Archive for July, 2012


The Will As Organizer of Normative Perception

I’ve talked many times on this blog about the way that perception is not a merely physically phenomenon. Light does not just strike the retina, creating an image. Rather, the mind is actively involved in SHAPING and ORGANIZING the light that strikes our eyes into objects that retain their color constancy and shape constancy despite changing perspective and conditions.

Think of it this way. Why is our perception not an unintelligible jumble of shapes and colors? The answer is that the brain imposes various features on the light that hits the eye to create things we immediately recognize as objects. The brain also imposes features on a scene that allow us to organize those objects in space. For example, the brain creates depth perception which has the side effect of meaning that things are always in focus (this is a great example of why vision CANNOT be like a camera or just light striking the retina because camera cannot have everything in a scene in focus at once). The brain also keeps color constant and uses clues from the scene to keep these  patterns up. These schemas are the origin of visual illusions. For example, two instances of orange that are the exact same in tint/color will look different if one is under the shadow of an object because the brain adjusts the lighting for what it believes is the direction of the light. There are many, many examples, and the punch line here is that the brain has automatic processes that it uses to make a scene of visual data intelligible.

My belief is that the will performs similar functions for our normative perception that things like depth perception perform for inanimate, natural reality. Let me explain that sentence. Something like depth perception organizes our perception of things like tables, chairs, animals, and other people. But we don’t just perceive other things. Our perception lets us see VALUE, EMOTION, and OPPORTUNITIES. This may sound strange but it’s a very intuitive thought when you take a second to think about your own perception. For example, scientists have found that in 1/10 of a second, we can determine whether someone is happy or sad or threatening or not. We cannot, in this time, register the features of this person’s face that make us conclude that. Because of that, we do not reach judgments about other people’s moods by INFERENCE. We can say “he’s mad” after being exposed to a face for a second and even if we cannot say anything about his face that makes us believe that, like “o his brow was furrowed,” or “there was an intensity in his eyes.”

This is important. This means that moods and other characterizations of different scenes are often perceived, but not IN VIRTUE of seeing anything else. Sometimes, you just SEE that your friend is upset, or that the person in aisle 5 is being threatened, or that something is ugly. Because we’re usually able to stare at something for a while, we can produce reasons for thinking these things. “This painting is ugly because these lines aren’t even,” or “these colors don’t work together,” but crucially we can reach judgments about whether something is ugly or whatever as a basic perception. It can be a free floating perception.

I think that we are capable of having perception of something’s value. These perceptions function very similarly to my example above of perceiving someone’s distress or sadness. We can perceive that sleeping with one’s sister is wrong or bad. An evolutionary disgust reaction might be behind such feelings, but the point is that we perceive some things as right or wrong intuitively and in a basic fashion. This isn’t to say people can’t be deviant. I might perceive that killing in the name of my deity is morally right. We would say that such a perception is wrong, but the point is just that such a person might believe that action to be right in the same way that we believe that keeping a promise is right.

Such perceptions constitute what I will call our normative perception. We don’t just perceive chairs and tables, but also normatively loaded things like opportunities, value, ugliness, humor, and beauty.

Here’s the big claim of this post: the will organizes our normative perception in the same way that depth perception organizes our natural perception. 

The will then, is what takes our various individual normative perceptions — that this and that are good or worthwhile — and organizes them so that we have a coherent normative universe. Here are two examples. What is the difference between someone who watches birds outside his window each day because they flutter and attract her attention versus someone who engages in bird watching? The answer I think is that in one case, the desirability of watching birds (the “goodness” of it in the agent’s eyes) is integrated into a wider normative horizon, including a respect for nature, amateur scientific interest, and an appreciation of beauty. Just as depth perception allows one chair to be seen as in front of another, the will allows one value to be juxtaposed and integrated with another through the course of an activity. This is further bolstered by the fact that perception is socially permeable (the ash experiment shows that what we see is very related to what people around us are doing and seeing. Folie a deux scenarios also shows this). The will is what allows the social conventions and forms of birdwatching to seep into the bare activity of looking at birds. Our will is what transforms looking at birds into the activity: birdwatching. 

Another example is the way that deliberation works. Deliberation allows us to compare values and decide on a course of action. For instance, we may perceive that equality is valuable, but be able, through reflection to conclude that this is a value illusion and that equality is not what matters but rather the plight of the worst off is what matters.

There are other similarities. Here’s a favorite analogy of mine. There is such a thing as blindsight. Patients who are unable to see anything in their visual field can pick up blocks put in front of them and also mail letters in openings arranged in different ways. They can “see” what is necessary to perform the task, even though they have no subjective experience of what is in front of them.

This is very similar to a type of action in which we act for no reason. I’ve talked about this before, but sometimes we can act for no reason at all. I may try to land on all the cracks on the sidewalk as I stroll along. When asked why I’m trying to do that, I will say “no reason.” Or, “I just felt like it.” In these cases, I claim that we have a case similar to blindsight. Just as the mind can make an agential possibility available to the mind despite there being nothing to see, the will can sometimes make an action attractive to the agent without their being any perceived value to the action. The person who acts for “no reason” does not see anything valuable in the action other than their brute intentional ability to act and do it. They act intentionally but not for a reason.

The upside of all of this is that just as the mind makes visual scenes intelligible, the will makes normative reality intelligible. The will is what makes our agential horizon intelligible and so is constitute of practical rationality. The will then is necessary for intentional action.


1600s France versus the U.S. today

In the 1600s, and predominantly under Louis XIV, the nobles hardly paid taxes. Because Louis was wary of angering them, taxes were levied on exactly the people who could least afford to pay. this is an example of how political power creates very oppressive results. In our society, we do not face injustice like that on a large scale, as a huge portion of taxes in the U.S. are paid by those who are wealthy. This is not surprising because our tax code is meant to be (loosely) progressive.

However, you still see many instances of how our legal regime benefits those who already have all the power. What I mean is that wealthy people can pay more to exploit loopholes in various tax requirements. GE pays very little taxes even though statutorily, they are supposed to owe a lot. Mitt Romney (not making a moral judgment on his behavior here) also pays taxes that are shockingly low for his earnings because it is worth his while to structure things carefully.

To give just one example, my dad is a lawyer and explained how he saved a client 65,000 dollars by having the money from a sale of one of his properties come in two payments, one December 31, and the other on January 2. This had the effect of spreading the income of this sale over two years. I’m happy this guy saved money, but beliefs about a “burden” that various citizens are bearing in terms of taxes are bound to be false as long as the system has series of possible exploitations that can be used. We will have an ENDEMIC prevalence of average middle class people paying taxes on their home equity, when savvier people know that there are ways to trade up homes at crucial times so that they start with fresh, untaxable equity on a new home (Texas has something like this for sure).

In a subdued way, America is still like 17th century France, and this says a lot about how political power operates over time.


European History Comes in Twos

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m brushing up on European history. What I find so interesting is how so many huge events in European history are basically repeats of each other. In so many instances, the same power or theme is either victorious or is defeated, but then is challenged (or redoubles its power) not long after. The reverberations of truly enormous events really do seem to be not be absorbed the first time through. They have to recur before their lesson is understood or their force is truly integrated into the status quo.

I’m accumulating examples as I go, but some that stand out are the following.

1. World II grew out of the peace treaty of WWI as the longstanding issue of Germany’s place in the international sphere was not resolved by that war.

2. The 30 years war was essentially a relitigation of the wars that were concluded by the treaty of augsburg. Treaty of Augsburg in 1555 gave protestants some rights, and after nearly one hundred years, the treaty of westphalia confirmed those rights after they were almost destroyed by Catholic powers during the 30 years war (Westphalia was signed in 1648).

3. Vienna was attacked twice by the Turks (1529 and then in 1683), and in the second time, Europe remembered the fear it felt the first time around and so rushed to Austria’s aid, helping to create the Austria-Hungary empire in the process.

4. Prussia undergoes a kind of U-shaped history in which it first becomes powerful in the 1700s,  then gets walloped by France at the end of the 1700s/early 1800s, but then comes back resurgent again in the late 1800s (Franco Prussian war). This itself plays into the first two world wars.

4. France itself came and went, becoming powerful under Louis XIV. England and mainly the Dutch had to check the French’s desire to become the most powerful monarchy in Europe, and England (and to a lesser extent the Dutch) had to perform the same trick roughly 100 years after the war of Spanish Succession, in the defeat of Napoleon (1815).

It always seems to take old Europe about 100 years to re-fight its same battles. Now that Europe is basically unified though, I wonder what will happen to the overall movement of history. The last 70 years have undoubtedly been the U.S. most powerful era, but I wonder if some of the U.S.’s most drastic foreign policy / balance of power decisions will have to be renegotiated as well. Will we have to again confront Russia in a new form? It’s not clear that we ended the tension between west and east in the Cold War in a stable way. Will Europe again come to the U.S. aid or have they grown tired of global policing under NATO?

I don’t really have any idea, but I think its fascinating how often the same issues and themes reassert themselves after they have been supposedly CONCLUSIVELY dealt with.


Was the Ferry Scene in the Dark Knight Really a Prisoner’s Dilemma?

I was thinking about Batman a little bit today and how much I wanted to see the one coming out in a few weeks.

This made me think back to the second Batman and the ferry scene. Many people label it as an instance of really smart philosophical sensitivity in a film. It’s a thought experiment isn’t it? Yes, and I was happy to see it in the film.

However, I don’t think the situation is really a prisoner’s dilemma. Rather, it’s just a simple example of direct competition or rivalry. If there’s only one apple and we can fight for possession of it, then whoever wins will be better off, but that doesn’t mean we’re in a prisoner’s dilemma. It just means we’re fighting over the single apple.

Let me be more precise. Usually a prisoner’s dilemma indicate an example in which individual rationality leads to collective irrationality, i.e., that total social utility is lost because of the parameters of the game. But in the ferry example, if both sides to cooperate and don’t blow each other up, they will both die at the end of the time limit. This would lead to less total happiness than if one side had detonated so that they would get to live in perpetuity (or at least beyond the specific ferry situation). So, if one side had quickly detonated the other ferry, not only would they have been better off (they would live and the other boat would explode) but society would be better off as well. The people who did the detonating would get to live and return to their loved ones.

One thing also that makes the ferry situation a little different than ordinary prisoner’s dilemma is the way that options are dominated. Usually, the way a prisoner dilemma is understood is that one option is dominant over the other. What this means is that by picking the dominant option, one always does better. If you don’t confess, then I should confess because I’ll go free and you’ll be punished. If you are going to confess, then I should STILL confess, otherwise I’ll go away for much longer than if I don’t cooperate.

In the ferry example though, if I know you’re going to detonate me, then none of my choices matter anyway. All detonating will do is just bring me with you, which won’t make ME any better off. So, strictly speaking, detonating is not the dominant strategy. However, I might look at the situation this way: if the other person denotes, it doesn’t matter what I do, so I should think about the case in which they don’t detonate. And in that case, I should detonate first to survive the Joker’s set up. So, on the off chance you don’t detonate, I should just detonate. So in a way detonating is kind of the dominant option. But critically, detonating does not cause a loss in total social welfare, but rather preserves it.


Marriage: the oldest casualty of western civilization?

In my last post, I talked about how western civilization has seen institutions that put harsh restrictions on people replaced with looser restrictions. I don’t know any good exceptions to this trend, and I wanted to reiterate one additional example that is also very stark and instructive.

Take marriage. At the beginning, marriage was an extremely sacred and powerful social institution. In Europe, it was for a long time controlled by the church which had enormous power over those who ignored its dictates. This had to do with rights that a man had over his wife, who got property from the marriage, and also who inherited the name of the family. Even nobles were largely bound by these dictates. Henry IV had to create his own church to twist out of his marriage commitments.

As time went on though, the requirements softened in a variety of ways. Women began a painstaking campaign for equality within the marriage structure. Furthermore, divorce became easier, the penalties for infidelity less, and arranged marriages became less prevalent. All of these developments continued to the present day. For example as late as 1963, interracial marriages were forbidden in Virginia. More or less though, today, there is a high degree of choice that infuses the marriage institution. People can marry and divorce as they see fit and the stigmatization for being a “bastard” is as far as I know, quite low (though the effect of such a thing on the prospects of the bastards is still quite disastrous). There are STILL laws against adultery in the U.S. (it’s a court martial offense in the military and some states still have laws against it) but the penalties are very small and cases are rarely brought and prosecuted. Adultery is deemed to disrupt the social order in particularly egregious case or when some other angle intersects.

Then of course there is the issue of whether homosexual marriages will be allowed. I think it’s safe to say the day will come. Young people are hugely supportive of gay marriage (when the older generation dies off the issue will be largely dead I predict) and the whole force of European history seems to say that greater choice and flexibility will come, one way or another, into the institution.

What fewer people appreciate is that even as gay marriage is on the horizon of being accepted, it seems that marriage in general is on a slow decline. Less people are getting married, more people are getting divorced, and I’ve heard many people in my generation struggling to understand why it needs to have the social sanction and backing that it does.  The view (not yet in wide circulation, but growing) is something like this: If you’re with someone, then you’re with someone and if they know it, then why does anyone else need to know or care? Love, more than ever, more than class, more than a labor arrangements (women in the kitchen, men at work), religion, and government, is the arbiter of marriage. But as that happens, it seems that marriage will need to be reformulated again to survive. My point is just that the more reformulations it endures, the less urgent it becomes.

I’ll reiterate the point I made in my last point. If marriage continues on its trend to become less and less important, then we may see the end of one of the first and seemingly most powerful social institutions ever created. After something like 2000 years (at LEAST), we would have a conclusive case of society, over the long term, transforming one of the most fundamental human instincts toward a very radically new expression. Just as biologists look over history to understand the evolutionary arch of a species or ecosystem, it might very interesting for sociologists and historians to think broadly about what characteristics of our civilization created, and then over such a long time, destroyed, marriage as a social form.


The History of Western Civilization Through Social Media

The history of western civilization, as far as I can tell, is the substitution of institutional, coercive, control over people’s lives with diffused, softer, and “social” controls. First, the church, your lord, your husband, and the difficulty of human life ruled over you. Very few people had power to direct their lives each day as they saw fit, and the power that they had to direct others was stern and violent. Remember, legal courts are a comparatively new thing. If someone didn’t like what you did, it was likely that they would just kill you themselves or find someone with power that looked out for them and have them kill you.

Then the church lost its power and slowly but surely, over the course of roughly two hundred years, individuals won the right to practice the religion that they saw fit. But the freedom from excommunication and being burned at the stake by the church was replaced by legal requirements instituted by various governments, and then even those slowly died away as society finally realized the ability to. In a way, religion might be our collective sneak peek at what happens to ALL institutions and systems of value. First, they rule everything, then they are up to the state, then up to the economy, then up to the individual, and then they cease to matter altogether (as I believe will largely happen to religion, or will it have staying power? That would be interesting to see). One might say that a system of values starts its death the moment that those who believe in it cannot summarily kill those who do not.

The same thing happened with the economy. First, people owed their labor to their lord. In fact, there was slavery at the beginning of most societies, but the intermediate step was serfdom or vassalage. A huge class of people created food so that others might live. Then property became somewhat more democratized in that more people could own it, but land was still largely restricted to certain people and labor was still largely immobilized by the difficulty of travel and the power of nobles of all stripes. Also, taxes were set up to almost make sure that certain people could never participate in the economy. In France, the nobles were the ones who DIDN’T have to pay taxes for a long time, because they just didn’t want to and the king did not want to tangle with them. Today, everyone can have property to roughly the same degree. If you have the money and the skills, you can get land, cash, machines, information. Anything you want. If you have the cash. (Addendum: this trend is further backed up by a short look at the history of lending. The dispersion of capital into the economy has massively democratized access to $$)

Same thing happened with the state. At first, the state was nothing more than a group of people who had weapons or commanded the power of other people with weapons. Offending the laws of a place was a good way to die. Since that brutal starting point, the legal controls on the average person have loosened in a host of ways (though they still exist). For one thing, people can now elect their rulers. They play a role in who will rule them, to some degree. That is the legacy of the advance of democracy. Also, the state cannot do certain things. That’s never really true in practice, but there are much more barriers to outright discrimination, pogroms, and the like then in the past. That is the legacy of liberalism. Finally, breaking the law is almost never a ticket to death. There are courts, appeals courts, and finally prisons. There are many, many MORE laws because society has become so much more complex, but they do not carry the absolute and unbending character that they used to.


In this post though, I want to focus on the economy at large. Here again, we are witnessing a substitution of one type of obvious power with a more subtle more dispersed power. The example I’m thinking of is social media and the internet. As the economy had evolved up until the 20th century, people were entitled to property of various kind by paying for it. The problem was that if one didn’t have money, one became poor. If you were poor before public transportation, you had to find a ride another way. If you were poor before food stamps and the like, you were hungry (soup kitchens being the exception).

But these days, a lot of things are eliminating that barrier by providing things for free. For example, news is now free, because sites provide them along with advertisements. Facebook is free, because they want you to give them all your personal information. Thousands of other services are provided not for a monetary cost (the old way of restricting people to goods), but by transacting over someone’s personal data.

This fits with western civilization thus far. Goods and services are made available to more and more people. Yay! Anyone can go to and read pretty high quality writing about a range of interesting topics. Anyone can connect with friends and family via google voice, facebook, email, and on and on. The tradeoff though is made in terms of less understood and “softer” forms of restriction. Cynicism is the name for this and I predict it will grow as an extremely unhealthy force in our society.

In the old economy, if I wanted to buy steel, and you wanted to sell it to me, I knew why you wanted to sell it to me. You wanted my money. This was a type of honesty. As many have pointed out, it was also callous, since I didn’t care about you, but only your money. I maintain though that because everyone knew that money was the trade off, it created an activity and a respect similar to sports. If I played you in basketball, I know you wanted to win, but we both knew the purpose of our interaction. Same with negotiations and creating business. People know what they are getting into when they enter the marketplace. They expect to engage in economic competition (as I’ve argued elsewhere, the value of this competition is exactly the reason we need public education and wealth redistribution, so that this competition is meaningful). But now, when you go to get something, there is an element of fakery that breeds cynicism. Rather than posting a price that Facebook expects you to pay, it plays an ongoing game that most people do not KNOW ABOUT or PAY ATTENTION TO regarding what they will and will not do with your information. They want badly to do whatever they want, but they are bound to care about the community because they need the “community” to continue to extract the information that it needs. Thus there is a very amorphous dance that goes on about the service and what it entails rather than a price transaction which focuses the consumer on what they are buying. This type of transaction makes it very clear to the consumer what they are giving up.

The same things goes for news sites that make money through eyeballs. Rather than asking you to pay for what you read if you like it, there are now gadgets an procedures at every turn to keep your eyeballs on the site. Such things can be distractions, redirects, and prettier and prettier advertisements. But the point is simply to deluge you with advertisements. This is much less callous than simply asking a price, but it’s much more insulting. The purchase of things is becoming indirect. Rather than trying to get your money, facebook wants you to be willing to make it easier for someone ELSE to get your money.