Archive for the 'epistemology' Category


What do philosophers do?

I usually don’t have a pat answer for what philosophers do. I mean, there are a lot of puzzles that philosophers try to set up and then attack, and usually an inquisitive person has only a few minutes of attention in them to try and understand a conceptual entanglement. For example, the Hesperus and Phosphorous issue, as an issue is usually a hard one to motivate for people. It also has the added difficulty of requiring a discussion of what direct reference is and why modern philosophy treats names as directly referential.

Going forward though, I think I’m going to start using the following puzzle from philosophy of probability (of all places). I think I’ll explain this puzzle and then say that ordinary concepts are RIFE with such problems. Philosophers try to work out those problems.

Here it goes.

A machine makes squares. It can make squares with an area as large as 4 or as small as 0. The size of the square it makes on any given occasion is random. What is the probability that the square will have an area between 0 and 2? The answer is 1/2.

Now consider the length of a side of one of the squares that this machine makes. The lengths will range in size from 0 to 2. What is the probability that the square will have a side length between 0 and 1? 1/2 again right.

But now there is a problem. We said that there is a 1/2 probability that the machine will make a square with an area between 0-2, but since we also said that there is a 1/2 probability that the machine will make a square with a side length between 0-1. But since a side length of 1 will create a square with area 1 (1 squared is 1), then we have said that there is a 1/2 chance that the machine will make a square with an area between 0-1 and a 1/2 chance that the machine will create a square with an area between 0-2. This is a contradiction. Thus, our concept of probability needs to be revised.


0 ——2——- 4  (.5 probability that the square will be to the left of the 2)

Side length

0 ——-1—— 2 (.5 probability that the square will be to the left of the 1)


Amazing Book on Perception

I just finished “Sight Unseen” by Melvyn Goodale and David Milner, two researchers of percetion.

This book is just really good. It’s short and accessible but awesome in the way it will change your thinking.

The main idea is that we have two perceptual systems, one for action and one for representation. The deepness in which these themes are pursued is truly impressive.

Dee Fletcher, the main research subject of the book, lost the ability to see objects as objects. Her visual experience is hazy and objects seem to “run together,” but she can see color and texture. HOWEVER, she is still able to act like normal human beings. She can mail a letter in a small slot, grasp objects of a variety of shapes and so on. The evidence amassed over the course of the book is impressive. The representational system is closely tied to consciousness and is not much use for action. If we see an object, we can pick it up easily, quickly, and with the right amount of visua-motor adjustment. If we wait a few seconds while our eyes our closed and SIMULATE picking up the same object, we’re slower and less adroit with our motions, the hypothesis being that information for our motor system clears out after a short period of time, leaving us with our perceptual system, which is not built for action.

The idea is strengthened by patients who have damaged visual systems for action. These people can see everything crystal clear, but have trouble and uncertainty ACTING. If such people wait a few seconds to engage with an object, their performance improves, because rather than engaging their ordinarily superior (but now broken) motor-vision system, they engage their work (but second-rate) representational-vision system.

This is used to explain a wealth of ordinary and fascinating data. First, why do young kids draw the same pictures of houses and cars, but master artists can introduce perspective and the appearance of reality? The reason is that our eyes work “behind our backs” to create object recognition over time. A black shirt in sunlight reflects more light than a white shirt in a dim room, but the former still looks black and the latter still looks white. That’s our brain helping us and compensating for what we “see” (see is in quotes because I’m using that word to refer crudely to just the light that hits our retina. Real perception is much, much more than just light hitting the retina). So, young children draw things as the OBJECT is. We recognize a door from all sorts of positions, even though a door’s shape on our retina can be trapezoidal, parallelogram, or square depending on the perspective. But throughout it all we recognize a door, and that’s why kids draw the door as the object the brain cues to us — the rectangular straight on object. Master artists have in a sense mastered the ILLUSION and clues our brain uses to help us see perspective.

Also, why is it hard to mime actions. Well, because of what I said before. We’re quite bad at mimicking the FLUIDITY of action that is guided by our motor system. Painters have to learn to recreate what our REPRESENTATIONAL visiionsystem does for us, but mimes must learn to duplicate actions normally controlled by our ACTIONAL visual system. That’s why miming is really hard.

Something that really blew me away, is that TV would be impossible without our representational visual system. All the lower mammals have an actional visual system, but only we have a representational system which works mainly by relative distances and sizes. Thus, everything on a TV looks right, because its compared to everything else on the TV. Godzilla looks big (even though he’s small) and 3-d (even though he is on a 2-d screen).

The MOST interesting thing though was that our representational system can be fooled by illusions but our actional visual system CANNOT. When looking at a line illusion (with the arrows) we can’t help but SEE the lines as different lengths, but if we try and reach out to grab the lines, our fingers will stretch the right distance. They won’t be fooled by the illusion. What this means is that acting in the world reveals the truth of the world in a special way. ONLY through action can we work around some illusions. The world is revealed to us in a special way when we TAKE action. Is there some relationship to the wall street protests, i.e. when we ACT on our political beliefs rather than just think about them, the world maybe revealed to us in a special way. I’m fascinated by that thought.


Media Haze (I think this post turned out well)

As I’ve mentioned before, I surf the news sites in the morning for my job, so I’m starting to get a real feel for the news world. It’s kind of a cool experience, because I’m learning what will quote “play in Peoria” when it comes to story ideas. I’m also getting to feel the currents of the “news cycle,” a system just like an economy — controlled by thousands of interactions yet has meaningful and understandable macro trends. A stock market analyst tries to listen in to those trends to make money and rack up dollars, and publicity and news people try to listen to the heartbeat of the news in order to rack up eyeballs and people (and nowadays, for money as well).

So I’ve also started to understand what the news is about a little more deeply. I used to think that it was crap, and I think it still kind of is, but I guess the purpose of it was never really to be READ in the sense that one reads a novel or a philosophy book. For these types of writing, one READS it. You take the thing on its own merits and in an intense, engaging way. The news, and I’m not saying it is worse for this fact, is not meant to be READ in that way. Instead, its browsed, looked over, and kind of “soaked in” like one would take a shower. Through these interactions with many pieces, some good, some ok, and most bad, you start to get a feeling for the “beat” or the “rhythm” of the world (or your country or whatever). You start to come into contact with what some have called the collective unconscious, and once you’ve tapped into this behind the scenes, economy of psychological fragments, half ideas, and discarded bits of cultural insights, you gain something, though it is not a knowledge of a type of argument, and you certainly gain nothing like clarity.

Instead, the news cycle is to think tank and journal writing what the mystic or prophet is to the philosopher. One teaches wisdom while the other teaches knowledge (and you know, if you follow this blog, that I don’t at all mean to say that the latter is superior than the former).

Part of how the news allows us to gain wisdom about society is partly because it simply reports facts.  The news may not report all of them, and it may not report only them, but it does report some facts. This is partly how we get in touch with what’s “going on around us.” But through the opinions and videos and snide remarks, we also get in touch with what people are “feeling around us.” We build a rough hunch about the “mood” of the country and in the process of twittering through micro-arguments and sifting through reader comments, and analyzing back-biting and counter back-biting, we come to make some judgments about things. They are easily manipulable and whimsical, but they are the intuitive ways that society organizes its knowledge for the day ahead. Science regiments and organizes our society’s knowledge on a grand scale, and in a slow but implacable way. News on the other hand is science just for today, just for the revolution, or the insult, or the joke. Everyone makes use of it to guide their everyday, intuitive stuff, and that’s its connection to wisdom.

Of course though, I can’t resist constantly engaging with this media haze — this cauldron of automatic-half-insights — and revealing its silliness and its flaws, and its unreasonableness when one takes a different perspective. When one takes the eternal perspective, or the view from nowhere, or the view from forever (rather than the view from here and from now — *see below for some more stuff on this).

So here I am, suggesting that you look at this so you can see how the average article smashes together ideas and concepts that should be kept separate. The point of this article is that people who use OBL’s death as a justification for torture are engaging in torture creep, at first saying that its use is justified for ticking time bomb scenarios and then saying that its used anytime it will bag us a terrorist. This is “torture creep” as the article says. But wait, who really said that? The only thing I’ve heard is that Bin Laden’s capture was a positive for aggressive interrogation. Now one can dispute that claim, but I didn’t really see anyone who said that now torture is justified anytime it can be used to marginally improve our safety (maybe some lunatics say it, but I mean real people).

Also, it’s a confusion to call aggressive interrogation torture. Maybe waterboarding is torture, but aggressive interrogation consists of a very specific number of things including temperature manipulation and slapping (read the memos). Other stuff too, and not all of it shocking at all. In the CIA black sites, techniques were authorized very specifically and overseen carefully: in many cases people who were aggressively interrogated were NOT tortured. The sane person thinks “huh, maybe aggressive interrogation can yield some good information,” contrary to those who think that all this kind of interrogation does is produce falsehoods. In other words, there are some real and complex debates here, not the simply “torture creep” narrative which comes out of nowhere.

Why is the media coverage of the day to day so hazy? Well, I think its because careful thinking requires an ongoing overriding of our natural dispositions (that’s why fallacies of various types are so common: they are so natural). So, it’s hard to carefully think enough to get something out. Instead, you have to WRITE A LOT. If you want to do news and blogging, your ideas are always coming out, never being formed; there’s just no time to see all the ways in which they are wrong. That’s what academics are for.

*Notice that “here” and “now,” what philosophers call indexicals, are paradigmatic news words, and fitting with my thesis, they are not amenable to scientific or “objective” study? Why? Well they are intrinsically first personal. Of course, for any individual sentence someone says like “it’s raining here” there is a translation in terms of non-indexicals. If I say that sentence in Boston, then one can rewrite my sentence as “It’s raining in Boston.” But the concept of “here” cannot enter into scientific study or explanation because it, as its namesake indicates, is indexed to a person and to their particular location on the world. What is here for me is there for you.


It’s My Life

The title of this song doesn’t really relate to this post, but the music video does — no I’m not talking about about the Gwen Stefani (?) version of this song. This is the real 80s version by a band called, repetitively enough, Talk Talk.

Also, I  haven’t written a post for like a week now, and the problem isn’t really lack of ideas: I have been accumulating them. The issue is that I have some philosophy stuff that I’m trying to make precise, and when I read and write about that stuff, I get kind of perfectionist and its hard for me to just put some provoking thoughts on paper in a haphazard way.

So I’ll try to do that now.

I’ve been reading a book by a woman named Temple Grandin, and her book, Animals in Translation, is for the most part worth reading, both because it corrects a bunch of prejudices I had about animals, and it makes some philosophical points about consciousness as well, as well as another extension I’ll mention.

Grandin is autistic, and this makes her perspective very interesting, and she positions herself (convincingly) as a kind of animal mystic. Indeed, she makes her living traveling to breeding farms, cattle ranches, slaughterhouses, dog pounds, and other places, all to improve the environment for the animals. Her goal is to make animals less stressed out in human made environments, and she works as what one could call an animal detective. She will show up at a ranch and the owner will say something like “the pigs are really stressed out and they’re biting each other” or “these cattle won’t walk into the feeding area so we have to tazer ’em to get ’em in there.” She then tries to find out what the problem is and usually solves it by notice a flapping piece of yellow cloth or a shadow created by the bars of the pen. In other words, she claims to be able to see the world in terms that animals see the world.

Tidbit — cattle guards work by playing off cow’s unique perception. To them, even painting lines on a road (not actually putting metal rods along the road as a grating) is enough to make them believe that there is a CLIFF there. They will not pass over them.

She ties this to a fascinating point about consciousness and perception, which is that in her mind, autistic people, because they have trouble with language and conversations, are a halfway point — at least in terms of consciousness — between animals and people. In her words, autistic people see the world in terms of pictures and not words. At some points Grandin speaks about her experience as one of being hyper aware of certain perceptual clues.

Animals she thinks must see the world as an extreme autistic person might, totally in terms of pictures and not in terms of words at all. As a philosopher would say, animals see the world NON-CONCEPTUALLY. She presses the analogy in an interesting direction when she brings up the idea of savants — autistic people who have many mental problems, but can perform some extremely complicated tasks with ease (such as solving large multiplication problems).

She thinks that animals may be savants of various types. Sharks would be hunting/eating savants, cats would be balancing/acrobatic savants and so  on. In other words, animals don’t have concepts to represent temporally or spatially distant or general ideas, but they do excel at solving certain experiential problems that present themselves in the environment, just as Dustin Hoffman can count the matches on the ground in Rain Man.

The analogy goes still deeper. Many autistic people  (according to Grandin anyway, and one problem with the book is that one isn’t sure which tidbits are scientifically based and which is anecdote or provocative suggestion. A lot of the stuff is scientifically backed) are hyper-aware, just as animals are. Grandin gives the mind-blowing story of a dyslexic friend who could hear the idling vibrations of nearby radios and so knew what programs were on WHEN THE RADIO WAS TURNED OFF. This friend would say “NPR is doing a show on lions” and then the radio would be turned on and that would be right.

So anyway, autistic people might be an incredibly useful halfway point for studying consciousness because it might allow us to unify data gleaned from animal behavior, and related it to a model of consciousness, as well as giving us insight into what aspects of HUMAN consciousness draws from animal perception of the world.

And as I promised, there are also just some bizarre and cool results about animal life that someone like me — animal hater that I am — had no idea about.

Apparently, elements communicate through ULTRA low moans that only other elephants can hear. They also probably communicate through stomping the ground and some hypothesize that elephants may have sonic receptors in their feet. WOW!

Other random stuff, like Monkeys have wars with each other, and dolphins are actually very vicious in the wild, killing young dolphins for sport and practicing gang rape.

Lastly, and this is pretty cool too, but mostly dog-people probably know this, is that dogs are neotanized wolves. In other words, dogs are just wolves who remain locked at a certain level of a maturity so that the most mature dog is still a juvenile wolf. One way of confirming this fact is that mature wolves have an aggression pattern called “the long stare” in which, as the name suggests, the wolf will stare down a rival. Dogs cannot perform this technique, EXCEPT for huskies which are genetically VERY similar to wolves. How sweet is that? I have to work on my long stare.

Last, predators don’t kill in rage. When they execute the “killing bite” (an extremely genetically scripted behavior), they are coldly carrying out a reflex. Animals do feel anger though, but only when in pain or when sparring with other members of their species. A lion snapping a gazelle’s neck feels nothing.


The constant gardener

No not the movie. Philosophy only posts are boring to most people so I’ll try to expand the point, but what I want to talk about here is building theories. How do we do that? Well the most important thing to do is to go for the weird cases; situations where our theory goes wrong or where the circumstances are very unusual.

For example, in this post I discussed solitary confinement, and its a very fruitful thing to examine because it gets away from the normal way things go to expose the workings of when things go wrong. Many early social scientists took this approach toward society at large, looking, for example, at crime. The idea was to find out about society by looking at what happens when people ignore its dictates. Freud also thought he could understand society and human life by looking at what happens when our psyche breakdowns.

So, what is the job of a philosopher. As I see it, the good philosopher nourishes examples from everyday life. The philosopher grows these examples over the course of often very long periods of time, tending to the example, finding ways to express it and just generally nursing it along.

Here’s an example. I’m writing a paper on weakness of the will, and the example is simple. You decide to do something, but don’t do it. You don’t change your mind or anything, you really do think you should do x, but you just don’t it. Instead, you do something else instead.

This single example basically underlies an entire area of philosophy known as action theory. Why doesn’t our best judgment work to get us to act? Of course, there is a psychological reason, that is not in dispute. But the issue is that we can act intentionally event against our best judgment. We can judge in favor of working and then go meet a friend. But if we can act intentionally (its not an accident that I go see my friend) then our best judgment is not a necessary component of intentional action.

Ok you say, intentional action is unrelated to judgment, but its not hard to see what it is: it’s just a desire. We have a stronger desire to meet our friend then we do to work. That may be true, but this raises problems in itself. Doesn’t it seem like there should be a connection about what we judge we should do and what we ACTUALLY do.

Also, and worse, a desire can’t be what underlies intentional action, and here’s why (this is a very famous example). Say I’m holding a rope while climbing with a friend and I suddenly have a desire to drop the rope. The thought of this cowardly desire so unnerves me that I drop the rope, out of shock. This is not intentional. The desire made my body MOVE, but I did not ACT.

What this example shows is that desires cannot be what underlies intentional action (you have a desire but no action, therefore desires are not SUFFICIENT for action. Something else is needed. What is that something else?) A whole area of philosophy takes off from just that problem and that is how all philosophy is: one example sets off a chain reaction of issues and complications. There is no easy answer and so someone has to think deeply about what it means to act.

To do philosophy, one must always be taking little instances of things that may seem totally innocuous and grow them; one must be a constant gardener of the everyday.


Ben Franklin and Time Travel

For some reason, I sometimes (not obsessively) think about what would happen if one of the Founding Fathers could travel in time to visit the U.S. as it exists today. I think these sorts of bizarre flights of fancy are brought on by political rhetoric, some of which I must have picked up, that discusses what our founding fathers intended. It might also have to do with the fact that I sometimes think about the Constitution, and debates about it concerns what the original intent of the document was.

In any case, I start out thinking that if Ben Franklin came to the present, he would in many ways be thrilled by what we’ve accomplished. Then I think a little longer and I realize it would be hard to have a conversation with him.

It would be hard for two reasons. The first reason is kind of the normal one. He doesn’t really speak our type of English, his sense of humor is probably pretty weird, and he would have a hard time understanding anything you were talking about.

But what is more interesting is a philosophical point. When I say “he wouldn’t know what we were talking about,” the usual way to interpret that would be something like “he doesn’t know about planes or computers, or whatever.” But in reality, the communication problem might be much  deeper, and the reason is something that philosophers of science are concerned with, which is conceptual change. In other words, concepts change. We used to believe, as a scientific community (not lay people) in absolute time, but now we know there is no such thing. There is only observer relative time (that’s why time travel is possible). A lot of other CONCEPTS changed entirely between our time and Ben’s. The issue would not be translation, as if we could translate our scientific words into his, the issue would be conceptual reinvention on his part.

Kids go through conceptual change too. They start with wrong or crude understandings of things like mass and nothingness, and the same with numbers, but they slowly develop facility with new concepts, and for example, learn thins like the concept of infinity, which is required to do math. When they get infinity, they get “how math works” and then can go on and respond to any math problem put in front of them. They understand, as Wittgenstein would say “how to go on.”

But Ben Franklin, though obviously not a kid (he was genius) would be like a kid to us. A kid will sometimes say something to us and it makes no sense but researches suppose that this phenomenon is due to different conceptual schemes (not simply different languages, French has all our concepts, though not our words).

This would happen with a lot of things, not just hard science terms, but with “thick” words like “funny,” “cruel.” In time travel movies, there is always a scene where the person who is out-of-time makes an endearing mistake as they pick up the argot of the era (like the world “cool”) but then gets along just fine.

I’m suggesting something more radical, and that for a while, we might be sealed off from really understanding much of what Ben was saying at all: the relevant background assumptions and community standards would not be in place. There wouldn’t be a fiercely intelligent but tottering old man, but rather an interloper from another time that we would have to work very hard to relate to.




Making decisions

I’ve been working intently on a paper recently so I had to take a break from posting. Amazingly, traffic to this blog didn’t really fall as I took a break, a sure sign that people, old and new are making their way through the posts.

I want to talk about making decisions, but I also want to share this awesome invention.

Back to decisions then. Philosophers distinguish between practical reason and theoretical reason. In theoretical reason, we decide what to believe, and even the word “decide” is deceptive, because we can’t just believe anything we want. Rather, we judge what we should believe on the basis of evidence and by concluding our judgment, we create a new belief in ourselves. If you don’t believe me, try to believe something that you think that all the evidence, taken together, supports. You can’t do it. Belief follows judgment.

Practical reason is about reasoning about what to do. Here things are much more open ended. In theoretical reason, we know what we want, which is the truth. If we judge something to not be true, we cannot believe it. But in practical reason all sorts of values can be relevant.

Anyway, my friend sent me this article about making decisions (thanks Jesus), and I think in many ways it’s spot on. There are people who always have to think every decision to death and there are those who are more comfortable just surveying things and quickly deciding, in a dramatically decisive fashion, what to do. According to the article, this is a psychological feature about humans. Some people like to keeping thinking and others prepare to act.

There are many interesting things to note. One is that making detailed decisions requires taking time and time has a cost. So, when doing research on a decision, one has to try and weigh the cost of one’s time against the likely value of the new information that will be gained by the decision. Weighing of this kind is really hard to do because by definition you don’t know the information you will discover by doing more research. So imagine you’ve been doing research on where to apply to law school for 5 hours. Should you go for another hour? You know what the hour will cost you: your hourly wage if you have a job or an hour of fun with friends, however you rate that, or an hour of sleep which I personally rate very highly. What you don’t know is what the hour will gain you. In that time you might find something about the UVA that will effectively decide the matter of where to apply or you might decide you don’t want to be a lawyer at all, a discovery that is worth TONS of saved time, money, and stress.

Things are doubly hard though because not only do you not know what you’ll find out in the marginal hour of research, but you don’t even know if returns to research increase or decrease over time. As with all things, its most likely that research becomes less valuable the more you do of it. If this is true, then the stuff you discover during hour eight (the names of Professor so and so’s pet dog) is going to be much less important than the things you figured out in the first hour of research (say, the average LSAT score of the school you’re applying to).

Importantly though, new information is different than the skill with which one puts together ideas. So even if returns to research decrease over time, returns to thinking might actually increase. One thing is for sure, snap decisions, even with perfect information are usually pretty bad, which returns me to this article. I don’t think the complexity of decisions is MERELY psychological. Rather, I think complexity is a FEATURE OF THE WORLD, meaning that on average, more thinking results in a much better life lived. As a general rule, when I’m asked a question, I respond with “Let me think about it.” This small rule I’ve found helps me make enormously better decisions.

Still, as I’ve said on this blog many times, sometimes snap decisions are better, especially when interacting with the opposite sex. Thinking something through might help you find a good job or write a good article, but thinking about what to say to someone you like is almost a recipe for failure. Instead, instinct and intuitive understanding is what’s prized.

But I digress. I was talking about thinking longer about something versus thinking shorter. In philosophy, there are INCREASING returns to thinking so that what you figure out in hour 10 is almost guaranteed to be better than what you figured out in hour 1. This is why a) most philosophers do their best work when they’re older, unlike mathematicians who often reach the peak of their abilities early (prodigy phenomenon) and b) most philosophers spend their whole lives on seemingly silly problems. B is more interesting to me I think, because it often explains why its necessary to obsess about a problem and think about it night and day for many years (possibly one’s whole lifetime) before real progress can be made. Then again though, making a philosophical theory is not practical reasoning (about what to do) but merely theoretical.

Almost certainly, practical reasoning starts to give decreasing returns to thought after some, probably short, amount of time (like 20 minutes).