June 2011 archive

The Problem with Experimental Philosophy

Let me preface this post by saying that I heartily applaud the injection of empiricism into philosophy. If one adopts the philosophical starting point of investigating the natural world, one needs to start with reliable observations of the natural world to spark off and inform philosophical enquiry.

However, while I also applaud the intentions of experimental philosophy (x-phi), I fear that it can often be conducted in a manner that is arse-backwards. This not only undermines x-phi and its results, but it foregoes an alternative approach to integrating the philosophical with the empirical that might be even more fruitful than the much of the current x-phi research.

Let me begin by going back a couple of steps and drawing a (somewhat coarse) distinction for you, one I’ve drawn before. There are two types of philosophers in the world: pure and applied.

Pure philosophers are wound up and set loose on any question the mind can conjure. They’re unbounded by earthly concerns and can roam the full breadth of the conceptual world unimpeded. They might occasionally tackle real-world questions or stumble upon real-world answers, but that’s not their primary pursuit.

These are our metaphysicians, epistemologists, logicians and our metaethicists, amongst others. Even much of moral and political philosophy is, in my opinion, pure philosophy. It might start with a problem that sprung forth from the real world, but from that starting point they’re free to explore where the thinking takes them – e.g. what would moral properties look like; what are the limits of moral responsibility; what is justice; what is sovereignty? But in doing their conceptual wrangling they develop also new tools of thought.

Then we have applied philosophers (precious few, I might add). These are explicitly engaged in searching for answers to real-world questions, using the tools of thought developed by pure philosophers and, crucially, embracing empirical evidence to guide their gaze. Sure, they will develop and adapt their own tools as well, but many of their key tools are derived from pure philosophy.

So applied philosophers start with empirical information about real world issues then apply the tools of thought developed in pure philosophy to understand, characterise, carve up, tear down and wrangle ideas in order to make better sense of real world problems.

Now we come to x-phi, which if you look at it through the lens of this distinction, is often a somewhat strange beast. For much x-phi doesn’t seek to use the tools of pure philosophy to help understand empirical issues. Instead much x-phi uses empirical tools to better understand philosophical issues. And I wonder how enlightening this can be.

Take the research conducted by Eddy Nahmias & Dylan Murray on lay intuitions about free will. In this paper, Nahmias and Murray interpret x-phi research done into people’s intuitions about free will and moral responsibility, concluding that incompatabilist intuitions are problematic, and suggesting this amounts to a challenge to incompatabilism in general.

To me, this is arse-backwards.

Experimental studies can, indeed, tell us many useful things about our intuitions concerning many curly and counter-intuitive things. It might even find that many of our intuitions are problematic in themselves. We might find that our intuitions are contradictory, or implications that we wouldn’t be happy with, or even lead to absurdities. These are philosophical reflections on real intuitions.

But I’m sceptical about whether intuitions can’t tell us terribly much about what is the correct answer to questions about free will. In fact, I’d suggest the Nahmias and Murray study simply reveals that our intuitions are often unreliable and that philosophical intuitionism in general is deeply problematic. But didn’t we know this already?

It seems to me that such x-phi, which seeks to use empirical tools to study philosophical questions, is of limited utility unless we think our intuitions about philosophical questions are good grounds for holding certain philosophical conclusions. And I’d suggest that most philosophers would (or should) be wary of such bald intuitionism; for example, we know most people have intuitions about time and space that don’t square with our best theories about how time and space actually work.

Rather, I’d like to see x-phi turn around and function in the opposite way: taking the tools of philosophy and applying them to real world, empirical problems. So instead of probing our intuitions to learn something about free will, we can use philosophical ruminations about free will to tease apart what people say and think about free will, perhaps highlighting problems in their intuitive reasoning. That, at least, would be arse-forwards.

Concrete Cognition and the Cogs of the Brain

It’s somewhat unfashionable in polite circles to refer to the brain as a machine. But I reckon that’s precisely what it is. This isn’t in any way diminishing the wonder of the mind or the brain, but the notion, when understood, dramatically elevates the wonder we ought to feel for machines.

The Difference Engine in the British Science Museum.

And I use the word “machine” deliberately rather than “computer.” It’s actually both, but the machine comes first. It’s in the properties and interactions of the cogs of the machine that we can ultimately find intelligence, and it’s insufficient to refer only to symbol manipulation or cognitive models. We must see that intelligence is built in to the physical properties of the brain. But in a particularly clever way – but not fundamentally much more clever than an abacus.

This approach also sheds light on why I find so distasteful the notion that all knowledge is knowledge-that – i.e. propositional or explicit knowledge that can be captured in propositional form, such as “I know the sky is blue.” I far prefer to start with knowledge-how – concrete knowledge and abilities, and things like “I know how to ride a bike” – as the foundation of knowledge.

Let me explain:

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Save Cows, Not People

Animal welfare is a pickle. It’s one of those issues that continues to vex me, largely because consideration for the well-being of animals doesn’t slot trivially into the normative moral framework that I’m developing as a part of my thesis.

A social contract-based moral system that sees everyone buy in to an agreement to limit their freedoms to impinge on others’ interests if others agree to limit their freedom to impinge on mine as well, with the intention that we’ll all be better able to pursue our interests (whatever they are), is straight forward enough. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls blah blah blah.

Be nice to me!

But it’s a contract between humans and other humans, not humans and animals. I am averse to inflicting suffering on other humans because I wouldn’t want such suffering to be inflicted on me. But why be averse to the suffering of animals? It’s not like cows can enter into a contract that says they’ll agree not to gore me if I’ll not kill and eat them.

Add to this that I don’t believe in intrinsic value or natural rights (although I do believe in a kind of overriding moral rights, but that’s another matter). So I can’t appeal to the suffering of animals as being intrinsically bad, and something that should be avoided for its own sake. I also don’t subscribe to the notion that animals have intrinsic rights and interests that are equivalent to our own; after all, I believe our interests are contingent on us being human and our rights stem from the social contract. Hmm. Pickle.

However, I think part of the the answer as to why we should care about the welfare and suffering of animals comes down to the moral psychology of the matter. It comes down to character, empathy, an aversion to violence and inflicting suffering etc. When a society develops to the level of cooperation and affluence that developed nations have, then fostering a strong sense of empathy is a useful character trait to encouraging more cooperation. And that empathy extends to many animals – although, interestingly, not all, and particularly not to non-anthropomorphic animals. Cuttlefish (which rock) don’t get afforded the same levels of empathy as pandas.

This position is still not unproblematic. If the society collectively disregarded the welfare of some animals, and their suffering didn’t trigger an empathy response, then it would be difficult for me to justify reversing that attitude.

It’s a pickle, and one I’m not finished un-pickling quite yet. I’d be interested to hear other perspectives on how animal welfare can factor into a social contract-based moral system.

In lieu of all this jumbling, the ABC’s Drum website asked me to pen something on the specific issue of why Australia rose up to ban live export of cattle in the wake of shocking images of mistreatment in Indonesian abattoirs broadcast on current affairs programme, Four Corners, yet remains ambivalent towards manifold cases of human suffering domestically and worldwide.

My response to the question essentially consists of two elements: emotionally salient imagery elicits a stronger moral response than diluted reports or rational arguments about human suffering around the world; and this case of mistreatment of cattle was a ‘perfect moral storm’ in that it hit all at once, engaged a nation with morally salient imagery and the problem itself was relatively easily solved, unlike most problems of human suffering around the world.

It’s one theory to explain the apparent hypocrisy of Australia’s response – although I don’t think it’s strictly ‘hypocrisy’ because the cases of the mistreatment of cattle and the cases of human rights abuses are not identical, so it’s not surprising they’re not morally equivalent. Doesn’t mean there isn’t some double standard going on, but it’s not a black-and-white-and-black case of hypocrisy.

Interestingly – or perhaps sadly – the comments to the piece have already fired up. Most miss the point of my piece – I’m not actually arguing that this is how Australia should have responded, only that this is how it did (seems many commenters fail to distinguish between a descriptive and a prescriptive thesis). I’m also not suggesting banning live exports is without cost, nor that not intervening in human rights abuses worldwide is justified. But then, one shouldn’t read the comments. That, at least, is clearly a prescriptive statement…

Speak Up Against Irrationalists, But Speak Well

Some say that it is not wise to engage with those who fail to respect reason.

Some say it’s folly to attempt to correct the misinformation spouted by climate change deniers because engaging with them only gives them more exposure, it legitimises their voice and fuels the controversy.

Some say it’s imprudent to argue with persons of faith about the folly of believing in a supreme being responsible for creating a rational universe yet who hides behind a veil of unreason, demanding his followers shun reason in order to to demonstrate their love for him.

Some say pushing back against wildly spurious claims such that legislating to allow gay marriage will entail a slippery slope that will end up permitting polygamy and incest is pointless; just let those extremists continue to tout their positions and further alienate themselves from the reasonable views of the mainstream.

I disagree. We who do respect reason should push back. Vigorously. But we should do so well.

Yes, engaging with extremists and Irrationalists of all flavours does elevate their voice. And engaging with them is almost certainly not going to change their minds. But the Irrationalists often have a loud voice, and their voice is heard by those who are as yet undecided, or those who are too busy living their lives to read up on the details of each issue.

So it’s up to those of us who do respect reason and facts to speak loudly against unreason, not to convince those who have committed to a path of irrationality, but to demonstrate to those who are still open to reason that there are better ways to engage with complex issues, and to change the nature of the discourse to elevate reason to where it deserves to be: a prerequisite for any argument meant to persuade.

But we should argue well. Engaging in ad hominem attacks against those perceived to be irrational, ignorant or stupid does the cause of reason no favours. Remember, when voicing dissent against the Irrationalists, we’re not trying to convert the purveyors of unreason but those who hear their loud rantings.

And we need to maintain the standards of rational argument, first and foremost acknowledging the first rule of thumb of rational discourse: there must be something that can prove us wrong.

If anyone utters a belief or argument and there is no possibility of it being proven wrong, either by logic or evidence, then that belief doesn’t qualify to enter into rational discourse. Such an utterance is little more than an opinion, a subjective attitude, a conspiracy theory, pseudo-science or a expression of faith, none of which belong in rational discourse about serious issues.

But we can also wield this rule of thumb as a weapon against our irrational opponents. If we can encourage more people to acknowledge this rule of thumb of rational discourse, then we can brand those who fail to conform to it as Irrationalists – a new pejorative that ought to enter our discourse to counter the ‘elitist’ and ‘intellectual’ flung about by the Right – and as disqualifying them from rational debate.

This rule of thumb also means not tackling irrational arguments head on – which is surely an exercise in frustration, if not folly – but by undermining irrational arguments as a whole.

And if they accept this rule of thumb, then it’s game on; it’s time to engage in vigorous, rational and respectful debate – and let the best argument win.

The Moral Obligation to Cut Carbon Emissions

It’s often said that Australia’s contributions to global carbon emissions is so small – around 1.35% – that implementing a carbon price in this country would be futile; even if it worked, and it didn’t make the economy drastically uncompetitive internationally, it still wouldn’t have a significant impact in terms of lowering global emissions.

This argument is entirely spurious for a bunch of reasons, economic, environmental and empirical. Here’s a moral one:

The amount of income tax you pay to the government is only a tiny fraction of the government’s total tax revenues. Were you to forego paying your income tax, it would have an insignificant impact on government spending.

According to the carbon emissions argument above, this would give you grounds for skipping paying your income tax.

However, if this argument gave you good reason to not pay your income tax, then it would likewise give reason to all other individuals with a similarly small or smaller tax bill to also forego paying their income tax. If it’s justified for you, it would also be justified for them. As such, your refusal to pay income tax would open the gates for others to likewise not pay their income tax.

The end result would be a significant cut in government revenue, and that would have an impact on the government’s ability to function.

By analogy, if Australia saw its relatively small proportion of global emissions as justification for not putting in place a carbon price to cut those emissions, then it would give other nations with a similar or smaller amount of global emissions justification for doing the same.

As it happens, that list of countries with similar emissions to Australia (those with <2% global) includes 206 other nations out of 214 tracked, and together they contribute over 25% of global emissions.

If we in Australia say we’re justified not cutting emissions, then 25% of global emissions are suddenly off the table. This doesn’t preclude the importance of reigning in the top emitters, but it makes reducing overall emissions substantially harder. And it hardly gives the big emitters much motivation to cut their emissions either.

The upshot: if you think others have an obligation to pay their income tax – an obligation you share – then Australia also has a similar moral obligation to cut its carbon emissions.

Where’s Tim?

I’m back, that’s where I am. Back in Sydney, that is, after a month abroad jaunting across Europe. My first such jaunt to said continent. So you can expect a greater volume of posts on Ockham’s Beard once again. Cheer!

As for the trip, it kicked off in Riga, Latvia, at the 7th International Symposium of Cognition, Logic and Communication “Morality and the Cognitive Sciences”, where I gave a paper on the core theme of my thesis, titled Evolution and Moral Ecology.

Guess where this photo was taken (clue: look closely at the glasses).

The symposium was bloody spectacular. Some top people attended, including Stephen Stich (who gave a wonderful synopsis of how our moral psychology evolved), Jesse Prinz (who also tackled the evolution of morality), Michael Bishop (who can put away a beer or two as well as deliver a compelling talk), Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (who is a powerhouse in moral psychology) and may others.

Riga is also a gorgeous city with a rich history (and it’s filled with stunningly beautiful women). It was a pleasure just wandering the streets, getting taste of the culture (and the beer).

Next stop was Turkey, where I caught up with two old friends of mine who are on a six-month tour of the world. Turkey was spectacular. Istanbul is a vibrant and lively city, very cosmopolitan and a wondrous mix of the ancient and the modern.

We then ventured into central Turkey to Cappadocia, home of the ‘fairy chimneys’, which are conical towers of soft stone into which peoples over the last millennia have carved out their homes. Goreme, the town at the centre of the region, is one of the nicest touristy places I’ve visited – the Kelebek hotel is amazing, with rooms carved out of stone, along with excellent service, great food and friendly staff.

After Turkey was Rome, which is a bizarre mix of ancient relics and modern hubub. The scooter riders, in particular, are entertaining, if menacing, for their suicidal tendencies. Then there’s the Pantheon. Bugger me, it’s breathtaking.

Then was the overnight train to Paris, which wasn’t necessarily the best option in the world – it ran four hours late, was uncomfortable, the food in the dining car was expensive and terrible. But I made it.

And Paris. Holy cow. A good friend of mine once remarked that if aliens arrive and declare that we can save only one city from their Death Rays, the world would huddle for a couple of minutes and announce with unanimity that it would be Paris.

Hanging with the big D in the British Natural History Museum - a modern temple to reason.

The experience was also enhanced by forgoing the usual hotel and renting an apartment for a week. It was bloody amazing, with a fully equipped kitchen, two gorgeous loft bedrooms and was located right in the middle of Marais, a funky district close to just about everything.

A EuroStar to London later, and another week was spent familiarising myself with ol’ blighty. Curries were eaten, museums were devoured. Also caught up with a branch of my family that I’d never met – even ate an eel at the last of the family eel and pie shops (no, they don’t sell eel pies – that’s a ridiculous notion).

And in between all that, I even managed to put out an issue of Australian Life Scientist. No-one really knows how, but it worked.

Sadly I didn’t manage to extend my jaunt to include the conference in Provence, where I had hoped to give a paper on the burgeoning idea of Synthesis. Oh well, next time.

And now I’m back. Cor. I’m tired just reading through all that. And bankrupt. But hey.

So, I pretty much bypassed May in Australia. Did I miss anything interesting?