Monday, December 29, 2014

"The Tyrant's Headache" in Sci Phi Journal

According to a broad class of materialist views, conscious experiences -- such as the experience of pain -- do not supervene on the local physical state of the being who is having those conscious experiences. Rather, they depend in part on the past evolutionary or learning history of the organism (Fred Dretske) or on what is "normal" for members of its group (David Lewis). These dependencies are not just causal but metaphysical: The very same (locally defined) brain state might be experienced as pain by one organism as as non-pain by another organism, in virtue of differences in the organisms' past history or group membership, even if the two organisms are molecule-for-molecule identical at the moment in question.

Donald Davidson's Swampman example is typically used to make this point vivid: You visit a swamp. Lightning strikes, killing you. Simultaneously, through incredibly-low-odds freak quantum chance, a being who is molecule-for-molecule identical to you emerges from the swamp. Does this randomly-congealed Swampman, who lacks any learning history or evolutionary history, experience pain when it stubs its toe? Many people seem to have the hunch or intuition, that yes, it would; but any externalist who thinks that consciousness requires a history will have to say no. Dretske makes clear in his 1995 book that he is quite willing to accept this consequence. Swampman feels no pain.

But Swampman cases are only the start of it! If pain depends, for example, on what is normal for your species, then one ought to be able to relieve a headache by altering your conspecifics -- for example, by killing enough of them to change what is "normal" for your species: anaesthesia by genocide. And in general, any view that denies local supervenience while allowing the presence or absence of pain to depend on other currently ongoing events (rather than only on events in the past) should allow that there will be conditions under which one can end one's own pain by changing other people even without any changes in one's own locally-defined material configuration.

To explore this issue further, I invented a tyrant with the headache, who will do anything to other people to end his headache, without changing any of his own relevant internally-defined brain states.

"The Tyrant's Headache" is a hybrid between a science fiction story and an extended philosophical thought experiment. It has just come out in Sci Phi Journal -- a new journal that publishes both science fiction stories and philosophical essays about science fiction. The story/essay is behind a paywall for now ($3.99 at Amazon or Castalia House). But consider buying! Your $3.99 will support a very cool new journal, and it will get you, in addition to my chronicle of the Tyrant's efforts to end his headache (also featuring David K. Lewis in magician's robes), three philosophical essays about science fiction, eight science fiction stories that explore other philosophical themes, part of a continuing serial, and a review. $3.99 well spent, I hope, and dedicated to strengthening the bridge between science fiction and philosophy.

[See also Anaesthesia by Genocide, David Lewis, and a Materialistic Trilemma]

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Moral World of Dreidel

I used to think dreidel was a poorly designed game of luck. Now I realize that its "bugs" are really features! Dreidel is the moral world in minature.

Primer for goys: You sit in a circle with friends or relatives and take turns spinning a wobbly top (the dreidel). In the center of the circle is a pot of several foil-wrapped chocolate coins. If the four-sided top lands on the Hebrew letter gimmel, you take the whole pot and everyone needs to contribute to the pot again. If it lands on hey, you take half the pot. If it lands on nun, nothing happens. If it lands on shin, you put a coin in. Then the next player takes a turn.

It all sounds very straightforward, until you actually start to play the game.

First off: Some coins are big, others little. If the game were fair, all the coins would be the same size, or at least there would be clear rules about tradeoffs or about when you're supposed to contribute your big coins and little coins. Also, there's never just one driedel, and the dreidels all seem to be uneven and biased. (This past Hannukah, my daughter Kate and I spun a sample of dreidels 40 times each. One in particular landed on shin an incredible 27/40 spins. [Yes, p < .001, highly significant, even with a Bonferroni correction.]) No one agrees whether you should round up or round down with hey; no one agrees when the game should end or how low the pot should be before you all have to contribute again. (You could look at various alleged authorities on the internet, but people prefer to argue and employ varying house rules.) No one agrees whether you should let someone borrow coins if they run out, or how many coins to start with. Some people hoard their coins; others slowly unwrap and eat them while playing, then beg and borrow from their wealthy neighbors.

You can, if you want, always push things to your advantage: Always contribute the smallest coins you can, always withdraw the biggest coins you can, insist on using what seems to be the "best" dreidel, always argue for rule-interpretations in your favor, eat your big coins and use that as a further excuse to only contribute little ones, etc. You could do all this without ever once breaking the rules, and you'd probably end up with the most chocolate as a result.

But here's the brilliant part: The chocolate isn't very good. After eating a few coins, the pleasure gained from further coins is pretty minimal. As a result, almost all the children learn that they would rather enjoy being kind and generous than they would enjoy hoarding up more coins. The pleasure of the chocolate doesn't outweigh the yucky feeling of being a stingy, argumentative jerk. After a few turns of maybe pushing only small coins into the pot, you decide you should put a big coin in next time, even though the rules don't demand it -- just to be fair to others, and to be perceived as fair by them.

Of course, it also feels bad always to be the most generous one -- always to put in big, take out small, always to let others win the rules-arguments, etc., to play the sucker or self-sacrificing saint. Dreidel is a practical lesson in discovering the value of fairness both to oneself and others, in a context where proper interpretation of the rules is unclear, and where there are norm violations that aren't rule violations, and where both norms and rules are negotiable, varying from occasion to occasion -- just like life itself, but with only mediocre chocolate at stake.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Nussbaum on the Moral Bright Side of Literature

In Poetic Justice, her classic defense of the moral value of the "literary imagination", Martha Nussbaum writes about the children's song "Twinkle, twinkle little star" that:

the fact is that the nursery song itself, like other such songs, nourishes the ascription of humanity, and the prospect of friendship, rather than paranoid sentiments of being persecuted by a hateful being in the sky. It tells the child to regard the star as "like a diamond," not like a missile of destruction, and also not like a machine good only for production and consumption. In this sense, the birth of fancy is non-neutral and does, as Dickens indicates, nourish a generous construction of the seen (p. 39).
Nussbaum also argues that the literary imagination favors the oppressed over the aristocracy:
Whitman calls his poet-judge an "equalizer." What does he mean? Why should the literary imagination be any more connected with equality than with inequality, or with democratic rather than aristocratic ideals?... When we read [the Dickens novel] Hard Times as sympathetic participants, our attention has a special focus. Since the sufferings and anxieties of the characters are among the central bonds between reader and work, our attention is drawn in particular to those characters who suffer and fear. Characters who are not facing any adversity simply do not hook us in as readers (p. 90).
Does listening to nursery rhymes and reading literature cultivate generous and sympathetic friendship, across class and ethic divides, as Nussbaum seems to think it does? Maybe so! But the evidence isn't really in yet. Nursery rhymes can also be dark and unsympathetic -- "Rock-a-Bye Baby", "Jack and Jill" -- and I must say that it seems to me that aristocrats are over-represented in literature, the more common targets of our sympathies, than are the poor. We sympathize with Odysseus, with Hamlet, with the brave knight, with the wealthy characters in Eliot, James, and Fitzgerald, and we tend to overlook the servants around them, except in works intentionally written (as Hard Times was) to turn our eyes toward the working class. True, if these characters had no adversities, they wouldn't engage us; but Hamlet suffers adversity enough to capture sympathy despite ample wealth.

Children's literature (especially pre-Disney) mocks and chuckles and laughs callously at suffering as much as it expresses the ideals of wonder and friendship. Children's literature represents the full moral range of human impulses, for good and bad; it would be surprising if that were not so. The same with movies, novels, television, every medium. And "fancy" -- that is, the metaphorical imagination (p. 38) -- can be quite dark and paranoid (especially at night), and sadistic, and sexual, and vengeful, and narcissistic. Fancy is as morally mixed as those who do the fancying.

One might even argue, contra Nussbaum, that there is an aristocratic impulse in literature, a default tendency to present as its focal figures people of great social power, since the socially powerful are typically the ones who do the most exciting things on which the future of their worlds depends. The literary eye is drawn to Lincoln and Caesar and their equivalents, more than to the ordinary farmer who never leaves his land. It takes an egalitarian effort to excite the reader equally about the non-great. And although we are sympathetic with focal figures, the death of non-focal figures (e.g., foes in battle) might tend to excite less sympathy in literature than in real life.

Nussbaum has cherry picked her sample. She might be right that, on balance, we are morally improved by a broad consumption of literature. (Or at least by "good" literature? But let's be careful about what we build into "good" here, lest we argue in a circle.) But if so, I don't think the case can be made on the grounds that literature tends, overall, to be anti-aristocratic and broadly sympathetic. Nor do I think there is much direct empirical evidence on this question, such as longitudinal studies comparing the moral behavior and attitudes those extensively exposed to literature to those not so exposed. (Impressionistically, I'd say literature professors don't seem much morally better, for all their exposure, than others of similar education and social background with less exposure; but the study has never been done.)

It's an interesting and important issue, what are the moral effects of reading literature -- but in my mind, wide open.

[Image source]

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Moral Order and Immanent Justice

Let's say the world is morally ordered if good things come to those who act morally well and bad things come to those who act morally badly.

Moral order admits of degrees. We might say that the world is perfectly morally ordered if everyone gets exactly what they morally deserve, perfectly immorally ordered if everyone gets the opposite of what they morally deserve, and has no moral order if there's no relationship between what one deserves and what one gets.

Moral order might vary by subgroup of individuals considered. Perhaps the world is better morally ordered in 21st century Sweden than it was in 1930s Russia. Perhaps the world is better morally ordered among some ethnicities or social classes than among others. Class differences highlight the different ways in which moral order can fail: Moral order can fail among the privileged if they do not suffer for acting badly, can fail among the disadvantaged if they do not benefit from acting well.

Moral order might vary by action type. Sexual immorality might more regularly invite disaster than financial immorality, or vice versa. Kindness to those you know well might precipitate deserved benefits or undeserved losses more dependably than kindness to strangers.

Moral order can be immanent or transcendent. Transcendent moral order is ensured by an afterlife. Immanent moral order eschews the afterlife and is either magical (mystical attraction of good or bad fortune) or natural.

Some possible natural mechanisms of immanent moral order:

* A just society. Obviously.

* A natural attraction to morality of the sort Mencius finds in us. Our hearts are delighted, Mencius says, when we see people do what's plainly good and revolted when we see people do what's plainly wrong. Even if this impulse is weak, it might create a constant pressure to reward people for doing the right and revile them for doing the wrong; and it might add pleasure to one's own personal choices of the right over the wrong.

* The Dostoyevskian and Shakespearian psychological reactions to crime. Crime might generate fear of punishment or exposure, including exaggerated fear; it might lead to a loss of intimacy with others if one must hide one's criminal side from them; and it might encourage further crimes, accumulating risk.

* Shaping our preferences toward noncompetitive goods over competitive ones. If you aim to be richer than your neighbors, or more famous, or triumphant in physical, intellectual, or social battle, then you put your happiness at competitive risk. The competition might encourage morally bad choices; and maybe success in such aims is poorly morally ordered or even negatively morally ordered. Desires for non-competitive goods -- the pleasures of shared friendship and a good book -- seem less of a threat to the moral order (though books and leisure time are not free, and so subject to some competitive pressures). And if it's the case that we can find as much or more happiness in easily obtainable non-competitive goods, then even if wealth goes to the jerks, the world might be better morally ordered than it at first seems.

How morally ordered is the world? Do we live in a world where the knaves flourish while the sweethearts are crushed underfoot? Or do people's moral choices tend to come back around to them in the long run? No question, I think, is more central to one's general vision of the world, that is, to one's philosophy in the broad and and proper sense of "philosophy". All thoughtful people have at least implicit opinions about the matter, I think -- probably explicit opinions, too.

Yet few contemporary philosophers address the issue in print. We seem happy to leave the question to writers of fiction.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Knowing Something That You Think Is Probably False

I know where my car is parked. It's in the student lot on the other side of the freeway, Lot 30. How confident am I that my car is parked there? Well, bracketing radically skeptical doubts, I'd say about 99.9% confident. I seem to have a specific memory of parking this morning, but maybe that specific memory is wrong; or maybe the car has been stolen or towed or borrowed by my wife due to some weird emergency. Maybe about once in every three years of parking, something like that will happen. Let's assume (from a god's-eye perspective) that no such thing has happened. I know, but I'm not 100% confident.

Justified degree of confidence doesn't align neatly with the presence or absence of knowledge, at least if we assume that it's true that I know where my car is parked (with 99.9% confidence) but false that I know that my lottery ticket will lose (despite 99.9999% confidence it will lose). (For puzzles about such cases, see Hawthorne 2004 and subsequent discussion.) My question for this post is, how far can this go? In particular, can I know something about which I'm less than 50% confident?

"I know that my car is parked in Lot 30; I'm 99.9% confident it's there." -- although that might sound a little jarring to some ears (if I'm only 99.9% confident, maybe I don't really know?), it sounds fine to me, perhaps partly because I've soaked so long in fallibilist epistemology. "I know that my car is parked in Lot 30; I'm 80% confident it's there." -- this sounds a bit odder, though perhaps not intolerably peculiar. Maybe "I'm pretty sure" would be better than "I know"? But "I know that my car is parked in Lot 30; I'm 40% confident it's there." -- that just sounds like a bizarre mistake.

On the other hand, Blake Myers-Schulz and I have argued that we can know things that we don't believe (or about which we are in an indeterminate state between believing and failing to believe). Maybe some of our cases constitute knowledge of some proposition simultaneously with < 50% confidence in that proposition?

I see at least three types of cases that might fit: self-deception cases, temporary doubt cases, and mistaken dogma cases.

Self-deception. Gernot knows that 250 pounds is an unhealthy weight for him. He's unhappy about his weight; he starts half-hearted programs to lose weight; he is disposed to agree when the doctor tells him that he's too heavy. He has seen and regretted the effects of excessive weight on his health. Nonetheless he is disposed, in most circumstances, to say to himself that he's approximately on the fence about whether 250 pounds is too heavy, that he's 60% confident that 250 is a healthy weight for him and 40% confident he's too heavy.

Temporary doubt. Kate studied hard for her test. She knows that Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, and that's what she writes on her exam. But in the moment of writing, due to anxiety, she feels like she's only guessing, and she thinks it's probably false that Elizabeth died in 1603. 1603 is just her best guess -- a guess about which she feels only 40% confident (more confident than about any other year).

Mistaken dogma. Kaipeng knows (as do we all) that death is bad. But he has read some Stoic works arguing that death is not bad. He feels somewhat convinced by the Stoic arguments. He'd (right now, if asked) sincerely say that he has only a 40% credence that death is bad; and yet he'd (right now, if transported) tremble on the battlefield, regret a friend's death, etc. Alternatively: Karen was raised a religious geocentrist. She takes an astronomy class in college and learns that the Earth goes around the sun, answering correctly (and in detail) when tested about the material. She now knows that the Earth goes around the sun, though she feels only 40% confident that it does and retains 60% confidence in her religious geocentrism.

The examples -- mostly adapted from Schwitzgebel 2010, Myers-Schulz and Schwitzgebel 2013, and Murray, Sytsma, and Livengood 2013 -- require fleshing out and perhaps also a bit of theory to be convincing. I offer a variety because I suspect different examples will resonate with different readers. I aim only for an existence claim: As long as there is a way of fleshing out one of these examples so that the subject knows a proposition toward which she has only 40% confidence, I'll consider it success.

As I just said, it might help to have a bit of theory here. So consider this model of knowledge and confidence:

You know some proposition P if you have it -- metaphorically! -- stored in your memory and available for retrieval in such a way that we can rightly hold you responsible for acting or not acting on account of it (and P is true, justified, etc.).

You're confident about some proposition P just in case you'd wager on it, and endorse it, and have a certain feeling of confidence in doing so. (If the wagering, expressing, and feeling come apart, it's a non-canonical, in-between case.)

There will be cases where a known proposition -- because it is unpleasant, or momentarily doubted, or in conflict with something else one wants to endorse -- does not effectively guide how you would wager or govern how you feel. But we can accuse you. We can say, "You know that! Come on!"

So why won't you say "I know that P but I'm only 40% confident in P"? Because such utterances, as explicit endorsements, reflect one's feelings of confidence -- exactly what comes apart from knowledge in these types of cases.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

"I Think There's About a 99.8% Chance That You Exist" Said the Skeptic

Alone in my office, it can seem reasonable to me to have only about a 99% to 99.9% credence that the world is more or less how I think it is, while reserving the remaining 0.1% to 1% credence for the possibility that some radically skeptical scenario obtains (such as that this is a dream or that I'm in a short term sim).

But in public... hm. It seems an odd thing to say aloud to someone else! The question rises acutely as I prepare to give a talk on 1% Skepticism at University of Miami this Friday. Can I face an audience and say, "Well, I think there's a small chance that I'm dreaming right now"? Such an utterance seems even stranger than the run-of-the-mill strangeness of dream skepticism in solitary moments.

I've tried it on my teenage son. He knows my arguments for 1% skepticism. One day, driving him to school, a propos of nothing, I said, "I'm almost certain that you exist." A joke, of course. How could he have heard it, or how could I have meant it, in any other way?

One possible source of strangeness is this: My audience knows that they are not just my dream-figures. So it's tempting to say that in some sense they know that my doubts are misplaced.

But in non-skeptical cases, we can view people as reasonable in having non-zero credence in propositions we know to be false, if we recognize an informational asymmetry. The blackjack dealer who knows she has a 20 doesn't think the player a fool for standing on a 19. Even if the dealer sincerely tells the player she has a 20, she might think the player reasonable to say he has some doubt about the truth of the dealer's testimony. So why do radically skeptical cases seem different?

One possible clue is this: It doesn't seem wrong in quite the same way to say "I think that we might all be part of a short-term sim". Being together in skeptical doubt seems fine -- in the right context, it might even be kind of friendly, kind of fun.

Maybe, then, the issue is a matter of respect -- a matter of treating one's interlocutor as an equal partner, metaphysically and epistemically? There's something offensive, perhaps, or inegalitarian, or oppressive, or silencing, about saying "I know for sure that I exist, but I have some doubts about whether you do".

I feel the problem most keenly in the presence of the people I love. I can't doubt that we are in this world together. It seems wrong -- merely a pose, possibly an offensive pose -- to say to my seriously ill father, in seeming sincerity at the end of a philosophical discussion about death and God, "I think there's a 99.8% chance that you exist". It throws a wall up between us.

Or can it be done in a different way? Maybe I could say: "Here, you should doubt me. And I too will doubt you, just a tiny bit, so we are doubting together. Very likely, the world exists just as we think it does; or even if it doesn't, even if nothing exists beyond this room, still I am more sure of you than I am of almost anything else."

There is a risk in radical skepticism, a risk that I will doubt others dismissively or disrespectfully, alienating myself from them. But I believe that this risk can be managed, maybe even reversed: In confessing my skepticism to you, I make myself vulnerable. I show you my weird, nerdy doubts, which you might laugh at, or dismiss, or join me in. If you join me, or even just engage me seriously, we will have connected in a way that I treasure.