11/29/12

Survey on the Good and Meaningful Life (Results)

My class on the meaning of life did something novel this semester--we collected the public's responses to a set of 21 questions about the good and/or meaningful life.  First, an explanation of what the point was. Then I'll tell you the results.

THE POINT
Primarily, the idea was to "problematize" the appeal to intuitions in our readings.  Here's how it goes. An author is defending an account of what makes a life good or meaningful.  The claim entails that a person in a certain scenario would (or wouldn't) have a good life (or a meaningful life, etc.). The author says "we think" the entailed fact is true.  But do we?

We flagged points like this in the literature covered in the course--on the good life and the meaningful life--and tested out whether survey-takers shared the "authorized" (so to speak) intuition -- i.e. the one the author both has and surmises that we all share. Below, I'll be using the phrase "authorized intuition" in just this artificial sense.

The results gave us a basis for discussing the following questions:
  1. If it's important what we think, should philosophers do experiments to find out what we think? Are they qualified to do these experiments?
  2. If philosophers should do experiments, what is the appropriate study population? Should subjects have any particular education or training, to make their intuitions "count"?
  3. Should philosophers appeal less to intuitions about scenarios?
  4. Should they limit themselves to stating their own intuitions, instead of saying "we think ..."?
  5. What attributes made a difference to how survey-takers answered the questions? How did philosophy background factor into it? Religion? Gender?
  6. What does the impact of those various factors tell us about questions 1-4?
There was also a secondary goal. The series on the experience machine was designed to test out a hypothesis offered by experimental philosopher Felipe DeBrigard, in response to Robert Nozick's famous argument against hedonism.

Here are some things we weren't trying to do by means of the survey--
  1. We weren't attempting to answer philosophical questions about the good life or the meaningful life.
  2. We weren't trying to support or refute the philosophers we had read. It was up for discussion and debate whether the results had any bearing on the truth of their theories.   
  3. We weren't trying to comprehensively diagnose how each individual survey-taker looks at the good life or the meaningful life. For that purpose, we would have needed both more questions and different questions.
METHOD
Over the course of the semester, scenarios were derived from the literature we read. Often the scenario in the survey was exactly as stated in the literature. Sometimes it was tweaked a bit for various reasons. Questions were kept as short as possible so people would read them in their entirety and complete the survey.

Answer options were limited to two or three, with no option of "not sure" or the like. This was because my teaching experience tells me people do usually lean in one direction or another, but will avoid commitment if given the chance. Since I worried we'd have very few survey-takers (I was wrong about that!), I wanted to avoid this sort of non-result.

We used multiple "collector" links so we could differentiate groups.  The first link I used was disseminated here, at Twitter, and on Facebook. It would up (not by request) at the very popular atheist blog Pharyngula.  That link yielded 4,912 responses.

Students disseminated another link via Facebook, email, and so on. That link yielded 136 responses.  A couple of other links were used to attract philosophers and we had some international students who attracted a few Indian and Chinese responses.

In addition to disseminating the survey, students also interviewed someone of their choice about their answers and reported to the class on their findings. This gave us an additional source of information about various answers and patterns.

Because of the influx from Pharyngula (presumably), our total sample was heavily male (71.3%) and unreligious (93.1%). The link used by students generated the opposite balance--it was heavily female and religious.  When we sorted the answers by gender and religion we did see some differences in responses.

Our sample was large enough to be informative, even if the population we're trying to represent is very large. (All people? Everywhere? Just all internet users? I'm not sure how we should think about that.) However, the sampling was by no means random.  I wouldn't take the exact statistics too seriously, but there are suggestive patterns. Some claims about "what we think" were strongly confirmed and some were strongly disconfirmed.

Again--the point was to "problematize" the role of intuitions and to raise questions about whether (or not!) philosophers should become experimentalists. The idea was not to settle any philosophical disputes by letting "the people" take a vote.

RESULTS
I'll discuss the results question by question, but if you don't have the patience for that, you can take a look at them all yourself.

All answers
Broken down by religiosity
Broken down by gender
Broken down by amount of background in philosophy

QUESTIONS 1-3 -- NECESSITIES
These questions are based on scenarios in chapter 5 of The Weight of Things--my book on what it is to live a good life.  I offer what's known as an "objective list" account of the good life, and use these scenarios (among many other bits of evidence and arguments) to support putting autonomy (the Bella scenario), self (the Norbert scenario), and progress (the Constance scenario) on my list. My account says the items on the list are not just contributors of good (so interchangeable), but necessities. So a paucity of even one item on the list would mean someone's life was flawed.

We toyed with various ways of stating the answer options, to capture the notion of a life being flawed for lack of one ingredient. I thought "flawed" sounded too harsh, taken out of the context of the book. So we settled on asking whether the person's life could be "going entirely well."

By a wide margin, survey-takers rejected the "authorized" intuition (recall from above--that's the one the author both has and surmises that most people would have).  This is especially so in the Constance scenario. Only 6.2 had the "authorized" intuition!

It's interesting that on the other two questions, there's some correlation between philosophy background and sharing the "authorized" intuition. On the Bella question (about autonomy), 32.1% of philosophers agree with me, whereas 21.3% do, overall.  On the Norbert question (about self), 62.5% of philosophers agree with me, and just 30.3% do overall.

QUESTIONS 4-6 - SOURCES OF HAPPINESS
The two Maggie questions are also about scenarios in chapter 5 of The Weight of Things. The issue there is whether it matters whether a person's happiness comes from valuable or non-valuable sources. I maintain that one item on the list of necessities is having some happiness that comes from valuable sources.  In the two scenarios, none of Maggie's happiness comes from a source that could be seen as valuable. The "authorized" intuition is that her life is therefore flawed--"couldn't be going entirely well."  Overall, 41.4% agreed with the "authorized" view about Maggie on Magic Drug, and 49.3% agreed with the "authorized" view of Maggie the Gambler. Women were more likely than men to have the "authorized" intuition on both of these questions.

The question about the peeping Tom concerned whether or not it's true that happiness adds to life wherever it comes from.  This is again from chapter 5 of The Weight of Things. The "authorized" view is that the immorality of Tom's behavior detracts from his life, but the enjoyment he gets from it does add. So there are two separate impacts here that both affect how his life is going.

About half the responders agreed that the enjoyment does add (whether a little or a lot).  Here gender made a difference.  44.8% of males said his enjoyment added to his life "not at all" but 53.8% of females said his enjoyment added to his life "not at all".

QUESTION 7 - DISABILITY
The question about Carlos is from chapter 6 of The Weight of Things.  Phew, finally some strong support for the "authorized" intuition.  82% agree that Carlos's life could be going entirely well.  In that chapter I argue that different objective lists pertain to different people, depending on their capacities. So the absence of morality in his life doesn't create any flaw.

QUESTIONS 8-10 - ACHIEVEMENT, KNOWLEDGE
These questions were derived from the book The Best Things in Life by Thomas Hurka. He also has an objective list view about the good life, but doesn't think of the items on his list as "necessities".  They merely add goodness to a life, but can be interchanged with other goods.  Question 8 is a scenario the class devised to see whether survey-takers agree with Hurka about the value of achievement, and especially the value of playing games.

Again, the "authorized" intuition doesn't meet with popular support.  Only 19.2% thought the better chess player has a life going "a little better" than the mediocre chess player. But philosophers were more impressed with achievement than others.  The more background, the more likely that you'd find value in being a better chess player.



The Angela scenario in questions 9 and 10 was inspired by a discussion in Hurka's book (chapter 5, pp. 88-9) about the value of knowing your place.  He says 
Being positively mistaken about where you are or how you relate to people near you is an important good; the mismatch is a greater evil than the match is a good. Earlier I argued that pain is more evil than pleasure is good, and there's a similar asymmetry here. Being wrong about some truths in our second category [knowing your place] is more evil than knowing them is good; with these truths it's more important to avoid the evil of error than to achieve any good in getting them right. (p. 89)
To get the idea across, he describes a scenario in which you are lying in a hospital bed, in pain, nearing the end of life. He asks: Is it worth the pain to acquire some new knowledge of your place (e.g. where you are, what your co-workers think of you, or the like)?  And is it worth the pain to overcome some mistake?  He says there's an asymmetry: it's worth more to overcome the mistake than to acquire new knowledge. The Angela scenario is meant to assess whether survey-takers agree about this asymmetry.

We changed some of the details. It seemed to stack the decks against knowledge having any value to imagine someone so close to the end of life. Instead, we made Angela someone recovering from surgery and in pain.  It also seemed to stack the decks to suppose the topic is what co-workers think of you or whether your spouse is faithful. That sort of knowledge/error has a huge impact on happiness.

The topic in our question is literally knowing your place--knowing where you are. The mistake is Angela thinking she's on Mars. The knowledge she could obtain is that she's in the hospital.  We tried to remove the issue of happiness from the equation by saying her sedative keeps her from suffering or being anxious.

If Hurka's asymmetry hypothesis meets with popular approval, what should we find?  We should find that, of those who say yes to 9 (yes, it's worth a 5% increase in pain to stop thinking she's on Mars), most go on to say no to 10 (no, it's not worth another 5% increase in pain in order to come to know she's in the hospital).  Here's how the yessers on 9 (52.6% overall) answered 10:



89% of those who think it's worth a 5% pain increase to avoid Angela's Mars-error also think it's worth a 5% pain increase to acquire knowledge that she's in the hospital.  There's not much agreement with the "authorized" intuition.

QUESTIONS 11-15 - THE MEANING OF LIFE
Now we have a series of questions derived from Richard Taylor's lovely article "The Meaning of Life." These scenarios are taken directly from the article, except the last, which has been fortified with some concepts from Harry Frankfurt's book The Reasons of Love.

Taylor holds that the myth of Sisyphus offers the definitive case of a meaningless life, and holds clues to what "meaningful" and "meaningless" mean.  A meaningful life must have some significant and lasting result.  Do "the people" agree with Taylor that Sisyphus lives a meaningless life (question 11)? Most do--70.2%.

Question 12 proposes a variant on the Sisyphus myth--one suggested by Taylor.  Suppose Sisyphus intensely wants to push those rocks up the hill.  Taylor says this doesn't make his life meaningful.  His life is still objectively meaningless, but it's subjectively meaningful.  "The people" agree, by a narrow margin (52.3% agree).

Question 13 contrasts two ways the gods could help out Sisyphus--these are Taylor's scenarios. In one, the gods inject him with a drug, so he wants to push the rock up a hill. In the other, he pushes rocks up the hill and builds a beautiful temple. (We changed "temple" to "castle" to avoid the religious connotations of "temple".) The "authorized" answer is that the gods are more benevolent if they inject Sisyphus with the drug. Sadly, "the people" disagree. 78.6% say letting him build the castle is more benevolent.  Philosophers are a little more inclined to agree with Taylor (69.6% say "castle").

Question 14 adds a Frankfurtian twist. Taylor just affirms the value of doing things we want to do. In The Reasons of Love, Frankfurt has an elaborate account of the mental states involved in living meaningfully. They involve not just wanting to do X, but "higher order" mental states--wanting to want to do X.  We live meaningfully when we identify with our desires. 71.7% think those Frankfurtian elements are crucial; without them, doing what you want to do isn't actually good for you.

Question 15 assesses whether "the people" agree with Taylor about the meaninglessness of repetitive, cyclical animal lives.  63.8% disagree and think the glow worms don't have meaningless lives.

QUESTION 16 - PRIORITY OF MORALITY
This question was about being guided in one's career choices by a moral ideal and being guided by a non-moral ideal, like becoming a master chef.  It was inspired by Frankfurt, and also by the book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, by Susan Wolf. They both challenge a view that's dominant among philosophers--that morality has some sort of superlative importance in our lives.  The scenario was devised by a student and then collectively revised.  The survey shows more support for the view that morality is preeminent.



QUESTIONS 17-20 - THE EXPERIENCE MACHINE
These questions were taken from Robert Nozick's famous discussion of "the experience machine" and a challenge to it from philosopher Felipe DeBrigard.

Nozick claims that people want not merely happiness, but contact with reality, as evidenced by the fact that they wouldn't plug into an experience machine that provided them with a simulated, but fantastically happy, life.  Question 17 confirms that most wouldn't plug in--70.8% say No.

DeBrigard hypothesized that not wanting to plug in isn't actually due to a desire for contact with reality. He tried to confirm this experimentally by telling subjects they were already plugged into an experience machine and had the option of staying there or unplugging. He found that most wanted to remain plugged in--if they were told certain things about the real world they'd be returning to. He surmised that people refuse the two "jumps" in the diagram below for the same reason--out of status quo bias. They're averse to losing whatever good they have in their present situation.


Questions 18 and 19 are meant to test out DeBrigard's theory. In question 18, you are told you are already in the experience machine, and asked if you want to unplug, assuming that reality may or may not be as you remember it. This is about the same as the way DeBrigard stated the question. He told participants that the real world would be "different".

The important question is how people answer 18, if they already said No on 17--no they didn't want to plug in. If someone says No to the first jump and No to the second jump, this shows what's driving them is status quo bias, not a desire for contact with reality--or so DeBrigard says.  We didn't find the "No, No" pattern though. Those who said No to plugging in on 17 mostly said Yes to unplugging on 18--86.3%. They want to be in both blue zones of the above diagram!

Just in case people did say No to plugging in and No to unplugging, we wanted to explore why. Was it necessarily because of status quo bias in both cases? It seems to me that DeBrigard doesn't do enough to make other things equal, and thus we can't draw that conclusion. The experience machine is very enticing--you get exactly the life you would want (experientially) if you plug in. The reality you have the option of returning to is unenticing--you're just told it's "different." If people prefer reality in the first case, and the experience machine in the second, you can't conclude it's for the same reason. They may be avoiding the unknown in the second case (status quo bias), but not in the first.

The scenario in question 19 is supposed to eliminate this problem.  Reality, post experience machine, is made much more controllable and enticing, just like the experience machine in Nozick's original thought experiment. If people had answered 18 as DeBrigard predicted they would, it would have been interesting to see if they answered 19 in the same way. No on 17 and 19 would convince me it really is all about status quo bias.

Of those who said No on 17 (only those are represented in the table below), 93.6% said Yes on 19.  They would unplug from the experience machine. Again, folks seem to want to be in both blue zones of the diagram.



Question 20 is one more attempt to find out if people desire contact with reality. Do people want the real trip to Antarctica or the simulated trip? The point here was to offer alternatives that wouldn't trigger status quo bias. It's a short trip, and you'll confront "the unknown" equally, whichever option you choose. It would be hard to construe the preference for the real trip as being due to anything but desire for contact with reality. In fact, most people did choose the real trip--82.2%.

On the experience machine questions, it was interesting to compare religions and non-religious responders. Fewer religious people (19.2%) wanted to plug in to the experience machine than unreligious people (29.9%) (question 17).

QUESTION 21 - RELATIVISM
Finally, a question from chapter 2 of The Weight of Things.  My intuition is that Simeon Stylites lived a bad life, and I use that as part of my argument that we can make judgments about different lives, and shouldn't simply defer to cultural standards. 58.9% had the "authorized" intuition about his life, whereas 34.7% said we shouldn't judge.  Only 14.3% of the professional philosophers said we shouldn't judge.

DISCUSSION
This survey showed that "authorized intuitions" are often shared by the public but are also often not.  The "not" cases could be because of problems with the way some of the questions were worded. Class discussion generated ideas about how to restate the Constance question (1), the chessplayer question (8), and a few others. But even with rewording, some intuitions would probably still have only minority support. Should a philosopher be seriously concerned?

The more I think about it, the more I think not. An intuition about a scenario seems analogous to a simple, theory-free perception ("the sky looks blue"), but actually isn't.  The way you understand and respond to a scenario is a complicated matter having to do with education, training, background assumptions, adaptation to an author's various assumptions, being convinced of prior arguments, etc.  You respond to a scenario differently depending on whether you did or didn't read what the author said on the previous 100 pages, did or didn't read other books and articles, etc.

For example, Hurka invites readers to share his intuitions about knowing your place (questions 9 and 10) and achievement (8) only after chapters of his book arguing that happiness is not the only thing that matters, and that contact with reality does matter, and that knowing your place and achievement essentially involve contact.  Lifting scenarios out of that context stops readers from being exposed to the arguments that might lead them to share his intuitions about Angela and the chess-players.  

Likewise, in chapter 5 of my book, I invite readers to share intuitions about cases (like in questions 1-3), but only in the context of many other arguments about the values in question. Furthermore, chapter 5 comes after chapters that try to convince readers of many relevant things: we can judge other people's lives, happiness is not the only thing that matters, the desire fulfillment account of the good life is wrong, etc.  I'm hoping people will share my intuitions after exposure to all of that, not independently of exposure to all of of that. (Or so I am more inclined to say, after the experience of creating this survey!)

Students had various different thoughts about what we gained by doing this survey. I'll end with a few of their reflections--
"I'm not sure I see much to be gained from this survey, except for those responses that came from people who have studied philosophy, preferably extensively....We cannot trust the public's intuitions because they are exactly that: intuitions. They are not necessarily sound judgments that come from critical thought, which is the whole point of philosophy as a field of study. Nevertheless, it is interesting data to have in order to spark further discussion about what we stand to gain from philosophy by comparing the answers of philosophers to those of the rest of the respondents." (JH)
"I believe that the amount of similarity between the 'lay' public's responses and the philosophers' responses casts doubt on the idea that training and expertise are necessary for one's responses to a scenario to be meaningful. I believe that, in many cases, a non-philosopher may use his intuition to arrive at the same conclusion that a philosopher might achieve through deliberate reasoning." (KD)
 "I think that this experiment taught us that the public's intuition does follow, for the most part, the beliefs of philosophers. In areas where the intuition differs, I think we should look extra carefully to examine whether these philosophical ideas really hold merit. Other that that this experiment was just a really fun way to see what the public really thinks about certain situations." (TL)
"I think we learned that to survey people's intuitions about philosophical topics, the questions must be extremely clear. To us, the questions made sense, but when giving it to people who had not been studying these topics and discussing them in class, there were people who were confused by the questions." (PF)
"I think we did learn from this survey and its results. The public's intuitions do mostly match with the intuitions of the professional philosopher. However, religion does play a major role in determining the values people place on different matters. For the next survey I'll do, I will have a more precise and well-worded survey. I believe wording also changes the question's interpretation." (NA)
For more discussion of experimental philosophy, pro and con, see this forum. I also recommend Joshua Alexander's book Experimental Philosophy: An Introduction.

11/26/12

Evil Achievements

Gwen Bradford's article on evil achievements (also available online) is just one of the goodies in the latest issue of tpm.  The issue includes a forum on disagreement with articles by Catherine Elgin, Russ Shafer Landau, Graham Oppy, Cain Todd, and Jennifer Lackey.  To pick out just a few more tasty items: Jennifer Saul has an article on women in philosophy, there's an interview with Frank Jackson. Books reviewed are Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist? (Massimo Pigliucci), Eric Marcus's Rational Causation (Clayton Littlejohn), two new books on what money can't buy (James Stacey Taylor), David Benatar's The Second Sexism (Anne Jacobson), and Martha Nussbaum's The New Religious Intolerance (Russell Blackford).  What, you don't subscribe?  You can do so here.  tpm is also carried by Barnes and Noble (many stores, anyway) and other booksellers.

Entification

Over Thanksgiving I got to thinking a lot about entification, for a lack of a better word. We take a lot of long walks when we're in Central Pennsylvania, and what's a long walk for but to get some things figured out? Plus, you have a captive audience.  In this case, mostly my son, who has an amazing tolerance for discussing strange things.

So, entification. I've been reading The Metaphysics of Gender, by Charlotte Witt, and she builds on the ontology in Lynne Rudder Baker's book Persons and Bodies. Here's what they'd both have us believe: a human organism is conceived, develops, gets born, and develops a first-person perspective. At that point, a second entity emerges--a person. The person is constituted by the original organism but not identical to it. Because of the constitution relation, the person weighs just what the organism weighs. Because of the non-identity, though, there can be a difference in the properties of persons and organisms. In particular, they can differ in their modal properties. The organism could exist without having a first-person perspective--it did, early on, and may once again in senescence. But the person has a first-person perspective essentially. It couldn't exist without it.

Witt builds on this by proposing another turning point. The person starts to be responsive to and evaluable in terms of social norms. Thus is born a social individual, an individual who is essentially governed by social norms.  So we are trinities of three individuals--organism, person, social individual. The latter two are constituted by the organism, but not identical to it. (Perhaps another day I'll blog about why Witt is motivated to postulate a social individual, and what it has to do with gender.)

The virtue of this constitution talk is that you get to affirm multiple, seemingly incompatible, intuitions. It's essential to us to have a first-person perspective, but it's also not. Differentiate the person and the organism, and you can say both things. It's essential to us to be responsive to social norms and it's also not.  Differentiate the social individual and the person, and you can say both things.

Wonderful. But how does all this entification really work? I'm tempted to think (at the moment) that it doesn't work.  Think about this over time.  A fetus starts developing, becomes fully developed, and comes to have a first-person perspective at time t (some time after birth).  Prior to t, there's just an organism. At t there's an organism with a first-person perspective. The organism doesn't have the FPP essentially. It existed without it prior to t. It just has it, but not essentially.  We are to believe that, also at t, a new entity comes into existence--one with different modal properties from the organism.  But--why?  Something (the organism) comes to have a new property, and has it inessentially.  That's the whole "trigger" for entification (so to speak). From what I can tell, there's just nothing here to account for the "birth" of a new entity, with different modal properties from the old one.

If entification is that easy, it's going on all the time, everywhere.  First you have a mere pumpkin. You then carve it into a Jack-O-Lantern and put it in front of your house, so that it plays a role in the Halloween tradition. It beckons children to knock on your door and say "trick or treat".  The moment all that is true is (I guess!) a moment of entification. The pumpkin doesn't just acquire the property of being a Jack-O-Lantern, but a new thing comes into being--a thing that is essentially a Jack-O-Lantern.  There is now a Jack-O-Lantern constituted by a pumpkin, not just a pumpkin.

But no (come on!) that story really makes no sense. All that happened is that the pumpkin got some new properties--it got hollowed out, acquired a face, got put outside, beckoned some trick-or-treaters. How can a thing acquiring some properties (inessentially) generate a whole new entity? And how could that new entity be one that has the new set of properties essentially?

Now, granted--if I am looking at a Jack-O-Lantern, I find it intelligible to describe it either way. I can focus on the mere pumpkin and say the face, candle, role in trick-or-treating, etc., are all inessential. I can focus on the carved pumpkin, on the other hand, and say that the package of Jack-O-Lantern features are essential. But I can't explain how can it can be that you start with a mere pumpkin (JOL features inessential), give it the JOL features, and wind up with a new entity that has the JOL features essentially.  If I take the initial entity seriously, as what really exists, I just cannot understand the recipe that gets you (out there, in reality!) from the mere pumpkin to the pumpkin that's a Jack-O-Lantern essentially -- the Jack-O-Lantern* (where an A* is an A that's essentially an A).

***


Now, constitutionalists are very happy with lumps of clay that start constituting statues* (things that are essentially statues, unlike lumps of clay), so I suppose they are going to be happy with pumpkins that start constituting Jack-O-Lanterns* (things that are essentially Jack-O-Lanterns, unlike pumpkins). But I wonder if they are really happy with all of this, as opposed to liking constitutionalism about organisms and persons, and therefore getting on board with the rest.  There may be reasons to like this story about us, beyond the reasons to like it (or dislike it) in general.

Consider the alternative (or, one alternative).  The human organism develops over time, and has the property of being a person during a certain phase of its existence, but never essentially.   Of course, on that view there are still persons.  There are just no persons*--things that are persons essentially. The property of being a person is like the property of being a child, an adult, a parent, a citizen, etc.--it can be acquired and lost during the career of a single individual.  If there are just human organisms, it's hard to avoid thinking that my organism started to exist very early on--before I was born, and maybe even very early in my mother's pregnancy. If "I" referred to a person* defined in terms of a first-person perspective, then "I was once an inch long" is false. If "I" refers to an organism, then "I was once an inch long" is true. To get the sentence to come out false, you might think it's good to separate persons and organisms.

I think the totality of linguistic data does not, however, all invite a distinction between persons and organisms.  Charlotte Witt invites us to agree that her adopted daughter Anna, who was born in Vietnam, would have been a different person if she'd been born in America. Conversely, I suppose, she thinks this is true: "I would have been a different person, if I'd been born in Vietnam."  This is naturally construed as being about a certain organism, so "I" refers to the organism involving my DNA.  For the sentence to be true, "being a person" has to be a predicate like "being poor." It says something about the attributes "my organism" would have had, if I'd been born in Vietnam, not about which entity I would be. If you thought "I" referred to a certain person*, it's at least harder to understand what the sentence is saying and how it could be true.

Then again, I'm loath to lean too much on "what we would say", since we say many very odd things about who we are or would be, under various circumstances.  A recent New York Times editorial invited us to trace our pasts back before the moment of conception. "Think about your own history. Your life as an egg actually started in your mother’s developing ovary, before she was born; you were wrapped in your mother’s fetal body as it developed within your grandmother."  We will inevitably have to throw out a lot of what we would say, if we're going to make sense of what we are.

***

Anyhow. What I want to know is how (on earth) you start with a pumpkin, just add Jack-O-Lantern properties, which are inessential to pumpkins, and wind up with a Jack-O-Lantern*. You can lay down some necessary and sufficient conditions that entail that yes indeed, it happens, but that's not necessarily an explanation. Explaining how Jack-O-Lanterns* come into existence seems impossible, really, as the supposed precipitating event--a pumpkin getting some inessential properties--just does not seem like the right sort of thing to generate the very same properties being instantiated by a new entity essentially.

11/20/12

Save me

I've become obsessed with the movie Magnolia, the soundtrack, and this song by Aimee Mann.  Enjoy!


11/17/12

Are we more than animals?

I am overwhelmingly unconvinced by an argument in Lynne Rudder Baker's book Persons and Bodies, to the effect that we are not just animals. She writes--

The argument seems to be:  (1) A human organism is just a survival machine.  In fact, all organisms are mere survival machines, "if evolutionary biology is correct" (p. 12).  But (2) a  person is more than a survival machine. Most importantly, a person has a first-person perspective--a capacity for self-awareness (etc.). So, (C) persons are not identical to human organisms.  She proposes the relationship is not identity but constitution.  I am a person constituted by an animal, like a statue is constituted by a lump of clay. Biology, then, is demoted--

Update 5:20 pm--Having now reread chapter 1 three times, I'm increasingly uncertain what the argument is. Baker says human organisms are "merely 'survival machines'" and persons are "more". What's this "more" that persons have and organisms lack? I thought it was a first person perspective.  But on second and third reading, it's not so clear what contrast she has in mind and peeking ahead in the book, I see my first interpretation may not hold up. To be continued, after I've read more of the book....

[remainder of post deleted]

11/13/12

Is Richard Dawkins an Asshole?

It seems to me that Aaron James captures at least a lot of what it is to be an asshole in this three part definition from his book Assholes: A Theory.  An asshole...

Now, a book about assholes would be no fun if it included no examples, and James doesn't disappoint.  But I do wonder about some of his examples.  Is he really applying his own definition when he identifies Richard Dawkins as a specimen of the "smug asshole"? The allegation of smugness is supported with this complaint:
He writes cocksurely that the views of millions of reasonable and intelligent people (even if ultimately mistaken) have no merit whatsoever and feels entitled to give sloppy treatment to arguments for the existence of God that have seriously engaged philosophers for thousands of years.
Even if that were all true, to be an asshole is not just to be smug. It's to have a sense of entitlement that immunizes one against the complaints of other people.  Is Dawkins like that? James doesn't offer evidence to that effect.

James's three conditions are part of the story of assholery, but I wonder if they're the whole story. There's such a thing as earned entitlement. You feel entitled because you are entitled. For example, suppose you're a professor who's given an exam on X, and you're an expert on X.  A student complains that you've graded her exam incorrectly, and the answer is really such and such. You pull rank on her, saying that it's up to you to decide what counts as the right answer. You do this not to gratify your ego, but because you realize she will contest her grade endlessly, if you don't firmly establish your authority.  You do feel immune to her complaints, but based on a well earned sense of entitlement.  I can imagine the student going away and calling you an asshole, but were you really one?

Now, to the extent that Dawkins does act as if he's entitled and immune to complaints--to repeat, James doesn't provide evidence of this--it could be a case of earned entitlement and earned immunity.  Must Dawkins really take creationists seriously, despite the fact that he understands evolution much better than they do?  I wouldn't call someone an asshole for being aware of the expert-amateur gradient, and taking some complaints less seriously than others. Note:  I have a sneaking suspicion that James discusses this somewhere in the book, but (a) I'm not done, and (b) I'm reading it on a Kindle, so it's hard to look things up. 

This is a book full of goodies, such as a discussion of the difference between bitches and assholes, and an argument that assholery is largely a product of socially constructed masculinity.  Most assholes, he argues, are men. A bitch is inches away from being an asshole, but has more empathy.  Women are socially conditioned to stop at bitch-hood, and not go full asshole.

Fun stuff! I met some first class assholes at a Shins concert last month, and find this book gives me exactly the right tools to dissect what was so annoying about them.  So--more about assholes to come, in my next TPM column.

11/10/12

Pictures at an Arboretum

Don't miss the Chihuly installation at the Dallas Arboretum, if you happen to live in the area.


 

11/9/12

Bill and Lou

Spencer Lo has a very readable and thorough editorial on the controversial oxen here.  Is it particularly wrong for Green Mountain College to eat these two animals, as opposed to eating two other animals? In terms of harm done, it's better than eating two factory farmed animals, and roughly the same as eating two anonymous humanely farmed animals. So not particularly wrong.  It's strange, though, to form a bond with specific animals and then turn around and eat them.  Would you really want to eat a plate of Lou?  Would you want to say "Lou sure is tender and tasty?" The protest against eating Bill and Lou goes beyond that, though. The protestors aren't just saying "You folks are weird!", they're saying the act of killing and eating Bill and Lou is especially wrong, compared to killing and eating other animals.  It is hard to see how that could be true.

Update 11/11: HERE.

11/8/12

Assholes: A Theory

I'm currently reading and very much enjoying Aaron James's book Assholes: A Theory.  It's that rare thing--a philosophy book that's laugh out loud funny. Eric Schwtzgebel has a post about the book, and I see James has an asshole blog.  What fun!  I think my next TPM column (an arts column) is going to be about assholes I have known and (not) loved--especially at live music venues.  So far I've found James's characterization of asshole-ry very illuminating, apart from the fact that I tend to think of people as acting like assholes (intermittently) and rarely think someone is an asshole. James tries to explain what it is to be an asshole, not what asshole-ish behavior amounts to.  We'll see ... More on the book when I'm done.

11/7/12

"Obama Won and I Helped!"

I've always been intrigued by the voter's paradox: the difficulty of explaining why you should vote, if there's just about no chance you will cast the deciding vote.  One way to go is to give up the idea that we vote to have an impact.  We can just capitulate and say the only reason to vote is for the enjoyment of being with our neighbors and participating in democracy.  Or some such. But that just doesn't seem to be the whole story.  The fact that voting determines the outcome of the election is a large part of the reason why it's enjoyable.  So I want to hang on to some sort of an impact rationale for voting.

Maybe we can, if we're not too greedy about it.  As a voter, you are a little like A, B, C, D, or E in the above diagram. Suppose I am A.  I get a little bit of the credit for holding up F even though it's true that if A were removed, F would still be aloft. A is not "the deciding vote" for F remaining aloft, but still contributes to F's elevation. Surely you have to say A is helping keep up F. If you say A isn't contributing, you'll have to say the same about each of the other blocks.  Then you'll have to generalize and say none of the blocks are holding up F--which is ludicrous.

In the block situation, the weight of F is resting on all five lower blocks, so A gets some credit, even though A could be removed without F falling down. I'm suggesting voting is like that.  My vote helped Obama get re-elected, even though it's true that he won by a couple of million votes, so if I hadn't voted, he still would have been elected. The analogy isn't perfect, but I think there's something to it.  If you say my vote didn't help, you're going to have to say the same thing about any other vote for Obama.  You'll again have to generalize and say none of the voters made him win--which is ludicrous. The blocks all help, even if there are more than needed.  The voters all help the winning candidate, even if there are more than needed.

HURRAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Let's have one more analogy.  Suppose I'm trying to make a styrofoam bottle sink, so put a thousand equal-sized marbles in it.  It would have sunk if I'd put in just 800. Any one of the marbles could have an existential crisis. "What's the point?  If I hadn't been in the bottle, it still would have sunk!" That's true, but if it made any one marble superfluous it would make each and every marble superfluous. No, each marble contributes, even though there are more than enough.

So I say each Obama-voter can take pride in causing Obama to win yesterday, even if it's true that none of us cast the deciding vote.* We did have good reason to vote: in order to be causes of his winning. And if you voted for Romney? You get to be proud too. There was a reasonable chance your vote would be part of the cause of Romney winning, even if there was virtually no chance you would cast the deciding vote.


* Thanks to the first comment, I need to clarify. I'm ignoring the US electoral college system here. Given the electoral college system, it really is true that a voter in a very red state like mine--Texas--couldn't help Obama win. But on the other hand, we all think it was important for Obama to win the popular vote, nationally, and we in Texas did help him do that (despite not casting the deciding vote)--or so I am arguing.

11/3/12

Tying up Democrats in Red Tape


One of the most maddening Republican political strategies these days is trying to increase the difficulty of voting.  If you make voter registration more difficult or require picture IDs, for example, some people won't make it over the hurdle.  Those who fail tend to have lower socio-economic-status and more often vote Democratic.  The argument on the other side is that it's not difficult meeting a few more bureaucratic conditions, and it's the least we should do to prevent (the non-existent problem of) voter fraud.

Dealing with bureaucracy not difficult?  I've had a bureaucratic problem for the last couple of months that shows otherwise.  I have attempted what you might have thought would be an easy feat--obtaining learner's permits for my 15-year-old twins.  And after over two months of trying I have failed!

Attempt #1.  The saga began in August, when they completed a driver's ed class.  We went to the DMV office in Plano, Texas, but made a quick retreat when we saw there was (literally) a three hour line.  No big deal we thought, especially because the food at a Chinese restaurant on the way home was damned good.

Learner's permits scored: 0
Food scored: wonton soup, fried rice

Attempt #2. Next we went to a different DMV, racing to get there between school closing time (4:30) and office closing time (5:00).  We got there at 4:59, there was no line, and we were nearly euphoric. Sadly, it turned out that some DMV's are driver's license offices and some are not. OK, my fault.  At the nick of time I recalled that Starbucks had been advertising pumpkin lattes.  No. Big. Deal.

Learner's permis scored: 0
Food scored: pumpkin lattes, pumpkin bread

Attempt #3. Next we located a driver's license office 15 miles away, but rumored to have short lines. We rescheduled my daughter's violin lesson and raced to the office on a Tuesday night, when the office was open late..  It seemed like victory was at hand when we arrived over an hour before closing time.  We had a thick pile of documents--birth certificates, passports, utility bills, report cards -- everything listed as a requirement on the Texas driver's license website. I was certain we'd walk out of the place with learner's permits, but .... no. It turns out that the Driver's Ed instructor neglected to tell my kids that a report card can serve as proof of school attendance in the summer, but not in the fall.  Ours is not to reason why ... we needed to obtain "VOEs" from school.  All was not a dead loss. We stopped for staples like Halloween candy and milk on the way home.

Learner's permits scored: 0
Food scored: Halloween candy, milk

Attempt #4. We rescheduled yet another violin lesson the following Tuesday. The kids dutifully went to the school office for the VOE's. These are simple print-outs that indicate that yes indeed, the kid goes to that school.  The bad news came in the form of a desperate text message from my daughter: the office couldn't possibly manage the task of printing out the form in less than 24 hours. OK, so her violin did need a new E-string.  At least something got accomplished.

Learner's permits scored: 0
E-string scored: 1

Attempt #5.  We went in next time like this was the raid on Entebbe, and we would prevail.  I honestly thought we would.  It turned out, however, that all of this was insufficient to prove that my children are residents of the great state of Texas: driver's license form, driving school form, VOE, utility bill with father's name and address, car insurance form with father's name and address, birth certificate with mother's and father's name, passport, social security card, my driver's license with same address as father, affidavit signed by me certifying these kids live in Texas.  Though the website says no such thing, a supervisor deemed that all this was insufficient, since my name wasn't on the utility bill or car insurance form. 

Learner's permits scored: 0
Food scored: 0

The saga continues.  Moral of the story: don't believe it when people say a little bureaucracy can't hurt.  If this had been a matter of getting a voter ID card, I wouldn't be voting on Tuesday.

11/2/12

Survey on the Good and Meaningful Life

In the class I'm teaching, we're doing a bit of "X-Phi" on issues having to do with the good life and the meaningful life.  It would be wonderful if you would take our survey AND spread the word, wherever you hang out -- Facebook, Twitter, your own blog, whatever. Here's the link-- https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/moljk

THANK YOU!

Update 5:21 -- The comments here, at Pharyngula, and at Twitter are tricky to respond to, because I don't want to explain the point of this survey until it's closed. Many think there should be more answer options and find the array of questions strange. I will just say: the goal is not to get detailed, nuanced information about the way people look at the good and meaningful life. We are trying to do something else.  I believe limiting the options makes sense, given our goals.  I'll write a follow-up post on what the survey is about once it closes, which won't be for several weeks. Meanwhile (if you haven't taken the poll yet)--just choose the option that comes closest to your attitude.  Rest assured the idea is not to measure your philosophical aptitude or consistency, so just go with your gut reaction, whatever it may be. You can skip questions without getting an error message, but it would be better to answer than not, if you at least lean toward one of the answers.

Update 11/4 -- I'll explain what the survey is about, and the results, on 12/1.  We'll be gathering data throughout November.