Friday, September 20, 2013

Reading Sam Harris’s THE MORAL LANDSCAPE

In The Moral Landscape Sam Harris (a prominent proponent of the New Atheism movement) defends the claim that we can use science to determine what we should value. This is opposed to the more usual view that science deals with the realm of physical facts, that moral statements are not statements of physical fact, and so science can't have anything ultimately to say about moral values. Harris has a steep uphill battle to fight. As he himself documents, Harris's view runs counter to the intuitions of most scientists, not to mention philosophers and, well, just people in general. Many tend to think there are no moral truths—and so of course science can't discover them. Others (especially religious believers, but not only them) think that there are moral truths, but they are inaccessible to science, since science is only about physical facts and moral truths aren't physical facts. Despite this, Harris is going to argue that science can indeed tell us what the moral truths are. Concomitant to this is a claim that moral truths are physical facts—and he defends that claim as well. (I don't think he uses the phrase "moral truths are physical facts" but he does say they are facts about physical objects and their lawful relations. They are truths we can arrive at through purely naturalistic means.)

The book has stirred some controversy, but Harris seems unhappy with how that controversy is developing. He claims that his critics typically don't even understand what his claim is, much less offer effective criticisms of it. And so he has offered a challenge: $10,000 to whomever can write an essay successfully refuting his claim. Of course, he's the judge of that, so we'll see how far the challenge goes. But in addition to this prize, there is a $1000 prize going to whoever simply writes the best attempt to refute him, and that will be judged by third party who is actually a critic of Harris's position.. So there's a reason to write up a response after all!

I'm not committing to write such a response. After all, for all I know once I have read the book, I'll be convinced! However, the topic is intrinsically interesting, and his claim is very surprising, and is one I think would be awesome if true. (To be clear: I also think the negation of his claim is awesome if true. It's just an awesome topic, whatever the truth turns out to be.) So as I read through it, I'm going to record some of my off-the-cuff responses on this blog. And by the end of it, perhaps I'll have material for a response after all.

I have just finished the introduction, so now I'll say some things about it. First, several quotations that give a general overview of the argument he outlines in the Introduction:

"I will argue that questions about values… are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood…"

"…the argument I make in this book…rests on a very simple premise: human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain. Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it."

"…whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures—which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value—must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large…"

"…the concept of well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists precise definition, and yet it is indispensable."

"It makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is 'good.' It seems clear that what we are really asking when we wonder whether a certain state of pleasure is 'good,' is whether it is conducive to, o robstructive of, some deeper form of well-being."

"…what values actually are [is] the set of attitudes, choices, and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being, as well as that of other conscious minds."

"For my argument… to hold, I think one need only grant two points: (1) some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences relate, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states of the world."

From all of the above, it is clear that his argument is going to stand or fall on his conception of "well-being." For if he promises to tell us that science can tell us what to value, and he also tells us (as he does above) that values are attitudes, choices and behaviors that potentially affect well-being, then it is natural to expect him to either argue that science can show us what well-being consists in, or to simply argue that, given a certain conception of well-being, science can tell us which values will achieve it.

The problem with the second option is that it doesn't appear to satisfy the promise of the book's subtitle or its main claims. If what science can do is tell us which values will achieve well-being, then we want to know, "okay, so what is well-being?" If science can't tell us that, then the promise that science can tell us what to value appears to be unfulfilled. Perhaps this is moving the goalposts, though. Maybe the idea was never supposed to be that science can tell us what well-being is, rather, just that science can tell us how to get there. This would be in tension with what Harris actually says, for example above where he says that well-being is the only thing we can reasonably value. If it is the only thing we can reasonably value, and if science is supposed to tell us what we should value, then it would seem to follow that science will show us that well-being is the only thing we can reasonably value.

So we come to the first option: that science can show us what well-being consists in.

Here we should be clear what "science" is, on Harris's account. He explains that he doesn't just mean mathematical modeling and the obtaining of experimental data. Rather, he says (this is from chapter one, so I'm looking ahead a bit…) that to think scientifically is to think in terms of "cause and effect, respect for evidence and logical coherence, a dash of curiosity and intellectual honesty, the inclination to make falsifiable predictions, etc…." If we take that characterization of science on board and read it into his use of the term in the introduction, then we understand the claim isn't that we must do mathematical models and obtain experimental data to discover what well-being consists in. Rather, the claim is that someone who "thinks like a scientist" (my words, meant as paraphrase to the previous quote) will understand what well-being consists in if he puts his mind to it.

This is not something Harris said, it's my extrapolation from his claims. But it fits well with what he does say about well-being, for example that it is like health, that there are certain scenarios no one seriously considers examples of well-being, that someone who considers it conducive to his well-being to kill and eat children after having sex with them is simply mistaken, and so on. He seems to be saying we don't need hardcore scientific apparatus to establish what well-being essentially is. Even if it is hard to define precisely (as he acknowledges) in stark cases it is easy to identify, and in harder cases careful thinking and measurement should in theory allow a determination. But does this run counter to the claim that science can determine our values? In other words, if what well-being is is so obvious you don't have to be a scientist to understand it, doesn't that mean something other than science determines our values—namely, something like "common sense"? I think Harris expects the reply to this to rely on an idea that that "common sensical" judgment about obvious cases of well-being is (or at least can be) a scientific judgment. He is not claiming, after all, that one must have a scientific sensibility to grasp some moral truths. Rather, he is saying a scientific sensibility is sufficient (not necessary) for grasping moral truths. A sensibility that thinks in terms of evidence and coherence is a scientific sensibility, and presumably, anyone who thinks like that will agree on very clear cases of well-being.

I think that's Harris's best possible reply (at least as far as the introduction goes) to the objection that he undermines his own claim by having the most fundamental value be determined by some kind of common sense rather than by science. His definition of science is supposed to include at least some aspects—the good ones—of that kind of "common-sense" judgment. But I'm not convinced by this reply. For I don't think it's clear that a concern for evidence and coherence and so on will lead someone to judge rightly about clear cases of well-being. To see why, think of it in reverse. Suppose someone judges wrongly about clear cases of well-being. Say he thinks well-being consists in having sex with children and then killing them. From this fact, can we conclude that the person doesn't have a scientific sensibility? I don't see why.

So as of the end of the introduction, Harris hasn't put my worry to rest—that his reliance on the idea of well-being means that ultimately he hasn't delivered on his promise. He's left the fundamental value (well-being) undetermined by science. But he does say he "will argue" that well-being is the only thing we can reasonably value. I believe he plans to do this in chapter one so I may have my worry allayed as soon as I've read that chapter.

He does also say at least something about this in the introduction. In one passage, for example, he analogizes well-being and health. Health (he doesn't say but I suppose) is what it means for a human body to flourish just as well-being is what it means for a conscious being to flourish. Just as there are facts about health (a healthy body has no open wounds, a healthy body does not eat poison, and so on) he says there are facts about well-being. And in both cases, though the goal concept (health or well-being) is hard to define and has widely different implications for different contexts, still the goal concept is objective and can be characterized in purely naturalistic terms. (We don't have to rely on supernatural concepts to define health, so why should we rely on them to define well-being? Both health and well-being are physical properties after all.)

This invites a question to my mind: Can someone coherently hold that a healthy body is a cancer-ridden body? Suppose we even have an entire community that understands health to consist in part of hosting cancer in the body, even cancer that will cause the body eventually to die? This seems completely opposed to health, of course. If a community held that it is part of what it means to be healthy, shouldn't we just say that they are wrong? This is certainly how Harris would reply. Just because someone thinks something is healthy, we all know this doesn't make it healthy. (And just because someone thinks something is conducive to well-being, this doesn't make it conducive to well-being.)

My wondering about a community of cancer-health people is analogous to someone proposing that there might be people, or even communities of people, who fundamentally disagree with most people about even very clear cases of well-being. For example, they may think that a life of torture and terror (see the "Bad Life" illustration in Harris's intro) is actually a case of well-being. Harris says people have proposed to him that someone might think this. (Though he's never met anyone who actually does think it). And his reply is to say that he "will argue that anyone who would seriously maintain [this]—or even that it might be the case—is either misusing words or not taking the time to consider the details." This argument comes in chapter one, I think, but continuing with the cancer-health analogy I think I can already offer a reply on his behalf.

Does the existence of an alternative conception of health show that it is illegitimate to base medical claims of fact on the concept of health? I don't think so. The cancer-health guys are just wrong--assuming the concept they're calling "health" is the same concept as mine. Well, it kind of depends on what delineates a concept of health. I think health is what is (roughly) what is conducive to long life. Apparently these other guys think health is what is conducive to the survival of cancerous growths. Either we're using the same concept when we say "health," or we're using two different concepts. If we are using the same concept when we say "health" then one of us is right and the other wrong—and so there remains room for an objective account of health (and so, analogously, an account like Harris's of well-being). Meanwhile, if we're actually talking about two different things and are merely (mistakenly) using the same word for these two different things, then we may not disagree, and so no point is made against Harris's view (since it has turned out those guys aren't even talking about health in the first place). So either way, Harris's kind of point survives.

But the question remains, how is it determined what health consists in? I'm right about one thing and the cancer-health guys are wrong about one thing, but more generally, how can we know overall just what health is? Can science determine this? Or is it simply "common sense" of some kind? Are we to conflate the two? I don't know yet. And the analogous questions remain for the concept of well-being. So I'll have to wait to say more once I've read a little further.

Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Peace is War: A Review of the Board Game Tokaido

Let's take a moment first to examine the game components:



You can tell by looking. This is a peaceful game. A nice game. A relaxed game. As reported by many other reviewers, the game has a benevolent, Zen-like aura. No one is angry. No one is excited. We are all simply enjoying ourselves.

The theme and mechanics reinforce this. The game is about travelling along the Tokaido road (this is redundant! "Tokaido" means "Eastern sea road!" But that's how we say it in English) sometime around the sixteenth or seventeenth century or so, and the goal is not to overcome an enemy at the end of the journey, or to defeat opponents in a race, or to enrich oneself, or any other of the typical mercenary goals you find in most board games.

No, the goal here is to eat good food, to meet interesting people, find neat little trinkets, and take in the expansive natural view.

This feeling of leisurely enjoyment is reflected in the game mechanics as well. For example, how do you determine where on the map you may move to next? Not by expending a resource, anxiously hoping for a return on investment. Not by rolling dice, fearful and hopeful in the face of blind luck. No, the movement rule is as simple and open as it could be. You may move forward any number of spaces. That's it! When it is your turn (and it is your turn whenever you are the one furthest behind along the road), you may move forward to any other space on the road. The only restrictions are these: You may not land on a space already occupied by another player, and you may not pass an inn. Instead, you must stop at the inn, and wait for everyone else to catch up. See? We're nice! We're decorous! We are happy to share!

(Note that, as you can see in the image, the map consists only of a single path. There are no choices to make as to which branch to take or what square to move to on a grid. No—there is only one way to go, and that is forward. Interesting that such an apparently constricted map should give rise to reports that the game connotes freedom and leisure! I'll be going a little bit more into this kind of minor paradox down below.) 

As each player arrives at the inn, he chooses a meal to purchase, and once everyone has done this, players begin moving forward on the map again.

Different spaces on the path are of different types, and this isn't the place to describe each type in detail (you can read the rules for that) but suffice to say each different type of space allows you an opportunity, sometimes with some cost in coins, to acquire one or more cards, with the space type determining the card type. Your goal is to acquire sets of several different kinds of cards, and the extent to which you completed various kinds of sets by the end of the game will determine your score. For example, "Encounter" spaces allow you to draw an "Encounter" card which names a particular character such as a Samurai or a Tour Guide. The character you draw gives you a character-specific reward, and you then place that Encounter card into your collection. Meanwhile, a "Village" space allows you to draw three "Souvenir" cards and attempt to collect (and pay for) a set of souvenirs that will add the greatest number of points to your score.

As you can see, the main scoring mechanic is set collection, with about five different variations on that theme being presented via the different types of cards you can collect. Once again, the non-confrontational, "Zen"nish niceness of the game presents itself. I don't get point-scoring resources (cards) by denying them to anyone else. We are all free to acquire as many, or as few, as we like!

The end of the game is reached when all players have arrived at the final fifth inn at the end of the map. At this point, several end-game bonuses are given out (for example, whoever has the most encounter cards receives a three point bonus) and the player who has the highest score wins the game.

The game is reputed to be light and non-confrontational. I agree (along with the game's designer) that it is light. However I don't think it is trivial. Granted, I have only played games against my eight-year-old son, but we are together discovering that decisions in this game can sometimes be difficult. For example, a person with no money left can't acquire cards very effectively (or donate to temples—another scoring mechanic in this game) and the number of spaces on the board that allow you to acquire money is pretty limited. There are several "farm" spaces which let you collect three coins from the bank, and one of the encounter card types also allows you to collect three coins from the bank. But this shouldn't be a problem, right? Since you can move ahead as far as you want, just grab a farm space when you need money, right? But it's not that simple. Remember that you can only move forward. By jumping ahead to grab that money, you relinquish the opportunity to gain points from any of the intervening spaces—and, if your opponent is behind you, you yield every single one of those spaces to your opponent! So some real thought must go into the question of when to make that jump. And moreover, collecting money is not the only reason you may want to occupy that space.

You may want to occupy the space simply to deny the money to your opponent. If you're rich and he's penniless, denying him an opportunity to gain money could be disastrous for him. 

Here a veneer of "niceness" begins to scratch off a little. 

This ability to deny resources to your opponents is a very clear opportunity for "take that!" type moves. Such moves are the paradigm of confrontational play. So then, why does the game have such a reputation for being a nice and non-confrontational game? 

People bring up "Zen" when writing about this game, and Zen Buddhism is influenced by Taoism, and in Taoism we have the concept of "Doing without doing." I have never clearly grasped exactly what "doing without doing" is supposed to mean, but you know, you get these flashes of insight. Classical Taoism—not the folk Taoism that's akin to alchemy but the philosophical Taoism of the Tao Te Ching—was about how to be a good ruler. (Whether of a state, or a household, or simply of one's self.) "Doing without doing" seems to have something to do with having a knack for being in the right place at the right time such that the people around you just fall in to place, doing the thing that's best, simply because of where you and everyone else happens to be, and what you and everyone else happens to be doing at the time. People may not recognize that you had anything to do with the excellent outcome, but somehow there they will keep finding you in the middle of success. Similarly, some expert chess player once said that Chess is a game of luck, but you have to make your own luck by knowing how to move the pieces such that everything seems almost magically just to fall your way. Sun Tzu said something somewhere about how the best victory is the one acquired without a battle. And so on. 

Peace can often hide a great deal of strife within it. It's none the less "peace" for that—but importantly, the wheels within wheels within that peace may be positively bloody.

In Tokaido what am I doing when I make a move? I am simply placing my in-game "body" in a place it has a right to be, by the rules of the game. What could be confrontational about that? Think of a game like Chess. In Chess, when I capture a piece, I physically remove one of my opponent's pieces from the board. Arguably, I do so against my opponent's will, in the sense that my opponent would probably like it very much if that piece were to magically remain on the board despite my capturing move. The confrontation here is overt. I physically interfere with my opponent's plans by actually touching my opponent (or anyway, his representation on the board) and forcing it to move where it doesn't want to go. But in Tokaido, I never touch my opponent. I simply am where I am. And we all have a right to be somewhere. Hence, I don't seem to be confronting my opponent. 

But if I'm on the last Temple space, and he needs to occupy that space in order to make a final donation to tip the donation bonus over in his favor, then my "simply" occupying the space I occupy is, in itself, a confrontational act of the most vicious kind.

Many games are characterized as "non-confrontational," and Tokaido is one of them. And undeniably, Tokaido is a nice game. It is pleasant to play. No one should feel stress while participating in this journey along the Tokaido road. 

But even acknowledging these facts, I think the lesson of this game is not exhausted by such observations. For in simplicity, reasonableness, and the avoidance of confrontation, we often find an engine built from strife, running on hard, costly decisions. And that's not true only on the board.




Friday, September 6, 2013

Was “Doubting Thomas” Supposed to be Credulous Instead?

It’s been a while since I last posted, in part due to the beginning of the school year, and in part due to my prioritizing of work on a paper on the analysis of mercy. (See previous entries here, here, here and here.)

This post deals with a religious topic, and it may bore the unreligious. And in general, my thoughts about religion are directed “in-house.” The theme of most of my writings on religious topics can be summarized thus: “Christians, we’re doing it wrong.” Having said that, the topic of this post is of some interest to non-Christians, since it involves a common theme in criticism of Christianity. It was first triggered by a post in an internet forum in which someone argued that the famous story of “Doubting Thomas” constitutes a biblical recommendation to be unduly credulous. This person argued that, from this story, we’re to take away a lesson that we should believe certain extraordinary claims even when there is insufficient evidence for believing them. 

I don’t think that’s the lesson of the story, though. In fact, I think that the story specifically fails to support that lesson, instead having a payoff that’s at odds with the idea that belief on insufficient evidence is a virtue. Briefly, I think the point of the story can be put this way: Whatever it means to affirm Jesus’s resurrection, the testimony of friends is sufficient to establish the prima facie believability of the claim. This in itself may seem unacceptable, of course, but I’ll try to explain how it’s not an example of undue credulity.

Of course, the author of the text had an idea of what it means to affirm Jesus’s resurrection, and this idea was a very literal one. But in my view, the lesson of the passage generalizes (as all lessons do) and applies just as well even given that the resurrection of Jesus does not consist in a physical, recordable, touchable revivification of Jesus’s dead body.

I don’t expect a view like this to convince a non-Christian that there’s something to Christianity. And I only mention that because my comments on topics like this are often misconstrued as having that intention. They’re not—again, my comments here are basically directed in-house. Having said that, they’re made in public, and I think interesting discussions can be had with people both inside and outside Christianity about the significance (and reliability) of views like the one I’m expressing here.

Recall the famous story. Several disciples told Thomas they’d spoken with Jesus after Jesus had died. Thomas said “I won’t believe it until I touch his wounds for myself.” Later, Jesus appears to Thomas, Thomas (presumably) touches the wounds, and then believes the resurrection occurred. Jesus then says “You believed because you saw. Congratulations to those who believe even though they haven’t seen!”

So then, do we have here a recommendation that we should believe an extraordinary claim (resurrection) on poor evidence?

I want to note that I don’t think it’s actually psychologically possible for someone who understands the concepts of belief and evidence to affirm something like “It can be virtuous to believe on insufficient evidence.” The reason I say this is, such a claim would amount to saying that evidence insufficient for belief is sometimes sufficient for belief—an outright contradiction! If someone seems to be saying this, my natural assumption has to be, either they don’t understand what belief is, what evidence is, or else, they’re simply not intending to say what they seem to be saying. In any of these cases, my task (if I want to engage at all) is to puzzle out just exactly what they do mean.

In the Doubting Thomas story, Jesus’s act of congratulation at the end may seem to be just such a case—he counts fortunate people who believe without seeing. Is the author of this story recommending belief in the face of evidence insufficient for belief? As I just said: Surely not, if he knows what belief and evidence are. Let’s take that assumption (that the author basically understands the concepts) and see where it leads us.

Notice that believing what you haven’t seen for yourself is not, in itself, a bad thing. Someone who never believed anything unless they’d physically touched the evidence for themselves would be making a mistake. A hard-nosed, strictly scientific worldview, in fact, requires that we accept most claims, not based on examination of evidence, but based on testimony from others who have—or even others who have heard such testimony themselves from still others. This point shouldn’t be overplayed—there are certainly differences between claims like “The temperature of the globe is rising on average” and “A man rose from the dead,” and I’ll discuss those. But the point here is just that, belief based not on personal examination of evidence but rather testimony is, in itself, unobjectionable. 

I bring this up because, if we assume the author basically grasps the ideas of belief and evidence, then we have to figure out what he means that doesn’t imply that belief on insufficient evidence is virtuous. And to do that, we should take note of just what evidence is available to Thomas prior to the wound-touching incident. And that evidence is: The testimony of several of his friends. So then, it seems, the author is saying that this testimony was sufficient for belief. Belief based on that testimony would have been virtuous. And I bring up the point about science just to make sure that my reader doesn’t immediately recoil from a claim like that, realizing that very similar claims hold true as a matter of course for at least some fields of inquiry.

Here it will be pointed out that a scientist accepts testimony at least in part because she could, “in theory,” go and examine the evidence for herself. There are a two replies to this. For one thing, surely the author of the passage also thought one “in theory” could examine the evidence for himself—should Jesus come to visit one, for example. Of course, that’s an implausible scenario, but it’s also implausible to think of a person actually going and examining the evidence for every scientific claim herself. Both scenarios are implausible, but possible “in theory.” Another reply is just to point out that what is possible “in theory” isn’t really relevant, since the whole point of the story concerns what one can or should do in the absence of such an “in theory” encounter. 

Another objection to the parallel I drew between the Doubting Thomas story and ordinary acceptance of testimony is the fact that the resurrection of a human being is one of those things we call an “extraordinary claim.” And as we all know, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” A couple of replies here as well. For one thing, even if someone were to make an extraordinary claim in a strict scientific context, it would be inappropriate for every person hearing the claim to demand an encounter with the physical evidence. Especially after several people have come to accept the claim, then even as the claim remains apparently extraordinary to most people, they can nevertheless be virtuous in accepting the claim on the basis of testimony without a direct encounter with the evidence. But in any case, what constitutes an “extraordinary claim” is relative from person to person, from situation to situation. (As was just illustrated in fact.) For all I know, anyway, claims about resurrection were not treated as so “extraordinary” by the people at the time and place of the passage’s author. A somewhat amazing claim, to be sure, but I have the impression that it was not considered outrageously impossible for something like a resurrection to occur. Just very, very special. Of course, to you and I it’s an extraordinary claim, but now’s a good time to remind the reader what I’m trying to do here. I’m not trying to argue the resurrection really happened, nor am I trying to argue that Thomas would have been virtuous in accepting that claim prior to touching the wounds. Rather, I’m just trying to figure out what the author of the passage means when he says “congratulations to those who have believed without seeing.” And in figuring that out, it’s important to keep in mind just how extraordinary or ordinary that author would have thought various claims were.

As I argued, it seems like the thrust of the congratulatory exclamation is to endorse belief, even in amazing claims, based on testimony, when direct evidence is unavailable. How amazing? Resurrection amazing? The author thought so. Do I think so? 

Suppose a dozen of my friends told me one day they’d visited an alien from another planet in his spaceship, and learned a lot about their place in the world and how to live as human beings. And over the next year or so, I see that in fact, they are much happier, deeper, interesting, and benevolent than they had been before.

But I just can’t bring myself to think an actual alien in an actual spaceship did this. I think surely there’s some other explanation. That’s fine: The claim that they visited an alien, in the absence of any physical evidence of such a being, is extraordinary. I’m excused for not believing it, even if it’s true. But I can also imagine myself believing something about the situation, namely, that something happened to all of them that day, and that the something that happened had profound positive effects on them, not just in the sense of making them feel good, but in a properly humanistic sense. They’ve become better human beings as a result of it. And they all describe that something as “The day we visited the alien.” I could insist they didn’t visit an alien. And another thing I could do instead is, start using the phrase “the day you visited the alien” to refer simply to whatever happened to them. In that sense, I could affirm that I believe an alien visited them that day.
Of course, this seems dishonest! I’d mean something different by these words than they do. I’d be misleading them into thinking I believed an actual alien visited them, when in fact I don’t think that at all.
As described, I would certainly be being dishonest. But, let’s suppose I actually tell them, “Listen, I don’t believe an actual alien visited you. But I know something happened that day, and I can tell that it was a good thing, and I’m interested in learning about it. And like you, I’m going to refer to that event as “the day the alien visited you,” and use that kind of language when talking to you about it, since that is how you are comfortable talking about it. Are you okay with this? 

I can imagine some personality types being totally okay with this, and others not.

So listen, Christians. I think if we could go back in time and we trained a camera on Jesus’s tomb (assuming things actually went down that way in the first place), we’d see his body decay and stay right where it was. At no point do I think we would see his body revivified. We would not see a physical figure visit disciples, and we wouldn’t see an incident where Thomas touched wounds on that figure. (I will probably write a post someday that explains this in more detail—it’s not just that it’s an incredible claim, though that’s probably sufficient. It’s that there are very good reasons to doubt it internal to the scriptures themselves, albeit not on a straightforward literal reading.) But it definitely seems like something happened that seized some communities of the day and brought them to say some very profound, interesting and benevolent things, and that in opposition to the main religious and moral currents of the day. I get this idea from the testimony of some people from a few decades later, who themselves heard the testimony of the people it originally happened to. And I am happy to call that thing that happened, whatever it is, “The resurrection of Jesus Christ.” I can use the logic of the resurrection stories to talk about and think about the something that happened and its significance for those who experienced it at the time, and those of us who inherit its legacy and continue to be part of that something happening. I am wholly comfortable speaking to you guys in these terms. I’ll even affirm “If Christ wasn’t raised, then our faith is in vain,” because the resurrection of Jesus Christ, i.e., whatever happened, is the central premise of our faith, and what our lives in Christ revolve around. 

If I affirmed the resurrection and didn’t tell you this is what I mean by that affirmation, I’d be lying to you. In the past, it would not surprise me if there were those who understood the claim in something like this way, and refrained from telling others that was their understanding, for fear of shunning, exile or maybe even execution. We don’t live in that kind of world anymore (well, I don’t) and so that understandable excuse for deception isn’t available to me. If I’m going to use the phrase to mean “something happened etc” then I’d better be up front about it.

The thing is, I think this is the right way for any Christian to understand the resurrection. But I know that many Christians will profoundly disagree with me on that.

So then. I’m Thomas before he touched the wounds. But I’m a version of Thomas who believes just because of the profound effects of the event he saw in his friends, and the testimony they brought him. The belief I have, though, is not in a physical resurrection. It’s a belief that the testifying friends are being truthful and giving expression to something that really happened and that profoundly affected them—a thing which they can only articulate as “things seem utterly hopeless but it turns out he’s still alive.” I don’t need to see the wounds, their testimony is enough for me. (Lucky me, Jesus was said to have “congratulated” one such as me! I’ve put myself in a privileged position. Imagine that!) And it also turns out I’m also a Thomas who says “Look, I don’t need to see the wounds, but really, I don’t really care whether his actual physical body resurrected or not, though I know that’s what you think. I’ll affirm the resurrection just like you, but just understand, I’m talking about what I see in you, not anything I need to see of him. Are you guys okay with that?”

Are you?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Playtesters Needed

The game is currently titled Soldier, Merchant, Priest. It is a quick, light, vaguely medieval-to-renaissance themed card game using a non-standard deck. It contains elements of bluffing, betting and trick-taking. I think the game actually works, but as you can imagine it is difficult to evaluate a game like this on my own. I can't bluff myself.

If anyone would be interested in testing this game out, I'm perfectly willing to make a set for you and mail it to you. (It's literally just me scribbling some notations on index cards, though, so don't expect anything fancy.)

You can read the rules here or download them here. I'll very briefly describe the game as follows.

The deck consists of four suits—soldiers, merchants, priests and nobles. The merchants and priests have number values. The soldiers are all identical. The nobles are each unique. The players take turns laying cards down in front of them one at a time, and eventually one may decide to "call" either merchants, priests or soldiers. The other players must then call a suit in turn. By calling a suit, the player is declaring how he intends his score for the round to be calculated—in either a merchant-centric way, a priest-centric way or a soldier-centric way. Then, they can continue laying down cards one at a time. Eventually, everyone will pass, and once they have, whoever has the highest score in the cards they laid down wins the round. An interesting bit is this: If you win having called Merchants, then you get no points, but your hand size is increased by one in all future rounds. This is important not only because it adds flexibility to your play in future rounds, but because the cards you keep in your hand each round score points for you as well. Each card laid down, then, is a kind of bet—and having more cards in your hand each round gives you more to bet with.
The noble cards, meanwhile, allow the players to change the rules of the game for a round. For example, laying down the "Smuggler" card changes the rule for counting score so that players are now encouraged to play a lot of low value merchant cards instead of a few high value merchant cards. The "General" card, as another example, allows you to use soldier cards as a substitute for cards of a different suit.

A round goes pretty fast—I'm sure less than two minutes a round in general. The game, then, is a pretty quick fast paced one. 

If you are interested, contact me and I'll send you a set! Get some friends together and try it out. I believe it plays well even with just two players, but I'm interested to hear whether you think so as well. Probably the maximum that should play the game right now is four, chiefly due to the size of the deck. (Forty cards.) 

I'll also send you a questionnaire, which will include a "free response" section as well as some more specific questions about replayability, the existence of a dominant strategy, the clarity of the rules, and so forth.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Games, Philosophy and Thrill-Seeking

This post is personal, not in the sense that it reveals personal details that would usually be kept private, but in the sense that it's not intended to make universally valid claims, but instead only to report the experience of the author. (With the implicit hope that this experience is shared by others.)

That experience is this: I like philosophy, and I like board games, and the two activities don't feel all that different to me, and here I'll say something about why.

I feel guilty on revealing this (maybe the post is personal in that sense after all) because I seem to have both trivialized philosophy and unduly elevated gaming in a single unconsidered action. But I'll try to overcome that problem as I write this post.

I am having trouble tracking down where I got this idea, but my favorite definition of "game" (pace Wittgenstein!) goes something like this: A game is an activity whereby one or more people limit themselves artificially to certain rules, in pursuit of a goal that has no value independently of that activity. ("Artificially" here meaning the rules are not simply reducible to rules found outside the activity. The rules are special to the activity. Otherwise, life itself would be a game, and it's not, is it?)

Meanwhile, my favorite definition of Philosophy is one I made up, though there are clear shades in it of things several famous thinkers have said in the past. That definition is this: Philosophy is conceptual thrill-seeking.

Thrill-seeking? What I mean by this is the kind of thing we do when we ride roller coasters, or go bungee jumping, or chase tornadoes. What's in common here? We're putting ourselves into a position that forces us to be aware of how tentative our security is—but typically, we're doing so in a way such that our security is not really that much in question. We're simulating life-threatening loss of security, though not necessarily actually experiencing a life-threatening loss of security. (I say not necessarily, and put this in terms of what's typical, because thrill-seeking can involve greater or lesser degrees of actual danger. But most thrill-seeking activities involve numerous fail-safes such that the activities basically are safe.) Strangely, though we know we are safe, much of our reaction to the situation involves the same kinds of feelings we would have were the simulation actual—were we actually unsafe. It is this combination of feeling unsafe while knowing we are safe that allows for thrill-seeking to be a fun activity—and a valuable one.

Why is it valuable? We learn about ourselves, our limits. We can use the experience to prepare for genuine emergencies. We discover facts and ways of doing things which would not occur to someone in a totally safe situation. And so on. The utility of thrill-seeking seems fairly clear. It has basically the same value as exploration does, though what's being explored isn't a surface but rather a person or a community (in the case of communal thrill-seeking activities such as sky diving or mountain climbing.)

So what I'm claiming about philosophy is that it is a kind of thrill-seeking. Well, I'm reporting that that is definitely what it is for me, and I suspect it is so for many others as well. Even the kind of philosopher who builds intricate systems in defense of a dearly held religious belief (who you might think isn't thrill-seeking at all, instead doing something like building a fortress) I would say is likely engaging in thrill-seeking. For in Philosophy, there's no distinction between the architect and the construction worker. To plan out the system is to build the system. And the construction worker must climb out onto dangerous ledges, balancing on beams where a slight misstep will lead to terror followed by death. And so, therefore, when it comes to system-building, must the architect as well—for the philosopher fills both of these roles simultaneously. In defending a dearly held belief by building an intricate conceptual system and elaborating in in response to attacks, this kind of philosopher must often ask herself about the consequences of possibilities that are very uncomfortable for her dearly held belief. This can't help but be thrilling. And going out on these limbs has all the same value as thrill-seeking for her, allowing her to anticipate things that can't normally be anticipated, to create a new way of thinking about her self (or her system) and her/its limits, and so on.

Meanwhile, for me (and I'm sure at least some other philosophers) the thrill seeking aspect of Philosophy is much more direct. I like to think about personal identity because it is great fun to consider what it must be like from the inside to realize one has no continuing self. I may or may not become convinced that this is so, but more than half the reason I consider the question in the first place is to get that abyssal feeling of being on the brink of realizing one's own destruction—all the while knowing I am actually perfectly safe because my kids are going to enter the room in the next moment and whatever else is true or false about the metaphysics of personhood, I will be a father again (or at least, I will not be able to help but think of myself that way, and I am happy for that even if it turns out it is an illusion of some kind).

I've gone a little off topic, but to recap: Philosophy is conceptual thrill-seeking, and games are activities of following artificial rules in pursuit of goals with no value outside the game.

And on reflection, I think we can see the two things I just defined must share a number of similarities. What is the goal of bungee jumping? It is to hang in the air unsuspended. That has no value outside the activity of bungee jumping! Indeed, in most other contexts, it is absolutely disvalued! And, in order to bungee jump, one must wear a harness, and one must jump off a bridge (or other high platform). These are artificial rules! These are not things one must do just to live or be part of a community or anything everyday such as that. These are special rules one imposes on oneself artificially in order to engage in a particular activity—an activity with a goal that has no independent value outside that activity. (Engaging in the activity itself has utilitarian value as I argued above, but the goal internal to the activity is not valuable itself.)

Okay so then Philosophy is a game. Not a particularly new thought at all, but I think the thrill-seeking/gaming connection is an interesting addition to that notion anyway.

I started out talking specifically about board games at the beginning of this post. There's nothing particularly insightful about that—it's just that I've never been much of a physical game-player, my own personal style is much more (cripplingly) oriented toward the intellect, and so on. So since board games are a primarily intellectual activity, of course they are the kind of game that will feel, from the inside, most like philosophizing to me. I know this not to be universal—I know philosophers who encounter philosophy as an activity, and don't recognize any ultimate distinction between physical and intellectual activity. It's all stuff you do with your body. I recognize that intellectually—but like I just said, I recognize it intellectually.

Is doing philosophy more like playing a game, or more like creating a game for others to play? After all Philosophy isn't just about finding solutions to known problems (that'd be playing a game) but also about finding problems for known solutions (that'd be creating a game). The two activities probably aren't actually distinct for any problem that's really complicated anyway. So the answer is just "both," I think.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Possibly Final Post on Mercy

In previous posts (here, here and here) I've been arguing that the concept of mercy should take into account agent beliefs and attitudes. In other words, somewhere in the analysis of the concept, we should be talking about what the agent believes (and what his attitudes are) concerning the permissibility of his action and the nature of his situation. As I argued, if our analysis doesn't include some such element, certain merciful actions will not be called merciful. For example, a judge who, mercifully, gives a prisoner a sentence smaller than the maximum, when in actual fact it turns out the judge was required to give the maximum sentence, will not be said to have engaged in a merciful action if our account of mercy only takes into account what is actually permitted instead of what the judge believes is permitted.

Yet, as noted in those prior posts, every account of mercy that can be found in the relatively contemporary literature fails to take such considerations into account. All of them turn on questions of what is actually permitted by some standard or other, and none of them turn at all on what the agent believes about his situation or the permissions that apply. 

Is it simple to correct this omission? Should we just take whatever the best account of mercy is that leaves out agent beliefs, and simply add an "agent belief" clause? For example, suppose the (otherwise) best account of mercy says an act is merciful when both it and a more severe option were permitted by some standard or other, and the agent chose it out of compassion. In such a case, can it be as simple as amending this to say an act is merciful when the agent believed a more severe option was available and also believed both the more severe option and less severe option were permitted?

This may seem inevitably to be the kind of thing I must say if I'm going to insist on taking agent beliefs into account. But I don't quite like it. It seems to me that agents can be merciful without believing themselves to be following any single standard. They may, in fact, believe themselves to be breaking with all applicable standards. (It may be they're necessarily wrong to think this, but right now, recall, we're talking about what the agent believes). It doesn't seem to me that mercy rests, conceptually and necessarily, on standards in this way. Permissibility standards are often an important part of the discussion about whether an act was merciful or not. But the agent need not have any particular beliefs about standards in order for an act to be merciful.
And so in my latest post I introduced the Internal Principles Account of Mercy:

IPAM: x is merciful to y at t =df x believes there are two alternative acts, A and B, available to x at t such that (1) x performs A, (ii) x believes x's performing B would have resulted in more harm to y than x's performing A, (iii) x is motivated by compassion for y to choose A over B, (iv) two unselfish principles p1 and p2 move x, such that p1 moves x to choose A and p2 moves x to choose B. (p1 and p2 may be identical, as some principles allow for more than one option in a given situation.)

(Less precisely, an act is merciful when the agent undertaking the act is genuinely psychologically moved by some principle to do something relatively severe, and is also genuinely psychologically moved by some principle (possibly the same principle, but not necessarily or even usually) to do something relatively gentle, and out of compassion, chooses the more gentle act.)

One strength of Markosian's contextualist style account of mercy is that it offers a nice explanation as to why intuitions about mercy often differ. Take the case of the Nazi Doctor, for example:

There is a Nazi doctor whose job is to torture innocent children. But there is something about one of the children that strikes a chord in the doctor. As a result of the compassion that he feels for this one child, the doctor chooses not to torture her.

This is a case where intuitions vary. Many consider this a clear case of mercy, while others consider it just as clearly not to be a case of mercy. Markosian's explanation for the difference in cases like these (though he doesn't specifically explain the difference in this particular case) is that an action's mercifulness will vary according to the context of utterance of the judgment that the act is merciful. Different contexts will pick out different standards of permissibility. So for example, perhaps if a moral saint is talking to several other moral saints, then the standard of permissibility that will apply is moral permissibility—and the doctor's action isn't merciful because torturing the child wasn't permissible in the first place. But if, instead, the context of utterance is a Nazi philosopher talking to other Nazi philosophers, all of whom believe torturing innocent children is often justifiable but that it is okay to make the occasional exception, then their judgment that the act was merciful will be true, because the relevant standard makes both options permissible.

So then, those of us who are not Nazis but who do find this to be a merciful act may be thinking (on Markosian's account) that the relevant permissibility standard is something like "permissibility according to Nazi laws." Well, actually, I'm not too sure any of us who find the act plausibly merciful really do have any single such standard in mind. To my mind this is a weakness in Markosian's attempt to explain differing intuitions—it's not very plausible that there is any single permissibility standard anyone ever has in mind that makes both torturing innocent children and not torturing innocent children permissible. (Not that no such standard could be constructed artificially, rather I'm just making the psychological claim that none of us thinking about the doctor's actions have any such standard in mind.) But anyway, if there are such standards that we do have in mind, this would explain the differing intuitions. Different people having different beliefs about which permissibility standard is picked out by their context of utterance.

But my account, in addition to giving the right result for a certain difficult case where Markosian's fails (LINK), also seems to give a plausible explanation for differing intuitions about mercy. For people have different ideas about what principles other people are, or can be, genuinely psychologically moved by. In the Nazi doctor story, his compassion on the single child seems inexplicable. Why this child and no others? For this reason, we're invited, even if only subconsciously, to imagine some motivation for this compassion. And if IPAM is the correct account of mercy, and when thinking about the Nazi doctor we fail to think of a plausible way to explain how one person could both be genuinely moved to torture innocent children and genuinely moved by some other principle to spare this particular child, and moreover to choose the latter course of action out of compassion, we could very well be tempted (based on IPAM) to reject the categorization of this act as merciful. In other words, if we can't make sense of the doctor's action as an instance of the scheme described in IPAM, then of course we will not judge the doctor to have been merciful. And it's plausible to think someone might sensibly fail to see how to make the doctor's actions make sense in this way. For, really, how could a plausible human being be so motivated? If he's genuinely moved to torture small children, doesn't this practically preclude any genuine psychological motivation, associated with compassion, to spare this particular child?

Meanwhile, if one can come up with such an imagined set of motivations, it surely becomes much more plausible to think of the doctor as merciful. It's a little hard for me to come up with such a thing, since I myself find the doctor's action to be unmerciful simply because it's inexplicable (just as described in the previous paragraph) but I can make a go of it. Perhaps the doctor is genuinely moved by a belief that the torture will lead to important physiological discoveries, something he cares about inherently. And perhaps he's also genuinely moved by the kind of generalized protective feelings we all have for children. And though in most cases he has managed to quash that protectiveness in the name of physiological discovery, in this particular case something about the child reminds him of his protective instincts. Perhaps she subconsciously reminds him of a child he once knew. And so he arranges to have her sent away from the camp somewhere safe. If I think of the doctor as someone experiencing this as a difficult decision, one his mind quivers back and forth over, causing him real emotional tension, because he really is genuinely moved by two opposing principles and it is ultimately his feelings of compassion—usually dormant but briefly awakened in this particular case—which move him toward the less severe act, then I do begin to think of the doctor as merciful. Granted I had to add some details. But the details are there, if anything, simply to make the example explicable as the actions of a human being I can understand. (It may be there were actual Nazi doctor cases in Germany before and during world war two. I don't claim it to be impossible—I'm simply expressing how inexplicable such cases seem to me. But once I supply certain details, and begin making the doctor's actions "explicable" as the product of principles genuinely psychologically moving the doctor in incompatible directions, then his actions start to feel more like merciful actions to me, even as I continue to see him as repugnantly evil.)

So in any case, whether this is convincing or not, I think I have now completed my blog exploration of this topic. I now have a paper to write, to present a new account of mercy and explain how it has all the benefits of Markosian's powerful account, none of the downsides, and accounts for more than what he accounts for.



Thursday, June 20, 2013

Directly Affecting People’s Emotions in Order to Persuade Them

I'm reading the second book of the Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sorenson. (For the record: The first book is fine if you like pulp fantasy. The second book takes a sharp turn into Twilight territory, much to my chagrin. But I shall complete the trilogy, because I am stubborn.) In these books, some people are called Soothers. These characters have a special ability to quell others' emotions. So, for example, they can calm people who are excited, or make people more gentle when their natural reaction is to be angry.
One of these characters frequently uses his power on his friends, which typically bothers them when they realize it's happening. To them it feels invasive and deceptive. But this character (called Breeze) argues that there is nothing wrong with soothing people while trying to persuade them or affect their reactions. He notes that we use the way we dress, changes in tone, implicit threats, and so on, to persuasive effect and these methods are typically taken to be unobjectionable. Soothing is just another example of this, on Breeze's account. It is a persuasive art which proceeds by affecting another's emotional state, hoping thereby to affect the person's decisions.

Breeze argues that by soothing people, he is simply encouraging them, doing the same thing you and I might do using words and non-verbal cues.

Is there anything to this argument? Laying it out, the argument goes:
  1. There are many means of persuasion that consist in more or less direct action on others' emotions (rather than strict rational persuasion through the presentation of propositions for logical consideration) and which are unobjectionable.
  2. Soothing is relevantly like the above-described means of persuasion
  3. Therefore, Soothing is unobjectionable.
My first reaction was to disagree with premise two. After all, soothing is covert, done without the recipient's awareness. Tone of voice, manner of dress, etc., are much more overt—things the recipient is able to notice and take into account. But as portrayed in the book, anyway, people who are aware of the effects of soothing are able, if they are careful, to notice when it's being done to them. And it seems plausible to think that if such a power really existed, those affected by it would be able to tell it was happening if they were paying attention—they'd notice their emotional reactions seem inappropriate to the occasion by their own lights.

Of course not everyone is aware enough of the soothing phenomenon to be able to watch out for it like this. Yet notice that people in the real world are certainly not all aware enough of the power of a-rational non-verbal cues to affect their own actions either. Such effects are generally subconscious, and it takes special effort to notice when techniques of dress, tone of voice, and so on are being used on you. Soothing seems, on reflection, to be no more covert than these more normal means of persuasion.

What about the first premise? Are the various means of persuasion described here actually unobjectionable? If I wear a power tie because I know that people tend to be more pliant if I wear certain colors, am I doing something objectionable?

I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, as a philosopher I almost feel duty-bound to insist that the only legitimate form of persuasion is rational persuasion, by which I mean, the presentation of articulated claims with an invitation that their recipient examine them for logical coherence with each other and with other known facts. On such a view, it would be illegitimate to attempt to affect others' decisions using the color of my tie. On the other hand, it is impossible to present a set of claims without presenting them in some manner. Manner of presentation is inherent in the act of presentation. And it seems plausible to think that every manner of presentation has some effect on the persuasiveness of the thing presented. For example, if I make a proposal to my boss while wearing slovenly clothing, things are likely to go poorly for me. But if I make the proposal while wearing neat clothing, things are more likely to go well for me. And I must make a choice as to what clothes to wear (or whether to wear any clothes at all) when making the presentation. So then, I cannot help but do something which I know will affect how my audience will feel about my proposal independently of the content of the proposal itself! If I can't help but do it, it is difficult to see how it could be considered objectionable.

(There can be a lot more to say about this. I can imagine someone arguing I should dress slovenly and let the proposal speak for itself—and if the boss is going to let my manner of dress affect his appraisal of the proposal, then my boss is in error, but I am not. Also, in other contexts I have argued that formality in dress, and formality in other contexts, has the function of allowing the content of ideas to be the most active thing in participants' heads, by hiding the particulars of manner of presentation as much as possible. Yet this is probably too strong a claim. Formal presentation is itself a manner of presentation, and has a special persuasive power of its own…)

So then, perhaps it is not objectionable to use techniques intended to directly affect emotions when trying to persuade people. It may be that these techniques are somewhat covert, and there may be something wrong with that—but perhaps the answer isn't to forbid the techniques, but to educate as many as possible into the existence and use of these techniques, so that the non-consent implied in covertness might be eliminated. Indeed, I can imagine a society in which everybody knows how to directly affect everyone else's emotions, and everyone knows everyone knows, and such actions are simply seen as a natural part of daily interaction. At this particular moment, I can't see why such a system couldn't be made to work.

I'm aware that everything I've written here is a very surface-level rehashing of thoughts people have been hammering out for thousands of years, starting at least with some of Aristotle's thoughts on rhetoric. This is philosophical work I have not familiarized myself with (to my regret). Still, the question is an interesting one, and worth discussing, even from a somewhat ignorant viewpoint such as mine. What are your thoughts?