June 2010 archive

Ockham’s Beard at the Sydney AAP Conference!

Well, I say “Ockham’s Beard”, but the referent is really just me, Tim Dean. Yep, I’ll be giving a paper at the AAP Conference entitled “Evolution and Moral Diversity” on some of my more crackpot ideas about evolution and, well, moral diversity. The abstract ought to give some hints as to the content:

How can we account for the vast diversity of moral attitudes that exist in the world, not only between cultures but between individuals within a single culture? Part of the answer may come from looking at our moral psychology and how it has been influenced by evolution. If we have evolved a moral sense that encourages prosocial and cooperative behaviour, as suggested by Haidt & Joseph (2004) and Haidt & Graham (2007), amongst others, we might actually expect there to be a diversity in the function of this moral sense rather than it being homogenous across all humans. In this paper I argue that the problems of encouraging prosocial behaviour have no single solution that is dominant in all environments, a phenomenon modelled by game theory, particularly the Prisoner’s Dilemma. As such, evolution has primed us with a spectrum of moral inclinations that represent different strategies to solving the problems of cooperation, and these differing inclinations contribute to the observed diversity of moral attitudes.

Basically, I’m arguing that if we have evolved a moral sense that influences the way we make moral judgements, and it evolved to help solve coordination problems that stem from being social animals (because fostering prosocial and cooperative behaviour advanced individual fitness), and these coordination problems don’t have one single dominant solution in every environment, then we’d expect evolution to endow us with a variable and conditional moral faculty that would promote a diversity of ‘solutions’ to the coordination problems. And that’s precisely what we see when we look into the world.

This goes against the idea that if something is based on biology, then it must be universal and fixed – the old ‘genetic determinism’ line. Take height, which is strongly genetic (around 80% of the variation in height is accounted for by genes), but we don’t expect everyone to be the same height. In fact, we expect a variety of heights. Likewise with personality types. Or metabolic rates. Or MHC. Evolution is canny in that it doesn’t put all its eggs in one strategy in many situations. It varies things, and makes them conditional on the environment.

Why is this interesting to philosophers? Not only does it go some way to accounting for observed moral diversity in the world without collapsing into relativism, it also clarifies an important distinction between norms (strategies) and the underlying function that morality plays. We might all agree that morality fosters prosocial behaviour, but we can happily disagree about the best strategies to promote prosocial behaviour.

It also weighs in on the whole moral disagreement issue, particularly as it affects moral realism. Some believe that moral disagreement (usually couched in terms of disagreement over particular norms) would dissolve if suitably situated agents had access to all the relevant facts of the matter. I don’t believe this is true, for a number of reasons, but mainly because there are many ‘moral’ situations where there is no perfect answer – at least in practice.

This is primarily a descriptive thesis – I’m just saying that evolution has confronted these coordination problems and come up with some solutions. I’m not advocating that we abdicate our will to our evolved moral sense absent any critical reflection. But the problems that evolution has faced are largely the same ones we face, i.e. how to get a bunch of unrelated individuals to live and work together without stabbing each other in the back.

If you’re attending the conference, I’ll be giving my paper on Thursday 8th of July at 3pm in Morvern Brown room G4. Please do attend and provide support/critical feedback/biscuits.

What If There *Is* a Gender Difference in Intelligence?

It’s been stated many times before that there might or might not be a gender (or racial) difference when it comes to some kinds of intelligence or aptitude, and this difference might be partially accounted for by biology. I’m not looking to weigh in on this debate. It’s an empirical issue, and as far as I can tell, it’s still unresolved. As such, I’m agnostic.

What I want to do consider is how we should respond if it turns out there is some empirical evidence suggesting there are biological differences across gender or ethnic groups in at least one kind of intelligence or aptitude. Since this isn’t an issue that we can logically dissolve from the armchair, or wish away given the outcome we want to be true, we need to brace ourselves for whatever outcome is supported by the evidence. And I don’t feel that the debate has been at a mature enough level to seriously consider the implications of this kind of result.

Consider the finding regarding the intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews having a higher-than-average intelligence. It was controversial, but there wasn’t nearly the magnitude of uproar at this notion as there was to Larry Summers’ infamous 2005 speech. But what if the finding was the other way around, that Ashkenazi jews had lower than average intelligence, and this was put down to biology? Can you imagine?

But such a result – concerning race or gender – could be just around the corner. It’s not up to us to choose, it’s up to the evidence.

What if evidence emerges that supports a biological difference? Let’s say that it’s found that Summers’ hypothesis* is true. Or even that it’s found that there is a gender difference when it comes to interest in pursuing particular careers, rather than an aptitude difference. These factors might not account for the entire observed gender difference in the workforce – clearly socialisation and entrenched cultural biases are potent forces – but it might account for a significant proportion of the difference. What then?

A couple of initial thoughts: one response could be to cite the naturalistic fallacy (or at least one reading of it) to assert that ‘just because something is natural (or biological), that doesn’t mean that it’s good‘. It might be true that there’s a biological difference in capacity x, but that doesn’t mean that we should be happy with this, nor try to do something to change it if it’s within our power to do so.

The second thing is to remember that there are accepted biologically-based differences in other capacities, such as physical strength – and as a result, more men’s sport is televised than women’s sport. But this doesn’t mean that we, as a society, ought to value men more than women. This is because we’re wise enough (or ought to be) to detach performance in sport from an individual’s value as a human being.

The third thing I’d suggest is that no matter how biology shapes capacities or aptitudes, we can choose to work to ensure that any biological differences don’t negatively impact an individuals’ wellbeing. We can make a value decision that no matter how capacities or aptitudes vary, each individual deserves to be valued, and deserves a chance to pursue their own wellbeing without discrimination.

I’m sure there are many more implications and responses should it turn out to be the case that there are real gender or racial differences – and these should be getting more attention. We can’t just wait to see if evidence emerges, and allow the more conservative elements leap on those results before the more progressive voices have a chance to respond in more rational or temperate ways.

So we need to ask, before the evidence emerges, ‘what if there are gender or racial differences?’, and get the dialogue going sooner rather than too late.

*Summers’ hypothesis is that average intelligence is the same between men and women, but that the standard deviation for men is greater, and that since only the top 0.01% in a particular area (such as mathematical ability) tend to seek work in a related area – such as a physics or maths professor – we’d expect a greater proportion of men than women in those extreme roles.

What’s the Next Best Option?

As an adjunct to yesterday’s post on holding our beliefs to account is another question with which we should challenge our beliefs: what’s the next best option?

Bailing out the banks might have its down sides, but it’s better than letting them fail. A watered down emissions trading scheme might not be ideal, but it’s better than nothing (the Australian Labor Party apparently disagrees). Democracy might be driven by populism and special interest groups, but it’s better than autocracy (or, as Winston Churchill famously put it: “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried”).

Whenever we criticise something, we can’t just stop at that. We need to reflect upon the alternatives to the focus of our criticism and we need to ask ourselves whether the alternatives are any better. If they’re not, then we should temper our criticism and redirect our energies towards improving the current option rather than calling for its abandonment.

All too often I hear criticism that is entirely negative – often justified – but without presenting any realistic or preferable alternatives. Just because an option has downsides doesn’t mean it’s all bad. Taken at face value, this kind of criticism could imply that the best course is to abandon the current option and adopt an alternative. However, even if alternatives are proposed, they tend to be unrealistic, utopian or, occasionally, even worse than the present option.

Development of a viable alternative ought to be the lifelong companion of all criticism. As should be the maxim that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’. There are no options without cost – at least, not with matters of great importance. We need to accept the cost, but minimise it to the best of our abilities while maximising the benefits. And we need to accept compromise.

Above all, we need to keep in the back of our mind at all times: what is the next best option?

What Would It Take To Prove You Wrong?

This is a question I think we all need to ask ourselves (and others) from time to time. And if, for any particular belief, we find the answer is “nothing”, then we need to rethink our reasons for holding that belief.

Not only is this kind of dogma the enemy of rational discourse, but it obscures our own reasons for holding particular beliefs.

Climate change deniers are a case in point. I’d suggest that many deniers hold their explicit beliefs concerning climate change because of other unarticulated implicit beliefs they hold concerning liberty, free markets, the role of humanity in nature and the evils of collectivism. And they likely hold these beliefs for even deeper emotional reasons that are largely obscured from view and rarely reflected upon.

You can see the tell-tale signs of dogma in these individuals because no amount of empirical evidence or rational argument will shake their explicit beliefs, even when this evidence directly challenges their ‘reasons’ for holding those beliefs. In fact, those ‘reasons’ serve merely as proxies for their deeper implicit beliefs and emotional attitudes. As such, arguing with them is largely pointless – at least on the level of explicit beliefs.

To argue with an individual who holds a dogmatic adherence to a particular view one must delve deeper and target the implicit beliefs lurking below the surface. This isn’t an easy process. But it can be fruitful. Often the dogmatist will not even realise these deeper beliefs exist; they’re more assumptions than anything reflected upon.

Yet if one can even form the link between the surface and implicit beliefs, then that can begin to make progress. Then, if one can encourage some reflection of those deeper beliefs, that can begin to erode the surface dogmatism. It’s not easy, but it’s a damn sight more effective than hurling yourself against the wall of dogma.

So, you tell me: what would it take to prove you wrong?

Cartography, Pragmatism and the Liberation of Metaphysics

All maps are lies. That’s one of the first lessons of cartography, particularly when it comes to the problematic task of representing our 3-D world on a 2-D plane. It just can’t be done. At least, not without some distortion. Yet, even in the face of this necessary distortion, and in the absence of the ‘perfect’ map projection, cartography lives on. Why? Because maps are useful.

I think this is a notion that could lead to a ‘liberation’ of metaphysics, and its daughter disciplines of epistemology and ontology.

To explain why, we need to venture briefly into the world of map projections. Our planet is a globe. Or an oblate spheroid, if you want to be more precise. A world map is typically a 2-D plane. There is, as a matter of fact, no way to represent an oblate spheroid on a 2-D plane in such a way that it doesn’t distort some feature of the original globe.

Mercator projection

This is where map projections come in. The one you may be most familiar with is the Mercator projection. It was developed by Flemish cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, in the mid-16th century, and (obscenely) is still used in schools and travel agencies – not to mention popular representations of the world – to this day.

This is despite the fact that the Mercator projection made a monumental sacrifice – i.e. correctly representing the true relative sizes of continents – in order to preserve ‘constant bearing’. This means that you can draw a straight line between any two points on a Mercator map and derive a bearing that will allow you to easily navigate to that destination – a useful feature for ships exploring the world during the Age of Discovery – but the picture of the world that it offers is grossly distorted as a result.

This is further hampered by the tendency to ‘trim’ Antarctica from the bottom, nudging the equator two-thirds of the way down the map (it runs just under the western ‘bump’ in Africa). The result is that Greenland looks absurdly huge, while ‘diminutive’ Australia is tucked into the bottom corner. In reality, Australia has an area three and a half times that of Greenland, and Sydney, for example, is actually at a similar latitude to Morocco rather than Reykjavík, as it appears.

This makes it great for navigating, but dreadful as a tool for giving us an appreciation for the size and shape of continents. (As such, I strongly recommend that you dispose of all Mercators in your possession – unless used for historical reference – and protest at its use as the default representation of the world. I do in public, frequently, much to my friends’ distress. But some things are more important than dignified behaviour.)

Goode Homolosine

Thankfully, cartographers are well aware of the shortcomings of the Mercator as a general representation of the globe, and there is a flourishing industry in producing new projections of the world that are less obtuse. There are hundreds of alternative projections, from the Peter’s projection (equal area, but distorts shape and bearing), Goode homolosine (equal area, but interrupted), to the Robinson projection (an appealing compromise developed by National Geographic in the 1960s), to the spectacularly named Winkel Tripel (another compromise projection currently endorsed by National Geographic) and many, many more.

You can play around with them, or roll your own, with a brilliant piece of freeware called Flex Projector. My favourite (this week) is a synthesis of the rectangular Equidistant Cylindrical (Plate Carrée) and Sinusoidal (Sanson-Flamsteed). While fiddling with the various knobs and sliders, you’ll soon notice that no matter how hard you try, it’s just not possible to create a projection that doesn’t harbour some compromise somewhere. That’s to be expected.

In fact, one the the main jobs of cartographers is to pick the most suitable projection for your purpose. Need to sail from point A to point B (without GPS)? Perhaps a constant bearing map, like a Mercator, is the most appropriate. Want to see the correct relative sizes of continents? An equal-area projection is what you need. Maybe you need something that simply shows all continents in a reasonably realistic and aesthetically pleasing way. Go for a projection with gently curving meridians, like the Robinson. And so on. But remember, there is no ‘perfect’ map projection of our world.

Now, on to metaphysics.

The world-as-it-is – the ‘objective’, ‘noumenal’, ‘concrete’ world, whatever you want to call it – is our 3-D globe. The world-as-it-appears – the ‘subjective’, ‘phenomenal’, ‘abstract’ world etc – is the map projection.

As such, the pursuit of a ‘perfect’ systematised, abstract, propositional representation of the world is folly. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon all hope of understanding, or representing, the world-as-it-is.

Robinson projection

Making the concrete world intelligible inevitably requires us to enforce distinctions, to carve things up into x and not-x, to abstract away particulars, leaving us with generalisations. Doing so inevitably results in us shedding some of the unique detail that is fundamental to the concrete world. It flattens the spheroid.

Yet metaphysics and epistemology still strive to find the abstraction that best represents the world – or that is the ‘perfect’ representation of the world. The failure of metaphysics and epistemology to achieve this goal lends evidence to the notion that, like making the ‘perfect’ map projection, it just can’t be done.

However, this doesn’t necessarily lead us to a skeptical conclusion. This is because there’s a difference between ‘distortion’ and ‘error’. An erroneous map projection would seek to represent some aspect of the world in some way, and fail to do so. Placing Australia in the northern hemisphere, for example, would be an error. But ‘distorting’ Australia’s shape in order to preserve constant bearing is different. Providing supernatural explanations of natural phenomena is an error. Employing the empirical method to infer laws of nature that can be used to predict future phenomena is a distortion.

While we may never have an intelligible metaphysics without distortion, that doesn’t mean all metaphysical systems will be in error.

And we choose which distortion we’ll live with depending on the purpose we have on hand, like in cartography; the Mercator is good for navigating, bad for representing the relative size of continents.

I take this to be my (roundabout) definition of metaphysical pragmatism. It’s an approach that is non-skeptical, but acknowledges our inability to perfectly represent the world in an abstract system. Yet it also acknowledges the use of skilfully applied distortions – such as by carving the world into forms, or x and not-x – in order to achieve some practical end.

Moreover, it rejects the claim that the world-as-it-is, the ‘objective’ world, is somehow fundamentally separated from the world-as-it-appears, the ‘subjective’ world. Instead it sees the subjective as being a part of the objective. We are in-and-of, the world, not external observers to it. The subjective is just one projection, but it’s a projection of the objective world.

That is what I call the pragmatic liberation of metaphysics through cartography.

What is Philosophy?

It’s a chestnut – some would say a kettle of fish – but it’s a question worth reflecting upon from time to time: what is philosophy?

Lieter has compiled a brief list of responses from a number of Names in philosophy (with a little help from the talented photographer, Steve Pyke).

Isaiah Berlin

They make for noodle-scratching reading, particularly for those who call themselves philosophers (or are working towards being a philosopher, like myself). After all, we apparently do philosophy quite regularly, but, clearly, we don’t have one clear, uniform idea of what it is we’re doing. Or do we?

I am tempted to wonder, in my more cynical of moments, whether philosophers almost don’t want to settle on a definition of philosophy. To do so would be to get all presumptuously ontic-ontological (as I believe Heidegger was fond of saying), or metaphilosophical, and raise (if not beg) the question that philosophy seeks to answer before philosophy has even had a chance to have at it. But to think that would just be cynical…

So, I ask, what is philosophy? Tell me your definition. Your motivation. I’m genuinely curious, not because I think there is one robust definition, but more because it informs about other philosophers’ approach to the sport.

While we’re at it, here’s my definition:

Philosophy asks why things are the way they are, and more importantly, why things aren’t the way they’re not.

Or, on a methodological tilt:

Unlike science, which asks ‘why’ to the limits of experience, or religion, which asks ‘why’ until it runs up against the brick wall of faith, philosophy asks ‘why’ until it cannot ask ‘why’ any longer.

Or, on a more sociological level:

Philosophy is the meta-discipline; all other disciplines that involve concepts, abstraction or reasoning – from art, to mathematics, to science, to history, to plumbing – are sub-disciplines of philosophy. Academic philosophy is but one branch of super-philosophy; it’s the philosophy-of-the-gaps that deals with those remaining questions that haven’t been subsumed into these other sub-disciplines of the super-philosophy. That’s why philosophy (of the academic flavour) is so often lambasted or ignored, for many of the triumphs of philosophy now go under the name of science, politics, psychology, economics, or plumbing.

What do you think philosophy is?