Joho the Blog » philosophy

February 11, 2014

What is philosophy? An essay by JP Fell

I’ve posted [pdf] a terrible scan that I made of a talk given by Joseph P. Fell in Sept. 1970. “What is philosophy?” was presented to a general university audience, and in Prof. Fell’s way, it is both clear and deep.

Prof. Fell was my most influential teacher when I was at Bucknell, and, well, ever. He was and is more interested in understanding than in being right, and certainly more than in being perceived as right. This enables him to model a philosophizing that is both rigorous and gentle.

Although I’ve told him more than once how much he has affected my life, he is too humble to believe it. So I’m telling you all instead.

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December 28, 2013

[2b2k] From thinkers to memes

The history of Western philosophy usually has a presumed shape: there’s a known series of Great Men (yup, men) who in conversation with their predecessors came up with a coherent set of ideas. You can list them in chronological order, and cluster them into schools of thought with their own internal coherence: the neo-Platonists, the Idealists, etc. Sometimes, the schools and not the philosophers are the primary objects in the sequence, but the topology is basically the same. There are the Big Ideas and the lesser excursions, the major figures and the supporting players.

Of course the details of the canon are always in dispute in every way: who is included, who is major, who belongs in which schools, who influenced whom. A great deal of scholarly work is given over to just such arguments. But there is some truth to this structure itself: philosophers traditionally have been shaped by their tradition, and some have had more influence than others. There are also elements of a feedback loop here: you need to choose which philosophers you’ll teach in philosophy courses, so you you act responsibly by first focusing on the majors, and by so doing you confirm for the next generation that the ones you’ve chosen are the majors.

But I wonder if in one or two hundred years philosophers (by which I mean the PT-3000 line of Cogbots™) will mark our era as the end of the line — the end of the linear sequence of philosophers. Rather than a sequence of recognized philosophers in conversation with their past and with one another, we now have a network of ideas being passed around, degraded by noise and enhanced by pluralistic appropriation, but without owners — at least without owners who can hold onto their ideas long enough to be identified with them in some stable form. This happens not simply because networks are chatty. It happens not simply because the transmission of ideas on the Internet occurs through a p2p handoff in which each of the p’s re-expresses the idea. It happens also because the discussion is no longer confined to a handful of extensively trained experts with strict ideas about what is proper in such discussions, and who share a nano-culture that supersedes the values and norms of their broader local cultures.

If philosophy survives as anything more than the history of thought, perhaps we will not be able to outline its grand movements by pointing to a handful of thinkers but will point to the webs through which ideas passed, or, more exactly, the ideas around which webs are formed. Because no idea passes through the Web unchanged, it will be impossible to pretend that there are “ideas-in-themselves” — nothing like, say, Idealism which has a core definition albeit with a history of significant variations. There is no idea that is not incarnate, and no incarnation that is not itself a web of variations in conversation with itself.

I would spell this out for you far more precisely, but I don’t know what I’m talking about, beyond an intuition that the tracks end at the trampled field in which we now live.


December 3, 2013

[berkman] Jérôme Hergeux on the motives of Wikipedians

Jérôme Hergeux is giving a Berkman lunch talk on “Cooperation in a peer prodiuction economy: experimental evidence from Wikipedia.” He lists as co-authors: Yann Algan, Yochai Benkler, and Mayo Fuster-Morell.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Jérôme explains the broader research agenda behind the paper. People are collaborating on the Web, sometimes on projects that compete with or replace major products from proprietary businesses and institutions. Standard economic theory doesn’t have a good way of making sense of this with its usual assumptions of behavior guided by perfect rationality and self-interest. Instead, Jérôme will look at Wikipedia where people are not paid and their contributions have no signaling value on the labor market. (Jérôme quotes Kizor: “The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory it can never work.”)

Instead we should think of contributing to Wikipedia as a Public Goods dilemma: contributing has personal cost and not enough countervailing personal benefit, but it has a social benefit higher than the individual cost. The literature has mainly focused on the “prosocial preferences” that lead people to include the actions/interets of others, which leads them to overcome the Public Goods dilemma.

There are three classes of models commonly used by economists to explain prosocial behavior:

First, the altruism motive. Second, reciprocity: you respond in kind to kind actions of others. Third, “social image”: contributing to the public good signals something that brings you other utility. (He cites Napoleon: “Give me enough meals and I will win you any war.”)

His research’s method: Elicit the social prefs of a representative sample of Wikipedia contributors via an online experiment, and use those preferences to predict subjects’ field contributions to the Wikipedia project.

To check the reciprocity motive, they ran a simple public goods game. Four people in a group. Each has $10. Each has to decide how much to invest in a public project. You get some money back, but the group gets more. You can condition your contribution on the contributions of the other group members. This enables the researchers to measure how much the reciprocity motive matters to you. [I know I’m not getting this right. Hard to keep up. Sorry.] They also used a standard online trust game: You get some money from a partner, and can respond in kind.

Q: Do these tests correlate with real world behavior?

A: That’s the point of this paper. This is the first comprehensive test of all three motives.

For studying altruism, the dictator game is the standard. The dictator can give as much as s/he wants to the other person. The dictator has no reason to transfer the money. This thus measures altruism. But people might contribute to Wikipedia out of altruism just to their own Wikipedia in-group, not general altruism (“directed altruism”). So they ran another game to measure in-group altruism.

Social image is hard to measure experimentally, so they relied on observational data. “Consider as ‘social signalers’ subjects who have a Wikipedia user page whose size is bigger than the median in the sample.” You can be a quite engaged contributor to Wikipedia and not have a personal user page. But a bigger page means more concern with social image. Second, they looked at Barnstars data. Barnstars are a “social rewarding practice” that’s mainly restricted to heavy contributors: contribute well to a Wikipedia article and you might be given a barnstar. These shows up on Talk pages. About half of the people move it to their user page where it is more visible. If you move one of those awards manually to your user page, Jérôme will count you as a social signaller, i.e., someone who cares about his/her image.

He talks about some of the practical issues they faced in doing this experiment online. They illustrated the working of each game by using some simple Flash animations. And they provided calculators so you could see the effect of your decisions before you make them.

The subject pool came from registered Wikipedia users, and looked at the number of edits the user has made. (The number of contributions at Wikipedia follows a strong power law distribution.) 200,000 people register at Wikipedia account each month (2011) but only 2% make ten contributions in the their first month, and only 10% make one contribution or more within the next year. So, they recruited the cohort of new Wikipedia contributors (190,000 subjects), the group of engaged Wikipedia contributors (at least 300 edits) (18,989), and Wikipedia administrators (1,388 subjects). To recruit people, they teamed up with the Wikimedia Foundation to put a banner up on a Wikipedia page if the user met the criteria as a subject. The banner asked the reader to help with research. If readers click through, they go to the experiment page where they are paid in real money if they complete the 25 minute experiment within eight hours.

The demographics of the experiment’s subjects (1,099) matched quite closely the overall demographics of those subject pools. (The pool had 9% women, and the experiment had 8%).

Jérôme shows the regression tables and explains them. Holding the demographics steady, what is the relation between the three motives and the number of contributions? For the altruistic motive, there is no predictive power. Reciprocity in both games (public and trust) is a highly significant predictive. This tells us that reciprocal preference can lead you from being a non-contributor to being an engaged contributor; once you’re an engaged contributor, it doesn’t predict how far you’re going to go. Social image is correlated with the number of contributions; 81% of people who have received barnstars are super-contributors. Being a social signaler is associated with a 130% rise in the number of contributions you make. By both user-page length and barnstar, social image motivates for more contributions even among super-contributors.

Reciprocity incentivizes contributions only for those who are not concerned about their social image. So, reciprocity and social image are both at play among the contributors, but among separate groups. I.e., if you’re motivated by reciprocity, you are likely not motivated by social image, and vice versa.

Now Jérôme focuses on Wikipedia administrators. Altruism has no predictive value. But Wikipedia participation is negatively associated with reciprocity; perhaps this is because admins have to have thick skins to deal with disruptive users. For social image, the user page has significant revelance for admins, but not barnstars. Social image is less strong among admins than among other contributors.

Jérôme now explores his “thick skin hypothesis” to explain the admin results. In the trust game, look at how much the trustor decides how much to give to the stranger/partner. Jérôme ’s hypothesis: Among admins, those who decide to perform more of their policing role will be less trusting of strangers. There’s a negative correlation among admins between the results from the trust game and their contributions. The more time they say they do admin edits, the less trusting they are of strangers in the tests. That sort of make sense, says Jérôme. These admins are doing a valuable job for which they have self-selected, but it requires dealing with irritating people.


Q: Maybe an admin is above others and is thus not being reciprocated by the group.

A: Perfectly reasonable explanation, and it is not ruled out by the data.

Q: Did you come into this with an idea of what might motivate the Wikipedians?

A: These are the three theories that are prevalent. We wanted to see how well they map onto actual field behavior.

Q: Maybe the causation goes the other way: working in Wikipedia is making people more concerned about social image or reciprocity?

A: The correlations could go in either direction. But we want to know if those explanations actually match what people do in the field.

Q: Heather Ford looks at why articles are deleted for non-Western topics. She found the notability criteria change for people not close to the topics. Maybe the motives change depending on how close you are to the event.

A: Sounds fascinating.

Q: Admins have an inherent bias in that they focus on the small percentage of contributors who are annoying jerks. If you spend your time working with jerks, it affects your sense of trust.

A: Good point. I don’t have the data to answer it.

Q: [me] If I’m a journalist I’m likely to take away the wrong conclusions from this talk, so I want to make sure I’m understanding. For example, I might conclude that Wikipedia admins are not motivated by altruism, whereas the right conclusion is (isn’t it?) that the standard altruism test doesn’t really measure altruism. Why not ask for self-reports to see?

A: Economists are skeptical about self-reports. If the reciprocity game predicts a correlation, that’s significant.

Yochai Benkler: Altruism has a special meaning among economists. It refers to any motivation other than “What’s in it for me?” [Because I asked the question, I didn’t do a good job recording the answers. Sorry.]

Q: Aren’t admins control freaks?

A: I wouldn’t say that. But control is not a pro-social motive, and I wanted to start with the theories that are current.

Q: You use the number of words someone writes on a user page as a sign of caring about social image, but this is in an context where people are there to write. And you’re correlating that to how much they write as editors and contributors. Maybe people at Wikipedia like to write. And maybe they write in those two different places for different reasons. Also, what do you do with these findings? Economists like to figure out which levers we pull if we’re not getting enough contributors.

Q: This sort of data seems to work well for large platforms with lots of users. What’s the scope of the methods you’re using? Only the top 100 web sites in the world?

A: I’d like to run this on all the peer production platforms in the world. Wikipedia is unusual if only because it’s been so successful. We’re already working on another project with 1,000 contributors at SourceForge especially to look at the effects of money, since about half of Open Source contributions are for money.

Fascinating talk. But it makes me want to be very dumb about it, because, well, I have no choice. So, here goes.

We can take this research as telling us something about Wikipedians’ motivations, about whether economists have picked the right three prosocial motivations, or about whether the standard tests of those motivations actually correlate to real-world motivations. I thought the point had to do with the last two alternatives and not so much the first. But I may have gotten it wrong.

So, suppose instead of talking about altruism, reciprocity, and social image we instead talk about the correlation between the six tests the researchers used and Wikipedia contributions. We would then have learned that Test #1 is a good predictor of the contribution levels of beginner Wikipedians, Test #2 predicts contributions by admins, Test #3 has a negative correlation with contributions by engaged Wikipedians, etc. But that would be of no interest, since we have (ex hypothesis) not made any assumptions about what the tests are testing for. Rather, the correlation would be a provocation to more research: why the heck does playing one of these odd little games correlate to Wikipedian productivity? It’d be like finding out that Wikipedian productivity is correlated to being a middle child or to wearing rings on both hands. How fascinating!… because these correlations have no implied explanatory power.

Now let’s plug back in the English terms that indicate some form of motivation. So now we can say that Test #3 shows that scoring high in altruism (in the game) does not correlate with being a Wikipedia admin. From this we can either conclude that Wikipedia admins are not motivated by altruism, or that the game fails to predict the existing altruism among Wikipedia admins. Is there anything else we can conclude without doing some independent study of what motivates Wikipedia admins? Because it flies in the face of both common sense and my own experience of Wikipedia admins; I’m pretty convinced one reason they work so hard is so everyone can have a free, reliable, neutral encyclopedia. So my strong inclination – admittedly based on anecdote and “common sense” (= “I believe what I believe!”) – is to conclude that any behavioral test that misses altruism as a component of the motivation of someone who spends thousands of hours working for free on an open encyclopedia…well, there’s something hinky about that behavioral test.

Even if the altruism tests correlate well with people engaged in activities we unproblematically associate with altruism – volunteering in a soup kitchen, giving away much of one’s income – I’d still not conclude from the lack of correlation with Wikipedia admins that those admins are not motivated by altruism, among other motivations. It just doesn’t correlate with the sort of altruism the game tests for. Just ask those admins if they’d put in the same amount of time creating a commercial encyclopedia.

So, I come out of Jérôme’s truly fascinating talk feeling like I’ve learned more about the reliability of the tests than about the motivations of Wikipedians. Based on Jérôme’s and Yochai’s responses, I think that’s what I’m supposed to have learned, but the paper also seems to be putting forward interesting conclusions (e.g., admins are not trusting types) that rely upon the tests not just correlating with the quantity of edits, but also being reliable measures of altruism, self-image, and reciprocity as motives. I assume (and thus may be wrong) that’s why Jérôme offered an hypothesis to explain the lack-of-trust result, rather than discounting the finding that admins lack trust (to oversimplify it).

(Two concluding comments: 1. Yochai’s The Leviathan and the Penguin uses behavioral tests like these, as well as case studies and observation, to make the case that we are a cooperative species. Excellent, enjoyable book. (Here’s a podcast interview I did with him about it.) 2. I’m truly sorry to be this ignorant.)

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August 1, 2013

Progressivism implies we’re never done

Now, as part of the settlement, the school district has agreed to treat the child as a boy. Thus does an entire institution find itself compelled to accept the cultural left’s moral categories and priorities. This is why the Times labels transgender “the next civil rights frontier.” There’s always one, isn’t there?

This is from Ron Dreher’s post at The American Conservative about “Progressivism’s Next Battle.”

But what interests me is his comment, “There’s always one, isn’t there?” You can practically hear the sigh.

Well, yes, Ron, there is always one. Progressives are progressive because we believe in progress, and we believe in progress because — generalizing, of course — we believe three basic things.

First, human understanding is conditioned by history, culture, language. We are products of our times.

Second, our understanding tends towards some serious errors. For example, we tend to prefer the company of — and to trust — people who are like us. Worse, we go seriously wrong in judging the relevant ways people are like us, giving far too much weight to differences that make no real difference.

Third, we humans are capable of learning. When it comes to policies and institutions, the great lesson that we keep learning and need to keep learning is that few of the differences actually matter. Put positively, we need to keep learning that people are actually more like us than we thought. The great progressive impulse is to find more and more common humanity, and to adjust our policies around that truth. (And, as an aside that I both believe, and I hope Ron Dreher will find annoying: Nope, it doesn’t end with humans. We need to stop torturing and killing animals because we like the way they taste.)

So, yes, there always is a next frontier. But it’s not because progressives are sneaky land grabbers who are never satisfied. It’s because we are committed to the endless process of discovering our common humanity, and thus becoming fully human.

I’m ok with that.


July 28, 2013

The shockingly short history of the history of technology

In 1960, the academic journal Technology and Culture devoted its entire Autumn edition [1] to essays about a single work, the fifth and final volume of which had come out in 1958: A History of Technology, edited by Charles Singer, E. J. Holmyard, A. R. Hall, and Trevor I. Williams. Essay after essay implies or outright states something I found quite remarkable: A History of Technology is the first history of technology.

You’d think the essays would have some clever twist explaining why all those other things that claimed to be histories were not, perhaps because they didn’t get the concept of “technology” right in some modern way. But, no, the statements are pretty untwisty. The journal’s editor matter-of-factly claims that the history of technology is a “new discipline.”[2] Robert Woodbury takes the work’s publication as the beginning of the discipline as well, although he thinks it pales next to the foundational work of the history of science [3], a field the journal’s essays generally take as the history of technology’s older sibling, if not its parent. Indeed, fourteen years later, in 1974, Robert Multhauf wrote an article for that same journal, called “Some Observations on the State of the History of Technology,”[4] that suggested that the discipline was only then coming into its own. Why some universities have even recognized that there is such a thing as an historian of science!

The essay by Lewis Mumford, whom one might have mistaken for a prior historian of technology, marks the volumes as a first history of technology, pans them as a history of technology, and acknowledges prior attempts that border on being histories of technology. [5] His main objection to A History of Technology— and he is far from alone in this among the essays — is that the volumes don’t do the job of synthesizing the events recounted, failing to put them into the history of ideas, culture, and economics that explain both how technology took the turns that it did and what the meaning of those turns meant for human life. At least, Mumford says, these five volumes do a better job than the works of three British nineteenth century who wrote something like histories of technology: Andrew Ure, Samuel Smiles, and Charles Babbage. (Yes, that Charles Babbage.) (Multhauf points also to Louis Figuier in France, and Franz Reuleaux in Germany.[6])

Mumford comes across as a little miffed in the essay he wrote about A History of Technology, but, then, Mumford often comes across as at least a little miffed. In the 1963 introduction to his 1934 work, Technics and Civilization, Mumford seems to claim the crown for himself, saying that his work was “the first to summarize the technical history of the last thousand years of Western Civilization…” [7]. And, indeed, that book does what he claims is missing from A History of Technology, looking at the non-technical factors that made the technology socially feasible, and at the social effects the technology had. It is a remarkable work of synthesis, driven by a moral fervor that borders on the rhetoric of a prophet. (Mumford sometimes crossed that border; see his 1946 anti-nuke essay, “Gentlemen: You are Mad!” [8]) Still, in 1960 Mumford treated A History of Technology as a first history of technology not only in the academic journal Technology and Culture, but also in The New Yorker, claiming that until recently the history of technology had been “ignored,” and “…no matter what the oversights or lapses in this new “History of Technology, one must be grateful that it has come into existence at all.”[9]

So, there does seem to be a rough consensus that the first history of technology appeared in 1958. That the newness of this field is shocking, at least to me, is a sign of how dominant technology as a concept — as a frame — has become in the past couple of decades.

[1] Techology and Culture. Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4.

[2] Melvin Kranzberg. “Charles Singer and ‘A History of Technology’” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 299-302. p. 300.

[3] Robert S. Woodbury. “The Scholarly Future of the History of Technology” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 345-8. P. 345.

[4] Robert P. Multhauf, “Some Observations on the State of the History of Technology.” Techology and Culture. Jan, 1974. Vol. 15, no. 1. pp. 1-12

[5] Lewis Mumford. “Tools and the Man.” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 320-334.

[6] Multhauf, p. 3.

[7] Lewis Mumford. Technics and Civilization. (Harcourt Brace, 1934. New edition 1963), p. xi.

[8] Lewis Mumford. “Gentlemen: You Are Mad!” Saturday Review of Literature. March 2, 1946, pp. 5-6.

[9] Lewis Mumford. “From Erewhon to Nowhere.” The New Yorker. Oct. 8, 1960. pp. 180-197.


July 20, 2013

The Rolling Stone cover: Outrage and sympathy has posted my op-ed about the Rolling Stone cover that features Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It’s not the favorite thing I’ve ever written, but I had about an hour to do a draft.

There are two things I know I’d change without even going through the scary process of re-reading it:

First, CNN edited out any direct assertion that the Tsarnaev’s are guilty. So, there are some “alleged”s awkwardly inserted, and some language that works around direct attribution of guilt. I’m in favor of the presumption of innocence, of course. But inserting the word “alleged” is a formalism without real effect, except when the allegedly alleged murderer’s lawyers call. But, I get it. (CNN also removed some of the links I’d put, including to the cover itself and to the Wikipedia NPOV policy.)

Second, I wanted to say something more directly about the distinction between the sympathy that feels bad for someone’s troubles and the sympathy that lets us understand where the person is coming from. My post too quickly rules out sympathy of any kind because I knew that if I asked for sympathetic understanding, many readers would accuse me of feeling sympathetic toward the perpetrator rather than toward his victims, as if one rules out the other. So, I opted to strike any positive use of the term. (Of course that didn’t stop many of the commenters from claiming that I’m excusing the Tsarnaevs. Ridiculous.)

So, I’ll say it here: sympathetic understanding is a crucial human project, and, in truth, it often does lead toward sympathetic feelings. For example, in The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer leads us through the story of the mass killer Gary Gilmore, providing explanations that implicitly run the gamut from psychological to economic to social to Nietzschean to Freudian [1]. Inevitably we do feel some emotional sympathy for Gilmore, although without thinking him one whit less culpable. It sucked to be Gary Gilmore, and that doesn’t mean it didn’t suck far worse to be one of his victims.

In the same way, the common narrative about the Tsarnaev brothers (which I, too, accept) is that the older brother was a rotten apple who drew the younger brother into evil. I think the story of how the younger brother became “radicalized” — in quotes because it is an exteriorized word — is more interesting to most of us than how the older brother got there. If and when they make the movie, the part of the younger brother will be the plum role. That’s the narrative that has been served to us, and there are reasons to think that it’s basically right: the younger brother didn’t show signs of radicalization — his friends were genuinely shocked — while the older brother did. (The Rolling Stone article elaborates this narrative by explaining not only how the younger came to his beliefs, but also by showing that he kept the change hidden.) This narrative also fits well into our cultural narrative about youth being innocent until corrupted. But my point is not that the narrative is true or false or both or neither. It is that we generally hold to that narrative in this case, and it is a narrative that naturally engenders some element of emotional sympathy for the corrupted youth. And what’s wrong with that? Sympathy doesn’t have to take sides. Our judgment does that. Understanding how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev went from innocent to a murderer of children (allegedly!) and what it was like to be him doesn’t mean that I hold him less culpable, that I want his sentence reduced, or — most importantly — that I now have less sympathy for his victims. Indeed, the whole power of The Narrative depends upon our continuing horror at what he did.

To say otherwise is to deny the power of narrative and art. It means we should ban not just The Executioner’s Song but also In Cold Blood, Crime and Punishment and even Madame Bovary, each of which bring us to both cognitive and emotional sympathy for people who did bad things [2]. It is also to deny that evil is the act of humans and thus is a possibility for each of us, at least in a “there but for the grace of God” sense.[3] And, to my way of thinking, our outrage at any attempt to understand those who commit incontrovertibly evil acts is intended exactly to silence that scariest of thoughts.

[1] It’s been decades since I read The Executioner’s Song, so I’m probably misrepresenting which exact explanatory theories Mailer employs.

[2] I know Madame Bovary is different because her acts of adultery even within the frame of the book are so thoroughly understandable.

[3] At the last minute when finishing this post, I removed a sentence referencing Hannah Arendt’s complex phrase “the banality of evil.” It raised too many issues for a final paragraph. (And I have a sense I will regret including Madame Bovary in the list. See footnote 2.)


June 27, 2013

Relevant differences unresolved

After yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions, I’m just so happy about the progress we’re making.

It seems like progress to me because of the narrative line I have for the stretch of history I happen to have lived through since my birth in 1950: We keep widening the circle of sympathy, acceptance, and rights so that our social systems more closely approximate the truly relevant distinctions among us. I’ve seen the default position on the rights of African Americans switch, then the default position on the rights of women, and now the default position on sexual “preferences.” I of course know that none of these social changes is complete, but to base a judgment on race, gender, or sexuality now requires special arguments, whereas sixty years ago, those factors were assumed to be obviously relevant to virtually all of life.

According to this narrative, it’s instructive to remember that the Supreme Court overruled state laws banning racial intermarriage only in 1967. That’s amazing to me. When I was 17, outlawing “miscegeny” seemed to some segment of the population to be not just reasonable but required. It was still a debatable issue. Holy cow! How can you remember that and not think that we’re going to struggle to explain to the next generation that in 2013 there were people who actually thought banning same sex marriage was not just defensible but required?

So, I imagine a conversation (and, yes, I know I’m making it up) with someone angry about yesterday’s decisions. Arguing over which differences are relevant is often a productive way to proceed. You say that women’s upper body strength is less than men’s, so women shouldn’t be firefighters, but we can agree that if a woman can pass the strength tests, then she should be hired. Or maybe we argue about how important upper body strength is for that particular role. You say that women are too timid, and I say that we can find that out by hiring some, but at least we agree that firefighters need to be courageous. A lot of our moral arguments about social issues are like that. They are about what are the relevant differences.

But in this case it’s really really hard. I say that gender is irrelevant to love, and all that matters to a marriage is love. You say same sex marriage is unnatural, that it’s forbidden by God, and that lust is a temptation to be resisted no matter what its object. Behind these ideas (at least in this reconstruction of an imaginary argument) is an assumption that physical differences created by God must entail different potentials which in turn entail different moral obligations. Why else would God have created those physical distinctions? The relevance of the distinctions are etched in stone. Thus the argument over relevant differences can’t get anywhere. We don’t even agree about the characteristics of the role (e.g., upper body strength and courage count for firefighters) so that we can then discuss what differences are relevant to those characteristics. We don’t have enough agreement to be able to disagree fruitfully.

I therefore feel bad for those who see yesterday’s rulings as one more step toward a permissive, depraved society. I wish I could explain why my joy feels based on acceptance, not permissiveness, and not on depravity but on love.

By the way, my spellchecker flags “miscegeny” as a misspelled word, a real sign of progress.

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June 10, 2013

Heidegger on technology, and technodeterminism

I’m leaving tomorrow night for a few days in Germany as a fellow at the University of Stuttgart’s International Center for Research on Culture and Technology. I’ll be giving a two-day workshop with about 35 students, which I am both very excited about and totally at sea about. Except for teaching a course with John Palfrey, who is an awesomely awesome teacher, I haven’t taught since 1986. I was good at the time, but I forget the basics about structuring sessions.

Anyway, enough of that particular anxiety. I’m also giving a public lecture on Thursday at the city library (Stadtbibliothek am Mailänder Platz). It’ll be in English, thank Gott! My topic is “What the Web Uncovers,” which is a purposeful Heidegger reference. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to write this, and finally on Sunday completed a draft. It undoubtedly will change significantly, but here’s what I plan on saying at the beginning:

In 1954, Heidegger published “The Question about Technology” (Die Frage nach der Technik). I re-read it recently, and discovered why people hold Heidegger’s writing in such disdain (aside from the Nazi thing, of course). Wow! But there are some ideas in it that I think are really helpful.

Heidegger says that technology reveals the world to us in particular ways. For example, a dam across a river, which is one of his central examples, reveals the natural world as Bestand, which gets translated into English as “standing reserve” or “resource”: power waiting to be harnessed by humans. His point I think is profound: Technology should be understood not only in terms of what it does, but in terms of what it reveals about the world and what the world means to us. That is in fact the question I want to ask: What does the world that the Web uncovers look like? What does the Web reveal?

This approach holds the promise of letting us talk about technology from beyond the merely technical position. But it also happens to throw itself into an old controversy that has recently re-arisen. It sounds as if Heidegger is presenting a form of technodeterminism — the belief that technology determines our reaction to it, that technology shapes us. Against technodeterminism it is argued quite sensibly that a tool is not even a tool until humans come along and decide to use it for something. So, a screwdriver can be used to drive screws, but it could also be used to bang on a drum or to open and stir a can of paint. So, how could a screw driver have an effect on us, much less shape us, if we’re the ones who are shaping it?

Heidegger doesn’t fall prey to technodeterminism because one of his bedrock ideas is that things don’t have meaning outside of the full context of relationships that constitute the entire world — a world into which we are thrown. So, technology doesn’t determine us, since it takes an entire world to determine technology, us, and everything else. Further, in “Die Frage nach der Technik,” he explains the various historical ways technology has affected us by referring to a mysterious history of Being that gives us that historical context. But I don’t want to talk about that, mainly because insofar as I understand it, I find it deeply flawed. Even so I think we want to be able to talk about the effect of technology, granting that it’s not technology itself taken in isolation, but rather the fact that we do indeed come to technology out of a situation that is historical, cultural, social, and even individual.

So, how does the Web reveal the world? What does the world look like in the Age of the Web? (And that means: what does it look like to us educated Westerners with sufficient leisure time to consider such things, etc.) Here are the subject headings of the talk until I rewrite it as I inevitably do: chaotic, unmasterable, messy, interest-based, unsettling, and turning us to a shared world about which we disagree. This is very unlike the way the world looks in the prior age of technology, the age about which Heidegger was writing. Yet, I find at the heart of the Web-revealed world the stubborn fact that the world is revealed through human care: we are creatures that care about our existence, about others, and about our world. Care (Sorge) is at the heart of early Heidegger’s analysis.


March 27, 2013

Why homosexuality looks like a decision

Note that in the following, I’m figuring out something that is probably obvious to everyone except me.

The other day I found myself expostulating, “How can anyone think people choose which sex they’re attracted to???” (Yes, with three question marks. I was expostulating.) I followed this with the well-worn, “If they think homosexuality is a choice, then they must also think that heterosexuality is. But at what point in their lives did they really make a choice between finding boys or girls hot? Never!!!”

My argument is not a good one. For at least some anti-gay folks, it poses a false equivalence. I think.

Thinking that gays choose their sexual “preference” but straights do not appears to be a contradiction until you factor in some assumptions about nature and temptation. So: God set it up so that humans naturally are drawn to the opposite sex. But we can be tempted toward all sorts of sins: We can lust after a neighbor’s spouse. We can be drawn toward liquor. We can be tempted to shoplift. We all face many different temptations of varying degrees of badness. Good people resist temptations as firmly as they can. Homosexuals give in to their temptations, and even flaunt them.

Thus, the proper equivalence isn’t between heterosexuals and homosexuals deciding which gender they’ll desire. It’s between homosexuals giving in to their temptation (same-sex sex) and heterosexuals giving in to their temptation (adultery, promiscuity, or some such). The equivalence isn’t in the choice of temptations but in the reaction to those temptations.

I’m not agreeing, of course. I fly my rainbow flag high. But this helps me to understand what otherwise looks like an argument so incoherent that it’s incomprehensible how anyone could actually hold it. It’s not incoherent, given a certain set of premises. It’s coherent…but wrong.


March 2, 2013

[misc] The Wars on Terrorism, Al Qaeda, Cancer, and Dessert

Steve Coll has a good piece in the New Yorker about the importance of Al Qaeda as a brand:

…as long as there are bands of violent Islamic radicals anywhere in the world who find it attractive to call themselves Al Qaeda, a formal state of war may exist between Al Qaeda and America. The Hundred Years War could seem a brief skirmish in comparison.

This is a different category of issue than the oft-criticized “war on terror,” which is a war against a tactic, not against an enemy. The war against Al Qaeda implies that there is a structurally unified enemy organization. How do you declare victory against a group that refuses to enforce its trademark?

In this, the war against Al Qaeda (which is quite preferable to a war against terror — and I think Steve agrees) is similar to the war on cancer. Cancer is not a single disease and the various things we call cancer are unlikely to have a single cause and thus are unlikely to have a single cure (or so I have been told). While this line of thinking would seem to reinforce politicians’ referring to terrorism as a “cancer,” the same applies to dessert. Each of these terms probably does have a single identifying characteristic, which means they are not classic examples of Wittgensteinian family resemblances: all terrorism involves a non-state attack that aims at terrifying the civilian population, all cancers involve “unregulated cell growth” [thank you Wikipedia!], and all desserts are designed primarily for taste not nutrition and are intended to end a meal. In fact, the war on Al Qaeda is actually more like the war on dessert than like the war on cancer, because just as there will always be some terrorist group that takes up the Al Qaeda name, there will always be some boundary-pushing chef who declares that beefy jerky or glazed ham cubes are the new dessert. You can’t defeat an enemy that can just rebrand itself.

I think that Steve Coll comes to the wrong conclusion, however. He ends his piece this way:

Yet the empirical case for a worldwide state of war against a corporeal thing called Al Qaeda looks increasingly threadbare. A war against a name is a war in name only.

I agree with the first sentence, but I draw two different conclusions. First, this has little bearing on how we actually respond to terrorism. The thinking that has us attacking terrorist groups (and at times their family gatherings) around the world is not made threadbare by the misnomer “war against Al Qaeda.” Second, isn’t it empirically obvious that a war against a name is not a war in name only?

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