Category Archives: philosophy

It Is Always Wrong to Eat a Baby

(unless the Lord commands it)

This is the house that Jack built.

This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built

.This is the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rooster that crowed in the morn

That woke the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the farmer sowing his corn

That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn

That woke the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the horse and the hound and the horn

That belonged to the farmer sowing his corn

That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn

That woke the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

Okay, maybe that’s a little much. How about: “Martin Luther founded Protestantism on October 31, 1517, when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg.”

This story about Martin Luther is not entirely satisfying though. Even if we build it out like the story of Jack’s house, it would not help us pick Martin Luther out of a lineup. We need a different sort of detail for that task: Empiric details.

There seem to be two basic categories: empiric and historic. The former pertains to the contents of our sensorium – our “facts”. The latter pertains to our activities – a sort of behavioral narrative.

On one sort of historic account, Martin Luther is a particular arrangement of quantum probability fields. However, it is important to keep in mind that one name, be it “Martin Luther” or “specific arrangement of quantum probability fields X”, for the one overall phenomenon is the same as the other. Both have the same contents. It is easy to favor the basic physics account as the “real” account of the phenomenon, because “Martin Luther” is reducible to “a particular arrangement of quantum probability fields”. The reduction in question though, is dependent upon bridge laws, which are definitions upon the two terms. Martin Luther is a biological organism, and a biological organism is describable by the rules of biochemistry which is describable by the rules of organic chemistry, which is describable by the rules of classical physics, which is describable by the rules of quantum physics. In this reduction, the the terms of one description of the same phenomenon are rendered to the terms of a broader, finer grained description. Because subsequent descriptions are finer grained and broader, it is easy to attribute priority to them, but scale is not equivalent to priority, and the bridging definitions, as all definitions, are dependent on both terms in the equation.

But there’s another kind of reduction possible – an empiric reduction. If we look at the carbon atom at the farthest left edge of Martin Luther’s right thumbnail, we find the carbon atom at the farthest left edge of Martin Luther’s right thumbnail and nothing else, because the reductions of the terms in that description, even if taken through the first sort of reduction for each, finally depend on everything else. This second sort of reduction, a mapping sort of reduction, is all that explains the particular carbon atom.

The sort of reduction available for the historical Martin Luther is a flavor of theoretical/historical reduction. He is the man who nailed his theses to the door of the Wittenberg church because he was offended by the sale of indulgences by the church and had come through his studies to see the sale of indulgences as symptomatic of a deeper stagnation and corruption of the institution. The reduction in question is not the same as the explanatory reduction possible with the carbon atom. It does not “map”.

If we were able to magically create a map which captured perfect detail at any scale, and centered the map on the carbon atom, when we turn the dial to its maximum gain, we would expect to see the map merge with our empirical reality so that they were indistinguishable. If we tried to apply the same mapping technology to the historical Martin Luther, we would simply get a thicker and thicker biography of Martin Luther, like the tale of Jack’s house. The historical account of Martin Luther is self referential in a way that the empiric, explanatory account of Martin Luther is not. In unravelling the historical Martin Luther, we get an ever-expanding shell of reports, like an unending set of nesting dolls composed of Martin Luther scandal sheets.

Since Heraclitus, we have known that explanatory reductions are instantaneous. What we have not acknowledged with any frequency, is that historical explanations are timeless. Historical identities are fixed fictions, so that actions can be represented in a useful way. The distortion that fixed identity imparts on historical accounts often proves inconsequential. If I say, from a historical standpoint, that Martin Luther’s hammer hand was driven by offense against indulgences, my analysis is right enough to ground an understanding of Protestantism.

Yet we know that when Martin Luther woke that morning and gathered his hammer, nails, and paper, he probably did not have Protestantism in mind. In fact, he probably went through several psychological transformations on the way to the church which are only vaguely represented and summarized in our historical account.

For the record, Martin Luther nailing his theses to the Wittenberg church door represents the beginning of Protestantism. Reference to fixed identities in that statement (Martin Luther, nails, script on paper) is necessary. It is the price of constructing a narrative. In the case of Protestantism, we encounter little difficulty in maintaining the useful fiction that nails, papers, and Martin Luther are the beginning of Protestantism. We understand that the named phenomena play a role in our narrative.

Though we may place then under glass in reverence, we do not expect to find nascent Protestantism in the nails, papers, or even in Martin Luther. Protestantism is constructed from activities associated with the named phenomena; in fact it is a record of activities associated with those phenomena.

In light of the above, is it always wrong to eat a baby? The statement, “it is always wrong to eat a baby”, is at least consistent. It is a record of psychological activities on the subject. It isn’t the kind of thing that “maps” like the carbon atom in Martin Luther’s fingernail. It is a historic, theoretical statement.

Like all such statements, our moral theories are reducible, via bridge laws, to other theories regarding (in the case of baby eating) genetics, cultural heritage, and the criteria for life itself. And like all such statements, the expansions and contractions from broader, finer grained characterizations to narrower, coarser ones are infinite. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we never “get to the bottom of” moral statements. There simply is no bottom. The best that we can do is recognize them for what they are, a record of activities, and not the activities themselves. We will then feel a little more comfortable with what we already do: prefer different theoretical magnifications in different situations.

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Welcome to the Aftermath

“Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

  Vince Lombardi

“There only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games

Ernest Hemingway

“The ideal form of government is democracy tempered with assassination.”

 Voltaire

The difference between Hemingway’s sports and games is, of course, a matter of winning. In games, winning really is the only thing. In those other endeavors, winning is nothing.
Simply engaging in sport yields the maximum voluntary experience. Engagement delivers everything on the spot, whether or not the participant comes out on the other side, and certainly regardless of winning and losing.
Trophies, money and ribbons only serve to dress sports up by equating them with games. The civilization must thereby disparage sporting ends, since it strives constantly to the opposite goal.
The civilization turns out to be really good at window dressing though. Its props and costumes create a realistic illusion in which games are wholesome and sports are pathologic. Maybe that is why we now live in an age of games and gamesmanship. Our culture has created a situation where Lombardi is right.
Excessive trappings have made sports and sportsmanship not only unrecognizable, but incomprehensible.
Subsequently we have the rise of the consummate gamesman: Trump. To him, there are only winners and losers. Failure to engage and success in shifting the cost define the gamesman’s method.
Allowing him to operate so at the controls of our society has given the whole thing a gamy taint.
To clean it up, we need to make things a little more sporty, though we might not need to make politics quite as sporty as Voltaire suggests.
Perhaps it would be enough to replace the inauguration ceremony with a bullfight.

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Analytic Truths (and all the other stuff)

There are, in climbing, certain analytic truths. An analytic truth is something which is true by definition. A statement like, “Dan is tall”, refers to some fact external to the criteria for Dan and height. The statement depends on Dan’s relative height, and is not an analytic truth. On the other hand, “A unicorn has one horn” is an analytic truth. It doesn’t require any supporting facts. In the United States, climbing’s analytic truths pertain to the Yosemite Decimal System, or YDS, as its devoted followers refer to it.

The YDS is one of several numerical rating systems for climbing difficulty. All of them would make Francis Galton proud, because they are all consensus systems. Numbers get assigned based on the collective experience of those who have travelled the route. But unlike Galton’s casual survey of fair-goers, the YDS has normative power as well as statistical power. Nobody wants to be the arrogant prick who over-rates his route. Nobody wants to be the arrogant prick who under-rates his route, or worse, downgrades someone else’s route. Because the number-ratings themselves are synthetic – they refer to facts in the world regarding rocks and people – the moralizing can only go so far. The internal consistencies of the system have no rails, though, and frustrated moral instincts often seek fulfillment among the system’s analytic truths.

Some of climbing’s more problematic truths include: “5.11 is harder than 5.10.”, “A 5.9 climber can climb 5.9.”, and “A 5.9 climber cannot climb 5.10”. Now, the latter two statements may appear to refer to some actual climber or climbers, even if they are hypothetical. Admittedly, the statements could be interpreted that way. For instance, if Dan says that he is a 5.9 climber, then his colleagues may reasonably expect that he can get up a climb rated 5.9. But that interpretation is rarely used. Instead, the statements are taken to be strictly consistent. At best, the definitions have to be realigned to fit. In other words, if Dan fails on a 5.9 climb, then he is not a 5.9 climber.

At this point, some examples are in order.

This is 5.9:

This is 5.9:

You got it, 5.9:

Let me emphasize the human factor in these photos. Some of the people shown climbing some of these routes have absolutely no hope of climbing any of the other routes (not me, of course, as I am a 5.11 climber).

But, if I am a 5.9 climber, shouldn’t I be able to climb 5.9? If I don’t climb that 5.11, am I still a 5.11 climber? Is there something wrong with me, or is there something wrong with the rating? Or am I equivocating between a synthetic category and its logical extensions?

The YDS axioms do not really sort climbers, nor do those truths-by-definition really sort routes. Yet the climbing community still takes the YDS formulas seriously, as prizes, urine marks on the wall and occasionally, inspirations.

As inspirations, logical consistencies are particularly treacherous.They can be like the funny little man at the rollercoaster entrance with a big smile and beatific expression, his finger pointing at an invisible line in the air.

“You must be this tall to ride”, he says, “and if you can’t make it today, maybe come back a little later and you will be up to it.”

But formulaic aspirations can flip without warning. The little man can turn nasty. He can suddenly point his finger at you and screech, “This is how tall you are, bitch. This tall and no more. Now go away!”

In the end, the climb goes or it doesn’t. Paying attention to the numbers themselves can help a person figure out what is worth the effort. Sometimes, the numbers can even keep a person out of trouble.

The truths about the numbers’ internal consistency are another story. Those get gummed up with ambitions and insecurities in no time. They are, like all analytic truths, entirely uninteresting in themselves, be they ever so ripe for projection.

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The Other Minds

My dog loves me. Despite his creaking hips and back, he heaves himself up and comes to greet me when I return home each night, with his tail wagging. Yet I wonder if I am right about his feelings about me. After all, I am just interpreting his behavior as representative of mental and emotional states which I would have in similar circumstances. And, he has been bred over centuries to be a veritable human-pleasing machine which exhibits a set of behaviors that, among other things, is calculated to make me feel that he feels like I am the best thing since kibbles. Come to think of it, he does not wag his tail while he eats, and he never met a kibble he didn’t love.

If only he could tell me that he loves me, then I would know for sure. On second thought, I could not know for sure. I can’t even know for sure when another human reports their feelings or perceptions or any other personal, qualitative aspect of their experience to me. In any such case, the experience that I attribute to their report may be radically different from what they are actually experiencing. At least, that’s what the Inverted Spectrum teaches us.

The Inverted Spectrum is a thought experiment. It was not devised to tackle the problem of other minds. It was devised to demonstrate the ethereal nature of qualitative properties. But like any good thought experiment, it illustrates multiple aspects of the target issue.

Here’s how it goes: Imagine that you have a best friend named Fred, who you have known since you both could walk. Unbeknownst to you however, whenever you both look at something red, Fred does not see red, he sees green instead. This is not to say that Fred is color blind. On the contrary, he sees all the colors that you see, and he quite happily calls the red object “red”. He just sees it as green. The two of you could go through your entire lives discussing painting and picking out Granny Smiths instead of Red Delicious at the grocery store, without a hitch. The basic qualities “red” and “green” do not influence function; we happily operate the same way with the qualities flipped.

The implications of the Inverted Spectrum may seem bizarre, dramatic and disturbing, but closer examination may shrink the menace. If I assign you and Fred to sort red and green beads into separate boxes, the two of you will complete the task in no time with no mistakes. That’s because what we all call “red” designates the same set of beads, even though they produce in Fred what you or I would call a “green” experience. To take it a little further, if I assign the two of you to tell me the color of sour things, sweet things, hot things, dangerous things or growing things, you and Fred will give me the same answers in French, English, Fulani, or even just by pointing. All secondary associations are flipped along with the reds and greens.

The jolt from this thought experiment comes when we imagine our experience of Fred’s experience, with all of our secondary associations still in place. But that’s completely off base. What we have run down with this thought experiment is an account of Fred’s experience with all his own secondary associations attached. The point is that there is some irreducible personal element to it all. But then, where does that leave Fred’s “red” or his “green” or his any other what-it-is-like aspect of experience?

Having seen what it is like to see what it is like to experience what Fred sees from your viewpoint, you may have trouble explaining your horror to him. You will insist that the apple is red, as are hot things and dangerous things, and he will heartily agree. You can desperately insist that he is deluded and is pervasively mistaking red qualities for green ones. He will reply that he is not and will ask you to prove it, which, as the thought experiment demonstrates, you cannot. What remains to his personal, qualitative experience, stripped of all the secondary associations, is just its personalness.

If you were to truly step into Fred’s skin with all its secondary associations in place and your own secondary associations set aside, you would have to admit that Fred’s “red” is indeed red; it is just not your red.

My dog may be an automaton. He may be a human-pleasing machine who wags his tail on the basis of a genetic algorithm and just acts in a very convincing way, like he means it. But if so, as the Inverted Spectrum illustrates, he does mean it, just as Fred really means red when he says “red”. All the secondary associations are in place. I may rightly conjecture that what it may be like to be him may not be what it is like to be me, but I knew that before he wagged his tail. He loves me, as sure as I know what love is.

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A Few, Very Specific Things

People are always asking me, “What do you believe?”

Nah, nobody actually asks me that, but I tell them anyway, just like this:

When it comes to consciousness, it comes with identity, and therefore locality.

When it comes to cause, it causes identity.

And, of course, that’s about it for classical theism.

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AI, Determinism and Supervenience

Recently, NPR interviewed the man who “de-aged” Robert De Niro for the film, “The Irishman”. The conversation drifted into the metaphysics of computer-generated imaging:

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what you’re describing is a technology that’s only going to get better and better, which I think brings up some ethical issues because as the technology gets more seamless and commonplace and those likenesses that you’ve just described get more subtle, could we end up doing away with the actual actor altogether? I mean, could it come to a point where a studio owns the digital image of an actor and just uses that instead of the real thing?

HELMAN: I don’t think so ’cause the performance has to come from somewhere, and that has to be the actor. And so just think about what it’ll take for a computer to do what Robert De Niro does. You need to train the computer – right? – to do those kinds of things. And basically, if you think about the behavior or likeness of somebody, how do you become yourself? You become yourself by living, you know, by having a bunch of experiences. And then you also have all the connections that are made in your face, the way you smile, all the cultural things that you live.

So if you want a computer to act like Robert De Niro, you need to train the computer like Robert De Niro. And then you spend a lifetime, you know, basically training the computer. And for that, you might as well just use Robert De Niro, you know?

Quite right, and more generally correct than I suspect Mr. Helman intended. Explanations pertain to the past, where things could not have been otherwise. The future will always be the realm of probability, else, to echo Mr. Helman, it will already have been.

The supervenient identity specifies its base. Otherwise, there is no explanation of the identity by the base. The point is: there are no loose ends – no theoretical De Niro’s.

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A Bucket of Wings and a Pitcher of PBR with the Baby Jesus

The first time that the Baby Jesus talked to me was at YMCA Summer camp. I heard him on assignment, lying on my bunk in a group cabin while the cicadas droned outside. Us campers had been sent back to our quarters after an evening devotional to listen for a message from God. Around the campfire, our counselors had had admonished us to listen with humility. We had to silence all our selfish desires if we hoped to perceive a divine whisper. We even had to relinquish our hope to hear a whisper from the Lord, if we hoped to hear a whisper from the Lord.

As I lay with my eyes open in the darkness, I was having more trouble tuning out the insects than the cacophony of my selfish desires. The cicadas’ ballad seemed to come from the darkness itself. I had long practice ignoring the undulating buzz, having grown up in the South with no central air and therefore reliant upon open windows for enough cool to allow Summer sleep. With no clamor in my head, the bug song rose from the suppressed depths of my consciousness to make a noise again. I tried to block it out while not trying to block it out, or trying to try to block it out, and so on, until my attention became exhausted and let go of the sound.

Just then, something happened. A voice, or maybe just a feeling, told me not to worry. The speaker was there. Everything was going perfectly according to plan. I felt great. Maybe I even let go a few tears of joy that night. In any case, I soon fell asleep and when I woke the next morning, the world seemed to have a fresh scent, like it had been sprinkled with the lavender water of permeating divinity. The divine freshness lingered for a couple years, but from the moment of spritzing, it was doomed to fade. It could not be reconciled with events on the road to camp.

Our family had set out with a very aggressive vacationing agenda that year. We had left home two weeks prior on a mission to visit my grandmother and Disney World, both a day’s drive away. We would then loop back up to drop me at Summer camp, while my brother would go on to baseball camp, leaving my parents with a week of real vacation for themselves. The schedule was tight, and my father was not pleased when we pulled up behind a row of parked cars on a two lane road in the flatlands of North Florida. When we stepped out of the car, we could see an object blocking both lanes in the distance. Other people were getting out of their cars too, and it was quiet. We walked forward with all the rest.

On the opposite side of the road, about 30 yards up, a distraught elderly couple sat on the ground by their car. The car had a dent in the hood and its windshield was caved in. A few yards beyond lay a mangled bicycle. It was nice, or it had been. I had wanted a BMX bike like that for a couple of years, and I would have done with it what I imagined its rider was doing when the old folks hit him: jumping the banks on either side of the elevated roadway. The boy lay a dozen yards beyond his wrecked bike, diagonally across the lane lines. He was on his side with no apparent injury, from a distance, but with a puddle of blood around his upper body.

Standing over the boy, one could see that the blood was coming from his ears. His gaze fixed on something impossibly distant and his breaths came halting and deep. We circled around him as he died. Someone remarked that an ambulance was on its way, A nurse in the crowd screamed at the rest not to just stand there, but to run and get a blanket. She was upset to a degree beyond what the collective paralysis of the bystanders merited. She may have been wondering how Baby Jesus could allow such a thing. As a child, I knew that adults had their reasons and that those reasons were sometimes unfathomable. I just assumed that the same was true of the Baby Jesus.

I saw no injustice, but I saw his stare. Surely, the distant thing upon which the boy’s gaze fixed was his own death. Yet he would never get to that far place. If he just snuffed out, then he just snuffed out, like when the dentist gave me anesthesia to remove my wisdom teeth and asked me to count to ten as the drug took effect. I didn’t even fail to count to eight. I counted to seven and that was it; there was no experience of looking back on an unsuccessful effort to count to eight, only a memory of seven, then nothing. Likewise, if he saw a light at the end of a tunnel or rose into the ether to look down on his inert body, then he experienced a metamorphosis. He got yanked away from those final moments of physiologic cessation just like the anesthetic yanked me away from counting to eight.

If I had asked any of my fellow onlookers gathered around the body that day, I’m sure they would have spoken of death as a thing which might bear a scythe and a cowl. They would have named it an independent reality. But after that day on the road, I slowly came to see that they were wrong. I fantasized about what would happen if the boy could tell us about leaving his body. Jesus’ disciples were said to have had that very experience, when Jesus returned from the dead to speak to his inner circle. Yet they were only twelve meeting The One. I imagined a world where meetings with the dead were common. I imagined ghosts at first, but engaging in spectrology proved an unnecessary complication. The situation was the same if what happened to Jesus happened to everybody. Your bodily functions stopped. You went up into the clouds. You got a bit of a rebuild. You came back down.

If universal resurrection came to pass, the first generation affected might continue to speak of the Grim Reaper. But as the reportage of the pierced, crushed and disintegrated became commonplace, no one would refer to Death as a thing in itself. There would be misadventures and resurrections, and all would be properly seen as aspects of our total experience. Eventually, no one would even talk about Life anymore.

Though I did not appreciate it at the time, the considerations which began on that roadway in the Southern plains generated a frictional heat, which would finally evaporate the lavender water of permeating divinity. Over years, it dawned on me that Eau Divine had already transcended itself if we could put a name to it, even if we just spoke metaphorically. Like life and death, the scent arose from a great continuity of experience, which we could never look back upon from a discontinuous beyond. It was a slow drying out, and I did not even miss the scent until the next time Jesus spoke to me. That final time, I was sitting in a bar at lunch, far from Christian Summer camp, when the voice of the Lord came to me from a bucket of wings.

I don’t know why I ordered the wings. I was at a crossroads career-wise, so maybe I felt a little unstable and subject to whimsy. As I stared into the jumble of battered and fried appendages however, I recalled why I had become a de facto vegetarian. I felt sick as I imagined all the capabilities which those little wings had possessed in life, reduced to the mess before me on the plastic table cloth. But it was too late by then. I understood my place in the supply chain (having ordered) and besides, I could not leave food uneaten in my financial circumstances. Luckily, there was cheap beer on tap. I asked the bartender to bring me a pitcher.

I took a solid gulp of the rice-brew swill before having a second look at the wings. That’s when the voice, or maybe it was more like a feeling, came to me out of the bucket. It told me not to worry. Life had been given for life. It was all going according to plan. I could eat those chicken wings with a clear conscience, because that’s how it was meant to be. The essence of life got passed on, said the voice, and carried on from the poor little chickens to me. I stared at the crusty wings, and was not reassured. Those bits of bone and muscle that had been, could be taken for almost anything now. But they could not be taken out of circumstance or consequence, anymore than that boy on the road, Life and Death, plans both mortal and divine, or the voice of the Baby Jesus, coming, as it did, from the bucket, or the ether, or any other relatively distinguishable source.

I downed the remainder of the swill and pushed back from the table. Somebody else got the wings, and that was the last I heard from the Baby Jesus.

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Good Snake, Bad Snake

One bright Spring morning, Karen opens her front door and steps onto the porch to take the morning rays. She lives on a cul-de-sac, and in the middle of the traffic circle just beyond her front yard, she sees a large rattlesnake. No one else is around, but she knows that the neighbor kids will soon be out to play in the street. She must do something. Karen likes snakes (she considers them beautiful, graceful creatures) so she shoos the animal into the underbrush well off the travelled way, posts a homemade, “Danger Snake” sign on the path to the underbrush, and knocks on her neighbors’ door to warn them of the danger to their kids.

The following morning, Karen sleeps in, but her other neighbor, Kate, is up early and out to her porch. Once again, the rattlesnake sits in the traffic circle. Kate does not like snakes, so she promptly chops its head off and disposes of the body in the underbrush. Not long after, Karen appears, having heard some commotion. They stand together, regarding a small bloodstain on the pavement.

Unbeknownst to Kate and Karen, Marsha, the nosey insomniac who lives 2 doors down, has been observing the events of the last two mornings. Marsha feels moved to acknowledge the noble actions of her neighbors, so she promptly goes out to present each of them with a card of appreciation which reads, “Thank you for your good work in your good works.”

It is pretty clear what Marsha means by the first “good”. She thinks that each of her neighbors, given their purposes, acted in a manner to most effectively realize the ends of those purposes. The first “good” is instrumental; it describes the effectiveness of a means to an end. It may be tempting to say that the second good is just the same. For instance, one could propose an argument from evolutionary psychology: We seek to bring about good circumstances and avoid bad ones because such efforts improve our odds of survival. Assuming the viability of an evolutionary account. we are still left with an elephant in the room. We have no explanation of our valuation of life. It is easy to claim it as a logical tautology: Living things live because that’s what makes them living things. But living is an activity. To live is to strive to survive, so to speak. The motivation to carry on this activity is intrinsic to the activity and if living is self explanatory, then so is the life-motive.

Closely examined, all motive looks this way.* When I reach for a beer, for instance, certain neurons have responded to environmental cues. The activity of those neurons causes in me the notion that I want to have a beer, which turns on other circuits in the prefrontal cortex, spinal cord, neuromuscular junction, etc. At the end of it all, I have a beer and an exhaustive explanation. The story of my obtaining beer is a story, still. It is representational. The story exists as the result of a desire to tell stories, and the desire to tell stories has its own, exhaustive reduction. But all the branching stories of motives are fixed by an active orientation, which I also indicate when I say that I want a beer.

And as Hume, among others, observed, when we talk about moral goodness, we don’t just tell a story containing an end and its means, we do also refer to a motive directly. Good, if it is something, is something which we ought to do. Even when we speak of evil acts, we don’t simply mean acts which are ignorant or negligent, we mean acts which somehow fail in their motivations. Marsha’s two ‘goods’ do mean two different things. The first meaning is instrumental. The second is something – else.

To get at what else a moral value may be, it may be instructive to examine how Karen evaluates the snake. For her, the snake elicits a sense of beauty which weights her moral calculus. She has a moral obligation to the neighbor kids, and aesthetic obligation(?) to the snake. Nor do those values seem bound to the snake; they seem to be bound to the beholder. Kate certainly does not attribute the same value to the snake. We must look to the motivation of the evaluator to account for the snake’s aesthetic value.

We can attempt a functional account of the discrepancy in snake esteem. The snake has symmetry, color contrast, impressive venom, etc. which the human brain finds attractive, and which Karen has the proper sort of history regarding snakes (a history which Kate lacks) to allow an appreciation of snakes on the above grounds. The reduction can give us an instrumental evaluation of the snake’s aesthetic value. For instance, we will have a pretty good idea of where Karen’s line is when it comes to snake rescue – will she risk her life to save one, or just suffer a little inconvenience. We will not have a good account of why the line is where it is.

George Moore refers to the analogous moral problem with his open question. He noted that we can identify an act as good, but we cannot find an attribute inherent in the act itself which makes it good. When we say something is morally good, we don’t seem to be able to go on and say that it is constitutive of good, so that any morally good thing contributes to our knowledge of good. We speak as though we already know it, even when we have changed our minds about what is or is not good! It is the same with the line demarcating the limits of snake-appreciation for Karen; we start behind it and cannot pick apart a final source of its position in the facts we have about the line. The value attribution seems to come from within the person making it, and their motive.

Moore postulated a moral intuition to explain the whole moral mess. We have a faculty which responds to events by arousing Good and Bad sentiments in us. With a moral sense, it all occurs in the heart, which is only stimulated by events past and current.

Aesthetic sentiments also occur ‘in the heart’. A urinal in the bus station moves very few, while the same urinal in a gallery moves many – and beyond its representation. In fact, part of what the gallery urinal represents is the significance of aesthetic disagreement. The difference, the urinal reminds us, occurs in the heart and its appreciation of white porcelain curves, beyond any differential understanding of context and symbol – the instrumental aspects of art.

So it is with morality, as well. Aesthetic evaluations and moral evaluations prove difficult to distinguish, because they share a structure. But aesthetics are appreciated, not by the stimulation of a mysterious, aesthetic faculty, but by an operational method. When we consider the urinal in the gallery, we take in its given structure and attempt to align the proper elements of that structure in terms of our given motive. The sense of appreciation that we enjoy after the act of appreciation may be mistaken for the appreciation itself, but the sense is merely a tale of reminiscence.

The appreciation of the child/snake situation occurs in the moment, too. When we look back on it, we can analyze the process, but the analysis is not the process. It leaves facts in its wake, but the facts are not the act, and the act is what we wish to indicate when we speak in moral terms. We feel comfortable with this sort of arrangement in similar cases of activity, like painting or juggling. We understand that instruction in painting or juggling does not effectively capture the act, and we do not expect that a manual detailing the performance of the activity, even if the manual were complete in every detail, would enable us to paint or juggle the first time, every time or even any time.

The intuitionists got it right regarding our moral situation. Moralizing occurs within the speaker, and the speaker’s report inevitably misses a key element of morality when the report attributes moral properties or refers to moral facts. But what seems to be going on is not the inscrutable machination of a non-natural moral sense. Instead, it looks like the enactment of a method.

______________________________________________________________________________* I think that is because all motive devolves to a single motive – der Wille zur Macht.

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Causes, Facts, and Heroin

The lecturer moved his laser-pointer quickly over the loop of neural circuitry. He explained the role of Mu receptors in activating the circuit, which sent a signal round and round and came out as the behavior pattern we call addiction. It was all very neat.

It was so neat the he could have simplified his diagram by replacing the pretty brain graphic with a switch. Off would be synonymous with no addictive behavior. On would equal addictive behavior. If you took the theory, “Addiction = Brain Circuitry” at face value, anything that flips the switch would cause addiction. Yet we know that that situation does not obtain. Heroin flips the switch, but not everyone who takes heroin manifests addictive behavior.

For the advocate of “Addiction = Brain Circuitry”, there are two ways out of this dilemma. First, he can posit a multiplicity of switches. In other words, he can claim that there is an intervening network of necessary, but not sufficient, switches on either side of the Big Switch, mediating the input and output of the addiction circuit. But then in principle, all those switches could also be replaced with a single switch, and you are right back where you started. No limited set of if/then statements will be completely determinative.

The second way out of the non-correspondence dilemma is to simply abandon a complete and transparent explanation, in favor of reliable facts. Neurons are necessary to behaviors, and we know that because, if we zap certain neurons, we can reliably alter corresponding behaviors. That doesn’t exactly explain the behavior, but it lets us move on to knowledge of neural circuits and the experiences which correspond with changing the configurations of those circuits.

One might denigrate the second solution as an abandonment of truth-seeking. Perhaps, but that is not so bad, on a proper notion of truth. In solution #2, you get a theory, which is a set of reliable facts. To get to the truth what you need is an explanatory reduction. In other words, all the switches and their positions for a specific moment of behavior, across the cosmic board. Such an array is purely didactic. It refers to no knowledge, for it cannot reliably correspond with anything. You may think you know something about it, but you don’t – not until you begin to formulate a theory regarding it.

Johnnie shoots a dose of heroin because he has inherited a susceptible set of receptors, because he contains the dendritic representations of certain permissive life-lessons, because he lacks certain inhibitory representations, because he lives in a society which has heroin, because he anticipates certain effects from heroin injections. And on, and on, and on…

At the end of such an exposition (if there even is an end) what we have is just a snap-shot which we have pre-labeled, “Johnnie’s Addiction”. To make any sense of it – to know anything at all about it – we must delve in to the insufficient necessities, and be satisfied with their mere reliability. When we give Johnnie a medicine for his Addiction, we should expect that it will, to some extent, extinguish the behavior. We should expect that if we take away his heroin, his behavior will, to some extent, change. And in fact, our theory does correspond with the facts which it predicts, and upon which rests.

Like the addiction lecturer, we all frequently feel dissatisfied with reliability. We would like some non-provisional knowledge. Give us some truth, please. Aspiring to truth gets us nowhere, though. Truth is too hefty. To riff on Gettier’s classic thought experiment, Smith has the truth when he observes that a person with 10 coins in his pocket will get the job, once Smith sees that a person with 10 coins in his pocket gets the job. Yet he has no knowledge thereby. He cannot be (provisionally) right or wrong in such a statement, any more than a snapshot can be right or wrong (though our subsequent interpretations – theories – of the snapshot may be).

If Smith says, at his next interview, that the person with 10 coins in his pocket will get the job, and he takes care to put 10 coins in his own pocket in hopes of getting the job, then he may know something. He is making a knowledge claim regarding his experience with coins and interviews, and his claim may or may not correspond with his theory’s fact-conditions. Reliability is what he will get, and he will be happy with it, or not, as will we all.

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No Clarence, You Do Not Have Clearance

Justice Thomas recently wrote a 20 page concurrence to a decision about an abortion law. Someday, this exposition will be renowned as the most extensive, inside-out examination of the genetic fallacy in history. Every textbook will cite it, eventually. To hasten its ascendance, I will make these observations on the Justice’s writing.

First some background. The law at issue is one which restricts abortion in a number of ways, only one of which really got the Judge going.

“This statute makes it illegal for an abortion provider to perform an abortion in Indiana when the provider knows that the mother is seeking the abortion solely because of the child’s race, sex, diagnosis of Down syndrome, disability, or related characteristics. §§16–34–4–1 to 16–34–4–8; see §16–34– 4–1(b) (excluding “lethal fetal anomal[ies]” from the definition of disability).”

We’ll get back to the “child” verbiage. What’s the upshot of this provision, the one which provoked such logorrhea from Thomas?

“Put differently, this law and other laws like it promote a State’s compelling interest in preventing abortion from becoming a tool of modern-day eugenics.2”

Wow, that is a big claim, and it is going to need a lot of support. But what he brings is: “Eugenicists are bad. Things Eugenicists like are bad. This is the sort of thing Eugenicists like, so it is bad.”

On the surface, his argument is just bad, mundane, and not even original. But he is a supreme court justice, so he digs deeper, and we get to see all the sub-strata of the genetic fallacy, and so why it, like all informal fallacies, merits its label.

The first purpose of the genetic fallacy is to shut down one’s opponents. By nature, it contains an accusation of guilt by association, not only for the position which it seeks to defame but for any advocates of that position as well.

Quite a bit of Thomas’ concurrence enumerates the deplorable sayings of Galton, Sanger, Stoddard, etc.. These are people to be reviled and feared. Galton originated the notion of social Darwinism – the survival of the fittest. Thomas provides this example of Stoddard’s toxicity:

Stoddard feared that without “artificial barriers,” the races “will increasingly mingle, and the inevitable result will be the supplanting or absorption of the higher by the lower types.”

But, wait a minute. If the higher types and lower types can’t keep it straight, then how are they ‘types’ at all? This kind of contradiction permeates eugenics, especially when it comes to the use of birth control to advance the cause. If a woman chooses to use birth control to give her children a better economic heritage, or to spare her child a brief and impoverished existence, she would seem to have met the superior-type criteria. Which brings us to the real problem with eugenics: It inevitably classifies on phenotype, with an assumption that the genotype follows. Furthermore, even their assessment of phenotype is hopelessly crude, because it includes social status as big part of the phenotype’s constitution. The blond hair and blue eyes come with a 3-piece suit.

It turns out that the eugenicists are just a bunch of crackpots who don’t really understand genetics, not the scary, evil geniuses referenced in Thomas’ argument. And that’s one problem with the genetic fallacy in general. To taint a position, the associated villains must have some potency to their poison – they must be right to some extent, or at least attractive – yet they must also be wrong, to discredit the position, and repugnant. In the end, you can’t have it both ways.

But the Justice does not stop in the upper layers of the genetic fallacy; he is digging for gold. Underlying every good deployment of this fallacy, there is a slippery slope argument as well. Usually the slippery slope remains implied. It risks being overlooked, in that case. Justice Thomas is not about to let that happen.

If “the masses” were given “practical education in Birth Control”—for which there was “almost universal demand”—then the “Eugenic educator” could use “Birth Control propaganda” to “direct a thorough education in Eugenics” and influence the reproductive decisions of the unfit. Propaganda 5. In this way, “the campaign for Birth Control [was] not merely of eugenic value, but [was] practically identical in ideal with the final aims of Eugenics.”

If you thought Sanger was bad, just wait. She was merely the vanguard. who aimed to soften us all up for the real assault.

And with today’s prenatal screening tests and other technologies, abortion can easily be used to eliminate children with unwanted characteristics. Indeed, the individualized nature of abortion gives it even more eugenic potential than birth control, which simply reduces the chance of conceiving any child. As petitioners and several amicus curiae briefs point out, moreover, abortion has proved to be a disturbingly effective tool for implementing the discriminatory preferences that undergird eugenics.

We are looking down a black diamond run. The last bit, however, brings us to the deeper reasons for rejecting genetic fallacies. In the course of his exposition, Justice Thomas reveals a profound misunderstanding of fetal anomalies, prenatal testing, and worst of all, Freakonomics (he must not have listened very carefully to the episode referenced on page 17). The genetic fallacy generally serves to smooth over such rough spots for its user. For Justice Thomas, it is a smoke bomb which he hopes will cover him while he slips past the implications of words like “child” tossed in to refer to – what? Does he mean zygote, blastocyst, embryo, fetus? What are the physiologic correlates of childhood? Or is it possession of a soul, and if so, just what the hell is a soul, and by what means do we know of it? He concludes:

Although the Court declines to wade into these issues today, we cannot avoid them forever. Having created the constitutional right to an abortion, this Court is dutybound to address its scope.

Indeed, you can’t hide forever.

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