Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Reliability of Blogs vs Conventional Media: A Response to David Coady

Response to David Coady's “An Epistemic Defence of the Blogosphere”

Preamble/vocab for non-philosophers:  
I wrote this for a class so, although I've tried to avoid it as much as possible, there are a few technical words which I'll explain here:

Epistemic reliability: A source is epistemically reliable if it produces/conveys more true beliefs than false beliefs.  Epistemic just means having to do with knowledge.

Knowledge that is vertistic: knowledge as true belief.

I think that's it!  

. . . [W]henever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right." (Padover, 1939, p. 88). The implication here is the widely shared belief that a well-functioning democracy isn't possible without the public knowing what's going on in their government. Of course, this assumes that the information the public receives is likely to be true, which in turn depends on the reliability of the sources from which it is acquired by the public.

In the internet age, the blogosphere has emerged as a popular source for political news and commentary. Given its rise in popularity it's worthwhile considering its epistemic benefits relative to those of the conventional media and whether the blogosphere positively contributes to our democratic practices. Goldman (2008) takes the negative view arguing that the blogosphere is a less reliable source of information than the conventional media and therefore does not benefit our democratic practices. In “An Epistemic Defence of the Blogosphere,” David Coady argues for the positive position and counters Goldman's three main lines of argument against the epistemic reliability of the blogosphere (relative to that of the conventional media). Coady argues contra Goldman that the blogosphere (a) doesn't undermine professional journalism, (b) doesn't lack balance in any detrimental way, and (c) isn't parasitic on the conventional media. Finally, Coady concludes that the blogosphere benefits our epistemic well-being and improves our democratic practices.

I will briefly outline Coady's main argument then I will argue that
both Goldman and Coady are mistaken to focus their attention on evaluating the relative epistemic reliability of the blogosphere because (a) no meaningful distinction can be made in terms of reliability and (b) whatever current distinction there is will likely soon evaporate. I conclude that (c) even if we assume that one or the other class of media is more reliable this doesn't matter one fig given the wide range of reliability within each class; what matters is whether the citizenry is able to distinguish between good and bad arguments and good and bad sources. A citizenry with low cognitive abilities will easily be mislead by the sensational and find themselves sucked into epistemic black holes--despite the existence of some reliable sources, conventional or otherwise.

Outline of Coady's Argument:
(P1) Although the blogosphere might undermine professional journalism, it doesn't follow that it harms the “epistemic prospects” of the citizenry because political questions shouldn't be the exclusive domain of experts--we ought also appeal to 'the wisdom of the crowds' (i.e., bloggers).

(P2) The conventional media's ostensible virtue of balance actually excludes genuine balance because it omits points of view that aren't those of the dominant parties. The blogosphere, on the other hand, can accommodate every micro-perspective. This is an epistemic benefit to the citizenry.

(P3) Despite Goldman's argument that the blogosphere isn't independent from the conventional media, the dependance relation also runs the other way. The conventional media often turns to blogs as sources because blogs can do things the conventional media can't or doesn't do (like close examination of public documents, in depth analysis, etc...). These activities, which are most typical to the blogosphere, are an epistemic benefit to the citizenry.

(C) It follows from (P1), (P2), and (P3) that the blogosphere provides an epistemic benefit to the citizenry because it does things that the conventional media can't or doesn't do much of.

It Don't Mean Stink if You Don't Know How to Think
Instead of focusing on the central argument I will attempt to make the case that this debate over the relative epistemic benefits of the blogosphere and conventional media, while interesting, is of minimal importance. If our chief concern is epistemic well-being and good democratic decision-making, what really matters is the general level of critical thinking in the citizenry. An important part of the debate between Goldman and Coady hinges upon there being a meaningful distinction between journalists in the conventional media and bloggers. To begin making my case, I'll try to show that this distinction cannot be sustained.

Coady gives several criteria to mark the distinction:

(a) Journalists are paid while bloggers are not; (b) journalists are part an institution and therefore subject to institutional norms (for better or for worse) while bloggers are not; (c) journalists have access to “the halls of power” to collect information while bloggers' principle form of research consists in close examination of publicly available documents; (d) journalists have their information filtered in a way that bloggers don't.

With the exception of perhaps (d), I suggest that these criteria do not establish a strong demarkation between the two categories because there are many obvious counter-examples to each of the criteria. Regarding (a), many bloggers are well-paid and make a living off of sponsorships and ads. In fact, many bloggers aspire to this. Regarding (b), many academics and professionals have blogs. When they blog in their capacity as academic and professional, just like journalists they are also subject to strong professional and institutional truth-telling norms, in these cases do they suddenly cease to be bloggers? That's unlikely. Coady himself gives a counter-example to (c), and presumably as individual blogs grow their audience and opinion-making power, this distinction will be obliterated. Access to the halls of power is a poor demarkation criteria.

The last criteria is (d) is perhaps the most promising as a demarkation criterion. The concentration of corporate power and friendly ties to those in power suggest that the conventional media is subject to a type of filtering to which blogs are not. That said, as Coady himself indicates, there are examples of bloggers also gaining face-to-face access to politicians. It's not unreasonable to suspect this access is because of their favorable disposition or reluctance to criticize the particular politician; i.e., filtering similar to that in the conventional media. Of course, the bloggers are not subject to institutionally-imposed filtering norms, nevertheless it seems that anyone who's going to get face-to-face access—blogger and journalist--gets that access on the precondition of at least some filtering. One would presume that as individual blogs increase their audience and clout so too will their possibility of access increase, in turn further blurring the line between blogger and journalist. The point here is simply that in the long run this demarkation criteria probably going to grow increasingly porous and so isn't going to succeed in drawing a clear line.

Recall why we even care about marking a distinction between the two categories of media. We want to know if the blogosphere is a net benefit for a democracy in terms of its ability to reliably provide true information to the citizenry which will in turn cash out as a benefit to good democratic decision-making. Now, suppose one were to reject my above arguments against a meaningful demarkation, I believe I can still make my case against it: For each category the range of reliability is so wide as to make any meaningful distinction irrelevant in terms of the property we care about: reliability. In sum, the degree to which the two categories (if we presuppose some essential difference) overlap in terms of reliability renders them indistinguishable from each other in this respect.

Consider the conventional media. Who's in this category? Fox News, MSNBC, CBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, Huffington Post, NYT, NPR, PRI, and PBS to name a few. In terms of reliability, anyone who's bothered to look at recent media studies literature will tell you that there's a huge gap between the reliability of say, Fox News and NPR. For example, in several polls testing knowledge of current events, Fox News viewers scored even lower those who don't follow the news (citation). Not surprisingly, the more ideological the news source (regardless of ideology), the worse the participants' knowledge of current events. The group who scored best were those who listened to NPR.

So what's my point besides the fact that everyone should donate and listen to NPR? The point is that in terms of reliability—the property with which are concerned—the range within the category “conventional media” is so wide such that ascribing a reliability score to the category is rendered meaningless. “Conventional Media” captures pretty much any reliability value you choose, depending on the case you're trying to make.

It should come as no surprise that the same argument can be made of the blogosphere. From Alex Jones' Info Wars and the rest of the wacky wonderworld of conspiracy-of-everything blogs to blogs run by elite Ivy League professors, the range of reliability within the blogosphere is vast. The distribution is so wide that to speak of “the reliability of the blogosphere” is essentially meaningless—even more so than for the conventional media. You can make the reliability score fit whatever position you wish to support depending on the cluster of blogs you select.

Essentially, you can pick and choose a conventional source and a blog to make whatever case you want about the relative reliability of each category. One reply might be to average the reliability over all prototypical members of the class but this would do no more than distort what we really want to know: If a citizen gets their news from blogs or conventional media, which one is more likely to reliably report true beliefs? It all depends on which particular source of conventional media we are talking about and which particular blogs she chooses. It'll return to this later.

There are further reasons to be skeptical of any attempt to meaningfully distinguish and make pronouncements about the conventional media and the blogosphere in terms of reliability. Consider a hypothetical situation where there's no blogosphere and only conventional media. Is the conventional media reliable? That is, does it announce more true information than false? It depends. Do we live in North Korea? Or do we live in a Western democracy with strong laws protecting freedom of the press and a low concentration of media ownership? Or do we live somewhere in between? The point here is that there's nothing intrinsically reliable about conventional media. It's reliability is contingent upon many variables many of which are political, legal, and economic. With this in mind, lets return to the central issue: Does the conventional media improve our democratic practices (via epistemic benefits)? The answer and reasons are same as for the reliability question: it depends.

How about if we consider a population where there is only a blogosphere and no conventional media. Is the blogosphere more reliable? Again, it depends. What blogs is a person reading? How are they choosing what blogs they read? Do they pick blogs that confirm their pre-existing ideological biases or do they actively seek out blogs that challenge their point of view? The empirical evidence suggests the former.

The wide and overlapping distributions of reliability within and between the blogosphere and the conventional media as well as the contingent nature of each categories' reliability score all suggest that the reliability issue is of only minimal significance. To true see why lets return to the issue that motivated the whole project to begin with: how can we best ensure that the public is well-informed such that our democratic practices are improved? Coady would have us believe that there mere fact that people have access to a range of positions where they will encounter mutually incompatible points of view implies that “as a result they are able to develop their critical faculties, which in turn helps them make better choices about what and whom to believe” (p. 291).

Unfortunately for Coady, there are journals replete with literature to the contrary. I wish I could share his optimism, but exposure to a plurality of views isn't sufficient if we don't take into account the various conditions under which these views are encountered. For example, consider level of education. The Dunning-Kruger effect shows that those least able to reason are most confident in their ability to do so and most recalcitrant to correction. Johnathan Haidt's research shows that we are recalcitrant to facts that undercut cherished beliefs. Kahan's research shows that our ideological biases determine who we consider to be an expert. The backfire-effect (Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler) shows that in the face of strong disconfirming evidence people will further entrench their beliefs rather than align them with new and better evidence. Even something as objective as doing basic math is distorted by our political biases (Kahan) and the effect is stronger with numeracy! There's also a growing body of literature on how people make media choices and it doesn't support Coady's hypothesis: the majority of the population chooses its media sources based on whether it confirms their existing views. Most people want confirmation and comfort rather than the discomfort of cognitive dissonance when their cherished beliefs and values are challenged.

There are too many studies to list here but the upshot is that (a) encountering disconfirming views on its own is unlikely to confer any epistemic benefit and, even if this weren't the case, (b) the vast majority seek out sources which confirm rather than challenge their views essentially sending them into an epistemic echo chamber. For example, the literature on conspiracy theorists is clear. Anyone who enters this epistemic black hole has little chance of ever escaping: any evidence against the conspiracy is counted as evidence for it.

With the click of a mouse, you enter the world of conspiracism, and you never have to leave that world,” the University of Utah's Goldberg explained. “You get a situation where you are confirmed, and you don’t have any information that advises you to look in a different direction ... There’s an inner core of people who are committed.” And not only are these people stuck in a feedback loop of confirmation bias and groupthink, but they are actually being radicalized in the process as well, Goldberg maintained.1

Given massive cuts to education, emphasis on rote learning for standardized tests and its consequences to the critical thinking skills of the general populous, its hard to see how the rise of the conspiratorial and sensational in the blogosphere should be counted as epistemic gain.

The obvious reply is that I am committing the fallacy of confirming instances for surely there are also blogs that are extremely vertistic. True, but there are several confounding factors. First of all, as I've mentioned already, given the human propensity to seek confirmation we should expect that these “good” blogs will be ignored by those who could most benefit from them. Second, I'd wager the conspiratorial, sensationalist, and ideological blogs as a whole have way more traffic than the reliable blogs and that there's little overlap between the audiences. Finally, for those that enter the blogosphere neutral, the gravitational force of the “bad” type of blog is much stronger than that of the “good” type.

So, what are we to make of this mess? Is there any way to draw a meaningful distinction between the blogosphere and the conventional media? I'm not sure but if there is any thing distinctive about the blogosphere it is that its possible range of epistemic reliability is wider than that of the conventional media. Conversely, at least in most Western democracies, there are institutional norms that prevent chronic outright fabrication in the conventional media. To be fair, Coady acknowledges as much when he marks the distinction between the epistemic virtues of avoiding false beliefs and acquiring true beliefs. The conventional media might win out over the blogosphere in achieving the former.

Lets return once again to the motivating issue. To the extent that we can even talk about the blogosphere and the conventional media as distinct categories and given the overlapping wide-ranges of reliability values between and within each class, can anything be said about the blogosphere in respect to its role in a democracy? To answer this, let me once again quote Padover: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." (1939, p. 89). In other words, the blogosphere is only a benefit from an epistemic point of view if people have the requisite critical thinking skills such that they can distinguish between good and bad sources and good and bad arguments.

Blogs, like many tools, are proverbial double-edged swords. Some are more epistemically reliable than the best “conventional” news source and some are so epistemically naughty it would make Fox News blush. For the citizen who has the cognitive tools to critically evaluate the quality of sources or luckily stumbles on a network of credible blogs, blogs are a net epistemic benefit. For someone who tumbles down the rabbit whole of conspiracy or strongly ideological blogs, they are not likely to again see the light of reason. The same sword that defends you from harm can also cut you. It depends on the skill of he who wields it.

1 Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theorist. March 15, 2013.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Divine Command Theory and the Euthyphro Dilemma (Video)

Hey guys,

Here's a video I made to help my students understand Divine Command theory and the Euthyphro dilemma:

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Gettier Revisited

I've talked about Gettier before and much of what I say here will overlap with what I've already said.  It turns out I'm much more comfortable lecturing on something if I write about it the night before. Hopefully this won't always be the case 'cuz it takes up a lot of time...

Why Should You Care About Gettier?
You should care about Gettier because he showed that (so far) there is no coherent definition of knowledge.  Why should we care about defining knowledge anyway?  Well, because conceivably, there's a difference between simply believing something and knowing something.  What might the difference be?  What does it mean to "know"?  Since the ancient Greeks all the way up until 50 years ago to know something meant 3 conditions were met:

(1)  The subject believes p.
(2)  The subject is justified in believing p.
(3)  P is true.

These 3 conditions for knowledge are collectively known as the justified true belief theory of knowledge (JTB).  Sounds pretty plausible right?

Lets look at counter example to the JTB theory or, as they are now called, Gettier cases:

Gettier Case 1
Suppose Smith and Jones apply for the same job.  When he goes to the bathroom, Smith overhears the boss say that Jones is going to get the job.  Also, while in the waiting room Jones emptied his pockets and put all the contents on the table, counted them (there were ten coins) then put them back in his pocket.  From this information Smith infers the proposition: "the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket."  From the available evidence, the proposition seems like a valid inference.

What actually happens is that Smith ends up getting the job.  Now here's the crazy part: it turns out that, unbeknownst to himself, Smith also has exactly 10 coins in his pocket!  Given what's happened, can we say that Smith knew that "the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket?"

Lets see what the JTB theory says:
(1)  Did he believe that the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket?  Yup.
(2)  Was he justified in believing the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket?  Yup.
(3)  Is it true that the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket?  Yup.

So it seems that according to the JTB theory Smith knew that the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket but something isn't quite right!  Lets look at one more example before we figure out what's gone wrong:

Gettier Case 2
Bob has a friend, Jill, who has driven a Buick for years.  Bob therefore thinks that Jill drives an American car.  He is not aware, however, that her Buick has recently been stolen, and he is also not aware that Jill has replaced it with a Pontiac.  Does Bob really know that Jill drives an American car or does he only believe it?

Lets see how the JTB theory handles this:
(1)  Does Bob believe that Jill drives an American car?  Yup.
(2)  Is Bob justified in believing that Jill drives an American car?  Yup.
(3)  Is it true that Jill drives an American car?  Yup.

According to the JTB theory Bob knows that Jill drives an American car.  But something doesn't seem right about that.  It looks like he just happened to have gotten lucky.

Lets figure out what's going wrong in these cases.

Why Gettier Cases Happen:
Gettier cases happen because of our acceptance of two assumptions about justification.

Assumption 1: It's possible to have a justified belief that turns out to be false.  For example, when I'm at work I can assume that my car is where I left it because I remember parking it and I saw it in its spot as I walked to my building.  Of course it could happen that someone steals my car or that it gets towed. The fact that my belief about my car's location turns out to be false doesn't undermine the fact that I was justified in believing it was where I parked it.

Assumption 2: It's possible to make valid inferences from one justified belief to another.  For example, if I'm justified in believing it's raining then I can make the inference that there are clouds.  Since the initial belief (it's raining) is justified the inferred belief (there are clouds) is also justified.  In fancy talk: If I know that P entails Q and P is justified then I'm also justified in believing Q.

Rejecting (2) would make life really difficult and if logic is to have any value, we need to keep (2).

To see how the interaction of these 2 principles causes Gettier cases lets take a look at an example from Dretske.

Example 3:
Suppose you see a stack of your friend's (John) mail.  The address is in San Francisco.  You reasonably apply assumption 1 and form the belief that John lives in San Francisco.  It turns out however that he lives in LA.  The fact that your belief about where he lives is false doesn't mean you aren't justified in believing he lives in SF.  Based on your false belief that he lives in SF you make a valid inference and form a new belief:  John lives in California.  This is a perfectly valid inference.  Now, you have a justified (via assumption 2) true belief about where John lives.  However, you reached your belief that he lives in California through the false belief that he lives in SF so you don't really know he lives in California.  The inference from the false belief is what undercuts our ability to call the belief "knowledge".  The JTB fails to capture what we mean by "knowledge".

Attempted Rescue of the JTB Theory:
In example 3 what prevents us from calling the belief that John lives in California knowledge is the inference from a false belief (John lives in SF).  In example 1, the belief that "the man who has ten coins in his pocket will get the job" isn't knowledge because it is inferred from the false belief "Jones is going to get the job."  In example 2, the belief "Jill owns an American car" isn't knowledge because because it's inferred from the false belief that Jill owns a Buick.

Do you see the solution?  All we need to do is add a 4th condition to the JTB model.  Now, a person knows p when she:
(a) has the belief that p;
(b) is justified in believing p;
(c) p is true; and
(d) p isn't inferred from a false belief.

Ta da! So long as all four conditions are met, we can say that a person knows p.

Ut oh!  Party Time!
In my other life I'm a party planner.  Every month I plan a wonderful party.  The thing is I need to know which room to rent for the party.  My decision is based on how many attended the previous month's party.  If there are fewer than 40 people at this month's party I rent the standard room.  If there are 40 or more then I rent the large room.

I ask my assistant: how many people attended this month?  He says 78.  I then make the inference from the belief that 78 people attended to the belief that I will need to rent the large room.  This seems like a legitimate inference, right?  78 is definitely greater than 40.  But hold on a tick.  It turns out my assistant miscounted.  There were only 77 guests.  I've just made an inference from a false belief (i.e., violated condition (d)) yet it seems as though we can say that I know I will need to rent the large room.

Not So Fast!
Hold on to your horses.  There's something fishy going on here.  Yeah, OK, strictly speaking you made an inference from a false belief but there was an implied probability judgement.  You know that the margin of error of your assistant's counting is large enough not to matter for the inference; that is, the likelihood of him miscounting by a margin of 35% is very small.  In other words, if the counting is off by a bit it's not going to affect the truth of the inferred belief (in this case that I'll need a large room).  Lets add our 5th condition to the JTB theory:

(e) p has to have a sufficiently high probability of truth in order to count as knowledge.

Who's a Loser Now?
So it looks like we've got our theory of knowledge all figured out.  As long as p meets all 5 conditions then we can count it as knowledge.  Lets take a closer look at the 5th condition and see if it stands up to scrutiny:

The fifth condition is that in order for p to count as knowledge, in addition to the previous 4 conditions it also must have a sufficiently high probability of truth.  Might there be a counter-example?

Suppose there is a lottery with 1 billion tickets.  There's a 1/1 000 000 000 chance that ticket 0 000 000 000 will win.  There's the same chance that ticket 0 000 000 001 will win.  Of each ticket it's reasonable to say that you believe they won't win.  There is a very high probability that ticket 0 000 000 000 won't win but could you say that you know that it won't win?  It seems that no matter how great the odds that it won't win, you can't say that you know it won't win.  It appears as though we have constructed a counter-example to (e):  Even though there is a very high probability that "I won't win" is true I can't say that I know I won't win.

Ok, Lets Try A Different Approach
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, the cause of the problem for the JTB theory is not that we need additional conditions rather that we have accepted assumptions 1 and 2.  So why don't we reject one or both of them?

Lets Reject the Idea that It's Possible to Have a Justified Belief that Turns out False
Well, first of all, we already saw what happens if we do this: We end up like Descartes rejecting everything except for the fact that we exist (without a body).  Basically, what happens is that the only types of justifications that count are one's where the p couldn't possibly turn out false. That's not going to work too well or at least make knowledge very difficult to come by.

Consider the John in California example.  If we reject assumption 1 then based on the fact that all John's mail is addressed to SF we can no longer say that we are justified in believing he lives in SF. This seems a bit counter-intuitive.  How much evidence would we need before it would be impossible for the belief to turn out false? Aside from the practicality issue, this course seems implausible.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Cultural Relativism Vs Moral Objectivism

So, I've been experimenting with a new way to explain major philosophical concepts and issues by video and dialogue (aka, Socratic method).  I think dialogue is a much more intuitive way of understanding things.

I'm not able to embed the video but here's the link.  Let me know what you think:

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Impoverished State of the American Campfire and How to Build A Fire Properly

When I was in Japan what drove me (and most other Western foreigners) loco was the Japanese obsession with procedure and protocol. There's a correct way to do everything in Japan and if you don't do it that way, the outcome is often next to worthless--or at the very least the cause of furrowed brows.

Although true of everyday life, the preference for procedure over product is most pronounced in those things that are most definitive of Japanese culture. Take something as simple as making tea. There's a several-hour ritual just for making a freakin' cup of tea for God's sake! There's even a right and wrong direction to stir the tea.  Another example would be in judo: In Japanese judo (unlike the judo of many other countries) there is a heavy emphasis on the aesthetics of the throw. It's not enough to just throw your opponent for the ippon (full point). The throw also has to be pretty. How you perform the throw is just as important as throwing your opponent. Examples abound but I think you get the picture; and besides, at this point you must be wondering why I'm taking about the Japanese preoccupation with process when this post's title is to do with fire and America.

I'm talkin' 'bout J-pan in order to contrast it with its polar cultural opposite: 'Murica. To the extent that the Japanese emphasize procedure, Americans prize outcome. “We don't care two hoots how you do it, just get 'er done!” Only in America could duct tape be a solution to everything.

So, what's all this got to do with building a fire? I'm glad you axed. On my camping trip across the US of A, I noticed something that bothered me: The way Americans “build” a campfire.

The American camper, in his native habitat, puts his firewood into a pile, pours gasoline on it, then "drops a match on that bitch" (Wut! Wut!). Boom! Instant campfire: no fuss, no muss...and most importantly, no waiting. “I want a campfire, and I want it now! Get 'er done!” (high five's all around)

Call me a purist or perhaps a luddite, they might be one and the same, but I think important things are omitted when your method of starting a campfire is to simply douse some logs with gasoline. “But you said you wanted a fire, didn't you? So, I made one”

Yeah, I get it. The outcome's the same but I maintain that something's amiss.

For a while I couldn't figure out why I was so bothered by this practice. I mean, why should I care? It's just a freakin' camp fire and not even mine, for that matter. Last night, the answers came to me.

For starters, beyond avoiding singed eyebrows, there's no skill or art to the American way of making a campfire. There's something to be said for the skill and patience it takes to build a good campfire “old-school.” From gathering and arranging the right sized twigs, to nursing the flame in the early stages, to knowing when to add larger pieces and when to just let the fire breath. This is knowledge and skill that must be acquired through repeated experience that is usually shared and passed on by an early mentor...which leads me to the next point.

There's a social component to building a fire the “slow” way. Usually, in a family, the young children are sent out to gather twigs and sticks as kindling while the older children/teenagers get to wield the ax to split wood. One or two lucky children get to be the ones to use the matches to light the base of the fire. The parents coach the children in arranging and lighting the twigs “just right” as a skill is passed from one generation to the next. As the children progressively get older they get the “privilege” of graduating to and learning new fire-building tasks. These moments of interaction are precious. The fire is a symbol of learning and shared labor and its warmth is enjoyed all the more because each member of the group contributed in some way.

Think about it. Besides language-use, is there any other skill that is more quintessentially human than building a fire? The American method of fire-building breaks the inter-generational line of this skill's transmission that is intrinsic to our human-ness. The proverbial torch is quite literally not passed on to the next generation.  It deprives subsequent generations from learning and the current generation from passing-on a skill that was shared by virtually every single one of our ancestors. One more experience that ties one generation to the next is lost. 

All these goods "go up in flames" when, in building a fire, there is no regard for protocol and all emphasis is placed on outcome.

Or maybe I'm making too much of all this... Besides, perhaps if some isolated aboriginal group saw how I start my fires with a match they might roll their eyes at me for foregoing all the social good that comes from frantically rubbing two sticks together to get the initial heat to light the wood shavings and dry grass...

Maybe we should all bring a canister of gasoline when we go camping.

But probably not.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Why Epistemology Matters: Reason Number 2

A while back, in an attempt to assuage feelings of doubt, I wrote a post on why the main issues in epistemology matter to Joe and Joanne Shmo.  Here, I will address why what appears to be an insignificant esoteric and abstract issue in epistemology has extremely important consequences to our daily lives and especially our social institutions.

Before reading what I have written click on the link and watch the video:

I said click it!

Ok, so if you didn't have a chance to watch the entire video here is the most relevant point:

72% of wrongful convictions that are later overturned by DNA evidence are a result of eyewitness testimony.


Let's get the terminology out of the way.  Epistemology is the study of knowledge.  Two of the major questions that are explored in epistemology are (a) what is knowledge? (b) what is it possible to know? (i.e., what are the limits of knowledge).  Apart from these central issues, there are other important issues one of which I mentioned before: when is a belief justified?

It shouldn't come as a surprise to any thinking person that some beliefs are well-justified and others are not so much--or not at all.  So, when is a belief justified and when isn't it?   Establishing some rules or principles for justification before we go out into the world will allow us to avoid falling prey to ideas and beliefs that might be appealing (i.e., confirm our biases) yet are not well-supported.  

Consider Jennifer Thompson's testimony.  Pretty convincing right?  She has pretty convincing support for her belief about who raped her.  If you think that the reasons she cites for her beliefs are strong justification then you are subscribing to a theory of justification called internalism or "current time-slice" theory.

Don't be scurd by the fancy name.  All this means is that for a belief to be justified, the believer or proponent has to, in principle, be able to--at the moment of inquiry--produce some sort of compelling evidence or support for their belief. Otherwise stated, a justifying reason for the belief must be internally accessible to the believer.  In Jennifer's case, maybe it's a memory or are current observation.  Justification for moral beliefs might be an appeal to a commonly held moral principle, for a scientific belief it might be an observation or an inference.  Regardless, the main point of internalism is that the justification for a belief must be accessible to and produceable by the believer.

An externalist on the other hand says that justification has nothing to do with conscious access to reasons and everything to do with the reliability of the process by which the belief was acquired. "Reliability" in this context means "the process by which the belief was acquired produces more true beliefs than false beliefs over the long run."  The externalist or "process reliabilist," as they are sometimes called, doesn't care two hoots about the justifying reasons to which Jennifer has conscious access.  They only care about whether the process (eye-witness testimony, in this case) by which Jennifer acquired her beliefs produces more true beliefs than false beliefs in the long run (i.e., that the process is reliable).

Now, lets consider Jennifer's testimony from the point of view of an externalist.  We know that the process of eye-witness memory and testimony is unreliable, in fact, it's very unreliable.  We know that in the long run, more beliefs that are formed from these processes will turn out to be false than they will turn out to be true. So, if we adopt an externalist model of justification, we ought to reject Jennifer's testimony.  It isn't a justified belief.

Adopting process reliablism as our theory of justification tells us we ought to focus our attention on the reliability of processes rather than reasons.  In the video clip we learn of all the different ways in which the (current) process of eye-witness testimony can fail and how it might be corrected.  It seems counter-intuitive to say we should dismiss Jennifer's testimony, however, by focusing on processes rather than reasons as justification, we can avoid tragic errors.  

Our preferred philosophical theory of epistemic justification has huge practical implications in many domains, and it is made most readily apparent in the court of law.  As a thought experiment, think about the practical consequences to your area of expertise of applying one theory of justification vs another. You'll likely find there are important consequences.

Epistemology matters--and not just to philosophers.  The theory of justification we choose can have implications as to whether people are likely to wrongfully convicted.

Boom goes the dynamite.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Teaching Philosophy and Truths To Live By

Dedication:  This article is dedicated to my first philosophy professor Prof. Gordon (Langara College) as well as Prof. Sommers (UH) whose courses caused me to lose many hours of sleep for all the right reasons and whose teaching I try to emulate.

Here are some of my thoughts on teaching philosophy.  Later in the post I make some comments on elements that I think make a great course.  I want to be clear that I don't think I've achieved them but they are part of what I think I ought to be striving for.  Also, I realize it's probably presumptuous and naive to think that after only 2 years of teaching philosophy I can make any pronouncements on the subject, but fuck it. Here goes.

What Makes A Good Intro Philosophy Class
A good intro philosophy class causes mental anguish.  The anguish happens because the students embark, willingly or otherwise, on an intellectual journey where many of their beliefs that seemed obviously true become uncertain.  Their most basic beliefs about the nature of the universe, the mind, moral responsibility, right and wrong, good and bad are all shown to be on shaky foundations--if on any at all.  And the foundations are not just shaky because of some fanciful and implausible Matrix-like scenarios.  The foundations are weak for good reasons that they often can find no way to reject.

I'm not just talking about beliefs that are a consequence of a sheltered existence of which young students will be disabused later in life.  I'm talking about beliefs that the majority of people all over the world consider to be self-evident.

The anguish grows throughout the course as common sense belief after common sense belief is shown to be untenable.  The uncertainty this creates can have 2 effects; not necessarily mutually exclusive.  In fact, the mark of a great intro course is that the 2 effects are not mutually exclusive.  One effect, I have mentioned already: anguish.  How is it possible that everything that seemed so evidently true is now so evidentially unjustified?  What should I believe? The progressive disintegration of certainty and its inevitable replacement with uncertainty is unsettling  The second effect is a thirst to know more in hopes to reclaim some of the lost certainty.

Each unit has the following arc.  I begin with the destructive phase.  We read an article that definitively undermines the common sense view.  The natural reaction is to reject the conclusion in order to hold onto what they had previously thought self-evident.  The problem is that they can't find fault with the argument.  Together, we go through each premise and try to find a way out, but alas, there is a powerful counter-reply for every objection.  The anxiety begins but hopefully that's not all. 

Humans have an aversion to uncertainty.  The justifications for my students' beliefs have just been decisively undercut and have been replaced with a well-justified unpalatable alternatives.   But they don't want to accept this alternative.  There must be a way out.  This longing for a way out is what instigates the desire to learn more.  Maybe this next reading offers a way out.

The next reading is presented and discussed in class.  Initially if conforms better with their intuitions. Then we start to explore some of the objections and hidden consequences.  The objections are valid. The consequences undesirable.  We need a new answer.  "You'll find it in your book right after the previous reading.  Read it tonight and we'll discuss it tomorrow."  

We repeat the process.  The anxiety starts to grow again.  

"We need an answer!  Just tell us the answer!"  

"What's the point of philosophy? Nothing is ever solved! This is stupid."

Frustration is setting in.  We want our certainty back.  It's so much more comfortable.

Here is what separates a good philosophy class from a great one.  A good one whips the students into an existential frenzy and shows them that the universe is not the simple place they thought it was.  They learn that it's not as easy as it initially appeared to ascribe moral responsibility and blame and that these concepts might not ever be applicable as we typically use them; that neither dualism nor physicalism give us entirely satisfactory answers about the nature of mind and consciousness; that what is good and what is right can come apart and there is no clear way to choose between the two; that your beliefs can sometimes be justified without you knowing they're justified; that a belief can be justified and true yet still not count as knowledge; that even if there is a god he/she/it probably doesn't have the properties we ascribe to him/her/it.  Most importantly, they learn to withhold assent until they've thoroughly thought through the consequences of an argument--no matter how much it accords with what they want to be true.

Humans hate uncertainty.  It bothers us and we avoid it when we can.  A great philosophy course distinguishes itself from a good philosophy course in that it engenders hope that some form of progress on these issues is possible.  Philosophy is not a fun house of theories posing as illusions of truth.  We can move forward but progress is slow.  Patience and careful thinking are necessary virtues.  If you don't have them, you must develop them or you will be in for a frustrating experience.

There is an analogy with science I offer my students:  No one ever throws their hands up at "science" and says "look at all those theories that didn't work out, science can't answer anything!" Science is a wasteland of discarded theories which were all at one time considered "true" or at least well-supported.  The idea is that we don't approach truth directly but we circle in on it by discarding what is not well-supported and keeping whatever is.  Approaching truth is a slow and difficult process, not a one-off affair.

At any given moment on most issues in science there are competing theories.  The presence of competing theories isn't evidence  that there's no answer to the issue nor that both theories are of equal merit.  As more and better evidence comes in, one theory will become untenable while the other one continues to have no obvious reason to reject it.  We discard the former and keep the later.

The same applies to philosophy.  The history of philosophy is a wasteland of theories on every philosophical issue--alive and dead.  This is evidence of progress.  We have found reason to reject many theories.  The ones that remain are well-supported given our current epistemic position.  When arguments and evidence become available to reject one over another as has happened throughout the course of both scientific and philosophical history, progress will have been made.

This raises a problem that Descartes recognized:  How do we know in advance which theories will eventually turn out to be true and which will turn out to be false?  The answer, of course, is that we can't.  And this is what motivated Descartes' method of radical doubt. Rather than build a foundation of scientific knowledge on theories and facts that may one day collapse under the weight of new evidence, he treated anything that could possibly turn out to be false as false.  Now, we'll only build our edifice of knowledge on facts and theories that will never falter.   There, problem solved.  

Or are we just left with another problem?  If we reject everything that that could possibly turn out to be false, no matter how remote the possibility, what are we left with?  I won't spoil it for you but the answer is not much.  Not enough to rebuild a scientific account of the world, anyway.

You might complain that philosophy doesn't tell us what's true it only tells us what's false. But philosophy is in good company: the exact same criticism can be leveled at science.  

Today was the last lecture for my 101 class.  We were discussing Chalmers' claim that a complete science of the mind cannot be achieved if we restrict ourself to a purely physicalist conception of the universe. That is, the physical sciences can never give us a complete understanding of the mind because to understand the mind you also have to study subjective conscious experience--and consciousness doesn't exist as physical phenomena, it's mental.  Selon Chalmers, the subjective phenomenology of experience, by definition, is outside the grasp of the physical sciences. Charmers also says that even if we understood all the physical systems of the brain, down to the neuron, we still wouldn't be able to answer why these processes give rise to conscious experience and how consciousness arises from purely physical processes (in the brain).

But Churchland and Dennett disagree. And they have some fairly compelling arguments too from which I'll spare you.  By the end of the lecture I could see my students were a bit distraught.  I polled the class, asking whose side they thought was most compelling and why.  Most didn't want to commit.  They saw the strength of both positions but also that logically you had to accept one or the other.  They can't both be true.

I don't want my students to leave their (most likely only) philosophy class as hardened skeptics throwing their hands up in the air at any attempt to establish certainty.  This isn't a good pedagogical outcome.  I want them to believe that progress is possible on many issues and that not all positions are of equal strength.  Progress is possible but you must invest time and energy.  Knowledge doesn't come easy, you have to work for it.  As Burge says:
Genuine understanding is a rare and valuable commodity, not to be obtained on the cheap.
Aside: Upon disclosing that we work in philosophy, every philosopher is inevitably asked the same question: "So, what's your philosophy?"  In the context of academic philosophy, this question makes no sense and is the subject of much eye-rolling and laugher amongst philosophers. Nevertheless, I've always wanted to have an answer to the question--one that didn't belittle the question but recognized in it the interlocutor's potentially genuine philosophical curiosity and desire to potentially gain some insight.  Over the last two years or so I think I've finally come up with an answer I like.  More on that in a moment...

I didn't like the fact that my students were visibly anxious at the end of my last lecture to them. This isn't how I want them to remember philosophy. One student raised her hand and asked the inevitable question.  "What's the point of all this if there's no answer?  No matter what position we take there are going to be problems."  

Ah! The need for certainty. 

"I have some philosophical truth for you.  Do you want to hear it?"  I asked.  "Please! Tell us NOW!" they implored.  I looked at each of them and said, "OK, here are three."

1.  Your own happiness is bound up in the happiness of others.


2.  There are two things that are necessary to have a meaningful life.  There are others as well, but without these two you have no chance:  You must cultivate and strive for personal excellence in whatever you do and with equal or greater effort you must help others cultivate and realize their own personal excellence.  You cannot have a meaningful life if your life does not include both of these things.


3.  The suffering of others matters.  You have an obligation to reduce the suffering of others in so far as you are able.


Now you have your precious certainty.   

Live by it.