May 25

What I Really Think about Physicalism

This is the end of chapter 7 of my dissertation (which, God willing, I will eventually finish turning into a book). It explains my impolite, honest assessment of physicalism in philosophy of mind.

 

When discussing the content of the first chapter of this work with others, one common response is a sort of ad hominem along these lines: “you say we should be suspicious of interesting views, but interactive substance dualism is an interesting view, so shouldn’t be we suspicious of it?”  My answer to this question is that dualism isn’t really interesting. Although the view is interesting in philosophical contexts given that it is widely rejected in the field, it isn’t interesting in the more general sense of going beyond or countervailing our experience of the world. Interactive substance dualism is the combination of the trivial facts that (1) introspectively accessible mental states aren’t physical, that (2) they are causally relevant to behavior, and that (3)  they are aspects of a substance whose modal nature is distinct from the modal nature of our physical bodies. These views are either simple consequences of introspection or else consist in basic modal intuitions. Their combination therefore doesn’t rise to the level of a theoretical hypothesis. Instead, it is just the consequence of direct observation and conjunction. It is an odd feature of philosophy that the same views are often attacked as both highly simplistic and naïve and as overtly mysterious and incomprehensible.  Dualism is often thought to be both a persistent aspect of common sense and a bizarre and incomprehensible view that posits strange substances and incomprehensible forms of causation. I will address the concerns over the mysteriousness of dualism in the subsequent chapters. For now, I would like to explain quite simply why I find dualism uninteresting.

In presenting the case for the view that dualism is part of common sense and that physicalism is fundamentally at odds with common sense ontology, I have tried to be as fair to the physicalist as possible.  I tried to explain in a detailed way exactly what features of the mind draw one to think of it as an immaterial substance, and how these aspects of the mind fit together into a cohesive whole. I have tried to show how this conception fits into a sense of people as rational and moral agents, and how this shows that a materialist view of human nature is at odds with basic assumptions about human nature we carry with us in life.  I have done this because it is necessary. Physicalism dominates contemporary philosophy of mind, and contemporary intellectual life in general. I have tried to treat with it with as much respect as possible. But for a moment, I would like to step away from this attitude of respect and explain why I think this should not have been necessary. If nothing else, this effort should help physicalists see just why it is that so many people have such a hard time accepting their view.  Here is how the debate seems at least to this dualist, and likely to many others. Although physicalism requires respect because of its broad acceptance among those I am engaged with in debate, but the view itself has never actually deserved it.  Here, briefly, is why:

In introspection, we are aware of many of our mental states.  We can look within ourselves and see what is going on. In our experiences, we are often aware of what is happening inside of us in addition to what is happening outside of our minds.  In addition to what the experience is of, there is a way it feels or a “what-it’s-like”-ness that is a distinct feature of the experience. When we focus on these features of our lives, we are aware of intrinsic aspects of their nature.  Think, for a minute, about a experience of joy. In such an experience, there is a certain acuteness, a level of intensity, and a distinctive phenomenology or flavor to it that is a recognizable part of the sensation. This is, indeed, the aspect of joy that most draws our attention and that we are most readily familiar with in experience.  Of course, there are also physical events occurring at the same time. Often, there is activity in or uplifting of your chest and your heart rate and breathing likely change to some degree. Muscles move in your face and your posture often changes as well. But these physical events are incidental. What makes joy what it is lies the aspects of the sensation itself.  Focus for a moment on a particular instance of that sensation. Focus in particular on those features of it such as its intensity and its experiential flavor. According to physicalists, those features aren’t anything more than various physical processes transpiring in your body at that particular moment. Unless one is a behaviorist, it won’t be the list above, but according to all physicalists, that experience and those features of it ultimately consist in nothing more than matter arranged in a complex way.  Physicalists say this despite the fact that the experience of having the sensation appears to be a complete and distinct thing in its own right, separate from any physical goings-on. They say it despite the fact that the experience appears to have its own features, and a nature that is quite different from the nature of any of those physical events. They say it despite the fact that it does not appear to be made up of little bits of stuff, and despite the fact that it appears not to have any mass or to be the sort of thing you could put in a test tube or cut up into parts or push along thin fibers of tissue in the form of synaptic firings.  Somehow, despite the massive apparent difference in nature between these particular instances of the experience of joy and the particular physical events occurring in your body, the one thing is supposed to be nothing more than the other. That is what physicalists are asking us to believe. And that is simply crazy. Two things that are so very unalike and so obviously different on their face simply cannot be one and the same. We could accept many different theories on the underlying physiology of, say, dogs. But we could and should never grant the hypothesis that their true nature shows they can’t have fur, never bark, have no legs, breathe through gills, and live their lives swimming in the sea.  Such a theory simply cannot be true.

And why is it that they are asking us to believe that their theory is true?  Well, primarily because when we have the experience of joy we see certain physical events happening in the body.  They appear to co-occur, and the physical stuff seems causally related both to the physical events that brought about the emotion and to the physical events, such as your subsequent behavior, that follow the experience.  And isn’t it much neater is we just say there’s one thing there instead of two? Well, my dad delivered mail for more than two decades. When he would go out to deliver mail, he would drive around in a mail truck on his routes.  Wherever he went to deliver mail, the truck was right there with him. We know that part of what makes someone a postal carrier is that he meets the description of “going around town and distributing mail to various locations.” But there is something else that also fits this pattern: the truck.  But one would have to have a seriously diminished understanding of what a postal carrier is, and would also have to think that only metal detectors or views from the sky were legitimate ways to detect a postal carrier, to look at the pattern and say that mailmen are actually large, heavy, metal objects with four wheels and internal combustion engines.  This could be a revolutionary new account of the nature of mailmen if one were to simply ignore all the evidence that let us know they are human beings and to only accept evidence that could detect trucks. But I knew my dad, and I’m quite certain that he was not a truck. I recognize his features and the ones he lacks, and I know that, although a particular truck was there when he delivered mail around town, at no point was my dad made of metal, have four wheels, or have an internal combustion engine.  The fact that he happened to overlap in some of his interactions with the world with such an object doesn’t make them the same, and doesn’t even make it possible that they could have been the same. And when I introspect, I am also aware of things, such as particular sensations of pain. I am aware of various features they have, like their intensity and acuteness, an intrinsic negative quality, and a certain ineffable “what it’s likeness” that goes beyond these features. I am also aware that they aren’t composed of matter, don’t have any mass, and don’t move quickly through a bunch of squishy grey stuff.  You can tell me all you want about how certain physical events are present when the pain is there, and how those events seem to be relevant to my behaviors such as saying “ouch” or getting a band-aid, but I’ve introspectively seen my sensation of pain just like I’ve visually seen my dad, and I know first hand that what I’ve seen in introspection is not that thing you see accompanying its causal role in your laboratory. Point to any instance of brain activity and try to say it is acuteness or intensity, that it is intrinsic badness or has a feature of being like something, that it is an experience had by a subject and felt with anguish and a longing to fix or remove it, and I will look at you like you have three heads.  These things are simply different. Asking me to believe otherwise would be like asking me to believe that my dad was actually a large, heavy truck.

Physicalism is so manifestly contrary to our experience of ourselves that it would take a massive and widespread intellectual bias against all forms of introspection and against the legitimacy of common sense in general to have ever gotten to a point where it was even taken seriously, let alone widely accepted.  When engaged in a defense of a view like this, people often find a way to move past this point of initial resistance and to think that they are doing serious work trying to figure out a great mystery. Brilliant minds spent centuries, for example, engaged in the opposite task of developing complex and fascinating theories about how things like your brain and the rest of the physical would could actually be nothing more that mental features of reality, and the array of idealisms that came out of this effort were astounding in scope and in creativity.  But none of them ever had a chance of being true. And none of them ever should have been taken seriously as legitimate ways of conceiving of reality or of human nature. The same is true of physicalism. Brilliant minds have justified to themselves ways of looking past the obvious falseness of their view, and are currently engaged in amazingly complex and brilliant attempts to defend something that can’t possibly be correct. At least, I think this is how the debate is seen by many dualists, and is a large part of why the debate appears so intractable.  If this is correct, then the effort is also a tragic waste of rare genius.

May 25

Why is the NFL ban on Kneeling Wrong?

The recent decision by the NFL to fine teams if their players kneel during the national anthem is creating a lot of controversy. As far as the legal questions go, I think the NFL is violating employment law, that the NFLPA will sue, and that if the judge isn’t biased the rule will be overturned. For an explanation of how employment law applies here, see this article: https://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2018/04/13/can-nfl-teams-make-hiring-and-firing-decisions-based-on-anthem-protests/ Imposing fines on teams rather than players was an obviously illegitimate effort to circumvent employment law and the NFLPA’s power to negotiate on behalf of players. It indirectly punishes players for acting in ways they were specifically told they could act.

But I’m not so interested in the legal question here. I’m interested in the ethical issues. The NBA has a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem. Suppose, contrary to fact, that the NFL had the legal standing to do so as well. Would it be morally permissible for these leagues to ban this activity? Most of the discussion has focused on people’s rights, so I want to start there. However, I don’t want to end there.

On the one hand are consideration of employer rights. Employers need to have rights over the conduct of employees in order to have a viable working environment. If you can’t fire someone for not doing their work or for making it impossible for others to work, a business can’t succeed. However, the practical issues aren’t really where employer rights derive from. Employer rights are a special instance of the right to free association. Employers can choose whether or not they want to associate with someone as part of an employer/employee relationship. The two parties are supposed to be able to discuss the terms of this relationship in advance and come to an agreement that is mutually acceptable before entering into the partnership. Placing limits or requirements on how employers or employees can make such agreement violates this right to free association. Prohibiting certain conditions on employment therefore appears to be a violation of rights, and this would seem to extend to things like requiring people to stand for the anthem on certain work days.

What about the right to free speech? This right is as fundamentally important as the right to free association. However, freedom of speech doesn’t extend to all contexts. In particular, some settings allow people to prohibit speech. As a teacher, I limit speech in a number of ways. I don’t silence opinion. But I would kick people out of class if they spent the whole time loudly talking to one another about things that are irrelevant to the course. I would also kick someone out of class if they started screaming at people or insulting people or deliberately trying to interfere with people’s ability to learn. In addition, people are typically allowed to limit speech on their own property. Homeowners are within their rights to tell people to leave if they are speaking in ways the owner doesn’t tolerate. Businesses are allowed to tell people to leave if they start behaving in disruptive ways. In general, in non-public forums limiting speech is permissible. Freedom of association within the bounds of one’s own property or business typically override people’s right to free speech within those areas. People are of course free to find other forums to express themselves.

As an issue of rights, then, I think the NBA is acting within their rights, and the NFL would be if it weren’t for the particular details of this case. However, rights aren’t all that matter in these contexts. All rights can be exercised in ways that are immoral. The president has the right to freedom of speech. He uses it in all sorts of immoral and disgusting ways on Twitter. White supremacists have the right to tell people to leave their property. The fact that they would automatically use this right to order all non-white people off their property makes them horrible people. The fact that someone has a right to do something doesn’t mean that one cannot criticize and condemn people for how they choose to exercise those rights.

What the NFL is trying to do right now is immoral. Citizens of this country are being shot down by agents of the state and then facing no significant consequences for what they have done. A large number of people in this country are either so indifferent to those lives or so worshipful of the state that they are willing to tolerate the current state of affairs and allow this situation to continue. They go about their own lives confident that they won’t have to face the reality of what is happening and content with the fact that it won’t get in the way of their enjoyment of things. NFL players have a great opportunity to interfere with that quiet, smug indifference. They can take the fun Sunday past-time and force people to see that there is a problem. To think about something that makes them uncomfortable. To remember that many people think that they are bad people for their acceptance of what is happening. It is important for people to have a platform to interrupt people’s quiet blindness and to make them see what is happening.

People hate kneeling during the anthem for the same reason they hate the commercials that come on with images of starving children or abused animals. It forces them to see something they don’t want to acknowledge is part of reality. It takes them from their mental abstraction of these situations that they feel okay with to a more stark reality that they don’t want to see. This is exactly how effective protest should work. In this case, there are far too few people with the opportunity to remind people of what is happening and to try to force them to care for a minute. NFL players have a rare chance to make people look at some black people whose lives do matter to them and make them realize how many other ones don’t. Taking this away from these players is a terrible thing. It amounts to saying that not only do black lives not matter enough to punish cops for wrongfully taking them, they don’t even matter enough to justify causing people unease on Sunday mornings when they are trying to be entertained. That’s a horrible thing to say, and it is exactly what they NFL is choosing to say with this change in their rules.

Jan 03

The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi is divisive. Most people liked it, some people absolutely loved it, and many people absolutely hate it. Most of the hate comes from people who think that the movie wasn’t enough like the other Star Wars movies, and that the way it was different tarnishes the value of those films. They are right that the movie is an attack on much of what people value about the other Star Wars movies. They are wrong to think that this makes it bad. The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie ever made. And it is that precisely because of how it differs from the others.

Before I explain what is great about The Last Jedi, I want to address a few complaints about it that don’t connect directly to how it differs from the rest of the films. First, some people didn’t like the force-skyping in the movie, claiming that it is a crazy addition to force powers that was only there to serve the plot. This complaint is weird. Projecting an image of yourself is a skill that dead Jedi have been doing since Empire came out. Projecting a voice is something that dead and living Jedi have been doing since the beginning. The idea that living Jedi could acquire the skill to not just phone one another, but to project images to one another is not an odd addition to the existing skill set.

Then there are the two scenes people find just silly: Mary Poppins Leia and the casino scene. These were, admittedly, at least a little silly. The demonstration that Leia hasn’t just been sitting around lazily failing to develop Jedi powers is a good addition to the movie. Even bringing herself back into the ship was a fine way to show it. I think the visual was the problem here. It looked silly. The casino scene also had some silly elements. The two biggest ones were that they got arrested for illegal parking, and that magically 2 different expert code breakers were in the same place and they just happened to get thrown into a cell with the second one. The rest of the scene, though rushed, was good. It was a way to connect the rest of the movie to the larger universe and it was central to both Finn’s development and the ending of the film. For a movie with so much going on, one rushed scene isn’t a big complaint.

Some people also complained about the porgs. The porgs were cute. The scene with Chewie not eating one was hilarious. Their inclusion was also a necessity of filming, as they were actually CGI-ed puffins, who they couldn’t disturb and who lived on the island where they filmed. Some people complained about not getting Snoke’s backstory. We didn’t get the Emperor’s backstory in the original trilogy, either. I’m not sure why people expected one. But it’s also worth pointing out that there are future movies that can fill this in still. Some had the same complaint about Captain Phasma. But this series’ Boba Fett had as much backstory as the original. It’s not one movie’s job to satisfy the curiosity of every potential viewer on every potential point.

The other big, somewhat legitimate complaint about the film had to do with Holdo’s decision not to tell everyone her plan. It’s hard to justify her refusal to at least assert that there was a plan in place and that staying on their course was the best way to fulfill it. However, it certainly wasn’t wrong of her not to tell Poe her plan, or to keep its details quiet. A seemingly impossible act of tracking their ship through light-speed had just occurred. An irresponsible hotshot who had just got a number of people killed wanted access to sensitive information in a public forum. Giving it to him at all wouldn’t have been smart, and publicly giving in to his anger when trying to establish a leadership role would have been monumentally stupid. Also, if they could track them, there was reason to think that they had some way of monitoring them, either through a spy or through spy equipment that could access their conversations. Staying silent about the details of their plan was a good idea, although, as I said, it would have been good for morale to point out that one existed.

Okay, so those are the problems people have had that aren’t related to the central themes. There were issues with the film. This is hardly a surprise. There are large issues with every Star Wars film that has been made. We look past them because we love the story, the characters, and all the rest that comes with Star Wars. Well, except Jar Jar. There is no looking past Jar Jar. I’m still holding out hope that the Young Han Solo movie starts with Han shooting Jar Jar without comment. But, that aside, the problems can be forgiven if we love the experience. This was a great movie, and if you didn’t love the experience of watching it, this is probably your own fault. Most of the complaints about the film have this basic structure: I think this movie should have looked like this one I had in my head and have been dreaming about for years, but it didn’t, so it sucked. And, yes, if Rian Johnson had wanted to make a movie that looked like ones Star Wars fans would have written for Luke’s return, then it’s clear he failed spectacularly at doing that. But he didn’t want to do that. Instead, he wanted to make a movie that was incredibly good, and that mattered, and that focused on the main characters of this trilogy instead of the secondary ones, like Luke. And in the process he made the greatest contribution to the Star Wars franchise we have ever seen.

So now for the big reason that The Last Jedi was absolutely great and yet most Star Wars nerds hated it: it was written for your kids, not for you. The last generation had their Star Wars story. It was the one they needed and the one they loved. But it was not the story that this generation needed. Rian Johnson wrote a Star Wars movie for this generation, and all the ways it challenged the old story were necessary to give it the freedom to be that story. He had to overcome the past, by killing it where he had to, in order to make the story that this generation of Star Wars fans needed. And he did the most incredible job of it possible. I am so grateful to him for making for my children a Star Wars story that could define heroes for them in exactly the way they need to be defined and make for them something to love and treasure forever.

The main difference between this Star Wars and all the other ones is its depiction of the nature of a hero, and the nature of the hero’s journey to becoming who they need to be. Luke Skywalker was the Hero of Destiny. He was the one who had a secret place in a larger story and by finding his place in it all he was able to overcome evil and grow into the role he was always destined to fulfill. Others helped him along the way, but their role was merely to see to it that he would do what the narrative structure of destiny required of him to become the celebrated hero he was always going to be. Rey was set up to be this hero in the first film. She was Luke 2. But we heard that story already. More importantly, we didn’t need that story again. Times have changed, and the heroes we need today aren’t ones who realize their destiny. The heroes we need today are not heroes of destiny, they are heroes of the moment. They are heroes who choose to do what is right and to do what is hard because they see that it must be done. They are heroes embedded in a reality of failure all around them who nonetheless see the need to stand against it all and do what is right. Rey keeps saying she needs to find her place in all of this. But she has none. She isn’t a part of some grand story cast around her waiting for her to take her proper place in it. She is a nobody. And if she wants to be a hero, she doesn’t get to be one because of narrative destiny, she only gets to be one by choosing to do what she can to resist the evil and the failure around her. As the mirror showed her, her place isn’t about who her parents are. There is nothing to her story beyond herself and what she chooses to add to it. If she is going to be a hero, she will have to be a hero of the moment, not one of destiny. And that she can and will do.

While Rey is the ultimate hero of the series, the hero of this movie is Finn. He is the one who goes through the most dramatic and important change in the movie. Finn came out of the first movie, in the eyes of those in the rebellion, as a hero. But he wasn’t one. When he rejects Rose’s description of him as a hero, he is right. Finn is a selfish coward in the first movie, and at the beginning of this one. He wants to run away. It may seem that he’s being heroic trying to save Rey, but even this is mostly selfish. Rey makes him feel good about himself. That’s why he needs her with him, to make him able to see himself as a hero when he knows he isn’t one. And he starts out this film wanting to get Rey and run away, just like he did in the first movie. Although he knows he’s not a hero, he’s happy to accept the image of one, to be thought of as a Big Deal. Rey lets him extend that illusion to himself. But it’s not true, as his actions make clear.

And then he goes to the casino. And Rose shows him that all the glitz around him is an illusion masking a reality he doesn’t want to see. He starts to learn that some things matter. But he’s still uncertain. When the code breaker shows him that the rebellion is armed by the same people as the first order is, he is inviting Finn to take on a new excuse for ignoring what is right. He is inviting him to embrace relativism, and a false moral equality between the sides. This is a tempting idea to Finn, who could easily at this point end up going off with a scoundrel who is truly without an underlying sense of morality; a Han minus the thing that brings him back to the Death Star. This fact is revealed in his ultimate betrayal of Finn and Rose, which forces Finn to see that the moral equivalence being drawn is wrong, that there really are things worth fighting for, and that his role in the rebellion matters because fighting in it is the right thing to do. For the first time ever, he decides to make himself part of a larger, significant cause. He grows into a moral person in that instant. And he fights bravely against his past, killing it in his decision to move beyond who he was and remake himself not as scum, but as Rebel Scum. He carries on this identity throughout the film, showing a willingness to sacrifice himself for something that matters, an action that would have been impossible for him in the past.

The movement beyond both an imposed purpose from the narrative structure of destiny and from illusion is found in Kylo Ren’s development as well. Ren is told he is no Darth Vader. He destroys his helmet to symbolize his failure to become his grandfather. And then in the moment he can prove to himself and to Snoke that he really is bad enough to take Vader’s place, he isn’t able to kill his mom. He can’t bring himself to go that far. This is a not a man who would kill all the younglings. But this doesn’t make him good. He doesn’t turn away from the dark side when he decides not to be Vader. Instead, he decides that he doesn’t need to be someone else, he can make himself the person he wants. And he doesn’t want to be Vader, he wants to be the Supreme Leader. His attack on Snoke required him to leave his mind transparent in intent and secret in target. It required that he break free from Snoke and his own commitment to destiny. In that moment where his ambition to rule overcomes everything holding him back he surpasses Vader by letting go of the past. The structure of the story that mirrored so closely the prior films is gone. The battle this time will be Rey vs. Ren, not Luke 2 vs. Vader 2. They grew into characters in their own right by being established as independent from and in many ways better than those who came before them. They are great fighters, taking down all the elite guard together, and evenly matched as well. Their battle in the next movie is something I cannot wait to see.

But what about Luke? Even if one accepts the value of everything above, many would think that it doesn’t justify destroying the value of the old story, or what was done to Luke’s character. As Mark Hamill has said, “This is not my Luke Skywalker.” And it’s not the one that many have carried with them from childhood. But the reason that Luke in The Last Jedi doesn’t match that version of Luke is that that version of Luke was never real. The character in the films was quite different from the romanticized version of him that lives in childhood memory. The actual character of Luke Skywalker was a whiny, entitled child who grew into an arrogant, rash adult. He was heroic, certainly, but he was also deeply flawed. Luke gave up on his training when it got too hard, abandoned it for personal reasons, and thought he was a jedi master before he ever finished (which, really, he never did). He has it in himself to quit, to place his friends above the cause, to think himself far greater than he is. A man who must run and hide from a rancor until he can win by trickery is not a jedi master, and has no reason to be so arrogant in the face of Jabba the Hutt. A man who has lost his one and only lightsaber battle is not entitled to such a high opinion of himself. Johnson does something very brave here. He asks the audience to realize, just like the characters have to, that their image of Luke is not the reality. Luke is not someone who can single-handedly take down the First Order with his laser sword. The best he can do is exploit that notion so he could to get Kylo Ren to believe he stood there and survived all that cannon fire when clearly there is no way he could have.

Probably the most controversial part of Johnson’s depiction of Luke was the idea that he would, even for a moment, consider killing Ben Solo. But Luke lashed out like this once before when he decided to strike down the Emperor after being begged by him to do just that. Luke is a man who cherishes the story about himself, but sees that it isn’t as true as he would like to think. In many ways, Luke is more like Finn than like Rey: prioritizing the personal over the important, happy to live a story of himself that surpasses what his actions merit. In a single moment, Luke sees that he has lost his nephew, who his sister trusted him with, to the dark side. He has already seen that there is someone who can surpass him as a jedi. Like his teachers, Luke has failed to see the threat of the rise of the dark side and has lost his best student just as they did with his father. He sees history repeating itself, but this time it is his fault. He panics at the thought of how this will destroy the story of the jedi and the myth of himself, and he fails for a minute. But that minute is long enough. This failure is not in keeping with the heroic image of Luke, but it is in keeping with who he is, and with what the jedi truly are.

Many have also complained about Luke’s death. Luke’s death is foreshadowed in the film when Kylo Ren tells Rey that the effort required to force-skype with him would kill her. Luke dies a hero in this film. He uses what is likely his only means available to intervene effectively and in time to save those he loves and keep the rebellion alive. The effort kills him. Here, ironically, Johnson’s desire to respect the original trilogy by giving Luke the same visual to go out on as he had when he was introduced may have made the connection between his effort and his demise unclear. Luke is clearly spent by the effort, but he stays around a little while. He will, of course, be back in ghost form in the next film, which is why he can tell Kylo Ren that he will see him around. But he has made himself content with the future going on without him. He has moved to a point where he can allow for the notion that the jedi don’t depend upon him, and that his role doesn’t have to be the one of the hero. By letting Rey become the focus and the hero of the story he is able to let go of his own past and of the need to remain the heroic figure of legend. He sees that failing in that image doesn’t require hiding from the world so no one can see who he truly is and what he has caused, in hopes that that image isn’t lost forever. As Leia tells Rey at the end, the rebellion, and the story, has everything it needs in her. She can be the hero of the story because she, and not Luke, is the hero we need to see today. Luke’s acceptance of this, of the story going on without him, allows him to be the hero one final time and allows hope be rekindled through the efforts, and the stories, of the next generation.

So, no, Luke isn’t still the hero of memory here, because if he was we couldn’t see the real ones we need today. Mark Hamill was right when he said it’s not his Luke Skywalker. He was also right when he said that Johnson has made an all-time great movie. He couldn’t have done it without Mark Hamill’s performance, and his acceptance of the movies going forward without him as the star. And the movie can’t be, in our society, what it needs to be and should be unless we can also accept that the story carries on without the heroes of the past. That the stories of those who will shape this new world are worth hearing, and that the heroes we have before us now are the ones our children need to see if they are to face the world we have left them in with hope.

Jun 14

Success of Philosophy Students: Selection Bias or Skill Development?

In an earlier post, I claimed that one reason to study philosophy is that it teaches valuable skills. I supplied as a piece evidence for this view the fact that philosophy majors do better on post-graduate exams than almost every other discipline. Several departments have raised this point on their web pages as a reason to choose a philosophy major as well. However, one concern with claims of this nature is the possibility of selection bias. It could turn out that the reason philosophy majors do better isn’t because they learn skills in college, but that they have skills entering college which encourage them to choose philosophy as a major, and that these skills include doing well on these sorts of exams. Jason Brennan recently complained about the practice of using this as a basis for encouraging students to study philosophy on course web pages, claiming that without evidence against the possibility of selection bias, it is dishonest to suggest that philosophy teaches students these skills. The concern here is legitimate, and it is also important to know whether or not philosophy actually teaches students skills. So, is there any evidence showing that philosophy teaches skills instead of merely attracting the already skilled?

I think there is at least one way to test this. GRE and LSAT scores are a measure of a specific set of skills. Those skills are very similar to the skills one would need to perform well on SAT exams. So, one way to test whether there is improvement with respect to these skills is to see whether or not, as a group, people who study philosophy improve in their relative rankings compared to other departments from their average SAT scores to the average scores on post-graduate exams. When we look at this data, it suggests that the success majors have on these exams is causal. The mean SAT score for a student planning to major in philosophy or religious studies in 2013 was 1603. This was 10th overall among various groups of prospective majors (excluding those pursuing multiple majors). Despite a finer-grained division of majors, this ranking improves to 1st or 2nd annually among GRE scores. This suggests that philosophy doesn’t attract incoming students who are already ideally skilled to do well on these exams, but instead teaches students the skills they need to perform well on them.

As with all results, this data is open to alternative explanations. Perhaps the students who enter with a plan to study philosophy are very different from those who actually finish with a philosophy degree. Perhaps elite philosophy students are more likely to take these exams than elite students in other fields. But the most natural and initially plausible explanation for the data is that philosophy students learn the skills necessary to succeed on these exams. While this isn’t the only relevant issue to deciding what major to pursue, it should offset some concerns students may have that philosophy is an impractical discipline to study. It appears that philosophy really can prepare you to think and write effectively.

Apr 29

Self-interest and Affirmative Action: Why Employers should voluntarily adopt Affirmative Action Policies

I am uncertain how the ethical considerations surrounding affirmative action balance out as an issue of public policy. However, there appears to be an argument for private companies to adopt a policy favoring minorities and other under-represented groups in their hiring decisions that bypasses the tricky ethical issues raised in the debate. This argument is one from pure economic self-interest. As a general rule, the rational choice when deciding between multiple, comparably qualified candidates is to hire the one who is under-represented in your field. The reason for this is that, whether you know it or not, there is an above average chance that in creating your initial evaluation of the candidates, you misevaluated the qualifications of the candidates as a result of unconscious biases.

There is a growing body of data suggesting that unconscious biases affect large portions of the population, and that they negatively affect hiring decisions. The data on implicit or unconscious biases is growing rapidly in the research of cognitive psychologists. People are far more receptive to subtle environmental cues and social prejudices than they realize, and they appear to subject to them without regard to the individual’s conscious declarations a respect for equality. If you are interested in checking your own biases, you can google “project implicit,” which is being run by Harvard. In terms of jobs or applications, studies have shown that having an African American sounding name will make it harder to find a job or a place to live, that being a woman will cause psychology professors to think you are worse in every category than a man with an identical CV, and that in general not resembling your potential employer in many ways is a good way to get your resume quickly chucked in the trash bin.

In terms of self-evaluation, people rarely recognize their own biases when they have them. Despite the fact that studies have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of people suffer from a wide variety of implicit biases, people routinely exempt themselves from these statistical facts. This is an instance of what is known as the “Dunning-Kruger” effect. Other examples include the fact that almost everyone thinks they are an above average driver and that 93% of psychology professors believe their work is superior to that of their peers. So, there is both a good chance that you are biased and that you don’t realize this fact.

Given the fact that a large portion of the population is influenced by bias without realizing it, and that this is relevant in decisions about who to hire, the rational thing to do if you are in this position is to take these facts into account in your decision-making. If you have two candidates for a job who you believe to be roughly equal in qualifications, one of whom is of a group often biased against in your profession, there are two possibilities. First, you may not be subject to a bias. If that is the case, you are no worse off hiring the minority candidate, or the candidate you may be biased against. Since they initially appeared to be just as qualified, it won’t hurt you to go with the underrepresented individual. Second, you may be subject to a bias without realizing it. In that case, the candidate you thought to be equally qualified is actually more qualified, and so you are better off hiring the minority candidate. So, if you are in this position, the best decision is to hire the minority candidate. Everyone who is not currently considering me as a job candidate should take this to heart.

Mar 20

What is Plagiarism?

After tiring of the excuse that “I didn’t know that counted as plagiarism,” I wrote up a lengthy explanation of the different types of plagiarism out there. It hasn’t stopped it from occurring, but it has diminished it, and it does negate the most common excuses. If anyone finds it valuable, you should feel free to use it.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism occurs whenever you use another person’s words or ideas and represent them as your own. Since philosophy deals almost exclusively with the development and evaluation of ideas, plagiarism is particularly troublesome in this field. My rule for papers is as follows: if there is anything in your paper that is not clearly cited, I take that as a statement from you that the words and ideas expressed in the paper are your own. If I find out that they are not, the paper is plagiarized. Here are types of plagiarism that are encountered often, in diminishing degrees of severity. Note, however, that all of the following are forms of plagiarism, and any of them could result in a 0 for your work:

-Cutting and pasting: When a student takes work directly from another source without alteration. This is plagiarism unless all the material is in quotation marks, and a citation clearly indicates that the content is from that source. Since philosophical works are supposed to represent your own understanding of an issue or idea, large blocks of quotations should not constitute much of your paper.

-Cutting and Thesaurus-ing: When a student takes work directly from another source but changes a few words. Using the thesaurus function does not make the work your own. This sort of content should be left unchanged, put in quotation marks, and clearly cited. Even with a citation, this can still count as plagiarism in the absence of quotation marks since it is, by and large, using another person’s words (or their equivalent) while representing the phrasing as your own.

-Re-wording or re-arranging Content: When a student looks at a source, and writes down the exact same ideas, but changes around some of the phrasing or ordering of the sentences. This sort of work does not require any actual understanding of the issues, only a grasp of the English language, and so does not represent your own ideas about the issue. As a general rule, if you could not have written the paragraph without looking at the source, then you didn’t really understand it, and so you must cite the source. If the content of the ideas is sufficiently similar, this can count as plagiarism even with a citation, and certainly counts as plagiarism without one. Again, you would be better off leaving the material in quotes and then explaining what it means in your own words after the quote.

-Paraphrasing without Citation: One of the main differences between a paraphrase of an idea and a re-wording of an idea is that paraphrasing requires understanding the idea well enough to express it on your own, while re-wording an idea does not. A paraphrase of an idea you got from another source should still cite that source. A properly cited paraphrase does not count as plagiarism. An uncited or improperly cited paraphrase does.

-Ambiguous Citations: Sometimes students will have citations either at the end of a paragraph or in the bibliography, but it will not be clear from reading the text which ideas in the relevant portion of the paper are the student’s, and which ideas are from the source. In this case, students are still failing to properly identify whether or not the ideas are your own, and so it still counts as plagiarism. All sources must be cited in the body of the paper itself in a way that makes it clear which ideas in the paper are the student’s and which ideas come from somewhere else.

Jun 18

The Crime of Immigration Restrictions

Social contracts have long been held by political philosophers to be a just foundation for civil societies. Such contracts are supposed take into account the interests of citizens by ensuring that the state is governed by rules that society has accepted. The fundamental problem with social contracts throughout history, however, has been that actual contracts are not reached in a way that takes into account the interests of everyone. Instead, they are formed by and only take into account the interests of a smaller group of people who seek mutual benefit for themselves by uniting their power. These people then use the contract as a basis for oppressing others; for dictating to them what they can and cannot do, and using the power of the group the contract is designed to serve to control the behavior of the rest. Such acts prevent the oppressed groups from choosing any actions that could improve their state in the world or free them from their suffering. We have seen this with rulers and fiefdoms controlling subjects and serfs, with men uniting to control and limit the opportunities of women, with whites coming together to enslave other races to work for them; in many respects, the history of the world is the history of one group of people obtaining power and collectively using their prestigious state in a way that needlessly and unjustifiably perpetuates the suffering of others.

What is so shocking about these societies is that even though the situation is clearly little more than a mask for oppression, at the time they exist, such societies is broadly accepted, both by those in power and by those who suffer. Even good and decent people find rationalizations or excuses for the perpetuation of unjust suffering. These range from the idea that it is good for those who suffer to be under the control of those in power, to the idea that society would greatly suffer from any change to the existing structure, to the idea that if those in power sought to include others in their group it might harm some in that group, and so, unfortunately, it is necessary to maintain the oppression and suffering of the rest. John Stuart Mill did a brilliant job exposing the mendacity of such assertions in his work “The Subjection of Women,” showing how the pretenses of defenders of such subjection were shallow and hollow, and amounted to little more than the rule of those who are mighty without any moral justification.

We like to think that we have moved past this as a society, that we are now inclusive and see the benefits of others. We think we have moved passed arbitrary distinctions and seen that our fellow brothers and sisters have a place with us, and have the right to control their own lives. We see now that they, too, should be party to our contract, and be permitted to share in its benefits. Of course, not everyone feels this way. Some still think that those of another sex or another race aren’t “one of us,” and so aren’t really entitled to the benefits of our society. But the rest of us have come to see such expressions for the mindless bigotry that they are, and words like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ have come to be filled with the disgust and condemnation they deserve. However, patterns of human behavior that persist for millennia should never be confidently felt to be behind us. And, sadly, our own society is not different from those of the past. We include more people, but our contract is not all-inclusive. To see the pattern, we need merely look at who we include in the title “one of us,” at which groups of innocent people suffer from a lack of inclusion in that group, and at where we find a sense in those who have prestige that they can use their power to keep that innocent group in a position of needless suffering. Today’s label for “those it is okay to keep suffering needlessly because they aren’t part of our group” isn’t one of race or sex, it is one of nationality. ‘Foreigner’ is label people use to justify the same attitudes and behaviors in today’s society that those in power have always used to justify the unjust treatment of others who aren’t “one of us.” The consequences are at least as horrific, and the blind sense of justification by the perpetrators of the needless suffering of innocents all the more vociferous and self-satisfied because they think themselves above such acts.

Controlling where another human being can or cannot live despite the fact that they are innocent, that they have the means to relocate, that there are available places to relocate to and persons willing to rent or sell to them, and that their relocation would do more than anything else could to ease their suffering and improve their lives and the lives of their families is something so horrific that if we saw it done to an American citizen we would be outraged. When people hear of imminent domain cases where someone has been thrust out of their own home most people are outraged. Who is the government to tell someone where they can and cannot live, to prevent them from owning a spot of land someone was once willing to sell them merely because some powerful company or group wants to use it for a cause the people in power prefer? Our sense of outrage is just, but baffling, because that is precisely what we do when we prohibit immigrants from moving to our shores. The only real difference is that the consequences are far, far worse for the potential immigrant.

We see ourselves as party to the contract; the foreigner as “not one of us.” We have nothing but luck to account for fact that we have a position of prestige and power. They have nothing but bad luck to account for the fact that the country of their birth was full of suffering and poverty. Yet, because they aren’t a part of our group, we think it right to control their movements and their behavior, knowing full well this will cause them great hardship, because we are powerful and we can. We are no different from the oppressors of the past, and no less blind to our own unjust actions. We also use the same, hollow excuses; pretending that minor harms to those in our group justify great suffering in those we choose to exclude from it. Pretending that society would falter if the group were expanded. Pretending that somehow they are different from us in a way that makes us better. The perpetuation of the suffering of innocents throughout the world through the establishment of immigration restrictions by those in more prosperous lands is a moral crime. It is as great a moral crime as the history of oppression of women, of the enslavement of others to serve the needs of those in power, or of any other act of unjust control over the life of another that those with power have always engaged in to serve their own interests. Such a crime is unconscionable, no matter how comfortable we feel with it. Hopefully one day people will look back on us as see us with the same contempt as we now see those who abused their power in the past. Hopefully one day ‘nationalist’ will join terms like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ in expressing great disgust and condemnation. And hopefully it will happen soon so that the needless suffering of millions can begin to be eased, and the recognition of their basic rights to control their own lives and to pursue their own happiness can be recognized throughout the world.

May 15

An Argument for Limited Redistribution of Wealth

For a while now I have thought that redistribution of wealth was unjustified since it involved a form of taxation that I thought violated people’s rights. However, there is what appears to be a sound argument for the view that some redistribution of wealth through taxation is morally justified, even though taxation is a violation of people rights. The argument goes as follows:

(1) It is permissible for someone in a sufficiently dire state of need through no fault of their own to steal in order to provide for that need, assuming that there are no other viable options for securing what they need.
(2) This entails that some actions that constitute a violation of someone’s rights can be overridden by considerations of extreme circumstance.
(3) If it is permissible for someone in these circumstances to visit a rights violation on a random individual, then it would be better if we could ensure that the rights violation was visited on someone to whom the harm of the violation would be lessened.
(4) Taxation, though typically a rights violation, would be a means of controlling the distribution of harm in violating people’s rights as a means of providing for the needs people face in these situations.
(5) These harms would be lessened if they were disproportionately levied against people who were better off to begin with, since losing a comparable amount of a good is less damaging to those who have more of that good.
(6) So, if there are no viable alternative means for a society to ensure that people are not facing, through no fault of their own, conditions that would justify visiting a rights violation on a random individual, then taxing the rich in order to help these individuals would be morally justified.

This situation of redistributing wealth does still involve a rights violation on my view, and it would be better if individual citizens would take it upon themselves to create alternatives to taxation that prevented the possibility of a situation arising where the need for such a rights violation existed. Until people create such alternatives, however, the justification for redistribution seems to hold up for any situation where we would say that individuals facing it would be justified in visiting a comparable rights violation on a random individual in order to get out of that situation. People who advocate smaller governments are therefore morally obligated to establish and fund alternative private means of providing for the basic needs of those who are suffering greatly through no fault of their own. I think this is a sound argument. It has implications for a number of views that I am now beginning to think I had too strong of a position on. For example, suffering from a horrible disease for which there is an available cure that you couldn’t possibly afford would seem to meet the requirements for (1), so long as you aren’t to blame for your ailment. Therefore, the state may be justified in taxing people to pay for medical treatments in extreme cases, at least until charities arise to provide such care when the need arises. This account does have the nice feature that most redistributive taxation is unjustified, since typically people have other means of providing for their needs, or are largely to blame for their condition. It also preserves the, in my view correct intuition that taxation, particularly when it isn’t used to pay for services you wish to pay for in such a way, are an instance of a rights violation.

May 12

Is the War on Terror Over?

I’ve been reading a very interesting book over the weekend called The Gift of Fear. It was written by Gavin de Becker, who is an expert at analyzing the causes of violence and has received numerous awards for his work in the field. The book is fascinating on its own, primarily because it clearly shows that one of the most surprising and often seemingly incomprehensible aspects of our society is actually predictable, understandable, and, to some extent, preventable. The account of violent activity is detailed and valuable. One aspect of it, however, piqued my interest in terms of its relevance to international terrorism. According to de Becker, there are four elements that are almost always present in the mind of someone who commits a violent act. He labels these elements JACA: Justification, Alternatives, Consequences, and Ability. The basic idea is that a person who threatens violence will usually only act on it if they can justify to themselves or rationalize their behavior, if they see very few alternatives to violence as practical or desirable, if they are willing to accept the consequences of the act, and if they believe they have the ability to engage in the violence in an effective manner. Often these beliefs are delusional to a certain extent, but in the absence of sincere beliefs about these issues, people will almost invariably choose a non-violent alternative.

In terms of the war on terror, the death of bin Laden seems to have gone a long way in stripping terrorists of each of these elements. First, bin Laden was a charismatic leader; he convinced his followers of the justice and necessity of their actions, and he served as a symbol of powerful defiance and leadership in what he was able to convince people was a just cause. This may be hard for us to accept, but many people in certain parts of the world respected bin Laden and acted to follow him. Without him, there is far less of a voice to rally people to a strong feeling of justification that accompanies decisions to join or fund such a group. In addition, President Obama has handled this killing brilliantly. Bin Laden was killed in a way that makes it almost impossible for people to view him as a martyr for the cause. He was treated with respect and dignity in his burial by following his religious customs, he acted in a cowardly manner by using human shields, and gruesome pictures of his corpse have been kept from the public so they cannot be used to stir fervor of sympathy for him merely in virtue of the horrors of his death. There is good reason to think that the death of bin Laden will greatly diminish the justification most people were able to create for supporting or joining his cause.

In addition, recent events have made it clear that there are viable alternatives in the Muslim world to terrorism as a means of improving the lives of the citizens of those nations. Recent revolutions, and the inactivity or support of America and the rest of the world in those revolutions have given people suffering through these regimes legitimate cause to believe there is an alternative to terrorism as a means of improving their lives. In addition, since they are home-grown, there is more of feeling of control over one’s own life here, the loss of which is usually central to a feeling of having no better alternatives. In the presence of this alternative, if it can be maintained, there is far less reason to support drastic measures like terrorism in order to improve one’s state, and recruitment and funding are almost certain to drop. Relatedly, when one has hope for a better future, one automatically has more to lose and is therefore less willing to accept the consequences of violence. These elements go hand in hand in predicting a diminished availability of resources for future terrorist acts.

Finally, these points together greatly diminish the ability of terrorists to carry out their actions. With fewer recruits and less funding, terrorists will have a much more difficult time carrying out their plans. Terrorism will, of course, never end, but in all likelihood its scope of importance and the severity of its effects will be greatly diminished because their ability to create and deploy successful large-scale actions will greatly diminish. Terrorism will likely return to its former state of diminished relative international significance rather than maintaining a central stage of world importance and a corresponding power over world events. There is no need for a war against something like that.

I do not know who deserves credit for all of this, or how long it will take for these effects to occur. I’m guessing it’s sooner than people think, though. It is nearly impossible to tell whether or not people would have felt empowered to rebel if Bush’s wars hadn’t made it clear that there was external support for regime change. It is probably true that Obama’s ability to divert or limit anti-American sentiment encouraged people to pursue other options and lessened the strength of a scapegoat to keep people feeling hopeless. It is also certainly true that Obama’s handling of the killing of bin Laden will greatly help in preventing people from finding as many grounds for maintaining the fervor of their commitment. But so long as we don’t let a dangerously shallow and obscene figure like Donald Trump or, to a lesser extent, Sarah Palin reinvigorate these attitudes by foolishly choosing them make important decisions in these matters, there is good reason to believe that the fervor will die down, the lives of people throughout the Muslim world will blessedly improve, and the war on terror and its justification will end not just because we have decided to stop giving it that name, but because it no longer has a basis for existing.

Apr 16

The Wire

It is often hard to sell The Wire to people. When people hear that it is about the drug trade in Baltimore, they are likely to immediately misunderstand it. There are a few ways such a show could traditionally go. It could glorify the drug trade and gangsters, like a classic Mafia movie parading around violent criminals as if they are all charismatic heroes. It could be a heavy-handed anti-drug show, depicting how the cops are nobly fighting a group of evil thugs. Or, perhaps, it could be a self-important leftist effort to show how drug dealers are misunderstood but good people who don’t deserve to be so maligned. But The Wire is none of those things.

Another reason people often feel drawn away from The Wire is that they have an assumption going in that they won’t be able to relate to these people. Maybe it’s good for what it is, but what do the struggles of inner-city gangsters and the cops that are trying to stop them from selling drugs have to do with me? How can I connect to such people, or care what happens to them? This problem is so drastic that the show was nearly cancelled because it’s focus on mostly black characters kept foreign audiences from giving it a try. But this concern is grossly misplaced. I have never cared half as much about any character on any other show as I do about even some of the most minor characters on The Wire.

Finally, many people who give The Wire a try give up after the first few episodes. It doesn’t feel like any show you’ve ever seen. There’s no soundtrack, the development seems astonishingly slow, and, for a show about gangs, the violence and drama isn’t filling every minute like it would in a movie. It isn’t until you get through about half of the first season that you begin to see that, as Lester Freamon puts it, “all the pieces matter.” The show doesn’t just unfold with careful character development and important stage setting like a novel does, the entire series is crafted to deliberately take the form of a nineteenth century serialized novel, and the writing is better than virtually any such novel ever written. At some point you start to see that what looked like unusual television is actually an art form never tried before and likely never to be done with such skill again.

When you read a great novel, you sometimes imagine what it would be like to experience it as a great film, perfectly acted and directed to capture all the realism and all the detail, yet somehow maintaining the depth and meaning that is so hard to transfer from the written word to the screen. Every episode of The Wire is like experiencing a chapter of your favorite novel perfectly brought to life and not only capturing what you thought would inevitably be lost, but enhancing it. With episodes lasting a full hour and the story stretching across Baltimore and embracing every level of the city, The Wire manages to be better written, more complex, more engaging, and far more satisfying than any literary work written in my lifetime. Watching it unfold feels like reading one of the great, serialized novels of the 19th century. It is an amazing work of art; indeed a better one than I thought we had it in us to make any longer. To say that it is a great show, or even the best show, or my favorite show, would be to drastically undersell it. The Wire is a phenomenal work of art. It is an unparalleled accomplishment in any artistic medium for at least the last three decades, and probably longer. Nothing else is even close. Don’t pass up the opportunity to experience it.

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