Monthly Archives: July 2007

On Hemingway at normblog

We seem to have got very lazy with our posting over the summer. But we haven’t stopped working completely, honest. Here’s something I wrote about Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea for Norman Geras’s Writer’s Choice series.

When would you like to be happy?

One of Kierkegaard’s more memorable aphorisms is “Life must be understood backwards, but… it must be lived forward.” The directionality of life may be unavoidable, but what does it really mean that our lives have beginnings, middles and ends?
A year or two ago I was provoked into thinking about this by a conversation with Richard Layard, the “positive psychology guru”. Layard has written influentially on the science of happiness, arguing that government policy and education should be geared towards making people happier, not wealthier. He was quite clear about this, so, for example, if it could be showed that we made people happier by making them less free, I don’t think he’d hesitate before saying that freedom should be curtailed. (But I’d like to hear his reaction to that suggestion.)
Layard said that what he was really trying to do was rehabilitate utilitarianism, and he was disappointed more philosophers hadn’t engaged with his ideas.
One issue we discussed has stuck with me ever since. Layard believes that what matters in a life is the the sum total of happiness, not how it is distributed. In other words, it makes no difference whether our happy years come early or late in life. However, most people intuitively reject this. They believe it would be better to have a happy second part of life after a miserable first half than vice-versa. Layard was baffled as to why people were so attached to this idea. Surely, from a rational point of view, where the happiness falls is irrelevant?
I was with those lined up against Layard. The way I thought about it, being indifferent to the order in which things happens in life is to be indifferent to one of the things that makes life human. It is because life is lived forwards that it makes all the difference in the world whether we are happy older or younger. It’s not about totting up happiness quotients, it’s about whether life is a progression or a regression.
But recently I’ve had doubts. After all, progression does not necessarily imply getting happier. For example, one might deepen one’s understanding of the human condition and as a result become gloomier as one grows older. Furthermore, on reflection, one would probably prefer to have this kind if life than one in which one got happier as a result of growing stupidity or ignorance.
Perhaps more profoundly, might the idea of it being better for happiness to come at the end depend on a kind of bad faith, a mistaken idea that life is objectively meaningful, and that misery can be redeemed? On your deathbed, if you are to be comforted by the thought that you experienced great happiness in your life, why should that comfort be greater because the happiness was more recent? Your comfort might be greater if you thought that it mattered after your death what the “final reckoning” was. But why would you think that?
One explanation of the plausible deathbed preference for more recent happiness might be that because we change over time, the happiness of the past is less mine than the happiness of now. It is hard to take comfort from the fact that the younger you was happy, as you are no longer that person.
That sounds like a good answer, but its persuasiveness is arguably dependent on the time at which the judgement is made. From the point of view of a young person, the same reasoning could make be believe that it matters more to be happy now when facing death in years to come, because that older, dying person is not entirely the young person thinking about when it ids better to be happy.
So actually, the logic of the argument is that what matters is that the happiness is now. But since every point in a life is at one stage “now”, objectively speaking, it doesn’t matter when in life happiness is distributed. I’m not entirely happy with that conclusion, but I’m still not clear why.

Follow the argument? Fat chance

Ophelia Benson has written a really useful piece for The Philosophers’ Magazine which we’re having to hold over until issue 40 because issue 39 (in press) is stuffed full. It’s about all the places on the web where you can now listen to or watch quality philosophy talks.
Inspired by this knowledge I checked out a talk by Dan Dennett at TEDtalks (though I found the streaming better by watching it on YouTube). Dennett is talking about memes (which seems to the topic of the month here), comparing how ideas spread to how viruses and parasites work.
Watching this after reading James’s last post made me think about how uncomfortable it would be for philosophers if they were to really think too much about why people believe what they do. James talked about the effect of repetition, what might be called the quantity-over-quality theory of persuasion, whereby people believe things more readily just because many people say it, or one person says it with great conviction. Dennett, meanwhile, says that many ideas attach themselves to people’s minds, whether or not they are true, or even help the people who holds them.
Then I remembered a paper I wrote a few years ago for the journal Inquiry on philosophical autobiography. Reading philosophers describe their own early lives made it patently obvious that the theories they later went onto advocate were ones they were temperamentally inclined to believe, not just those which the arguments most supported.
“Quine, for instance, recalls how as a toddler he sought the unfamiliar way home, which he interprets as reflecting ‘the thrill of discovery in theoretical science: the reduction of the unfamiliar to the familiar.’ Feyerabend recalls how, not yet ten, he was enchanted by magic and mystery and wasn’t affected by ‘one of the many strange events that seemed to make up our world.’ Quine and Feyerabend, of course, went on to write very different kinds of philosophy: Quine’s in a formal, logical, systematising tradition (though typically on the limits of such formalisations); Feyerabend’s anti-reductive and anti-systematising. When we read these mature works, it is natural to ask which is right, the anti-method of Feyerabend or the drier logic of Quine. But as soon as one is confronted in their autobiographies by the seemingly obvious fact that these different philosophical theories reflect deep-seated differences in personality, it becomes hard to accept that reason and truth alone are the adjudicators here. It would take a great deal of faith in the objectivity of philosophy and philosophers to think that Feyerabend’s and Quine’s arrived at their respective philosophical positions simply by following the arguments where they led, when their inclinations so obviously seem to be in tune with their settled conclusions. What Honderich calls ‘grips that the world gets on us early’ have a vital role to play.”
Given we know all this and more, philosophers have no reason at all to be confident in their abilities to separate their judgements on the rationality of arguments from their pre-existent commitments. Of course, this does not mean that philosophy is reduced to the exchange of opinions. But what then does it mean? My answer to follow another time, maybe.

Force of numbers

There’s all that stuff from Hofstadter and Dennett about the sphex or digger wasp. The wasp stings and paralyses its prey, drags it to the entrance of its nest, drops it off while going below for a quick inspection and, if all is well, returns and hauls the goods inside. This at least looks intelligent – checking the safety of the nest while unencumbered seems a thoughtful thing to do. However, scientists have discovered that moving the wasp’s prey a few inches from the nest resets the wasp: it emerges from the nest, quickly relocates its food, drops it off at the entrance and goes below, again, to check things out. There’s at least one bug in the bug. The apparently cautious behaviour turns out to be a mindless sequence, which can be repeated again and again if you feel like moving the food again and again.

There’s the suggestion that we’re a bit like this, only much more complex. The idea is that maybe human behaviour is, deep down, sphexish too.

Two recent articles have dredged all this up for me again. I was reading about swarm behaviour here, and part of the gist of it is the claim that ants achieve what might as well be collective intelligence through a kind of force of numbers. If a critical number of foragers return to the hive smelling the right way, then more foragers go out too. No individual ant is bright enough to work anything out, but enough smells of the right sort trigger group behaviour which appears bright.

Another article got the worry about our own sphexishness going for me again, the thought that my own apparently intelligent action is nothing deeper than what the wasps and ants are doing. A recent study ( suggests that one person in a group repeating the same opinion three times has about the same effect as three different people in the group expressing the same opinion. You can come to a conclusion about the group’s general mood based on just one loud and repetitive person, and you can give that conclusion about as much weight as you would were it based on the opinions of three different people. There is the further suggestion that there is some mechanism in us which drives an inference from the familiarity of an opinion to the conclusion that it is prevalent or widespread—even if the opinion is just being repeated by one loud person.  Force of numbers again.

What you do with all of this is up to you, but it has me worried, again, about freedom and self knowledge and other things too — maybe a picture I like, having to do with what it is to be human.  Should I be worried?

Greetings from Buffalo

Both Jeremy and I are in Buffalo, NY, teaching at the Center for Inquiry‘s Summer School. All very nice, especially since Ophelia Benson is also here, but it’s made posting quite difficult, hence relative silence. We haven’t gone away and normal service should be resumed soon. I’m back next week.

Live Earth

You can have all sorts of reactions to Live Earth, the international series of concerts aiming to raise awareness about climate change.  The reaction which interests me at the moment is one I’ve heard before.  It’s a kind of ad hominem, something Mayer Hillman calls, ‘shooting the messenger’ — maybe it’s disguised anti-environmentalism.  You can say to yourself or to someone else, ‘ The whole thing is rubbish.  They’re going to dump a lot of carbon in the atmosphere by doing all that.  Rock stars cruising in on jets to urge us to plant trees.  Hypocrisy!’

Well, yes and no.  The first thig to notice is that drawing attention to the way the message is conveyed does nothing to touch the truth or falsity of the message.  You can think that Madonna is ridiculous, maybe show that the life she lives does more damage to the planet than most.  You can think that having a concert for climate change is a dumb idea.  These objections have nothing to do with the truth value of the message:  anthropogenic climate change is real, and we need ot do something about it now.  Madge is right about that.

The second thing to notice is that some failures in this connection, maybe even hypocrisy, are just about unavoidable.  We are, almost all of us in the developed world, enmeshed in a system driven by the burning of fossil fuels.  I just finished a book about the ethics of climate change, and a few people, mostly grinning hideously, pointed out that I wrote it on paper.  I killed trees.  I know.  I can’t eat breakfast without damaging the planet, given the world we’ve got.  You can either skip breakfast, or you can want to change things, change the way we acquire and use energy, change the world we’ve got.  The unavoidable damage you do in your everyday life, just by having breakfast, can get you down.  It can also get you going.  So who’s with Al and his pledge and who isn’t?

More Blackmore

Here a few more bits of the Susan Blackmore interview which I had to cut so the piece would fit into the magazine. A bit of a miscellany, but worth sweeping off the cuttings floor.

First up, this is what she said about the positive role of intuitions in scientific discovery and advancement. Note the need for the intuitions to be tested and borne out:

“There’s plenty of scientific evidence to show this. There can be problems that are too complex to be solved by rational means, and yet we can solve them intuitively, presumably with some kind of neural map or whatever, and we do that all the time. Now what’s wrong with that is if you just rely on it. It doesn’t really matter where you get the hypothesis from, but you then have to find out whether they’re confirmable and, and test them. I’m not a full-on Popperian but I think that general model is right from that point of view.”

Then there is this, which is a good example of the virtues of valuing elements of religious practice while not buying into the out-moded metaphysics. Blackmore has practised Zen meditation for over twenty years:

“I never studied it technically. Zen is really just sit down, shut up and get on with it yourself. In other areas of Buddhism there are twenty-seven types of this, loops of that, and eternal cycle of the eight wotsits, and I just think, why eight?”

Finally, for those interested in memetics (the study of hos units of culture are transmitted and replicated I asked, “Isn’t one problem that memetics is not a strictly natural science, so could you ever have a study of memetics which was purely using natural science methods?”

“Yeah, why not, you’ve used epidemiological techniques. I mean you can borrow techniques from all over the place. If a meme is any information that is copied by a person in imitation, or indeed through a book or a machine or anything, it’s just information, we’ve got plenty of paradigms and methods for studying information flow and copying and so on.”

But it’s going to be a bit messy isn’t it?

“Oh horribly messy. That’s probably a major reason why people don’t want to do it. But that’s totally different from saying in principle it will be something outside of natural science.”

Can memetics be part of natural science? Can you be religious without buying into the metaphysics? Is intuition invaluable to natural science? Yes, yes, yes says Blackmore.

More on Aslan

I’ve finished reading Reza Aslan’s No God But God.

Good things about the book: It’s a well-paced, accessible introduction to the history of Islam. Aslan writes competently. And his rejection of Islamism, and call for religious tolerance is admirable.

But the book is a logical mess. Partly one suspects that this is because Aslan is doing his best to present Islam in a good light. So, for example, very early in the book, he tells us that the Jews and Arabs of Yathrib (which became Medina) lived together relatively harmoniously:

..the Arabs maintained a high esteem for the learning, craftsmanship, and heritage of their Jewish neighbours, who were, in the words of the Arab chronicler al-Waqidi, ‘a people of high lineage and of properties, whereas we were but an Arab tribe who did not possess any palm trees or vineyards, being people of only sheep and camels.

Very nice, except some 70 pages later, Aslan dismisses the argument that Muhammad turned against the Jews of Medina because he was worried that their rejection of his message might undermine his claim to be a prophet by arguing:

…the most glaring problem with this theory…is how much credit it gives to Medina’s Jews….The Jewish clans in Medina…were barely distinguishable from their pagan counterparts either culturally or, for that matter, religiously. This was not a particularly literate group.

Okay, so maybe it’s possible to reconcile these two statements, but actually Aslan’s whole argument here about anti-Semitism – the same argument that one finds in many other commentaries on Islam (e.g., Karen Armstrong)- is highly suspect.

In essence, it holds that those passages in the Qur’an which seem to be anti-Semitic are not really, but refer only to the specific Jews of Medina, and at a stretch maybe to those Jews who had turned away from their proper religious heritage. By analogy then if I launch into a diatribe against “Pakis”, and when accused of racism, claim that I’m only referring to specific “Pakis” – those living in Britain, who neglect to live like proper British people, I’m off the hook. This, of course, is the BNP line

It should be noted here that Aslan’s argument about anti-Semitism in the Qur’an is not simply that it has to be understood as the product of its time. His claim is that attacking a particular group of people in terms of their group characteristics does not automatically generalise to other people beyond the group who share the pertinent characteristics. Well maybe he’s right, but I’d bet in other contexts, he’d choke at such a thought.

Generally speaking, he is very confused (i.e., wants to have his cake and eat it) about what he wants historical context to do for his argument. Sometimes history functions as excuse: okay, the Qur’an is a bit sexist, but compared to the general mores of the time, it is a feminist treatise. Sometimes history is exemplary: the original Muslim community, when stripped of the nasty historically contingent bits, is a model of religious toleration, egalitarianism and sexual equality. And sometimes it is simultaneously an excuse and exemplary: yes, Muhammad had it in for polytheists, but that was only because his major enemies were polytheists, and if you look at other times in the history of Islam, you’ll find great tolerance for polytheists.

Finally, there are also logical errors in the book that are just baffling. Here’s an example near the end. Alsan makes the argument that:

Because religion is, by definition, interpretation, sovereignty in a religious state would belong to those with the power to interpret religion.

And then two paragraphs later:

…because it is not religion, but the interpretation of religion that arbitrates morality… (my italics)

Aslan, you really need to be able to remember what you wrote two paragraphs earlier. (And for the record it would be immensely patronising to defend him here by claiming that he doesn’t have a philosophical training, so he can’t be expected to get this kind of thing right. Yes he can. This is not difficult. And philosophers are not peculiarly clever.)

The Fourth of July

I’m receiving a number of emails from friends in the states about Bush commuting the prison sentence of Scooter Libby.  Two themes seem dominant.  Some draw attention to what looks like an inconsistency.  Bush tells us that a 30 month sentence for perjury is excessive, but, so many on the web point out, the death penalty for more than 150 Texan inmates is about right, as is a few decades in prison for the mere possession of a small amount of marijuana, as is a few years in Guantanamo for going on holiday in the Middle East and having a beard.  You need not be against the death penalty or for the legalization of marijuana to raise an eyebrown at all of this.  Maybe you can think of a judicial excess of your own.  It’s strange, they say, that this one instance of perjury is worth presidential intervention, while so many other judicial excesses go unpardoned.  It’s an inconsistency which gets resolved if you add a premise about Bush being up to no good.

The second suggest a remedy of some sort, say impeachment or resignation.  At least one friend points me to a discussion of James Madison, who argued that a president should be impeached by the House and possibly removed if he pardons a criminal for dubious activities which might have been sanctioned by the president himself, uses a pardon to prevent detection of his own criminality, or has suspicious connections to a criminal he’s sheltering with a pardon.

I’m not sure what to think about all this.  Philosophers will wonder about the connection between the alleged inconsistencies and the remedies.  Maybe what matters first is the inconsistencies themselves — examining, identifying, explaining or otherwise dealing with inconsistencies is the stuff of much philosophy.  In this case, we have at least two large options:  conclude that the inconsistency belies something unpleasant, namely lies and worse, or find a way to resolve it or explain it away innocently.  Do some presidential apologetics.  Show there’s no inconsistency there at all.  Any takers?  Otherwise, the remedies become live possibilities, maybe even moral necessities.

What use are philosophers of mind?

I’ve just finished writing up an interview with the psychologist Susan Blackmore for the next issue of the magazine. We had a pretty long conversation and Sue’s words-per-minute rate is pretty high, so a lot had to be left out. Good job we’ve got the blog for overflow then.
One issue I was interested in was how useful she thought the contribution of philosophers was to the philosophy of mind. Many scientists are pretty scornful of the so-called contribution of philosophers, but Blackmore was pretty positive.
“I think they’ve done quite a lot,” she said. Ah, good. No, hang on.
“My observations from the outside of philosophy are that an awful lot of it I think I can’t understand because I don’t have the training and I don’t want to, because it looks like a complete load of bunkum.”
She names no names. You need not be so coy in your comments.
“Another chunk I can’t understand and would like to. There’s Jaegwon Kim. It strikes me from what little I know that if only I could understand that it might really help me. But it’s too difficult and I can’t. And then there’s a whole lot more philosophy where it’s actually making connections with the real world, where I think it really is helpful.
“I think some of them are bringing clarity. But the trouble is I’m biased by the ones I like. I think the major people who have really helped are Dennett and the Churchlands, because they have all taken basic findings and said ‘Look, wake up, we’ve got to pay attention to these.’”
It seems like a modest task, though, and I’m not convinced it always takes special philosophical expertise to do this kind of thing. For example, in her book on memes (units of culture that she claims are passed on in a way analogous to genes) she discusses a major problem for the theory as being: ‘we cannot specify the unit of a meme’. This is the type of question philosophers are forever going on about: the problem of individuation – how we identify things as being discrete objects. And it is claimed you need philosophers to do this because scientists and the like take individuation for granted and don’t question their fundamental assumptions
But isn’t it the case that these questions are ones that all sensible scientists ask themselves anyway? It’s not like scientists don’t go “Oh yeah, I never thought about that, how do you identify one thing and draw a barrier around it?”
Here’s how Blackmore answered. Make of it what you will:

“Well I don’t know, because for a long time scientists stuck with the idea that they have a definition of species and you could separate them out and this is the cat, and that’s the dog and that’s the cauliflower and that’s the cabbage. And then they discovered that actually they’re not defined and all of that, and I think that’s what philosophers do.
“I think the same happened with genes, that scientists … well no, I think it’s the opposite. No, you might be right because with the gene example, although most people in the popular mind think of a gene as a discrete unit, it became more and more obvious in science that there are not discrete. There’s all kinds of variable action and complications and you know, multiple functions and goodness knows whatever else.
“So in that case I think perhaps the scientists themselves would do better than the philosophers at working at an individuation problem.
“But we certainly need it with memes because the fact that there’s a label ‘meme’ and an apparent analogy to genes and in the popular mind genes are fixed discrete entities that do one particular thing, means we have a problem with people’s understanding of the word ‘meme’. And yeah, the more philosophers who come in and say ‘Just because they’ve got a name for it doesn’t mean it’s a discrete entity.’ Well I’d like as many of them as possible.”

Except that for every one of those there will probably be others saying things like “Memes are mere constructs rather than natural kinds because they can only be individuated in cultural, rather that natural scientific, ways.” Far from clearing things up, philosophers will just divide along the same lines as any other interested, intelligent party. So do philosophers have a useful and/or unique role in science?