Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Real

As a professor (and even worse, a philosophy professor) I have become accustomed to people talking about the real world as a land far from the ivory tower in which I am supposed to dwell. Naturally I, and folks who are supposed to be like me, are not supposed “to get” how the real world works. Thanks to Sarah Palin and others, I have also grown familiar with the idea of a Real America, which is also presumably a place where I do not live. Not surprisingly, all this talk of the real got me thinking.

When folks accuse me, as a professor, of not being in the real world I tend to smile a bit. After all, there is a certain irony in accusing a philosophy professor of being far from the real world or not “getting” the way the real world works. This is because, obviously enough, of Plato’s famous discussion of the distinction between the lovers of wisdom (philosophers) and the lovers of sights and sounds. For Plato, the true philosophers were the ones who deal with the real.  The real for Plato is, of course, those mysterious forms. The other folks, those who seem to now claim to be the kings of the real, were characterized as merely playing with images and opinions.

Naturally, talking about Platonic forms and other philosophical stuff does little to convince folks that I  do not live many zip codes removed from the real world. As such, it seems like a reasonable approach to set aside talk about unseen realities and take a somewhat different approach.

One reasonable approach involves considering what is supposed to distinguish the real world from the sort of world that I and other philosopher types are supposed to reside.

On the face of it, my “world” seems to be just as real as the “world” of the folks who accuse me of keeping it unreal. After all, the buildings seem solid enough as do the people around me. I do work, I get paid, I interact with people, and do the things that other folks do. As such, my “world” just seems to be part of the world, rather than an unreal realm distinct from the allegedly real world.

But, someone might say, you philosopher types deal with things that are not real. You live in books, talk about made up ideas and so on. In the real world we deal with real things.

One obvious reply is that the “real” world contains an abundance of made up ideas and other such things that are supposed to be part of the unreal world. To use an obvious example, consider politics. As another obvious example, consider the financial system. The so-called real world seems no more (or no less) real than the world of philosophers and other academic folk.

But, suppose that I am willing to accept that the “world” I occupy is not the same as the “real” world. That is, that there are differences between what I do in my professional life and what, for example, people who are bankers, construction workers, engineers, financial planners, bureaucrats, priests, and so on do. There is still the obvious question as to why their “way of life” should be considered real and mine should be considered unreal.

This would seem to take us to the old saw that philosophy in particular and intellectual endeavors in general are useless. The real world is the world in which people bake, build and kill rather than think, talk and write. However, this seems to be a mere prejudice on par with intellectuals looking down on those who bake and build for not discussing Proust over lattes in the cafe. These “worlds” seem to all be quite real. I see the value in being able to repair a two stroke engine (having done it myself), cook a fine steak (or tofu) or put a round through a person’s head at 800 meters (haven’t done that, but could). I can also see the value in being able to consider various moral views, speculate on the nature of the universe or do mathematical proofs.

This is not to say that different professions are not different and that some professions (or specific people) might be less than useful. However, the blanket dismissal via the use of “the real world” seems to have no real substance.

As far as “getting it” or being part of the Real America (or Real Britain or whatever), this seems to be primarily a rhetorical device. Merely saying that someone does not get it or accusing them of not being Real Xs does not prove that they are in error or morally wrong. For example, someone might tell me that I “just don’t get it” when it comes to taxes and government spending because I argue that cutting the deficit requires increasing some taxes and reducing major expenditures, such as defense spending. Obviously enough, no matter how many times someone says that I do not “get how the real world works” or that I am not part of the Real America, he does not show that my view is in error.  What is wanting is, of course, an argument that shows that I am, in fact, in error.

In many cases it seems that accusing someone of “not getting it” or “not understanding the real world” or of not being “real whatever” is merely another way of saying “they don’t believe what I believe” or “they don’t see the world as I see it” or “they do not have the same values as me.” Obviously enough, the mere fact that someone has different beliefs, views or values does not prove that these beliefs, views or values are inferior or mistaken. Of course, the use of such rhetorical devices can be rather effective. After all, the real people want to get it.

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The unquiet scientist

Science communication is not easy, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, reasonable people disagree about what science communicators ought to try to achieve. Should communicators just try to keep people up-to-date on the latest cool things happening in the world of science… or should they try to foster a critical way of thinking about the world? For another thing, it isn’t clear how you would go about science communication if you tried — since, as any grade school teacher could tell you, it is hard to figure out how to get your audience to care. And for another another thing, if the aim is to foster a scientific mindset, then it’s not clear that mass media will be of any use whatsoever. (Presumably, one does not learn chemistry by repeated viewings of Gil Grissom working ponderously over test-tubes.)

These are all important and interesting topics, well deserving of thoughtful and passionate dialogue.

Enter Chris Mooney. Mooney is an activist for communicating science. He is the author of The Republican War on Science, and is the co-author of the controversial book Unscientific America (with Sheril Kirshenbaum). Mooney holds a degree from Yale, a fellowship with the Templeton Foundation, and is a member of the board of the American Geophysical Union. He blogs at the Intersection. Mooney/Kirshenbaum’s ultimate legacy appears to be that they succeeded in starting a passionate conversation about the subjects listed above.

Which brings us to the topic of the present post. In addition to being in the science communication business, Mooney and Kirshenbaum are both critics of atheist activism. Mooney and Kirshenbaum have argued that activist atheism is detrimental peripheral to science communication, and that activist atheists are often uncivil. Their critical remarks have created a tumultuous debate in both online and national print publications. Not incidentally, Coyne, Dawkins, and many others have publicly argued that there is an intimate connection between science and atheism. (Full disclosure: although it shouldn’t make any difference to this post, on this issue — as on most things — I’m in the “Jason Rosenhouse camp“.)

On first blush, it seems as though there are two major issues here: civility, and the role of the naturalist worldview in science. But a little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Mooney about the role of passion and conflict might have in getting people to think about science. And from that conversation, I learned that Mooney acknowledges a third sticking point.

BN: I was glad to see that you didn’t focus on the deficit model in explaining scientific illiteracy — that’s really good. [Edit 2010: Roughly, the “deficit model” is the idea that science communicators should presume that citizens that are not scientifically literate are responsible for their own illiteracy.] And the alternative is to look at what people do know. So for example the mechanic has a body of knowledge that I can only dream of — I just don’t know how a car works. We ask ourselves how people have all this impressive statistical knowledge about baseball and things (without knowing about science), and the reason is: baseball is useful in some way. People are embedded in a social group and they know that this knowledge will be useful to talk about.

This can also help us understand how misinformation works. For example, the George Will episode. People will say “Atta boy” and pat him on the back for acting like an idiot.

CM: I think you’re right. These things have utility, is what you’re saying.

BN: Exactly. And this leads me to the atheism thing. So you’ve gotten into a bit of trouble with some folks online, because atheism has utility for them. And I’ve found that I’ve learned quite a bit on these atheist forums.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Because you’ve been interpreted as saying to folks like Jerry Coyne: “Don’t make atheistic arguments, because you’re putting atheism in the same truck as science, and people are not going to take science seriously because they’re religious.”

But atheism is a way of getting people interested in science. So Dawkins writes “The God Delusion” and he presents this panoply of interesting bits of information leading up to an argument.

CM: I understand exactly what you’re saying. People say all of these different kinds of things serves a purpose for them — I think that’s absolutely true. And I really like how you framed it, because I haven’t put it in quite that way, but it’s totally right, and it’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to talk about bad information.

But that doesn’t change my particular view on atheism to point that out. I guess what I’m saying is that a lot of people in what we call the New Atheist movement have formed a community around a set of information, and it has utility for them, in your terms. There’s no doubt about that. You see them doing it so much, so fired up about it.

My argument is that almost in direct proportion to how it’s useful to them, it’s not useful for something else. And that can happen — a community can form around a shared body of information and another community can think it’s awful. That would totally work in your model. And my point is that even as they’re agreeing, scratching each other on the back, creating a dialogue that’s mainly amongst themselves, if you look at how that affects the broader dialogue in the country, it’s a different dynamic entirely.

So I think what I’m saying is: be aware that the way you talk about atheism works for you, and yet it also isn’t working in a different world. I think both those things can be true.

BN: A counter-argument is that you have religious folks who want to defend their views. The Ray Comforts of the world. And to the extent that they want to defend their views in any interesting way, they have to engage with the explicit arguments that are put forward by the atheist community. So that way it becomes something like a dialogue, so that at least it appears as though there’s something defensible going on [on Ray Comfort’s end].

So I have this underlying feeling that conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We can’t ever put ourselves in a place where we say, “Oh, no conflict, that’s no good”. And that seems to be what you’re doing — you call yourselves “accommodationists”, or at least that’s the label that’s been put on you. Conflict, to the extent that we want to have a debate, is okay. It’s just a certain kind of unproductive dialogue that sometimes goes on.

CM: Yeah. I think there’s all different kinds of conflicts. And there’s many things you can spend your time debating. We all pick and choose. My point on the general conflict between science and religion in the United States is that I don’t think it’s an incredibly fruitful one, and I don’t think it does the public understanding of science a lot of good to be hitched to the religion-bashing way. I think there are many ways to talk about science in religion in American society that would work better, and I think there’s a lot of evidence to support that, in terms of the way people react.

I’m sure that some people are getting engaged because of New Atheism — I’m sure some people are learning, some people are thinking about science — but I think it’s also clear that a lot of people are not getting engaged or are being negatively polarized. So it’s a difference of goals, in part, that explains the debate I think.

I think it is fair to say that, by far, Mooney and Kirshenbaum sparked the most outrage with their comments over civility. But the ensuing drama has drawn attention away from some of the most interesting questions. How does Mooney think people ought to communicate science? What does “science communication” involve, for him?

One thing is pretty clear. Mooney wants to offer strategic advice about communicating science. Both in person and in his written works, he aims to communicate the art of publicity to scientists, under the auspices of teaching them the art of communicating science to the public. This work is predicated upon the assumption that everyone has the same priorities, in the minimal sense that at least that everyone is on board with the “science communication” project.

But the most important point that I’m going to emphasize here is that his stance is self-consciously political. At least to some extent, there is a “difference in goals” between Mooney and the activist atheists — by which, I think, he means a difference in priorities. Mooney does not think that speaking out against religion is a priority, and that it is on the whole detrimental to science education; while others think it is a priority, and that it supports science education in some respect.

What’s interesting that the one thing that Mooney and the rest agree on is this: that activism over atheism really does have some utility in communicating science. It gives us something to talk about.

Straw, Lies & Errors

Straw Man

Straw man is a rather commonly committed fallacy. Interestingly, it is almost as common for people to accuse others of making straw men as it is for people to actually commit said fallacy. Since I am in a phase of holiday laziness, I decided to write a bit about straw men, lies and errors rather than take on a major topic.

Defining the straw man fallacy is easy enough:

The straw man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position (argument, theory, etc.) and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of “reasoning” has the following pattern:

1. Person A has position X.
2. Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
3. Person B attacks position Y.
4. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person.

Obviously enough, it is reasonable to point out when someone is making a straw man and to note that any attack on the straw man will fail to do any damage to the original version. Of course, it is important to be sure that such an accusation actually fits.

Whether a characterization is a straw man or not depends, obviously enough on what is being characterized. Roughly put,  “strawness’ is a relative thing and what might be a straw man characterization of one person’s position could very well be an accurate description of another person’s view. As such, a person can be wrongly accused of presenting a straw man because the accuser is mistaken about which position the accused is actually describing. I have even noticed that people sometimes assume that the writer must be writing about them when, in fact, the writer is not.

So, before crying straw it is a good idea to see what the person is actually characterizing. While it might seem to be distorted or exaggerated it might really be spot on.

While most straw men are distorted versions of specific views, there is also variation of the straw man which involves presenting a position that “no one” actually holds and attacking it. In many cases, these positions are attributed to vaguely identified groups (feminists, liberals, conservatives, etc.)  rather than specific individuals. While it is obviously legitimate to point out when people do this sort of thing, it should be determined whether the person is actually setting up such a generic straw man. As noted above, there are views that are really held that would tend to seem like willful distortions on the part of the person describing them.

There are various other ways to use straw men, but I’ll leave those for people to bring up in comments.

Switching now to lies, I have noticed that when I teach this fallacy my students inevitably ask about the difference between presenting a straw man and lying.

On the face of it, a straw man would be a form of lie. After all, a person knowingly presenting a distortion or exaggeration with an intent to deceive would seem to be engaged in an act that falls nicely within the kingdom of lies. As such, I do not see any significant problem with characterizing intentional straw men as involving a lie (or lies) as a component.  For example, when the health care bill Obama was supporting was characterized as establishing death panels and attacked on those grounds, then that would seem to qualify as both a straw man and a lie.

That said, there is more to a straw man than merely lying. As noted above, the straw man fallacy involves more than just presenting a distortion-it also involves rejecting the original on the basis of an attack on the distorted version. As such, it would probably be best to say that a straw man makes use of a lie (or lies).

The deceptive aspect of the straw man also brings in a moral element on top of the critical thinking element. After all, engaging in poor reasoning need not be immoral. However, the intentional use of deceit is often morally problematic (although, as people will no doubt point out, there are intuitively appealing exceptions). One obvious concern is that if a position is actually bad enough to morally require that deceits be used to attack it, then it would seem to follow that it could be justly criticized “in the flesh” rather than “in the straw.” No doubt there are exceptions to this as well-positions that are wicked or flawed and yet could not be defeated by arguing against them in their actual forms.

While many straw men do involve intentional deceits, there are others that do not. These are cases that involve errors.

One obvious example of straw man by error is when someone tries to honestly characterize a view and simply gets it wrong because the view is rather difficult to understand. For example, I often see such straw men in student papers when they try to summarize the arguments of a philosopher. These

Another example of straw man by error is when someone presents a straw man out of ignorance, sloppiness or some such reason. For example, a person might receive an email that distorts the Republican position on tax cuts and then go on to use that version in his blog. In this case, the person is not engaged in an intentional exaggeration.

To use an analogy, this could be seen as being a bit like counterfeit money. A person who knowingly creates a straw man is like a counterfeiter: she is created a deceitful product that she hopes others will accept as the real thing. Someone who accepts the straw man and unknowingly passes it on to others is like a person who gets counterfeit money and spends it herself, unaware that she is passing on phony money.

As with counterfeit money, the person who passes the straw man along in ignorance is not morally responsible for the deceit-she is acting in good faith and is also a victim. This, obviously enough, assumes that the person passing it on took a reasonable amount of effort to assess what was passed on to her.

Sticking with the money analogy, if I pick up some flawless counterfeit bills in my change at the grocery store and I pass them on to others when I buy things, I would seem to be an innocent victim. After all, the source is supposed to be safe and the bills pass all the tests I could reasonably be expected to use. However, if I am handed bills from a questionable person or the money looks a bit fishy, then I would be culpable (to a degree) for uncritically accepting them and passing them on to others.

If this analogy holds, then a person who passes on a straw man from others might be called to task for this or might merely be an innocent victim. In some cases it might be rather hard to determine which category a person falls into.

As one final point, people sometimes make the mistake of conflating errors and straw men. For example, I might claim that WikLeaks’ leak was a good thing because it revealed important new information to the public, such as the fact that Saudis provide considerable support to terrorist organizations and the fact that Pakistan also lends support to such groups. In response to this someone might say that I made a straw man because it is already well known that the Saudis and Pakistanis are supporters of terrorist groups.

However, there is a difference between merely being in error and making a straw man. To be specific, being in error is merely being wrong and a straw man is, well, what was defined above. In the example just given, I could be completely wrong (some have claimed that almost everything leaked was already available), however it would not be a straw man because there was no attempt to present a distorted or exaggerated version of a position. The main test (which is not perfect) is to ask what position, if any, is being distorted or exaggerated. If there are not plausible grounds for claiming an act of distortion has occurred, then it is more reasonable to claim that the person is wrong about the facts rather than accusing him of creating a straw man. Naturally, there will be gray areas in which it is not clear what is the most plausible explanation.

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The Ethics of the DDoS Protest

Screenshot of error message when attempting to...
Image via Wikipedia

One consequence of WikiLeaks leak is that it has been cut off from its main sources of acquiring money. Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal have all stopped doing business with WikilLeaks. WikiLeak’s bank, PostFinance, has also stopped doing business with the organization.

In response a group of “hackers” known as “Anonymous” have launched Operation Payback. This operation involves launching Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on the web sites of the companies in question.

Put a bit roughly, DDoS attacks work by overwhelming a site with traffic so that the site is greatly slowed or even forced to shut down. To use a somewhat inaccurate analogy, it is like crowding the entrance to a business so that customers cannot get in. While relatively simple, these attacks are hard to counter because each attempt at access seems like a legitimate site visit.

One factor that makes this DD0S attack stand out is that it is supposed to be a political protest. According to Anonymous, they are “actively campaigning for the free flow of information” and to be “against anyone who supports censorship, such as those who are responsible for the silencing of WikiLeaks.” For its part, a WikiLeaks spokesperson say that “We neither condemn nor applaud these attacks. We believe they’re a reflection of public opinion on the actions of the targets.”

For the sake of the discussion, I will assume that the campaign is actually an act of protest and not merely an act of mischief using WikiLeaks as an excuse. I will now turn to the ethics of the matter.

When considering any protest, regardless of the means employed, a primary question is whether the protest is morally justified or not. If a protest is not morally justified and it does some harm to those who are targeted by the protest, then the protest would seem to be morally wrong. For example, suppose some students failed their classes because they partied all semester rather than doing work in their classes. In response, suppose they decided to “protest” by breaking the handles to the professors’ offices door and those of the classrooms in which they taught on the first day of classes the next semester.

While the students might be angry over their grades, the professor did not wrong them. As such, they have no grounds for protest and their “protest” merely causes unjustified harm to the professor, the university and also to other students.

Now, suppose that a professor maliciously failed students in a philosophy class because he disagree with their criticism of his philosophical views. In that case, the students would seem to have legitimate grounds for a protest against the professor.

Turning back to the actual situation, that of the alleged abandonment of WikiLeaks, the question is whether the companies in question have acted wrongly and thus morally deserve to be subject to acts of protest.

As noted above, Anonymous seems to be claiming that the protest is justified because these companies support censorship and are taken to have a role in silencing WikiLeaks. It is, perhaps, somewhat ironic that those campaigning for the free flow of information remain anonymous (they obviously see the value in not allowing some information to flow freely) and that they protest by cutting people off from information. However, the key concern here is whether these companies have acted wrongly in a way that justifies this protest.

On the face of it, refusing to do business with WikiLeaks does not seem to be an act of censorship. After all, they are not actually censoring WikiLeaks-they are merely refusing to do business with them. It might be argued that cutting off these sources of funding silences WikiLeaks. In reply, while funding does help, web hosting is actually fairly cheap (or even free). WikiLeaks could, for example, start a free WordPress blog or pay around $10 a month for a site. As such, the lack of PayPal and such would be inconvenient but not silencing.

It could be argued that while the financial companies are not literally silencing WikiLeaks, they are acting unfairly by refusing to do business with them. Whether this is true or not depends partially on whether WikiLeaks has actually broken the rules set by these companies in their terms of service. Of course, the terms of service for some of these companies would seem to be fairly “open”: MasterCard and Visa both do business with the KKK. However, if WikiLeaks violated the terms, then the companies would seem to have a legitimate right to terminate their relationship. If, however, the companies are merely cutting off WikiLeaks because of political pressure, then that would be another matter.

Thus, whether there is an injustice to protest here or not seems to be, amazingly enough, a matter of controversy.

A second major factor is the means of protest. As a general principle, the means of the protest should be morally proportional to the offense. After all, if a protest is worse than what it is protesting against, then the ethics of the situations would shift.

In the case of Operation Payback, the protest is to use DDoS attacks to choke web sites, thus denying people access to that information. These attacks do not actually expose financial data. To use an analogy, this “hacking” is not like someone breaking into your bank. Rather, it is somewhat like someone blocking your access to the teller.

One thing that morally distinguishes Operation Payback from other DDoS attacks is that these attacks have typically involved recruiting peoples’ PCs involuntarily via malware (thus creating what is known as a zombie army). The current DDoS attack is supposed to be voluntary-people are apparently downloading and installing software to launch the attacks.  This is morally important since hijacking peoples’ PCs and their bandwidth to protest would hardly be an ethical thing to do. It would be rather like tricking people into protesting or stealing from them to make protest signs. Since the protest is voluntary, this aspect seems to be morally acceptable. As such, the main point of moral concern is whether the attacks themselves are morally acceptable.

On the face of it, the DDoS protest does seem morally comparable to “real world” protests that involve blocking entrances to businesses and other organizations (like the sit ins at schools). While these protests do inconvenience and annoy people trying to gain access, they do not seem to do significant harm. In fact, Anonymous announced that it would not attempt to attack Amazon because doing so would be harmful to consumers and inconsistent with their desire to protest rather than inflict ham.  As such, this sort of DDoS protest does seem to have the potential to be morally acceptable.

Of course, arguments against sit-in/blocking style protests would apply to the DDoS protests. As I see it, the assessment would involve weighing the weight of the misdeed(s) that sparked the protest against the harms being done to those protested against and those impacted by the protest. Do, if the DDoS attacks are proportional to the alleged misdeeds of the companies, then the protests would be acceptable. If not, then they would be unacceptable.

Since the ethics of WikiLeaks is still a matter of debate, I do not have a definite answer at this point.

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Of Heroes and Leaks

The town of Berkeley recently considered a motion to declare Private Manning a hero. Manning is, of course, accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. While some see him as an obvious villain and other see him as an obvious hero, this is a matter worthy of some consideration.

The first point of concern is to provide a rough idea of what it is to be a hero. While I do not purport to be giving a necessary and sufficient definition of what it is to be a hero, I think that there are two core requirements.

The first is that a person must put herself at significant risk. Since risk comes in degrees is would thus seem to follow that there are degrees of heroism. This is intuitively plausible. For example, if I merely risk a minor injury, then I am only being (at most) somewhat heroic. If, however, I run a considerable risk of being horribly killed, then my potential heroism would seem far more significant.

Obviously enough, putting oneself at risk is not sufficient for heroism. After all, if a person drinks several Four Loko and runs out into traffic, he is putting himself at risk. However, he is not being heroic. This leads to the second core requirement.

The second requirement is the moral element. An act of heroism is, intuitively, an act that aims at a moral good. We would not, for example, call someone who undertook considerable risk to commit a murder or rape a hero.

As with the risk, the goodness can come in varying degrees. So, for example, if someone risks an injury by climbing a tree to rescue a cat, then she is being a little bit heroic. As another example, Ginger Littleton acted to try to save the lives of her fellow school board members which would make her rather heroic.

Naturally, there are all sorts of other factors that must be taken into account when assessing specific acts for heroism. For example, there is the matter of whether the person acted knowingly. As another example, there is the question of intent. However, I do not want to become bogged down on these details at this point (I’ll leave that up to commentators) and will now switch to the main issue or whether Manning is a hero or not.

Since it has yet to be proven that Manning leaked the information, the discussion of his heroism (or lack thereof) is hypothetical. For the sake of the discussion, it will be assumed that he did leak the information. However, this is not to be taken as a claim that he did, in fact, leak the information.

Manning’s alleged leak does meet the first condition. Such a leak brings with it considerable risk (such as the possibility of an extended amount of jail time) and presumably Manning was aware of these consequences. However, the critical requirement is the moral requirement.

While Assange seems to regard himself on a moral crusade, it is not entirely clear what motivated Manning nor what Manning hoped to achieve with the leak. There has been some speculation that he leaked the information because of his dislike of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. If so, it could perhaps be argued that his leak was a moral protest against what he regarded as an immoral policy.

However, the information about Manning seems to indicate that he was unhappy about his job for various other reasons. As such, his leak might have been a case of a disgruntled worked who aimed at getting back at his employer. This is hardly an act of heroism.

The above is, of course, speculation. At this point it is not certain what motivated Manning nor what he hoped to accomplish with the alleged leak. As such, there seems to be little solid evidence of heroism.

In cases in which the potential hero’s intent and aims are not known, it does make sense to try to assess the action itself as well as the consequences. For example, if someone rescues a drowning person from a frozen lake, then we are inclined to call her a hero-even if she slips away without revealing anything about her motivations or aims. As another example, if someone secretly steals your wallet/purse while you are out shopping, then you would probably not be inclined to regard that person as a hero.

The ethics of the leak is, of course, a matter of great contention. Some people hold it to be an act of wickedness, on par with 9/11. Others hold it to be a morally upstanding act that strikes a blow against the evil of America in specific and states in general. Those who assess the matter more with reason than emotions generally seem to hold the leak to have caused some problems in diplomacy but to be neither a great good nor a significant evil.  As such, there does not seem to be  clear case for Manning being a great hero (or an epic villain).

At this point, the most likely narrative is that Manning leaked the information because of his dissatisfaction with his situation. The leak itself does not seem to have done significant good nor very significant damage. As such, it would seem that Manning is not a hero.

There are, of course, alternative narratives. Some that paint him as a hero and others that cast him as a traitor.

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A Note on Memory

“Memories……like the corners of my distributed neural architecture…” -Barbara Streisand, Memories (Eliminativist Version).

Issues concerning the nature of memory, much like those concerning the nature of humour and of the paranormal, are underdescribed in the literature. Yes, philosophers have at one time or other recognised that memory carries with it a set of philosophical questions, and much interesting work has been done. But not as much as should have been and it is curious that it has not commanded more attention, nor achieved more centrality in areas such as the philosophy of mind. Continuity theories of the self, for example,  often follow Locke to make memory a necessary condition of Smith being the same person at aged 12 as at age 30 and at age 70. Locke noticed that in order to solve the problem of the persistence of persons over time it seems insufficient to posit the existence of some substance in which experiences inhere since those same experiences could be swapped between many such substances and our intuition would remain that these experiences were of the “same” person. Memory, he argued, provides a psychological criterion of persistence which is less injurious to this intuition. Needless to say there are problems with this, not least that the ascription of memory might presuppose that the question of person-persistence is already settled.  And whilst it might be the case that memory can secure our intuition that I am the same person as I was last week, is that the same claim as that I am identical to that person. Or does this not matter?

What I want to do here is to say a couple of things about the nature of memory and then to raise what might or might not be an interesting question for reductive physicalists i.e. those philsophers of mind who would want to argue that there are no features of memory which are anything more than complex features of brain function or brain chemistry.

“Memory” is not, of course, a unitary phenomenon and we can at the outset distinguish dispositional from (what I will call) the phenomenal character of memory.  By dispositional memory I mean the wealth of acquired practices we display from the time we get up until the time we go to bed: dressing, brushing our teeth, eating, driving, playing chess, riding a bike, telling the time etc. All of these involve learned cognitive competences which do not necessarily disclose themselves to consciousness. When I am playing my friend at chess I am demonstrating a memory of the rules of chess without necessarily rehearsing those rules to myself as I consider my next move (it is interesting that the more competent the player the less such rules impinge -grandmasters tend to see in positions patterns which do not smoothly transpose onto the rules that are constitutive of the game). What can we say about dispositional memory from the point of view of philosophy? Not necessarily that much. Philosophers like to distinguish the hard from the soft problem of consciousness in recognition of the fact that there are certain features of consciousness that might smoothly be integrated into the developing brain and behavioural sciences (the smooth features) and certain other features (the hard features) that will resist such integration, no matter how complete our understanding of brain function, architecture and chemistry turns out to be. Qualia (or sense data or contents presented experientially) might present a hard problem for the cognitive sciences; dispositional memory, on the other hand, might be their bread and butter – we are all of us to some degree a bit Sphexish.

I retain, as it happens, a memory of my first kiss – with a young lady called Suzanne, in a park in Oxford, on a damp Wednesday afternoon just before Christmas 1983. This memory seems not to be an instance of dispositional memory as it presents itself to me as a mental episode, with a certain character, and this character is in no way exhausted by whatever dispositional properties the memory might have. This character is phenomenal in that it feels a certain way (in this case wistful and pleasant and not a little sad). We can notice straight away that there is an interesting relation between phenomenal memory and the beliefs which accompany it, and which are used to describe it. Suppose the kiss took place not on a Wednesday but on a Friday. Would this make the memory a “false” one? Surely not. It seems as if the memory can remain veridical even if some, perhaps the majority, of the attendant beliefs are revealed by my diary to be inaccurate. Could it remain so if all the beliefs are false?  If it turns out that my first kiss was with Jane, in High Wycombe, in May 1984 we would surely want to say that my memory of Suzanne is a false one. Would realising this affect its phenomenal character? I suspect that it would. So we might want to say that there is a connection between an episode of phenomenal memory and our beliefs about that memory but that the connection is not one that can be easily articulated. To put it another way: phenomenal memory seems to be truth functional in a way that beliefs are not and yet the truth functionality of the latter somehow and to some degree feeds back into that of the former.

Reductive physicalists, of course, will want to assimilate phenomenal memory to the cognitive sciences. On this view my memory of Suzanne is no more than some cluster of features of my brain architecture and its content will turn out to be no more than a distributed property of certain neural activities occurring in parallel (or some such story). I wonder if the following feature of phenomenal memory might give them pause. Take two events, A and B. A occurred last year and was a major event in my life. B happened yesterday and was trivial. I remember both of these events and both these memories have what I have called a phenomenal character. As well as remembering A  (MemA) and remembering B (MemB)  I also have a mental episode C in which it is disclosed to me that A preceded B and that B succeeded A. In other words, there is something about the conjunction MemA and MemB which gives a phenomenal disclosure of the temporal ordering of the two episodes. C is a sort of second-order mental episode whose character is an internal relation given by MemA plus MemB. The question then is: (1) is my analysis of the phenomenology of temporal orderings of memory events plausible; and (2) if so does it present a particular problem for the reductive physicalist? My own answers to (1) and therefore to (2) tend to differ with the time of day, I’m happy to admit. So any thoughts welcome….

Suggested Reading

Adrian Cussins: The Connectionist Construction of Concepts (in The Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence (ed Boden 1990).

Mary Warnock: Memory (1987)

Wittgenstein: Philosophical Grammar (1974) (ed Rhees)

Suggested Listening

The Beautiful South: Song for Whoever.

Identity Confusion Syndrome

If you’re interested in issues to do with personal identity, and the conditions under which it does or does not endure, then you may want to check out:

You’re Being Tortured In The Morning

another new interactive activity at my Philosophy Experiments web site.

This one is (sort of) based on a journal article titled "The Self and the Future", by Bernard Williams, which first appeared in The Philosophical Review in April 1970. It also references, Stephen Coleman’s, article, “Thought Experiments and Personal Identity”, which is well worth checking out.

As always any feedback about the new activity much appreciated. I read everything, even if I don’t always respond. The logic of this one is a little tricky, especially in the context of an argument I call “The first objection”, so hopefully you’ll let me know if you spot any obvious (or not so obvious) mistakes.

(Apologies if you’ve seen this before.)

Meaning Machines

The question of the meaning of life is an old one. However, it is unclear exactly what the question means. Normally, we have little trouble with meaning. Clouds mean rain. Joe meant to warn me. Sentences, words, signs and signals have conventional meanings. The question of the meaning of life is different. It is not simply the definition of a word that we seek. Philosophers and those drawn to various religions tend to be the ones to ask it, and the question can be taken on three levels. We can ask about the meaning of all life, of human life, and of the individual’s life.

I would argue that the question has little meaning when taken in the first two senses. Life has no meaning in itself, it is simply here in the universe. The same goes for human life considered as the life of a natural species. Species come and go in the geological record, and it is not clear what meaning they can have. However, when it comes to questioning the meaning of an individual’s life, then the question comes alive.

Notoriously, in philosophy, the question of meaning is difficult and complicated. What is the Meaning of Being? What is the Being of Meaning? What is meaning anyway? Does it even make sense to ask about the meaning of life? If we decide that the question makes sense, what sense does it make? Various ideas are at play. Anxiety appears to be the motivation.

Sometimes we are worried that all our efforts will be for nothing if life has no meaning. A meaningless life may appear pointless, ‘superfluous,’ or ‘de trop’. Existentialists and absurdist playwrights hammered away at this theme with great gusto.

The question of the meaning of the lives of humans arises more or less acutely at different historical junctures. At times of great religious devoutness, the question is less pressing. Religion has an easier time than philosophy with the question of meaning. First, in religion, the question clearly has meaning; second, the question has an answer, and that answer is a resounding ‘Yes.’ Gods or spirits render mute the question of the meaning of human life, by folding it within a higher-than-animal purpose. We may be the ones asking the question, but the answer has always been foretold. There is actually no question about the meaning of human life.

Philosophy cannot take this way out. The question is a live one. If there is no ‘foreordained’ meaning to life, then what sort of meaning is there? It is not that we have the option of living in a world totally devoid of meaning; for, if that were possible, the question of meaning would not even come up. I can only worry about the possible meaninglessness of life if I suppose or hope it might have a meaning after all.

David Hamlyn, my old supervisor in graduate school, used to remark that we get our first idea of causality from our own powers to make changes in the world around us. You want to roll a rock. You push on it and it rolls. You learn from experience which rock will roll and which will not, no matter how hard you push it. We think of causality as ‘out there’ but our understanding of the concept begins within us.

Similarly, people look for the meaning of human life, and would be glad to find it ‘out there’, ready made, a transcendent meaning that surpasses mere animal existence. This is to get things backwards. We are the ones who bring meanings into the world, and then, looking around, find them there.

Human beings are little meaning machines who cannot help but create and then leave meanings on everything that pertains to a human world. This morning I am sitting, typing on my laptop, in the courtyard of a hotel in Los Angeles, looking out on a beautiful blue-sky, palm tree morning by the pool. The only reason I am comfortable here and now, is that everything around has a fairly stable meaning. My meaning machine is turned on and working. If I were to come down suddenly with early stage dementia, and lose many of the concepts by which I now understand my being in the world, in Los Angeles, beside a hotel pool, I would be as frightened as a small child abandoned in a strange place. The interesting question is not how human life can have meaning, but how it could ever be a worry that it might have none.

The Ethics of Wikileaking, Revisited

Logo used by Wikileaks
Image via Wikipedia

I’m at the start of finals week, so I’ve been a bit remiss in posting and commenting. However, here is something of an update on Wikileaks and its ethics.

My ethical principle regarding leaks is based mainly on the principle of utility: a leak is morally justified when it will bring about more happiness for humanity and wrong when it will bring about more unhappiness. Naturally, this general principle might need to be tweaked in specific circumstances.

In the case of leaking information to the world, the main avenue of moral justification seems to be that the leak reveals misdeeds or illegalities. People who commit misdeeds would seem to have little moral claim to secrecy and the rest of the world would seem to have the right to know about so injustices so that they might be rectified or, at the very least, exposed to the light of day.

If Wikileaks had merely leaked information relating to morally questionable acts or illegalities, then I would have regarded such leaks as morally acceptable and even laudable. However, the folks at Wikileaks have crossed a moral line by publishing a cable providing a list of  resources and assets “whose loss could critically impact the public health, economic security, and/or national and homeland security of the United States.”

While some of the potential targets are obvious (dams, telecommunication systems, strategic areas, etc.), the leaked information provides rather specific details that would be rather useful to anyone interested in attacking the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries where these potential targets are located.

This information does not, obviously enough, seem to reveal to the world misdeeds, illegalities or injustices that need to be exposed to the light of day. As such, this leak cannot be morally justified on these grounds.

The leak does, however, provide useful information to those who might wish to attack democratic countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.

It might be argued that the leak is acceptable because the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies do bad things. As such, they are being justly punished by revealing critical information to their enemies and potential enemies.

However, this is easy enough to counter.

The main opponents of the West include various terrorists groups as well as rather undemocratic countries such as North Korea and Iran. As such, Wikileaks would seem to be aiding organizations and countries that seem to be morally inferior to the West. Obviously, the Western nations are not moral angels, but they seem to be objectively better than Al Qaeda and North Korea, for example. Compare, to use a specific example, the rights of women in the West with the treatment of women by groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. As another example, consider the individual liberties in the United Kingdom versus those in North Korea.  As a final example, compare the relative openness of the United States with the secrecy of China. Making attacks on the West easier does not aid a morally superior side (which could justify the leak). Rather, it aids a morally worse side. As such, the leak is morally unacceptable.

In a previous post, I noted that I had questions about the wisdom and moral authority of the folks at Wikleak. This latest release has answered those questions. I no longer have any doubts about their lack of wisdom and moral authority.

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The Ethics of Wikileaking

Logo used by Wikileaks
Image via Wikipedia

Wikileaks has made the news once again for leaking confidential documents. This latest batch consists of  251,287 cables from Unites States embassies. While most of the documents are not classified, some are and this is a matter of concern to American officials.

While there are various legal concerns regarding these documents, my main concern is with the ethics of this leaking. I will consider various arguments in the course of the discussion.

One argument in favor of the leak is the classic Gadfly Argument (named in honor of Socrates because of his claim to the role of the gadfly to the city of Athens). The gist of the argument is that the people in government need to be watched and criticized so as to decrease the likelihood that they will conduct and conceal misdeeds in shadows and silence.

Given that governments have an extensive track record of misdeeds, it certainly makes sense to be concerned about what the folks running the show might really be doing under the cloak of secrecy and national security. If it is assumed that being part of the government does not exempt these people from moral accountability, then it would seem to follow that leaking their misdeeds is, in general, a morally acceptable action. After all, it would seem to be rather absurd to argue that people have a moral right to keep their misdeeds a secret.

The obvious reply to the Gadfly Argument is that even if it is granted, it does not cover all of the leaked material. After all, not all of the material deals with moral questionable activities that should be thus exposed to the light of day. As such, more would be needed to justify such a leak.

A second obvious argument is based on the assumption that in a democracy the citizens have a moral right to know what the folks in the government are doing in their name. This right can be based on the idea that the citizens are collectively responsible for the actions of their government and hence have a right (and need) to know what is actually going on. This right could also be based on the notion that the citizens need to be properly informed so as to make  decisions. Since power comes from the people, one might argue that the people have a right to know about how that power is exercised and the information to (in theory) exercise it wisely.

To use a specific example, given the support the United States provides to Saudi Arabia, the citizens of the United States would seem to have a right to know that the Saudis provide funding to anti-American terrorist groups. That information seems quite relevant in deciding how we should deal with Saudi Arabia and to conceal such things from citizens seems to be rather wrong.

To use another example, given the truckloads of public money being dumped into Afghanistan, the American public (and the world) would seem to have the right to know about the widespread corruption.

The obvious reply to this approach is to contend that the good of the people sometimes requires that the state keep secrets from them and others. In support of this, the usual sort of utilitarian argument can be trotted out: to create the most good for the people (and, of course, the world) the United States must sometimes engage in secret activities that might cause problems if they were known. However, this secrecy is justified for the greater good that it creates.

This argument does have significant appeal. After all, the main function of a state is to protect the citizens and ensure the good of the people. This might (and perhaps often does) require actions that might be morally questionable or at least rather embarrassing. As such, for the good of the people, these things must be concealed. Diplomacy, it can be contended, requires considerable duplicity, two-faced behavior and various social games that require secrecy. In this regard, diplomacy between diplomats is very much like diplomacy between friends and co-workers: to get along it is sometimes best that we do not know everything we really think about each other. As such, these leaks could be harmful to international relations and thus the leaking might be wrong.

There are also legitimate reasons to conceal things that are not morally questionable or embarrassing. For example, military secrets or details of intelligence operations seems to fall under the realm of things that can generally be legitimately kept secret. Such leaks could be morally wrong.

This discussion leads to my final point. Given that there can be legitimate grounds for secrecy and real harms arising from leaks, there is a clear need to judge what to leak and what not to leak with due wisdom and moral authority. While the folks at Wikileak claim that they review the documents, it is still a matter of grave concern as to how well the material is assessed before leaking. After all, leaking information about vile misdeeds or exposing wicked deceptions is laudable. Leaking information that undermines attempts to resolve conflicts peacefully or puts people at risk needlessly is certainly morally dubious at best.

Determining who should decide what should be known and what should be secret is a rather difficult matter. Naturally, the folks in the government are likely to be biased and hence their judgment cannot be completely trusted. I have my doubts about the wisdom and moral authority of the folks at Wikileaks, but the need for gadflies does seem clear. However, it would be nice to have gadflies as wise and as ethical as Socrates.

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