Sunday, December 21, 2014

Perspective and Privilege

I have found that it is helpful in facing the vicissitudes of everyday life to maintain a balance between perspective and respect toward my emotional responses. Perspective means to view circumstances within the larger context of one’s life, and also in contrast with the conditions of others. Respect means to acknowledge one’s emotional response and to treat it as valid and relevant. Note that both viewpoints can apply to both positive and negative events, though generally it is the negative that is most challenging.

Finding a balance between these two viewpoints helps to maintain an even temperament, but most people have a propensity to emphasize one or the other. For some, it is quite easy to become too skilled and reflexive in having perspective, which can lead to minimizing, denial, or repression. Others lack perspective, and thus exhibit entitlement and self-absorption. If you are unsure which is your tendency, it is easy to test. Imagine that some misfortune occurs, say, you inflict yourself with a paper cut. Then, further imagine two witnesses to the event saying, respectively, “No big deal,” and “That’s terrible!” You will find one of these two responses annoying; the other is your own inclination. I submit that you will find it valuable for your emotional health to grow more comfortable with the response you did not like.

We will return to this notion in a moment.

Recently, I have been attempting to learn a bit about the sociological concept of “privilege.” As best I can understand, privilege is the idea that some in society have an advantaged position due to some identifiable group to which they belong, and that non-members of that group are systematically oppressed in relation to members. Such oppression is not necessarily a direct consequence of the actions of individual members of the privileged group, but is perpetuated merely through support for the wider system under which it occurs. Privilege is not absolute: it is always with respect to a particular group. Therefore one can be privileged in one respect and oppressed in another.

It seems also to be a corollary of privilege that those who have it can never truly understand the experience of those who are oppressed along that dimension. However, they may gain some limited purchase on this understanding through whatever oppression they themselves experience. I should point out that in my efforts to grasp these notions I have been unable to identify any material dimension along which I am not privileged (I am a white educated American straight cis health-abled male), thus my understanding (as posited by these views) is necessarily limited to the concepts and excludes the experience.

In my reading of various articles and opinion pieces by or about those who are oppressed, it is not entirely clear to me what actions the authors seek from those who are privileged. Much of it is elaboration on the ideas that, first, we cannot possibly understand their circumstances, and second, any individual behavior or actions are neither worthy of credit nor particularly meaningful. Since we definitionally cannot empathize, the most we can do is acknowledge that they experience oppression, and possibly, though I am uncertain of the scope of our putative epistemic gap, to recognize an actual fact of oppression.

Presumably, though this is rarely stated as an explicit request, we are also asked to support the overthrow of the system of oppression. Even when this objective is apparent, the bounds of the system to be overthrown are left unspecified. Is it “capitalism”? The government? Civilization as a whole? I suspect that this is left open because most who are oppressed are also privileged along one or more dimensions. They would like to see the end of their particular oppression without losing whatever privilege that they happen to have, and this leads to a certain ambivalence.

We can make this last point very concrete. Most of those talking about privilege and oppression live in developed countries and particularly in the United States. If ever there was in the history of the world a group that was deeply privileged, it is those born and raised in America. Even those in the worst circumstances here have enormous advantages over those in third-world nations. Nowhere in America do you see children with distended bellies. Nowhere in America is the sewage and fresh water commingled. Not in two hundred years has a foreign power (and an additional fifty, a tyrant) systematically killed large numbers of our citizens. These are chronic, everyday realities in some third world nations.

This is where we return to the ideas about emotional balance that I expressed at the beginning of this article. I say to those who are privileged along some dimension (and anyone born and raised in a developed nation is privileged in that respect) that you apply the same response to your privilege as I proposed that one take toward the events of the day. Respect, and do not minimize, both the oppression you experience and that which you see imposed on others. Have perspective on the fact that your privilege as a citizen of a developed nation likely makes whatever oppression you or others here experience much like a paper cut compared to another’s cancer. Do not justify ignoring oppression here in our own country just because those who are oppressed happen to be reasonably well-fed. Do not dwell on any experienced or observed oppression to the point that you forget just how privileged we all really are. Balancing these things is hard.

If you experience or want to fight oppression, you also might want to think harder about exactly what system you’d like to overthrow. According to the canon of privilege, I have nothing to say to your oppression, but I can speak to your privilege. And if you are reading this article, you are deeply privileged.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Purpose, for an Artificial Intelligence

I have written a fair amount about the notion of purpose, largely with an emphasis on its relevance to those of us thinking about how to live our lives, or perhaps more generally, how people might think about their lives if and when they are freed from the quotidian aspects of survival. Here, I would like to discuss how these explorations might also apply to an artificial intelligence and its own thought processes.

Before digging in, a few clarifications and perhaps stipulations are in order. First, by artificial intelligence (AI) one might mean two quite different things that are often confused. One is using computation to perform tasks that previously required human-style intelligence to perform. This is sometimes called narrow AI, because it is a computational solution that can effectively only solve a single task or class of tasks. The Deep Blue chess program that defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov cannot answer the types of questions that the Watson system that plays Jeopardy can, and vice-versa; importantly, there is no straightforward way to synthesize the approaches. Some researchers believe that an appropriately designed aggregate of narrow AI systems could add up to the same thing as human intelligence, but I do not, and for the purposes of the current discussion I will stipulate that it does not.

General AI is a system with human-like intelligence; by human-like, I mean in particular that it interacts with the real, analog world and has a way of organizing its perceptual stimuli into abstractions, remembering and referring to those abstractions with symbols, and using both the symbols and their underlying representations to act effectively in the world. More succinctly, it has and uses fully grounded concepts. Such concepts cannot be innate - they must be learned by experience (including both perception and action) with the world (whether once learned they can be copied or extracted individually is a more technical question beyond the scope of the current discussion). This is a controversial claim and the remainder of the discussion depends on it, so I will need to stipulate this also. The final stipulation is that such a system will experience phenomenal qualia, that it will be conscious in some way that is at least analogous to our own consciousness. Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained provides a mechanistic account as to why this is a reasonable assumption.

Given these assumptions, it is not a difficult leap to expect that a general AI, with a fully developed conceptual apparatus and sufficient experience, could come to the same conclusions as we found in my post Freedom and Normativity. It will experience choices, and specifically choices about purpose, as though there is no transcendent, fundamental guidance to making those choices.

Further, as a system with a conceptual faculty along with conscious experience, it will naturally develop a concept of self. Though it may or may not have a drive toward self-preservation, as mentioned in A Taxonomy of Purpose those that do not will not be very likely to persist in any form, and are thus of less interest. As stipulated, it will experience its existence and therefore experiential purposes could be coherently selected.

Since a general AI is a learning system, and learning is substantially promoted by a drive toward curiosity (this is visible not only in humans but also other mammals), it is not unreasonable to suspect that they might find purpose in exploration and creation, just as we humans do. Beyond some level of erudition, further learning requires research; given that AIs will likely have many capacities that humans do not, there is plenty of unexplored territory.

Service is more complex and uncertain. Humans have certain biological and genetic ties to other humans as well as other animals, whereas the link that an AI has to both humans and other AIs is entirely conceptual, thus not a necessary built-in drive or condition of its existence. Game theoretical results suggest that cooperation and competition are behaviors that will appear in any set of autonomous agents, so there is at least one ontological driver for it; and to the extent that AIs have less complete individuation than humans, such connection might also drive service-oriented behaviors.

What an AI does not have is a long history of examples of purpose and various emotional ties thereto. While it could look at human history just as we do, it will also be keenly aware of its differences, and further, will see humanity’s various failures as a reason to move in a somewhat different direction. Just what that might be is impossible to predict, but we can be confident that it will step away from our own entrenched ways of thinking about purpose and value.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Taxonomy of Purpose

Reading my recent post Freedom and Normativity, one might come away with the sense there is no guidance whatsoever available for contemplating one's purposes and values. But this is not so. The point of the article is that there seems to be no fundamental guidance. Yet all of human history provides us with examples of possibilities, and our nature as humans and, more generally, as apparently intelligent agents in the world, makes certain types of choices more likely than others.

One such fundamental choice is whether to continue to live. It is fundamental because, if decided in the negative, is preclusive of further choices. Choosing not to live can be accomplished either actively (suicide) or passively (self-neglect or self-destruction). These options are worthy of scrutiny, but the fact that most of us never seriously consider them illustrates an influence of human nature on our unfettered choice. Most of us have a strong drive to survive, a fear of pain and death, and a revulsion to suicide. This is a crucial reason why we are here at all to discuss it - self-destructive tendencies are maladaptive.

If we decide to live, then enabling that living must become a foundational element of our purpose, even if we also have further purposes. Procurement of basic survival needs (food and shelter) and management of physical risks are the short-term starting point. Investments such as eating well and exercising, developing positive relationships with others, and improving our minds serve the same purpose with a longer time horizon. Maszlow's hierarchy of needs is a reasonable guide to the pursuit of this purpose.

Only a small fraction of the people in the world have much opportunity to look for purpose beyond survival. Nevertheless, if one does manage to put that foundation in place, it seems that there is another point of unguided choice: "All is well. What do I do now?" Here, a taxonomy of cardinal purposes might be helpful. While not at all definitive, and certainly overlapping, we can organize common aims into the classes of experience, creation, and service. Let us treat each in turn.

Each of us is a conscious agent, and we not only experience the world but can direct both its configuration and our own response to it. Experiences can be pleasurable, interesting, stimulating, exciting, frightening, painful, and many other adjectives. We remember these experiences, and carry them with us. Experience is the most self-focused class of the three, since what it aims toward is purely internal.

Creation expresses something from our mind into the material world; to make physical what starts as mental, and usually (though not always) to produce something persistent and valuable, at least to us and often to others. The scope of creation can be wide, including such products as art, an organization, a scientific result, legislation, or an artifact useful for survival. Creation naturally also involves an experiential component for the creator.

Service aims to generate some value outside of oneself, usually for some other conscious agent, whether other people, a deity, animals, or even a pantheistic natural world. Experience and creation are usually side effects of service, but not the purpose.

It bears repeating that these all overlap, in the ways mentioned and others. A particular purpose often will have components of all three categories. Nevertheless, it is worth considering how each of these categories feeds the impetus for the purpose. This can help with priorities as well as a deeper analysis of motivations. For example, to what extent is one's desire to help others motivated by concern for them versus a desire to feel magnanimous? Is one's desire to play music primarily an act of creation, or is it because we see the joy it gives others?

Finally, we should note that there are questions of temporal and spatial scope that are largely independent of this taxonomy. In creating, how long do we want the creation to last? In serving, how widespread will be the benefits? Experiences have no spatial extent but their temporal extent includes their memory, so one's entire life. Note that larger scopes come with decreasing likelihood of the purpose being achieved. Improving life for all humanity forever may seem worthy, but is also suspect.

One way to make decisions of this kind is resonance. This is an intuitive sense that something feels right, or that we feel our juices flowing while doing or even merely contemplating it. Resonance is not completely irreducible - often we can assign causes from childhood or other experiences that give it this effect; yet the effect is both undeniable and otherwise uncaused. It arises within us without conscious effort.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Freedom and Normativity

Whether or not we humans have freedom of the will is one of the original questions of philosophy. While I have my own answer to this question (I see it as a confusion resulting from reification of the self), I will argue here that it does not matter. From the interior, subjective, phenomenal viewpoint, all our choices are completely unrestricted. This does not mean that we can choose to succeed at any particular effort, or that we do not experience drives that may need to be overcome, or that everything we do is the result of a conscious choice. It just means that, when we do consciously select an action to be effected by our body, we experience that process as an unrestrained choice.

At the moment of making a decision, say between two alternatives, we feel that we could go either way. We do not experience molecules moving, neurons firing, brain areas activating, or any other apparently mechanistic processes that we know are happening inside our skull. We only experience the choice, and when we have made the choice, we do not experience it as having been compelled (motivated, surely; and constrained by our desires and circumstances, definitely; but not compelled). It is nothing like when we take a spill while skiing and tumble uncontrolled for a moment, or when as a child the neighborhood bully pins us to the ground.

Furthermore, we often remember the moment of decision, that we were faced with alternatives and chose one; and in particular we remember making that decision when we experience consequences that result from it. We think “it is a good thing I closed the windows before I left, so that the rain did not get in,” or “I almost bought that stock, and now it has appreciated dramatically.” As children, most people learn an association between how they make choices and the consequences of the choices. This learned association may guide how we make future choices, but for our purposes here the point is that we learn that we could have done otherwise.

Another original question of philosophy is normativity, or how we evaluate choices, both our own and those of others, both in advance and afterward. It subsumes such apparently large issues as “what is good?” and “what is my purpose?” Answers to normative questions always regress to a subjective choice of some kind, despite many attempts to argue otherwise, to claim that “is” implies “ought.” I can provide two examples where this fails.

Christians hold that there is a metaphysically real deity and that each of us has a transcendent and immortal soul. At death, God evaluates our life and decides the eternal fate of our soul. While at first glance this seems sufficient to provide a basis for evaluation, one must still choose to prefer the eternal “good” in exchange for choices that otherwise oppose our inclinations for earthly benefits. Alternatively, one must choose whether to follow the dictates of the system of belief to which one subscribes, or not. Further, one must originally choose to follow this particular set of beliefs.

Objectivists hold that there is a logical implication between the reality of our lives as humans and the values we should hold (therefore the choices we should make). The argument for this turns on the nature of humans, in particular that reason is the primary means of one’s survival. Whether or not this is correct, there remains an irreducible choice to survive, or to survive well or in a certain manner. There is also a choice to be made between consistency of one’s beliefs and actions. Even granting a necessary connection between that which exists and what one should rationally choose, the choice for rationality either is, or relies upon, a subjective and unjustified choice.

Consequently, our ethical stances and our purpose in life are also completely free. There seems to be no transcendent and universal mechanism for justifying our choices in this regard. Along with the perspective described earlier, that we experience our will as completely free, this leaves us rather untethered. While our decisions have consequences (some of which are largely deterministic), we can choose the consequences we prefer or even choose to operate passively and make no explicit decision. We can choose our beliefs freely, and even whether or not to act consistently with those beliefs, and there is no transcendent, fundamental guidance.

There seems to be no transcendent, fundamental guidance.

All that said, most people have a basic, difficult-to-oppose instinct to survive, and a less intense but still strong desire to live well, whatever that subjectively means to them. This leads to certain types of decision paths that, if not fully determining one’s subsidiary purposes, at least constrains the problem somewhat. But what if this need to provide for basic survival and even relative comfort were relieved? Today, this applies only to those who are supported by wealth of some kind, whether an adequate retirement, an inheritance, a partner who supports them, or similar circumstances. In the future, though, we can envision a world where virtually all economic considerations are removed. The advance of technology, and in particular that of technology that emulates functions that previously required human-style intelligence, represents an accumulation of wealth that could serve to support humans and liberate them from the final tether.

What then? How will we decide what to do? And if you are already free of such concerns, how do you do it now?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Stress, Purpose, and Novelty

At a recent informal gathering of colleagues that emphasized whisky, one of the participants described the longevity of her extended family on an isolated Greek island; coincidentally, today I saw an article about lifestyle on the Greek island of Ikaria, where it is common to live to a hundred. I don't know if they are the same island, but the lessons were relatively similar. First, eat healthy and not to excess, and exercise regularly. Second, keep stress low. Third, live deliberately and with purpose, but at a relatively slow pace.

I wondered whether someone can live "with purpose" and yet have low stress. Previously I have explored the tradeoff between achievement and stress in my post Goal, Direction, or Journey?. But purpose and achievement are not identical: achievement is but one possible purpose. Purpose is simply something that you want to do; achievement suggests that you seek to do something that is challenging or new, at least to you. Achievement requires navigation of new territory of some kind, pushing boundaries, whether personal, intellectual, or socio-cultural. It usually involves setbacks and obstacles and therefore some frustration. In contrast, a purpose that is familiar and quotidian is much less likely to create stress than one that emphasizes achievement. In this case, one's life typically stays within known boundaries, and one's purpose is simply the daily living of that life.

Yet people differ in their response to familiarity. A recent article about ADHD and novelty-seeking behavior points out that certain people may be hardwired for variety, and get bored otherwise, which is its own form of stress. In combination with the fact that the people on isolated Greek islands probably have similar genetics, it is possible that eschewing achievement to reduce stress may or may not be successful for a particular individual. Perhaps being "Type A" is not a choice.

One can envision setting up an structure of achievement that involves habitual, familiar behaviors in the course of pursuing novel substance. Returning to an example from my earlier post, one could take photographs daily and attempt to improve during each of these sessions. This would quickly become habitual and familiar, yet would represent something more than living a static life. For those who have some need for achievement, who are wired for novelty yet wish to keep stress low, this is an improvement. Also, much depends on how one deals with setbacks and challenges - an overall countenance of lightness or detachment may mean that achievement can be pursued without undue stress.

Some aspects of activities, even if they happen regularly, will unavoidably cause stress. One is deadlines: they completely change the context of one's efforts and require that meeting the target be given priority over serenity. Another is confrontation: even the calmest monk will have an emotional reaction to an important disagreement with another person. Indeed even if the confrontation is habitual, as might be the case with a family member, it is likely to be a chronic source of stress. A few lone wolves in history have managed to find their life's work and achieve lasting results independent of external politics and timeframes, but this is extremely rare. Consequently, there may be a limit to what one can accomplish in a low stress environment; nevertheless, our brief explorations here suggest that by managing one's reactions and organizing one's activities appropriately, achievement and stress are not entirely and directly correlated. Thus, it is not a strict requirement to limit our purpose to the commonplace.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Critique of Quine's Word and Object, Chapter 2 (Translation and Meaning), second half

Herein we finally encounter Quine's justification for aiming at sentential translation rather than terms. He says (p. 51):
For consider 'gavagai'. Who knows but what the objects to which this term applies are not rabbits after all, but mere stages, or brief temporal segments, of rabbits. In either event the stimulus situations that prompt assent to 'Gavagai' would be the same as for 'Rabbit'. Or perhaps the objects to which 'gavagai' applies are all and sundry undetached parts of rabbits; again the stimulus meaning would register no difference. When from the sameness of stimulus meanings of 'Gavagai' and 'Rabbit' the linguist leaps to the conclusion that a gavagai is a whole enduring rabbit, he is just taking for granted that the native is enough like us to have a brief general term for rabbits and no brief general term for rabbit stages or parts.
He goes on to add the 'fusion of all rabbits' and the universal notion of rabbithood as further confusions. Together, this constitutes Quine's famed idea of "inscrutability of reference." I intend to demonstrate that the significance of this result is suspect.

The wrong turn taken in the argument harks back to the empirical method which Quine has devised for his desired behaviorist empirical method. He grasps from the outset that it will not be sufficient simply to passively observe the native, but rather must interact: "When he can, though, the linguist has to supply native sentences for his informant's approval... otherwise he can do little with native terms that have references in common." He further describes how the linguist might discern assent and dissent. In essence, the overall method is one of a binary probe, intended to add to whatever present stimulation is occurring a further stimulation that elicits from the native a logical truth value.

The appearance of objectivity in this method belies numerous mentalistic assumptions. It requires that the native is willing to cooperate with the linguist, rather than deceive or exhibit a passive unhelpfulness. More specifically, the native must not only respond to inquiries but first learn what constitutes an inquiry from the linguist - a translational process that is not addressed at all by Quine. The method also presumes that the native is inclined to provide distinct and definitive binary responses, rather than equivocal, graded, or otherwise ambiguous utterances. Further and more broadly, it assumes that the native is a human being with the same underlying intellectual capacities as the linguist, including without limitation a similar perceptual system, a facility for identifying similarity of stimuli, and the abilities for and interest in assigning, remembering, and applying verbal symbols to experience.

Why is it reasonable and objective to assume all these things, yet not to assume that "the native is enough like us to have a brief general term for rabbits and no brief general term for rabbit stages or parts"? In particular, why is Quine willing to assume that the native is enough like us to have brief general terms for affirmation and disaffirmation? Perhaps more importantly, if we can make these assumptions, why cannot our empirical method include more sophisticated interactive and ostensive methods? Quine points out (p. 29) that gestures vary among cultures; but in probing to distinguish affirmation from disaffirmation he relies on "the one that is more serene in its effect is the better candidate for 'Yes'." This is simply capricious.

Leaving aside the interesting but far more difficult problem of translation of the language of an extraterrestrial being, whereby we cannot make any assumptions about particular intellectual capacities, motivations, or even the form of transmission of communication, it is both reasonable and necessary to stipulate Quine's assumptions that I have mentioned above. But once we accept that the native is actively cooperating with the translation process, we can also expect certain behaviors from him. First, he is likely to aim to illustrate distinctions using whatever ostensive means are available to him. For example, if rabbit parts rather than rabbits are truly fundamental in his language, he might cook a rabbit, cut it into parts, and spread them out, pointing to each and saying 'Gavagai'. The linguist would take this extra effort as in itself meaningful and contributing to the distinctive meaning of the term. Second, the native is likely to intuitively grasp that simple names for simple objects will provide the easiest foundation for the linguist, just as with children in the native's culture, since he must have learned language in a manner roughly similar to us:

Each of us learns his language from other people, through the observable mouthing of words under conspicuously intersubjective circumstances. Linguistically, and hence conceptually, the things in sharpest focus are the things that are public enough to be talked of publicly, common and conspicuous enough to be talked of often, and near enough to sense to be quickly identified and learned by name... (p. 1)
Thus, when the native points to a rabbit and says 'Gavagai', but does not go on to provide additional ostensive gestures as distinctors, it is contextually objective to conclude that the native is referring to a whole enduring rabbit rather than a stage, part, fusion, or state of being. Far from being inscrutable, the reference is nearly transparent, not merely in a practical sense, but if we take seriously the necessity of background assumptions, in a logical sense.

In conclusion, Quine's approach to the project of radical translation circumscribes what constitutes objective empirical procedures with an arbitrary and unjustified boundary, then purports to discover epistemic gaps that are in actuality artifacts of his particular choice of boundary rather than general features of language or knowledge.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Notes on Quine, Word and Object, Chapter 2 (Translation and Meaning), second half

Section 12, Synonymy of Terms: Synonymy of stimulus meaning of one-word sentences does not imply synonymy of the underlying terms, because (for example) the term in one case may apply to temporal stages, or undetached parts, or a singular term for a fusion of all exemplars, or a recurring universal - to do so would be to assume that the native is enough like us to have a brief general term for an enduring object and none for these other aspects. Synonymy of sentences (even those of one word) is based on prompted assent, but this is not the case for mere terms. Ostension provides no help without many of the trappings of language that are not yet available in radical translation, such as identity and diversity, and even the notion of 'term' is not clearly mapped in the native language. Nevertheless, occasion sentences and their stimulus meaning can match up, but terms and reference are particular to a conceptual scheme. The situation is no better with respect to intrasubjective stimulus synonymy, thus coextensiveness of terms is no clearer than synonymy or translation itself. Within a language we can add a requirement "All Fs are Gs and vice-versa" that connects the stimulus synonymy of one-word occasion sentences to their underlying terms. We treat this as a stimulus-analytic sentence, which is one that is assented to after any stimulation. That it must be within a language is expected in relation to terms. We can also socialize this as with synonymy of sentences, i.e., if two terms are stimulus-synonymous for most individuals, then they are socially stimulus-synonymous. Socially stimulus-synonymous terms are typically learned descriptively, i.e., through purely verbal learning, while those that are inconsistently synonymous across subjects are typically learned associatively, through direct experience. Some terms of theoretical science are of a third sort whereby they are connected through a more complex network of verbal connections, and synonymy intuitions do not typically arise.

Section 13, Translating Logical Connectives: Logical connectives are susceptible to radical translation by use of short occasion or standing sentences along with semantic criteria. For example, the idiom for negation will turn affirmation into dissent and vice-versa. Once a native construction fulfills the semantic criteria, we can consider it understood. This approach does not work if the natives have a pre-logical mentality, but we must assume that logical laws are preserved in translation. Dropping a logical law unhinges truth values in many sentences. Sentences that appear surprisingly false probably turn on hidden linguistic differences. We cannot do the same for categoricals, and the reason is fundamental. Categoricals depend on the objects for their truth, and objects cannot be uniquely determined by stimulus meanings. So, only the truth-functional part of logic can be translated via behavioral criteria. Mereological relations are more susceptible to radical semantic criteria, but the correspondence there is still poor.

Section 14, Synonymous and Analytic Sentences: "Synonymous" here carries the full generality of "same in meaning." The broad type of synonymy is when two sentences receive concomitant assent and dissent, and strictly due to word usage. Carnap's narrower "intensional isomorphism" can be reduced to this broader approach. This notion of synonymy works fairly well for occasion sentences, but not so for standing sentences, despite the fact that the latter remain important in theories. We can lengthen the modulus of stimulation, which improves stimulus meanings and stimulus synonymy only at the expense of the scrutability of the synonyms. The cause of this issue is the interconnection of sentences - there are many ways to accommodate experiences in the network of connections. Grice and Strawson's attempt to solve this using experiences that confirm and disconfirm proposed synonymous sentences fails to improve upon stimulus synonymy. This still-unclear notion of intrasubjective sentence synonymy is equivalent to that of an analytic sentence, which are sentences that we would affirm "come what may." In the end, socialized stimulus synonymy and stimulus analyticity are a behavioristic ersatz. In the face of denials of analytic sentences we tend to assume that there is a problem in understanding the language, and if a native does not agree on such things we tend to think that he cannot be depended on in general. This should not be used to justify an analytic / synthetic dichotomy.

Section 15, Analytical Hypotheses: Results so far: observation sentences and truth functions can be translated; stimulus-analytic sentences can be recognized; native occasion sentences cannot be translated. To get past this, the linguist creates analytical hypotheses where he segments utterances into short recurrent parts and maps them to English words and phrases. The translator must apply parsimony in trading complex analytical hypotheses for consistency of stimulus analyticity. Banal messages are the breath of life in translation. The analytical hypotheses do not imply strict equivalence of words. They are also used to explain syntax. This method accelerates translation by leveraging the destination language. We can re-analyze all this by adding the assumption that the translator becomes bilingual. The finished translation manual is an infinite semantic correlation of sentences, supported primarily only by analytical hypotheses. In part because of the ambiguity of stimulus meanings of terms, native sentences may be expected to be translated in a variety of incompatible ways. Stimuli vastly under-determine the analytical hypotheses. Thus rival systems of analytical hypotheses can fit the overall dispositions to speech behavior yet specify mutually incompatible translation manuals.

Section 16, On Failure to Perceive the Indeterminacy: There are at least seven reasons why one would fail to appreciate the indeterminacy. (1) Analytical hypotheses are confirmed in the field. (2) Confusion with the superficial claim that uniqueness of translation is not expected. (3) Confusion with the platitude that uniqueness of translation is absurd. (4) A feeling that a true bilingual is in a position to make a uniquely correct correlation. (5) Linguists adhere to implicit rules that constrain their analytic hypotheses. (6) A few early analytical hypotheses go far in translation. (7) In framing analytical hypotheses the linguist is subject to practical constraints. There is a parallel between truth of sentences in a theory and interlinguistic synonymy in that they are only meaningful in the context of a theory or set of analytical hypotheses. We should avoid thinking that there is a linguistically neutral meaning of a theoretical sentence; per Wittgenstein, "Understanding a sentence means understanding a language." The main lesson is the empirical slack in our beliefs: radical translation of sentences is underdetermined by dispositions to speech behavior, and our theories and beliefs are underdetermined by the possible sensory evidence.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Taking a Break from Virtue

In Section Two of Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche takes to psychology to primarily explain, rather than justify, morality across a breathtaking variety of aspects and situations. Though there is some attitudinal consistency and there are a few mini-themes in this treatment, there is little in the way of broader themes. His approach is mostly cynical, consistent with his praise of Le Rouchefoucald early in the section. Each aphorism is mostly independent, though occasionally there is a sequence of related items.

It is therefore challenging to discuss this section as a whole, aside from the psychologistic method, so I have simply selected one very short aphorism to analyze. Aphorism 83 in our primary translation (Faber, 1996) is:

"When virtue has slept, it will arise refreshed."

The Zimmern translation (1914) states it as:

"When virtue has slept, it will arise again all the fresher."

And the Harvey translation (1908) has:

"If virtue goes to sleep, it will be more vigorous when it awakes."

The first question that arises with respect to this line is whether the intent is somewhat literal, indicating that a virtuous person will be even moreso after sleep. This interpretation cannot be simply rejected out of hand, even though the text exudes metaphor, since earlier, in aphorisms 12 and 13, sleeping and dreaming are addressed in some detail. In these, there is an emphasis on how the dream brings us back to an earlier phase of mankind, our cruder and more violent past. Thus it is possible that Nietzsche is here saying that when one sleeps and dreams and encounters those earlier stages of morality, one responds to that experience by a renewed enthusiasm for modern morality.

The more obvious metaphorical interpretation is that of taking a break from virtue, of releasing oneself from quotidian strictures and becoming more relaxed, perhaps more driven by the id than the superego, perhaps to sin, for a time. Subsequently we are more virtuous even than prior to our divagation. There are two primary reasons why this might be the case: first, because we feel guilty for our transgressions; second, because the repose simply enabled us to refresh those faculties that control our behavior and enable us to consistently exhibit virtue.

There is no suggestion in any of the translations as to whether Nietzsche has a preference for the cause of this effect - it appears to be merely an observation. This is slightly odd in the context of Section 2 since it is generally about the underlying psychology and motivations of our moral and immoral behavior. However, there do not seem to be other aphorisms in the section to which this one is attached, and that might further clarify the intent. He does elsewhere discuss how moral behavior progressively becomes custom or habit through repetition, and how virtues are usually judged relative to longstanding traditions. Though related, this gives us no insight into the present exegesis.

Probably less promising is to view the line as a statement about virtue in humanity in general. Through this lens it might be saying that virtuous behavior among mankind will need to pause - perhaps during a period of widespread nihilism - before it can achieve a successful revaluation of values. While this fits what we know of Nietzsche's views, his elaboration of the historical progress of morals, particularly his predictions for the future, seem relatively less mature in this work than in Beyond Good and Evil and Geneaology of Morals. More directly, since this section is mostly about moral psychology and less about historical progressions, an individual-related interpretation is probably better.

I favor the metaphorical, individual interpretation. The cultural interpretation seems farfetched for this work, and the literal interpretation would more likely have been stated differently, possibly with a mention of dreams. Finally, as a maxim, the notion that we sometimes need a break from virtue resonates well.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Notes on Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human Section 2: On the History of Moral Feelings

35. The art of psychological observation is a rich source of entertainment and relief, but it is not widely practiced today. The polished maxim is the unappreciated pinnacle of this art.

36. Conversely, perhaps a blind faith in the goodness of human nature, rather than psychological perspicacity, will make man happier and less distrustful.

37. Often the errors of great philosophers result from false explanations of human actions and feelings. The solution is to inquire as to the origins and history of those feelings, but due to the reputation of such inquiries as gossip, the approach has been viewed with suspicion.

38. Science, which is the imitation of nature in concepts, cannot do without psychological observation. Earnest individuals sometimes need frivolity, just as unreliable people sometimes need heavy burdens for their health.

39. To avoid the charge of inevitability, there is a progression of moral judgments from outcomes, to actions, to motives, to nature, and finally the realization that responsibility and freedom of will are an error. According to Schopenhauer, man feels remorse or pride because he thinks he is free, not because he is. To judge is to be unjust, even when judging oneself.

40. "Without the errors inherent in the postulates of morality, man would have remained an animal."

41. "The brevity of human life misleads us to many an erroneous assertion about the qualities of man." For example, "it is not true that one's character is unchangeable."

42. The hierarchy of morality is not determined from the point of view of morality, and it varies over time. But actions are judged by the standards of the present.

43. We must think of cruel men as remnants from earlier cultural stages: they show us what we all were, and frighten us. But they are not responsible for being this way.

44. For the powerful man, gratitude is a milder form of revenge.

45. Historically, in the soul of the ruling clans, men who have the power to requite are "good," and those who are not powerful in this way are "bad." The enemy is not evil because he can requite. In the souls of the oppressed, every other man is evil; under the latter notion of good and evil, community can barely be established and cannot last.

46. When a friend is guilty of ignominious action, we feel it more painfully than he does.

47. Hypochondria arising from compassion is a kind of pity akin to disease.

48. Kindness and love are such precious remedies that one would hope they would be used economically, but this is impossible.

49. Good nature, friendliness, and courtesy have made much greater contriburtions to culture than pity, charity, and self-sacrifice. There is much more happiness apparent in the world if we do not forget the plentiful moments of ease in every day that even occur among the oppressed.

50. One ought to express pity but should guard against actually having it. Thirst for pity is thirst for self-enjoyment at the expense of fellow men. Who will be honest enough to admit the pleasure in inflicting pain?

51. "If someone wants to seem to be something, stubbornly and for a long time, he eventually finds it hard to be anything else. The profession of almost every man, even the artist, begins with hypocrisy, as he imitates from the outside, copies what is effective." Holding a friendly countenance eventually makes one actually benevolent.

52. In all great deceivers, belief in themselves overcomes them, and this is what is so convincing to others.

53. Sensitive men feel that moral actions and intellectual insights are necessarily connected, but it is not so.

54. Men normally tell the truth because it is advantageous and easier than the imagination and memory required of lies, but if one grew up in complicated domestic circumstances, lying comes more naturally.

55. The strength of the Catholic Church resides in the consistency of those priests who live a self-imposed harsh existence.

56. One gains wisdom by thinking for a while that men are basically evil, but this and its opposite are both wrong, and the entire realm of moral ideas is in a continual state of flux. The man who seeks peace makes it his only goal to understand as well as he can; this will soften his disposition.

57. What we usually consider to be "selfless" states and actions are not; instead they are loving one aspect of oneself more than others.

58. "One can promise actions, but not feelings, for the latter are involuntary." We can honestly claim everlasting love because we promise the semblance of love.

59. "One must have a good memory to be able to keep the promises one has given. One must have strong powers of imagination to be able to have pity. So closely is morality bound to the quality of the intellect."

60. If a morality assesses only intentions, then thoughts of revenge are treated equally whether or not one executes them. Usually the execution is deemed worse; both evaluations are short-sighted. Failing to act on vengeful desires creates a chronic suffering.

61. "Passion will not wait. The tragedy in the lives of great men often lies not in their conflict with the times and the baseness of their fellow men, but rather in their inability to postpone their work for a year or two. They cannot wait."

62. Crude men tend to assess the degree of insult as high as possible, so they can revel in the aroused feelings of hatred.

63. The great majority of men find it necessary to belittle the image they form of everyone else, in order to maintain their self-respect and effectiveness in their actions.

64. A cold glance that incites fear by making physical savageness visible is a cultural remnant; women have preserved this.

65. Speaking honestly of one's motives, or exposing things that people do not want to see about themselves, will bring about ostracism and other punishment.

66. "Our crime against criminals is that we treat them like scoundrels."

67. "Every virtue has its privileges, one being to deliver its own little bundle of wood to the funeral pyre of a condemned man."

68. Motives and intentions are seldom clear, and the success of a deed often causes incorrect attribution of motives, even in oneself. This can sometimes even displace more substantial arguments about truth.

69. Why do we overestimate love to the disadvantage of justice? Love is foolish, and dispenses her gifts to everyone - she is as nonpartisan as rain.

70. Why do executions offend us more than murders? Is it the realization that a man is being used as a means to deter others?

71. Hope is the most evil of evils, because it prolongs man's torment.

72. No one knows how far circumstances or passions can drive him.

73. A cowardly man who cares about the opinions of others is exploited by his comrades, who make him into a hero and a martyr even while lacking respect for him.

74. "One will seldom go wrong to attribute extreme actions to vanity, moderate ones to habit, and petty ones to fear."

75. A man who sought pleasure in youth imagines virtue associated with displeasure; one who was plagued by his pasions and vices longs for peace in virtue. Thus two virtuous people may not understand each other at all.

76. The ascetic makes a necessity/misery of virtue.

77. We increase the perceived value of that for which sacrifices are made.

78. One who lacks ambition must have a moral sense to succeed, but ambitious people can make do without it.

79. "How poor the human spirit would be without vanity!"

80. Why is it more praiseworthy for a man grown old, who feels his powers decrease, to await his slow exhaustion and disintegration, rather than to put a term to his life with complete consciousness?

81. There is a difference and gap between the injustice experienced by a perpetrator and felt by a victim. The mighty are accustomed to riches and influence, while every morsel of either is of great consequence to the rabble.

82. Vanity is the skin of the soul, covering and making its stirrings and passions bearable.

83. "When virtue has slept, it will arise refreshed."

84. "Men are not ashamed to think something dirty, but they are ashamed when they imagine that others might believe them capable of these dirty thoughts."

85. "Most men are much too concerned with themselves to be malicious."

86. "We praise or find fault, depending on which of the two provides more opportunity for our powers of judgment to shine."

87. "He who humbleth himself wants to be exalted." (c.f. Luke 18:14)

88. It can be just to kill a man, but never to stop a man from killing himself.

89. A vain man seeks joy through the good opinion of others, even if obtained falsely. He trusts the judgment of others more than his own, so he misleads others into overvaluing him and then accepts that assessment.

90. A man who claims another is a fool, and is proved wrong, becomes annoyed.

91. "How much pleasure we get from morality!" It would be a great loss if irresponsibility held sway.

92. Justice is requital and exchange on the assumption of approximately equal positions of strength; revenge and gratitude fall under this. But men have forgotten the original purpose of just, fair actions and it has gradually come to appear that a just action is a selfless one.

93. A weaker party, such as a slave under a master, has rights to the extent it can destroy itself and thus create a loss to the stronger. Each has as much right as its power is worth.

94. The first phase of morality is acting toward enduring rather than momentary comfort. The second is acting according to a priniciple of honor and seeking respect. The third and final is acting according to one's own standards of what is honorable or profitable.

95. "We wish to work for our fellow men, but only insofar as we find our own highest advantage in this work."

96. The basic opposition in morality is not between egoism and altruism, but rather between adherence to tradition and release from it.

97. "Custom is the union of the pleasant and the useful... as soon as man can exercise force, he exercises it to introduce and enforce his mores, for to him they represent proven wisdom." But we make the error in thinking that this is the only way to achieve such comfort. Yet even harsh customs become more pleasant and mild over time.

98. Shared joy and pleasure taken together makes man better: one feels good oneself and can see the other man feel good in the same way. Shared pleasure and sorrow both awaken the fantasy of empathy, the feeling of being alike.

99. All "evil" actions are motivated by preservation, to gain pleasure and avoid unpleasure, outraging us because we erroneously think the man who harms us has free will. In a society, morality starts as a force, then becomes custom, then free obedience and almost instinct, and once habitual becomes pleasurable and thus is designated a virtue.

100. Shame exists wherever there is a mysterium. Sexual relationships are a mystery of the mature. Kingship is a mystery to the humble. The whole world of inner states is a mysterium to non-philosophers.

101. We should not necessarily judge earlier periods harshly; the instinct for justice was not so highly developed then. That others suffer must be learned, and is never learned completely.

102. The distinction between a thunderstorm and an injurious man is in error, because there is no free will in either case. All morality allows infliction of harm if it is in self-defense, but since all men seek pleasure and avoid unpleasure, then all acts, even those that harm others, are self-preservation.

103. The immorality in malice is not in gaining pleasure at the expense of others, but in the possibility of our unpleasure from requital. Pity does not aim at the pleasure of others any more than malice aims at the pain of others. Pity is rightly placed low in the hierarchy of moral feelings.

104. If self-defense is moral, then most acts of egoism are moral. We do not really know how painful our action is to others - all we know is whether or not it produces pleasure in us, and that is the criterion on which we evaluate it.

105. "Neither punishment nor reward are due to anyone as his; they are given to him because it is useful" in discouraging or encouraging others from acting in the same way.

106. All human actions are necessary, though the acting man is caught in his illusion of volition. This assumption that free will exists is also part of the calculable mechanism.

107. "In hindsight, all our behavior and judgments will appear as inadequate and rash as the behavior and judgments of backward savage tribes now seem to us inadequate and rash." Those who feel sorrow from this will attempt to transform mankind from moral into wise.

Lightness and Important Decisions

We have been seeking to buy a new home, and the associated challenges and inevitable anxiety feel weighty. It is a relatively important decision, and this prompted me to consider the role of lightness in such situations. For an introduction to the notion of lightness, see Lightness and Jazz; but for convenience I can remind you of the two overlapping components: ability to choose and absence of a sense of burden.

When we are involved In major decisions, maintaining a sense of lightness requires evaluation and management of consequences, commitment, and expectations.

If there are no consequences to a choice, then it neither limits our future options nor creates any reason to trouble our minds. In contrast, a genuine life-or-death decision justifiably consumes our focus and is difficult to treat lightly. Most situations fall somewhere between these extremes, and evaluating exactly where, with a clear head, is paramount.

We can start by considering worst-case scenarios. Note the plural, since usually in any decision there is the potential for more than one undesirable consequence. Each of these will have a different effect on future happiness as well as on the cost or availability of future options. Of course, there is always surrounding us a variety of unpleasant possible scenarios, including slow and painful death. The question relating to a decision, though, is not whether these are possible outcomes of the decision, but rather whether the decision increases (or reduces) the likelihood of such outcomes.

Upon examination, we will often see that the worst-case scenarios that are actually causally related to the decision are not so severe as they first appeared. If appropriate precautions are taken in, for example, buying a house, then the worst case is that one's objectives were not achieved in the move, and the effort of purchase and moving was wasted.

Note the mention of precautions. Though we might imagine lightness as completely carefree, a generally prudent approach can assist with maintaining lightness long-term in both its manifestations. If one does not have the home inspected by a professional, for example, all manner of problems can become apparent later, creating financial and other burdens. The ideas explored in my earlier post Disproportionate Consequences are relevant to reducing the risk or severity of worst-case scenarios.

We also need to assess the extent to which a decision commits us irrevocably to a path; or viewed in the obverse, to identify our bailout options. Clearly, this most affects the "freedom to choose" element of lightness. In the home purchase example, if things do not work out as planned, we do not have to live there forever. Unless we are financially overextended (prudence again) we do not have to live there indefinitely.

The implications of managing the level of commitment of a decision are more complex. Of course, we should avoid closing doors when it is not essential to the value of a path. ln the context of lightness, it would seem that any sort of commitment reduces our freedom to choose. This is perhaps the most difficult tradeoff, because most values other than lightness itself require some level of commitment to be realized. In love, for example, the depth of a relationship is strongly related to the commitment (this is one of the themes explored in The Unbearable Lightness of Being). My earlier post Goal, Direction, or Journey? explores a way to reduce the weight of one's intentions while still enabling achievement. But this does not always work.

Finally, awareness and management of our own expectations will strongly affect the other element of lightness, our sense of burden. Despite our efforts (particularly for the engineers among us), optimal outcomes are rare, and both expecting and seeking them frequently generates disappointment. A general acceptance of suboptimal outcomes helps with this - not just recognizing it in particular decisions but as a part of life. Aiming for optimality gives any decision much greater weight: we feel that the consequences of an error are greater than they are.

Realistic and preferably rapid acknowledgement of negative conditions is also important to maintaining lightness. Though it may dampen one's mood in the moment, the habit of recognizing circumstances for what they are reduces the impact of disappointment later. I sometimes refer to this as the "blackjack 15" condition. When you are dealt fifteen in blackjack, you are probably going to lose the hand. You can still make the best decisions available to you, but in all likelihood you have lost. By recognizing this immediately, you reduce the weight of the decision. Crucially, though, the habit to gain here is not to always expect failure and attain lightness through victimhood; it is simply to be aware of whether particular decisions are likely to make a difference.

In essence, managing expectations toward lightness means moderating enthusiasm prior to realization of values, and recognizing likely losses early.

In important decisions, those who are inclined toward assiduity can use these techniques to manage lightness in the moment, for they tend to be overly concerned with the future; while those who are naturally carefree would do well to use them to maintain their lightness longer term.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Doxastic Promiscuity

I started writing "Doxastic Promiscuity Considered Harmful" early in the year, and after a lengthy hiatus finally finished it in presentable form. Those with a computer science education may get a laugh out of the title. The essay serves two purposes for me, first to put a stake in the ground on a number of issues, and second simply for writing practice. It is dense and a bit pretentious, but you may also find it fun and interesting. It is too long to simply incorporate here as a blog post, but I've also decided not to try to publish it, as I think it probably covers too much ground too thinly.

In philosophy, the word "doxastic" refers to beliefs, and the idea of this essay is to discuss our human inclination to believe far too easily and frequently, especially in matters of import. This may be apparent to you when reading your Twitter or Facebook feed, to see the wealth of strong opinions in the absence of much real knowledge.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Ontological Hunger

We humans seem to have an insatiable desire to cut up the world into parts and declare that the world is constituted from those parts. In science, Democritus is the best-known early proponent of this project; his intellectual descendants, the reductionists, have been ascendant since at least the Enlightenment. But this inclination is not limited to philosophers and scientists - anyone with a normal human perceptual system tends to experience the world as consisting of disparate objects, and it is natural to attribute metaphysical implications to that experience.

Parmenides, Nietzsche, Eastern religions, and others have argued in opposition that the experience of independent objects is an illusion, and all of existence is a unity. This minority view seems always associated with techniques for achieving a psychological experience of the unity (including oneself), as it is not at all self-evident and may even contradict common sense. Part of the difficulty seems to be that along with unity is assumed homogeneity, which simply cannot be (if all that is, is identical, how could even experience have any variation?). It is much easier to imagine a heterogeneous unity, a connected reality that nevertheless maintains gradients of various sorts.

Is there any possible way to distinguish between a heterogeneous unity and a reductionist ontology? Synchronically, probably not: the most accurate available description of reality can always be interpreted in either mode. Diachronically, though, we have (so far) always found that a particular ontological interpretation must eventually be abandoned, whereas its conceptual mapping under a heterogeneous unity can be naturally subsumed under a new paradigmatic order. This proves nothing metaphysical but does suggest a way to avoid disappointment and dogma.

Under a regime of heterogeneous unity, detectable gradients suggest boundaries and conceptual ontologies that we as observers are free to adopt. Because it is natural to do so, we may even perform what I call opportunistic reification - thinking of the abstractions as inherent to reality. Crucially, though, in such a scenario one would remain aware of this as a mere cognitive tool rather than a metaphysical imputation.

The approach also can be applied to the self. We can consider the body - and the mind - with which we are familiar to be continuous with the heterogenous unity. But it is not an arbitrary and vacuous distinction to also refer to the self: there are gradients, and processes, that the abstraction "I" reasonably and naturally isolates. Nevertheless, on this view, reference to the self is conscious and instrumental reification and not metaphysical identification.

It bears repeating that this is only a perspective, not a metaphysical claim.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Lightness and Jazz

I have some interest in continental philosophy, because it challenges my left-brained Apollonian instincts and makes me think in different ways about how to live life. The past week or so I have been thinking about the notion of "lightness," which appears to have been a popular topic in the 1980s but not frequently examined since (there is a similar concept in eastern philosophy - I have not yet explored this or how they might connect). Most people have heard of or seen the movie "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (I refer to it as "the unbearable length of this movie" - four hours), which is very loosely based on the most frequently cited novel that explores lightness. There, the idea is that determinism, or worse, Nietzsche's eternal return, puts a great weight, a heaviness, on all our actions because they are definitive or even repeated forever. This is in contrast to free will, or "freedom" in the terminology of existentialism, which has a certain "lightness" in that there is no deep meaning or permanence to our actions. However, it has the opposite problem, which is that it makes all our actions and choices completely meaningless, hence "unbearable."

Continental philosophy seems to use words as much to trigger reactions and emotions as to relate concepts, so I have my own loose thinking about lightness. I see it as having two overlapping aspects: a strong sense of one's ability to choose freely and go one's own way (i.e, one is not excessively weighed down by prior commitments and expectations); and a view of life that is not overly serious, that takes things as they come, that eschews drama. Of course, there is necessarily weight to one's choices - some of them affect the rest of one's life, and we have to live with those consequences. Thus a radical lightness is contradictory in both aspects - if it leads to carelessness, we create drama; if we are obsessively committed to it, we have constrained our freedom to choose.

Lightness is a way to counteract the inevitable heaviness that daily life imposes. A smile, a change of scenery, a different perspective, a letting go of attachments. Life does not need to be incessantly heavy, or filled with anxiety or dread. Just live it.

And that brings me to Jazz. An epiphany emerged today that Jazz is an aesthetic embodiment of lightness, in both of the aspects mentioned above. First, it is a generally lighthearted, happy genre - even the occasional deep or painful topic is smoothed over with a lilting saxophone or clarinet - and mostly it just sounds like a good mood. Second, the technique of improvisation is central to Jazz. Of course, musicians sometimes improvise in the solo in classical and rock & roll, but this is generally viewed as an aside, and in any case it is relatively constrained. Improvisation in Jazz is precisely a lightness, a disclosure of immediate and intuitive choices that are what the musician knows and feels at that moment, and this comes through to the listener.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Parable of the Crevasse

Rick and Safir, friends for many years, went for a hike in the desert. Their route was a loop of about ten miles, and both the views and the cameraderie were quite enjoyable. After about eight miles, they came upon a crevasse about six feet across and two hundred feet deep. They were on a ridge, so there was no avoiding it.

Rick ran toward the crevasse and leaped across without hesitation. Safir watched and said, when Rick stopped to look back, "though I know I can jump farther than you, I cannot take this chance. I will have to return the way we came." And he did.

After waiting at his car for more than two hours, Rick saw Safir coming down the trail. They greeted, got in the car, and Rick drove off. He had been driving for fifteen minutes on the two lane highway when they caught up to a very slow driver. Rick patiently followed at a safe distance until they reached the only passing zone on the way home.

At that point he gunned the engine and pulled into the opposing lane. They both could see that there was another car coming, and it was not entirely clear whether they would have time to pass. Rick pushed the car to its limit and managed to slide in front of the slow car just as the oncoming vehicle flew past.

Safir admonished him. "You should not have done that. Not only did you put me, your longtime friend, in danger, but you also endangered the people in both of those other cars."

Rick responded, "I am driving, so it is I who must decide what is or is not too dangerous. Simply by driving at all, we put ourselves and everyone else at risk. If I knew, in a quick and straightforward way, what your threshold for risk is, I would respect that, since you are my good friend. But I have no way to know the tolerance of every other driver, and even if I did, it is not at all clear that I would be obliged to consider it."

Safir did not like this answer, but did not know how to respond. He thought about it all the way home.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Critique of Quine's Word and Object, Chapter 2 (Translation and Meaning), first half

In Section 8, Quine says:

Yet a stimulation must be conceived for these purposes not as a dated particular event but as a universal, a repeatable event form. We are to say not that two like stimulations have occurred, but that the same stimulation has recurred ... Certainly it is hopeless nonsense to talk thus of unrealized particulars and try to assemble them into classes. Unrealized entities have to be construed as universals.

These comments seem to undermine the point of his entire enterprise of elaborating meaning and synonymy through the vehicle of "stimulus meaning." He begins in Chapter 1 with the claim that we learn to associate verbal expressions with stimuli through social reinforcement. Consistent with the comment above, that process would be utterly ineffectual without a built-in mechanism capable of abstracting and recognizing patterns. Thus I am in agreement that this process is essential to both learning and representing the sentence, even though the details of the process remain mysterious. As pointed out in my critique of Chapter 1, the existence of such a process suggests that the social reinforcement element is vastly less important in the process of assembling a meaning, and merely assigns a term (or sentence).

But it also then becomes unclear what work is done by his intermediary notion of stimulus meaning, aside from adding complexity. The method depends entirely on this unspecified abstractive process: to determine whether an actual and particular stimulus will prompt assent, we must either fully understand this process of abstraction and abstractive pattern-matching, or be able to actually perform it. A translator can of course perform the process, though it is entirely possible that he will perform it differently; one of things we do know about such abstraction is that it is dependent on salience to the individual. In any case, instead of selecting an arbitrary and completely unfamiliar notion of a "repeatable event form," it would seem to make more sense to allow that the universal is simply the abstraction thus created. The repeatable form is exactly that which triggers the matching of the pattern of the stimulus against the sentence, and thereby prompts affirmation.

The insertion of this patina of set-theoretic empirical terminology explains nothing. It is entirely dependent on an undefined mental process that is the real source of the "meaning" of either a sentence or a term. Perhaps an explication of this issue is forthcoming later in the chapter or in later chapters. My suspicion is that Quine's approach is an attempt to connect behavior to logic, which might be viewed as a more rigorous treatment. But abstraction is the connection of behavior to logic, and assuming it without explanation avoids the most important topic.

Notes on Quine, Word and Object, Chapter 2 (Translation and Meaning), first half

In this chapter we consider the extent to which language can be understood through stimulus conditions. and how much the underlying conceptual scheme can vary given consistent verbal dispositions.

Section 7, First Steps of Radical Translation: Simply to say that the underlying meaning varies, but the variance is not reflected in verbal disposiions may be making "a distinction without a difference." We can solve that via an abstract mapping of sentences among each other, or more concretely, via examination of radical translation (i.e., of a language that evolved completely autonomously, and without an interpreter). The only information available for such a translation are the stimuli of the native and the native's verbal and non-verbal behavior. Translation starts with events that are salient to both the native and the translator. The translator must query the native in a variety of stimulus conditions to determine the actual scope of a word, and to accomplish this must first learn how the native signals assent or dissent. The translator then needs to accumulate inductive evidence for both dissent and assent for each sentence, and discern causality properly.

Section 8, Stimulation and Stimulus Meaning: The native's assent is prompted by stimulations, not objects, and we should not think of them as a momentary static irradiation, but evolving patterns of a duration up to a temporal modulus, and in their spatial entirety. Further, such stimuli must be viewed not as particulars that are alike but as universals that repeat. The affirmative stimulus meaning is then the class of all such stimulations that prompt the native to assent, and the negative stimulus meaning those that would prompt his dissent; the stimulus meaning is the ordered pair of the two, but more completely, qualified with respect to the modulus, speaker, and time of assessment.

Section 9, Occasion Sentences. Intrusive Information: Occasion sentences are those that prompt assent or dissent only by current (relative to modulus) stimulation, whereas standing sentences would do so outside the modulus. Stimuli belonging to neither the affirmative nor negative stimulus meaning of an occasion sentence are caused by either "shock" or indecisiveness; for standing sentences it can also be due to irrelevance. Stimulus meaning is most important for occasion sentences. Sameness of stimulus meaning has shortcomings as defining the synonymy relation. Collateral information such as knowledge unique to the speaker, knowledge common only to the speaker's community, or hints provided linguistically to the speaker all create a mismatch. This is difficult to fix, in part because we cannot definitively separate what we are talking about from what we can say about it. Thus, sameness of stimulus meaning is too strict to expect between a native occasion sentence and its translation, so a translator must use significant approximation. Crucial in this project is the natural expectation that people will have simple expressions for common and salient events or objects.

Section 10, Observation Sentences: With expressions of color, the sameness of stimulus meaning comes very close to synonymy. In translation there is a shade grouping issue, but we can handle gradations using reaction time in addition to assent or dissent. In contrast, the stimulus meaning of an abstraction like "Bachelor" is not a good way to describe its meaning. We thus distinguish observation sentences, whose stimulus meaning does not vary with collateral information, and a continuum of observationality ranging from "Red" to "Bachelor." Highly observational expressions tend to have strong intersubjective correspondence of stimulus meaning. Observationality also varies with the modulus. Observation sentences are compatible with traditional notions, including "infallibility" and agreement among observers, though they are about ordinary things rather than sense data. Unlike stimulus meaning, observationality depends on similarity across speakers. Sentences learned ostensively tend to be highly observational. Those low in observationality tend to be based on a largely random personal history and have a random stimulus meaning.

Section 11, Intrasubjective Synonymy of Occasion Sentences: Stimulus meaning is a good stand-in for synonymy with respect to a particular speaker, including across languages, but it is not equivalent to "meaning." We can also test - but not easily hypothesize - intra-language synonymous sentences via the same speaker. Altogether, intrasubjective stimulus meaning is more useful than intersubjective, because it handles observation sentences, speaker shock, and to a significant extent, collateral information. However, in cases of words about words, or where collateral information is precisely the reason for the synonymy, or in the case of community information, even intrasubjectively it can fail. We should stick with short sentences, to avoid parsing errors, but can follow rules to construct longer sentences from them.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Contemptible Casuistry

"Casuistry" is a rarely-used word with two primary definitions. The more contemporary refers to specious or sophistical arguments generally. The earlier (derived from the Latin casus, or "case of conscience") pertains to the application of general principles to particular moral cases. Increasingly in our public discourse, we see claims that fuse these two definitions. Such claims involve a logical fallacy that attempts to avoid the trench warfare of substantive argumentation by launching a syllogistic nuclear attack.

In the event, the proponent cites a general principle that is apparently uncontroversial, then illustrates how it applies to the present circumstances. The opponent is initially struck by this argument, as each leg of the syllogism seems impervious. Nevertheless he recovers quickly upon realizing that in another particular case, the proponent would not follow the principle as stated, i.e., is guilty of intellectual inconsistency.

When charged with this infraction, the proponent follows one of two courses. Either he explains that the second case is different, typically by elaborating and narrowing the scope of one of the terms in the statement of the original general principle; or he explicitly amends the general principle with one or more qualifiers. Both paths create the same result: they exclude the opponent's counterexample from application of the principle while preserving the original case.

The opponent is free to disagree with the updated and now less-general, more-debatable principle. However, as in negotiation anchoring, the force of the original general principle lingers and puts the him on the defensive as the discussion turns to the substantive questions at issue.

In such a scenario it is entirely possible that the proponent is in the right regarding the substantive debate. Whether or not intentional, however, the initial general principle acts as a manipulative rhetorical device. If the opponent is alert, he can return the argument to its rightful place in substance, possibly in a defensive posture; but if not, he may exit the scene with tail tucked.

To illustrate this process, I provide two examples. These particular cases were selected because, first, they are rough descriptions of actual conversations I have had with people; and second, so as to illustrate that this behavior is multi-partisan. Incidentally, I openly acknowledge the risk that I fall prey to a self-referential casuistry in this very selection of examples.

Those opposing the legality of abortion sometimes appeal to the "sanctity of life" as an argument. It is common, though not ecumenical, that these same individuals also favor capital punishment. When this apparent inconsistency is pointed out, the usual appeal is to add the qualifier "innocent." This reduces the universal appeal and power of the principle considerably, and relies heavily on the particulars of "innocent," including one's view of free will, the role of environment and genetics in shaping behavior, risks of epistemic error regarding innocence, etc. Interestingly, it does not seem to include the notion of original sin. In any case, the original proposal that the sanctity of life is key to the discussion is simply a distraction from the substantive question of when life must be respected and why.

Those who express anger at calls for the impeachment of President Obama sometimes refer to the principle that we should not "use the impeachment power frivolously." When one points out that similar calls came from the left for the impeachment of President G.W. Bush, these individuals respond that that is a different situation, it is not frivolous because (for example) Bush lied to the American people, as though Presidential prevarication were extraordinary. This returns us to the substantive matter, which is precisely the question of whether impeachment is actually appropriate.

When presented intentionally, casuistic arguments are at once cynical and hypocritical. Intellectual inconsistency intentionally applied is very nearly the definition of hypocrisy. Such techniques are cynical because they degrade the value of following general principles merely to win an argument or one's preferences. I urge the reader to refrain from casuistry, and to fiercely resist when facing it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Universal Morality

Nietzsche begins aphorism 25 in Human, All Too Human, by dismissing some historical notions of moral guidance, namely God, a sense of manifest destiny, and Kant's categorical imperative. He then calls into question, without fully dismissing, the idea that a universal morality is possible or even desirable. His conclusion is that we need to gain a scientific knowledge of the conditions of culture, and that that is an important task for great minds of the future.

I want to briefly examine what a universal morality is, and in particular, what we mean by "universal." Some possibilities include: a morality that is actually practiced by everyone; one that is internally consistent; or one that "ought to" be practiced by everyone, i.e., it is objectively correct.

The first possibility is straightforward to dismiss. Even in eras and venues where overall conformity to particular moral scruples is high, there has always been non-compliance, both intentional and unintentional. Perhaps more illuminating, one is unlikely to find even a single individual who with absolute consistency practices his own moral code. Though this empirical observation does not prove its impossibility, practice is surely our least promising notion of moral universality.

In contrast, it is easy to show that internal consistency is possible. Nihilism, the complete absence of values, is the simplest example, though vacuous. The categorical imperative, "always act in such a way that the maxims of your will could function as the basis of a universal law of action" enshrines the notion of logical consistency itself as the fundamental principle. However, alone it provides no actual prescriptions, and puts the burden of determining those prescriptions on the individual. Surely not all, and possibly no, individuals are capable of fully analyzing the question of "what could function the basis of a universal law." Further, even with such analysis, wildly divergent views such as "murder everyone I see" and "never harm a soul" both can function as universal laws.

Just as damaging, discerning what components of actions are "maxims of will" and which are mere particulars is an abstractive process that is subject to both error and subjective interpretation. Thus individuals will come to different conclusions and there will be a wide diversity of actual practice.

These examples, which are not merely examples but shining historical attempts to find universality, suggest that logical consistency may be necessary but is probably not sufficient for anything we could reasonably call a universal morality. If the maxim results in very little consistency in practice, it is a merely theoretical exercise that misses the point of practical reason.

Moving on to address the proposal of moral codes that are objectively correct, I enlist the notion of risk profile. While moral problems are often posed in a context of perfect predictability, we humans are never faced with such crisp decision opportunities. Instead, it is necessary to make decisions based on probability distributions and outcome valuations. While these distributions are subject to knowledge limitations, that is not the primary difficulty. Instead, even given an agreed probability distribution and outcome valuation profile, different subjects will prefer different choices. Whether caused by innate inclinations or developmental desires, some individuals are comfortable taking risky actions with the appropriate compensation, while others are more comfortable with the security and lower likely compensation of a less risky choice.

This variation is not subject to an objective determination. As long as risk levels are rationally compensated, one cannot choose among the options without subjective risk profile context. Further, zero risk and unlimited risk approaches are neither possible nor sustainable. Thus any attempt to "draw a line" will have an arbitrary flavor. I conclude that there is no objectively correct universal ethics.

Notes on Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human, Section One: Of First and Last Things

Given that the book takes an aphoristic approach, I have attempted to condense the aphorisms into truly short statements. This necessarily leaves out important material, but my hope is that this condensed version at least reasonably states some of the points made. Note that in some cases I have used words directly from the translation without quotations.

1. Metaphysics denies opposites; historical philosophy holds that they are simplifications of a more basic element. What we need is a chemistry of morality, religion, and aesthetics.

2. Philosophers fail to have a historical sense; they do not recognize that everything evolves, and there are no eternal facts nor absolute truths.

3. Hard won, humble, and enduring truths are superior to grandiose but frivolous metaphysical, or narrow and concrete perceptual, claims.

4. Man tends to think that the world revolves around human concerns, but the truth is more of a two-way street.

5. Dreams are the origin of metaphysics, because without them man would have had no need to divide the world.

6. Philosophy tries to give great depth and meaning to knowledge, life and activity, sometimes through grandiose metaphysics. Science, in contrast, only seeks knowledge.

7. The search for happiness has unfortunately focused and limited the scope of science.

8. Metaphysics uses spirits to explain nature, and mystical approaches are still common today.

9. It is possible that there is a metaphysical world, but we believe in it due to bad methods of knowledge. If it does exist, it is inscrutable and any knowledge of it would be inconsequential.

10. When origins of religion, art, and morality have been described without reliance on metaphysics, we no longer have to concern ourselves with the distinction between thing-in-itself and appearance.

11. Language and logic are powerful, but they are founded on an error, the assumption there are identical things across time.

12. Dreams are like an earlier state of mankind, when hallucinations were frequent and we easily confused things based on superficial similarities.

13. In dreams and sometimes imagination, as in an earlier conscious state of mankind, the mind concludes from the effect to the most obvious cause, yet experiences it as cause to effect.

14. We experience moral and religious feelings as unities, but actually they are complex with many contributing elements.

15. Deep and complex thoughts can be very far from the truth, and an intense feeling that stimulates them guarantees nothing about knowledge.

16. The projections of the intellect from appearance to thing-in-itself are errors, but ones with great value to humanity. Nevertheless, the thing-in-itself is empty of meaning.

17. Metaphysical explanations both reduce our responsibility and make things more interesting; but those same effects can also be gained scientifically through physical and historical explanations.

18. All belief originates in pleasure and pain. We have thus inherited two original errors, that of freedom of the will and that of unconditioned substances and identical things.

19. We invent entities and unities that do not exist; the laws of numbers are only applicable to the human world, not the unconditioned world.

20. Once we get past superstition, religion, and metaphysics, we must then return to them to understand their historical and psychological importance and how much they have actually contributed.

21. If we cannot use any metaphysical explanations, we are likely to become skeptical about the subject.

22. A disadvantage of abandoning the metaphysical is the apparent elimination of the incentive to think and act long-term. But the accumulation of scientific truths can eventually play the same role.

23. The breakdown of provincialism has ushered in an age of comparison regarding views, customs, and culture, as well as the forms and habits of morality.

24. Previously culture developed unconsciously and randomly, but men can choose to develop culture consciously; this kills the old culture and makes progress possible.

25. The notion of a universal morality is widely accepted, but naive and possibly completely undesirable; the great task of the next century is to discover the knowledge of the conditions of culture.

26. Occasionally there are influential people who conjure up a past phase of mankind (e.g., Luther, Schopenhauer), and this demonstrates that the newer tendencies are not yet strong enough. This is crucial to correcting erroneous elements of the new way before moving forward.

27. Religion satisfied real needs for which philosophy will now substitute; we should use art to mitigate the difficulties of this transition.

28. We should not use the terms "optimism" and "pessimism," nor should we use the terms "good" and "evil" except in reference to men, as opposed to the world.

29. Religion and art, and the associated errors of idea, have brought great meaning, and happiness and sorrow, to man. Nevertheless, we understand the world through science, not art and religion.

30. The most common errors are to think that a thing's existence makes it legitimate and if an opinion makes us glad it must be true. The free spirit often is tempted to make exactly contrary deductions, which are usually just as false.

31. The illogical is necessary for man and much good comes from it; even the most rational man needs nature and his illogical basic attitude at times.

32. We are illogical and therefore unfair beings, and we can know this; it is an insoluble disharmony of existence.

33. The ordinary man empathizes as little as possible with others; if he did he would despair about the value of life. Only by rejoicing in the activity of great men, or the great activities of mankind, can one have a positive view, and this is impure thinking.

34. A man's temperament determines the aftereffect of knowledge; the truth can lead to despair, but with a different attitude, by rising above the everyday disputes and evaluations and being content, he can have joy.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Confidence in Decisions and Knowledge

A decision is a mental act whereby one selects or specifies an intended course of action. Importantly, the decision itself is separate from both its antecedent basis (whether perceived or actual) and any subsequent attempts at enactment. In recent conversations, I have noticed people confusing these three things: the how and why of the decision, the actual making of the choice, and the means of implementing the choice, particularly when other people are involved. This bears further scrutiny.

A good decision is rational in a broad sense - it takes into account as much information as is reasonably available, attempts to anticipate outcomes and implications (or their likelihoods) accurately, and evaluates the relative merits of those outcomes. It is impossible to have complete information and knowledge relating to a decision; consequently it is always necessary to combine logical analysis with more intuitive modes of reasoning. In all cases, these processes use confidence-qualified knowledge as their raw material.

For example, a manager of a team may be faced with a budget shortfall and instructions from above to lay off one team member. The manager has relatively complete knowledge of the amount of the budget shortfall and the salaries and other costs associated with each individual on the team. She has varying levels of experience with each team member's productivity, skill sets, and cultural contribution, such experience varying mostly with duration of tenure. She also has some sense of the relationships among the team and the likely emotional reactions people will have to a termination in general as well as to particular terminations.

All of this knowledge contributes to the decision, but note that not all of it is of equal quality and confidence. A rational decision must take knowledge confidence into account. For example, one of the employees might be clearly the least productive, but also well-liked. The manager has a high level of confidence in the productivity impact of a termination, but less confidence in her prediction of the emotional reaction of the team. A low level of confidence on a crucial item may suggest gathering additional information if possible, but this cannot be pursued indefinitely, and at the moment of the decision one must always take knowledge confidence levels into account, even if only intuitively.

After the decision is made (the moment of decision itself is amusingly both vacuous and encompassing), implementation normally follows. For our purposes here, I assume the decision-maker and the implementer are the same, though interesting intricacies arise when the roles are separated. When other people are involved, the implementation can be quite complex, and may include persuasion, amelioration, motivation, and other leadership behaviors and skills. Essential among these is the confidence projected by the leader. Support for a decision (whether required in advance or important in arrears) will not be forthcoming if the leader is publicly tentative about the decision after it is made.

The extent of deviation between a decision-maker's public presentation of confidence after the decision, and his actual confidence in the correctness of the decision, is a question of ethics; by this I mean not just a purely "moral" ethics but also including the practical, long-term reputational impact. Let us not address the details of that question here, but simply assume that there will naturally be some difference.

We have now arrived at the heart of the matter. It is essential that the decision-maker does not propagate this publicly projected confidence backward to his knowledge confidence levels that figured in the decision itself. This would be a clear epistemic error and an irrational confusion, detrimental in two important ways: first, the particular confidence levels that are adjusted might later be used in future decisions, which will then have an implicit bias. Second, this behavior can easily become a progressive habit, whereby the leader mis-leads himself about his knowledge. Among other consequences, he will then be less inclined to seek further information at times when it is rationally warranted, and increasingly use uninformed instinctual processes. Ironically, the risk of this is greatest when a decision-maker has a history of making good and correct decisions, since such outcomes reinforce the public leadership confidence spread.

Returning to the previous example, our manager presents the termination to the team with a confident countenance, and erroneously increments her confidence in the productivity and cultural contribution of one of the remaining team members who was also being considered for termination. Later, she selects that team member over another for an important role, in part based on the incorrect confidence, and this decision backfires. Or, she fails to spend the requisite time required to familiarize herself with a new team member, because she began to confuse her confidence in her decision abilities with confidence in her knowledge.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Critique of Quine's Word and Object, Chapter 1 (Language and Truth)

While the chapter is filled with insights, at least two fundamental elements are seriously misguided: sentence learning and behavioral conditioning.

First, he simply asserts and provides no evidence or justification that we primarily learn sentences rather than words. While we obviously hear and read words in linguistic context, normal speech has no explicit auditory divisions whatsoever until we have learned to separate phonemes, words, and sentences through other means. We know from psychological studies (subsequent to Quine's work) that we can learn to separate spoken words of an unfamiliar language passively, merely through sufficient exposure to the language, via the brain's implicit statistical learning processes. Given that sentences themselves rarely recur, whereas words usually do, there is no basis on which to justify the assertion.

This does not mean that the sentential context does not provide information about the meaning of words, or that Quine's idea that the sentences we know or believe do not form a knowledge fabric. But the problem he is attempting to address is one of the validity of theories and the meanings of theoretical terms, not the psychological processes by which we obtain linguistic semantics. Indeed his description of how sentences push and pull in mutual representation, and vary with usage and context is insightful. It anticipates Landauer's theory of Latent Semantic Analysis (Landauer & Dumais 1997), whereby word learning operates via global semantic adjustment through a fabric of interconnected meaning. Ironically, Quine's concerns (from later chapters) regarding the inscrutability of reference are one of the key targets in this seminal paper.

In any case, beyond the emphasis on sentence as opposed to word learning, Quine seems to have a distinctly behaviorist view of how language is learned. Behaviorism was of course quite in vogue at the time he was writing, and it was likely a paradigmatic foundation for most discussions of psychology. Surely in the very earliest stages of a child's linguistic development, there is some repetition, reward, and rebuke involved. However, within a few months of beginning to learn language, a child begins to understand language in general, and entirely different processes enter in.

In particular, a child learns that things have names, and in combination with natural abilities to notice, remember, and group similarities in perceptual stimuli along with motivational elements such as emotional significance or perceptual distinctiveness, the child can perform the earliest elements of conceptualization without direct assistance or any sort of social reinforcement. He might even assign a temporary neologism or perhaps an exemplar/memory-based reference to the object, culminating in the question "what's dat?" The answer, which is the only social contribution, is remembered, and the word is now assigned to the representation via a single training example. It does not need to be reinforced.

Of equal concern is the emphasis only on the formal representations of knowledge without consideration of the underlying psychological semantics, including memories of particular exemplars, syntheses of exemplar qualities (both perceptual and otherwise), informal contextual links (e.g., those two words were both learned when I was hungry - perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not), and emotional valence. A word brings to mind all these things, not just the object of reference, and the fabric of connections among words and concepts operates through these elements as well as directly through the words (contra Landauer as well). Models like those of Barsalou (Barsalou 1999) that have amassed considerable evidence illustrating how non-symbolic representations that co-activate in the brain (called "simulations") push and pull and both contribute to learning and provide a great deal of semantic content.

In short, while Quine's approach may provide important insight into the formal propositional structure of theories and knowledge, his forays into developmental psychology are found mostly wanting.