Tuesday, June 13, 2017


A recent conversation with some friends has me thinking about roles we can fruitfully play as philosophers of science. I just thought I'd write up on a blog post my thoughts on something that came out of that, which is a role we sometimes play that I feel is not often enough highlighted.

In philosophy we learn about tools and methods of critical thinking and argument construction and evaluation. For instance, a standard part of philosophical training is going through some basic logic. You should learn therein what it takes for an argument to be valid, and, going in the other direction, how one can demonstrate the invalidity of an argument by constructing counter-models. (If this doesn't mean anything to you, I will be going through an example later in this post!) That is just part of basic philosopher training. If you go into philosophy of science you will further specialise, perhaps learning about experimental technique, statistical methods, or theories of confirmation along the way. All of these can put somebody in a decent enough position to evaluate the cogency of arguments that scientists put forward, providing one familiarises oneself with the particular theoretical background the scientists one is evaluating are working within.

And it matters that scientists are making cogent arguments! Science has a lot of social cachet; with some well noted exceptions, folk trust scientists and will tend to believe claims that scientists put forward about the world. What scientists conclude is therefore deeply significant to our worldview and senses of self. Further, in many spheres of life we base policies on recommendations from scientific experts. Just the enterprise of science itself involves moving huge amounts of people and resources around, and the opportunity cost of having all these smart folk spend their time in this way rather than on other socially valuable tasks is itself huge. We want scientists to be basing their claims, recommendations, and activities, on sound argumentation and good reasoning, so as to ensure that this cachet and those resources are used as best we can.

So then putting these two together we get a natural thought about how philosophers of science should use our skills. We should monitor the arguments scientists make, and where we find that their methods or modes of argument are not capable of supporting the conclusions or recommendations they are making in light of those arguments, we should bring to bear our expertise in the evaluation of inferences or arguments (broadly construed) on calling this out and suggesting better practice for the future. (I recall reading, but do not recall where I was reading, E.O. Wilson once write that this is exactly what he thought of as the point of philosophers of science, people looking over his shoulder saying `Oh no I don't think this is good enough, what about such and such counter argument, eh?' He noted that while this could be pretty irritating in the moment, on reflection thought it valuable to him.) I call this kind of thing `remonstration', it's a kind of `speak truth to power!' norm, and I think we should see it as a valuable part of our mission as philosophers of science.

I am going to go through an example from my own work in a bit of detail below, but for some more illustrious examples one might want to check out: Clark Glymour's critique of the statistical reasoning that underlay the famous Bell Curve book and much of the rest of social psychology at the time, Nancy Cartwright's long running project critically evaluating the limitations of randomised control trials for medical or social research, or Roman Frigg's work (discussed, say, at the end of this excellent episode of the generally excellent Sci Phi podcast) on over-confident and over-specific claims made on the basis of models of climate change. 

But for an example of remonstration I am most familiar with (and also to allow me to explain and slightly reframe this previously published work of mine) I'd like to go through my paper On Fraud. One of the motivations for that paper was thinking about claims currently being made about how we should deal with the replication crisis in social psychology. Broadly, lots of claims in social psychology that were thought to have been securely established are being found not to stand up to sustained scrutiny when people attempt to replicate the initial experiments which led to their acceptance, or redo the statistical analyses with bigger/better data sets. In thinking about why this is occurring, a number of scientists have come to conclude that one (but not the only) source of the problem is -- scientists are not just seeking the truth for its own sake, but instead being encouraged to pursue credit (esteem, reward, glory, social recognition by their peers in the scientific community) by various features of the incentive structure of science. This pursuit of credit itself incentivises bad research practices, ranging from the careless to the outright fraudulent. If only we could remove these rival incentives which are causing the misconduct, and instead encourage pure pursuit of the truth, we'd have removed the incentive to involve oneself in such research misconduct. Since I had seen some very similar arguments come up before in my more historical scholarship on W.E.B. Du Bois, my interest was very much piqued and I got to thinking about whether this argument should be accepted as a sound basis of science policy.

I came to conclude that the psychologists and sociologists of science making these arguments were making a subtle mistake in how they reasoned about policy in light of scientific evidence. They were doing good empirical work tracing out the causes of much of the research malpractice we witness in science. But on the basis of this they were concluding that if we removed the actual causes of fraud we'd see less fraud. That is to say, they were establishing premises about the causes of fraud in the actual world, and concluding that a policy which intervened on (in fact removed or greatly lessened) these causes would mean that there would be less fraud after our intervention. After all, it's a natural thought; if X was what was causing the fraud and now there's no more (or much less) X, well you've removed the cause and so you should remove the effect, right?  Not so. Such arguments are not valid -- their premises can all be true, while their conclusion is false. So I constructed a counter-model, which is to say a model which shows that all of their premises can be true while their conclusion is false.

Without going into too much detail, I produced a model of people gathering evidence and deciding whether not to honestly reveal what evidence they received when they go to publish. Fraud is an extreme form of malpractice, of course, but it would do no harm to my arguments to interpret the agents as deciding whether or not to engage in milder forms of data fudging or other research malpractice. We can model the agents as pure credit seekers, they just want to gain the glory of being seen to make a discovery. Or we can model them as pure truth seekers, they just want the community to believe the truth about nature. (We can also consider mixed agents in the model, but set that aside.) In the model credit seeking can indeed incentivise fraud, and for the sakes of the counter-model we may grant that in the actual world all fraud is incentivised in this way. But what I show is that in this model, even if suppose that there were some policy that could successfully turn all scientists into pure truth seekers, it does not guarantee that there is less fraud -- in fact truth seeking can, in some especially worrying circumstances, actually lead to more fraud!

There is a general lesson here, in fact, that I wish I had done more to bring out in the paper. The point is: if you are basing policy on empirical research, it is tempting to think that what you need to know is whether the policy would be effective in the actual world. That, after all, is where you will be implementing the policy! But that's the wrong causal system for evaluating the effects of your proposed policy. What you need to know is whether the policy would be effective in the world (or causal system) that will exist after the policy is implemented. In the actual world -- sure, credit seeking is causing malpractice. But the fact that you remove that incentive to commit fraud does not by itself mean you've removed the incentive to commit fraud. It may be that in the world that exists after this intervention there are new temptations to commit fraud. Truth seeking itself may be one of them. Policy relevant causal information must include counter-factual information, information about the world that will exist after a not-yet-implemented policy has been carried out.

If you want the real details of my argument -- read the paper! But what I want to note here is how this is me trying to be the change I want to see in philosophy of science. I found some scientists making policy recommendations in virtue of their empirical research (in this case it was policy affecting science itself). I thought about the structure of their arguments, and realised they were making implicit assumptions about counter-factual reasoning. A general philosophy education gives you tools for reasoning about counter-factuals, so I could bring that to bear. What is more, general critical thinking (or logic) training that is part of being a philosopher points the way to counter-model construction as a means of critiquing arguments. Finally, disciplinary specific training in the philosophy of the social sciences gave me training in tools for building models of social groups, which was what was of particular relevance here. I was therefore able to remonstrate, to bring to bear my training in calling attention to an error in scientists' reasoning, and what's more an error that (since it was supposed to be the basis of policy) has the potential to be of some social and opportunity cost. I don't claim, of course, that this is the best example of remonstration in the literature (c.f. my illustrious colleagues above!) -- but I hope going through an example I am intimately familiar with in depth gives people a better example of how philosophy of science as remonstration is a good use of our disciplinary tools and expertises.

Now, it is certainly not my claim that only philosophers of science engage in this kind of remonstration. Statisticians very often engage in a very similar activity -- Andrew Gelman's blog alone is full of it. There is also a fine tradition of scientific whistleblowers who call foul when misconduct is afoot. Remonstrating with scientists whose reasoning has, for one reason or another, gone astray, ought not be, and fortunately is not in fact, left to philosophers alone. And, in case it needs to be said, nor is this (or nor ought this be) all of what philosophers of science get up to. Most of my own work, for instance, is not remonstration.

But when I see accounts of the tasks of philosophy of science they typically fall into one of three categories. Concept construction or clarification, where the goal is something like producing or improving a tool that it might help scientists do their job better. Scientific interpretation, where the goal is to do something like provide an understanding of scientific work that would make sense of the results of scientific activity, and tell us what the world would be like if our best evidenced theories were to be true. And meta-science, where the goal is to do something like provide an explanatory theory which tells us why it is that scientists reason (or ought to reason) in some ways rather than others. All of these can be valuable and I hope philosophers of science keep doing them. And I can even understand why people aren't keen to advertise the disciplinary mission of remonstration: it makes us into the stern humourless prigs of science, somewhat akin to Roosevelt's critic on the sideline hating on the folk actually getting stuff done. But, since I think it can be good and necessary, I hope that, even if it doesn't win us friends, and along with our comrades elsewhere in the academy and with our eye on the social good, we hold true to the mission of remonstrating against scientific overreach, malpractice, or just plain old error, where-ever we should see these arise.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Diversity of Formal Philosophy

I've just come back from the Formal Epistemology Workshop! It was a lovely conference, and I highly recommend it to up and coming formal epistemology folk who want to get a sense of what's going on across the field. I was struck by the diversity of projects, and also by the interesting fact that multiple people said something like ``I feel like I am the least-formal formal-epistemologist here.'' So! I invented a taxonomy of projects in Formal Philosophy, which I'll present here with examples then comment on below.

About -- some formal system that touches upon matters of prior philosophical interest is either itself the object of study, or some feature of it or result therein is, or it is useful for stating/reformulating a prior philosophical problem. One does not reason within the system, but rather one either reflects on it, or some aspect of it, or draws out morals from it and reflects upon how they bear upon another problem.

Examples of work of this sort: Bertrand Russell's On Denoting, Plato's Meno, Audrey Yap's Idealization, Epistemic Logic, and Epistemology, Jason Stanley's Know How, David Lewis' On The Plurality of Worlds, Kenny Easwaran's Why Physics Uses Second Derivatives, Beall and Restall's Logical Pluralism, Danielle Wenner's The Social Value of Knowledge and the Responsiveness Requirement for Biomedical Research, Michael Weisberg's Who Is A Modeller?

Within -- the author(s) themselves use an established formal framework to prove results which are of philosophical interest. Perhaps they are taken to be interesting because of what they tell us about the formal system which is itself taken to be philosophically interesting, or how various such systems can be related, or perhaps because the result is itself intrinsically interesting or part of a family of results which collectively are taken to be interesting. The point is that Within projects gain whatever philosophical interest they have because of the relationship between a result the author has proven and something which is taken to be of philosophical interest.

Examples of work of this sort: Ruth C. Barcan's The Identity of Individuals in a Strict Functional Calculus of Second Order, Christian List and Philip Pettit's Aggregating Sets of Judgments: An Impossibility Result, Robert Stalnaker's On Logics of Knowledge and Belief, Catrin Campell-Moore's How To Express Self-Referential Probability, Cailin O'Connor's The Evolution of Guilt, Bertrand Russell's eponymous Paradox, the Marquis de Condorcet's Jury Theorem (and related results), Amartya Sen's The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal, David Lewis' Probability of Conditionals and Conditional Probabilities, I. J. Good's On The Principle of Total Evidence, Harsanyi's Utilitarian Theorem (and related results).

Without -- the author invents or constructs a novel formal system that allows us to generate results or extract information about a new area of discourse not previously amenable to formal analysis, or which if there was a previous formal theory it took a markedly different form.

Examples of work of this sort: Aristotle's syllogistic, Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica, Turing and Post on computability, Ruth Barcan's A Functional Calculus of First Order Based on Strict Implication, Kripke's A Completeness Theorem in Modal Logic, Carlos E. Alchourrón, Peter Gärdenfors and David Makinson's On The Logic of Theory Change, David Lewis' Convention, Frank P. Ramsey's Truth and Probability. Peter Spirtes, Clark Glymour, and Richard Scheines' Causation, Prediction, and Search.

Some comments on this, starting with remarks about the examples.

1 ) While I didn't put too much thought into constructing the example lists (which probably resulted in a demographic skew, alas, in what I highlighted -- on this see point (7) below) I did want to highlight a couple of points. Formal philosophy as a whole interacts with very diverse areas of philosophy and very diverse sets of formal tools. As has recently been discussed, logic gets the bulk of pedagogical attention in philosophy graduate programmes. But at a glance the above list contains work in ethics, social and political philosophy, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of physical, social, and biological sciences and mathematics, and epistemology. (I don't know of any formal aesthetics, but I would have liked to have been able to include that.) And the formal theories touched upon or deployed do indeed include logic, but also include probability theory, game and decision theory, statistical reasoning, calculus, social choice theory, and geometry.

2) I also wanted to use the examples to highlight that each of the sections contains work that would presumably be thought of as classical or canonical, as well as recent work by younger scholars.... This latter was a bit harder for the third section, since (for, I guess, reason discussed in (4) below) one hears about such work less. I decided that in the grand scheme of intellectual history though late 20th century is extremely recent philosophy, so it suffices to make my point. Which is that each of these modes of formal philosophy has shown itself both capable of making classic contributions and generating novel work. This is not a hierarchy of value, and none of these streams are yet dry. (When I reflected on my own work, I think I have some papers in the About category, and some papers in the Within section.) On the flip side, each of these is part of the grand tradition of formal philosophy, and there's no reason to think that some is more properly formal philosophy than the rest.

3) These are of course fuzzy categories. Gödel's incompleteness theorems are to some extent Within, but (if I understand the history correctly) the technique of Gödel-numbering was developed during these proofs and that was probably a significantly novel enough contribution to be its own Without work. For more recent work, I wanted to include more ethics, but couldn't decide whether this was About or Within. Is this Within or Without? Nothing, I think, really turns on subtleties here, I just wanted to acknowledge that there are plenty of edge cases. However, just to give people something to disagree with me about: I hereby claim that while this is fuzzy in the sense that some work can plausibly be in multiple categories, anything that could be called Formal Philosophy will recognisably fit into at least one of the categories.

4) While I don't think this is a hierarchy of value, my sense is that in terms of credit or repute the Without category is the high-risk high-reward category. It's the kind of work that is most likely to fail, but most likely to secure one's lasting glory if one can pull it off.

5) Work in the About category is probably the easiest sell to philosophers who don't work in formal philosophy. When formal philosophers are designing introductory lectures, outreach-y summer programmes, presentations for conferences in which there will be mixed company, or just in general interacting with a field that can be territorial and sceptical about things which fall outside the recognised boundaries, I think there is some reason to be cognisant of the distinction between About and Within work, and opt for About work. Nobody is going to argue that Plato's Meno isn't real philosophy.

6) I am less confident here, but I know there are metaphilosophical debates about what counts as experimental philosophy. I feel like a similar taxonomy would work there, with experimental philosophy being work that either is centrally based upon reflections on empirical work, is founded upon novel discoveries made by the authors, or comes up with a new way of testing things or generating results.

7) I didn't max out on demographic diversity in constructing the example lists, since it wasn't really to my point here. But I did find when making the lists that white blokes came to mind much more easily in all of the categories, and I guess especially dear to my heart given previous work -- I could scarcely think of any black folk! On reflection I can think think of more I didn't include -- for instance Kwasi Wiredu's Logic and Ontology (I cannae find a link!) could have gone in the About section, and I just met Lisa Cassell at the Formal Epistemology Workshop that sparked this very post. Still, even as I try hard not many brothers and sisters come to mind. This does not tell one much about the actual demographics of the field -- maybe I am just bad at remembering people, and I am myself very much trained in a certain tradition. But it is what it is.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

On The Conceptual Penis

Another day, another hoax paper published! For those who don't know, these hoax papers pop up every now and again, wherein academics deliberately write nonsense, submit it to an ostensibly serious journal, and find that lo and behold they can get it published, despite the checks that are meant to ensure only rigorous scholarship makes it through to the published literature. This is a worry, because in theory being part of the scholarly literature is meant to be a guarantee of quality and a sign that the scholarship can be relied upon.

It's always pretty hard to know what to conclude from these hoax papers -- I think it is over-determined that one should not, ever, take the fact that an individual paper has passed peer review to mean its conclusions are secure. Where one wants to be guided by academic work, one should form one's opinion on a matter based on a review of the literature, not just one or two papers therein. Too many journals reviewing too many papers by too many authors in too many fields -- all run by fallible humans. Even with the best of intentions (which is far from guaranteed) there is no way the peer review process could filter out all bad work, and by dint of the sheer size of the enterprise there is going to be plenty of rubbish out there even if a low proportion of the bad papers make it through. What's more, the replication crisis shows us that things can actually go pretty systematically wrong, and there's some theoretical reason to be a bit pessimistic about the quality of the average paper. So, one read of hoax publications is that they just dramatically illustrate this point. Whatever guarantee of quality the scholarly literature and its processes of review and double checking provide, it does not do all that much at the level of individual papers -- look to the collective beliefs or consensus arising out of such literatures, if there is reliable results to be found anywhere it will be therein.

The authors of this particular hoax, however, want a different conclusion to be drawn. They think their paper shows that a ``problem lies within the very concept of any journal being a “rigorous academic journal in gender studies.”'' Their reasoning is that their article sailed through peer review because it ``portrayed a moralizing attitude that comported with the editors’ moral convictions'',  namely ``an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil''. Basically the paper kind of strings sentences together which loosely suggest that maleness is tied to a certain kind of abstract idea of the penis and this abstract idea of the penis is responsible for a great many social ills, inclusive of climate change. It really is largely nonsense, but an overall effect is conveyed and which is indeed suggestive of the almost religious belief they note. They think that it was because this effect was conveyed that they were not subject to serious peer review.

Predictably enough (pious left wing academical that I am!) I am not convinced by their account of what happened here. I'll set aside the fact that some of what the paper suggests would probably be considered morally offensive by the sort of people they have in mind -- it's reading tea-leaves to try and work out what the paper is really suggestive of, since it is, by design, genuinely nonsensical.  Rather, my objections to their account are as follows. First, boringly, I just don't think journal hoaxes provide the kind of evidence that could support their conclusion. A paper published in a journal is just poor evidence for conclusions concerning the practices of an entire field. Second, this paper was actually first rejected by NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies! Why should the one accept count for more evidence of typical field practices than the one reject? Especially when you consider that, third, a relevant difference between the journal that accepted (Cogent Social Sciences) and the one that rejected was that the journal that accepted is a pay-to-publish journal. To my mind, we already have some reason to be highly suspicious of pay-to-publish journals. If one searches around one will find plenty of controversies about these journals, just going to link to a story about my favourite such controversy here. So, given where my priors are at, once I found out this detail it immediately suggested an explanation of what went wrong here! Personally, I am sufficiently suspicious of this business model that I think we as an academic community should institute some communal norms against publishing in pay-to-publish journals, and demand that any article that is published in such a journal is suitably marked as such and refuse to credit work so marked -- in fact, given the wider social role of academic work, I wouldn't even be opposed to legislation banning the business model.

Now, the authors do spend some time discussing the third of these worries. They acknowledge that indeed pay-to-publish journals might be a source of the problem. But they respond that, (A), NORMA's editor actually recommended transferring their paper to CSS in such a way that helped it get through the review process there, suggesting that even serious academic journals are in cahoots with these mobsters. (B), CSS did seem to actually implement peer review, (C), the journal is published by the apparently respectable Taylor and Francis group. These considerations move them to think that the problem is not mainly a general one with pay-to-publish journals, but rather the field. Again, I am not convinced. Regarding (B) -- editors have a lot of power in who they pick as reviewers, so they can just pick hacks to ensure things sail through, and in any case we don't know how the reviewers were themselves incentivised. Regarding (C), let's just say I am not too impressed with academic publishing groups more generally.

Regarding (A)... ok here I agree with the authors of the hoax paper. In so far as journals in gender studies (and for all I know this happens in other fields too) are collaborating with the pay-to-publish journals in this way, they are undermining their own field's scholarly standards. I didn't know this sort of collaboration existed, so for me this is the main thing I have learned from the incident, and I shall be looking out for this in future; maybe it occurs in philosophy too? The overall lesson I draw from this latest hoax is that as a community we should stop collaborating with these sharks, their invocation of the profit motive undermines the scholarly values we strive to maintain and represent, and it is only by our continued participation in the system that they are able to so destroy us.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Dreams of My Ancestors

Short personal blog post -- just a quick reflection on a difference (as it seems to me!) between aspects of the African American experience when compared with people from the African diaspora in Europe. Not sure how widely this will be of interest to people!

It's graduation time, and amidst the celebrations I saw a very talented young African American comrade of mine post a picture of herself in her graduation gown with  a quote from a Maya Angelou poem on her cap -- ``I am the dream and the hope of the slave.'' It was a touching image, and thought, and while I've seen debate about the sentiment, on the whole it's easy to see how one can think as much and take extra pride in one's achievements qua African American.

Such thoughts are, I think, just entirely cut off to descendants of the African diaspora in Europe. Or, at least, so it seems to me when reflecting on my own ancestry in Ghana. While I am somewhat embarrassingly unsure about this, my sense of my Ghanaian ancestry is: my ethnic group were subjects of Asanteman, while not themselves being Asante. My sense also is that their relative status was such that they probably largely participated in the political system as I described previously, and the British colonisation would thus have represented a loss of political freedoms, wealth, and opportunities for advancement for them. Finally, a relevant bit of historical background -- the British and Asanteman fought an alternately hot and cold war through the 19th century for control over `the Gold coast', with the British eventually emerging victorious in 1901. See here for some details: though a note of protest on that wikipedia article, which begins by saying that ``[t]he wars were mainly due to Ashanti attempts to establish strong control over the coastal areas of what is now Ghana'' -- as if it is just natural that the British should have a stake in who control the Ghanaian coastline, and the Ashanti are the only aggressors!

In any case, the point of all this is just -- presumably, it was a reasonable hope and dream for my ancestors that they simply wouldn't have anything to do with the British. Or, if they did (Asanteman was a trading empire after all), it would have been on very different terms from what in fact transpired. They were initially successful in those wars, after all, so had some reason for hope; and what they presumably dreamed of for their descendants would not involve participating as subjects in British society at all. In fact they may have very specifically wished for such participation not to occur, given the long running hostilities and the fact of colonisation going on around them making it very clear this was the consequence of defeat. As it stands, I am who I am, the reason my grandparents could meet each other in the capital of the Imperial metropolis, my achievements being such as they are, are all only made possible by the fact that Asanteman was conquered and absorbed into the British Empire. I am because what they hoped for is not.

Of course, there is an analogue thought in the case of African Americans. Most obviously -- presumably many simply hoped not to be in the Americas at all, and certainly not as slaves, and later on dreamed either of repatriation back to the Mother Africa, or as that dream faded of an independent black nation state. People with such hopes and dreams would also, I guess, not be so happy at the thought that their descendants would be awarded degrees by the white man's institutions or participation in his cultural life, etc. Quite so, I don't mean to deny those traditions their due place and significance in the African American tradition. I just mean to say -- one tradition of thought really did see integration into a transformed nation as a viable and desirable life option, and as one succeeds in American society and contributes to that transformation one can see oneself as in some very small way fulfilling the hopes of those who held onto such dreams. This may not have been the only tradition, but it was one of them, and qua African American descended from slaves, one can take some degree of pride in how one's achievements at least fulfill this strand of thought among the ancestors. Whereas I think it highly implausible that there was any analogue tradition for my ancestors: no significant number who hoped that being colonised by the British, losing one's ability to participate in the democratic parts of Asanteman's life and being subject to military rule by distant oppressors, losing one's traditional rights and economic status... etc.... would constitute an improvement on what was the status quo. Integration into a transformed nation, whatever else is true of it, beats chattel slavery, whereas `integration' into the British empire was just a straightforward loss.

Any such pride or happiness in my own achievements is cut off to me, and the African diaspora in Europe more generally. My participation in the institutional and cultural life of Europe represents only the frustration of my ancestor's hopes and the failure of their struggles.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Bourgeois Theorising

Some of the crowds I run in are the kind of strange places where people sometimes accuse each other of bourgeois theorising. I have been known to indulge in this (both bourgeois theorising and accusing others thereof) myself on a number of occasions. Just so it is clear what it is I am both guilty and accusing you of, here's my very brief attempt at some rough-and-ready conceptual analysis of `bourgeois theorising'.

The bourgeois, being society's ruling class, have an interest in presenting things as impossible to alter, and ensuring we do not in fact systematically alter our conditions in such a way as to reliably bring about a better social order that would not be subject to their/(our, being real about who I am and what I do!) misrule. Bourgeois theorising is thus theorising that misleading stands in the way of coming up with a workable causal understanding of social systems, which is to say an understanding that could fruitfully guide democratic policy making or activism towards the creation of a better polity. Some common ways bourgeois theorising expresses itself: presenting as inevitable what is actually subject to human amelioration, thus discouraging policy efforts aimed at changing whatever is at issue. Presenting as unknowable what is in fact knowable, and thus suggesting we could not plan out in advance the actions we ought take to fruitfully democratically govern our social order.

Some notes on this. First, this is super vague, and here are some things that I am not being clear enough on. First, does the theorising have to be obfuscatory in the sense of being inaccurate? Might bourgeois theorising be a better guide to the truth -- maybe some features of social life really are inevitable? Second, what counts as `standing in the way' -- convincing people to the contrary? phrasing things in a manner that is incomprehensible to the vast majority of the population? having as an implication that the relevant sorts of knowledge is impossible even if it does not convince people to the contrary? Third, how insistent am I upon the democratising element -- what if, in present social circumstances, better causal theories would actually empower regressive tyrannical factions, even if in the future such knowledge would be useful to the democratic polity or could also be useful to activists agitating for democracy?

Second, I don't think that bourgeois theorising need be done by people who are bourgeois; though perhaps bourgeois people are more likely to engage in this, I don't know. I don't think people who are not bourgeois are guaranteed to do work that is not bourgeois theorising -- on the flip side, maybe they are not even less likely to do it for all I know. And I don't think it has anything to do with the intent of the theorist. Bourgeois theorising picks out a problem with the theory, not with the theorist.

Third, I think a lot of scholarship that many think of as liberatory or emancipatory is in fact bourgeois theorising. An example I sometimes see in conversation is that an admirable attention to lived experience or life's many complexities can devolve into a kind of pedantic particularism, where accuracy in the details of particular cases are insisted upon and induction is blocked unless one has a very high degree of similarity shown between cases.  In their full rich detail every case is different from every other case, so without some tolerance for inductive error or omission of details we cannot learn about the future from the past, or from each others experiences. But we need to know some things in advance about what happens if one makes various interventions for democratic policy or activist agitation to be better than chance at attaining their ends, and among the things we need to know are general social regularities, and that the experiences of comrades is a good guide to our own future, even where those comrades are in various ways different, and facing situations different from, us and our own. A mode of theorising that makes it harder to gain such knowledge is thus bourgeois theorising. (This interacts with a point made above: I sometimes suspect that many people who engage in this apparently liberatory bourgeois theory are acutely aware of the fact that the near term consequences of accurate general causal knowledge about society being available is benefitting the social engineering projects of neoliberal technocrats.)

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Pluralism is Wrong Because it's Right

I am about to attend the second day of a very interesting conference on pluralism. Since everyone at this conference is convinced of some sort of pluralism I thought I ought, as a good pluralist, argue against pluralism. The basis of my sceptical argument shall be that pluralism is correct, so I am confident it shall win assent among my comrades and colleagues.

What makes for a good scientific explanation of a given phenomenon? Is it, perhaps, a valid argument, the premises of which are true and contain at least one law-like statement (without which the argument would not be valid), and the conclusion of which is a description of the phenomenon? Is it, instead, a description or production of a mechanism which, when operative, suffices to produce the phenomenon? Is it, against both those options, a unifying and parsimonious theory, which in-some-sense entails or otherwise predicts the phenomenon in question along with many others of interest? Or is it all of the previous, and perhaps other things besides?

Pluralists favour the last of these options. We need not pick among these options; good scientific explanation can be many things, they say. And, this is a move which crops up in a lot of places in sciencey parts of philosophy (and perhaps other places besides, which I don't comment on out of ignorance). What ontology best fits our physical theories? What sort of methods are most reliable for scientific inquiry? What makes an argument logically valid? These are all questions which have received a similar pluralist treatment to the question of the nature of good scientific explanation -- philosophers (and scientists and mathematicians) offered various accounts, and eventually some wit came along and said that perhaps each can have its place in its own domain, or that each can be counted equally well true (on some understanding of `equally well true'), or that each would be a best fit depending on one's purpose, and so on and so on. In short,  after protracted debate between various accounts, the pluralist comes along and offers an account which says that all or most of the main contenders can be seen as in some sense correct, only chiding them for being over-ambitious in their claims to exclusive possession of the truth.

Ok so now for my sceptical argument. I begin with a word on why I think pluralism is nearly almost correct, or at least the account most likely to be true from those we've yet developed. There are two main reasons for this. First, usually pluralists seem to me to be asserting a disjunction. Where previously there were theories A, B, or C on the table, competing in their attempts to characterise X, the pluralist comes along and finds some way to see things such that the truth about X is that it is A or B or C. At the least, then, the pluralist cannot be doing worse than their disjuncts when it comes to likelihood of being correct! Now, there are many versions of pluralism, and it is always contentious how to characterise pluralism about a domain, and I am sure many pluralists should not like this characterisation. But this is how it often seems to play out in conversations I am party to. Minimally, I think that many statements of pluralist positions about a topic matter leave it ambiguous as to whether their account would be either vacuously true or refuted if it turns out that all the actual cases of X we ever need to care about can be chracterised as of type A. My instinct is that the pluralist in that scenario has it open to them to say that, perhaps so, but none the less Xs of type B or C would have been perfectly good Xs; but others may think that in this case the pluralist really is refuted. (In fact, I think there is more to say here, but it turns on the metaphilosophical point discussed below -- so I'll return to it later!)

My second reason for thinking pluralism is true is just a matter of optimism about people, or trust or faith in their ability to inquire, or something of the sort. Usually the dialectic in the development of pluralist accounts of various objects of interest goes as follows. Some non-pluralist begins by offering a theory of X, and showing how their theory of X does ever so well at accounting for the appearance of X in cases 1, 2, and 3. Then, alas, some other non-pluralist comes along and says: well not so fast, for in cases 3 and 4 the first account doesn't do so well, whereas this rival account would get them perfectly -- and perhaps cases 1, 2, and 3 can be brought under the purview of the rival account too, come to think of it... And so it goes, with long-running unresolved-dispute and a proliferation of cases. Until eventually a pluralist descends into the saṃsāra and brings peace to these troubled folk by ending their craving for a single unified and exclusive account of X. (At least such is the plan.) Well, in cases like this, it just seems to me a pretty natural reading of what is going on is that the various non-pluralist disputants, smart and earnest folk that they are, have each got at an aspect of the truth about X, or grasped-how-X-appears-in-some-cases; and in so far as the pluralist is just acknowledging that then I am on the pluralists' side. Think of that trope of the blindfolded folk grasping at the elephant, and all that. Neither of these arguments is conclusive, of course; that's why I am publishing them in a blog post without referees to get in my way! But they sway me towards pluralism in nearly all cases.

So if I think this why don't I like pluralism? Here I think it turns on what I take the purpose of philosophical inquiry to be. To state the matter far too briefly, I don't think the world needs us philosophers (the sentence would be true if it stopped here) to agree upon the truth of the matter regarding our various topics of interest. A lot of the benefit philosophers do comes from the way we refine various conceptual tools, or make available new options, or keep alive old options that folk in other fields think ought be rejected, or produce beautiful and inspiring aesthetic objects.  (This list could be continued -- I am a pluralist about the benefits of philosophy, of course, I only downplay ``produce true theories of philosophical domains''.)  These do not require us to come to consensus about the truth of the matter. At most, the truth about our topic matters can be instrumentally useful to some of these tasks, but on the whole I think this rarely occurs. So the fact that pluralism is most likely to be correct does not seem to me to be a very good reason for philosophers to adopt it. Instead, pluralism often seems to me to make it less likely that we as a community shall attain various of the goods listed.

For, pluralism gets us to accept a truth which can too easily accommodate rival claims. If somebody offers some new theory (even if they insist that they are not pluralists, that this the One Truth about the domain) then a canny pluralist can, in so far as the new theory is plausible, always just extend their disjunction by one more disjunct. Whatever the equivalent to Popperian falsifiability for abstract philosophical claims is -- pluralism lacks that. And I think this constant fear of being wrong, and proven to be so by one's accursed rivals, is a useful feature of philosophical life. Take, for instance, this defence of pluralism about social scientific methodology. Since I speak to the authors, I happen to know that at least one of them was (in part) motivated by a desire to put to rest arguments between those who favour quantitative and qualitative methods in the social sciences. Now, I share this author's irritation with such arguments. But is that a good reason to defend pluralism? For, such arguments seem to me to have been productive in generating interesting novelties, as each side has had to refine its methods in response to the critiques and teasing of others. The development of process tracing in political science seems largely to have been spurred by felt rivalry (and indeed somewhat of an inferiority complex in comparison) with quantitative methods, and I know of an attempt to develop formal tools for reasoning about intersectionality theory that was in part goaded by claims (coming  from qualitative theorists) that it was impossible. The pluralist move in these cases would have, if widely accepted, taken away a significant spur to such inquiry, and does not have anything it obviously offers in the place. Fear, jealousy, pride, overweening ambition -- these are the stuff of philosophical progress. By appealing to the better angels of our nature pluralists will damn us all.

Having said all this, I will end by taking it back. Love and kindness and cooperation and a generally chill attitude have their place in philosophical inquiry too. But one shouldn't let mere truth get in the way of a tweet-sized pull-quote. And some of it was just me trying to extend my love of Feyerabend's counter-induction to the case of philosophy. But the fact that something appeals to my inner teenage rebel hardly seems like a good reason to accept it. What's more, in fact, I think what I say here is even more internally incoherent than it appears on the surface. For, I think this relative indifference to the truth in philosophy is the reason why pluralism seems to me to be asserting a disjunction: I do not much care if accounts A and B of explanation do not really count as good explanations but only C does, if it turns out that along the way to developing accounts A and B various innovations were made that can be useful in other contexts. For my intents and purposes, if you convince me that A and B and C can all be useful or illuminating regarding X in their own way, then it seems to me that one has said that we can accept A or B or C as achieving exactly what philosophy is meant to achieve. But, then, am I not in this relative indifference to the truth undermining any reason for proponents of these respective options to engage in jealous rivalries? Well, no; but only because nobody cares what I say about anything.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Mohist Trolley `Problem'

Usually it's pretty light fare here, but I'm delighted to be able to announce that I recently rediscovered and translated a new ancient Mohist text! Read on, comrades, for some exiting new-old philosophy!

Master Mo Zi spoke, saying ``In ancient times, kings, dukes, and great men, if they genuinely desired success, designed roads and transportation systems, that the alters of grain and soil may be well tended to. One day, travelling down one of these roads, came a man with a heavy cart pulled by many tempestuous white horses. This man had failed to appease his ancestors' ghosts, and so when approaching a fork in the road his horses suddenly bolted, and would not slow down no matter what he said. If he failed to steer his horses they would surely bolt down the East road, but if he exerted great effort and pulled a special lever on his cart, he could direct his horses down the West road, for he could steer even as he could not halt the horses.

Mo Zi -- ``Liam once described me as a
`pedantic proto-fascist who just wanted us
all to love each other''. Have to say, this
picture probably helps his case.''
Now, as it happened there were workers on both paths -- five workers on the East, and one worker on the West road. Unfortunately, at the time this happened a wicked local prince was having music played at great volume in his nearby palace, so the workers would not hear his horses approach, nor would they heed his pleas for them to clear his path. Whatever he did, therefore, this man was to strike and surely kill some workers. The people of this age wonder, should the cart driver remain on the East road, or pull the lever and go down the West road?

Now, the way in which a benevolent man conducts affairs must be to promote the world's benefit and eliminate the world's harms. It is in this way he conducts affairs. How does he do this? I say it is by the following means. If the people of the world are poor, he works to make them rich; if the people of the world are few, he works to make them many; if the people of the world are in disorder, he works to bring them to order. Never has there been, from the ancient times to the present, someone who failed to bring order to the people and to the world by means of promoting the world's benefit and eliminating its harm, so this is what a benevolent man would surely do.

Yet, the people of this age are divided, and some say the cart driver should go East, others say he must pull the lever and go West, and each say of themselves `We are upholding and abiding by the Way of Yao, Shun, Yu, Tang, Wen, and Wu'. Nevertheless, their words are mutually contradictory and their actions are mutually opposed. And because of this, the gentlemen of our generation are all in doubt and confusion regarding the two positions.

In evaluating the cart driver's choice, therefore, let us see how they accord with the three benefits. Could a benevolent man hope to increase the world's riches by ensuring the cart driver remains on the East path? Surely it is not so! If the cart driver kills five workers rather than just one there will be less artisans to carry out the hundred tasks, which means the sage king's roads and transportation systems will be worse for wear, which means the alters of soil and grain will not be tended to by the farmers. To enrich the people in this way would be like preventing ploughing but seeking to reap! Therefore Mo Zi says: you must pull the lever!

If the wish is to increase the number of people, is this perhaps possible on the East road? Surely it is not so! If the cart driver kills five workers rather than just one there will be less workers by means of this very action! What is more, these five workers will not themselves go on to child more workers, who themselves will not go on to child more workers, and so on. When one considers the thousand generations, the losses will be as if one has declared offensive war on one's own people. Therefore Mo Zi says: you must pull the lever!
Philippa Foot -- ``I regret everything.''

Perhaps the benevolent man wishes to bring order to the world, could this be done on the East road? Surely it is not so! When one person dies, we all know it brings disorder into the lives of the families affected. But if the death of one person is the cause of great disorder, could the death of five people bring less disorder? This would be to pile weight on to the scales and yet find the balance grows lighter! Surely, five workers dead would be the source of great disorder in the world, much more so than one worker. Therefore Mo Zi says: you must pull the lever!

Plus, now we're getting closer and judging from his cap,  that `worker' on the West path might actually be some fucking Confucian. Pull the lever!''

Friday, March 24, 2017

Keep Calm and Carry On

Here's a thought I have been mulling in the wake of the terrorist murders in London the other day. I think the following is true: one should never change one's voting habits in light of terrorism. And, in the present context, I think that means: despite the fact that they often seem to gain electorally from terrorism, one should not in fact reward the far right with votes or support in other forms in light of terrorism. Here's my thinking.

Let's assume that politicians are largely short sighted and self interested. That is to say, they want power, and they want it now, and it is the striving of (immediate) power after power that governs their actions. In a broadly democratic system how does one get this power? Well, by convincing the population to vote for you or support you in other means. Suppose, then, it becomes apparent that the way for you to gain support is for people to be constantly afraid of terrorist attacks, for there to be the odd random murder, or even mass murder -- will a politician whose route to power is via such things be well incentivised to actually stop them occurring should they gain power?

Some thought experiments to back this up: does anybody suppose that it would be bad for Trump if there were to be a high profile attack from Islamist terrorists? It would surely be great for him, and he knows it. In light of that, do we really trust him to do things that will make terrorism less rather than more likely? Or, at least, if ever there is a choice between looking tough and making Islamic terrorism less likely -- does anybody suppose even for a moment that he would choose to make Islamic terrorism less likely at the expense of looking tough? It's scarce worth even considering, so obvious is it where his incentives lie. Likewise, a more fantastical thought experiment: suppose there were a button that Marine Le Pen could press that would make terrorism stop tomorrow, and would render the public at ease and confident in this regard; if her choice were to remain secret, who seriously thinks she would press that button? It would be a disaster for her! And here's one from real life -- right wing factions in the Israeli government tried to have calls to prayer silenced; I think it is just obvious that this is because i ) doing so would provoke a violent reaction, and ii ) the right stands to gain where there is violence and tension.

It thus strikes me as important that we do not empower people on the basis of terrorism. If we do that, we just give our leaders every reason to look the other way in the face of terrorist threats as far as they can, or even provoke such threats where possible. Such is their route to power -- and, as noted, I work with the assumption that politicians want power. We have to, as the folk saying from my homeland goes, keep calm and carry on.

One might say: does this not prove too much? Isn't this effectively an argument never to change your vote in response to social problems because then it empowers people incentivised to perpetuate the problem? To which I have two replies. First, I don't think that is proving too much! We should think seriously about the real incentives of the government, and we should take seriously the very real problems with representative democracy. We ought consider more direct forms of democracy. Second, I think terrorism might be different from other social problems. The nature of the threat is that a lot of what must be done to deal with it is subtle or secretive -- spies infiltrating cells, long term outreach and development in relevant communities, subtle social social changes in what kind of things are considered appropriate, etc. It will generally be especially hard for us to keep track of whether or not the government is even trying to do these things, let alone whether or not they are doing it effectively.  We're peculiarly vulnerable to being manipulated here.

London has faced down threats far worse than this in the past. The city has seen invaders come and go, has been burnt to the ground and rebuilt, has had plagues decimate its population. It goes on.  We weren't cowed by the IRA, the full might of the Luftwaffe didn't break us. We go on. I am confident that the city, the people, of London will do what must be done, and the delusional fascists of Islamic terrorism are bound to lose.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Akan Epistemic Democracy

A colleague made a literature request of me, so I reacquainted myself with work on Asante political structures in order to be able to give him better advice. Just a very quick note on what I am finding.

I am struck by two features of the (I think largely 19th C.) Asanteman political order -- 1 ) the actual ideas behind it seem pretty good, as despotisms go. The author I am reading has somewhat different focuses than I do, so I'll redescribe what they said (or so it seems to me!) to try and make salient social epistemic features of this system. It seems that in the ideal case social decisions in Asanteman were made after a period of lengthy consultation that went as follows. Village elders host consultations with community members about the matter at hand, each elder taking testimony from their own clan. The elders then meet, discuss the matter until they reach a consensus to their own satisfaction, and either make a decision themselves if the issue only affects their village, or transmit their reasonings and decision upwards to a higher council if it is a broader regional issue. Information is meant to flow up a nested chain of deliberation councils, until some point in the chain sufficiently high up such that joint action is needed. At  the lowest level possible, one further deliberation takes place until a decision is made. Each of these deliberation councils will have a chief (or somebody playing a similar role) attached, the decision is officially made by this person -- but they are bound by oath to follow consensus, and only act as a tie breaker should consensus not be possible.

 Thus, in theory at least, by means of the nested chains of deliberation councils, the final decision maker is acting on the basis of pooled information from the entire affected population, with separate regions holding largely independent pools. Just rereading this I think it sounds interesting to model, and I would want a model before pronouncing confidently, but my informed-intuition as a social epistemologist makes me think that this is a system lots of attractive features.

2 ) I was roughly aware of the points in (1), even if when I first read this stuff I hadn't yet refined my intuitions with training in social epistemology. But, what struck me the first time was how very very unrobust this system is to bad decision makers. In theory the above is how it works out, but there is basically no guarantee that the people charged with transmitting the information upwards or making the final decision actually listen to the counsel they got from the level below. It is always constitutionally possible for somebody at some stage to just make a judgement call, for whatever reason, that ignores what they have been told, and either transmit up their idiosyncratic opinion or make an idiosyncratic final judgement call as chief. Finally, there is nothing to stop chiefs making `snap decisions' and simply mandating something without first going through the consultation process. (It is of course necessary that this be possible, because the above process is by its nature very slow, and in cases of national emergency it is not applicable.) The literature I am reading is keen to stress that historically chiefs who pulled these shenanigans too often wound up dead or deposed, but still. I should like bad agents to be removable by some means short of coup d'etat. Checks and balances are a fundamentally good feature of government, and Asanteman's constitution was severely lacking in this regard. 

But I have to say, rereading this literature, I am now struck by how far the decentralisation does protect against the worst of this. Decisions are settled at the lowest possible level; if only for practical reasons one rarely transmits all the way up to the Asantehene before decisions get made. This means that one is in effect i ) protected from bad decision makers causing too much trouble, and ii ) can achieve something like the ideal of small scale social experiment, as different regions can make a go at different policy, and observe the consequences therefrom. I do not know if this opportunity was really explored (I am not familiar enough with the history, but from what I do know the tastes of the region ran conservative, making experimentation, or adoption of experiments even where successful, somewhat unlikely). But it is inherent in the system that it is at least possible.

Kwame Gyekye -- ``Liam is largely
but not entirely drawing from my
work in this post. I have cool hair.''
In unfortunate circumstances, I have seen the remnants of this system in action. My uncle passed away, and my aunts went to Ghana for the funeral. While there they witnessed and filmed deliberation taking place regarding how my orphaned cousin was to be cared for. I watched the video, and the system worked as described above. Testimony was heard from various parties. After everyone said their piece, town elders deliberated among themselves and came to a consensus decision. (Being a local decision, no upwards transmission necessary.) It was by all accounts a successful resolution of a somewhat complicated case, and my family were impressed. At the time I did worry that this system seemed unrobust to bad decision makers. But now I read about how this was meant to work in its broader context, I can see that Asanteman's constitutional order actually had more virtue than I gave it credit for. Not to be doughy eyed! It is still a despotism; the tie-breaking agenda-setting chiefs can only be selected from within aristocratic families, and were limited to being men (though women were not excluded from the broader deliberative process). Still, as Gyekye points out -- the system was evolving over time, and if it hadn't have been stamped out by British colonialism who knows what it could have achieved.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Memories and their Meaning

In which I am uncomfortably emotional (for a British person). I have recently accepted a (deferred) position at the London School of Economics -- I will be a professor there starting in August of 2018. This is the kind of thing that gives people moment to reflect on Where They Are, and, millennial that I am, I have decided to do at least some of that publicly on the interwebosphere.

Two things primarily come to mind. First, I miss my mother. Very cliché! But true for that. From a working class immigrant family, she is the first person in my family (well I only know with any degree of confidence: that I am descended from) to go to university; at Oxford no less, where she studied English literature. She died when I was 14, before I was really the person I am now. If all goes to plan, I will be the first person in my family to get a PhD, also in a humanities field, and with this job offer also the first to work as a professional-intellectual. I think I have grown into someone who has more in common with her than I did when she was alive. I cannot regret not being this person back then -- I was young and immature and could only have been so; I needed to go through what I did to become who I am. But, if not regret, as I reflect on my life now I find that there is still a feeling in the region that I am struggling to capture. One day, one hopes and is taught by faith, we will be reunited, in some sense, in some way. In the mean time, though, I shall carry this with me, and hope that I at least will honour her memory.

Second, I am thinking about the life I have chosen. I said above that I shall be the first professional-intellectual in my family; but what an odd thing to be! A ``professional-intellectual''; it even sounds ridiculous, though I think it is quite accurate as a description of my future role as a professor of philosophy. Why have I made this odd decision to be something I think absurd when said out loud?

I have recently been watching the films of Makoto Shinkai. He tells and retells the same story, stated at the right level of abstraction. The story is of two people who share an intensely emotional experience together, the natural fulfillment or culmination of what they shared would be a romantic relationship -- but circumstances intervene, they are unable to develop that relationship, and instead they must find some other way to live a life in fidelity to that experience and what it meant. (This is not spoilers; it is usually very obvious from the get-go that this this is what is happening, and in any case by this point he is a big enough name in the market he is aiming at that he writes films with the expectation that his audience will know this is the deal before they go in.) I think that what draws me to these films at this moment, in addition to their beautiful animation and touching portrayals of every day lives, is that at one more level of abstraction I can really identify with that story, at this point in my life.

When I was younger, in the period after my mother died (probably not coincidentally!) I was sure I was going to be a priest in the Catholic Church. Especially vivid, I recall when I was 16 going on a pilgrimage to the monastery at Assisi. Looking out over the mountains on a clear summer's day, inwardly I was so sure, my life path was affirmed, I knew who I was and what I wanted to be. Circumstances intervened. That is not the path I am on now. Maybe it is not even related to what I am doing now: the fact, that this experience has been so much on my mind may be more related, in none-too-flattering a manner, to the recent debate in the philosophy blogosphere about self-importantly taking our work as The Work -- see here, and follow links backwards. Perhaps so. But, for all that, I do hope that, in some ways, I am none the less still remaining faithful to that experience, and what it meant to me, and the aspirations and ideals I held and still hold.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Defending Moderate Historicism

There was, some time ago, an entirely silly controversy in Britain over what some students at SOAS were alleged to be demanding. It was claimed that they wanted to stop teaching certain named Ever So Famous philosophers -- Plato, Descartes, Aquinas, Kant -- because these people were white. In fact, the students had said no such thing. In fact the interpretation of the students as demanding this was silly on its face: students at the School of Oriental and African Studies say they want to read more authors from Asia and Africa, and the only explanation of this puzzling fact the media can think to run with is that they just hate white people? No other salient guesses at why people who have chosen to specialise in Oriental and African studies might be interested in reading about Asian and African philosophy? None. But it fit so nicely into the British press' fact-lite media narrative of Political Correctness Gone Mad that everyone ran with it, and many a slow news day was enlivened thereby.

In any case, somebody at the Guardian has now come along and done a decent write up (it is very rare that I say nice things about the Grauniad so, like, enjoy it while it lasts, liberals). If anybody remembers this story and wants an account grounded in what the students actually said, why they said it, and points at which one might disagree for various reasons -- written up by somebody who has actually done relevant background reading -- I recommend.

So much for the issue du jour, what brings me here is pretty tangentially related. During the Guardian's write up this claim is made:
Soas academics and students argue that Enlightenment thinkers had a highly restricted notion of freedom; freedom as “the property of propertied white men”, as Meera Sabaratnam puts it. John Locke is widely regarded as having provided the philosophical foundations of modern liberal conceptions of tolerance. Yet he was a shareholder in a slaving company. Immanuel Kant, often seen as the greatest of Enlightenment philosophers, clung to a belief in a racial hierarchy, insisting that “Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites” and that “the African and the Hindu appear to be incapable of moral maturity”.
And while it is not quite directly discussed, the issue is clearly raised: how relevant are such biographical details to interpreting these thinkers ideas? The piece focusses more on whether or not their being white is relevant, and on the whole comes down in favour of a negative answer. Not meaning to dispute that, I think there is still a case for paying attention to things like having actively wrote in defence of racial hierarchy, or owning stocks in a slave trading company, or coauthoring the constitution of a slave state. And it's a case that can be made purely from the point of view of the instrumental value of such things in helping us assess whether or not the claims being made by the author on matters of direct philosophical import are true or worth believing. So in the rest of this post I will give a brief defence of paying attention to such biographical details of the authors we study.

The basic intuition one might have that such biographic details are irrelevant in philosophy is nicely summarised in the piece by Appiah: ``When people speak, they speak ideas, not identity. The truth value of what you say is not indexed to your identity. If you’re making a bad argument, it’s a bad argument. It’s not bad because of the identity of the person making it.''  Now, in context, Appiah is responding to the idea that authors being white might be relevant and rejecting that, so I am not sure he would agree to the generalisation. But whether or not Appiah personally would, one could easily imagine extending the thought to other biographical details about the authors whose ideas and arguments we study -- when we are studying Locke's argument about the acquisition of knowledge, it simply does not matter what shares he owned, or when we are studying Kant's arguments against masturbation, it simply does not matter what he said about racial hierarchy, -- we are studying the arguments, not the person who put them forward, and the ideas can be considered on their merits, independently of other ideas the same person happened to produce, or other activities they happened to be (strictly immobilising themselves before getting into bed to avoid) engaging in. One might think this is analogous to mathematical proof: one can usually well understand mathematical proofs quite independently of the biographical details of the mathematician who put it forward, and usually even independently of other proofs they produced.

I think this is a tempting but quite mistaken view. Here's why. In philosophy we are very often (i) directly concerned with the social world and modes of living, (ii) we produce arguments whose proper interpretation(s), along with full logical consequences and ramifications, are rather opaque, and (iii) even when we are not directly concerned with the social world and modes of living, our arguments can have consequences therefore. I take the first two of these to be obvious from familiarity with the discipline. But to illustrate that latter point: many epistemologists are interested in quite abstract matters concerning the nature and analysis of knowledge, and need not be concerned personally with the consequences of this for social life. But when one considers the role of knowledge attributions in legal contexts, in the political sphere (``what did the president know, and when did he know it?'') and even just in day to day activities of weighing testimony and competing claims from different people, it is immediately apparent that one's beliefs about what exactly knowledge amounts to can have significant social ramifications.

Grant me the extra premise that (iv) philosophers are often concerned to maintain some degree of consistency or integrity across different contexts, and I have enough now to make my point. Biographical details, concerning salient social activities the author engaged in or other arguments they produced in different contexts, give me information about what somebody who was intimately familiar with the argument, who thought about it and its consequences a lot, thought was consistent with, or even demanded by, their own arguments. Given (ii), even as somebody just interested in assessing the truth of the idea or argument, I often need help working out exactly what that truth would amount to, that I might better discover potential confirmation/counter-examples. Given (i) and (iii) one source of potential consequences for me to assess derives from what the ideas or arguments mandate or cohere with in social or ethical life. Given (iv), by learning about biographic details of the author I am gaining important interpretive guidance from somebody who is expert on the argument and who was especially well motivated to consider its full consequences. Some further interpretative work will be necessary to get from one to the other (one cannot just read off the Carolina constitution how Locke thought this interacted with this arguments concerning political liberty), but that was always necessary; the point is just now that I have further pertinent information to guide my own thinking and assessment of the ideas and arguments. In essence, the author's life can form their own secondary literature.

That's it, that's all I got here. But my impression is that my colleagues generally do think that learning `mere' biographical detail, or even learning about the philosopher's stated ideas and arguments on apparently unrelated matters to one's research or teaching concern, is not relevant to the task of a philosopher properly considered, even if such matters are of interest to historians and biographers. We can and even should learn from Locke without learning all that much about Locke, the thought goes. So while I take the above to be a pretty simple thought, I do take it to be widely disagreed with, and would be interested to know what people have to say in response.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Epistemic Isolation

Life is busy happening as I make other plans, so alas I cannae blog as much as I should like nowadays. But some thoughts on the Trump regime's recent bald faced lies regarding the inauguration crowd and reasons they lost the popular vote. (The former stands out because it is directly, indeed easily, falsifiable -- it is easily seen to be false by anyone with access to google.) These tendencies have already prompted reply from philosophers, so see Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa's piece on `facts', or this interview with Jason Stanley and Kathleen Higgins on the `post-truth era'. As much as anything I just want to have my own initial thoughts set down and organised in some place. I summarise conversations and readings with a lot of people here so don't have time to credit all the many sources that go into this -- but just to note, I claim no great originality for what follows!

Kevin Zollman -- ``I am Liam's advisor
and that's why I get this vaguely model
shot esque picture on his blog. Maybe
he can have a Phd now?''
One of the things we in social epistemology study is the consequences and desirability of some subset of inquirers refraining from communicating with the rest. For instance, (my advisor) Kevin Zollman has a paper ``The Epistemic Benefits of Transient Diversity''. Without going into detail: the basic idea is that if there are multiple approaches to studying some problem, and we should eventually like to find which of them is most reliable in some sense or another, we may want to prevent researchers communicating to each other the outcome of their respective inquiries. The reason is that an initial string of bad luck, in which the actually more reliable method doesn't perform as well as competitors, may lead scientists to be over hasty in converging on some less reliable method, and thereby halting their investigations into the more reliable method. Whereas if we ensure that some scientists continue to investigate initially unpromising approaches, we have insured ourselves against this possibility, and may as a community be more reliable in discovering which method is most effective. (If you read the paper not only is a simulation model presented but also a historical case study which really illuminates the phenomenon in question -- check it out!) One way of ensuring as much is during some early stage of communal research literally just preventing scientists from knowing how their peers investigations with rival approaches are doing, so they are unable to see which method is apparently doing best, and thus unable to hastily converge on a misleading winner. Hence: in order to ascertain which approach to studying a problem is most reliable, we may in some circumstances wish to prevent scientists communicating with each other.

This is just an instance of a much broader set of projects. Think, for instance, of the arguments that may be put forward or against ensuring that juries do not know certain things that lawyers and judges do know, or the complicated relationship between the desirability of independence of opinion among voters  and their right to freely communicate ideas with each other. Call the state of having ensured that some set of inquirers are unable to learn of the results of other people's investigations `epistemic isolation'. Whether and when we should foster epistemic isolation is a serious, and seriously interesting, question for us social epistemologists.

There are occasions, though, where we think epistemic isolation has been fostered but are widely agreed to be harmful for epistemic or wider social reasons. First, there are cases in which a dominant group renders itself unable to learn about the true basis of its rule and the suffering this causes. Second there are cases where a subordinate group finds that, not being viewed as credible, they are unable to communicate facts about their own situations in a way that will gain any uptake from others. Presumably there is some relationship between these scenarios, and that indeed has been studied.

Ok, so far so good. We in social epistemology have noticed this interesting thing, epistemic isolation. We've noticed that it's not always bad, and thought about when and how one might want to foster it in cases where it's desirable. But nor have we developed rose tinted glasses, and as a community we've also been studying its darker side, and the negative social consequences that can accrue from epistemic isolation.

Han Fei -- ``You like Machiavelli?
That's cute, I guess. Me? I'm really
more into the hardcore stuff.''
A few days into the Trump administration, however, I still think it's not enough, and I think that to rectify what is missing we would do well to revive thinkers from the political realist tradition. I think if we want to understand what Trump is up to we need to start thinking about epistemic isolation from the point of view of people who seek to foster it in others, in a group they do not consider themselves a member of. The deliberate conscious centralised planning of epistemic isolation must become an object of study, because I think it will have some distinctive and interesting features. In particular, I have in mind the work of Han Fei (who should really have his own SEP page -- so here's an encyclopedia entry on him, and an SEP on the school of thought he was associated with). Han Fei writes often and insightfully on esoteric government, ways in which the head of state can benefit from keeping those beneath them in ignorance about their true purposes. Being somewhat of a tyrannical chap, he is all in favour of esoteric government. But even those of us who do not wish to advocate for esoteric government can learn from studying what its proponents are up to and why, that we may better identify and resist it as it occurs.

For, exactly what Trump seems to me to be up to is creating the conditions for esoteric government by means of fostering epistemic isolation. He is trying to get about, say, a third of the country (a disproportionately well armed and represented on police forces third of the country, and enough support to govern with), in the following situation. Committed as they are to Trump and his regime, as the lies come thick and fast, to maintain their self-image and their loyalty to this group, they must disbelieve all other news sources outside of Trump and surrogates. And I really do mean `all'. It's Trump over the media, Trump over the schools, Trump over the scientists; Trump over their own lying eyes. His base are being epistemically quarantined such that they become entirely dependent on information sources favourable to Trump's regime. `Quarantined' sounds a bit too benign, mind you, that is how one might put it from the point of view of an advocate of Trump's regime -- those of us more cynical may say they are being subject to epistemic apartheid, kept apart from the better quality of epistemic facilities the rest of us have access too. (There is also something infelicitous about that terminology too; for although it is Trump's supporters who are subject to the epistemic apartheid, it is not just them but the rest of us who shall ultimately suffer for the full socio-political consequences of this.) They are epistemically isolated; and, as Han Fei points out, for that reason highly manipulable.

If we in social epistemology want to study epistemic isolation in its full ramifications we need to study not just situations in which it is imposed for the sakes of satisfying shared communal goals, nor where it arises organically in hierarchical social structures, but also those situations where the powerful impose it on some group of subordinates, for the good of the former and the detriment of the latter.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Criteria of Personal Art

My friend maintains a poetry blog, and he recently produced and commented upon his own translation of a classic poem by Su Tung-p’o:

Spring night, one moment worth a thousand gold coins;
faint scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Flute song from the high tower: sound soft, soft;
Swing in the courtyard, night heavy, heavy.

I had read this poem a long time ago, but I had forgot about it until recently. It has me thinking about what I think makes for good writing, and in particular what kind of aesthetic standards I should uphold through my work in philosophy.

I am not sure what I think the significance of philosophy being a humanistic discipline should be; but a consequence of it is that we can be very open about consciously striving for aesthetic goals, in a way that might be uncomfortable for a scientist outside of pure mathematics or high theoretical physics. As such, I have never made any secret to my friends and colleagues that I take the aesthetic element of writing very seriously; but I am always somewhat embarrassed about this, because it has to be admitted that I simply do not have a very refined aesthetic sensibility. By my own standards, I produce work that is very subpar. I guess I mean to publicly reflect on why that is here.

Su Tung-p’o's poem very well encapsulates what I take to be the aesthetic goal of my own writing. I really think I cannot do much better in explaining it than point at the poem and say: whatever ideals it is fulfilling, I think my writing should be like that. But a few more explicit attempts. I want writing that conveys very clearly a certain mood or emotional moment, without explicitly evocative language or heavy handed evaluation. There should clearly be something existentially significant at issue, but the audience or readership should be shown, never ever told, what is at stake emotionally. I like writing to be stark, minimal, and moving. To make it apparent that there is a vast sea of emotion underneath, while having the surface appearance of a calm pool.

(I also have a kind of anti-exemplar. Both in practice and in theory, Du Bois has almost precisely the opposite aesthetic sensibility. From my vantage point much of Du Bois' writing is overwrought and overbearing; attempting to rhetorically bludgeon its readership into having the emotional reaction Du Bois has decided they must have in order to advance history's dialectic.)

But I always fall short of this! I think for three reasons. First, there is a tension at the heart of this aesthetic ideal. I both want clarity -- which is a pressure towards saying more -- and minimalism -- which is a pressure towards saying less. As it stands, in my writing I tend to sacrifice the minimalism for the sake of the clarity. This is probably professionally wise, but aesthetically I am not sure this is the best choice. Second, even though this aesthetic sensibility is very important to me -- it guides my choice of research topic, what I say thereon, and how I say it; it is even significant to my sense of identity, as I self conceive as a humanist trying to make this ideal manifest -- it is also somewhat vague and inchoate. The nearest thing I have seen to it being spelled out explicitly is the idea of wabi, `simple, austere beauty', from Japanese aesthetics. This lack of explicitness about precisely what I want makes me never confident I have achieved my goal in any piece of writing, and so I am always tempted to tinker with every element so as to better move it towards this -- and the result of this micromanaging and worrying turns out to be incoherent, as different modifications made at different times do not maintain a consistent vision. The final work, then, is not as good as had I just had the courage of my initial convictions. Third, I am honestly just not very good at this. For all these difficulties, the example of the poem shows that at least some people do manage to achieve the ideal some of the time. I try; I fail. I try again; I fail again. I am not even sure I am failing better.

This is something I am only now thinking through. I do not know if I will maintain this analysis of my own aesthetic shortcomings. But since this is a somewhat personal post in any case, I end with an example of my own failure. I once tried, as a self-set summer art project, to write an art manifesto, encapsulating the style I liked. The result was, I am sorry to say, a failure. It is too embarrassingly wide of the mark for me to be willing to share the whole thing (and in any case would probably require some introduction to the genre of art manifestos), but I think the final paragraph is illustrative. I ended it as such:
There is beauty in polished and functional clockwork. Each oiled and intricate subpart of the mechanism does exactly what it needs to in service of the whole, as the machine silently performs some valuable task. We strive to recreate that beauty in our own work. This should apply internally; each element of the work we produce should support the textual whole. It should also apply externally. Each text we produce should form one tiny cog in the great machine of science, itself one of the great engines of the democratic society to come. 
The sentences are short -- but rather than being stark, they seem curt or dry. The underlying feeling I mean to evoke is unclear, and I am confident that having the context of the rest of the manifesto would not much help you. It is slightly too long, and is repetitious in ways that do not add emphasis so much as suggest lack of imagination. Simple, austere, beauty continues to elude me.