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Tech, Wages & Profits

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Despite the Great Recession, the profits for corporations have doubled since 2000. In contrast, the median household income in the United States has fallen from $55,986 to $51,017 (dollars adjusted for inflation, of course). Not surprisingly, corporate profits have gone from 5% to 11% of the GDP while wages of employee have dropped from 47% to 43%. While these numbers can be interpreted in various ways, one obvious implication is that corporations are making more money with fewer employees. It is also evident that corporations are doing better than most people (although some would say that corporations are people).

One plausible explanation for this is automation that increases productivity without increasing employment and employee income—a claim put forth by the authors of The Second Machine Age. Historically automation and other technological advances have increased productivity and eliminated jobs—but these have also consistently resulted in higher incomes in general (often by creating new and better jobs). That is, as some folks like to say, the rising tide of advancement lifted all boats. What is different about the current situation is that the rising tide of advancement has lifted the corporate yachts while causing the rowboats of the common folks to flounder (and some to sink).

If Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee are right, recent advances are destroying jobs at a rate that exceeds the creation of jobs. This does have a certain plausibility since it is well-established that technological advances do eliminate jobs. The obvious example is how factory automation has reduced the number of factory workers. It certainly would not be shocking or amazing if the elimination of jobs exceeded the creation of jobs—even if the past has been different. One reason for this could be a matter of the nature of the advances. Another reason could be a matter of choice: employers elect to stick with the lower number of employees rather than creating more jobs and employing those whose jobs have been eliminated.

It also seems worth considering the impact of the “internet economy” on these numbers. To be specific, this economy features highly (over) valued companies that have relatively few employees. Consider, for example, companies like Facebook. Facebook was valued at $192 billion in July. 2014. IBM was valued at $198 billion. Facebook has about 7,000 employees while IBM has over 400,000. By way of comparison, Walmart has 2.2 million employees (making it the largest private sector employer in the United States). Behind Walmart are the fast food empires of Yum! Brands (523,000 employees) and McDonalds (440,000).

Having such highly (over) valued companies with relatively low numbers of employees would result in a high concentration of profits and wealth. Adding in the fact that the largest employers are in low paying industries (retail and fast food), it would certainly seem to help explain why corporations are doing much better relative to 2000, while most people are doing worse in terms of income.

If there is merit to this explanation, then there are some obvious concerns regarding the sort of economy in which the biggest employers are in low-paying sectors and big profits are made by companies that employee few people (and seem to profit from being excessively overvalued). Some are already suggesting there is a new class system emerging based on this new economy while others point to past bubbles and are waiting for companies like Facebook and Twitter to pop like digital balloons.

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Fifty Genders of Facebook

Sexuality confusion

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Facebook now offers its members to select from among 50 genders. These include the old school heterosexual genders as well as the presumably Spinoza inspired pangender. Since I am awesome gendered, I believe that Facebook should offer that as choice 51, but only for me. However, I suspect I will need to endure the pain of being limited to a mere 50 options.

Upon learning of these fifty options, I was slightly surprised because I was not aware that there were fifty options. However, my colleagues who specialize in gender matters assure me that there is an infinite number of genders. If this is the case, that Facebook is still rather limited in its options.

While mocking Facebook can be amusing, the subject of gender identity is an interesting subject and it is a sign of the progress of our society that this can be a matter of legitimate concern. For folks like me who are comfortable existing within an old school gender identity (in my case, awesome straight male), these fifty options might seem to be of little or no importance. Honesty compels me to admit that I initially laughed at the 50 genders of Facebook—in fact, I thought it was something cooked up by the Onion. However, a little reflection on the matter made me realize that it is actually of some importance.

For those who are dedicated to the traditional genders, these options might seem to be signs of the moral decay of the West.  As such folks might see it, having Facebook offer 50 gender options shows that traditional gender roles are being damaged (if not destroyed) by the media and Facebook. Given that some states have legalized same-sex marriage, the idea that Facebook has embraced gender diversity must be terrifying indeed.

However, the world (and Facebook) does not (as Leibniz noted in one of his replies to the problem of evil) exist just for me. Or for you. It exists for everyone and we are not all the same.

As such, to those who do not neatly fit into the two traditional genders, this change could be quite significant. Although this is just Facebook, having these gender identities recognized by the largest social network on earth is a mark of acceptance and is likely to have some influence in other areas.

As I noted above, I comfortably occupy a traditional gender type. I’ve never questioned my sexuality nor felt that I was anything other than a straight male. This might be due to biology or perhaps I merely conformed perfectly to the social norms. Or some other factor—I do not know for sure why I am this way.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware of the cognitive biases and fallacies that can lead a person to believe that what is true of herself is also true of everyone else. As such, I do not assume that everyone else is the same as me. As part of this, I also do not assume that the people who see themselves as belonging to one of the non-traditional genders are doing this simply because they want attention, want to rebel, are mentally unbalanced or some such similar negative reason. I also do not assume that they are just “faking it.” I also recognize that a person might feel just as natural and comfortable being transgender as I do being a straight male. As such, I should have no more problem with that person’s identification than that person has with mine. After all, the universe is not for me alone.

Because of this, I hold that people should be free to hold to their gender identities without being mocked, abused or harmed. While I have obviously not been mocked for being straight, I am quite familiar with being called a fag or accused of being gay or like a woman—after all, those are stock insults in our society that are thrown out for the most absurd reasons, such as not doing perfectly in a video game and not acting like the meatheads. As such, I have some small notion of how such attitudes can hurt people and I favor steps to change what underlies the idea that genders can be used as insults. Expanding the range of gender identities can, perhaps, help with this a little bit. Then again, I am sure that some folks will looking at the list of fifty for new terms to use in their hateful comments.

As a final point, one obvious reason why I think that a broader range of gender identities is fine is that another person’s gender identity is not my business—unless that identity causes legitimate harm to others. And no, being offended or disgusted are not legitimate harms. As such, if having a broader range of choices is meaningful to some people, then that is a good thing. It does no one else any harm and does some good—as such, it seems quite morally acceptable.

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Suspending Students for Hate Tweets

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Thanks to social media like Twitter and Facebook, students can share with the world what some might regard as hate Tweets or hate posts. For example, Kent State wrestler Sam Wheeler sent out a series of rather unpleasant tweets about Michael Sam (the openly gay college football player). In response, Kent State suspended Mr. Wheeler from the team. There have been other incidents in which students have posted or Tweeted comments that could be deemed racist, sexist and so on and in some cases the schools take action against the students. There is, of course, the question of whether schools should do so.

One obvious approach is to take the view that students agree to a code of conduct. So, if the student code of conduct specifies certain behavior as being grounds for suspension or other action, then the action would thus be warranted on this gorund. In the case of student athletes, there are also the rules that govern the sport. When I was a college athlete, I had to follow the NCAA guidelines and could be legitimately punished for breaking them. As such, the suspension of an athlete who breaks the rules would be warranted on this ground.

Of course, there is still the question of whether there should be such rules. After all, rules that forbid a student from expressing views would seem to be a violation of the student’s free expression and thus would be, on the face of it, morally unacceptable.

My own view is, not surprisingly, that students do not lose their right to free expression by being students or student athletes. However, freedom of expression is neither absolute nor a free pass to say anything.

Obviously enough, things like actual threats of violence are not covered by the right to free expression and students can be justly held accountable for such things. However, merely saying things that are regarded as hateful (racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.) would not justify a school taking action against a student. This is because while people have a right to not be threatened, they do not have a right to not be offended or insulted by the speech of another person. So, if a student goes on a homophobic rant on Twitter and does not cross over into such things as threats of violence, then she is acting within her rights and the school has no right to silence or punish her. The school also has no right to create rules that forbid the expression of ideas and views, however offensive those views might be. To do so would, of course, make a mockery of the very idea of the academic freedom that is supposed to be a foundation stone for the university.

A student can, however, be in a position in which she can be legitimately called to task for such speech. If the student is acting in the capacity of a spokesperson for the university, then she can be held accountable in that capacity because she is not acting as a private individual but as a representative of the school. The same can apply to athletes as well—athletes are taken to represent their school and, as such, occupy a position that would plausibly make them spokespeople for the school. As such, they can be held accountable in that capacity. So, for example, a cross-country team captain who insists on making hateful, vulgar and poorly written Tweets about Christians can be legitimately censured—as a member of the team he is in the role of representing his school. If he wishes to remain on the team, he will need to cease that behavior. He can, of course, elect to leave the team—if he regards being able to tweet hateful and vulgar things about Jesus as being more important to him than being on the team.

There is a rather serious concern about the extent to which a student can be regarded as representing the school and also the important matter of sorting out what sort of speech would warrant action being taken against the student. Unfortunately, I cannot cover these matters in this short essay, but in general, I would favor a moral policy of tolerance and erring heavily on the side of free expression.


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On Returning the Lost

A picture of a wallet.

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My regular running routes take me over many miles and through areas that are heavily trafficked—most often by college students. Because of this, I often find lost phones, wallets, IDs and other items. Recently I came across a wallet fat with cash and credit cards. As always, I sought out the owner and returned it. Being a philosopher, I thought I’d write a bit about the ethics of this.

While using found credit card numbers would generally be a bad idea from the practical standpoint, found cash is quite another matter. After all, cash is cash and there is typically nothing to link cash to a specific person. Since money is rather useful, a person who finds a wallet fat with cash would have a good practical reason to simply keep the money and use it herself. One possible exception would be that the reward for returning the lost wallet would exceed the value of the cash in the wallet—but the person who finds it would most likely have no idea if this would be the case or not. So, from a purely practical standpoint, keeping the cash would be a smart choice. A person could even return the credit cards and other items in the wallet, claiming quite plausibly that it was otherwise empty when found. However, what might be a smart choice need not be the right choice.

One argument in favor of returning found items (such as the wallet and all the cash) can be built on the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. More formally, this is moral reasoning involving the method of reversing the situation. Since I would want my lost property returned, I should thus treat others in the same way. Unless, of course, I can justify treating others differently by finding relevant differences that would justify the difference. Alternatively, it could also be justified on utilitarian grounds.  For example, someone who is poor might contend that it would not be wrong to keep money she found in a rich person’s wallet on the grounds that the money would do her much more good than it would do for the rich person: such a small loss would not affect him, such a gain would benefit her significantly.

Since I am reasonably well off and find relatively modest sums of money (hundreds of dollars at most), I have the luxury of not being tempted to keep the money. However, even when I was not at all well off, I still returned whatever I found. Even when I honestly believed that I would put the money to better use than the original owner. This is not due to any fetishes about property, but a matter of ethics.

One of the reasons is my belief that I do have obligations to help others, especially when the cost to me is low relative to the aid rendered. In the case of finding someone’s wallet or phone, I know that the loss would be a significant inconvenience and worry for most people. In the case of a wallet, a person will probably need to replace a driver’s license, credit cards, insurance cards and worry about identity theft. It is easy for me to return the wallet—either by dropping it off with police or contacting the person after finding them via Facebook or some other means. That said, the obvious challenge is justifying my view that I am so obligated. However, I would contend that in such cases, the burden of proof lies on the selfish rather than the altruistic.

Another reason is that I believe that I should not steal. While keeping a lost item is not the same morally as active theft (this could be seen as being a bit analogous to the distinction between killing and letting die), it does seem to be a form of theft. After all, I would be acquiring what does not belong to me by choosing not to return it. Naturally, if I have no means of returning it to the rightful owner (such as finding a quarter in the road), then keeping it would not seem to be theft. Obviously enough, it could be contended that keeping lost property is not theft (even when it could be returned easily), perhaps on the ancient principle of finders keepers, losers weepers. It could also be contended that theft is acceptable—which would be challenging. However, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who claim that theft is acceptable or that keeping lost property when returning it would be quite possible is not theft.

I also return found items for two selfish reasons. The first is that I want to build the sort of world I want to live in—and in that world people return lost items. While my acting the way I want the world to be is a tiny thing, it is more than nothing. Second, I feel a psychological compulsion to return things I find—so I have to do it for peace of mind.


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E-Reading & Education

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While there is considerable push to move education onto the internet and textbooks are readily available as e-books, there are still reasonable concerns about the impact of the shift from paper text to digital text. Fortunately, there have been some studies and experiments to determine the impact of digital text.

Ferris Jabr’s article, “Why the Brain Prefers Paper”, appears in the November 2013 issues of Scientific American and raises some points well worth considering. While he is not writing explicitly about e-text in education, the findings discussed in the article are clearly relevant in academics.

One finding is that paper text seems to be better than e-text in terms of comprehension and memory. That is, people who read text on paper tend to have a better understanding of the material and remember it better. One possible reason for this is that a paper text allows people to navigate the material using abilities that they have developed in the “physical” world. The physicality of the paper text is thus an advantage. A second reason is that people also seem to be better at creating mental maps of long texts when they read it on paper. This also seems to be linked to the physicality of the paper text.

Another finding is that e-text can tire both the mind and the body. One obvious example is that scrolling text requires more effort than simply reading and turning actual pages. This can be avoided by software or hardware that allows reading without scrolling. For example, dedicated reader devices like the Nook allow the reader to “turn” pages rather than scroll. Another obvious example is that staring at a screen is more tiring than reading text on paper. As with scrolling, dedicated reader devices endeavor this problem by trying to replicate the experience of paper. For example, the Kindle uses an E-Ink display that creates a paper-like visual experience in that it uses reflected rather than projected light.

Because of these factors, it is hardly surprising that the studies and experiments generally indicate that reading digital text is inferior to reading paper text in regards to matters that are of concern in academics such as understanding, retention and performance on tests on the material. In short, the use of digital text puts the reader at a disadvantage relative to using paper text.

It might be claimed that the problems with digital text are primarily caused by the fact that the people studied grew up reading on paper and thus have a paper bias. If this is true, then the generation that grows up reading digital text will not experience the same problems as those who grew up with paper.

Interestingly, studies of people who are “digital natives” indicate that even they do better with paper than with digital text. One explanation for this is that the e-book and e-readers are distracting. However, these studies are still preliminary and more time will be needed to determine the impact of being a digital native on reading.

The apparent inferiority of digital text relative to paper text should be a matter of concern for educators. If an educator is choosing between digital and paper text, these findings would indicate that the paper text is a better choice in regards to understanding and remembering the material. If an educator is relying entirely or primarily on digital text, then these findings suggest that the grading would actually need to be adjusted in regards to testing that involves understanding and remembering text—students using digital texts will, in general, perform worse than those using paper texts. Then again, they would actually be learning less and thus the lower grade could be regarded as justified, but not the fault of the student.

While paper does seem to be superior to digital in many ways, there are still advantages to digital text that educators should consider. One is that a digital text is better than no text. Like most professors, I have found that students often do not buy the text. Not surprisingly, students often claimed that it was the cost of the book that deterred them. In response, I created free PDF readers using public domain material (which is very easy to do in philosophy). While paper text might be better than digital, a digital text is better than no text (and students can print the text, although they rarely do). Digital texts that are not free do tend to be cheaper than printed versions, which might result in more students actually reading the text.

A second advantage is the convenience of digital texts. When I was a student, I had to lug around a book bag full of my books and notes. That was a bit inconvenient and I, like most students, ditched that bag as soon as I could. With digital texts a student can carry a vast number of books with her in her phone, tablet, e-reader, or laptop. As such, a student can read digital texts without the hassle of carrying around a stack of books. On the downside, students generally seem to prefer to text, Facebook or game rather than read and these distractions are always present on most devices. As such, the convenience of e-text could be outweighed by the distraction factor. While my books were heavy, they did not include built in distractions—printed books do not receive texts or allow one to get birds that are angry (except by throwing books at them—which should not be done).

In any case, the shift to e-text is ongoing and inevitable. That said, educators need to give the impact of this transition considerable thought in regards to selecting texts and assessing student performance.

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Minimum Wage V: Taxes & Wages

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In the United States, there is considerable intersection between the class of people who oppose minimum wage and the class that opposes taxes. In some cases, both of these views can be grounded on a consistently applied principle. For example, those who favor a minimal (or non-existent) state will note that both views are well grounded on the idea that the state should not impose on the citizens. In other cases, though, the reasons presented for these views seem to be at odds. In this short essay I will consider this matter. For simplicity’s sake, I will just stick to discussing earned wages and stay away from such things as inheritances, lottery winnings, and such.

I have conservative friends on Facebook and, when the issues of taxes heats up, I get to see various postings that claim taxes as a form of theft. When the issue is more specifically about taxes being used (or increased) to pay for government services such as welfare, the stock line is that such taxes are wrongfully taking money from the rightful owner and giving it to people who do not deserve the money because they have not earned it. Interestingly, many of the quoted sources are wealthy people who are dismayed at being compelled to pay taxes. This view seems to rest on two important assumptions. The first is that the people who are being taxed have earned (in the moral sense) their money and thus are entitled to keep it. The second is that the people who are imposing the taxes and the people who get the money have not earned it and thus are not entitled to it.

The basic principle at work here does, on the face of it, seems reasonable enough: people are justly entitled to what they have earned and not entitled to what they have not earned. This, in turn, seems to rest on what appears to be a principle that people are entitled to the value they create. After all, there has to be some foundation for the claim that an income is earned and thus justly belongs to a person. The mere fact that a person gets the money is, obviously, not automatic justification that it is earned in the moral sense and that they are thus morally entitled to the income.

In the case of taxes, the folks in question obviously get that principle: they believe it is their right to keep their money and it is not right for other people to get, via taxes, what they have earned. This is, as noted above, apparently based on a principle that people are entitled to the value they create. This is certainly appealing—if I have created the value, then that value is justly owed to me. However, it would also seem to follow that I owe payment for value received. Such, when I receive the goods and services of the state, then I am obligated to pay for their value—otherwise I am stealing from others and violating my own principle. But if my taxes are simply being taken from me and given to others, then it would seem that I am being robbed—the value I have earned is being taken from me, not to pay for the goods and services I use, but to simply give handouts to those who have not earned it. This seems to be clearly wrong.

At this point, it might be wondered what this has to do with wages. Fortunately, the answer is straightforward. If the principle is accepted that a person is entitled to the value s/he has created (and thus earned) and that for someone to take from that person is theft, it would follow that an employee is entitled to the value s/he has created. For the employer to take that value for himself/herself would be the same as if the employer was receiving money taxed from a worker and just given, unearned, to him or her.

It might be countered that the employer earns what s/he receives by the value the employer contributes. The obvious reply is that this claim is true—but this would entail that the employer is not entitled to profits acquired by underpaying employees or overcharging customers. Either approach is like the employer being taxed so that the money can be given to people who have not earned it.

It could be countered that the employer-employee relation is different because of things like market forces, abundance of laborers and so on. As such, an employer can justly pay an employee less than the value the employee creates by his/her labor because of these factors. The obvious counter is that an analogous argument could be made regarding taxation—that the various complex economic factors warrant taking money by taxes to give the money to those who have not earned it.

Thus, those that argue against taxes by contending that they have a right to what they have earned must extend the same principle to the wages of workers. They, too, would be just as entitled to what they have earned. So, if taxation is theft, so is underpaying workers. As such, the minimum wage should be the value of what the worker creates. Anything less that allows the employer to steal from the worker would be theft.

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Is American Education as Bad as They Say?

Seal of the United States Department of Education

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As a professor I have grown accustomed to the litany of doom regarding American education. We are repeatedly told that American schools are failing, that colleges are not teaching, and that the students of today are not as good as the students of the past.

There are, of course, problems with the education system. Because of economic disparity, some schools are significantly better than others and the ideas of equality of education and equality of opportunity are cruel jokes. However, the mere fact that there are some serious problems does not entail that all the dire claims are true.

One stock claim is that America has fallen behind the world in education in terms of performance on various tests. While the fact that America is behind other countries is a point of concern, there are at least three points worth considering here. The first is the above-mentioned disparity which will tend to result in lower performance when taking the average for America. The second is that many countries have put considerable effort into improving their education systems and hence it is worth considering that America’s decline is also due to the improvement of others. The third is the matter of the measures—do they, in fact, present an accurate picture of the situation? I am not claiming that the data is bad, I am merely raising a reasonable concern about how accurate our picture of education is at this time.

Another stock claim is that American students are doing badly on standardized tests. While there is clearly value in assessment, it is reasonable to consider whether or not such tests are a proper and adequate measure of education. It is also worth considering whether the obsession with these tests is itself causing damage to education. That is, as teachers teach to the test and student learn for the test, it might be the case that what is being taught is not what should be taught and what is being learned is not what should be being learned. My view is that standardized tests seem to exist mainly to make money for the companies that sell such tests and that their usefulness as a tool of education is dubious. However, such a claim would require proper support, ideally in the form of a properly funded assessment of these assessments.

It is also claimed that schools are failing and that even colleges are not providing worthwhile education. I do agree that the cost of college education has become ridiculous and there are problems in the entire education system. However, it is certainly interesting that along with the mantra of “public schools are failing” there has been a strong push to funnel public money into private and for-profit schools. Now, it could be the case that the for-profit and private schools are merely being proposed as solutions to the alleged problems. But, it seems worth considering that the “public schools are failing” line is being pushed so that people will support and favor shifting funding from the public schools to the for-profit and private schools. Interestingly, while traditional private schools generally do well, the for-profit schools have been plagued with problems, as I have written about in earlier essays.  As such, the idea that for-profit schools will save education seems to be a dubious claim.

One last matter I will consider is the idea that students are worse now than ever. After hearing colleagues and professionals say this over and over, I almost began to feel that it was true. However, my familiarity with history saved me from this fate: such claims about the inferiority of the current generation goes back at least to the time of Socrates. Every generation seems to claim that the next is inferior—think of all “when I was kid” claims that people make. “When I was a kid, people respected their elders.” “When I was a kid, we did our homework.” “When I was a kid, we studied hard.” While kids are different in some ways today (they have Facebook and smartphones), the idea that they are inferior must be considered in the context of the fact that people always make that claim. Now, it might be that every generation is right and that we have reached the lowest point in human history. However, going back and considering actual facts in an objective way should show that the kids today are a bit different but they do not appear to be any worse than the other generations.

As a professor I do often hear other professors lament about how kids get worse every year (I have been hearing this for about 20 years). However, there is an alternative explanation. I do admit that the work of students, such as papers, does seem worse than it did in the past. But, this could be due to the fact that I am better at my job rather than the students being worse. When I look back on my own work as a student, I can see the same bad writing and mistakes I see in my students today. I improve each year, but each year I get new students and it seems reasonable to consider that they seem worse because of this and not that they must actually be worse.

I do admit that changes in technology are probably impacting the students of today. They do labor under the delusion that they can multitask effectively (they cannot—they can just multitask poorly) and they also have more distractions than I faced as a student. However, the students seem to be about the same as when I was a student years ago.

Overall, I do not claim that there are not problems in education. However, I am concerned that the litany of doom and despair may contain consider hyperbole. I am also suspicious regarding some of the motivations behind the doomsayers. While some are no doubt sincerely concerned, it is worth considering that some people are motivated by political or economic agendas rather than the needs of students.

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Playing with Solipsism

Ol' Solipsism

Ol’ Solipsism (Photo credit: found_drama)

Imagine that you are the only being that exists.  Not that you are the last person on earth, but that the earth and everything other than you is merely the product of your deranged imagination. This, very crudely put, is solipsism.

As with watching Star Trek, most philosophers go through a solipsism phase. As with the Macarena and Gangnam Style, this phases usually fades with merciful rapidity. This fading is, however, usually not due to a definitive refutation of solipsism. In many cases, philosophers just get bored with it and move on. In other cases, it is very much like the fads of childhood-it is okay to accept the fad as a kid, but once you grow up you need to move on to adult things. Likewise for solipsism-a philosopher who plays with it too long will be shamed by her fellows. Mostly.

Just for fun, I thought I would play a bit with solipsism-in the manner of an adult who finds an favorite childhood toy in the attic and spends a few moments playing with it before setting it aside, presumably to go write a status update about it on Facebook.

Interestingly enough, solipsism actually has a lot going for it-at least in terms of solving philosophical problems and meeting various conditions of philosophical goodness.

One obvious thing in favor of solipsism is that, as per Descartes’ wax example, every experience seems to serve to prove that I exist rather than that something else  exists. For example, if I seem to be playing around with some wax, I can (as per Descartes) doubt that the wax exists. However, my experience seems to show rather clearly that I exist and doubting my existence would just serve to prove I exist. In fact, as skeptics have argued for centuries, it seems impossible to prove that there is anything external to myself-be it an external world or other minds. As such, solipsism seems to be the safest bet: I know I exist, but I have no knowledge about anything else.

Another factor in favor of solipsism is its economy and simplicity. All the theory requires is that I, whatever I am, exist. As such, there would presumably be just one ontological kind (me). Any other theory (other than the theory that there is nothing) would need more stuff and would need more complexity. These seem to be significant advantages for solipsism.

A third factor is that solipsism seems to solve many philosophical problems. The problem of the external world? Solved: no such thing. The problem of other minds? Solved: no such things. The mind-body problem? Probably solved. And so on for many other problems.

Naturally, there are various objections to solipsism.

One obvious objection, which I stole from Descartes (or myself), is that if I was the only being in existence, then I would surely have made myself better. However, I make no claims to being omnipotent-so perhaps I made myself as well as I could. Or perhaps I did not create myself at all-maybe I just appeared ex-nihilo. In any case, this does not seem to be a fatal problem.

A related objection is the argument from bad experiences:  cannot be the only thing in existence because of the bad experiences I have.  I’ve experience illness, injury, pain and so on. Surely, the argument goes, if I was the only being in existence I would not have these bad experiences. All my experiences would be good.

Laying aside the possibility that I am a masochist, the easy and obvious reply is to point out that a person’s dreams are produced by the person, yet dreams can be nightmares. I’ve written up many of my nightmares as horror adventures for games such as Dark Conspiracy and Call of Cthulhu so it can be gathered that I do have some rather awful nightmares. I also have dreams with more mundane woes and suffering, such as nightmares about illnesses, injuries and so on. Given that it is accepted that a person can generate awful dreams, it would seem to make sense that the same sort of thing could happen in the case of solipsism. That is, if I can dream nightmares I can also  “live” them.

Another objection is that the alleged real world contains things that I do not understand (like specialized mathematics) and things I could not create (like works of art). As such, I cannot be the only being that exists.

The easy and obvious reply to the understanding reply is that I understand as much as I do and the extent of my understanding defines what seems possible to me. To be a bit clearer, I have no understanding of the specialized mathematics that lies beyond my understanding and hence I do not really know if there is anything there I do not actually know. That is, what is allegedly beyond my understanding might not exist at all. Interestingly, any attempt to show that something exists beyond my understanding (and hence must be created by someone else) would fail. To the degree I understand it, I can attribute it to my own creation. To the degree I do not, I can attribute it to my own ignorance.

In terms of the art objection, the easy reply is to note that I can dream of art that I apparently cannot create myself. To use an example, in the waking world, I have little skill when it comes to painting. But I have had dreams in which I saw magnificent  original paintings I had not seen in real life.  The same applies to dream statues, architecture and so on. As such, the art that seems beyond me in the world could be produced in the same way it occurs in dreams.

Descartes (or me), I think, had the most promising project for refuting solipsism: if I can find something that I cannot possible be the cause of, then that gives me a good reason to believe that I am not the only being in existence. Or, more accurately, that I am not the only being to ever exist. However, there does not seem to be anything like that-after all, everything I experience falls within the limits of me and hence could all be about and only me.

But surely that is crazy.


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Violence & Video Games, Yet Again.

Manhunt (video game)

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While there is an abundance of violence in the real world, there is also considerable focus on the virtual violence of video games. Interestingly, some people (such as the head of the NRA) blame real violence on the virtual violence of video games. The idea that art can corrupt people is nothing new and dates back at least to Plato’s discussion of the corrupting influence of art. While he was mainly worried about the corrupting influence of tragedy and comedy, he also raised concerns about violence and sex. These days we generally do not worry about the nefarious influence of tragedy and comedy, but there is considerable concern about violence.

While I am a gamer, I do have concerns about the possible influence of video games on actual behavior. For example, one of my published essays is on the distinction between virtual vice and virtual virtue and in this essay I raise concerns about the potential dangers of video games that are focused on vice. While I do have concerns about the impact of video games, there has been little in the way of significant evidence supporting the claim that video games have a meaningful role in causing real-world violence. However, such studies are fairly popular and generally get attention from the media.

The most recent study purports to show that teenage boys might become desensitized to violence because of extensive playing of video games. While some folks will take this study as showing a connection between video games and violence, it is well worth considering the details of the study in the context of causal reasoning involving populations.

When conducting a cause to effect experiment, one rather important factor is the size of experimental group (those exposed to the cause) and the control group (those not exposed to the cause). The smaller the number of subjects, the more likely that the difference between the groups is due to factors other than the (alleged) causal factor. There is also the concern with generalizing the results from the experiment to the whole population.

The experiment in question consisted of 30 boys (ages 13-15) in total. As a sample for determining a causal connection, the sample is too small for real confidence to be placed in the results. There is also the fact that the sample is far too small to support a generalization from the 30 boys to the general population of teenage boys. In fact, the experiment hardly seems worth conducting with such a small sample and is certainly not worth reporting on-except as an illustration of how research should not be conducted.

The researchers had the boys play a violent video game and a non-violent video game in the evening and compared the results. According to the researchers, those who played the violent video game had faster heart rates and lower sleep quality. They also reported “increased feelings of sadness.”  After playing the violent game, the boys  had greater stress and anxiety.

According to one researcher, “The violent game seems to have elicited more stress at bedtime in both groups, and it also seems as if the violent game in general caused some kind of exhaustion. However, the exhaustion didn’t seem to be of the kind that normally promotes good sleep, but rather as a stressful factor that can impair sleep quality.”

Being a veteran of violent video games, these results are consistent with my own experiences. I have found that if I play a combat game, be it a first person shooter, an MMO or a real time strategy game, too close to bedtime, I have trouble sleeping. Crudely put, I find that I am “keyed” up and if I am unable to “calm down” before trying to sleep, my sleep is generally not very restful. I really noticed this when I was raiding in WOW. A raid is a high stress situation (game stress, anyway) that requires hyper-vigilance and it takes time to “come down” from that. I have experienced the same thing with actual fighting (martial arts training, not random violence).  I’ve even experienced something comparable when I’ve been awoken by a big spider crawling on my face-I did not sleep quite so well after that. Graduate school, as might be imagined, put me into this state of poor sleep for about five years.

In general, then, it makes sense that violent video games would have this effect-which is why it is not a good idea to game up until bed time if you want to get a good night’s sleep. Of course, it is a generally a good idea to relax about an hour before bedtime-don’t check email, don’t get on Facebook, don’t do work and so on.

While not playing games before bedtime is a good idea, the question remains as to how these findings connect to violence and video games. According to the researchers, the differences between the two groups “suggest that frequent exposure to violent video games may have a desensitizing effect.”

Laying aside the problem that the sample is far too small to provide significant results that can be reliably extended to the general population of teenage boys, there is also the problem that there seems to be a rather large chasm between the observed behavior (anxiety and lower sleep quality) and being desensitized to violence. The researchers do note that the cause and effect relationship was not established and they did consider the possibility of reversed causation (that the video games are not causing these traits, but that boys with those traits are drawn to violent video games).  As such, the main impact of the study seems to be that it got media attention for the researchers. This would suggest another avenue of research: the corrupting influence of media attention on researching video games and violence.

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Lean In

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 28JAN11 - Sheryl Sandberg, ...

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One of the wonderful things about being rich and famous (aside from being rich and famous) is that when you co-author a book, it tends to get a great deal of attention. This, of course, generally translates well into sales-thus resulting in even more wealth and fame.

The latest book of this sort is  Lean In, which was written by professional writer Nell Scovell and Sheryl Sandberg. As is the case with such works Sandberg (rather than Scovell) is the focus of attention.

Sandberg is pitching her book as “sort of a feminist manifesto”  but has been attacked by women such as Maureen Dowd, Jodi Kantor, and Judith Shulevitz. It is also worth noting that she has also been supported by some well-known women as well, such as Rebecca Traister and Katha Pollitt.

To be honest, I do not plan to buy her book. I’ve read Wollstonecraft and other feminists who have, at least according to what I have read, do a much better job than Sandberg. Also, with a personal worth approaching $1 billion, I surely need my money more than her.

However, I will address a few points about her and the book within the limits of my knowledge of the material.

On the face of it, her situation shows quite clearly that feminism and equality have made vast strides since the time when Mary Wollstonecraft penned her famous Vindication of the Rights of Women. Wollstonecraft argued that women should be free to seek the career of their choice and that they should not be dependent on men for their support. Wollstonecraft was, of course, motivated by her view of virtue: as she saw it, the situation of women of her time was an impediment to the development of virtue in both men and women. For example, a woman who does not earn her money cannot exercise generosity-she can only give away her husband’s money. Sandberg has, in many ways, achieved what Wollstonecraft wanted: she is wealthy, has a career of her own, and is an influential person in society. She is also a mother and wife. Since I do not know her, I cannot comment on her moral standing in terms of virtue.

Given that Sandberg and so many other women are doing exceptional well, it might be tempting to consider her book somewhat pointless. After all, it would seem that feminism has achieved its goals. Of course, the obvious reply is that just as Obama being president does not prove the end of racism, Sandberg’s billion does not mark the end of sexism. After all, feminists are quick to present the usual claims about women making less than men and men still being the majority of those holding positions of power. In fact, a common approach these days is to note the accomplishments of women like Sandberg and then add a “but…” which is then followed by the usual suspects of institutional sexism.

Sandberg apparently deviates a bit from the script and has been attacked for this. The three main points raised against her as follows. First, she has been accused of being hard on women by focusing too much on what is generally referred to as “internalized sexism.” This is the notion that women behave in ways that the sexist would impose on them without being so imposed on externally. For example, a women who has internalized sexism would be passive during a discussion and yield to the more assertive males-even though there was no active attempt to suppress her (and she might even be actively encouraged to be more active and assertive).  Sandberg advocates that women need to take responsibility for their own success, to “lean in” as the book title says.  As might be suspected, she has been accused of blaming the victim by taking the view that women have considerable responsibility when it comes to their success or failure. This is, of course, in contrast with the stock view that women would succeed if only they were not victims of the patriarchy, which leads to the second point.

While Sandberg does make some mention of institutional sexism (that is, the imposition of sexism from the outside) she has been attacked for not being critical enough. Given her vast success, it does make some sense that she would not see the institutional sexism the same way as someone who perceives herself as  a victim. After all, it would be rather odd for an intelligent woman to sincerely rage against the patriarchy while gazing down at the vast majority of men from atop a pile of a billion dollars. Of course, the relevant issue is whether or not she has the matter right in terms of the obstacles women face.

There is, as many have argued, still elements of sexism in society and these do serve to impede the success of women. Of course, it could be noted that sexism is just one sub-machine in the vast machine of institutionalized inequality. Most people, men and women, will never achieve Sandberg’s success no matter how smart they are or how hard they work and part of the reason for this is institutionalized inequality. As might be imagined, Sandberg’s book presumably does not address this matter in any detail. As might be guessed, I tend to see things like sexism and racism as components of an overarching system of inequality-a system in which Sandberg can be a billionaire while others struggle to make enough money to buy their next meal.

A third point of criticism has been against Sandberg’s perceived elitism-that her using herself as an example is unfair to the average woman. On the one hand, this criticism can be seen as lacking in merit and a mere ad hominem attack based, perhaps, in jealousy rather than substance.

On the other hand, this criticism can have some substance to it. After all, when considering the difficulties and challenges that are faced by women, the perspective and experiences of Sandberg certainly do not match up to those of most other women. To use an example, a woman who cannot afford a nanny (or nannies) is going to face different challenges than Sandberg did when raising children. To use an analogy, my perspective and experience of the difficulty of covering 5+ miles on foot is rather different from that of most people. For me, it is something I can do easily (in fact, I do that six days a week and often run 2-3 times that distance) but for most people it would be at least challenging. As might be imagined, I am sensible enough to temper any advice I give to people based on what I know about their own abilities and experience. I do not, for example, just go around telling people to “run in.”

In any case, her book has been a major success for her-the controversy it has generated could not have been better crafted to help focus the attention of the media elites upon her and she is certainly going to move a lot of paper. While I am not sure if more women will “lean in”, we can be assured that she will cash in.


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