The Ethics Of Facebook’s Emotion-Manipulation Research

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I’ve railed against Facebook many times on this blog, and in 2010′s “Facebook: Beyond The Last Straw“), I promised I would stop. I managed to keep that promise for nearly four years, but I’ve been roused to rail once again by the confluence of four different interests I happen to have: emotion research (one of my philosophical activities), ethics (a subject I teach), federal regulations covering university research (which I help to administer by being on my university’s Institutional Research Board) and the internet (which, of course, I constantly use).

In case you haven’t yet heard, what Facebook did was to manipulate the “news feeds” users received from their friends, eliminating items with words associated with either positive emotions or negative emotions, and then observing the degree to which the manipulated users subsequently employed such positive or negative vocabulary in their own posts. Facebook’s main goal was to disconfirm a hypothesis suggested by previous researchers that users would be placed in a negative mood by their friends’ positive news items, or in a positive mood by their friends’ negative news items. As I understand it, the results did disconfirm that hypothesis, and confirmed the opposite one (namely, that users would be placed in congruent rather than incongruent mood states by reading their friends’ positive or negative news items), but just barely.

Although I find this methodology questionable on a number of grounds, apparently peer-reviewers did not. The research was published in a reputable journal. More interesting to me are the ethical implications of Facebook’s having used their users as guinea pigs this way.

The best article I’ve found on the net about the ethical issues raised by this experiment was written as an opinion piece on Wired by Michelle N. Meyer, Director of Bioethics Policy in the Union Graduate College-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Bioethics Program. Meyer is writing specifically about the question of whether the research, which involved faculty from several universities whose human-subject research is federally regulated, could have (and should have) been approved under the relevant regulations. Ultimately, she argues that it both could have and should have, assuming that the manipulation posed minimal risk (relative to other manipulations users regularly undergo on Facebook and other sites). Her only caveat is that more specific consent should have been obtained from the subjects (without giving away the manipulation involved), and some debriefing should have occurred afterward. If you’re interested in her reasoning, which at first glance I find basically sound, I encourage you to read the whole article. Meyer’s bottom line is this-

We can certainly have a conversation about the appropriateness of Facebook-like manipulations, data mining, and other 21st-century practices. But so long as we allow private entities to engage freely in these practices, we ought not unduly restrain academics trying to determine their effects. Recall those fear appeals I mentioned above. As one social psychology doctoral candidate noted on Twitter, IRBs make it impossible to study the effects of appeals that carry the same intensity of fear as real-world appeals to which people are exposed routinely, and on a mass scale, with unknown consequences. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. What corporations can do at will to serve their bottom line, and non-profits can do to serve their cause, we shouldn’t make (even) harder—or impossible—for those seeking to produce generalizable knowledge to do.

My only gripe with this is that it doesn’t push strongly enough for the sort of “conversation” mentioned in the first line. The ways in which social media sites – and other internet sites – can legally manipulate their users without their specific consent is, as far as I can tell, entirely unregulated. Yes, the net should be open and free, but manipulation of the sort Facebook engaged in undermines rather than enhances user freedom. We shouldn’t expect to be able to avoid every attempt to influence our emotions, but there is an important difference between (for instance) being exposed to an ad as a price of admission, and having the information one’s friends intended you to see being edited, unbeknownst to you or your friends, for some third party’s ulterior purpose.

Burger King Meets Sartre: To Be or To Have?

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File this under “odd confluences of marketing and philosophy”…

BK Question

As both a fan of the BK Veggie (at least when starving and passing through a small town with only fast food restaurants and no Subway) and a philosophy professor, I found this news item almost as interesting as it is just plain weird: Burger King, in its infinite corporate wisdom, has decided to change its catch-phrase from “Have It Your Way” to “Be Your Way”. BurgerBusiness.com apparently got the scoop-

Fernando Machado, SVP_Global Brand Management, told BurgerBusiness.com that the new tagline is the result of a company reexamination of its brand and its relationship with its customers. “Burger King is a look-you-in-the-eyes brand, a relaxed and a friendly brand. It is approachable and welcoming,” he said. “So we wanted the positioning to reflect that closeness. We elevated ‘Have It Your Way’ to ‘Be Your Way’ because it is a richer expression of the relationship between our brand and our customers. We’ll still make it your way, but the relationship is deeper than that.”

Sure, Be Your Way: be obese, be diabetic, be wasteful, be oblivious (except, of course, when you order the Veggie). We’ll take your money, however you are. Of course, “Have It Your Way” has its own share of unfortunate associations: have a heart attack, have a stroke, have gastric distress… But what seems to be moving the advertisers here is rather this: since being indicates a “deeper relationship” than having, and therefore since what you are is likely to be more important to you than merely what you have, emphasizing being over having should lead you to desire a Whopper more than you would were you still stumbling into one their establishments under the less efficacious spell of their traditional catch-phrase. However, the relationship between desiring, being, and having can be tricky, as Jean-Paul Sartre made abundantly clear in his epic Existentialist tome, Being and Nothingness. Here’s a quick summary of his view on this, courtesy of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy-

For Sartre, the lover seeks to possess the loved one [or the loved burger - ed.] and thus integrate her into his being: this is the satisfaction of desire. He simultaneously wishes the loved one nevertheless remain beyond his being as the other he desires, i.e. he wishes to remain in the state of desiring. These are incompatible aspects of desire: the being of desire is therefore incompatible with its satisfaction.

So… do the advertisers really want to short-circuit the desiring process, and prematurely emphasize being over having? But wait… the plot thickens-

In the lengthier discussion on the topic “Being and Having,” Sartre differentiates between three relations to an object that can be projected in desiring. These are being, doing and having. Sartre argues that relations of desire aimed at doing are reducible to one of the other two types. His examination of these two types can be summarised as follows. Desiring expressed in terms of being is aimed at the self. And desiring expressed in terms of having is aimed at possession. But an object is possessed insofar as it is related to me by an internal ontological bond… Through that bond, the object is represented as my creation. The possessed object is represented both as part of me and as my creation. With respect to this object, I am therefore viewed both as an in-itself [an inert, untroubled thing - ed.] and as endowed with freedom. The object is thus a symbol of the subject’s being, which presents it in a way that conforms with the aims of the fundamental project [that is, the impossible project of being God, who alone can be conscious of something without being alienated from it - ed.]. Sartre can therefore subsume the case of desiring to have under that of desiring to be, and we are thus left with a single type of desire, that for being.

So, ultimately, if desiring to have is reducible to desiring to be, the advertisers might be wasting their time – much ado about nothing. Or is that much ado about nothingness?

Sting Ponders The Multiverse

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As a rule, musicals tend to strike me as amusing at best (Passing Strange aside), and only time will tell whether Sting and his cohort of Broadway pros can pull off the rare feat of successfully marrying rock, pop, or folk songs to an emotionally resonant and theatrically stageable story. But the more I listen to the numbers Sting has written for his The Last Ship project, the more they grow on me. You can listen to many of those songs, performed live by Sting and several cast members, on this American Masters episode. Meanwhile, here’s one of the more thought-provoking and suggestive songs from the album (not included in the Great Performances episode), one that demonstrates how a talented – and well-read – songwriter (or two) can relate an interpretation of quantum physics to a theme with a lot of poetic and dramatic potential: how choices create universes, and how those universes might be related to parallel universes not only physically, but – more humanly – by relief, or regret, or resignation, or…

“It’s Not The Same Moon”
by Sting and Rob Mathes

Did you ever hear the theory of the universe?
Where every time you make a choice,
A brand new planet gets created?
Did you ever hear that theory?
Does it carry any sense?
That a choice can split the world in two,
Or is it all just too immense for you?

That they all exist in parallel,
Each one separate from the other,
And every subsequent decision,
Makes a new world then another,
And they all stretch out towards infinity,
Getting further and further away.

Now, were a man to reconsider his position,
And try to spin the world back to its original state?
It’s not a scientific proposition,
And relatively speaking…you’re late.

It’s not the same moon in the sky,
And these are different stars,
And these are different constellations,
From the ones that you’ve described.
Different rules of navigation,
Strange coordinates and lines,
A completely different zodiac,
Of unfamiliar signs.

It’s not the same moon in the sky,
And those planets are misleading,
I wouldn’t even try to take a bearing or a reading,
Just accept that things are different,
You’ve no choice but to comply,
When smarter men have failed to see,
The logic as to why.

It’s not the same moon,
It’s not the same moon,
In the sky.

Philosophers Ride Unicorns To Work

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I usually teach two books in my “Contemporary Philosophy” class: A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, and Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity. Ayer’s book nicely illustrates the limits of verificationist semantics, the problems with phenomenalism, and the futility of trying to eliminate metaphysics from philosophy. Kripke’s book shows how metaphysics survived – and ultimately exploited – the “linguistic turn” taken by 20th century analytic philosophy. One thing that both books have in common, however, is at least a passing concern with unicorns.

WLA_metmuseum_1495_Unicorn_captivity

Ayer uses the sentence “Unicorns are fictitious” to illustrate how surface grammar can systematically mislead philosophers into spouting metaphysical nonsense (e.g., that since ‘unicorns’ seems to be the subject of this sentence, they must “have a mode of real being which is different from the mode of existing things”). Kripke, on the other hand, uses his scientific essentialism to argue that unicorns not only do not actually exist; they could not even possibly exist.

Well, we were talking about Ayer’s discussion of unicorns in class today, and Shannon, one my sharpest students, later tweeted me that “‘Back to the unicorns’ is something one only hears in Harry Potter or philosophy classes”, to which I responded with “Indeed…”, followed by the title of this post.

This got me thinking, though: just how extensively are unicorns used in the philosophical literature? (There’s a book to be written here, if it hasn’t already been published). To get a rough idea, I did a quick search of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of my favorite resources), and found that the mythological creatures trot onto that particular stage in no less than twenty-nine – count ‘em, 29 – different topics! Here’s a link to the list, for all of you unicorn junkies out there.

“Her” and Him (Alan Watts, that is)

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I found “Her”, Spike Jonze’s new movie, somewhat difficult to sit through. It feels too long (so little happens), and it treads a very thin line between a psychologically rich character study and a Saturday Night Live parody of a cliché romance. Also, the overall look of the film is bland, as if it were covered with a gray-filter. It’s too dimly lit in many scenes. In fact, one key scene happens entirely in the dark, a stylistic choice I couldn’t help but see as a sign of Jonze’s embarrassment with the scene’s content. No doubt the somberness of much of the indoor photography is meant to underscore protagonist Theodore’s extremely introverted personality. But it’s overkill: Joaquin Phoenix’s spot-on Theodore needs no extra help.

Yet, despite these problems, “Her” is, to my mind, perhaps the most thought-provoking Hollywood film released this year, with the possible exception of 12 Years A Slave (which I blogged about here). I say this even though in most ways Her is the opposite of my favorite Jonze film, 2004′s Adaptation. That movie had an almost frenetic energy; it was saturated by the sub-tropical colors of South Florida, it had a very complex structure (thanks to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman), and it centered on two (or three?) eccentric protagonists, played with all the requisite bravado by Nicholas Cage and Chris Cooper. Her, on the other hand, just plods along, without much to look at (a Scarlett-Johansson-shaped video image of Samantha might have helped a lot in that respect), with the simplest possible structure, and only two substantial characters, one of which is invisible, the other of which is rarely expressive.

But what I like about “Her” is its heartfelt exploration of intimacy, an exploration that goes deeper than what is generally found in your standard relationship flick (which, I admit, is not saying much). The film raises the question of whether it would be possible to be really intimate with the user interface of an operating system (to get some sense of Johansson’s silicon-based Samantha, just imagine Apple’s SIRI on both intellectual- and emotional-IQ steroids). But the film is more centrally concerned about the loss of human intimacy in our ever more technologically-mediated world, and that is an even worthier subject. Samantha and Theodore’s dialog reminds us, somewhat poignantly, of what a genuinely intimate relationship at least sounds like – something that’s sorely lacking not only from most other films, but also from many lives. The only thing missing from Theodore and Samantha’s relationship (besides a body, of course) seems at first to be any element of danger. For surely nothing could be less dangerous than a relationship with an entity pre-programmed to satisfy one’s every need. Theodore apparently need not fear that Samantha will ever leave him like his ex-wife did, but there’s the rub: how could such an apparently “failsafe” relationship ever really be fulfilling?

It’s the particular way in which the film first raises and then answers (or subverts) that question that makes it worth watching, and helps to excuse its weaknesses. Here’s the trailer-

Near the end of the film there’s an important reference to Alan Watts, the mid-20th century intellectual, ex-theologician, and pre-New Age disseminator of Asian religious traditions and metaphysical views. For those unfamiliar with Watts’ work, the brief description of him given in the film might suffice for the script’s purposes (though I doubt it). But for those at least passingly familiar with his life and work, the reference will have all sorts of rich resonances, and suggest several different levels on which to interpret the ending. The most obvious level has to do with Watts’ charismatic charm, which seems to have been accompanied by a (no doubt philosophically motivated) lack of shame. The second, slightly less obvious level rides on Watts’ trenchant criticisms of Western Culture, which he viewed as both a cause and effect of its average member’s confusion and neurosis. His prescription was, quite simply, to become enlightened in the down-to-earth, Zen sense he himself clearly sought. Finally, a third level of interpretation rides on the similarity between Samantha and Theodore that Samantha at one point says comforts her. To jump aboard this train of thought, you need to focus on Watts’ thesis that reality is, ultimately, One (a “monistic” worldview that a Buddhist need not accept). To avoid falling into didactic mode, I’ll just add that these three levels of interpretation are, I think, complementary. They leave Theodore with much more to mull over beyond the picture’s ending than just the promises and pitfalls of romantic attachments. The only problem is that the reference to Watts and the relevance of his personality and worldview is such “inside baseball”, the resonances that finally sold me on the film will probably not occur to most of the film’s audience. I’m not sure that they even occurred to the filmmakers.

If you’ve never heard an Alan Watts talk, here’s a 10-minute audio excerpt I once used in an adult enrichment class that focused on his fusion of Eastern and Western perspectives. At one point he mentions “the ceramic myth” and “the fully automatic myth” – ideas he explains earlier in the talk. By the first he just means the monotheistic story that God created the universe (much as people create ceramics). By the second he’s referring to the Newtonian view of the universe as a dumb, fully automatic machine, devoid of consciousness. In this excerpt, the two main themes he riffed on throughout his career – the mental illness of Western culture, and the metaphysical monism (supported by ecology and post-Newtonian physics) that could be part of the cure – are on full display.

Much more Watts is available here. For my own previous posts on Watts, just search for his name using the Search box above.

Stew On Art: Luxury Or Necessity?

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I’ve blogged before about Stew (AKA Mark Stewart), the Tony award-winning playwright for his rock musical Passing Strange and accomplished singer-songwriter (check out his latest album, Making It), but his lecture/performance at UW Oshkosh the night before last gave me another opportunity to share him with you.

Stew-Image-4

The answer he gave to the question – is art necessary? – was, as you might have expected, yes… but the reasons he gave were not the usual ones. For instance, it wasn’t that cultures require art to flourish, or that art is needed to civilize the heathen soul. Rather, Stew riffed on three main themes, and I’ll just state the gist of them here, along with some of my own elaboration I don’t think he’d object to.

First, art is what people do, as people. You simply can’t be a person unless you create art, even if the only art you create is yourself. When you step into your grandma’s house, you notice – if you have any eye for it at all – that she has carefully placed keepsakes and photos on the coffee table, the shelves, etc.. Her whole life is (or at least those aspects of it she cares to remember are) on display, if not for others, at least for herself. Then there’s the annual holiday card, letter, or now email that many of us send to our friends and family, updating them on our “true stories”. This is a creative act. It is art. Similarly, we’re all playwrights. Every day we choose our own costumes and dabble with our sets; we also write most of own lines. I would add that, unlike the days when radio ruled, we’re now our own music supervisors as well, as we carry our music libraries on our phones. But – and here I’m developing Stew’s theme in a way with which he might not entirely approve – for better or worse we’re not entirely in control of the final product. We’re not the sole producers of our art, after all. Our parents, and everyone who came before us, and for that matter the entire universe, also have that honor (or should I say dubious distinction?). Nor, even if we are self-directors, do we contractually have control over the final cut. We all wander onto each other’s stages, often in the middle of productions we have nothing – or nearly nothing – to do with. Narratively this should result in relative chaos, and sometimes it does, but usually we manage to muddle through. It is, as Stew said, what we do.

Secondly, art is necessary in the sense that, paradoxical as this might sound, it keeps life real. It always, though often unintentionally, offers a critique of the status quo: the one-dimensional, black and white, reductive Grand Narratives proffered by politicians, religious leaders, and mass media marketeers. Art does this merely by reminding us of the particular, the personal, and the idiosyncratic. Impoverished art – and here’s my somewhat more Aeolian take on Stew’s relatively Ionian melody – is little more than some permutation of the status quo that the artist has perhaps unconsciously internalized and regurgitated. Impoverished art merely reflects the status quo by being overly simplistic, stereotypical, shallow, sentimental and/or sensationalistic… Sartre would call such art “inauthentic”. When impoverished art is intentionally produced and therefore bad in addition to impoverished, there might be a temptation write it off as prostitution – it is often done just for money, and it does similarly satisfy a consumer’s need (so perhaps even bad art is “necessary”, in a sense). But artists that intentionally produce impoverished art invest less of themselves in their work than even the most jaded prostitutes, who at least have to use their own bodies. Such artists merely pretend, without taking any chances, without revealing anything about their actual selves. More “authentic” artists also pretend, but never merely. Their pretending is not deceptive; it’s not pretense.

Not that I have anything against the occasional “guilty pleasure”… For instance, I confess to regularly watching the latest version of “Hawaii 5-0″, mainly for the scenery and, since I grew up in the Islands, its nostalgic value. Sometimes, serendipitously and for purely personal, idiosyncratic reasons, even impoverished art resonates.

Finally, art provides us with at least one half of a real friendship in a world where real friends are always rare, but grow even rarer as we age. Poets, novelists, singer-songwriters, filmmakers, and others put the best of themselves into their works; they represent themselves – or at least how they see the world – as honestly as they can. What more could you ask of true friends, except perhaps that they also show some interest in you? And these friends, unlike the flesh-and-blood kind, are never far away. There they are, under a layer of dust on your bookshelf, in your rarely opened music and movie files, undemanding, patiently waiting to be discovered or re-discovered when you most need them. Of course, just like the flesh-and-blood variety, such friends might fail to live up to expectations, or lose their attractiveness over time. But to co-opt and re-purpose Matthew 7:16- By their fruits you shall know them… not to mention yourself.

Speaking of fruits (or, less metaphorically, works), it seems fitting to end this post with the opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s “The Burnt Norton”, the first of his “Four Quartets” – which Stew mentioned as being a very old friend of his, but one that he’s just now really getting to know:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”

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If you’re looking for one last book to read this summer, and you’re the type who likes to indulge in grand speculations without sacrificing critical reasoning, I’d like to recommend Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”. Like some other philosophers who have reached a certain age, Nagel seems more than willing to set aside the hair-splitting rigor required for first-rate academic work, and to suggest tentative answers to the truly mind-boggling, age-old problems: here, how we should try to adequately explain the origin of the universe, life, consciousness, cognition, and value. In a scant 128 pages, Nagel takes on this apparently intractable problem as simply and directly as a self-respecting analytic philosopher can, mainly by pursuing a negative goal: to cast doubt on the sufficiency of the usual materialist explanation of the universe, as well as on the contemporary neo-Darwinian explanation of life and its mental dimensions. In this he can’t help but share, with obvious discomfort, common ground with Intelligent Design proponents. But Nagel pays little attention to the Creationist alternative, dismissing it as insufficient, implausible, and at least as ideological as its neo-Darwinian competitor. Instead, he wants to shore up the credentials of an ancient view that goes all the way back to Aristotle: a naturalistic teleology that holds that we can adequately explain the universe can only with a theory that includes laws that work, in some sense, in reverse. According to such a view, the universe exists, in part, in order to bring about the existence of conscious, thinking creatures with the ability to recognize objective truths about physics, biology, psychology, and value (particularly morality). That is, the universe is determined to develop as it does at least partly in order to recognize itself. This is not an entirely original idea, but rarely has a philosopher of Nagel’s stature been brave enough to actually advocate it, at least publicly.

If Nagel is right (and he realizes that his argument is based on little more than quite tentative epistemological intuitions), our current science is not necessarily wrong, but it is radically incomplete, and the hope that by merely adding further causal principles of the same type it can eventually provide an adequate “theory of everything” – or even a “theory of everything that we currently know of” – has to be abandoned. To sum up this negative point and hint at the positive alternative, here’s part of the book’s last two paragraphs-

…I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world. It would be an advance if the secular theoretical establishment, and the contemporary enlightened culture which it dominates, could wean itself of the materialism and Darwinism of the gaps – to adapt one of its own pejorative tags. I have tried to show that this approach is incapable of providing an adequate account, either constitutive or historical, of our universe.

However… [a]n understanding of the universe as basically prone to generate life and mind will probably require a much more radical departure from the familiar forms of naturalistic explanation than I am at present able to conceive. Specifically, in attempting to understand consciousness as a biological phenomenon, it is too easy to forget how radical is the difference between the subjective and the objective, and to fall into the error of thinking about the mental in terms taken from our ideas of physical events and processes…

It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations, and not merely beyond our grasp in humanity’s present stage of intellectual development. But I believe that we cannot know this, and that it makes sense to go on seeking a systematic understanding of how we and other living things fit into the world. …The empirical evidence can be interpreted to accommodate different comprehensive theories, but [in the case of reductive materialism and its neo-Darwinian extension], the cost in conceptual and probabilistic contortions is prohibitive. I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two – though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid. The human will to believe is inexhaustible.

Of course, Nagel’s book has raised the ire of many of his fellow philosophers who accept “the present right-thinking consensus”. For an informative article on the criticisms, read this essay from a few months ago in the Chronicle: “Where Nagel Went Wrong”.

Is Paul Ryan A Deist?

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…Or is he just ignorant of the founders’ theological influences?

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you might have noticed that I haven’t been posting much about the current Presidential race. That’s because I tend to get interested in political races – in a writerly way – only when there is some sort of logical or philosophical issue to discuss, and, let’s face it, this campaign hasn’t exactly been rich in philosophical content. Lately, however, Paul Ryan’s standard stump speech has often included the following sort of statement, which he also has made on the floor of the House:

“Our founders got it right when they wrote in the Declaration of Independence that our rights come from nature and nature’s God, not from government.”

Ryan is certainly correct that the founders used the phrase “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the first paragraph of the Declaration-

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

But it was Ryan’s own emphasis on nature and “nature’s God” that got my attention. In Jefferson’s day, the phrase was strongly associated with the Enlightenment doctrine of Deism. Here’s a brief outline of the view from the (always enlightening) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy-

Deism is the form of religion most associated with the Enlightenment. According to deism, we can know by the natural light of reason that the universe is created and governed by a supreme intelligence; however, although this supreme being has a plan for creation from the beginning, the being does not interfere with creation; the deist typically rejects miracles and reliance on special revelation as a source of religious doctrine and belief, in favor of the natural light of reason. Thus, a deist typically rejects the divinity of Christ, as repugnant to reason; the deist typically demotes the figure of Jesus from agent of miraculous redemption to extraordinary moral teacher.

That Jefferson himself was a Deist is pretty clearly stated in a letter he wrote to his friend, William Short-

“…it is not to be understood that I am with him [Jesus] in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it. Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others, again, of so much ignorance, of so much absurdity, so much untruth and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being.” ["Letter to William Short, 13 April 1820" The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Ed. Andrew Lipscomb. Hershey: Pennsylvania State University, 1907. p. 244.]

Now, I’m no historian (and if I’ve gotten anything wrong here, please let me know), but I would expect someone in Ryan’s position to be more of one. Could it be that he is unaware of the Deism inherent in the phrase he’s constantly trotting out on the campaign trail? Or, despite his professed Catholicism, could he be a “secret Deist” himself (a possibility that seems far less unlikely – thanks to the lack of any necessary outward manifestations of the theology – than the “Sekrit Muslim” charge made against President Obama)? Deism is not currently widespread, partly because it turns out to be surprisingly hard (impossible?) to prove God’s existence by “the light of reason” alone. So there’s a natural tendency for Deism to evolve or devolve either into Fideism (which rejects the role of rationality in religion in favor of non-rational faith) or Atheism. Ryan’s perhaps inadvertent endorsement of Deism is inconsistent with both Catholicism and Atheism (the view of his intellectual heroine, Ayn Rand). But since logical inconsistency would be more troubling than simple ignorance, perhaps it would be most charitable to charge Ryan only with the latter.

Are You A Boltzmann Brain?

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If you’re a Boltzmann brain, then I’m likely a figment of your imagination as you float around in otherwise empty (or at least high-entropy) space, a minimum assemblage of whatever matter or energy is required to generate your thoughts and images. You emerged as a “quantum fluctuation” of particles out of the quantum fields that underlie space itself – your mother was the vacuum (no offense intended). Yes, you were an unlikely fluctuation, but given enough time – and an eternity is more than enough time – you were bound to happen at some point. In fact, at least absent assumptions far more speculative and untested than those of statistical mechanics and quantum physics, it was far more likely that you would emerge as an isolated brain – or whatever assemblage of particles you really are – in infinite space than that the Big Bang would have occurred with just the right properties to give rise to the universe as we observe it.

The idea that you could be mistaken about everything except the fact of your own bare existence as a conscious mind is nothing new. In his Meditations, Descartes developed such a scenario on his way convincing himself that his own mind certainly existed, and hence (along with several controversial assumptions) that a benevolent, omnipotent God must exist, and therefore that our everyday beliefs about the physical world are highly likely to be true (as long as we form them carefully). To make his skeptical scenario psychologically vivid and a worthy antagonist to defeat, Descartes imagined that a malevolent demon might be deceiving him in every possible way. Of course, Descartes recognized that his demon scenario was utterly improbable, but since in his view knowledge had to be built on an absolutely certain foundation, he thought that the mere possibility of such a demon could undermine his previously uncritical faith in his common sense beliefs, and that showing that such a demon could not cause him to reasonably doubt his own existence would go a long way towards establishing a firm foundation for math, physics, and the other sciences. Critics, of course, love to point out that a mere possibility is insufficient to justify a reasonable doubt. It is possible that a mountain of gold will soon emerge in my back yard, but that mere possibility gives me no reason to doubt that I shouldn’t quit my day job just yet. The possibility of a demon similarly can provide no reasonable ground for doubting my common sense beliefs. By contrast, the disturbing aspect of the Boltzmann brain scenario is that our best-tested physical theories actually suggest that being a Boltzmann brain is not only possible, it’s actually more likely – much more likely – than the situation in which we believe ourselves to be.

To explain why we observe a relatively orderly, amenable universe around us, even though a higher-entropy, less amenable sort of universe is far more likely to emerge from the cosmos on purely statistical grounds, we naturalists often appeal to an “anthropic principle”: in an infinite universe, some regions are likely to be more amenable to life than others, and life will quite predictably exist only in those regions where its evolution is possible. But the statistical reasoning that supports the probability of your being a Boltzmann brain also undercuts such appeals to anthropic principles. Sean Carroll puts this nicely in his book, “From Eternity To Here”-

… Maybe, we might reason [in accordance with an anthropic principle], in order for an advanced scientific civilization such as ours to arise, we require a “support system” in the form of an entire universe filled with stars and galaxies, originating in some sort of super-low-entropy early condition. Maybe that could explain why we find such a profligate universe around us.

No. Here is how the game should be played: You tell me the particular thing you insist must exist in the universe, for anthropic reasons. A solar system, a planet, a particular ecosystem, … whatever you like. And then we ask, “Given that requirement, what is the most likely state of the rest of the universe [given statistical mechanics and quantum theory], in addition to the particular thing we are asking for?”

And the answer is always the same: The most likely state of the rest of the universe is to be in equilibrium. If we ask, “What is the most likely way for an infinite box of gas in equilibrium to fluctuate into a state containing a pumpkin pie?,” the answer is “By fluctuating into a state that consists of a pumpkin pie floating by itself in an otherwise homogeneous box of gas.” Adding anything else to the picture, either in space or in time – an oven, a baker, a previously existing pumpkin patch – only makes the scenario less likely, because the entropy would have to dip lower to make that happen.

It’s important to emphasize that Carroll’s point here isn’t to argue that we should in fact believe that we are Boltzmann brains, but rather to provide a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the limited set of assumptions and theories that lead us to that conclusion. Still, upon finishing Carroll’s book, which avoids the Boltzmann brain conclusion only by indulging in some extremely tentative cosmological speculations, it’s hard to simply dismiss the possibility that we are, in fact, Boltzmann brains.

Mysticism Versus The Will To Succeed

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I’ve been reading a lot of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) recently, prepping for a class on his philosophy I’m planning to teach next year. In this passage from one of his thousands of letters to Ottoline Morrell (his closest confidant and intermittent lover), Russell, a pioneer of symbolic logic and analytic philosophy, reveals his concern with a conundrum that would be familiar to a student of Zen Buddhism-

The rare moments of mystic insight that I have had have been when I was free from the will to succeed. But they have brought a new kind of success, which I have at once noticed & wanted & so my will has drifted back into the old ways. And I don’t believe I should do anything worth doing without that sort of will. It is very tangled.

(As quoted in Ray Monk’s excellent biography, Bertrand Russell – The Spirit of Solitude, p. 476)

In Russell’s case, it seems that although he found mysticism very seductive (as many intellectuals did a century ago), associating it with high art, expansive emotions, intuitions of subject-object unity, and the deepest sorts of intimate relationships, his hyper-rationality blocked any attempts to explore it very seriously – unlike, for a time, his student Ludwig Wittgenstein. It’s debatable, I suppose, whether this was for the best (for him, and for his philosophy).

More publicly, Russell was extremely taken with the China he found in 1920, where he’d been invited to spend a year lecturing. Disgusted by the mechanized slaughter of World War I and by the “disease in our Western mentality” that, on a visit to Russia a few months earlier, he’d found the Bolsheviks were “attempting to force upon an essentially Asiatic population”, he seemed to think that the West had much to learn from the still pre-industrial East-

The Great War showed that something is wrong with our civilisation… Efficiency directed to destruction can only end in annihilation, and it is to this consummation that our civilisation is tending, if it cannot learn some of that wisdom for which it despises the East.

(The Problem of China, pp. 17-18)

No doubt he would have been troubled to see today’s China’s ever-accelerating emulation of Europe and North America – its embrace of authoritarian Capitalism. But what’s more striking to me, in terms of intellectual history, is just how closely Russell’s 1920 views foreshadowed, both socially and politically, those of the 1960s “New Left”, to which (at the age of 94!) he contributed by forming the so-called “Russell-Sartre Tribunal” that found the United States guilty of war crimes in Vietnam.

Music, Scores, Nature, and Physics

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I recently read Bertrand Russell’s The ABC of Relativity, his 1925 attempt to write a “popular” book on Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity. It’s notoriously difficult to non-mathematically conceptualize (let alone imagine) space-time in any clear way, but Russell did an admirable job of presenting the basics in relatively (excuse the pun) simple English, with a few geometrical constructions to help. Near the end he allows himself to philosophically muse a bit on the mathematical abstraction of such theories, and on how little – according to his view of science and reality at the time – they actually tell us of the “intrinsic nature” of matter and energy; here’s perhaps the best passage on this topic-

Between a piece of orchestral music as played, and the same piece of music as printed in the score, there is a certain resemblance, which may be described as a resemblance of structure. …when you know the rules, you can infer the music from the score or the score from the music. But suppose you had been stone-deaf from birth, but had lived among musical people. You could understand, if you had learned to speak and do lip-reading, that the musical scores represented something quite different from themselves in intrinsic quality, though similar in structure. The value of music would be completely unimaginable to you, but you could infer all its mathematical characteristics, since they are the same as those of the score. Now, our knowledge of nature is something like this. We can read the scores and infer just so much as our stone-deaf person could have about music. But we have not the advantages which that person derived from association with musical people. We cannot know whether the music associated with the scores is beautiful or hideous; perhaps, in the last analysis, we cannot be quite sure that the scores represent anything but themselves. But this is a doubt that the physicist, in a professional capacity, cannot entertain.

-Bertrand Russell, The ABC of Relativity (pp. 217-218)

Would Machiavelli Have Loved Open Primaries?

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This question might not be as interesting as the last one I asked of the same form – Would Plato Have Loved The Bossa Nova? – but the answer to this one is more obvious and certainly affirmative. As reported by Adam Rodewald in today’s Oshkosh Northwestern-

Republican Senate Leader Scott Fitzgerald and State Rep. Robin Vos have both publicly stated they hope Republicans cross over and vote for Democrat Kathleen Falk in the governor’s race, according to the Associated Press. That’s because recent polls suggest Walker has a better chance of defeating Falk, a former Dane County Executive, than Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the general recall election.

However, the Winnebago County Republican Party said Walker supporters could leave the governor vulnerable in his own primary if too many cross over to the other side. Walker also faces competition in Arthur Kohl-Riggs, a 23-year old from Madison, in a primary election Tuesday. Joe Malecki, communications director for the county Republican Party, said he suspects some Democrats might be voting for Kohl-Riggs to make it appear Walker is losing support within his own party.

The Winnebago County Republican Party is explicitly recommending Republicans vote in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. The party wants its members to vote for Republican protest candidate Issac Weix in an attempt to eliminate the actual Democratic challenger, Mitchell Mahlon.

Machiavelli reputedly advocated the morally problematic view that “the end justifies the means”. Even if this view were true for objectively good ends (and I doubt that it is), surely more evil has at least inadvertently been done in the name of good than in the name of evil. So anyone who thinks that this Machiavellian gaming of the political process is anything but a horrible idea should first have their conscience – and then other parts of their mind – examined. On the (controversial but widely believed) assumption that in any political debate one side would bring about a good while the other would (at least inadvertently) bring about an evil, it is obviously unwise – not to mention self-defeating – for either side to endorse or encourage the use of a deceptive tactic that could just as easily be used against it!

Since it seems clear that we shouldn’t have government or even party bosses deciding who can run in a given primary, all sides should agree: there should be no “open primaries”.

Would Plato Have Loved The Bossa Nova?

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The Boston Review has an interesting article on a recent law passed in Brazil that mandates the teaching of philosophy to high school students-

Getting out of the cave and seeing things as they really are: that’s what philosophy is about, according to Almira Ribeiro. Ribeiro teaches the subject in a high school in Itapuã, a beautiful, poor, violent neighborhood on the periphery of Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia in Brazil’s northeast. She is the most philosophically passionate person I’ve ever met.

Most of the four million slaves shipped from Africa to Brazil were sold in Salvador, the first residence of Portugal’s colonial rulers. It’s still Brazil’s blackest city. In Ribeiro’s neighborhood, children play football or do capoeira, pray in Pentecostal Churches or worship African gods. Many are involved with drugs; “every year we lose students to crack,” she tells me. And they study philosophy two hours each week because of a 2008 law that mandates philosophy instruction in all Brazilian high schools. Nine million teenagers now take philosophy classes for three years.

“But seeing things as they really are isn’t enough,” Ribeiro insists. As in Plato’s parable in The Republic, the students must go back to the cave and apply what they’ve learned. Their lives give them rich opportunities for such application. The contrast between the new luxury hotels along the beach and Itapuã’s overcrowded streets gives rise to questions about equality and justice. Children kicking around a can introduce a discussion about democracy: football is one of the few truly democratic practices here; success depends on merit, not class privilege. Moving between philosophy and practice, the students can revise their views in light of what Plato, Hobbes, or Locke had to say about equality, justice, and democracy and discuss their own roles as political agents. To foster that discussion, Ribeiro must take on a deeply rooted political defeatism. …

…the 2008 law is above all a political project. In 1971 the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 eliminated philosophy from high schools. Teachers, professors in departments of education, and political activists championed its return, while most academic philosophers were either indifferent or suspicious. The dictatorship seems to have understood philosophy’s potential to create engaged citizens; it replaced philosophy with a course on Moral and Civic Education and one on Brazil’s Social and Political Organization (“to inculcate good manners and patriotic values and to justify the political order of the generals,” one UFBA colleague recalls from his high school days).

The official rationale for the 2008 law is that philosophy “is necessary for the exercise of citizenship.” The law—the world’s largest-scale attempt to bring philosophy into the public sphere—thus represents an experiment in democracy. Among teachers at least, many share Ribeiro’s hope that philosophy will provide a path to greater civic participation and equality. Can it do even more? Can it teach students to question and challenge the foundations of society itself?

(Thanks Marshall)

Most of the philosophy professors I know would be overjoyed if philosophy – at least the history of ideas, critical reasoning, and introductory ethics – were taught in U.S. high schools. Could this be done in a country as anti-intellectual as the United States?

By the way, contrary to Brazilian creativity, Plato was no fan of musical innovation, as this excerpt from The Republic suggests:

Then to sum up: This is the point to which, above all, the attention of our rulers should be directed,–that music and gymnastic be preserved in their original form, and no innovation made. They must do their utmost to maintain them intact. And when any one says that mankind most regard

‘The newest song which the singers have,’

they will be afraid that he may be praising, not new songs, but a new kind of song; and this ought not to be praised, or conceived to be the meaning of the poet; for any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited.

We Might As Well Be Cars

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USA Today had an interesting story a few days ago on the attitude of a growing number of Americans towards God, Religion, and Athesim: So What?.

Researchers have begun asking the kind of nuanced questions that reveal just how big the So What set might be:

•44% told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey they spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom,” and 19% said “it’s useless to search for meaning.”

•46% told a 2011 survey by Nashville-based evangelical research agency, LifeWay Research, they never wonder whether they will go to heaven.

•28% told LifeWay “it’s not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose.” And 18% scoffed at the idea that God has a purpose or plan for everyone.

•6.3% of Americans turned up on Pew Forum’s 2007 Religious Landscape Survey as totally secular — unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.

Hemant Mehta, who blogs as The Friendly Atheist, calls them the “apatheists”

Mariann Edgar Budde, Episcopal Bishop of Washington D.C., calls them honest.

“We live in a society today where it is acceptable now to say that they have no spiritual curiosity. At almost any other time in history, that would have been unacceptable,” Budde says. She finds this “very sad, because the whole purpose of faith is to be a source of guidance, strength and perspective in difficult times. To be human is to have a sense of purpose, an awareness that our life is an utterly unique expression of creation and we want to live it with meaning, grace and beauty.”

Nah, Helton says. Helton, a high school band teacher in Chicago, only goes to the Roman Catholic Church of his youth to hear his mother sing in the choir.

His mind led him away. The more Helton read evolutionary psychology and neuro-psychology, he says, the more it seemed to him, “We might as well be cars. That, to me, makes more sense than believing what you can’t see.”

Well, okay… as long as I can be a Model S Tesla

Now, normally I’d be happy to see growing skepticism about religious beliefs (and, for that matter, about atheism as a sort of metaphysical dogma). But this sort of “apatheism” seems to have more to do with intellectual laziness than well-reasoned doubt. It certainly doesn’t follow from the failure of religious dogma to answer the deepest questions of existence that “we might as well be cars”. The dilemma between simple-minded religion and simple-minded materialism has always been false, but the growing (literal) awesomeness of physics and cosmology has never before made the mysteriousness of existence so clear.

Let’s just take a brief moment to appreciate how amazing it is that we’re thinking about the universe together on this blog… here… now…

Grand Spiral Galaxy NGC 1232, courtesy of NASA

For more awesomeness, visit NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive