political philosopher’s toolkit if it is correct.  It does, however, contra the New York Times, give us a hopeful way of looking at the confirmation bias.  Perhaps our faculty of reasoning isn’t buggy after all.

Arguing about religion

In Politics on June 21, 2011 at 1:14 pm

You may have already heard about the Christian-right campaign against Ayn Rand (Brian Leiter on it), which aims to point out the incompatibility of Rand’s ideas with Christianity. Peter Laarman has an article in Religion Dispatches that makes a good point about something that Fred Clark at slacktivist has also written about recently, the relative importance of community and personal anecdote over such logical argumentation in the way that our beliefs change. I have to take exception, though, to Laarman’s invocation of Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber’s much-discussed-but-apparently-little-read article “Why do humans reason?” (about which I’m hoping to have a detailed post soon):

What is the point here? The point is that there IS no point to endless argumentation. Hearts and minds don’t change that way. They change when we share our stories and when we become present in a different way to those whom we wish to influence. The further point is that hearts change before minds do. It rarely works the other way around.

And now some scientists believe that we don’t actually argue to arrive at clarity or truth; argumentation is a “social adaptation,” they argue: we are in debates to win, and we will readily use flawed arguments if we think they will sway the other side. Irrationality is not merely a “kink” in the process of truth seeking. […]

Of course we are in debates to win. What Mercier & Sperber are arguing is that the primary function of reasoning is to produce arguments that are convincing to others rather than to produce better beliefs for oneself. This conclusion would obviously be false if it were uncommon that people be persuaded by arguments. It’s true that it’s not always logical validity that makes arguments persuasive (we’ve known that for millennia), but that’s not the issue here. The anti-Ayn Rand video is not going to fail for being too logical, because it’s not – it’s loaded with ad hominems of just the same sort that have been employed in scare-tactic campaigns for ages. I don’t think it’s likely that this campaign will cause hordes of people to change their beliefs individually, minds-before-hearts, but it could spark change if it becomes an object of discussion among churchgoers and in other community settings. Direct human relationships often do have more of an influence on our beliefs than arguments do, but arguments don’t exist in isolation from them.

Addendum: I was going to argue that the video is calling for people not to change their religious beliefs but to act on them, but being a holist I can’t say that adding a belief that Jesus is at odds with objectivism doesn’t change one’s belief in Jesus.

Analytic, continental

In Philosophy on June 18, 2011 at 2:53 pm

There’s been another round of posts on the philosophy blogs about the schism between analytic and continental philosophers.  If the schism is a bad thing, as everyone seems to agree it is, it doesn’t help matters to make “these people are like this, those people are like that” claims, but I do think there’s something to be learned by investigating why it is that philosophers tend to get so het up about this divide.  I’m going to stereotype the two schools to an extent, but it is with the goal of understanding why each is viewed negatively by those allied with the other side.

Jeff Bell at New APPS argues that the most important difference is that

for most analytic philosophers doing justice to novelty is not a problem (or at least not a significant problem) whereas giving an adequate account of the way things are is a problem. I do not believe doing justice to novelty or justifying the way things are (or common sense) are mutually exclusive goals—William James certainly didn’t think so—but it is important to realize that these are different problems that lead to the creation and use of different concepts.

This difference in goals explains much of the difference in method between analytic and continental philosophy.  The problem of accounting for novelty would seem to suggest a historicist or dialectical approach, while the questions analytic philosophers ask demand answers in the form of unchanging truths.  But there’s still the question of why the two schools of philosophy pose different types of questions when working in areas that both cover well, like ethics.  The fundamental difference, I think, is that analytic philosophers aim to work from a neutral, impersonal point of view in which only the validity of inference matters, while continental philosophers try to take into account their place, as academics, in the structure of the society in which they live.  While many analytics view continental philosophy as obfuscating, the analytic project of clarification looks to continentals like an exertion of power.

The continental approach as I have (very simplistically) defined it has the advantage in dealing with issues like race where, if only for instrumental reasons, it’s important to pay attention to the identity of those putting forth arguments.  A white male philosopher can easily do more harm than good in addressing issues of privilege, because many people in oppressed groups feel the need to reject what those in power say regardless of its truth or validity in the name of independence.  This is one of the major reasons why Literature departments in the U.S. have (I would say to their detriment) tended to ignore Quine and Lewis in favor of Derrida.  The issue of privilege is hard to avoid in literature, and the analytic approach seems, to someone steeped in it, more a part of the problem than anything.

Where continental philosophers begin to look absurd is when they seem to take up such a strongly anti-authoritarian stance as to reject the power that they have as academics to make positive statements.  Whether or not this is really a fair judgment, it does appear that many of the authors associated with continental philosophy have focused more on revealing hidden complexities than on stating their own positions clearly, and this has been to the detriment of their credibility.  This problem is is basically the converse of the objection to analytic philosophy as an exercise of privilege.  The relativism that critics of continentals decry comes not so much from the particular ideas involved – Nick at Yeah, OK, But Still points out that, despite the difference in method, the ideas discussed in analytic and continental philosophy are often quite similar – but from a discomfort with the use of power that was originally motivated by strong-enough ethical reasons (the fallout of colonialism and the Holocaust) but that has done little in the United States but erode the academy’s authority in the eyes of the general population.

Those ethical concerns do not, in themselves, require us to go so far.  Even if we accept that our own philosophical system irreducibly represents one particular way of looking at things among many, it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t still strongly believe in it, or even that we shouldn’t teach it and thereby exercise our power to impose it on others.  The alienation that characterized late Twentieth-century life for a lot of the people who think about such things as Zeitgeists is a fear of fully inhabiting the particular situation in which one is.  That fear is motivated by valid ethical concerns, but a better response than relativism would be to start holding the beliefs by which we act to a higher standard.  We can’t do that if we attempt to leave them, in late-Heideggerian fashion, “open to difference.”  Instead we should state our beliefs strongly, with the knowledge that they are just that, beliefs.

Joyce nerds

In Literature on June 16, 2011 at 9:00 am

It’s Bloomsday and I just realized that my crumbling copy of Ulysses is packed away with the rest of my Joyce shelf in bed bug bags.

My first encounter with James Joyce’s work was not ideal.  As a very young one I came across a thread about Bloomsday on a discussion forum, knowing next to nothing about Joyce, and I read post after post about what nonsense this “high” literature was.  I didn’t have my own opinion, but I followed along until someone posted the first page or so of Portrait as an example of how nonsensical Joyce’s writing was.  I read it ready for a laugh, but once I was done I closed the browser window and resolved to get a copy of the book as soon as I could.

The anti-Joyce sentiment that I saw bubbling up there is a part of a common strain of anti-elitism in the United States that rests on a gross misconception of what the elite that matters actually is.  Although Joyce does demand quite a lot of the reader in terms of cultural knowledge (or, at least, willingness to look things up), the material involved – Romantic poetry, Greek mythology, the writing of centuries-old Catholic heretics – hardly correlates with status nowadays.  The people with what it takes to read and enjoy Ulysses are not the social or economic upper crust.  They’re middle-class nerds.

A few years ago I attended the Joyce Summer School, and I was surprised at how many non-academics were attending just for fun.  There’s a significant body of such people out there with enough of a taste for Joyce to spend a week in Dublin immersed, and they’re not all just in it for the museums and tours.  People with no stake in literature beyond liking it came to the seminars and even gave some of the lectures at the conference.  There are undoubtedly those who read Ulysses just so that they can brag to their friends, but for a lot of people who really love it it’s a culturally-marginal interest, and it’s not necessarily easy to find someone to talk about it with.  The culture that arises has much the same nerdy earnestness as sci-fi and fantasy fandoms.

Though I suggested that there’s something more to be valued in seminars than in pub crawls, I’m not opposed to the “fetishistic” character of Bloomsday or the “Joyce Industry” in general.  One of the great purposes of literature is to add to the common store of ideas by which we can connect to others, even if only within a group of enthusiasts.  It is a peculiarly Modern conception of the world that draws a clear line between myth and reality, and not one that jibes well with a novelist as deeply concerned with the realistic depiction of place as Joyce.  To be sure, Joyce’s works follow the model that Deleuze & Guattari would call the radicle, maintaining the work as an artistic unity despite the fragmentation of the vision of reality in which it is rooted.  But the roots are real, and Joyce gives us no reason to construct a distinction between, say, the St. Stephen’s Green of his novels and the one in Dublin.  Actual Joyce fans see them as the same.  And why not?  Leopold Bloom may never have lived in 7 Eccles St, but the character is as much a part of our world as the house was, in its way.

Definition of freedom, pt. 1

In Philosophy on June 14, 2011 at 10:47 pm
Any useful definition of freedom takes into account not just whether we are able to act on our desires, but what desires we end up having.  One way of doing this that has been put forth a number of times, by, for example, some of the existentialists, is freedom as independence, the state in which a person’s values form in a way that is somehow unconstrained, or at least not fully determined, by society’s norms.  This is unsatisfactory to me because it requires us to make an unclear distinction in the case of the person who does conform.  Does she do so by choice?  This question is not only impossible to formulate in concrete terms, it’s altogether meaningless unless we believe that some aspects of the self are fixed with respect to social influence.  To imagine the self as a homunculus who runs around and rearranges the ideas in the brain is a fallacy; a person choosing their own values is like a committee being convened to determine who is on the committee.  A choice of values must be based on a higher order of values if it is other than random, and we would need to take these higher-order values as in some way immune to manipulation in order to avoid regress.  Choice is not the only concept in terms of which we can define independence, but I can’t see any other way to do it that doesn’t encounter some variant of this problem.  If a person conforms, they conform, and there’s nothing more we can say without either speaking for them with regards to what they “really” want or claiming that this or that is their “authentic voice,” a black hole of a concept if I’ve ever seen one.  My inclination is that these problems arise when we try to talk about freedom in terms of discrete individuals rather than asking whether a society as a whole is free.  We can do this, I think, by examining the range of value systems by which a randomly-chosen person could potentially live well in a given society, without reference to whether any particular value system is “theirs.”  In the process we would likely end up representing society as more homogeneous than it really is, but that’s okay because I’m not after a final answer to the question of how free a society is.  What I’m after is a framework in which we can talk about freedom productively.

First post

In Uncategorized on June 13, 2011 at 2:13 am

First!  This blog will be about literature (mostly 19th+20th c. American, some European), philosophy (American pragmatism, epistemology, some “continental” philosophy), politics (mostly in abstract terms and not necessarily at a public level), and maybe a little bit about music.