June 13, 2011

Speaking of Folk Language vs. Empirical Science...

Alice Dreger mentions a handful of challenges to the macroscopic, anatomical distinctions that we assume in our natural languages. One challenging implication of her talk is that we could end up eliminating much more law (which, like philosophy does, operationalizes on our natural language's presumptions, often distinguishes by "intuition," and makes an ad hoc legitimization of its own previous stances and practices) than we would expect and than many people are comfortable pursuing.

June 10, 2011

Arguing the Inferiority of Philosophical Methods to the Methods of Empirical Science to Philosophers

It obviously meets some resistance from people who identify themselves as professional philosophers, but I managed to spin a sausage metaphor into an issue about the efficacy of philosophers' methods to arrive at empirically relevant claims.
"I took it to be a reference to a principle you clearly do accept, according to which if a subject S is immune to empirical study, then it is not possible to know claims involving S, nor to fruitfully study S."
-- Mr. Zero (of The Philosophy Smoker)
Actually, my claim is more along these lines: If you claim that any statement S is immune to empirical verification, then it is no more likely to report true, falsifiable statements than random guessing would (because soundness and consistency are indistinguishable in such models), and thus is not a fruitful study.

The issue is the disconnect between using and coining words to describe the world and using words, alone, to “explain” the world. “Happiness,” or “goodness,” for instance, may be total misnomers under empirical scrutiny and may only be meaningful as an array of stimuli responses that people would call “being happy.” However, there is no reason to appeal to the natural language, which we can revise or contrive to fit more specific empirical results. The specificities of Alexander Shulgin, for instance, would have more interesting and empirically testable things to say on happiness and he didn't get them by considering the philosophical history from the Aristotelian age to the present.

My bulk criticism is actually an empirical problem. It comes from my actual dealings with hippies (“Daoists,” “Ayurvedics,” “polarity therapists,” and tons of other people who I met in the lot of “alternative medicine” while I was studying manual therapy) and other philosophers. I learned that my disgust was similar to an observation from scientist and Sinological historian Joseph Needham, who evinced that empirical sciences failed to come to fruition in the East (and were similarly stifled in the West) because their approach was to force empirical results to conform to purely linguistic contrivances. That's a square-peg-to-round-hole problem. The less intellectually impeding thing to do is to conform our language to the demonstrated results, and then to have a means of factual dispute from there. This is the kind of progress that moves us from phlogiston-talk to oxidation-talk, from four-humors-talk to bacterial-and-viral-talk (in China, for instance, it was “五行說”). It doesn't come from philosophers.

Philosophers are a strange bunch in that they can coin terms on a whim so long as they are “philosophically interesting” or “bug our intuitions” about things, while they consider a sufficiently common term in our lexicon (however remotely, e.g. be, have, good, know, think, believe, make/cause), and thus they appear quite relevant to laymen. Conversely, they could be straightforwardly demonstrating via their own method of coinage, self-imported distinction, and argument, that philosophical criticism, itself, is critiquing the inadequacy of its own methodology. This is why I suspect that there can be so many more rival schools of philosophy than there can be of most empirical science camps.
"It seemed to me that [Anonymous] 6:11 was pointing out that this principle is itself immune to empirical study, and so is self-refuting in the manner of the verification principle."
-- Mr. Zero (of The Philosophy Smoker)
I think that philosophers can be empirically scrutinized. I think that empirical method can explain their methods of making themselves seem like they're doing relevant discourse on abstract topics, and I think that such studies would confirm many of the criticisms that I've made here.

Now, you may think that my claim on S above is not empirically verifiable, but I think the empirical test for such a statement seems pretty straightforward.

This was a final post to a couple of responders at the end. They probably will still think that I'm deeply misled about my dependence on non-empirical principles, and I'll probably still think that they're deeply misled about their dependence on empirical grounds to make those "non-empirical" principles into relevant claims to fact.

Nevertheless, a pretty good example that predicts the sort of empiricist takeover of philosophical questions is in a 2005 MIT talk with the aforementioned Alexander Shulgin, Christof Koch, and Patricia Churchland. You can view the entire video on MIT's web site, or you can view it part by part below. And yes, I know that Churchland is a professional philosopher, but what she says might pin many philosophers' ears back.

May 30, 2011

Why Science Conforms to Mathematics

...in four premises.
  1. All mathematical truths are definitional facts and their inferences. (They are axioms and theorems.).
  2. Their truths are pan-empirical.
  3. If an empirical statement contradicts a mathematical truth, then it is a falsehood.
  4. Causation is the correct identification of two portions of an identical empirical event. (Causation dissolves the myth that two distinct events were actually two distinct events at all.)
In other words, conformity to tautology is the gold standard for truth in any epistemic endeavor, and if an empirical statement conforms to that standard, then it is defensibly a fact until (a) another defensible fact falsifies the initial statement or (b) the empirical predictions follow with mathematical regularity (they are sufficiently proven as premise (4). Falsifiability still holds for (b), since non-falsifiable pseudo-science (simply, but more elaborately stated in tense-logical terms) claims the nonsensical (A ∨ ¬A) ⇒ B) ∧¬(∅ ⇒ B).

Of these four premises, the first needs the most unpacking, since definition is a result of use of necessary empirical divisions, and the axiomatic statements of logic and math are statements about how all languages operate and the bare transformations that one can perform once those operations are clear.

Liezi Speaks (列子說) on YouTube

There's a full series of "Chinese Thinker Speaks" videos that seem to cover a broad range of topics. This one, which apparently aims to discuss the Liezi, actually takes a famous parable from the mouth of Yang Zhu (though not from the Yang Zhu chapter).

You can read the original Chinese at the Chinese Text Project, and I have copied Graham's English translation below:
"When Yang Zhu was passing through Song, he spent the night at an inn. The innkeeper had two concubines, one beautiful and the other ugly. The ugly one he valued, the beautiful one he neglected. When Yang Zhu asked the reason, the fellow answered:

"'The beautiful one thinks herself beautiful, and I do not notice her beauty. The ugly one thinks herself ugly, and I do not notice her ugliness.'

"'Remember this, my disciples,' said Yang Zhu. 'If you act nobly and banish from your mind the thought that you are noble, where can you go and not be loved?'"

-- Liezi, 2:16 (trans. Graham)

May 08, 2011

The Job of a Philosopher is Nothing Special

This may is a big pronouncement, but do philosophers generally acknowledge that they're actually doing nothing in their own departments that couldn't just as easily be a side-project whilst they work in a different capacity in another department? I think that many philosophers don't, but don't really take the time to justify their own existence convincingly to the lay public, to academic boards, or to many domains of the academic community at large. Worse yet, I think that they, not the philosophers, are right not to be convinced.

Despite my being entrenched in certain problems that relate to "philosophers," per se, I never really thought that the title itself meant anything beyond "professional arguer," someone who has an encyclopedic knowledge of a narrow subcategory of some other profession's work, and whose role is largely that of a handmaiden's: We pinpoint the inconsistencies in that profession's work, or conversely, solve problems by formal inference that they hadn't yet done for themselves.

The problem that I often found in practice and interaction with other philosophers, either in texts or in face-to-face discussion, is that philosophers have this horrible habit of "system building," of musing on a topic so independently that its conclusions either lose relevance to the actual data that they're supposed to survey and assess for clarity and coherence. "System building" is that pretense that laymen feel once they see the philosopher's dastardly habit of trapping themselves in their own neologisms, and then condescending people whose "expertise" (which one can fake with a masterful use of specialist jargon) doesn't assume a full knowledge of the same neologisms.

The heart of the futility of the study and practice of "philosophy" (whatever philosophers themselves dispute that it means) become clearer when you tug at threads that are uncomfortable for philosophers. This is something that no appointed philosopher would sanely do in his own interest. Who would make the academic career move of outlining the logical incoherence of his own profession as a substantial independent study, that is, philosophize "philosophy" away by equating it with its rather dull synonym -- argument, and then show that argument is not really much to squawk at? (Surprisingly, the answer is, "A few..." Wittgenstein, Rorty, and members of the Vienna Circle and Berlin Circle were among them.)

The first is a puzzling paradox. Some philosophers deal in paradoxes, but I've not yet met a philosopher who presented me with a philosophical paradox that, if found to be a mere incoherence (as, say, Russell's or Curry's are), would de-legitimize their profession as a standalone institution. This one, I think, does exactly that.

Philosophers are very keen on taking an area of philosophical or scientific concern, and then appending the prefix meta- to it to expound ideas that would not be acceptable claims within the study itself, but still present themselves as relevant discussions on the whole practice. For instance, metaethics attempts to examine the statements that are made within ethics, without actually doing plain old descriptive ethics. Metaphysics attempts to examine the statements that are made within physics without actually doing plain old descriptive physics. Metalogic...the same.

Every meta-study comes with its own "metalanguage," perhaps none more conspicuous than the metalogic's next-level fabrication of operations (on which I could rant volumes) that clarify the problems no better than the object language of the study already intends.

However, the most paradoxical practice extant in philosophy is "metaphilosophy." I should remark that this is a departmentally productive area. Many philosophers will list metaphilosophy as a specialization on their CV's. Metaphilosophy has a philosophical history and productivity (if this essay isn't an example). If your instincts were to laugh at the entire concept of "metaphilosophy" as a legitimate study, you're actually more justified in that laughter than you might think.

I want you to imagine a man. His job is x. He doesn't know that, though, but he is paid a middle class salary to attend office hours, give lectures, and so forth on topics about which he does have some claimed expertise. Ironically, these are all sub-disciplines of x. Well, like any good academic, he wants to know what x is, so he'll ask himself, "What do I do for a living?" And, amazingly, he'll struggle with the answer. Only in a philosopher does this kind of conundrum hit people. Ask a mechanic what he does, and he'll answer, "I fix cars." Ask what a homeopath or chiropractor does, and he'll give you an answer (again, the practice doesn't have to be legitimate, just provide a coherent answer). Homeopaths dilute stuff in water and call it medicine. Chiropractors crack your back and then scold you for having a cracked back.

Imagine, then, a conversation with a philosopher on this very matter:
  • Inquiring Mind: "What do you do?"
  • Philosopher: "I'm a philosopher."
  • IM: "Oh, I see, and what does a philosopher do?
  • Phil: "Well, we argue about things."
  • IM: "I see, so what makes you different from any other study of anything?"
  • Phil: "Let's see if I could differentiate my role a bit. Studies argue with certain tools. Some are empirical, others are conjectural, and others are formal. Our study is different namely in that we wait for other studies to use their tools to collect reliable data, and then we use just one tool, logically stiff-nosed rhetoric, to outline the coherence or incoherence of the views that such data reasonably imply."
  • IM: "I see, so your job is to take other people's work and sniff out possible problems or solutions that they, themselves, may not see."
  • Phil: "Partly, yes. Our work is also to relate the conclusions and implications of that data to the work of other academics who did our exact jobs in philosophical history."
  • IM: "But don't professionals in those other studies use logically stiff-nosed rhetoric in their own efforts to verify and justify the claims that fall within their domains?"
  • Phil: "Yes, regularly."
  • IM: "I see, so a physicist, for instance, could reasonably do the work of a philosopher. Could a philosopher do the work of a physicist?"
  • Phil: "I guess that would depend on one's training. A physicist could be a philosopher if he had a great knowledge of his study and the implications of his study."
  • IM: "I don't think that would be a problem for a professional physicist."
  • Phil: "Also, a philosopher could be a physicist if he acquired a sufficient speciality in physics."
  • IM: "I see, so it's a downhill climb, academically speaking, for a physicist to be a philosopher, but an uphill climb for a philosopher to be a physicist. It sounds like physicists do harder work than philosophers do."
  • Phil: "It's not that one is harder or easier. They're just different."
  • IM: "Does that mean that a physicist, assuming that he were interested in philosophizing, would lack some knowledge that is fundamental to good philosophy?"
  • Phil: "Most physicists, for instance, don't read much other philosophy. They would have a harder time relating their findings to the thoughts of others."
  • IM: "What about Aristotle, or Galileo, or Newton, or Mach, or Reichenbach, or Einstein, or Heisenberg, or Feynman, or Krauss, or...?"
  • Phil: "Okay, okay! Physicists may very well have tools to offer insight into their own disciplines, but philosophers branch out into many different sub-disciplines."
  • IM: "Right, but couldn't I always produce a list of names of noteworthy professionals in a field that you mention whose work contains significant philosophical merit?"
  • Phil: "The problem, I'm afraid, is that all good arguments have philosophical merit."
  • IM: "Do philosophers know that there are already professionals in their fields who are doing the work that they want to do?"
  • Phil: "If they're worth reading, yes."
  • IM: "Okay, then I'm back to my original question. How is philosophy different from any other study, besides its use of fewer tools than other disciplines use to arrive at their conclusions?"
  • Phil: "I'll have to think on it."
  • IM: "You also mentioned that philosophers compare their data or thoughts with the thoughts of other thinkers in history. What, then, makes him any different from a historian?"
  • Phil: "Well, a historian's main interest is to prove the facts of the occurrences of events, while philosophers would be interested in associating the thoughts of figures to each other."
  • IM: "Doesn't that assume that thinking thoughts aren't events?"
  • Phil: "One could say that."
  • IM: "Well, are they?"
  • Phil: "I think that our intuitions would tell us as much."
  • IM: "A historian then could reasonably do the comparative work that a philosopher does, and then track the development of those thoughts throughout intellectual history."
  • Phil: "Yes, I suppose so."
  • IM: "Would it be an uphill climb, academically, for philosophers to do that job?"
  • Phil: "No, not really. Philosophers are particularly keen on doing this, especially when their own expertise is on the thought of a famous figure in the history of philosophy."
  • IM: "Doesn't that present a problem, though? Philosophers await other thinkers' results, and then they evaluate them rigorously."
  • Phil: "Right."
  • IM: "The problem with that is that philosophers from history are using outdated data from older periods in intellectual history, so their problems may be solved by contemporary developments in those fields, or the philosophers themselves may have used comparatively less reliable data (by contemporary standards) to reach their conclusions, and so have less reliable conclusions."
  • Phil: "This can be the case sometimes."
  • IM: "Why, then, would we care about what they thought outside of mere historical curiosity?"
  • Phil: "Sometimes their conclusions are still true, and we still haven't solved the problems that they've presented. Take the problem of induction. It's a problem that is reserved for philosophers mostly, yet the conclusion affects all natural sciences."
  • IM: "And yet the natural sciences have a method that reliably curtails that problem: falsifiability, abductive reasoning, and fallibility principles."
  • Phil: "I guess they are doing well for themselves."
  • IM: "Are there genuinely philosophical problems, then, or are all philosophical problems hijacked from other areas' problems?"
  • Phil: "I'm afraid that answer would take more time to answer, but feel free to take a few courses to become more acquainted with the study."
  • IM: "I would, but from what you've presented, I could get the same training if I studied anything that interested me outside of philosophy."
Therein lies the paradox of the metaphilosopher. A metaphilosopher is doing is job if, and only if he assumes that he isn't sure of what he does, but assumes that it's more than what he really does. It reduces to a logical error of attempting to argue on something before giving some a clear definiens for that thing that the argument is supposed to address. The metaphilosopher must forge his argument under an indeterminate universe of discourse, which makes his claims arbitrary.

The fact that a person can be paid to ask himself what he does for a living is laughable, namely because it shows exactly how narrow his role of a mere arguer is. The only problem is self-overestimation, which is widespread among philosophers. They "do more than just argue," or so they think. If that were the case, they would already know what those extra roles might be, and they wouldn't have to appeal to their sole tool, argument, to decipher those roles for themselves. Mechanics know that they're mechanics precisely because they fix cars and are paid for doing so. They don't use the act of fixing a car to learn that their job description is auto repair. They don't assume that they "don't just fix cars" (no matter how much Pirsig would want to over-inflate the task). They're clear about their role, and thus work in a sane and sustainable profession. Philosophers don't, and their obsolescence becomes clearer with every leap that every discipline makes and upon which other philosophers feed.

This is why I would prefer not to be called "a philosopher" in any sense more than I'm "a good arguer about certain topics." That's all there is to it, and that's all there is to us.

April 19, 2011

道 = U, The Ethical/Political Side

I posted an entry not too long ago that offered a "set-theoretic reading" of the Daodejing. In it, I claimed that 道 is a primitive attempt to define what we logicians and set theorists call U (the universe of discourse), and then outlined similar claims in the Daodejing that matched true statements of U. At the end, I hinted that this exploration supports Laozi's ethics and politics, as well.

Until I make a link of this sort, much of my previous post would read like it was a highly selective reading, as many areas in the Daodejing appraise common human conduct, but U is most definitely a non-normative domain (it doesn't have any vested interest in human conduct), and without it, my reading would be consistent, but hardly comprehensive. A clear and correct interpretation will avoid that kind of cherry-picking.

Also, these kinds of moves come with many risks of succumbing to "Rand-tardation." We don't want to conflate some tautologous statement for a non-tautologous one, as the ironically labeled "Rational Egoists" do. We want to treat 道 as a device for comparing our lives to those things that are outside of it, and then to adopt the way of life that turns some true predicate of ourselves (P(...a...)) to its complementary predicate (~P(...a...)).
  • 道 doesn't exercise anthropic bias.
"Higher good is like water:
The good in water benefits all, and does so without contention. It rests where people dislike to be, so it is close to the Way."
-- Daodejing, 8:1~8:2 (trans. Thomas Cleary)
Water very much seems like it is not invasive or evasive, and thus cooperates with everything and aids in its survival. However, people don't much like dwelling in caves, rivers, or wells. We don't like the feeling of drowning or of dehydration. Humans share, then, a love-hate relationship with a necessity for human life. People are very much this way about many elements under U. However, for Laozi, this informs us how far the apples (humans) have fallen from the tree (U). U, like 道, isn't competitive or preferential. It really isn't anything but itself. No predicate that describes a specific subset of U can be true of every element in U, and we can show that very few things are true of U itself (all of which follow from operational definitions).

In this sense, 道 cannot itself be a collection of codes, commandments, or definitions for goodness, which is what we expect from an ethics. We cannot "become just as 道 is." The ethics of Laozi's work only apply when we begin to contrast our human condition with the condition of 道.
  • Subsets of U (that is, specially qualified domains of discourse), which include humanity, can provide simple examples for ethical or political heuristics.
Take the following example:
"Retire when your work is done. Such is Heaven's Way."
-- Daodejing, 9:5 (trans. Lin Yutang)
Heaven, the sky above us (天) is not quite the sort of ethereal super-world that we get from other Chinese traditions and Western thinking. Instead, the sky (天) is above us, a sort of upper bound of a set. We are of 天下, of that which is under the heavens (and '天下' is often translated into pronouns like everything, or everybody). Strictly speaking, that translation should belong to 道 if it is U, but we may want to consider the matter under a pre-logical sense of what "being one among everything" would mean here. The 天下 denotes those things which are not U, but which humans interact empirically. For example, after we Anglophones pack our bags into a car, we may say, "That's everything there!" before we close the trunk. However, that's an exaggeration. If it were everything, then it would be the car, too, which would be impossible to pack into its own trunk.

U has so many more elements than any computably large set of elements would, and many of its elements are beyond our observation, yet we can comfortably use everything in plenty of contexts when stipulate all of the constraints for our given discourse. Laozi takes advantage of this feature, and he names domains according to their perceived immensity (or cardinality) to each other.

Laozi regularly refers to 天下 as the entire world, and his claim in Ch.25 is, as one would expect, that 道 is the "mother" (母) (but really, superset) of 天下.
"There was Something undefined and yet complete in itself, born before Heaven-and-Earth.
[It is] silent and boundless, standing alone without change, yet pervading all without fail.
It may be regarded as the Mother of the world. I do not know its name; I style it 'Tao'; and, in the absence of a better word, call it 'The Great.'"
-- Daodejing, 25:1~25:4 (trans. John C.H. Wu)
Here, Laozi is also admitting that 道 is just a stipulated set, just like U. From this, he considers that the "world" (天下) is a subclass of 道.

It is also vacuously true that U contains a "better" (and a "worse") state of being than human life. All of the things that we love or despise about ourselves or each other trace to some fact of some other things in U that are false for us. We get to flee, to fight, to feed, and to fornicate, but we're still fragile, finite, fearful, and fixated. Survival and some pleasure commits us to certain miseries which we could solve entirely by becoming like U is. If we are seeking to be "better" than we are, we are seeking to negate some present fact about ourselves (the part that is "worse"). However, that fact would already be true for some subset of U, so insofar as we make an evaluation of a situation, U already contains the "better" situation.

We cannot become U any more than a child can become its own parent, so our approach can't be one that tries to negate that which is human in us (because we would just switch from one subset of U to another). However, we can remain as humans are and a group of things greater than the set of all humans is. We can, too, consider those things whose traits are "better" than ours are and attempt to have those traits, while still remaining essentially human.

This ancient thinking relies on a pre-scientific stereotyping of individuals into general behavioral tendencies, and so relies on a very stern behavioral essentialism. Entities act differently, but generally still act in ways which define what they are.

The bigger question remains: Why would "retiring when the work is done" be any more like 天, and why would it be "better" than being merely human? Whenever an event in the sky happens, such as the rising and falling of the sun, or the coming and ending of a storm, they come and go exactly as their nature dictates. Most would agree that not overworking or overdoing things, wherever they draw the lines for themselves, is overall a better way of living.

It is important to remember that being "better" here, appeals to universal human preference. It does not presume its own moral "goodness." The supposition here is that the Daodejing would grant as tautologous something of this sort: "If something is good, we will seek it," which becomes a tautology if "being good" reduces to "being preferred." It's been my experience that generating a non-biased hierarchy of preferences for all of humanity is a daunting, but an epistemically and scientifically viable task (in part because sciences can tell us what essential features people have, while philosophy can only guess at them). Normative ethics, which must attempt to guess at human intuition from the armchair of already normative statements, is a failure at this. Laozi, as I mentioned, is not doing normative ethics. It would be much clearer to read him as if he were doing pre-scientific moral psychology.

However, something more cynical is relevant here, and these come from conclusions in Laozi's own inspection of the hegemonies of his time. People have a very peculiar tendency to reflect on themselves as active moral agents once they have the means to do so. Hunter-gatherers don't have time to engage in that kind of reflection, or at least not nearly as much time as first-world citizens have. We have no reason to assume that moral agency is essentially human, and viewing other, simpler cultures informs us of exactly how little is required to make us essentially human. For instance, primitive man didn't have what we might call "social causes." They weren't interested in campaigning or legislating for changes in social contracts, in bidding for hierarchies of power and distinguishing lords from subjects, or in earning the contrivances of social or economic class. Disputes and stakes were originally very small, especially compared to the post-Shang ages.

This, alone, is a challenge to Confucianism. If we're really going to appeal to the past or to tradition, then we should not stop at the time of Yao and Shun, but to the time when they and their ranks never existed. The point is that an appeal to such things is an error. It relies on the assumption that the future cannot ever be any better than the past had been, which is unfounded.

The best demonstration of this view in the text itself (and in my estimation, the best summary of the entire Daodejing's ethical import) comes from Ch.38:
"True virtue is not virtuous. Therefore, it has virtue. Superficial virtue never fails to be virtuous. Therefore, it has no virtue.
True virtue does not "act" And has no intentions. Superficial virtue 'acts,' and always has intentions.
True jen [humanity] 'acts,' but has no intentions. True righteousness 'acts,' but has intentions.
True propriety 'acts,' and if you don't respond, they will roll up their sleeves and threaten you.
Thus, when the Tao is lost there is virtue.
When virtue is lost there is jen, when jen is lost there is Justice, and when Justice is lost there is propriety.
Now 'propriety' is the external appearance of loyalty and sincerity And the beginning of disorder.
Occult abilities are just flowers of the Tao, and the beginning of foolishness.
Therefore the Master dwells in the substantial, and not in the superficial.
[He] rests in the fruit and not in the flower, so let go of that and grasp this. "
-- Daodejing, 38 (trans. Charles Muller)
Laozi gives some very clear reasons to retain our essential humanity and to discard things that are "superficial" (薄). For one, there are no such things as vanity, or political struggle, or inferiority complexes, or fear of punishment, or (Sartre's) "inauthenticity," or lures of deceived notions of "gain" in the essential human being, which is the human being in total isolation. They simply cannot arise, as they demand (to use Sartre again) "the Stare," those sentiments of social pressure that arise because others are attempting to use others as means to their ends. U contains only those things which can exist, but the pitfall of our mental fabrications is their innate susceptibility to being total nonsense -- contradictory propositions under a ludicrous model for organizing the world. If that is the case, we have no obvious reason to assume that the content of those fabrications is greater than the content of ∅, and if it isn't, then we can just as well abandon them because, either way, we're still retaining ∅ as a subset of ourselves essentially, but not distracting ourselves from taking on better characteristics, which we can gain from inspection of 道.

Babies, for instance, have essentially human ends to serve, two of which are nourishment and companionship. However, Laozi recognizes that no hegemony enables such ends, but demonstrably enfeebles them -- for instance, in the recruitment of soldiers, in the levying of taxes, in the impositions of law against one's basic loyalties and impulses, etc. Case in point: Almost everywhere where there is a common religious or state law, suicide is illegal! But what punishments can the state or religion impose on those who complete the crime? And if you save them, haven't you only done so just to punish them in accordance with a trumped-up law or to compel them to submit once more to the very world that makes them seek their own deaths? Vanity! Straight, hegemonic vanity!

Though I am a Yangist, I do side with Laozi on these basic arguments. Only stern arrogance could attempt to reduce humanity to its social roles or political agendas. To believe that the solution to human suffering or the means to better living lies in the submission to even more ad hoc normative guesswork, regardless of its origin, is fruitless, especially when reliable methods for determining the essential nature of humanity exist and people could use that empirical knowledge to enable the satisfaction of human preferences adequately. The best laws of governance will read like they are laws of physics.
"All the world says that my Tao is great, but seems queer, like nothing on earth.
But it is just because my Tao is great that it is [so queer] like nothing on earth!
If it were like anything on earth, how small it would have been from the very beginning!"
-- Daodejing, 67:1~67:3 (trans. John C.H. Wu)

February 19, 2011

道 = U, The Metaphysical Side

For a long time, I've treated 道 (as a noun) as the universe of discourse (U) and treat most literature on 道 as a primitive approach to logical reasoning in a pre-logical society (that is, one where formal logic and deductive proof was not actively developed). I have only discussed my justification for this kind of move in small circles because my intention was to reinterpret the entire Daodejing as a formal treatise of a sort that would earn it more attention from mainstream Analytic philosophers. I've called it a "set-theoretic reading" (you know, like a Marxist reading, just not stupid). The treatise remains a stunted work in progress, though I didn't see any harm in presenting a nice outline version of a major assumption of such a work for early criticism and commentary. That said, here goes...

Most of my justifications for claiming that 道 is U follow from the many comments that discuss features that 道 has or lacks, which I read in an attempt to understand 道 as a set. These are a few of my observations in that attempt:
  • 道 is infinite and the forefather of everything.
"Tao is a hollow vessel, And its use is inexhaustible!
Fathomless! Like the fountain head of all things."
-- Daodejing, 4:1~4:2 (trans. Lin Yutang)
I've deemed this "hollow" and "inexhausible" container (沖) talk as one about the 道 as something such that it does not merely inject to the natural number line, that there are, crudely, infinitely many things which are of 道. If 道 really is U, then it would be a "source of everything" or an "ancestor to everything," at least in the sense that everything about which we could possibly have a discourse would be a subset of or element of U.
  • 道 is abstract, and its empirically known subsets are not 道.
"The tao that can be described is not the eternal Tao."
-- Daodejing 1:1 (trans. Chan)
Chan's translation simplifies a matter very well. When they discuss 道 as a verb (as in "可道"), most translators often translate it to some sort of (often presumed) illocutionary act -- referring, addressing, describing, speaking, telling. This is less than mundane activity for Laozi, since it's practically a litmus test for determining if something is 道, or rather 常道 ("the eternal Tao"). If 道 is U, then Laozi outlining a basic fact about U, that none of its subsets except for those that equal U are U.

My interpretation further presumes that Laozi's "describing" (道, v.) refers to "describing from our five senses." In a pre-logical world, the abstraction of U would always appear as exist "before" the existence of everything else and of anything that we could see, or smell, or taste... The Daodejing offers that kind of treatment. 道, the U, is the source of everything; but more, it doesn't have any of the features of the things that we can access with our five senses.
  • 道 is the union of all possible contraries (whereas the intersection of them would be the empty set, ∅, or "nothing").
"The movement of the Tao By contraries proceeds; And weakness marks the course Of Tao's mighty deeds."
-- Daodejing, 40:1 (trans. James Legge)
"The things of this world come from something; something comes from nothing."
-- Daodejing, 40:2 (trans. Red Pine)
Legge's flowery translation does favorably portray the set-theoretic reading of these lines. The "contraries" (反) are the "action" or "proceedings" (動) of 道, since failing to account for complements of subsets of U would not generate U. People sometimes allude this first sentence to Taijitu, that of complementary forces working together (and seeing the 道 as U would make that move easier) and determining the nature of everything in nature, and for lay primitive theory, that is probably plenty adequate. However, what convinces me more that they're discussing an abstraction prior to set theory is the line that follows it: "Everything comes from something" (that is, everything that we can know is a subset of 道, of U, but also from subsets of 道 or U). "Something comes from nothing," though, interprets more openly under the presumption that 道 is U. There are things that we can derive from the empty set, such as all of the theorems of logic and the definition for natural numbers. However, it's a stretch to believe that Laozi or any pre-Han Chinese thinker had any such thoughts. Instead, thinking prior to a formal means of understanding subsets and nested sets, we may claim that our denotations for things don't "come from" anywhere. They're just presumptions, just in the way that U is a presumption. We need to assume U for discourse on any topic, just as ancient Chinese thinkers need to assume 道 for their discourse on references to make sense. Our noises and scribbles have to correspond to referents, and the collection of those references, in a pre-logical China, would be some part of 道.
  • There are narrowed 道, such as a "Way of the heavens" (天之道) and a "Way of mankind" (人之道). In logic, we can stipulate a narrower U (certain sets of numbers, for instance), but it is still defined as a union of all of the sets and elements that would still fit the definition.
"Heaven's Way (Tao) is good at conquest without strife:
Rewarding (vice and virtue) without words,
Making its appearance without call,
Achieving results without obvious design."
-- Daodejing, 73:3 (trans. Lin Yutang)
The ability to make stipulations like this allows Chinese thinkers to discuss other philosophical areas, especially ethics and politics. However, these metaphysical areas and ethical areas connect together in a very special way for Daoists, especially when it comes to pursuits of 天之道 and 非道, that is, those unchanging and overarching principles the guide our mortal world (and that is, pursuit of truth).

The defense of such a link is not foreign to us. Spinoza, Kant, and Wittgenstein derive their ethical stances from highly (logically) formal considerations of "the world"; and it would not be out of place for the philosophers of ancient China to appeal to an impartial, all-pervasive force (namely, 道) which would inform their ethos, as well. This is the approach that I will take when I approach the Ethical/Political Side, the sense that one could make of Laozi's ethics from a set-theoretic reading of the text.

February 13, 2011

Yang Zhu Does Not Acknowledge the Hooded Man

Earlier, I found a link to someone who was reading Yang Zhu for his language learning (Spanish-Chinese). Something struck me about that passage that reminded me of a rather prevalent paradox in the Western literature -- the Hooded Man. Both are interesting probes at the logic behind reference, particularly about knowledge of references.

The Hooded Man is one of the classic Sorites paradoxes that was introduced by Eubulides of Miletus in the 300's BCE. It has various renditions, but since I'm going to invoke Yang Zhu's parable, I'm going to make it match more closely to his story:
"You say that your dog knows you, but you came in wearing black clothes and he did not know you."
This is the problem that angers Yang Bu in the related parable, which Yang Zhu manages to reason to his brother to calm him:
"Yang Chu said [to Yang Bu]: 'Do not beat him [your dog]. You are no wiser than he. For, suppose your dog went away white and came home black, do you mean to tell me that you would not think it strange?'"
-- Liezi, 8:26 (trans. Lionel Giles)
What I find intriguing about these passages is that Eubilides is proposing a sort of linguistic or logical error to which we are prone, that he is criticizing our misuse of language or our faulty reasoning to express what we mean clearly. Yang Zhu's story is quite different, though. Yang Zhu is using this exact reasoning to show that such claims are not errors, but exactly correct expectations that follow from a straightforward reasoning. Thus, for Yang Zhu, no paradox exists here, just a difference in the two's understanding of reference.

Let's explore this more by using a descriptive theory of reference. The descriptive theory of reference is the theory (attributed largely to Bertrand Russell's essay, "On Denoting") to which Yang Zhu appears to be appealing. In it, our reference to Yang Bu is just relating to all of the things which he uses to define Yang Bu, which we can simplify to mean a variable for which a series of propositions are necessary to isolate just that one element.

We could say, then, that Yang Zhu is assuming the following: "x is (=) Yang Bu only if [P1(...x...) ∧ ... ∧ Pn(...x...)]", where P's are predicate that contains x as an argument. For the Yangist position, referring to Yang Bu is just referring to that x. In "proper names," we usually stipulate a few overlooked definiens, like that there is exactly one x to which the predicates apply, or that it refers to only those features that isolate him from other referents (including, perhaps, that he was named that). The problem is that different people have different definiens which may not always isolate the referent properly. In this case, it is that Yang Bu's dog thinks, "x is Yang Bu only if, among other things, x wears white clothes." He wasn't wearing white when he returned, so his dog barked at him because the dog thought that he wasn't Yang Bu.

What Yang Zhu explains to Yang Bu is that his anger is hypocritical because he reasons in exactly the same way. Yang Bu probably thinks, "x is Yang Bu's dog only if, among other things, he has white fur." The issue of reference, then, could be corrected with some reconsideration of those necessary conditions so that our imprecise communication matches our more precise intentions. (This interestingly turns us to the Heap paradox, which, despite its name, also has a straightforward rebuttal.)

The Hooded Man version, however, does not seem to employ this kind of reasoning. Instead, it makes a criticism of a different sort: "If x is (=) Yang Bu (a), then his dog knows him. x is still Yang Bu even if he wears black clothes, and yet his dog doesn't know him." These two sentences appear to contradict each other, but in fact, they do not. The paradox arises because of an ambiguity in the word to know, which Yang Zhu's explanation to Yang Bu correctly addresses.

But does this cohere with the original passage? We can read the original passage with some definitional contexts, and it doesn't appear to be the case at first glance. The ancient Chinese '知' is equally ambiguous with modern English's to know, unlike Spanish's conocer or saber.

A reading of the 白話 doesn't disambiguate, either, and Mandarin does have a means to disambiguate to know even more than the Latin languages do (including one for techne, one for episteme, and one for acquaintance)...
-- 新譯列子讀本, p.286
...so what avoids this supposed paradox and leads us to the more obvious conclusion?

It seems that both instances are changing the referent to what they didn't know. In the Hooded Man version, the dog doesn't know that Yang Bu is (=) the man in the black clothes. In Yang Zhu's version, the dog doesn't know that Yang Bu changed his clothes after he left. Because Yang Zhu accepted the dog's ignorance of a situation, and thus a failure of recognition, rather than ignorance of fixed entities (as Yang Bu did), it never occurs to Yang Zhu to think of this situation as paradoxical.

February 02, 2011

Yang Zhu, Yang Bu, and the Dog...in Spanish

A (presently anonymous) Spanish blogger and Chinese enthusiast has posted a Spanish translation of a rather popular Yangist anecdote from the 說附 chapter of the Liezi (26). Below is Lionel Giles's English translation of the passage (with links to the whole book's translation here):
"Yang Chu's younger brother, named Pu, went out one day wearing a suit of white clothes. It came on to rain, so that he had to change and came back dressed in a suit of black. His dog failed to recognize him in this garb, and rushed out at him, barking. This made Yang Pu angry, and he was going to give the dog a beating, when Yang Chu said: 'Do not beat him. You are no wiser than he. For, suppose your dog went away white and came home black, do you mean to tell me that you would not think it strange?"
-- Liezi, 8:26 (trans. Lionel Giles)
I have some thing to say about this passage and its possible relevance to the "the Hooded Man" Sorites paradox. Expect one in the coming weeks.

January 30, 2011

Musing on the Pragmatic vs. Semantic Theories of Truth with Mozi

There was a very interesting post about truth that came a few days ago in Warp, Weft, and Way about Hansen's claims that the ancient Chinese thinkers did not use a semantic conception of truth, and that their evaluations for the truth of a claim were pragmatic rather than semantic.

Many people seem to agree on the latter claim. Chinese philosophers were very much more occupied with pragmatics over semantics. In my experience, it just goes with political science's and political philosophy's discourse. For them, truth of a "semantic" or objectively verified sort, is given only the consideration needed to implement a political plan, which is why you'll hear more about "cost-effectiveness" and other issues of expediency outmatching more permanent solutions that come at a significant, even if temporary, inconvenience. Hansen and I agree that the ancient Chinese care about semantic truth (as I qualify it below), or at least opted for true assertions over false ones, but that their arguments and discourse were not in defense a semantic sense of truth and falsehood, but on a pragmatic one.

I'll admit here that I (as a redundancy theorist) don't acknowledge "semantic" truth as a very coherent notion as it is normally discussed the rigors of formal semantics, but I'll entertain their difference as making a distinction between more "scientifically rigorously" true claims, versus pragmatically true (that is, expedient in fulfilling a stated goal).

The best reason that I know to give against the belief that the ancient Chinese philosophers clearly separated pragmatic and semantic theories of truth comes from Mozi. Mozi's work is very much a guided critique of the Confucians and the holes that they leave in their views due to a lack of rigor. Most importantly, the objective measures for a preferred or non-preferred action isn't directly stated in the 儒家 corpus of the time (though the 中庸 may be an effort at exactly that).

The issue with Mozi is that his decided semantic values, 是 and 非, which is the crux of Mohist consideration and consternation, are not easily derived into just plain-old Boolean values. 是非, even now, very much has a normative meaning, and these meanings are not qualified and separated in the Mohist canon, just as they are not so clearly done today (in Chinese-language logic books, 對 and 錯 are the most common natural-language stand-ins for Boolean values). We could take an extremely radical view on this, that Mozi equated or very closely correlated falsehood with evil, but the Mozi does not evidence such a stance.

Mozi's take on the fundaments of (the truth over the matter of) virtue (and the first instance of "是非") read very closely to Peirce's discussion on the methods of tenacity and authority in "A Fixation of Belief":
"古者民始生,未有刑政之時,蓋其語‘人異義’。是以一人則一義,二人則二義,十人則十義,其人茲眾,其所謂義者亦茲眾。是以人是其義,以非 人之義,故文相非也。是以內者父子兄弟作怨惡,離散不能相和合。天下之百姓,皆以水火毒藥相虧害,至有餘力不能以相勞,腐臭餘財不以相分,隱匿良道不以相教,天下之亂,若禽獸然。

"夫明虖天下之所以亂者,生於無政長。是故選天下之賢可者,立以為天子。天子立,以其力為未足,又選擇天 下之賢可者,置立之以為三公。天子三公既以立,以天下為博大,遠國異土之民,是非利害之辯,不可一二而明知,故畫分萬國,立諸侯國君,諸侯國君既已立,以 其力為未足,又選擇其國之賢可者,置立之以為正長。"

"In the beginning of human life, when there was yet no law and government, the custom was 'everybody according to his own idea.' Accordingly each man had his own idea, two men had two different ideas and ten men had ten different ideas -- the more people the more different notions. And everybody approved of his own view and disapproved the views of others, and so arose mutual disapproval among men. As a result, father and son and elder and younger brothers became enemies and were estranged from each other, since they were unable to reach any agreement. Everybody worked for the disadvantage of the others with water, fire, and poison. Surplus energy was not spent for mutual aid; surplus goods were allowed to rot without sharing; excellent teachings (Dao) were kept secret and not revealed. The disorder in the (human) world could be compared to that among birds and beasts.

"Yet all this disorder was due to the want of a ruler. Therefore (Heaven) chose the virtuous in the world and crowned him emperor. Feeling the insufficiency of his capacity, the emperor chose the virtuous in the world and installed them as the three ministers. Seeing the vastness of the empire and the difficulty of attending to matters of right and wrong and profit and harm among peoples of far countries, the three ministers divided the empire into feudal states and assigned them to feudal lords. Feeling the insufficiency of their capacity, the feudal lords, in turn, chose the virtuous of their states and appointed them as their officials."
-- Mozi, 3:1 (trans. W.P. Mei)
The parallel between Peirce and Mozi is uncanny; and like Peirce, Mozi is describing the evolution of brute individual opinion to brute authoritarian opinion as a natural process in the fixation of a certain value. The difference, of course, is that Mozi is obviously more occupied with the fixation of true claims about virtue, and Peirce is more occupied with the fixation of true claims about Mother Nature.

Speaking from a standpoint of schools, a counterexample (and outlier in philosophical thought) is the School of Names (名家), an offshoot school from the Mohists in which Gongsun Longzi is very much toying with semantic truth in his "paradoxes" (which are ancient Chinese syntactic foibles rather than actual paradoxes). These discussions do seriously attend to the semantic conception of truth, of the acceptance of belief in statements that are not ethically laden or distracted with secondary evaluations. That, alone, should refute the claim that the ancient Chinese didn't have or use a "semantic" theory of truth. There were a group of thinkers who were targeting sloppy language and deliberately forming absurd conclusions in order to consider the truth of a matter independently of other valuations which distract from an evaluation for soundness, alone.

It's not that Chinese philosophers didn't argue that statements should be rejected because they are false (How else are they to challenge each other about the nature of 天, or 命, or 德 and still be worth taking philosophically seriously?), but that they did so in a roundabout way. Pragmatic arguments argue that implementation of a supposed plan will or will not yield the consequences that the plan proposes to produce or that the plan produces or does not produce more strongly undesired consequences than desired ones. This, just as much as any "less pragmatic" argument, is still an argument about facts, just facts over a different domain. The more scientifically rigorous, semantic argument ignores one's desires (it is impartial, like Laozi's 天), but just considers the consequences on their own terms. This narrower sense of truth is of greater appeal because it covers pragmatic arguments, as well; and if the general argument in politics is, "Plan x will or will not increase the people's general well-being," a "semantic" argument becomes indistinguishable from a "pragmatic" one. They'll all be truth-apt arguments that can be assessed for their own validity and soundness (that is, confirmation by experience).

January 23, 2011

Online Find: Cultural Studies Small Book Collection -- Yang Zhu (國學小叢書 -- 楊朱)

Another friend has located yet another online collection of Chinese-language philosophical resources. The most pertinent to this wedge of the Internet is a summary text of the life and thought of (who else?) Yang Zhu. The text is dated, but ought to make great winter reading. The most pertinent reading to recent conversations that I've had on Yangism begins on p.43. Like always, I'll have some reviews of the chapters as they're completed.

January 11, 2011

Jared Lee Loughner: Opinionation, Obsession, and Obliviousness

I was almost going to pass off this man as a fallacious, headstrong, hyper-politicized pseudo-philosopher with no means to a platform but violence -- a sort of young Ted Kaczynski, except without the academic merits and anti-fiat rather than anti-industrialism fanaticism. In fact, before posting this, I recommended that Gary Curtis write a post about this guy on his blog because his blog likely acquires a much greater readership than mine does. He declined, so I'll settle for writing the post myself. Stupidity of this magnitude really is too great to ignore.

For me, this story is personally compelling for a number of reasons:
  • I have a huge interest in reasoning, especially through formal grammar and formal logic. Loughner apparently believed that he was an expert logician because he took an introductory logic class at Pima Community College (though his college professors there commented that he was a terrible student). In this respect, I can sympathize somewhat with Loughner's obsession with syllogistic reasoning and attempts at original and critical thought.
  • Loughner's (accused) murder of six people vindicates my strong belief that illogic is not benign and that "a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing." His ignorance of the fundamentals of logic, like the distinction between validity and soundness, and ass-backwards, meta-linguistic prattle speak volumes to the disasters that follow when people begin to imagine that they are geniuses or great visionaries before they demonstrate as much to anyone besides themselves. Loughner stands as a poster child for intellectual arrogance and dilettantism.
  • All philosophically well-trained people seek to show people who might let rhetoric alone sway them that grammars and logic are so powerful because they are so impersonal and not distracted by matters that are irrelevant to maximal coherence and the preservation of truth in arguments.
  • Loughner is an egoTist, but may or may not be an egoist, and we egoists may delineate ourselves well from this regular confusion by showing that that self-prioritization does not entail self-absorption.
  • At the time of this posting, I'm convinced that surviving a gunshot to the head while promoting free speech and open governmental engagement with the public is, among other things, a hugely compelling platform for Gabrielle Giffords' Presidential nomination in 2016 (No, there is no fan site!). We won't know until much later if she'll be will be able to serve at her present job in Congress, but I'd be amazed if she recovers and does not find immense political ascent because of it.
  • I was born and raised for the most part in Arizona, and I earned my B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University.
  • I've met other people like Loughner who were repulsed by logic and who came with their assumptions about how logic "ought to work", accusations that logic and grammar "didn't work in real life," or that they are "too controlling." I regularly worry that this population endangers me because these people do not bother to check themselves before they wreck themselves.
In my experience browsing introductory logic textbooks (which I did when I was teaching some children the basics of propositional logic and predicate logic), except equivocation, Loughner's fallacies are unsurprisingly not ones that people regularly learn in introductory logic classes. Many of them are really issues about abuses of language, especially the following four:
  1. Reification. -- This is the fallacy of confusing terms with referents for terms. More specifically, the reification fallacy occurs when one assumes that any lexeme or definition that one makes will necessarily contain a referent. Loughner believed that he was some sort of master of "conscience dreaming." However, conscience dreaming is just a noun phrase. It has no clear referent. I can only gather that Loughner believed that he was doing something very significant, but no one could know unless he explained what he was demarcating with his terms.
    • Here's an easy demonstration of the reification error: For argument, I'll say that I know everything about wigglewomps. Now, the term wigglewomp is meaningless because no speaker of any language knows what the referent for that term is because no one has defined it, and I haven't given any examples of what counts or doesn't count as a wigglewomp. My assertion of an expertise in wigglewomps, then, is just a vacuous truth until I show that there is a referent for the term that I am using.
    • More formally, the reification fallacy is this incorrect inference:
      1. I have a definition for x.
      2. Therefore, x exists.
  2. Neologism. -- Neologism is just a dime word that refers to a new coinage, usually a special qualification in the definition of a term that we regularly use. Sometimes an arguer will introduce a new lexeme and a new definition; but in other instances, he'll just change the definitions for terms that we regularly use. Neologism isn't a fallacy, per se, but it is a risky tactic in argument because it easily leads to equivocation and reification. Many arguers trap themselves in their solely comprehensible domains of discourse, and when that arguer fails to properly interpret his specialized terms and meanings against more common ones, he puts himself at constant risk of equivocating his new coinage with those coinages that are more familiar. Deceptive arguers use this trick deliberately in the hopes that a listener will not remember that his specialized definition was used in the argument, and thus enable the arguer's equivocation of their meanings later. What does he imagine a "mind controller," or the phrase "the first year in B.C.E." means?
  3. Equivocation. -- Equivocation occurs when someone treats two words with distinct meanings as though they were the same thing. This is exacerbated by superficial similarities among terms: homonymy, homophony, inexact synonymy, etc.
  4. Mere Validity. -- It is very easy to weave logically consistent ideas in artificially closed domains. Fiction is a clear example of this. However, even if the argument form is valid, it does not mean that the conclusions or premises are true. Loughner uses one rule of inference exclusively in his dialogs, modus ponens, and on his way he picked up a funny trick to convince himself of his statements (or so I'll accuse). In the conditional statement of his modus ponens arguments (e.g. P ⇒ Q), he wrote whatever he wanted to conclude as the consequent of that statement (Q) and then made any trivial action with minimal relevance to it the antecedent (P). He then stated the antecedent, and then, by modus ponens, his sought assertion followed.
    • Loughner's worst blunder is in this video, wherein he argues that his definition of a terrorist is implied by the fact that he defines it as such. His conclusion is true (and lifted from a dictionary), but the conditional premise is demonstrably false. I could define a terrorist to be all men who drink tea at noon, but that does not mean that terrorists are all men who drink tea at noon unless I make an excruciating effort in my use of terrorist* to ignore all of the connotations of the more common homonym, terrorist. Loughner does not do this. He rather uses the reification fallacy as the conditional premise.
    • It is also false that calling someone something bad implies that the argument that led to that description is ad hominem. I argue that Loughner is a murderer, but the argument that supports that assertion is not ad hominem.
In this pre-trial stage of the massacre, people seem to be very prone to speculate on the motives of the accused. If his uploaded videos and other online postings comprise his manifesto, there isn't any clear link. Nothing appears to imply that he must try to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords because some scribbled inference told him that he should do it.

However, there are aspects to his rhetoric that convince me that he thought in severe isolation. His attempted arguments don't try to address contrary objections. I see this happening a lot on Internet forums, personal blogs, and social networking sites. Users begin to write the opinions that they have on some topics where they have self-proclaimed insight or expertise, but don't really access resources that give the sort of criticisms that prompt the people to reconsider or revise one's already asserted position. There are definite problems that arise when the method of tenacity, even when it feigns logical rigor, dominates one's perspectives. Intellectual humility and falsifiability didn't even occur to this man, and many similar people who just close their ears to fallibility eventually convince themselves that their musings are divine. Loughner's actions are just a current instance that evidences such a claim.

UPDATE, 1/20/2011:

"I could say something sound right now, but I don't feel like it."
-- Jared Lee Loughner
I guess that he'll get around to it someday.

January 05, 2011

Altruism Wanes with Opportunity for Egoistic Gain

This comes from a presentation that was done by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Their talk claims that experimental data suggests that altruistic acts occur when one's options are closed to giving or keeping a gain, but that they always slide into egoistic tendencies when their options present them. Steven presents the aforesaid trend as a desire to seem altruistic to some imaginary audience, and has construed even the act of giving as an act of egoism, and thus he argues that all acts are still egoistic, just cooperatively so.

One aspect of the experiment that may lead these experiments' subjects to give their money may be risk-aversion in light of unexpected consequences. People are generally unaccustomed to instant rewards, and so might initially greet the experiment with skepticism, and thus try to hint at a willingness to cooperate with an imagined group of intra-experimental reciprocators. One way to test against this is to re-invite all of those subjects to see how much they'll give or take in subsequent scenarios, and then to check against an anticipated rate of profit for partaking in the experiment. It's not clear from this presentation that they've done this, but it would be interesting to see what changes might result. Highly egoistic results in light of this kind of test would speak very much to the vindication of psychological egoism.

January 01, 2011

Solutions to the Is-Ought Problem

There are two solutions to the is-ought problem: Define sentences that use ought normatively in terms of merely factual propositions, or deny that ought is meaningful at all. I'm going to present one way to do the former, and in doing so, undo the philosophical study of ethics by reducing it into studies for other fields.

I know that sounds a bit big-headed at first. We've had the unresolved is-ought problem for as long as we've had Hume's philosophy, whose most relevant passages that establish the is-ought problem can be found in A Treatise of Human Nature:
"Those who affirm that virtue is nothing but a conformity to reason; that there are eternal fitnesses and unfitnesses of things, which are the same to every rational being that considers them; that the immutable measures of right and wrong impose an obligation, not only on human creatures, but also on the Deity himself: All these systems concur in the opinion, that morality, like truth, is discerned merely by ideas, and by their juxta-position and comparison. In order, therefore, to judge of these systems, we need only consider, whether it be possible, from reason alone, to distinguish betwixt moral good and evil, or whether there must concur some other principles to enable us to make that distinction.
"If morality had naturally no influence on human passions and actions, it were in vain to take such pains to inculcate it; and nothing would be more fruitless than that multitude of rules and precepts, with which all moralists abound. Philosophy is commonly divided into speculative and practical; and as morality is always comprehended under the latter division, it is supposed to influence our passions and actions, and to go beyond the calm and indolent judgments of the understanding. And this is confirmed by common experience, which informs us, that men are often governed by their duties, and are detered from some actions by the opinion of injustice, and impelled to others by that of obligation.
"Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be derived from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already proved, can never have any such influence. Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.
"No one, I believe, will deny the justness of this inference; nor is there any other means of evading it, than by denying that principle, on which it is founded. As long as it is allowed, that reason has no influence on our passions and action, it is in vain to pretend, that morality is discovered only by a deduction of reason. An active principle can never be founded on an inactive; and if reason be inactive in itself, it must remain so in all its shapes and appearances, whether it exerts itself in natural or moral subjects, whether it considers the powers of external bodies, or the actions of rational beings.
"It would be tedious to repeat all the arguments, by which I have proved [Book II. Part III. Sect 3.], that reason is perfectly inert, and can never either prevent or produce any action or affection, it will be easy to recollect what has been said upon that subject. I shall only recall on this occasion one of these arguments, which I shall endeavour to render still more conclusive, and more applicable to the present subject.
"Reason is the discovery of truth or falshood. Truth or falshood consists in an agreement or disagreement either to the real relations of ideas, or to real existence and matters of fact. Whatever, therefore, is not susceptible of this agreement or disagreement, is incapable of being true or false, and can never be an object of our reason. Now it is evident our passions, volitions, and actions, are not susceptible of any such agreement or disagreement; being original facts and realities, compleat in themselves, and implying no reference to other passions, volitions, and actions. It is impossible, therefore, they can be pronounced either true or false, and be either contrary or conformable to reason."
-- David Hume, (A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part 1)
I'm going to eliminate the issue formally by actually showing how normative claims are made and how we can undo the error that "a conformity to reason" does not yield claims whose illocutions are different from a speaker's assertion of facts.
How do we even argue ethics in non-academic environments? Well, it's complicated, but I think that we could simplify it with a sample dialog. Suppose that someone (A) says the following to another person (B):
A: You really ought to quit smoking.
B likes to smoke. He has no intention of quitting, and he doesn't really appreciate A's prescriptive tone, so we can reasonably say that a conversation of this sort might continue with this:
B: Why should I?
How does A (or anyone who asserts what another person ought to do) respond? Well, he probably does so most easily by saying this:
A: You ought to quit smoking because Φn.
Here, Φn is just some other sentence or sentences (which we can translate into logical forms and then define into a single proposition), all of which argue [Φn ⇒ *Ought*(b,Φm)] ∧ [*Ought*(b,Φm) ≝ "B ought to quit smoking." (or an equivalent translation of that sentence)]. This is a problem for the is-ought problem because we are always arguing for prescriptions on the basis of assertions of fact. This means that we're always going about ethics the wrong way (that is, arguing on facts for a proposal of what we ought to do) or it means that normative or prescriptive claims translate into some sort of truth-apt assertions to make the discourse coherent.

The issues that are at the center of all ethics are just these questions: What is this Φn, exactly, and what axioms prove Φn? All of the schools of contemporary normative and metaethics answer these questions in different ways, but they never deny that the model under which the problem arises doesn't exist. No one argues that arguments for and against normative claims and prescriptions don't exist, that people don't actually argue this way. Ethicists' burdens are to interpret what the arguments assert and then to argue why they are correct or incoherent.

It's pretty straightforward from here. We have no reason to deny that Φn exists. In fact, logic tells us that there are trivially many reasons that we could pose for *Ought*(b,Φm) via the weakening rule ([P ⇒ [Q ⇒ P]]). Our burden, however, is not the providence of just any assertions that we could vacuously write as sufficient conditions for *Ought*(b,Φm) because *Ought*(b,Φm) is what someone in B's situation is denying (B asserts ¬*Ought*(b,Φm)). Φn must convince B of *Ought*(b,Φm).

Here are just a few examples of what Φn could be:
Φn1: A: Smoking causes lung cancer.
Φn2: A: I'll kill you [B] right now if you don't quit smoking.
Φn3: A: You're smoking at a gas station.
Φn4: A: I am speaking on behalf of God.
These examples of false and true assertions could convince B. But we should always remember that B may very well have retorts (Φo) that frustrate A's effort to convince him of Φm. For some instances:
Φo1: B: Good! I hope I die of lung cancer!
Φo2: B: You couldn't kill a fly, pussy!
Φo3: B: This is a smokeless cigarette.
Φo4: B: God doesn't exist.
However, all of these assume some coherent means of blocking an argument which we could express as follows: That I ought do something means that all of the propositions which identify what it means to say that I ought do something are true. When we do this, however, we also outline all of the merely factual propositions (Φq) that comprise the prescriptive proposition *Ought*(b,Φm).

Below I have produced a model that has some decent efficacy in outlining all of the constituents of a prescriptive or normative statement, which I will write from A's perspective:
  1. You, B (b), want Φp. [Want*(b,Φp)]
  2. You want that you don't want Φp, but that you get it. [*Want*(b,¬*Want*(b,Φp)) ∧ *Want*(b,*Get*(b,Φp))]
  3. If you get Φp, then you won't want Φp. [*Get*(b,Φp) ⇒ ¬*Want*(b,Φp))]
  4. You are more likely get Φp given Φm, but are less likely to get Φp given not-Φm. [P(*Get*(b,Φp)|Φm) > P(*Get*(b,Φp)|¬Φm)]
  5. Your doing something is Φm. [Φm = *Do*(...b...)].
  6. That you ought Φm is the previous assertions (Φq) 1 through 5. [*Ought*(b,Φm) = [Φq1 ∧ [Φq2 ∧ [Φq3 ∧ [Φq4 ∧ [Φq5]]]]]]
  7. The facts of Φn imply (4).n[P(*Get*(b,Φp)|Φm) > P(*Get*(b,Φp)|¬Φm)]]
English has made good progress in conflating two different senses of the word ought, which has made this reduction much easier to achieve than it would be in a different language that differentiated its predictive sense (e.g. "He ought to be here by now,") over its more obligatory sense (e.g. "People ought to floss their teeth regularly."). This ambiguity is actually a good clarification, as ethical statements, then, reduce into wants and expectations of others' wants, and those things can be empirically investigated matters. The prescriptive language is some simple abbreviation for the more complex argumentation, but that argumentation is not, itself, moral, just a common tool of speech that we use to influence social behavior (which is what language primarily does for us).

The problem with our regular talks on these subjects is that we (when we resemble people A) assume all of the assertions that we don't make in a discourse, all of which we (when we resemble people B) can quite easily deny. We're not challenging what "ought be" on the grounds of some other prescription (because we could always regress by demanding more justification for that prescription) or another "value on High". We just submit and challenge them on the grounds of the assertions of our wants and incentives.

We can look at Φn again, but this time add the remaining constituents to make them more closely match the members of Φq. We can see that by explicitly stating Φq1 and Φq4 and some immediately accepted consequences from the assertions that were made above parenthetically, that A has indeed presumed these facts when he was arguing with B.
Φn1: A: Smoking causes lung cancer.
(You don't want to die of lung cancer, but you more likely will if you continue smoking, yet you more likely won't if you stop smoking.)

Φn2: A: I'll kill you [B] right now if you don't quit smoking.
(You want not for me to kill you, and I more likely will if you do continue smoking, and I more likely won't if you stop smoking.)

Φn3: A: You're smoking at a gas station.
(If you smoke at a gas station, you more probably will explode. You want not to explode, and you more probably won't explode if you quit smoking.)

Φn4: A: I am speaking on behalf of God.
(God is vengeful if ye obeyeth not his Word. He shall not smite thee if ye cease thy smoking; but his wrath will be upon you with such continued acts of sin. To the more, you wish not be smitten by him.)
If I have not yet convinced you that you are talking about facts over wants specifically when you are making prescriptions, I'll leave comments open to objections. (This skeleton should present enough to state objections to the details or to request them if you want them.)

I have mentioned already that this tactic of reinterpretation completely removes ethics as a self-standing philosophical study. Any issue over what all people ought to do will have to comprehend the universal wants of humanity or the universal facts that determine all people's individual wants. No philosopher will be able to give an adequate account of such things, since individual objections regarding personal wants cannot be refuted by mere logical analysis. Ethicists and other philosophers have to take many of their assertions at face-value. For instance, a philosopher often cannot reasonably charge that one's claims to have peculiar or unfeasible wants are self-deceptive. His investigative tools are just inadequate to raise that kind of objection. The tools for the sincere investigation of human nature must be empirical, not philosophical. Without this direct interference against philosophical musing on ethics, all claims over what is "right" versus "wrong" remain, as some disgruntled commentators have rightly seen it, veiled emotional battles for singular Utopian ideals.