Monday, December 28, 2015

Phenomena of Freedom

What does it feel like to make a choice?

Our answer should be organized by tense: what does it feel like to be faced with a choice; what does it feel like to be making a choice; and what does it feel like to have made a choice. Our focus will be on those aspects relating to the question of freedom of will, thus the experience of conscious, deliberate choices. For if we do not have freedom in those cases we surely do not have it in unconscious decisions.

When we are faced with a choice, depending on the circumstances we may or may not notice that there is a prerequisite meta-choice involved: whether to make any decision at all in the present. Decisions require mental energy and usually involve commitment risk, so avoidance of unnecessary choices is an adaptive behavior. In evaluating this prior choice, we are motivated primarily by the possible consequences of failing to make a decision now. Sometimes it will make no difference; other times it will merely delay the achievement of some goal; and sometimes it is a matter of physical safety. On either extreme we will likely not even notice the meta-choice since our instincts take over; and the meta-meta-choice does not arise in practice, as it is merely a question of whether to be conscious of the decision.

Let us consider the experiential phenomena immediately after we have decided (whether consciously or instinctively) that we will or must make a conscious first-order choice. We consider our options in turn or in parallel, by visualizing their consequences. To some extent we attempt to simulate the experience of what it is like to be in the world that exists after a particular option is selected – both the substantive outcomes and how we feel about having made that choice. We may feel an urge to gather information and may actually do so. We may feel confident or uncertain about the outcomes we are visualizing. In all this, and whatever other thought processes or related activities we pursue, we experience the work of making the choice. It does not feel “ballistic” whereby our course is determined externally or in advance. It feels like the choice will not be made unless we make it ourselves.

Emotionally, this feels like a burden. It is up to us, and us alone, when are faced with that choice. We sense that it needs to be made, that making it requires effort, our effort, and further that we will be responsible for the consequences.

The actual experience of making the decision depends on our confidence or decisiveness. If we are decisive, it feels much like a switch flipping. Suddenly, we are on the other side, and we feel a sense of relief and possibly enthusiasm. If we are indecisive, it will feel more like the switch flipping back and forth, always in motion, never quite stopping on one side. When we do finally decide, though we feel the switch finally land in one position, we feel discomfort or dread, even continuing to revisit the other options, now either in a past tense or even evaluating whether it is too late to change the decision (which feels quite different from making another choice in the first place).

After having made the choice and learned the consequences, we are likely to experience either satisfaction or regret. We see how the choice played a role in the outcome, whether or not in the manner we originally envisioned prior to making the choice. We see how it would have been different had we made a different choice. We feel that the outcome was, at least in part, due to our choice, and we are therefore, at least partly, responsible for the outcome.

We can exploit this phenomenology to argue for freedom in at least two ways. The first is to apply a form of eidetic reduction. As an example of how this might proceed, Sartre famously makes an eidetic argument for the existence of other minds:

I have just made an awkward or vulgar gesture. This gesture clings to me; I neither judge it nor blame it. I simply live it. I realize it in the mode of for-itself. But now suddenly I raise my head. Somebody was there and has seen me. Suddenly I realize the vulgarity of my gesture, and I am ashamed. It is certain that my shame is not reflective, for the presence of another in my consciousness, even as a catalyst, is incompatible with the reflective attitude; in the field of my reflection I can never meet with anything but the consciousness which is mine. But the Other is the indispensable mediator between myself and me. I am ashamed of myself as I appear to the Other (Being and Nothingness, H. Barnes translation, p. 302).
Similarly, in the case of conscious choice, we cannot shed the prior experience of burden nor the subsequent experience of satisfaction or regret that accompanies the outcome. For example, we might imagine having to choose whether an injured and unconscious parent should undergo surgery. We know that there are great risks and we feel the burden of the choice in part because we anticipate the feeling of regret that will accompany an incorrect decision. If the parent dies, the felt regret is powerful and long-lasting, and it connects to our memory of the experience of the burden of the choice. Applying Sartre’s terminology, freedom is an indispensable mediator connecting the felt burden with the subsequent feeling of regret. We cannot make sense of these feelings without freedom.

A second approach is epistemic in nature. We explored certain epistemic considerations in a previous post, Causation and Self; here we will consider the concept of choice in particular. Like all terms, “choice” aggregates, synthesizes, and abstracts a history of applicable experiences. However, concepts of pure phenomena are different than those of external objects in that we do not act as epistemic intermediaries. Saul Kripke considers this with respect to pain and other mental states:

To be in the same epistemic situation that would obtain if one had a pain is to have a pain; to be in the same epistemic situation that would obtain in the absence of a pain is not to have a pain… Pain … is not picked out by one of its accidental properties; rather it is picked out by the property of being pain itself, by its immediate phenomenological quality (Naming and Necessity, p. 152).

It is plausible that choice is, like pain, a concept of mental states, of pure phenomena. When we say we have a choice, we are not normally talking about ourselves as a biological machine that is computing a utility function. Even when we think of another human, or even some animals, making a choice, we normally imagine their experience of choice rather than seeing them as an inanimate object that might fall one way and might fall another.

If we accept this phenomenological version of the concept, then when we say we are faced with a choice or made a choice, it is the experiences described earlier to which we refer. The experience of choice, and in particular the feeling that the choice will not be made unless we make it, and that after we made it we were responsible for it, is what choice means. Thus when we ask the question whether a choice is free, we must turn to the nature of those experiences, not to an external, mechanical notion that is not constitutive of the meaning of the word. Viewed in this way, each referent of the term was experienced unambiguously as our choice and that we were free to make it.

Horgan and Timmons argued recently that we cannot rely on phenomena to establish freedom, because the representational purport of the phenomena is theory-laden (“Introspection and the Phenomenology of Free Will”, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2011). In other words, we cannot assume that we would experience freedom only if it that freedom were genuine in some underlying physical sense. Indeed, a reductionist neuroscientist might well say that our phenomena of choice are just how we experience the brain making a decision, mere epiphenomena. But this approach assumes that the concepts of choice and freedom refer primarily to a physical process, and we have suggested above that this is neither necessary nor consistent with typical use.

Consequently, answering the question of whether we have freedom of will depends on our concept of choice. If we insist that it incorporate physical mechanisms, then as we saw in The Metaphysics of Freedom, the question is likely unanswerable. If we treat choice as a concept of mental states or pure phenomenal experience, the answer is manifestly libertarian.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Facticity of Values

Some theories of ethics hold that there are moral facts, either existing independently or implied by other facts. While this may or may not be so, we can invert the analysis and note that there is a connection between our values and future facts. This is mediated by two assumptions: first, that we act to pursue those values; and second, that the world is at least partially responsive to our actions. We might call this idea that our choice of values has consequences the facticity of values.

Just as we can use knowledge to attempt to predict the future state of the world, we can make predictions about the consequences of pursuing a particular value, or a set or hierarchy of them. However, our choices are only one factor in any particular circumstance, and such predictions are at best stochastic in nature. We gain more reliable insight from the analysis by assuming that values are to be pursued consistently over a period of time. As with any prediction, these are also subject to knowledge error, implying that they should be accompanied by a measure of the degree of confidence we have in them.

Suppose that by some means we have arrived at a set of values that we tentatively intend to pursue. We have a variety of means of examining their implications. For example, we could observe the lives of others (whether personally acquainted, documented historical figures, or through testimony) who have pursued similar values and note whether there is a pattern in the consequences. We could apply psychological or sociological theories, or philosophical beliefs about human nature. Or we can test the waters by actually pursuing these values ourselves and attending to the results.

In the course of such an examination we may find that our selected values are mutually consistent and supportive. However, we may instead find that there is some conflict – whether of great or lesser import – among them. Or, in seeing the consequences we may discover that we have neglected to account for a value that we in fact hold dear.

Let us consider an example. Suppose that among our highest values is to have and show compassion for other people. Then imagine that a close friend suffers from severe substance addiction. He is out on the street, and has no money, and asks for financial assistance – allegedly for food or shelter, but as likely to be used to procure the offending substance. The psychological notion of enabling, wherein someone who helps another to reduce the immediate consequences of their behavior thereby makes it possible for that behavior to persist, suggests an evident conflict in values. It seems that our compassion is self-defeating in this instance.

To aid in determining consequences, we can begin with a taxonomy of areas where conflict is likely to manifest. Physical implications are those that result from natural laws, including not only laws of physics but also of biology. For example, if I value athletic achievement, the effect on my body must be considered. Psychological implications can relate to self or other. For example, my actions may embed in me a habitual behavior, or hurt the feelings of my friends. Sociological implications relate to the response of society to our actions, or to influences we might have on society. The former includes such effects as ostracism or incarceration. Regarding the latter, historically such influences were mostly taken into account if one were in a position of power and influence (e.g., in determining the values by which the President of the United States should abide), but increasingly individuals consider the behavior of companies in which they invest or from whom they buy products.

Now, supposing that we have discovered an apparent conflict in our proposed values by means of assessing their consequences, how shall we respond? We are of course free to either ignore or postpone resolution of the issue. But this leaves us in a position of acting against our own values. If we seek to consciously and deliberately pursue our values, we must seek resolution.

A first step is to review our confidence in the predicted consequences as well as the probability that they will occur. If we have low confidence that the prediction is correct, then we might either work to improve that confidence or defer a decision until more information can be obtained. Common but pernicious is to reduce our assessment of confidence in the prediction so as to preserve the existing value structure. This is especially seen in cases where values are selected as a complete package (e.g., through religion), creating a defensive inclination. Note that this creates a secondary conflict of values, because the package of values is itself treated as a value that is in conflict with predicting their consequences. In such cases, to remain rational we must simply discard the analysis as irrelevant, rather than denying the knowledge it provides.

If the prediction of a conflict is likely to be correct, but is very low probability, we may be able to treat it as a special case. Otherwise, to maintain a coherent set of values, we need to either modify their relative priorities, or to elaborate them with greater specificity of circumstances, or perhaps rethink the structure as a whole. In the substance abuse example above, we might resolve our compassion conflict by, for example, making a distinction between compassion aimed at short- and long-term results, or by distinguishing between communicating compassion as opposed to acting on it.

In all this, we can distinguish between values themselves and our pursuit of them. Presumably, if we do not pursue a value then its predicted antagonistic consequences will not, or are less likely, to occur. By retaining that value in an idle state, if we then come by new knowledge, or circumstances change, such that we change the predicted consequences, then we may at that time wish to pursue it.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Toward Philosophy of Entrepreneurship

Specialty areas of philosophy that relate to a professional field (e.g., philosophy of law or philosophy of science) suffer from an ambiguity in their identity. Are such studies part of philosophy generally, or part of the field itself? The ambiguity arises in part because philosophy itself is usually considered a distinct field within the academy, rather than merely as a way of looking at things. A further confound is that any such specialized philosophy borrows methods and concepts from more general philosophy and may depend on its more general results. The ethics of science cannot be sundered from ethics any more than it can from science.

Despite this categorization challenge, we can normally establish a general sense of the subject matter to be considered in a philosophical specialty. We might say that it comprises the most general topics that relate to the field, or involve the application of more general philosophical conclusions to aspects of that field. In the analytic philosophical tradition it might involve careful review of the central terminology, whereas in the continental tradition it could explore the deeper meaning of the field or of being a member of it. To the extent that philosophy interacts with substantive theories within the field (those quotidian to the practitioner), the specialty philosopher aims primarily to contextualize and explore broader implications of a theory rather than passing judgment on its merits and particulars.

With that introduction we can consider the possibility of a philosophy of entrepreneurship. Academic courses have started to arise with this title, usually with a mix of a small amount of philosophy and a larger amount of substantive theory. But we can quickly see that entrepreneurship, as a rapidly growing and evolving professional field, admits of the same sort of analysis that science, law, or technology have undergone. We can ask questions like what entrepreneurship is, what is its value and how can it be used to implement values, what sorts of epistemic concerns arise, and how does it interact with human action, technology, sociology, economics, and politics along with their philosophical underpinnings. We can look at its practitioners and its place in their lives, and even whether there is an aesthetic element to it.

In contrast with my usual practice of commencing a topic by working through analytically-styled definitions, I will take this opportunity instead to explore some metaphysical aspects of entrepreneurship through a continental lens. My purpose in this is not to provide a definitive elaboration, but rather to show some possible connections with established philosophy, thereby beginning the process of treating philosophy of entrepreneurship as a genuine discipline. Do not despair if some of what follows seems obscure or patently obvious. Instead, allow it to inspire ideas of your own, even if they may be contrary.

Every entrepreneur begins with an idea combined with a desire. We all know people who have one or the other but not both; such individuals are not entrepreneurs, although they may be valuable in an entrepreneurial endeavor. The two elements are combined via a relation: the desire is for the idea to be realized.

As in most creative pursuits, and entrepreneurship is surely creative, the idea along with the desire for its realization often comes suddenly, as a spark or a flash of insight. This is the moment when the entrepreneurial journey begins, when the entrepreneur has the epiphany “it must be so”*, and is committed. Third-party assessments of the strength of this commitment may vary, since we know that psychologically, many entrepreneurial personalities are prone to changes of heart, and in any case the commitment may only be to perform an initial exploration or to start off in a general direction. Yet the phenomenology of this moment for the entrepreneur is one of genuine commitment, of heaviness, possibly of destiny or fate, or alternatively as a definitive exercise of free will. “It must be so, and I will make it so.”

We might be struck by the correspondence between what has just been said and Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as will and representation, also the title of his principal work. The entrepreneurial idea is necessarily a representation – it is something that does not exist in the world, but only in the mind of the entrepreneur. Now, Schopenhauer actually takes representations to fully constitute the world that we experience, as phenomena; they are as close as we can get to any alleged external world. The idea held by the entrepreneur is in a sense even further removed, in that it belongs to a class of fictional representations that we believe do not exist, even as phenomena. The will, then, seeks to transform this fictive representation into one that we experience as a direct phenomenon. It is the conduit for the becoming of the idea, which at first exists only as representation, and later as phenomenon, and finally as a representation of that phenomenon.

Despite the enticing correspondence and the possibly rich lessons we could extrapolate, we are not bound to the metaphysics of German idealism. We can say more simply that the entrepreneur has an idea and seeks to realize it. The word “realize” here implies that there is a real and external world, distinguishable (though not dualistically distinct) from the mind in which the idea is constructed. The entrepreneur uses her mind to construct the idea, her will to commit to it, and her will, mind, and body to realize it and then to perceive it as realized.

The satisfaction of having an idea realized in this way cannot be overstated. Nietzsche might classify it as an exercise of our will to power, our essential nature that drives the best of us to create, in the world, according to our own vision. But no matter our preferred notion of will, to have independently (and therefore authentically) envisioned, committed, and finally realized, is a satisfaction of will and among the most rewarding experiences of life. The vision, the commitment, and the struggle to its realization: these are all filled with meaning to the entrepreneur as a human being. It is possibly the quintessence of Heidegger’s notion of being-in-the-world.

Another important idea in continental and existentialist philosophy is disclosure, which is a kind of uncovering, a revealing of a truth that was previously hidden or inaccessible. The first glimpse of such a putative truth occurs whenever someone has a creative idea, whether or not accompanied by desire. The entrepreneur, who brings forth desire, commits to unfurling that truth and completing its disclosure through action.

We are tempted here to say that success for an entrepreneur is when such a truth is fully disclosed in the form of a human need and a way to fulfill it. But building it does not ensure that they will come; if they do not come, what was disclosed was not the truth envisioned – rather the opposite. The market might be too small, the competitors too strong. Yet, errors of execution or shortcoming of effort aside, there is a sense in which even a contrary disclosure constitutes success.

Simone de Beauvoir explores disclosure as it applies to the self. From an existentialist viewpoint, humans live in an anxious ambiguity between having no purpose arising unprompted from our mere existence, and having the freedom or will to create that purpose on our own. How we live our lives discloses our purpose and defines who we are. The entrepreneur, who envisions, embraces, and realizes an idea, creates her purpose through this vehicle and discloses important truths about herself, thus (paraphrasing Nietzsche) becoming who she is. Whether or not the original idea is disclosed as a truth, this self-disclosure is heroic! Most humans pass life watching the shadows flicker on the walls of the cave.

Up to this point, our discussion is not strongly particular to the entrepreneur – it is largely applicable to any creator, including for example artists and authors. What is essentially different about the entrepreneur is that his idea describes an instrumental outcome. True, the works of artists and authors sometimes have an instrumental component in persuading the audience or moving it emotionally. But these goals remain somewhat mental, and any residual instrumental outcome is achieved through a pathway of conditioning rather than directly. So the creation of the entrepreneur emphasizes direct instrumentality: “I will build a better mousetrap, and people will use it to catch mice.” We see further that the entrepreneur must intend to fully realize the idea in its instrumental form. A design, a patent, even a prototype, is not the objective of the entrepreneur, though these artifacts may be milestones along the way.

We could explore many other razors to distinguish entrepreneurship from other endeavors. Intuitively, not all entrepreneurship is commercial, and not all commercial enterprises are entrepreneurial. Where might we draw these lines? Does the entrepreneur need to intend an outcome that is ongoing or self-sustaining, or do projects and expeditions qualify? Is a particular scale for the endeavor a desideratum, and related to that, is an organization required? We cannot answer all these questions here, but we can explore one final topic that might provide some clarity on these issues.

Theories about entrepreneurship make much of the concept of market disruption, essentially Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction.” Drucker views innovation as central to entrepreneurial endeavors. But what drives an entrepreneur to innovate and disrupt? Whence the “desire” that is so crucial in what we have discussed? Perhaps Nietzsche offers a hint: “This, yes, this alone is revenge itself: the will’s revulsion against time and its ‘it was.’” The will feels free to act in and on the future, but is helpless against the past. It acts in a spirit of revenge (broadly construed) to right the wrongs, to correct the errors, to establish that the will has its transcendent power after all, despite the facticity of what exists today. And indeed if we examine the psychology of an entrepreneur, we often find not just a desire to improve, but disdain or contempt for the present state of affairs, and sometimes frustration with or anger toward those who made that world. “This cannot stand,” says the entrepreneur, and he endeavors to innovate and disrupt, thereby wreaking revenge on that past, that time which he cannot change, and venting his will in a glorious act of creation of the future.

* Milan Kundera explores the notion of es muss sein (“it must be so”) in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Causation and Self

Intuitively it seems as though two things must be the case for us to have free will: first, that we could choose otherwise than what we do, and second, that we are the cause of our choices. For if the second holds but not the first, then our course is determined and our will is not really free; whereas if the first holds but not the second, then it is not really our own will.

We have already examined the first requirement, concluding that the question is essentially unanswerable. Let us now look closer at the second. We could make this statement in a variety of ways, such as “I am the cause of my actions”, “I am the cause of my decisions,” or stronger, “I am the final or uncaused cause of my decisions and actions.” To determine the truth status of these claims, we must understand better what they mean. We will do this by analyzing the concepts of “I” and “cause.”

We tend to view the world as containing a pattern of causes and effects, where every effect has some distinct and determinate cause that can be assigned, even if we cannot readily identify it. But this is a simplification: the state of affairs in the world at one point in time depends on the entire state of affairs just prior to that point in time. Consider a pair of billiard balls, where one strikes a second that subsequently rolls into a pocket. We would typically take the first ball and its motion to have caused the second ball to roll into the pocket. But we can easily see that the result depends on many factors: that both are supported by the table, that the table is level and immobile during the event, that there are no intervening balls or other objects. The outcome is also dependent on more general circumstances such as the force of gravity and the frictional coefficients of the felt and air against the ball and its elasticity upon being struck. We could even go further and consider everything that was required for those balls to be in just that position at that point in time – what caused the first ball to move, and how did those balls get there? It is not difficult to continue this extrapolation and see that, for example, the relative positions of the stars played some role.

Suppose some further context, that our billiard balls are involved in an experiment where we repeatedly place them in the same locations on the table and start the first ball in motion, each time with the table at a slightly different angle of repose. From this perspective, the initial motion of the first ball is assumed, and upon seeing the second ball roll into a pocket, we would attribute the cause of that to be our most recent adjustment of the table.

All this is to elucidate that our assignment of a cause seems to have a significant epistemic component. We elect to consider the state of the world and its changes in a particular way, in the context of serving some purpose. We do this by selecting one or a few factors that might help us predict, promote, or avoid the effect in the future, and treat all other factors as background assumptions. But, if our purposes or circumstances were different, we might make different assignments of factors. Aside from the state of the world as a whole, there is no verifiable physically privileged cause of an effect.

Let us now take up the concept of self, or “I.” Is it your body, your brain, your history, your influences, your memories, your conscious experience? Perhaps it is all of these; the essential point is that once again there is an epistemic operation, an abstraction, acting to circumscribe it. It is possible to consider one’s self in any or all of these ways, along with others.

However, we must beware the notion of a “transcendent self” that goes beyond any of these known and experienced things. It is difficult – even painful – to view ourselves merely as a physical object, or even just as our qualitative experience. Religions make this notion more explicit with concepts of soul or essence. As natural as this view is, and as difficult as it is to resist mentally, it is easily seen to be an unverifiable metaphysical posit. Consequently, the nature of free will in such a realm is only analyzable in terms of whatever features are subjectively assigned to the transcendent self. The reader may find such an analysis valuable; however, it would not aid in our efforts here to make progress in the general case.

Let us add two more ideas before assembling the account. The brain and the mind are extremely complex, possibly inscrutable, and in any case poorly understood. It is rarely the case that we can usefully isolate some aspect of brain function as a cause of a decision. It is also unusual that we can isolate a single mental cause, such as a desire, from all the other mental states we know are operating during the course of a decision. Consequently, the abstraction of the self is a natural boundary around which we can organize a causal analysis. While there may be a more granular diagnostic component within the brain or mind, even if we cannot identify it specifically, we know that it is somewhere in there.

Imagine that just at the moment of a decision, your brain was temporarily disabled by transcranial magnetic stimulation. The range of possible outcomes of the decision is extremely narrow in comparison to the range of outcomes if your brain is operating. Most likely, you would just sit still or fall over until brain function returned. Any useful action would require almost impossible background circumstances without the function of your brain. The concept of self, if identified at least partially by the brain, simplifies the analysis, because it is highly diagnostic. In our hypothetical, the self was suddenly not there and this meant that most outcomes that might otherwise follow became nearly impossible.

Bringing all this together, we see that the self is epistemically privileged as a locus of cause. If we avoid ascribing transcendent elements to the concept of self, it is straightforward to incorporate a vast number of factors that are difficult or impossible to analyze separately. And for virtually any purpose, isolating the self as the cause of a decision and treating other factors as the background is considerably more parsimonious than other options. In other words, saying that I am the cause of my decisions and actions is the most productive way to organize our thinking about decisions.

If you find this conclusion unsatisfying in the context of the question of free will, it is likely because you are attempting to account for either a transcendent self or a physically privileged cause. It feels uncomfortable to consider that your brain made a decision, because you don’t feel like your brain is the same as your self. It may therefore seem marginally more natural to view your mind as making the decision, but only if that mind is more than just the internal experience of your brain. This is the issue of the transcendent self. If the cause of an outcome could be allocated some other way without error, then it feels uncomfortable because I am not really the cause – that is only one way to think about it. This is the issue of a physically privileged cause.

We should quickly look at one final issue, that of the “final cause” or “uncaused cause.” If taken physically, this is largely incoherent. With the possible exception of the Big Bang, every circumstance has predecessors that either largely or entirely determine it. The self is no exception – there is an entire history including both experience and biological processes. Attempting to treat the self differently ventures into a transcendent view.

Returning to our original statements, to say “I am the cause of my decisions,” or something similar, is most assuredly true, given our deeper understanding of the terms and a purposeful context that includes seeking future outcomes that one finds desirable and avoiding outcomes that are undesirable.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Reference and the Laws of Thought

The traditional “laws of thought” (viz.: the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction, and the law of the excluded middle) place constraints on the sorts of epistemic constructions we consider valid. For example, we do not take seriously the claim that “John both is and is not a biological father,” unless it seems intended as a poetic or metaphorical statement.

Aristotle stated the law of non-contradiction as “one cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.” There are many problems with this form of the statement, including the finding that simultaneity is observer-relative, and that the phrase “in the same respect” is prone to No true Scotsman disputes. But there is a deeper concern: the rule only applies to what we can say, not what actually is the case in reality. In other words, the law does not say that a thing cannot both have and not have an attribute. It merely states that it is invalid to say or think that.

In this purely epistemic role, the laws of thought are stronger than mere rules. Some philosophers (e.g., Kant and Schopenhauer) have taken the position that they are conditions of thought and experience. We are helpless without them; we cannot even argue against them without using them. Yet these facts might simply reflect limitations of our intellectual equipment or modes of thinking. It therefore seems important to ask whether the laws of thought actually describe reality, or in philosophical argot, whether they refer. We might also examine the degree and basis of our confidence in any conclusions about the matter.

Let us begin with a naturalistic account, because we know that the laws of thought work. They have had clear survival value for us, as they are applied in virtually every aspect of human economic and technological action (I hesitate to include political action, for logic seems not to be influential in that domain). This suggests that there is, at minimum, some sort of relatively consistent mapping between the laws of thought and the way the world actually is or behaves. More precisely, we use the laws of thought to predict. By understanding the attributes that can be predicated of a class, and then successfully recognizing a member of that class, through syllogism we can predict that such a member will exhibit those attributes. Prediction, of course, enables us to avoid danger and exploit opportunity, with consequent survival advantages.

In this naturalist view, it is not essential that the laws of thought hold in all cases – it is only important that they perform better than other means of prediction. This is quite unsatisfactory for the radical scientific realist (henceforth, a “realist”), who would expect the laws of thought to refer precisely and to be true without fail. The realist views the world as consisting of distinct things with distinct attributes, so that the laws of thought are just simple facts about the extension (set of members) of any class or concept. In a realist regime, observers can isolate and identify those things and the extensions to which they belong, and even if we err in such classification it does not change the fact of the matter.

However, if it turns out that we cannot consistently and universally perform this classification even in principle, then the realist project is tainted by either a subjective classification process or unverifiable metaphysics. For suppose that we have a counterexample. Each observer can classify the instance using a private procedure; resulting predictions will differ. We have stipulated that the procedure is not even in theory fully consistent, so if some predictions prove incorrect the errors cannot be used to improve the procedure. Alternatively, if we cannot even determine whether the predictions are correct, then regardless of whether the procedure was public or private it is metaphysical (i.e., it has no predictive power). To avoid these difficulties, we must therefore show that there can always be, at least theoretically, a consistent and public way to perform classification. Put another way, the realist view begs the question because it simply assumes that the laws of thought refer, leaving the substance of the classification procedure unexamined.

The naturalist and realist views roughly represent the poles of the issue: the former validates a very weak form of reference while the latter asserts a strong form while leaving much unexplained. We will now go deeper in the hopes of circumscribing a view that is at once more satisfying and well grounded.

We might note that the laws of thought can only refer if the concepts to which they are applied (including abstractions designating particulars) refer. Surely if an application of one of these laws to particular concepts does not refer then there is no grounding for the more general claim. Our question thus inherits all the challenges of the scientific realism/instrumentalism debate.

Also required is that our concepts refer distinctly. As an example, for an object to be necessarily either green or not green (i.e., the law of the excluded middle), we must be clear exactly what in reality the object comprises and precisely what it means for an object to be green. More generally, we must designate boundaries and thresholds. Failure to do so results in objects that can be argued both to be and not be themselves and to have and not have a particular attribute.

Consequently, it is a referential fallacy to apply the laws of thought to insufficiently distinct concepts or objects or those whose boundaries or definitions are subject to dispute. Unfortunately the characterization of such boundaries and definitions results in a regress. In the example of an object being green, we would likely want to rely on the notion of wavelength, which is a theory-laden term that in turn requires the notion of photons, which are subject to relativistic wavelength shifts not to mention all the unsettling vagaries of quantum mechanics. We can see that even if this regress is finite and non-circular (the work of Quine would suggest otherwise), it is at the very least rather burdensome to explicate a concept in a fully distinct fashion.

Beyond the referential requirements for constituent concepts, for a law of thought to refer it must also be true of reality. Given the extremely general and apparently fundamental nature of these laws and their lengthy history of analysis, it seems unlikely that one could demonstrate their truth through some underlying, more fundamental mechanism. Further, caution is warranted to avoid the temptation to apply these laws in a circular fashion to demonstrate their truth. Consequently, what remains is to apply an induction from empirical outcomes and to treat the laws of thought as falsifiable hypotheses. To this effect, we noted earlier that these laws have naturalistic efficacy, but we can make the stronger observation that we have yet to encounter any reliable counterexamples. Adding to our confidence is that our data set corroborating the hypotheses is extremely large – in effect, all of human experience. One could argue that it is not even possible for a hypothesis to have a broader data set.

And so we have made incremental progress: first, our referential claims about the laws of thought can be no stronger than our claims about concepts. Second, our level of confidence that the laws of thought refer is based on their being falsifiable but as yet unfalsified hypotheses; this confidence is probably as high as it can be for any hypothesis. Third, we still need to elaborate a procedure for establishing distinct boundaries and definitions of concepts without regress or an infeasible burden.

I propose that we can effectively ground conceptual boundaries using perceptually distinct ranges. This means that discernment of the range by (normally equipped) human observers is straightforward, unambiguous, and consistent across observers. Further, whether such discernment relies on external equipment or proceeds from direct observation, it is necessarily theory-laden and we must explicitly indicate the underlying theory. Note that this combination allows us to generalize beyond just human observers, so that the approach is neither culturally or biologically parochial.

An example is helpful here. We identify Earth’s moon easily and without ambiguity without any mechanical assistance such as a telescope. Our underlying theory in this case is just the normal background assumptions that we must make to support the reference of any perceptual experience, such as that we perceive objects directly, that we are not dreaming, etc., along with the notion that the moon reflects the sun’s light and that the two bodies change relative positions to cause partially visible reflections. Further, someone with normal color vision can immediately conclude that the moon is not green; this also relies on the usual background theories as well as the notion that we have receptors that are specifically sensitive to green. Identifying the color of a planet might require a telescope and theories regarding the location of the planets or other ways to establish their identity relative to the stars and other planets. The telescope itself requires theories about optics and general empirical validation that this equipment magnifies largely without distortion of shape or color. In this case, we may continue to rely on direct perception for color identification, or we could use a spectrometer, which would require further theories about light emission, relativity, etc. but in which case we could designate a very precise range of wavelengths that we consider green. We can also indicate the amount of green that would constitute an object’s being green, e.g., anything greater than 10% of its surface area.

In cases where we cannot establish a perceptually distinct range using a combination of theories and equipment, we cannot apply the laws of thought to analysis of that situation. To the extent that this is due to shortcomings in our measurement equipment or theories, it presents no refutation of reference. To the extent that separate observers disagree on the appropriate ranges or dimensions of ranges, this is a mere semantic dispute and again has no bearing on questions of reference. However, to the extent that there is some more fundamental limitation, in which we can show that it is not even possible in principle to establish a perceptually distinct range, then we might claim that we are not actually dealing with concepts, thus we would not expect to be able to apply the laws of thought. Though examples of such a situation are not forthcoming, it would be difficult to rule out. Consequently, under this approach the ability to proscribe perceptually distinct ranges is part of the meaning of reference.

Complex phenomena may require complex combinations of perceptually distinct ranges, possibly relying on theories of dimensional reduction, as occurs in our ostensive recognition of natural kinds. There is no simple set of independent measurement dimensions that enables us to distinguish a dog from a cat, and this sort of high-dimensional differentiation may also be needed in classifying phenomena more distant from direct perception. Nevertheless, there is no apparent reason why such classifications cannot be constructed from ranges.

Perceptually distinct ranges are effective because they terminate the conceptual regression at a point appropriate for our purposes – not just in the boundaries of the concepts at issue but also in the supportive theories. This makes concepts determinate so that they can be used distinctly as components of the laws of thought, and in this sense both the concepts and the laws refer. Conclusions based on this form of reference cannot provide apodictic certainty, thus continuing to frustrate the realist. However, our confidence in such conclusions are now considerably stronger than those of the naturalist: for our purposes, with as much or more confidence than we can have in any other falsifiable hypothesis, the laws of thought refer.

A careful reader might ask whether the foregoing analysis refers. Upon reflection it seems that we cannot know, so the question is metaphysical and the analysis itself is best viewed as meta-epistemic: a way to think about whether and how our laws of thought can be grounded in external reality.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Metaphysics of Freedom

When we wonder whether we as individuals have free will, we focus on a special case of whether the universe – all of reality – has freedom. Asked in the obverse, is the universe entirely deterministic? Though we do not know what the future holds, is it nevertheless already a fact of the matter? Or is the future constrained but not fully determined?

We can confidently and successfully predict the future under some circumstances. Thus it is not the case that, starting from the current state of affairs, anything at all can happen next. Put another way, the future is at least constrained or partially determined.

We can also be sure that the extent to which the future is constrained exceeds our current ability to discern it. Our attempts at prediction are always hampered by casually incomplete knowledge, that is, knowledge that we could possibly obtain but have not. Incomplete knowledge comes in at least two flavors, the first of which relates to facts about the present state of affairs (such as the exact locations of objects of interest). In these cases, we know what kind of information is needed, how to collect it, and how we would use it to refine our predictions. We simply have not done so.

Our failure to collect such information may not be due to indolence. As finite beings we have finite resources, whereas the number of possible facts about the present is very large or perhaps unlimited. Further, these facts change over time, adding to the challenge of gathering temporally consistent measurements. As our objects of interest become smaller, there are more of them and the precision with which we might like to measure their state grows finer. Meteorology provides an excellent example: the more granular our measurements of temperature and wind speed, the more accurate our short-term forecasts, but the more effort is required to collect the data. Nevertheless, we can envision that such information could be collected by, say, the application of some appropriate technology. Because we can determine with apparently arbitrary precision a small set of the desired facts, we have good reason to believe that similar facts exist regarding those that we did not collect. In other words, these facts about the present exist but are merely unmeasured.

The second flavor of casually incomplete knowledge relates to the rules or patterns by which events transpire. To the extent that we are unable to predict phenomena accurately, we tend to suspect that there are new conceptual organizations, causal chains, formulae, and the like that will enable us to improve such predictions. Our inductive evidence for this is that such discoveries are made every day. Even in fields with extremely complex agents and interactions, such as human individual and social behavior, we seek and sometimes find patterns that can enable successful prediction.

The importance of casually incomplete knowledge to our present topic is that it greatly expands the extent to which the freedom of the universe is constrained, as compared with what we can actually predict. In the wake of the discovery of Newton’s laws, this led to the notion of the “clockwork universe” and eventually to a scientific determinism:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes. (LaPlace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, 1825)
However, subsequent scientific discoveries showed that there are areas of inherently incomplete knowledge. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that the combined position and momentum of a particle cannot be measured beyond a particular accuracy. Thus, with respect to the first flavor of incomplete knowledge, we are limited not only by our ambition and resources, but also by an intrinsic feature of how the physical universe operates.

The development of chaos theory showed that in certain types of systems, small differences in initial conditions result in highly divergent outcomes. In such systems, any lack of precision in measurement of the present state of affairs eventually results in considerable prediction error. This creates a limit on the second flavor of incomplete knowledge, because it means that the conceptual schemes under which we see convergent, predictable behavior are oversimplified with respect to such systems. Such a limit is more extensive than it first appears: given enough time, all systems are chaotic, because none of them are genuinely isolated from the rest of the universe.

Combined, the uncertainty principle and chaotic dynamics make perfect prediction even theoretically impossible. This evidently has no bearing on whether there is a fact of the matter about the future. It does, however, mean that a claim that the universe is or is not deterministic cannot be tested.

The only tool we have available to us for determining the validity of theories is to make predictions and observe whether or not they hold true. But prediction is the very capability that we have just ascertained to exhibit an inherent shortfall. No matter how a theory of determinism or freedom is posed, and what verification or falsification criteria we specify, we cannot distinguish between failures to predict that are due to inherent knowledge limitations, and those that are due to a genuine under-determination of the future.

It is possible that there is something important that we do not understand about the uncertainty principle or chaotic dynamics. We could also discover a method of validating theories that does not involve prediction. Otherwise, the question of freedom, regarding the universe and a fortiori with respect to individuals, is solidly in the realm of metaphysics. It is a question that cannot be answered empirically and about which any beliefs are tantamount to faith.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Eternal Return, Reincarnation, and Weight

Nietzsche's notion of the The Eternal Return is a distinctive and important component of his world view. It first appears in The Gay Science, in a reasonably transparent form:
This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in your life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence - and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!
On initial exposure to this, it seemed to me rather arbitrary and untenable. Why would everything repeat? What purpose would that serve and what does it even mean? But on further reflection, if we think as physicists and consider reality as a four-dimensional closed manifold where time is just another dimension, well then the universe is really just a shape. And that shape, being outside of time, is eternal; we could view our course through time as simply following that shape. I do not want to dwell on this interpretation of the eternal return, but it does bring it into the realm of physical possibility.

Superficially the eternal return seems similar to reincarnation, but it is really quite different. Reincarnation, as it is usually envisioned, takes place within an arrow of time that does not repeat. The "self" returns to life in different form - as a different person or an animal, typically. Other events do not repeat and the self either has no memory of prior lives or if it does, it is implicit memory (someone or something may seem familiar, but no memory of the pertinent events is available).

The eternal return and reincarnation share a puzzle, though. In neither case are we consciously aware of the repetition, the return. Instead, it seems as though we are de novo in our existence. Consequently, we do not learn from our experience of life. In our everyday life, when we see events as "repeating" they are not exactly the same but we also recall the previous instance to which we link them. Our memory of the new event includes the fact that we remember its predecessor. We can choose to act differently (or the same), and in part such a choice is based on knowledge of the outcome of the previous instance. This connection to previous incarnations is not available in eternal return or reincarnation. Thus the notion of "self" is challenged by these ideas. What does it mean that one's self is reincarnated, or repeated, if there is no recollection of the past self? Isn't that primarily or even entirely what it means to be a self?

The section in which the above quote is found is called "The Greatest Weight." And in some ways it does seem heavy; after all, this is the life you will live, always and forever. Yet, in another sense it eliminates the burden entirely. Our experience of heaviness in life comes from choice and its implications. We want to make the right choice, for we will have to live with it. But the eternal return is the deepest kind of determinism. Not only is our life determined, but we have already lived it the same way an infinite number of times, and it must be always the same. We do not have a "choice," as much as it may seem so. Consequently, there is no weight whatever on the choice, even though our actions may have a certain kind of significance. It may even be lighter than its opposite, where we live but once and one way. On that view, our actions are perhaps devoid of substance, but our choices are weighty, for they are genuine choices and we must live - at least the rest of our natural lives - with the consequences. Furthermore, we will remember that we have so chosen and we can tie the consequences back to the choice. This is real weight.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I have written several posts about the notion of "Lightness," based primarily on some cursory reading and a reasonable amount of thought. I had not, until now, read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera, which is considered one of the definitive works on the topic. There is so much to say about this novel and the ideas in it that I almost do not know where to start, but in the spirit of lightness I will simply start.

The first and most important idea to note is that Kundera does not necessarily view lightness as a positive. Indeed a major point of the novel is to explore the question: "The only certainty is: The lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all." There is a reason the title refers to lightness as "unbearable," but this doesn't mean he comes out clearly against lightness, either. It depends on person and on the circumstances. Lightness represents our choices and our freedom, but weight represents our commitments and habits, and thereby provides meaning. Though it is not a perfect map, it reminds me a bit of some of the thoughts David Brooks has expressed recently on happiness and suffering and happiness vs. meaning.

Some people, when faced with an oppositional ambiguity, yearn to select one, which is in this case a meta-preference toward weight. Others refuse to select one - though choosing not to commit is itself a commitment. But it is not necessary to choose one or the other in all things. We can choose lightness in some areas, weight in others. We can leave our professional options open while marrying and having children, or remain single while changing career frequently. My general interest in the topic of "lightness" is in understanding how to navigate this ambiguity.

Just to get into a particular point, one notion in the book that caught me by surprise is the connection of public persona and weight. There is an exploration of whether "living in truth" means being transparent - the same in public and in private - or having a distinct private world where one need not assess the public implications of actions. Some might view the weight in the lies or at least inauthenticity of separating public and private; others would see it in having to maintain a chosen public face (whether it is chosen by oneself or others). It seems like where one feels this weight might depend on whether one is an extrovert or introvert. It is clear to me: I could not bear to have an "authentic" public persona. It would mean either having to manage the implications of being my authentic self in public, or changing who I am to control those implications. I like having a private world that I do not have to justify. This is a subjective assessment - everyone is different. But it is surely a good lens for understanding oneself.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Religion as a Psychological Device

In Section 3 of Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche launches into a polemic against religion in general, Christianity in specific, and the Catholic church in particular. He emphasizes the psychological reasons for belief and for particular practices, and unambiguously treats the metaphysics as fiction. He illustrates how individual people would come to believe, or want to continue to believe, and how the church and its most devoted followers propagate these inclinations. Most notably, he points out that one who emphasizes intellectual rigor can no longer believe in the dogmas of religion, yet at the same time must accept deep sorrows of the truth about life.

Though Nietzsche elsewhere predicts a decline in Christianity, he does not particularly do so here, and in fact one could use this chapter as an explanation as to why it has not declined more rapidly. To be sure, in western Europe it has progressively waned, but even 140 years later it is still plural or even dominant. In eastern Europe, the reign of communism shredded the historical and familial traditions, yet even there a significant population believes. Elsewhere in the world, among educated people, religion has become more fractured and includes practices of eastern religions, some of which are not monotheistic but instead pantheistic, panenthestic, or merely mystical. Nevertheless, some of the same psychological benefits and practices seem to remain.

We might claim that religion today is more strongly driven by values than metaphysics. The greater mobility and general independence from family means that individuals often view their religion as a choice. The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham observes a young man who explores his spirituality and finds eastern religion to his liking; at the time (1940s) that was a rare situation, but today it is quite common for young people to do something similar. My impression is that this generally proceeds by first identifying resonant values, then selecting a spiritual tradition that supports those values, and finally accepting whatever metaphysical and other dogmas are associated with the tradition. The most successful religions today are those that match the market for clusters of values, and also support some of the psychological needs outlined here by Nietzsche. Interestingly, those clusters of values seem to correspond reasonably well with those of the creator and of the herd.

Historical analysis aside, Nietzsche's goal here seems to be to persuade the rational, science-respecting individual that he should abandon Christianity or whatever his religion. His approach of elucidating the psychological needs serviced by religion gives the reader pause to consider whether this is "all it is" - especially in that time period, when religion was dominantly held through family tradition. He regularly emphasizes that his scientific, rational viewpoint does not hold the promise, the palliative benefit, the eternal rewards of religion; this represents a bit of reverse psychology to cause the scientific-minded not to want to fall prey to happy falsehoods. Finally, he rounds out his effort with direct argument, such as pointing out the internal contradictions of original sin and the inconsistencies of Christianity with modern science.

For a God-fearing, traditional European audience, this must have been jaw-dropping. As an atheist reading it today, it seems rather obvious, yet it nevertheless helps to explain some of the continuing power of religion and faith in the world.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Notes on Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human Section 3: Religious Life

108. Misfortune can be overcome either by removing its cause or by changing its effect on our feelings. As religions and other palliatives lose influence, men are more inclined to confront reality.

109. We would happily exchange the soothing errors of religion for truths with the same effect, but there are none: "Sorrow is knowledge." With our present knowledge, one cannot engage in Christianity without soiling his intellectual conscience.

110. Opponents of the Enlightenment held sway over Schopenhauer, who should have said "Never, neither indirectly nor directly, neither as a dogma nor as an allegory, has religion yet held any truth." Philosophers often worked within the traditions of religion and so ended up with doctrines similar to religious views. In reality there is no connection whatsoever between religion and real science.

111. In the times of origins of religion, men knew nothing of natural causation and viewed all events as the result of magical influences and arbitrary acts arising from conscious beings. Religious men want to impose a law on nature, and to gain power over belongings of others; they even use physical images of gods or saints to express anger over events. Still, it is also based on more noble ideas such as goodwill and gratitude.

112. At one time the combination of farce with the sublime in ceremony and art was common; now it is disappearing.

113. Today Christianity is an anachronistic tradition; the fact that people who are otherwise strict in testing assertions still believe in the divinity of Jesus is the oldest part of this tradition. "Are we to believe that such things are still believed?"

114. The Greeks saw their gods as ideals of what humans could be, rather than as their masters, thus a greater and lesser nobility. Christianity, in contrast, crushed and shattered man, and while he was thus confused, stunned him with mercy and elicited a cry of rapture.

115. Some men are beautified by religion; others who have no expertise with any weapon, including mouth and pen, find it useful; still others have empty and monotonous lives and are to be forgiven for becoming religious, but they have no right to demand religiosity from those with full lives.

116. If Christianity were right in its tenets, then it would be a sign of stupidity and poor character not to become a priest or apostle, to lose sight of eternal deserts for temporary comfort. Thus the everyday Christian is a pitiful figure.

117. Christianity attempts to make disdain for other individuals impossible because it teaches that all men are utterly despicable and worthless; we are all of one kind.

118. "As soon as a religion comes to prevail, it has as its enemies all those who would have been its first disciples."

119. "Christianity came into existence in order to lighten the heart; but now it has to burden the heart first, in order to be able to lighten it afterward. Consequently it will perish."

120. "An agreeable opinion is accepted as true: this is the proof by pleasure."

121. If one allows any room for religious feeling, it necessarily grows, and eventually all one's judgment and feeling is befogged, overcast with religious shadows.

122. Disciples who have no eye for the weaknesses of their teaching have the greatest power. "Without blind disciples, no man or his work has ever gained great influence."

123. "There is not enough religion in the world even to destroy religions."

124. When we realize that men are not nearly as wicked as our errors of reason have led us to believe, then our mood is greatly improved and we can be content in a halo of harmlessness.

125. Many great artists, such as Homer, are so comfortable with their gods that they must have been irreligious.

126. "One of the greatest effects of men whom we call geniuses and saints is that they exact interpreters who misunderstand them, to the good of mankind."

127. It was observed that an excited state often clears the mind and produces happy ideas, leading to the false conclusion that the madman should be revered as wise and prescient.

128. "Modern science has as its goal the least pain and the longest life possible - that is, a kind of eternal happiness: to be sure, a very modest kind in comparison with the promises of religions."

129. "There is not enough love and kindness in the world to permit us to give any of it away to imaginary beings."

130. The inner world of sublime, tender, intuitive, contrite, and blissful moods that were inspired by religious practices have not been lost even after the religions are no longer believed.

131. Even in scientific philosophy, the religiously tinged sections seem better proved than others, but it is the opposite: our inner wish that what gladdens might be true misleads us into accepting bad reasons.

132. Man's need for redemption can be explained purely psychologically. Selfless actions are esteemed highly but are difficult to sustain, and men compare themselves in this regard not to other men but to an entirely selfless ideal, which creates discontent and even fear of punishment.

133. "The whole concept of 'selfless action,' if examined carefully, evaporates into thin air... How could the ego act without ego?" A man must do much for himself to be in a position to do for others, and doing for others causes immorality in the recipient, who is accepting these actions selfishly. If the idea of God is removed then we mostly remove the pangs of conscience, and seeing that actions are unconditionally necessary removes their final vestiges.

134. On occasion the Christian's self-contempt abates and he feels free and courageous and esteem for himself. But he reads divine goodness into this experience and treats it as proof that God is merciful, rather than as self-love. As he misinterpreted his actions, he now misinterprets his experiences.

135. A false psychology in interpreting motives and experiences is necessary for being a Christian and experiencing the need for redemption. Recognizing this aberration of reason causes one to cease to be a Christian.

136. Asceticism and saintliness are generally viewed as miraculous and remain unexplained, to the delight of those who admire miracles. The nature of these behaviors is complex, and we will examine them by isolating impulses in the souls of these people.

137. Asceticism is the exercise of one's power against oneself, due to lack of other objects or having otherwise failed. This scorn for one's own nature is actually a very high degree of vanity. Man takes a truly voluptuous pleasure in violating himself by exaggerated demands and then deifying this something in his soul that is so tyrannically taxing.

138. Under the influence of extreme tension and excitement, man wants to relieve the emotion and may just as well sacrifice himself as another. Insofar as self-denial is not done strictly with regard for another, it is not moral but merely an opportunity to relieve one's tense heart.

139. The ascetic is trying to make life easy for himself by complete subordination to a law or another's will. This is easier than to renounce one's will only occasionally, just as it is easier to give up a desire entirely than to moderate it.

140. Self-contempt and self-torment are a means to combat the general exhaustion of life force that comes from the dullness and boredom of subordinating one's will.

141. The ascetic or saint sees his life as a continuing battle and himself as the battlefield on which good and evil spirits struggle, with alternating results. He fights everything natural, including sensuality, and to lift this burden requires the supernatural. In the documents of Christianity, the demands have been exaggerated so that man cannot satisfy them; the intention is not that he become more moral, but rather that he feel as sinful as possible.

142. In summary, the disposition of the saint is composed of elements we know quite well. Sometimes he exercises a defiance against himself as a means of exercising power; sometimes he wants to stop tormenting feelings, and he sets a trap for his emotions to create humiliation. He attacks his self-deification with self-contempt.

143. The saint did not know himself any more than others understood him. Because no one understood the saint, he signified the miraculous and supported belief in the divine.

144 This portrait of the saint can be contradicted by certain exceptions, including Jesus who was attractive even though deluded, and also does not cover the Indian holy men.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Managing Lightness

Recently it occurred to me that my efforts to achieve a lightness of being were waning, in both temperament and internal experience. I pondered why this might be the case, and I was able to discern some insight into the question while haltingly embarking back toward the path.

Recall that lightness consists of two primary elements: a sense of unfettered choice and a disinclination to treat events and circumstances with excessive seriousness. Making and pursuing any decision of significance, therefore, impedes lightness on both accounts. Though having made a decision we remain free to change it, the costs of such a change are usually considerably higher than having made a different decision initially. For what is a decision but a commitment that has, at minimum, opportunity cost, and usually at least an emotional "restocking fee," if not actual out-of-pocket costs in time, money, and effort? Thus we feel impelled to follow through on a decision, at least to a point; our options then seem more limited, and we are not as light as before.

Often, though not always, a significant decision is also accompanied by efforts and focus directed toward obtaining a successful outcome related to the decision. Combined with the experiential reduction of choice, such efforts take on an air of heaviness, an importance that may give rise to anxiety, fear of failure, inattention to everyday pleasures, and the like. One would have to be preternaturally blithe to live to adulthood without experiencing this effect.

The obvious way to avoid the situation is simply to eschew decisions. However, though it may be wise to consider whether a commitment is necessary in each particular case, as a universal this approach has numerous flaws. First and foremost, the lack of a decision is a decision of another kind. There are many enjoyments - monogamous love, or a home, for example - in which the commitment is central to the experience. Second, and overlapping, there is an existential discomfort, "unbearable lightness," as it is sometimes called, to living every day with unrestricted choice, with no guidance from precedent. Finally, it is very common in the absence of a decision for fortune to decide for us, and only rarely does a roll of the dice expand rather than compress our options.

In cases where we have appropriately made a choice, we can confront the challenge to our lightness by consciously managing it. This initially seems contrary to the spirit of lightness: if it is consciously directed, it hardly seems carefree. But recall that this is prescribed in the aftermath of a major decision, not as an unrelenting burden. It is a way to retain, as much as possible, a light demeanor during periods when focus and effort increase and choice has evidently decreased.

The mechanics of such management are straightforward enough. Circumscribing the times and places for focus and effort enables one to more fully enjoy everyday pleasures outside those bounds. In particular, the mental state associated with effort has a tendency to engulf all of one's activities, and this overflow must be avoided. Maintaining perspective on the worst case and likely scenarios usually reduces tension associated with the possibility of undesirable outcomes. Keeping in mind the original reasons for the decision, particularly the expanded choices and experiential opportunities that were its object, mitigates the short-term feeling of loss of autonomy. Awareness of countenance can curtail unintended incivilities that might instigate a spiral of despair.

It may seem that this management is an additional onus, above and beyond the effort already required to make good on the decision itself. But this is an error arising from separation of an element that is actually part and parcel of a decision, if one wishes to live with lightness. When making a decision, and evaluating its benefits and costs, the effort of consciously managing lightness through the most challenging period is an essential part of the decision, along with whatever other efforts are anticipated. Indeed, since this is part of any major decision, it could very well be the first rather than the last thing to consider.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Predictive Positivism

Logical Positivism, which can be roughly described as the view that statements are meaningless unless they can be verified empirically, fell prey to numerous criticisms, among them that it is egregiously self-refuting. Nevertheless the importance of empiricism has not diminished, and positivism left in its wake a certain guilty conscience that we do not know exactly why empirical results have any more credence than metaphysical speculation. I will venture here to substitute a claim in the spirit of positivism that is narrower but stands on more solid footing. In particular, we will limit the statements about which we are concerned to predictions.

One can argue that a central purpose of knowledge is prediction: Francis Bacon famously said "nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." We can briefly illustrate the point. First and most evidently, we benefit from the ability to understand the mechanisms of the natural world well enough to predict their behavior. Prediction of seasons, tides, and other such phenomena played an important role in the development of civilization. Second, invention and design require the ability to predict the mechanical, electrical, or other properties of materials to ensure that a device will consistently perform as desired. Knowledge thus has, at minimum, a practical anthropic function through its role in prediction.

A prediction is a statement that has at its core a claim of a future fact. Usually, though not always, the statement also includes conditions that must be met for the future fact to obtain. Thus, "The sun will rise tomorrow" and "If our team loses tomorrow, they will be out of the playoffs" are examples of the form. A statement need not be true or correct to constitute a prediction. However, it is important that both the conditions and the future fact be possible to verify or falsify (for readability in the remainder of this discussion, verification shall refer to both positive and negative verification). If the statement is not possible to verify, it is better described as fiction or fantasy. This is not a conclusion but rather an analytic posit:

A statement predicts only if it can be verified.

Under what circumstances might a statement be impossible to verify? One important case is when the terms in the statement have no reasonably well-defined referent. It is difficult to draw a bright line for this requirement, but statements like "when my qi is low I will perform poorly" undoubtedly qualify. More arguable would be statements concerning qualia or events outside the relativistic light cone. The point is one of burden: one who purports to make a prediction is responsible for at least outlining how it is possible that it could be verified.

Let us now make a stronger and more interesting claim:

A statement reliably predicts only if it can be repeatedly verified.

To the original posit we have added the terms "reliably" and "repeatedly," but there is also a more subtle addition. The consequent holds not only if the statement itself can be repeatedly verified, but also if it can be repeatedly verified a fortiori via a more general statement from which it is deduced. Thus from "the sun rises every day," which can be repeatedly verified, we can deduce "the sun will rise tomorrow," thus meeting the requirement.

This claim does not speak to the sufficient conditions for a reliable prediction: there are many. It only claims that repeatable verification is necessary. The reason is simple: if the stated future fact, or the future fact in the applicable general case, will only happen once, then the basis of the prediction is necessarily underdetermined. Even if we have hypothesized a mechanism and have some empirical support for it, an abductive leap was required.

One might argue that it is possible to empirically rule out all other possible mechanisms without having tested the hypothesis at issue, and thereby rely on it in a single instance. While this might very well improve our confidence, particularly in situations where it is necessary to make such a prediction and take action accordingly, this does not make the prediction reliable. Until and unless we achieve a complete and analytically solvable model of all reality, ruling out a finite set of mechanisms leaves an indeterminate remainder.

Our claim has the further benefit of being itself repeatedly verifiable. Indeed, if we look at scientific experiments as well as the world in general, it is quite rare for predictions about singleton events to be accurate. Thus, unlike Logical Positivism, our statement of Predictive Positivism at worst is not self-refuting.

We can refer to statements that do not predict as "non-predictive," or pejoratively following Wolfgang Pauli as "not even wrong." We can refer to statements that do not reliably predict as "unreliable" or perhaps "speculative." What we cannot say is that that such statements are "meaningless," as was hoped by the Logical Positivists. Indeed such statements may be quite meaningful to the speaker. The term "meaningful" has a subjective, qualitative element that makes its verification essentially impossible. Our formulation, while not eliminating all possible sources of disagreement, avoids the subjective element yet solidifies the importance of empirical grounding.