Friday, July 12, 2013

Thomas the Tank Engine: The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Child Labor

“Who are you?”

“I am Edward, the new number two.”

“Who is number one?”

“Thomas is number one. You are Percy, number six.”

“I am not a number; I am a Really Useful Engine!”

The Prisoner was the apotheosis of socially conscious television, a sometimes postmodern critique of the paranoia of the cold war. The village, in The Prisoner, is a prison for apostates of the cold war era national security state. Most inmates are hopeless, resigned to their fate; some, from cowardice or desire for comfort, work for the spymasters. Yet the Prisoner (played by Patrick McGoohan), virtually alone in his implacable in his desire to escape, by his success proves the lack, in the others, of a will for freedom. Each of us can escape our bonds, but most of us fail, and we fail because we lack the will truly to try. On the other hand, the Prisoner abjures pure license, recognizing that true freedom is not a simple lack of inhibitions or uncontrolled passion. The lesson of The Prisoner is that the village is everywhere, within everyone, but only the dedicated few exercise the freedom to escape their village. We are each of us prisoners of ourselves, of our fears and self-imposed restrictions, and our freedom to escape those depends only on our will to escape.

Still, The Prisoner was flawed. Perhaps it aggrandized negative freedom, freedom of the individual from state interference, at the expense of positive freedom, freedom that comes from cooperation with others. But, despite its flaws, The Prisoner at least prizes the genuine moral of liberty.

Some television programs, in contrast, prefer to indoctrinate our children into subservience and obedience to their capitalist masters. This insidious instrument of capitalist oppression is, of course, Thomas and Friends. A morbidly obese capitalist demands mindless obedience from his child-like charges while providing neither pay, vacation time, education, guidance, nor emotional support. An island, isolated from modern civilization, is governed according to the mad whim of the aforementioned obese capitalist. A group of train engines, to all appearances children or mentally disabled adults, but nonetheless fully conscious aware beings, are effectively enslaved by their capitalist master. Most insidiously, these child-like engines fervently contribute to their own subjugation.

A typical episode goes something like this:

Sir Topham Hatt: Thomas, I have a job for you.

Thomas: What is it, sir? You know I only want to be a Really Useful Engine.

Hatt: I want you to pick up a lion at the docks and take him to the zoo.

Thomas: Yes, sir!

Thomas chugs away to the docks. Cranky the Crane, vicious misanthrope, or at least mis-train-ist, grudgingly entrusts the lion in a cage into Thomas’s care.

Thomas: Thank you, Cranky!

Cranky: Get lost, punk.

Thomas travels along the track toward the zoo. As he passes a large forest, Thomas thinks that the lion might want to go outside briefly. Thomas stops and opens the crate and lets the lion loose. No driver, fireman, or engineer is there to correct or prevent Thomas from performing this rash act. Thomas, at times like these, entirely lacks the adult supervision necessary to prevent from endangering himself or others. Mostly he endangers others because trains aren’t really susceptible to harm in the same way humans are.

The lion runs away. Thomas, disappointed that the lion left, continues to the zoo. “Oh, no! Sir Topham Hatt will be cross,” Thomas thinks. “Maybe the lion went to the zoo on his own.”

Thomas arrives at the zoo. Sir Topham Hatt is there waiting for Thomas and the delivery of the lion.

Hatt: Thomas! Where is the lion? Your crate is empty.

Thomas: I let him out to see the village, and he ran away.

Sir Topham Hatt: That was a terrible mistake, Thomas. I am most disappointed in you.

Thomas: Has the lion killed unsuspecting Sodorites because of my incredible lack of foresight? Are you disappointed because I irresponsibly endangered everyone on the island of Sodor by loosing a giant carnivore into the neighborhood? Should I learn to put myself in the position of others and think about what is best for them, and thus learn not to endanger them or otherwise act irresponsibly?

Hatt: No, I am angry because you disobeyed me and caused confusion and delay.

Admittedly, Thomas and Hatt are not prone to discussing the ethical foundations of their work, but moral judgments in the books are always founded on the approval or disapproval of Sir Topham Hatt. This is unforgiveable enough when your moral arbiter is Aslan the (apparently vegetarian) Lion, the avatar of God himself. Even Aslan must have reasons for his moral pronouncements or be simply a tyrant or bully. But when the sole source of moral approbation or disapprobation is the capitalist overseer of the railroad, there is no hope that children can learn any lesson except blind obedience.

Continuing, Hatt says: Thomas, you must find him!

Hatt refuses to provide any further guidance to Thomas as to how he might complete this task, and most especially does not enlist the aid of any qualified experts who might help with the problem that his own awful judgment created. Instead, he angrily dismisses Thomas, placing the entire burden on him, a train with a child’s mind.

Thomas chuffs away. “How do I find the lion?” He returns to the village and begins looking. He looks in the mines, the beach, and the woods. He has no clue where to find the lion, and Hatt has provided no help.

Eventually he meets Edward, a kindly older engine. Thomas asks: Edward, have you seen a lion? I let him go near Knapford and now I can’t find him.

Edward: You did what? Go to the zoo and ask for a zookeeper, and then return as quickly as possible to Knapford I will go there first to evacuate the people.

Thomas retrieves a zookeeper, returns to Knapford, and miraculously finds the lion sunning himself near the station. The zookeepers capture the lion and Thomas finally delivers him to the zoo.

As you can see from my absolutely accurate description of life among the engines of Sodor, the island is capitalist’s paradise. The engines, and other animate machines that perform virtually all the labor on the island, are perfect slaves to the capitalist. The engines are either children or mentally child-like with no desires or interests beyond being Really Useful Engines, subordinating their wills to the whims of their overseer. Their only desires are to work; they are willing, even enthusiastic, tools of the capitalist oppressor. They are male or female, but have no sexual desires or ability to reproduce sexually (or so it appears; none of the engines is related to any of the others and no baby engines are ever seen). Their needs are simple; only the shelter of a roof over their heads and enough coal and water to function. They have all the mental life of a human simpleton, but they want nothing other than to work. They receive neither pay nor vacations. They own neither belongings nor property. In short, they are enslaved children. But the most salient fact of their lives is their subordination to the will of the overseer. They see their only goal as the success of the capitalist, represented by Sir Topham Hatt. The greatest cruelty of the capitalists who enslave these children, give them no future or hope beyond the strictures of their island community and the rails upon which they must travel, and then watch as their charges enforce his discipline on themselves. The greatest trick the slave-master ever pulled was convincing his slaves to think of his will as their own, to enslave themselves.

Completely unprepared for the world around them, our child-like protagonists predictably, inevitably fail in the arbitrary, and often unexplained, tasks given them only to be excoriated by the fat-cat capitalist for their, in reality Hatt’s, failure. The train then feels humiliated by the completely undeserved upbraiding. The engine never is taught why his/her action is wrong but is blamed only for disobedience to the capitalist. No one is ever taught to feel for those harmed by their actions. The lesson is clear: blind, unquestioning obedience to your superiors is the only moral action, and one is valued only insofar as one is a ‘really useful engine’ capable of working selflessly for the benefit of the tyrant.

Conservatives worry about the politically correct programming of our children, that our children are indoctrinated by the gay or LGBT community, by feminists or atheists. If only this were so! Unfortunately, the ubiquitous and much-beloved Thomas the Tank Engine teaches a lesson far more pernicious for a free society; it teaches willing servitude to our corporate masters. Thomas and Friends seduces our children into relinquishing their will to another and undermines the possibility of self-determination for our future generations. They are not our children’s friends, but their oppressors. Thomas is the opiate of the children, and voluntary servitude is the lot of its addicts. Parents of the world unite -- in rejection of the train’s propaganda -- you have nothing to lose but your children's chains!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Academia and Colloquia

Academics are forever giving presentations at conferences or at one university or another. It’s common enough that departments devote significant percentages of faculty salary to travel budgets. Yet these presentations at conferences and colloquia are almost uniformly, let’s say, crappy. This presents a puzzle: why do people spend so much time to present papers of dubious merit to so many different audiences, almost no members of which have the slightest knowledge of the subject of the presentation? My guess is that this activity has to do with making connections with other philosophers who can advance one’s career. For now, let me establish the uniformly low quality of these presentations from a sampling of my previous semester. As an aside, I would like to note that, while I’ve sometimes thought that philosophers are people who have never come within a mile of empirical research, this semester has shown me that this is not always the case. Sometimes the problem is that they should never be allowed near it either.

This past semester I attended the following lectures. I won’t identify the speakers because I don’t want to embarrass them, but also because the point is that these problems with the presentations are completely commonplace and the speakers don’t really deserve any special criticism for the flaws in their presentations. That is, while I am going to be callous and cruel in the following comments, I don’t think the people doing these presentations were any worse than the thousands of others who do them throughout academia.

One presentation was on language and representation that attempted to find the roots of representation, and hence misrepresentation, in some simpler (non-mental) ability that might then partially explain the variety of (mental) representational abilities humans have. Her idea was that (non-human) animal signals are predictions of their behavior that evolved or developed in order to influence the behavior of other animals. For example, a dog Fido growls at another dog Spot not to tell Spot that Spot should stay away from Fido’s bone (lest Fido bite him), but Fido’s growl simply predicted that Fido would bite Spot if Spot tried to take the bone. Thus, Spot could respond (more or less mechanically) to a predictive signal (as a kind of natural sign, in Grice’s terms) rather than as a complex representational state (e.g. Fido knows that Spot wants the bone; Fido wants to prevent Spot from taking the bone; Fido warns Spot not to try to take the bone, etc.). The speaker then tried to locate a point in evolutionary development where this ability, without more complex representational abilities, occurs. The idea was that if one could find this kind of predictive but not representational ability in a non-human animal, she would be able to then build up to true representation in humans. Here is where she ran afoul of the empirical evidence. She claimed that non-primates had this ability but not the more complex ability to deceive or misrepresent.

Unfortunately, the speaker had apparently never met a dog. If she knew any dogs, or did any research in comparative ethology, she would have known that dogs bluff. Dogs will growl at each other to warn each away from something even if they do not follow through with an attack. (This is so obvious that if you have two dogs, you’ll see it every few days in a dispute over a toy or treat. Dogs also deceive and hide things from other dogs.) I’m fairly sure there’s lots of research on this, and on deception in non-primates. The ‘prediction, not representation’ paradigm might ultimately work, but to establish it, one would need to find a clear case of one without the other and show how the less complex ability could lead naturally to the more complex by means of natural selection. My point is that, while there may be some merit to her ideas, the presentation was rather marred by a lack of basic research on an important empirical issue.

A second presentation was a libertarian on political philosophy. He had discovered empirical research on ignorance and apathy in voters and the correlation between these and race and socio-economic status. His conclusion: It’s a good thing most of these people don’t vote; we should probably do what we can to make them less likely to vote and definitely not increase their likelihood of voting. Of course being poor, female, or a minority decreases the chances one will know or care about politics and elections. So, the conclusion was that we should not go out of our way to include the disaffected non-voters into the system since that would result in less informed electorate overall. It takes an almost deliberate perversity to look at a system in which certain groups are systematically excluded or underrepresented in the political process, notice that they have little knowledge of this process and mostly don’t care about the outcomes (because no one in the political arena much represents their interests), and then, instead of concluding that we should give them something worth voting for (or some hope that their votes will matter to our politics), concluding that we are better off if they don’t vote.

The speaker had got hold of political science research that, as far as I could tell from his examples, showed that, people were largely wrong about some given bit of esoteric political information (e.g. George W. Bush supported X policy to help the poor -- who would have thought? Can you name the current Speaker of the House of Representatives? Is it Elmo or Donald Trump?). Then he concluded that the people were generally uninformed (and, in particular, that their lack of information correlated with socio-economic class, race, and gender). So what? These kinds of academic studies are a blight on the academic landscape; they take people’s ignorance of something esoteric and suggest it implies major ignorance of important cultural, social, or economic issues. In fact, given the speaker’s ‘evidence’, it was amazing that poor, black, women managed to vote at nearly 100% for the black guy for president. One would have thought they would vote for Romney thinking that Romney was a Kenyan socialist. It’s clear that ignorance of some individual piece of legislation or office holder is basically meaningless in representing the general knowledge of the electorate. Of the two major parties, which supports economic policies that are slightly less inimical to the interests of the poor and working class? Everyone knows the answer to this. The studies that pretend to show different are basically just wankery. Leaving that aside, even taken on its own terms the reasoning was crazy: if people don’t know or don’t care about their government and politicians, the solution is to give them reason to care and information and the ability to get more information about them. The solution is not to keep them out (or de facto exclude them by taking no positive action to encourage them) of the political process altogether. And don’t tell me that the speaker was just being realistic about an imperfect electorate: the dude’s actual proposed solution was to get rid of the electoral college and randomly select some few thousand voters every 2 years to do all the voting for us. Yeah, that’s going to happen.

The best part was when a student asked, without apparent irony, whether we should institute some kind of literacy test for voters to make sure only the right ones were allowed to vote. The speaker was very receptive to the idea. I’m sure there’s no historical precedent for this idea, nor any way that it might go wrong.

In a third presentation, we were treated to another libertarian. This time the talk was about harming the dead. He did not mean blowing away zombies but doing things that harm people who no longer exist. This argument comes from Epicurus who said that “Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.” The basic idea from Epicurus is that we cannot be harmed by being dead because there is no subject to be harmed (or we cannot experience the harm, which I will skip because it’s less convincing to me). So, is there a possible subject of the harm of death? Maybe the person before his/her death (the ante- or pre-mortem person), not the post-mortem (nonexistent) person, is the one harmed (apparently this response is the standard solution to the problem given by Jeffrey Rosenberg). In fact, our speaker mentioned this interpretation and then, strangely, never even addressed that response to Epicurus’s argument. It’s the old, “Mention a problem for my theory up front and then conveniently forget to solve it,” gambit. (You might think it’s crazy to mention the problem if you are only going to ignore it, but philosophers like to know that you understand the problems with the position or argument you are defending. They mostly don’t really expect genuine solutions.)

Instead he talked about the particular harm of breaking promises to the dead. He focused on traditional theories of why breaking promises is wrong and then tried to show that the theories could not give a reason why breaking a promise to the dead is wrong. This is a nutty strategy since it assumes that at least one of these theories of promise-breaking is correct, and we all know that we’ve got basically no good philosophical theories of anything. Thus, the fact that none of the theories applies appropriately to the dead does not prove that the dead cannot be harmed by a broken promise. It might just mean that our theories of promise-breaking are, all of them, wrong. Notwithstanding the pointlessness of the whole strategy, even if it made sense, the speaker’s arguments all failed because he never addressed the aforementioned claim that the ante-mortem person is the subject of harm. And, because the speaker never even addressed the most common explanation for how there is a subject of harm, the speaker failed even on his own terms. I’ve got just one more thing about the weirdness of his conclusion.

Weirdly, the speaker thought we should keep promises to the dead despite the fact that they are not harmed by our promise-breaking. The only reason, on his view, we should keep our promises is because of the harm such disrespect would cause to living people since living people care about our current practices of promising and respecting the wishes of the deceased. Why do people care about whether people will keep promises to us after we are dead? If so, then we find this harmful when we are alive because we think breaking promises to us after we are dead would harm us. And, of course, the Epicurean has just argued that this belief is irrational. But, if that’s the reason people are upset about promise-breaking to the dead, then the Epicurean should not respect these irrational wishes but should view this as another opportunity for education (as Epicurus did in his general argument that death is not harmful). The point of Epicurus’ argument is revisionist; he wants to change people’s attitude toward death, so the Epicurean should want to adjust people’s attitude towards keeping promises to the dead as well. Why does the Epicurean try to change people’s attitudes about the harm of death but not try to change the, equally irrational on their view, attitude towards promise-keeping to the dead? Living people will be very upset if we break promises to the dead and won’t trust us to keep our word to them (the currently living) when they are dead. But our speaker never thought to ask: Why would these people be upset at us for breaking our word to the dead if, in fact, no one is harmed when we break our word to them? The obvious fact is that people are upset about others breaking promises to them when they are dead is because they think they will be harmed if promises made to them are broken. It makes no sense to care about their irrational beliefs about promises to the dead if you do not also care about their irrational beliefs about posthumous harms in the first place. The right Epicurean strategy is to teach us not to worry about breaking promises to the dead, not to cater to their irrationality (assuming, as the Epicurean does, that it is irrational).

You might as well shout at people in Church that their prayer is useless because God does not exist (because Epicureans want to change people’s minds) and then refuse to take the Lord’s name in vain because it might upset people. The two beliefs come as a piece: if it’s useless to pray, then it’s not bad to take the Lord’s name in vain.

These lectures were not in any way unrepresentative of those given as long as I have been around philosophy and philosophy departments. And despite their obvious flaws, these talks weren’t completely useless. Attendees learn a little bit about some otherwise unfamiliar areas of philosophy. Presenters talk about their research with a receptive audience, and presumably we all come away better informed with more research ideas bubbling away in the seething cauldrons of our creative unconscious. The author comes away with some valuable criticism from a small group of mostly uninformed semi-experts. The visiting lecturer gets a small payment (usually; some of these pay a lot, but some pay nothing at all) and a short vacation and a chance to talk to old friends. Maybe there’s a bit of socialization. The problem is not that they are useless but that the ratio of good ideas to time spent is very low for almost everyone. I would do better reading an article in my field (or an introduction to a different field) rather than listen to one of these lectures. The author would get better feedback sending the paper to a single interested expert.

So what justifies the time and effort of these lectures? The only purpose I can see that justifies the effort is networking and making connections. Academic philosophy operates largely according to (as a friend of mine called it) good old American know-who. Philosophers’ evaluations play a role in hiring and tenure decisions. To take just one example, big-time philosophers do not write generic letters of recommendation for graduate programs; they write a letter specifically to a friend (not necessarily even on the hiring committee) at the university where a student is applying. And their friends listen and respond in kind. The relationship is incestuous, with people knowing each other having more influence than do apparently objective factors. A much better student who happened not to know an influential philosopher would be less likely to gain acceptance than some worse students who do. It allows for implicit bias; people tend to prefer those who are like them, and so tend to give preference to relatively affluent white male students. Thus, the influence of networks of philosophers creates unfair and biased decisions about acceptance into graduate programs, and decisions involving hiring and tenure. The insidious part is that the people with influence do not see this as a problem; they think that the old-boys’-network is the best way to conduct business. They trust their own judgment about other philosophers and their work (more than they trust statistical or other evidence), and they don’t think they should lessen the influence of their own judgments. This situation cannot be changed by those who have little or no influence (by definition). The only way change can come is if people without influence, who see the inequities in the system, become influential (by their own merit, presumably) and change the culture from the top. But people who become successful within such a system are extremely unlikely to change that culture since it is the one they see (rightly or wrongly) as quite properly rewarding them. So, the waste of people’s time every few weeks is a small price to pay for the ability of philosophers to increase their influence and bring people within their network of influence.

I’m not offering a solution. I suppose we would be better off if academic colloquia were ended. Perhaps if our socialization came only at blind-reviewed conferences the role of networking could be reduced. But, alas, I’m in no position to effect that change. I suppose we all like an excuse to visit friends on someone else’s dime. And networking might help long-term research if philosophers who actually do work on the same questions meet. If there’s no other way to find people working on the same questions you are, then giving presentations might be a necessity. Still, to the extent that this practice supports the networks of personal influence, it is a mildly pernicious part of academia. It would be better if there were a way to do without it.

My apologies to anyone whom I have unfairly maligned in the above. I hope I understood all the papers presented and explained them fairly (even if too briefly).

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, An Unpublishable Review

Thomas Nagel has written a book, Mind and Cosmos, a slim volume mostly of other people’s ideas, on the possibility of reductive physicalist explanations for certain aspects of our minds. He believes these criticisms undermine not just the metaphysical position of physicalism or materialism but also the scientific explanations of the origins of these aspects of our minds. Thus, the general metaphysic is inadequate, but also the specific scientific theories, especially evolution by natural selection, must also fail since they are more a consequence of that metaphysic than evidential support for it.

This last is typical creationist boilerplate made more polite for a sophisticated audience: scientists only believe in evolution because they are already committed to a naturalistic or physicalist metaphysic. Without that assumption, the evidence could never be seen as adequate. The yawning gulf between what stands in need of explanation and what the (current) naturalistic picture is capable of explaining would be too great but for the naturalist’s spectacles which make that gulf seem only a small gap. What, then, are these gaps?

Nagel’s book covers three areas of human mental life, or knowledge, and argues that they cannot be accounted for either reductively (e.g. in terms of underlying or lower-level physical facts such as facts about brain activity) or historically (e.g. in terms of their origin by means of evolution). The three amigos, the Irreducibles we might call them, are consciousness, especially the subjective character of our experience, reason, especially the abstract capacity to think logically, and morality. Each of these resists reductive and/or evolutionary explanation, Nagel claims, and so our current popular conception of evolution as a potentially complete explanation of the origin and characteristics of humanity should be rejected and our worldview must be expanded to include fundamental elements of teleology in the world (even if that teleology is, as noted, elemental rather than derived from the intentions of a designer).

Nagel’s book is a light, but nonetheless baffling, read, not so much in the issues it covers, but in the major fields of research it dismisses. His casual dismissal of entire scientific disciplines and areas of philosophical research makes it much easier for him to propose his own half-baked ideas as legitimate alternatives. For example, in his introductory chapter, Nagel writes, “I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this na├»ve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples” (ibid). Here Nagel runs together questions about biogenesis (origin of living things) with evolution of those living things once they exist and treats them as both equally problematic. He demands a complete chemical and physical (as in, physics) explanation of development of life from non-life and of our current forms from the earliest forms of life. It is hard to believe that Nagel could dismiss the entire field of evolutionary biology as he appears to above, but he concludes this paragraph with two questions, one about biogenesis, and the other about evolution. He writes, “In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihood that, as a result of physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist?” (p. 6) His implicit answer is that a sufficient number of random mutations is not very likely and so random mutation (even combined with other natural means of introducing genetic variation) cannot be the sole mechanism of evolutionary variation. Nagel really is asserting that the myriad fields of biology devoted to evolution, molecular genetics, and all the rest, constitute only, “a schema for explanation, supported by some examples” (ibid). This description would fit Nagel’s book much better than it does the scientific fields devoted to the study of evolution if only he provided a schema of explanation or some examples. Nagel’s hubris is stunning.

On the specifics of his charges of an explanatory gap, we find consciousness, reason and morality. Nagel says little enough about consciousness that what he does say is easy enough to dismiss here. No doubt he believes that this issue has seen more than its share of spilled ink, and I agree about that, and he would rather not belabor the arguments. Perhaps he is right and consciousness cannot be explained in terms of the underlying physical activities in our brains, or given an adequate functional analysis, but I do not believe that Nagel or anyone else has made this case successfully. Nothing in this short work adds anything to his case. In his famous Bat-paper , Nagel argued that consciousness is essentially subjective and scientific explanation is essentially objective. Hence, there is an essential gap in our understanding of consciousness that cannot be filled from that objective, scientific direction. We all know about the Bat paper and the not-knowing-what-it-is-like-i-ness of bats from our human perceptual and conceptual framework, but nothing in the argument implies that bat-facts are not physical facts or that bat-knowledge is not physical knowledge. Nagel bases his argument on a perceived need for extrapolation or imaginability of the bat’s experience, but that is simply irrelevant to explanation, scientific or otherwise. We may not be able to imagine what it is like to be bat (although, who knows, maybe some of us can), but it does not follow that we would have no explanation of the bat’s experience. If physicalism is true, physical knowledge of the world exhausts all the knowledge of the world. But the extrapolation from bat experience is not knowledge, it is imagined experience. Or if that bat-extrapolation is knowledge, Nagel has never established that this knowledge is not a kind of physical knowledge.

In Mind and Cosmos Nagel leaves all his bats at home (in his belfry?) and relies more on the explanatory gap version of the argument. There is a gap in our ability to understand consciousness that no objective knowledge can fill. Of course, if Nagel is correct, no matter what type of theory one proposes (substance dualist, property-dualist, emergentist, teleological) one cannot fill that gap. Unless Nagel can explain how teleology (which is not subjective either) can fill the gap, then his argument from the explanatory gap must equally undermine his own proposal. In any event, Nagel, from his armchair, demands what he has no right to demand, a full picture of a scientific theory that is still in the earliest stages of development. We don’t yet know how to conceive consciousness in a way that will render it susceptible to reductive explanation, whatever concepts do ultimately allow for the understanding of consciousness will arise from efforts at scientific explanation and we cannot foretell, effectively, whether such concepts are forthcoming without letting that research run its course. Nagel would serve us all better by helping light a candle rather than complaining about the dark, or, worse, trying to blow out whatever candle might be lit on the grounds that what we need is a spotlight.

Nagel’s second Irreducible is reason, such as our ability in logic, mathematics, and other abstract areas, perhaps relating to scientific methodology. Here Nagel relies on the ideas of Alvin Plantinga, arguing that there is no good evidence to think that mental capacities that evolved in order for us to survive would be turned to good use in proving theorems in abstract symbolic logic systems (for example). Thus, since clearly we do have such an ability, and cannot even reasonably doubt that ability, we must doubt that we in fact evolved it. First, if Nagel has ever taught a symbolic logic class, he must know that we are not very good at abstract reasoning. (In a moment we will see him exemplify the very problem here.) It requires considerable effort on our parts to learn these skills, and we are often subject to errors in reasoning that no amount of education can fully excise. We can at best substitute formal judgments based on our symbolic systems for our intuitive judgments; we cannot make the intuitive judgments fully disappear. The types of errors we make even tend to be largely consistent with evolution in that we tend to make errors that would not undermine our survival. For example, we tend to infer causation far too quickly from too little or unrepresentative data. That kind of causal error makes some sense given an evolutionary context since we are unlikely to be penalized by evolution for erroneously thinking there is a causal connection between two things, and we might be penalized (i.e. killed) for failing to draw an inference to a causal relationship that is there. Cognitive psychologists are attempting even now (with, I would say, not enough success) to trace the origins of our ability to reason using conditionals to some capacity evolved by our social, Pleistocene ancestors. People are very poor at reasoning with conditionals in abstract contexts (e.g. the Wason selection task) yet are quite capable of performing formally identical reasoning in other contexts, so the differences in the contexts may tell us what evolutionary forces operated to produce the ability. Although a good theory here is somewhat lacking (in my humble opinion), the fact that we fail at the abstract tasks suggests that we do not, in fact, have natural capacity to reason in this abstract way. Instead we may have learned to apply logical rules in some situations and have only recently learned to extend that reasoning to symbolic and mathematical forms. Evolutionary theory does not undermine the possibility of abstract reasoning. Indeed, it is consistent with the particular abilities we find that humans have. External instruments, language and symbols, have allowed us to turn simple intuitions evolved in a context far different from our current one of abstract logic, mathematics, and science. We did not evolve fingers to type on keyboards, but we have managed to turn those fingers effectively to such a task.

Perhaps the wonder of it is that we are ever capable of good logical reasoning at all, but if we were completely bad at logical reasoning, we would never survive to reproduce at all. For example, if I were incapable of recognizing contradictions in statements, so that when I came to believe, “There is a tiger over there,” I would still be capable of believing, “There is no tiger over there.” (Let’s avoid those cases in which people really are capable of believing inconsistently.) Needless to say, harboring these beliefs together would not improve my chances of survival. And, indeed, we know that people can develop languages and tools to improve this abstract reasoning just as we invented hammers and saws to improve our ability to build houses. Our ability to check with each other might just have spread the popularity of certain errors, but generally intersubjective verification of our logical rules has improved our reasoning as well. How is it possible that checking with other equally fallible people has led to better reasoning? I’m not sure, but I know that my perceptions are not always accurate, and conferring with other, also imperfect perceivers, appears to render my judgments more reliable.

Nagel is aware of the way in which external scaffolding (such as these external tools) can allow for the extension of our more basic abilities, but he rejects the response. He writes, “But the explanation of our ability to acquire and use language in these ways presents problems of the same order, for language is one of the most important normatively governed faculties. To acquire a language is in part to acquire a system of concepts that enables us to understand reality.” (p. 71)

How easy to be a philosopher! Is there research on the evolution of language? Is there any progress on the problem of explaining meaning and language? I’m no expert on this, but no doubt there is work on this question. And that work is not the same work as the study of logic and abstract reasoning. Yet, somehow, Nagel feels no need even to ask whether there is such work or, if there is such work, how successful it is. Nagel is content to assume that whatever problem afflicts one domain must afflict every related domain, so we can have no confidence that the problems can be solved (by decomposing them into simpler problems, perhaps). However, we do not need to pretend that these problems are insoluble just because Nagel remains ignorant of attempts to solve them.

Nagel himself raises the analogy of reason to perception. He writes, “[T]here is a crucial difference: in the perceptual case I can recognize that I might be mistaken, but on reflection, even if I think of myself as the product of Darwinian natural selection, I am nevertheless justified in believing the evidence of my senses for the most part, because this is consistent with the hypothesis that an accurate representation of the world around me results from senses shaped by evolution to serve that function.” (p. 80)

Surely we can, and often do, become less confident in our perceptual judgments if we come to recognize through a more reliable scientific study that our perceptual apparatus is inaccurate. We could even, in theory, discover that evolution would not provide us with the tools for an accurate perception. I may distrust my perceptual judgment that my stove is giving off no light because I recognize from other scientific research that my sensory apparatus is not attuned to the proper frequencies of light to judge accurately. So, perception is the basis for our knowledge of the external world, but it is subject to correction by testing its coherence with others' perceptions and sophisticated theorizing that, itself, is ultimately based on perception. Thus, it is possible that our more sophisticated theorizing about evolution might undermine our trust in our senses in some particular case.

Nagel intends, I think, to argue that natural selection might undermine knowledge claims based on perception (it is, in the language of epistemology, a possible defeater). However, he puts the point in a very odd, indeed logically invalid, way. He claims consistency with evolution supports the accuracy of the senses, but it is more correct to say that a failure of consistency would undermine the accuracy of the senses. These are two logically distinct points, and it is important not to confuse them. Nagel wants to say that evolution could undermine belief in the accuracy of perception, but it does not follow from this that evolution supports the accuracy of perception. The error here is a simple formal fallacy:

If not P (A is inconsistent with B), then not Q (A undermines B).
Therefore if P, then Q.

Here are two analogies to show that this argument form is invalid:
If you are not 16 or older, then you cannot drive legally.
Therefore if you are 16 or older, then you can drive legally.

If Lassie is not a mammal, then Lassie is not a cat.
Therefore if Lassie is a mammal, then Lassie is a cat.

Obviously, the premise of each of these arguments is true and the conclusion false. So Nagel is guilty of a fairly simple error in formal reasoning. This problem is primarily one of presentation, but it actually nicely illustrates the problem he claims we do not have. We, all of us, even famous philosophers, struggle with formal reasoning, and part of the reason for that may be that we evolved in an environment in which abstract reasoning was not as evolutionarily useful as it is today. Thus, we might see how our belief in evolution might explain errors in abstract reasoning that we already know exist.

As I said above, Nagel considers the analogy to perception but rejects the analogy on the grounds that we could have reasons based on our understanding of evolution to reject a belief or weaken our confidence in a perceptual judgment, but we could not so doubt our logical abilities. He writes, “By contrast, in a case of reasoning, if it is basic enough, the only thing to think is that I have grasped the truth directly. I cannot pull back from a logical inference and reconfirm it with the reflection that the reliability of my thought processes is consistent with the hypothesis that evolution has selected them for accuracy. That would drastically weaken the logical claim.” (p. 80) It is not possible, he thinks, to doubt the validity of the most basic inference patterns we use. (How could we doubt the inference patterns we use to evaluate the validity of an inference pattern?)

The clause, “if it is basic enough”, appears to cover a multitude of sins. If we decide, collectively, that certain popular forms of reasoning, such as affirming the consequent, are invalid, then those must not have been basic enough forms of reasoning.

Unfortunately, Nagel does not explain precisely which logical judgments are such that no amount of evidence about the infirmities of our logical systems could undermine them. We do know, however, that people’s intuitive judgments of validity in the aforementioned Wason selection task are not to be trusted. We teach our students not to trust the inferences of denying the antecedent or affirming the consequent. Perhaps it was only the construction of abstract logical systems using rules and language that weakened our collective confidence in these patterns of inference. In theory it ought to be possible to show by means of an evolutionary argument that some inference pattern we frequently rely on is untrustworthy. I do not know of any such argument, but that should weaken Nagel’s point.

Now Nagel is likely to argue that some logical reasoning patterns are so far beyond dispute that no rational agent could deny them. For example, nothing can both have property P at a time and lack property P at that same time. Is this so intuitively obvious that no amount of evolutionary, or other, reasoning could weaken our confidence in it? Not really. It is possible, but perhaps not likely, that discoveries in quantum mechanics might lead us to doubt even this apparently indisputable belief. We might have difficulty understanding how we could be wrong, but we might still judge that we are. We might be forced to think that some other, better, reasoning must take precedence over the intuitive judgment. However, I think we have good reason to think these most basic inferences cohere with evolution. Any organisms so constituted as to misunderstand basic facts of logic (presuming this is a fact) would have, in Willard Quine’s words, “a pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before reproducing their kind.” We find, in fact, that an evolutionary understanding of our reason is probably compatible with these simple logical truths.

Perhaps Nagel means that, while in fact we do not doubt these logical inferences, the real issue is that we could not doubt them while remaining rational agents. But I do not think this is true; I think our systematization of logic (for example) has led to changes in what we take to be intuitively valid, and that we have in fact changed (collectively) what we take to be the basic patterns of inference. And in those cases in which we found good reason to distrust our logical inferences, we might note that they are broadly consistent with an evolutionary account of our origins. We do manage to do better than our forebears because of our construction of elaborate tools such as language, symbol systems, and ‘the’ scientific method. The fact that it took us this long to develop these things, and that they are needed at all, suggests that we are not good at abstract reasoning. This is not inconsistent with evolution.

The third amigo, the third Irreducible, is moral reasoning. Nagel believes there are abstract moral rules that govern us, that oblige us to act in certain ways. These rules could not, according to the argument of one Sharon Street, be discovered or be part of our evolutionary history. Thus, if evolution is true, we have no good reason to think we would know these moral rules. Yet, according to Nagel, we have them nonetheless. It follows that we did not evolve by means of natural selection.

This argument based on the epistemic opacity of morality may just be a special case of the abstract reasoning argument. If moral rules are abstract rules, then they should be just as amenable to discovery as any other abstract truth (about logic or mathematics, say). If morality can be naturalized in some way, then these concerns about moral knowledge would disappear. I am not sanguine about such reductive efforts. If morality can be naturalized, it can be known as other natural facts are, or it is abstract, and thus known as abstract facts are. But, either way, morality seems no less knowable than any other abstract area.

Most of Nagel’s explanation of this issue relates to the abstractness of the judgments, but it does raise the question of how knowledge of morality could enhance our fitness to survive. How does knowing moral right from wrong lead the knower to have a survival advantage over those who know only social rules and customs? This appears to be a puzzle.

First, however, we should question his adaptationism. Why think that every faculty or belief must enhance our fitness in order for it to exist? Perhaps knowledge of morality is exaptive (in Stephen Jay Gould's coinage); it might be a consequence of some other abilities that are adaptive. Just as the ability to hitchhike is not adaptive, but it follows from the ability to use opposable thumbs in other contexts, and those other abilities are adaptive. Nagel should provide some argument that a moral faculty must enhance our survival in order for it to exist.

Second, we might suggest ways in which a moral faculty would be adaptive. It is fairly clear that knowing the customs of our community enhances our survival. Whether we follow the mores of our society or not, we need to know what those mores are when we deal with others in that society. It might turn out that knowledge of morality makes it much easier to understand the customs of society. If, for example, people sometimes do things simply because they are the right things to do, moral knowledge would be essential for predicting their behavior. Altruism, for example, appears not to be an evolutionarily adaptive trait since individuals who work for the common good must give up some benefit to themselves to help others. What really is most beneficial is to appear to be altruistic while not really being altruistic at all. (This is Glaucon’s Challenge, the famous problem that drives Plato’s Republic.) Yet it may not be easy to appear to be altruistic while not being so (just as it is often easier to be honest than to lie consistently and convincingly). Perhaps knowledge of morality makes it easier to discern these rules. Similarly, we might discover when we interact with other cultures that they adhere to only some of our culture’s rules, and that knowledge of genuine morality may allow for productive interaction and cooperation with another culture. Knowledge of morality may enable predictions and explanations of the behavior of others, especially those who do not share our culture, that would not otherwise be possible. Any suggestion along these lines is highly speculative. It may be that only recently have different cultures treated each other as morally important agents, and hence moral knowledge would not help us in our dealings with them. However, speculative or not, these possibilities should be considered, yet Nagel prefers to ignore any theories about the evolution of morality and moral knowledge.

Thus, Nagel’s negative case appears to fail. He offers very weak reasons to think that we did not evolve or that our capacities cannot be explained physically or historically. The arguments are typical arguments from ignorance: we do not know how such a capacity would evolve, and so we must think that it could not. But even with no good reason to reject the naturalistic consensus, Nagel ventures into the uncharted waters of the teleological.

Nagel sometimes suggests that life and humanity exist because it is good that they exist, that the physical world is shaped in some way, not simply by causal, mechanical laws, but by intrinsic value-features of the world. He notes that much evil exists, so whatever this feature of the world is that explains our existence, it cannot be simply a matter of moral value. Nagel might also be aware that evolution is not always a ‘progressive’ process. Some organisms lose complexity in order to survive in a given environment. Some male angler fish, for example, lose a great deal of complexity in order to mate with a female and devolve, one might say, into something like a simple parasite with little of the physical complexity of the female. So the male loses all the complexity necessary to function as an independent fish, and gains in reproductive success by attaching itself to the female. Whatever teleological explanation there is for the world, it must either have rather notable exceptions or it must not lead inexorably to the good, beautiful, or complex. But now we must say that Nagel’s hoped-for explanantia have been drained of all substance. There is, he claims, a natural tendency towards certain ends, but these ends are not definable in terms of any identifiable properties of organisms or the world. So, we must conclude that there is a natural tendency towards those ends that have actually occurred (excluding, perhaps, nature’s many failed experiments and extinct creatures) and away from those that have not. These assertions of teleology are often so hedged with question-begging assumptions that they are effectively empirically meaningless.

While Nagel’s teleology is likely just an unfalsifiable posit, of no use to anyone, the danger of such ideas is that the hedging tends to be forgotten when it comes to explanations. Despite acknowledging in certain contexts that there are innumerable exceptions to the trend toward X (whatever the favored characteristic is supposed to be), the author frequently recurs to teleological explanations when the ends reflect the values of the author. Unfalsifiable claims may play no role in genuine science, but the careful hedging of those claims to avoid empirical disconfirmation is forgotten, and we get to see ourselves as being the logical end-point and meaning of all existence. This kind of egocentrism is conducive neither to humility nor to good science.

Further, while Nagel’s theory might appear vacuous, if it is to have any substance, the theory must posit teleological factors that play some role in the disposition of physical objects. Thus, the entelechies (we’ll borrow the Aristotelian term for the rest of the paragraph to indicate the telos that exists inherently in nature) in our organisms that lead them to survive must somehow cause changes in our DNA and our chromosomes so that the appropriate mutations will occur to lead to the ordained outcome. If the end of the koala bear is to dine only on eucalyptus leaves, the DNA of the koala bear must somehow be modified or constrained so that these features of the bear arise. But how are these entelechies to accomplish this? Do they have the power to cause mutations? Do they break apart DNA molecules and put them back together in line with their end? If so, these entelechies must violate whatever we believe we know about basic physics. If the development of our bodies depends on the structure of our DNA, then that DNA must be susceptible to influence from these entelechies. If these entelechies are to have this power, they must violate the laws of physics and chemistry which govern movements of molecules, or the entelechies must themselves be fundamental forces of chemistry and physics that appear only in certain contexts (presumably untestable contexts) to modify those organisms, but never in a laboratory. Otherwise, why would we never have discovered them? If the telos is endemic to the fundamental constituents of matter, then we should discover them in our particle physics labs. But we have never discovered anything other than laws (perhaps probabilistic) of nature. And, if the world is fundamentally constituted of physical matter, then there is no special reason that laboratory experiments should be exempt from these forces. So, if the telos is to exist, it must either be so subtle that it evades detection in laboratories, or so clever that it only affects the world outside the laboratory. And, again, how does the telos know whether it is operating in a laboratory, in the study of fruitflies, say, or in the natural world? The fact that we have never discovered a telos at the level of fundamental particles, or at the level of experimental genetics and biology in a laboratory, makes these teleological factors either utterly epiphenomenal or comic-book supervillains capable of evading detection yet still working their magic whenever it counts. Neither view makes much sense.

Thomas Nagel, most famous for kicking up dust and then complaining about the acuity of our visual apparatus, in his paper ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’(What Is It Like to Be a Bat? Philosophical Review, pp.435-50, 1974. (Online text) now kicks about in the dirt of the biological sciences and finds himself rather unable to raise much. To conclude that his three cases, consciousness, abstract reason, and moral knowledge, somehow undermine the naturalist and evolutionary consensus in the explanation of human origins would be to prefer hope and self-aggrandizement to evidence. Nagel provides no significant reason to doubt that evolution can explain human origins or that there is a reductive explanation for these human capacities. And Nagel’s proposed alternative is so half-baked that one must speculate that unless it is part of the telos of Mind and Cosmos to be accepted by a wide audience, there is little chance that anyone, outside the circles of evidence-averse creationists (who will always look for useful tools), will take it seriously.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Brooks and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Conservatism”

David Brooks, New York Times columnist, public intellectual, moral scold, and man about town, is teaching a course at Yale on Humility. His syllabus is here. Do I hear titters there in the back?

Oh, ye of little faith. Why are you so afraid? Should David Brooks rebuke the winds and the sea and bring about a great calm?

Do you believe that David Brooks has not the depth of wisdom to only assign readings that agree with his preconceptions, the humility to assign his own work, the breadth of scholarship necessary to skim the titles of several books mostly about famous, dead, white men? Why should we not think that Brooks is capable of all these great virtues, yea, the greatest of great virtues, for has not the Brooks so spaken . . . er. . . spoken?

According to this interview, which may also be a subtle parody, this syllabus actually is for David Brooks’s course at Yale. Here, then, is the humiliated, or humbletastic, Mr. Brooks’s syllabus to the privileged, the special few, of Yale to teach unto them their virtues.

"All of us have been raised in a culture that encourages us to think well of ourselves and to follow your passion and all that kind of stuff," he continued. "I don't see why it is ridiculous to spend a few months reading people who tell us not to be all that self-impressed, to suspect you aren't as smart, virtuous and aware as you think. Surely this is a potentially useful antidote for me or anybody else."

Indeed, Mr. Brooks sees not the humor of poking fun at his course since, verily, is not humility a virtue? Is not goodness good? Wherefore, then, the wisecrackery?

I shall, as fellow alum of the greatest, least humble, of the non-coastal US universities, explain for Mr. Brooks the joke. I provide the complete syllabus not to steal his ideas but to emphasize (I hope) that I am not treating him unfairly.

His Title:

The Humility Course

Perhaps the above-linked interview was fraudulent. (Perhaps the interview was conducted by email. How do we even know that this “David Brooks” character exists? Could he have been created by malicious Samoans?) “The” Humility Course? Isn’t it obvious that its designation as the unique humility course is decidedly not humble? Perhaps Brooks wishes to teach the concept of humility by means of contrasts? But still, one need not be humble to teach humility. (Nor need one be a member of the upper class to have something to teach the elect, of course, but Brooks’s preferences notwithstanding, we shall not let that detain us here.) And so we must go on to the substance of the course.

The instructor:

David Brooks

Office: Rosenkranz 343

Our second piece of evidence that this is subtle parody: Is this a real building? Has Brooks been sent to Yale to die, clueless, his life and death only an afterthought in the grand play of the cosmos? Is Brooks’s life (to borrow from a different drama) “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? Is this office Brooks’s recognition of the futility of his existence, finally a sign of humility? Also, why didn’t Guildenstern get a building?
Here is the description and some readings.

Course Description:
Everyone says character is important to leadership but few people know how to build it. This course will survey one character-building tradition, one that emphasizes modesty and humility. The strategies covered here start from a similar premise—that human beings are blessed with many talents but are also burdened by sinfulness, ignorance and weakness. Character emerges from the internal struggles against one’s own limitations.

We will start in the current moment. How do we conceive of character building today? We will then trace this humility tradition in its different forms over the centuries—from Moses to Augustine, to Montaigne, Burke, Niebuhr and so on. We will make special effort throughout to connect the themes of each session to practical politics and leadership.

Course Texts:
General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman” by Ed Cray; Publisher: Cooper Square Press (June 6, 2000)

“Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do And Who We Should Be” by Mark Schwen and Dorothy Bass; Publisher: Eerdmans Pub Co (May 15, 2006)

Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy by Donald Kagan; Publisher: Free Press (October 1, 1998)

“Augustine of Hippo” by Peter Brown; Publisher: University of California Press; Revised Edition (August 7, 2000)

“How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer” by Sarah Bakewell; Publisher: Other Press (October 19, 2010)

Lordy, lordy, we cannot read the great men’s works themselves but must rely on biographers to explain their thought to us? Are Augustine’s Confessions too overwrought? Montaigne’s essays too long for our precious Elis? Can anyone, really, other than a Neocon, interpret Pericles? Were his famous orations too oratorical for Brooks’s humble mind? Or are the words of the greats so humble that they would inflame the Yalies’ brains like sunlight inflames a vampire? Can the intellectual leaders of tomorrow not comprehend ideas without a guide ready to hand to provide interpretation, like a Faith Partner’s Bible, leading them to a preordained (forgive the pun) conclusion? Or might that guide be intended as maybe, just a little, a touch, a skosh, to support Brooks’s worldview?

Continuing on, we have more readings:

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke; Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; Reissue edition (June 15, 2009)

“The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist” Dorothy Day; Publisher: HarperOne (December 6, 1996)

The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niehbuhr; Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (May 1, 2008)

Now, it seems we have works worthy of direct inspection from thinkers as diverse as the Anglican founder of modern conservatism Edmund Burke, to a Catholic pacifist (at least she wouldn’t endorse invading Iraq!) and social activist Dorothy Day, to the protestant minister and public ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. In other words, our thoughts directly on the topic of humility (rather than interpreted by another author) run the gamut of religious conservatism to religious activism to religious political realism. Is virtue the sole province of the religious? Who could doubt it? Not Mr. Brooks.

Some more readings and assignments:

“Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman; Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2011, Reprint edition (April 2, 2013)

The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin; Publisher: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher (1993)

Assignment 1: Mid-Term paper of 2,500 words. Students will be asked to grapple with the indictment of their generation made by Christian Smith, Alasdair Macintyre and Jean Twenge. Due Date: February 26. Deliver Hard Copy at end of class. 40% of the final grade.

Course Readings and Schedule

Week 1: The Reticence Code (January 15)
How did American leaders in the 1940s and 1950 conceive of their obligations to their country? We will survey episodes from the lives of George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower and various “Wise Men.” We will pay special attention to those who attended elite prep schools and universities.

Indeed, what can be learned of humility except in the study of the most privileged in our society? Does he think the only way to appeal to anyone is by holding up a mirror? Or is it only Mr. Brooks who thinks solely of himself?

Week 2: The Cultural Shift (January 22)
Why did America reject the values of the Protestant Establishment? What replaced it? We will explore the cultural shift that took place between 1950s and today against the character code of the old elite, including the thinking of Carl Rodgers and a more meritocratic system.

Are our assumptions showing here, like a staid undergarment, revealed through embarrassingly sheer outerwear? Has ‘humility’ now been revealed as the thin pretext for a course extolling conservative religious values? Indeed, has America rejected the “values of the Protestant Establishment”? Did some other set of values replace them? I will leave aside any comment on the grammar of the final sentence above, except to wonder if we are supposed to oppose meritocracies. (One can imagine why Mr. Brooks might oppose such an idea. . .)

Brooks’s preconceptions are on display in these questions: Our society should have the conservative, Protestant (mostly), cultural, religious, and moral values.
Reading: The Organization Kid, The Atlantic Monthly by David Brooks

What, was there no biography of David Brooks available?

Week 3: The Effects (January 29)
What have been the effects of this cultural shift? Has there been a rise in narcissism? Is the culture less effective at transmitting a character code? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this culture?

Reading: Passages From Leading Lives that Matter. Edited By Mark Schwen and Dorothy Bass

Has Mr. Brooks not written enough about the narcissism of American culture? Must he speak on and on about the narcissism of contemporary America? Note the subtlety: Is the culture less effective in transmitting this ‘character code’? (Whatever a character code is. Anyway, hmm, I’m guessing his answer is ‘yes’, call me crazy or prescient or sentient.) And then: “strengths and weaknesses”? Careful, Brooksie, old bean, don’t give away the game. Good job.

The syllabus continues:

Week 4: Pericles (February 5)
We begin our historical survey with Athens. What was the Homeric Honor Code? How did Greeks conceive of hubris? We conclude with an examination of Pericles, the man who sought eternal fame through service to the nation.

Reading: Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy by Donald Kagan

Week 5: Moses (February 12)
Moses was the opposite of a Greek hero. He was described as the most humble man on earth. How does the bible portray heroism? We look at the Jewish formula of character building through obedience to law. We look at the way the rabbinic tradition has interpreted the struggle between internal goodness and the evil urge.

Reading: The Book of Exodus.

Week 6: Augustine (February 19)
We look at how Augustine conceived of pride and sin. We look at the way he built a moral code around the virtue of humility

Reading: Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown Chapters 1-12, 15-20, 22, 26-31

Week 7: Montaigne (February 26)
From moral and religious humility, we begin our shift to epistemological humility. How did Montaigne believe we can best understand ourselves? How did his way of observing the world differ from grander and more systematic methods?

Reading: How to Live by Sarah Bakewell Pages 1-221

Week 8: Burke (March 5)
Edmund Burke argued that the power of reason is weak and that people are wiser to rely upon just prejudices and tradition. Given his tendency to distrust reason and rapid change, how did Burke believe politics and reform should be pursued?

Reading: Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke Parts 1-8

Week 9: Florence Perkins and Dorothy Day (March 26)
Perkins grew up in Maine and was inculcated with a sense of mission at Mount Holyoke. After witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire she devoted herself to worker safety and public service. Day was a young suffragette who founded the Catholic Worker and many other institutions of social action. How did Perkins and Day turn Christian humility into political service?

Reading: The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

Week 10: Martin Luther King and Reinhold Niebuhr (April 2)
Niebuhr devised an Augustinian vision for modern times, holding that by his sinfulness man is a problem to himself. He argued for political action, while understanding that power is inherently corrupting. How did Niebuhr believe power should be used? Why did he oppose idealism? How was MLK and the civil rights movement influenced by Niebuhran thought?

Reading: The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niehbuhr

Brooks’s continuing preoccupation with religious conceptions of humility, service, and sin become disturbing.

Week 11: Seemliness (April 9)
Modern societies have become economically and socially more unequal. We will explore status competition and the desire for social distinction—executives who feel unabashed when asking for lavish salaries. We will ask whether it is proper to put a Yale window sticker on the back of your car. We will look at codes of social modesty and ask whether modest people make better business leaders

Readings: Online essay: Level 5 Leadership by James Collins. Harvard Business Review
Passages from Leading Lives That Matter

Here is the butt of so many internet jokes. No Yale stickers in my window? How will anyone know to crap on my car? Can I put a Harvard sticker on there, provided the car’s primary color is Bondo? Is a University of Chicago t-shirt ok, or must I wear a hairshirt instead? If Brooks does not intend this trivializing of a serious concept as humorous, then I must needs do more to explain the nature of humor to Brooks before he will understand the internet titters (titwitters? twittitters?).

Week 12: Cognitive Modesty (April 16)
Over the past thirty years we have learned a great deal about the operations of the brain. One core finding is that much of our thinking happens below awareness at a cognitive level that is fast, associative, sloppy and sometimes misleading. How should we make decisions and calculate risks if we can’t even be sure of our own thinking.

Reading: “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman (Relevant sections to come)

No one had previously noted the inaccuracy of human thought processes. Perhaps Brooks is more an example of “fast, associative, sloppy and sometimes misleading” thought than he is an elucidator of those concepts. Perhaps as an undergraduate in a great books program he thought too quickly, associatively, sloppily, and misleadingly to recognize the contribution of philosophers (aside from just Montaigne) to the debate over the limits of human reason.

Seriously, though, there is nothing wrong with keeping up with recent research on cognitive psychology and the limitations of our knowledge. What I dread is the superficiality of Brooks’s understanding of it given his need to teach from a popular, non-academic book. If you would know about the limits of human reason, you would not rely on the Sparknotes version of Descartes’ Meditations.

Week 13: Fate (April 23)
In the 1940s researchers began a longitudinal study tracing the life courses of Harvard Men. These men had every advantage, but a third of them had their lives ravaged by alcoholism and other setbacks. However well one is trained for life, one cannot control life. We’ll look at the Grant study and other studies of how lives develop.

Reading: What Makes Us Happy by Joshua Wolf Shenk. The Atlantic

The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin

Dare I say it? Perhaps all the advantages the elite power structure in America could give these Harvard Men was somehow inadequate to full moral, intellectual, and social fulfillment. Brooks allows that one cannot control one's life. If I am struck by frozen effluvia falling from a passing jet, that is beyond my control. If fully a third of these men have their lives ravaged, this might be more than cause for recitation of the Serenity prayer but instead a reason to consider that something is wrong with the social circumstances that led to this outcome. We might consider that something in their upbringing and culture was responsible for this fact. Perhaps I am unfair to Brooks—perhaps he does take this data as critique of the elitist social structure that led to these ravages—but blaming fate tells us nothing. (Unless, perhaps, the problem is not enough God and humility.)

Final comments:
I tried to give Brooks the benefit of the doubt and consider that his course might have some salutary effect on the presumably (?) pampered elites of Yale, but every sentence exudes self-satisfaction and smugness as Brooks leads ever onward from superficiality to superficiality to reach a predetermined outcome. Every reading and summary suggests that religious conceptions of the self, knowledge, and the universe should lead to a conservative view of human nature and our role in society, and that humility, apparently conceived as abasement before the dark god of Christianity (who punishes us with alcoholism if we fail to be properly Christian), is the best way to lead us to lives of service to others. (Caution: Service may include bombings and invasions of other countries based on scanty-to-non-existent evidence. But live-and-learn, fate is cruel, and humans are fallible, associative thinkers, and whatnot; no harm no foul; no need to bicker and argue about who killed who.)

Let me, as a teacher, explain the joke to Mr. Brooks. It is not the superficial design flaws (e.g. a course in humility taught using your own works) in your course that give rise to such humor. It is the fundamental design flaw in your course. The goal of a course is not to proceed linearly from assumption to preordained destination, but to explore a set of ideas and reasons with a view to encouraging the students to reach their own conclusions, even if those conclusions are diametrically opposed to your own, based on the best reasoning (e.g. the best first-hand sources of arguments and ideas) available. A college course is a rambling trek through a rugged, uncharted country, a struggle up hills and through hazardous terrain, with the constant danger of pitfalls and bogs, and “Here there be dragons”. Mr. Brooks seems to believe a college course is a breezy stroll along the surface of his mind, a paved sidewalk past a manicured lawn, eventually reaching a preordained destination, a foregone conclusion if you will. Education is not a popular book made up of a few superficial observations assembled into a rickety edifice that sways in the slightest breeze of criticism or doubt. The point of teaching, for the teacher as much or more than for the students, is to question one’s deepest convictions, to make the strongest case one can against one’s own predispositions, and challenge oneself to meet those arguments, or failing that, to admit one’s failure and consider alternatives. True care for education, requires that “Challenge thyself” be as fundamental a precept as “Know thyself”. Sadly, Mr. Brooks appears to do neither.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Things that I like:
For my final exam in introduction to philosophy last fall, a student wrote on her blue book exam under Instructor: “The Best One”

Churches I will Not Attend (Okay, it's true that I avoid all churches, but really. . .)

Free Will Baptist Megachurch:
Wednesday Night Word Explosion
I don’t know what a Word Explosion is, but I try to avoid explosions of any kind.

Eternal Word Ministries:
The sermons at this place are interminable.

Strip mall church:
Advertisement: Practice Resurrection!
I was under the impression one only got one shot at this. I would prefer to put it off as long as possible.

Name Nazi:
It sometimes bothers me that Dwyane Wade’s name is misspelled. Am I the only one who notices this? Of course, in a way, the idea that one’s name could be misspelled is absurd. Names are purely conventional; any string of symbols that one’s society agrees to treat as referring directly to that person count as the name for that person. There are limits, however to what you can get away with.

Still, I sometimes have doubts about wisdom of some names (I say as the parent of a child with a decidedly unusual name). I recently saw a woman with her children in a Burger King play area. The boy was named “Massiah”. Obviously, you can name your children anything you want, but they are the ones who have to live with it. And isn’t "Massiah" a little optimistic? It would certainly put a lot of pressure on the kid. Maybe it would be kinder to go with “Superman” or "Samuel L. Jackson".

Overheard conversations:
I saw a woman on the train the other day who told her four-year old daughter, “Shut up. You just talk too much.” When another woman gave her an indulgent, rather than scandalized, smile, the mother expounded at length, in detail, for the rest of the trip about how the child never stopped talking, and how she got her loquacity from her grandmother, how she asked questions with obvious answers and was otherwise unbearably talkative. I thought, “Lady, she did not get it from her grandmother.”

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Is religion natural? Is science unnatural?

You and I, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, even the late Christopher Hitchens, are all religious. So you should all stop complaining about religion and trying to change people’s religious beliefs. It’s just not possible to eradicate religion, so we might as well accept whatever crazy stuff they want to believe.

Bob McCauley [Update: McCauley is this guy who blogs here.) argues that science is a fragile flower in need of precisely the right conditions in order to survive, but religion is a durable and universal part of human experience. Thus, science is no threat to religion; religion will continue whether science conflicts with it or not, and if there really is a conflict between science and religion, science will be the inevitable loser. More than that, every single person is religious; religion is part of everyone’s character whether they like it or not. Perhaps in some instances it might seem that science undermines a particular religion to some degree in some sufficiently advanced country, but in the long run, religion will survive, indeed thrive, in one form or another while science will undoubtedly disappear into the mists of time.

McCauley reasons that science involves a counterintuitive set of processes and products. The content, or product, of scientific theories is counterintuitive. Quantum physics, cosmology, microbiology, biology all involve exotic entities (from the perspective of ordinary experience) acting in complex and unexpected ways. [I’ll see if I can find a video of this. Just ask people where the mass of a tree comes from. Even people who ‘understand’ photosynthesis are unlikely to answer, “From the carbon dioxide I the air.” It is intuitively difficult to conceive of air as providing the enormous mass of a tree.] Religion involves no such counterintuitive entities: the content of religion is magical people who control events by mystical means but who are essentially like us in psychology. In other words, the key concept of religion is the agent-cause, the person or intelligent agent as a cause of events that otherwise are not explained (and, hell, really many of them that are explained in non-agent terms). You might think that religions appeal to mysterious invisible, intangible, sky-beings who operate in untestable ways with minds that are infinitely powerful, infinitely complex, and thus incomprehensible to mortals, but this is not the case. All these trappings of contemporary religion are not really religious at all but belong to theology, a highly intellectualized explanatory endeavor more akin to science or abstract fields such as mathematics or logic, than to religion. Theology, of course, could disappear, and this would have no bearing on religion whatsoever. In short, the product of the scientific method, the content of science, is counterintuitive and hard to grasp, and so cannot be considered an enduring part of human belief.

Religion, on the other hand, is simply the tendency to believe in anthropomorphic causes for events. I got the job; there must be an agent behind my good luck, a being who worked behind the scenes to get me the job. Mary got cancer; there must be someone acting to give her cancer. That’s religion, and that’s really (almost) all that religion is.

However, the product is not the main part of McCauley’s argument. The main issue for him is the process of science, not its content. “The scientific method” is not an easy or intuitive process for people to grasp and follow. (Let’s assume there is a single, albeit complex, method of science.) Ordinary people, and even trained scientists, have difficulty following the strictures of the scientific method: blind, or double-blind, experiments, mathematical models for inferring correlations, clear distinctions between correlation and causation, etc. These and other aspects of science are difficult to grasp and follow, and even trained scientists are prone to abandon them in ordinary life.

Science further requires a complex set of social relations and institutions such as publication and peer review. Religion, on the other hand, depends only on processes that are quite ‘natural’, even innate—if you believe in innateness. Religion has two main essential features: explaining events in terms of agents (intelligent beings) as causes (noted above) and treating certain items, areas, or events, as “sacred” or ”contaminated” (or treating ourselves as contaminants of the sacred). McCauley equates religion with this subset of largely erroneous reasoning tendencies and processes. Since people inevitably reason poorly in these ways, religion can never disappear.

Similarly, as it turns out, my toddler (and possibly my dog) is religious since he is prone to the same errors. Taking this poor reasoning as partly constitutive of religion does not mean that this is all there is to religion. It might be that these two features are universal to all religions, but there is more required for something to count as religion. Alas, McCauley does not offer any further definienda for religion. This failure conveniently leaves him lots of leeway to argue that religion must be natural since he considers only attributes that are shown to be ‘natural’ (what McCauley calls “maturationally natural”) by cognitive psychology.

I hope it’s obvious at this point what’s wrong with this reasoning. He’s defined science narrowly, to include only the highly sophisticated social institution of science as it is practiced in the modern world, but he’s defined religion very generally so that virtually any supernatural thinking qualifies as religion. Obviously if science were defined equally generally, as, for example, a systematic method of learning about the world by means of observation and experiment, then it would be impossible to find anyone who did not have some cognitive capacity for it and tendency to use it. My toddler certainly experiments with the world and tries to understand it, often inferring unobservable mechanisms. And there are lots of experiments in developmental psychology that show children using such inference patterns. Certainly not everyone would do science well, but it’s also obvious that not everyone does religion well either. (Hey, look at the Scientologists!) Similarly, there is a narrow definition of religion that requires it to have the kind of sophisticated social apparatus that we find in contemporary Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These types of religion clearly include counterintuitive doctrines and concepts far removed from common experience. The Catholic doctrines of transubstantiation and the triune God are highly counterintuitive. Even the processes of religion in the contemporary world can be unnatural. Do we need priests in cassocks to interpret the will of God for us? Why must these priests be sexually abstinent men? So, contemporary organized religion is just as unnatural and contingent as contemporary science (unless misogyny is intrinsic to religion); and simple science is just as unavoidable and intrinsic to human nature as is simple religion. My toddler has the same supernaturalist tendencies as religious believers, but my toddler also experiments with complex machines to try to discover their inner workings.

McCauley’s argument is an equivocation. The only thing that makes it appear plausible is the reliance on different standards or scopes for the two concepts. Religion and science are both contingent and unnatural when viewed one way (narrowly, if you will), and they are both necessary and natural when viewed another way (broadly, generally, or simply).

So, if this was obvious to me, wasn’t it also obvious to McCauley?

Ironically, McCauley identified confirmation bias as an error people commit that makes them poor scientists. He noted that people are often quite good at finding rationalizations that allow them to maintain failed theories even in the face of overwhelming counterevidence. Perhaps McCauley might do well to diagnose himself.

McCauley attempts to avoid my objection by labeling the sophisticated and unnatural activity that appears to relate to religion theology. So, there is little unnatural about religion since religion is defined as that activity that psychologists have discovered to be natural, and any unnatural aspect of religion (as we would ordinarily understand the term) is theology. Obviously, then theology could disappear without religion disappearing. Theology appears to be a set of doctrines, beliefs, rules of inference involving religion, but it does not appear to involve the practices of religion (such as the priesthood or gender discrimination). I suppose McCauley could add some other term for narrowly defined practices of a particular religion, and argue that these practices are not essential to religion either. Should we dispute McCauley’s rather arbitrary distinction between the theology (and theological processes involving, say, confession or the priesthood)? It’s probably not worth it; McCauley can define his terms in whatever way he wants as long as we can explain them in ordinary terms that anyone can understand. So, here’s how to state McCauley’s claims in those ordinary terms:

There are supernaturalist tendencies in human reasoning that tend to persist even when people are aware that this reasoning is fallacious. Similarly, humans have difficulty in applying good scientific reasoning; instead, they often rely on or apply poor scientific reasoning. Of course, humans are capable of good scientific reasoning on their own, but they are more effective if they have complex social institutions that allow for critique and debate.

Given these facts, it is also entirely possible that people can reason well enough together that they will not be taken in by supernaturalist reasoning. McCauley doesn’t exactly emphasize the last point, but it’s implicit in his discussion of science since science succeeds despite our tendency towards error.

Take that, Dawkins! Religion 1, Science 0.

My friend who brought in McCauley for the lecture explains that Dawkins and Dennett think that the demise of religion is inevitable and that McCauley is merely providing a dose of realism. I cannot speak for Dawkins/Dennett, or the rest of the Four Horsemen of the Theopocalypse. So, this claim may be true or it may not. Still, I have two questions. (1) What do we do about religion if some important aspect of it is difficult to eradicate from human psychology? And (2) are societies in which religion has a strong grip more successful (in the sense that they are more likely to survive, spread their belief systems) than those that are less religious? Will the religious or non-religious societies compete more effectively?

To the first question: If we believe, as McCauley does, that religion is essentially irrational, then we ought to do everything possible to limit its power and influence, to educate people sufficiently so that they cease to be religious, and implement social policies that will make it more likely that religions will slowly fade away. Clearly these things can be done, and they would not require mistreatment of the religious or religions. We need only cease to give religion special treatment in order for it to lose at least some of its power. The most effective thing to do would be to stop giving special support for religion. For example, religions are given a prominent role in all sorts of social circumstances that their actual contribution to society does not merit. We could stop giving invocations at public events as a way of reducing religion’s influence. We could stop giving religions special treatment in funding for their activities. For example, drop all the federal government’s ‘faith-based initiatives’ and make social spending based on evidence, not faith. We could work harder to educate our children in science and limit the role of religion in schools. We can improve our social support for the poor and disadvantaged in order to limit the need for social services religions provide. We could make it easier for people to live without religion. We do not need just to imagine doing these things either because most European nations already do them, and those nations fare better on basically any measure of social welfare or happiness than America does.

To the second question: I do not know whether religious or non-religious societies will thrive in a kind of evolutionary free-for-all, but I know that public policies based on religion and religious thinking cause tremendous problems for our society. America is, I think, dropping from the ranks of the developed world. And it’s fairly clear that the benighted policies of our conservative leaders, supported by their religious followers, have led to this trend. The authoritarian-follower personality of the conservative movement in America, dominated by religious believers, has enabled the looting of the government by the wealthy and the gradual decay of our infrastructure and our important social institutions (such as public education). Societies that are free of religion do better in promoting the welfare of their citizens and fit better in a community of nations. I do not know if this means they will continue to exist longer or spread their values more effectively than will more religious nations (such as America or Saudi Arabia), but it is devoutly to be hoped that they will, and it seems a worthwhile goal to work towards achieving that end.

There are successful nations with majority atheist populations. There are organizations of scientists who inculcate good reasoning into scientists at young ages, and they are capable of leaving behind most of their errors and superstition. There are millions of atheists worldwide. All of these people may be prone to errors of reasoning, but these millions appear to have avoided or corrected this reasoning in adherence to ‘the’ scientific method and/or in rejecting religion. So, the relative naturalness of superstition is not sufficient evidence that superstition cannot be overcome or replaced with more careful reasoning.

McCauley reasons that religion is, at bottom, a kind of fallacious or erroneous reasoning, so he cannot reasonably object to the attempts by the new atheists to limit, even eradicate, its influence. Perhaps it will be harder to do this than some think, but if you really think that religion is basically superstition and cognitive error, then you really cannot accept religion with equanimity. If superstition can be fought at all, which it clearly can be, then our goal, whether it is easy or difficult, should be to fight it. I can only hope that McCauley’s overall purpose is to warn atheists away from false optimism, but, if so, that was not the tenor of his talk. I cannot help feeling that McCauley's argument is really a counsel to despair, that we should accept that people cannot change this aspect of their psychology. To me, even if he is correct about these kinds of cognitive errors being universal, if religion really is rooted in fallacious reasoning, then this fact should provide more motivation to oppose it.