Saturday, November 26, 2022

Light Up the Sky Like a Flame

 The great Irene Cara died yesterday; most sources say at the age of 63, but she was always a little slippery about the exact year she was born. A true diva can afford to take some poetic licenses with something like that, I suppose. She is most famous for "Flashdance" and for "Fame".  She also did a lot of acting. As a performer she was absolutely magnetic; the following is a real example of how she, alone on the stage, could be more interesting than most performers would be with a whole set of backup dancers -- she could always look like she was having fun and bringing you into the party:

[Irene Cara, "Fame".]

Friday, November 25, 2022


 Today is the feast of Queen Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Great Martyr, patron saint of philosophers. My favorite painting of St. Catherine, usually attributed to the Mannerist painter Barbara Longhi (1552-1638); it is often thought to be an idealized self-portrait:

St. Catherine of Alexandria, Barbara Longhi

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Happiness Doubled by Wonder

 In any intellectual corner of modernity can be found such a phrase as I have just read in a newspaper controversy: "Salvation, like other good things, must not come from outside." To call a spiritual thing external and not internal is the chief mode of modernist excommunication. But if our subject of study is mediƦval and not modern, we must pit against this apparent platitude the very opposite idea. We must put ourselves in the posture of men who thought that almost every good thing came from outside—like good news. I confess that I am not impartial in my sympathies here; and that the newspaper phrase I quoted strikes me as a blunder about the very nature of life. I do not, in my private capacity, believe that a baby gets his best physical food by sucking his thumb; nor that a man gets his best moral food by sucking his soul, and denying its dependence on God or other good things. I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

[G. K. Chesterton, A Short History of England, Chapter VI.]

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Social Obfuscations

 Hrishikesh Joshi has an interesting paper, Debunking Creedal Beliefs (PDF). The title is entirely misleading: nothing in the argument really requires that we are talking about beliefs (rather than, say, public claims proposed for belief or action, which are not the same thing); the argument is not actually debunking anything but raising a 'debunking challenge' that can often be answered, and that he explicitly gives a recipe for answering; and 'creedal' is just taken to mean here something like 'strongly influenced by social considerations'. Even sorting out the odd terminological choices, there is reason to be skeptical going into the argument. Actually debunking anything is extremely difficult; debunking an entire field of claims is almost always, and perhaps always, a category mistake -- debunking arguments are just not the sort of argument that can address an entire field of claims. It's actually very difficult to establish strict statements about broad fields of claims, in general; every claim has its particular quirks.

The 'beliefs' that Joshi is considering have three characteristics:

(1) any costs to individuals of their being wrong is negligible;
(2) they "fall under intense social scrutiny";
(3) in terms of evidence available, they are hard to verify.

One reason I think it's important to note that, despite Joshi's framing, there's nothing about this that has to do with believing is that everything here is actually public; the kinds of things that have all three of these characteristics are all claims that are publicly supported, whether they are believed or not. Society cannot directly incentivize (or disincentivize) believing; to the extent it does so at all, it does so environmentally, by making it easy to say such-and-such and therefore getting people used to such-and-such as something everyone says. Joshi also often tries to talk about his argument as downgrading certainty, but I think when we realize that the argument doesn't even directly apply to believing at all, what we are really looking at is a causal question of whether the social environment is making social testimony actively obfuscating (as opposed to things like 'merely approximate' or 'functioning as a loose practical heuristic'). That is to say, it's really an argument about the preparatory environment for belief, rather than belief itself. But Joshi insists on putting it in terms of beliefs, so we are stuck with talking about beliefs.

The 'debunking' challenge Joshi takes to be a 'blocking debunker', which prevents one from ever being justified in holding something. The paper is remarkably obscure about how this is supposed to work. Joshi says:

Beliefs formed with the goal (despite this goal being unconscious) of reaping social rewards and avoiding social costs are presumably not justified to begin with. Importantly for the debunking story, beliefs formed in this way are causally influenced by processes that are not robustly truth-tracking.

That is one whopping 'presumably'! Presumably how? All of our beliefs (and our public claims) are influenced by processes that are not robustly truth-tracking, so the claim has to be that beliefs with the above three characteristics are extraordinarily influenced by such processes. It's controvertible whether we always need the relevant influences to be robustly truth-tracking; if a process is weakly truth-tracking, as many social processes seem to be, it's unclear why one gets 'not justified to begin with' rather than just 'minimally justified but defeasible'. Almost every schoolchild forms beliefs with the goal "of reaping social rewards and avoiding social costs" (teaching itself is often structured on this principle), including a large number of claims that we don't generally regard as unjustified to hold, so 'presumably' here can't mean 'it fits our typical intuitions' or 'it makes sense of our usual behavior'. Indeed, that's not surprising, given the argument, since our social experience of learning things in general is unsurprisingly favorable to the value of social experience for learning, but then it's unclear where we get this 'presumably' at all. Endless numbers of broadly reasonable people, and many very reasonable people, act as if this 'presumably' is not at all 'presumably' true.

When one recognizes that the matter is really a causal question of the social environment, it becomes clear that what really matters is the causal story in each particular case. To be sure, one might still hold that claims with the above three characteristics are still cases where the causal story is often an obfuscating rather than an intellectually helpful one, but that has to be proven causally, and is not a matter of general debunking. One of the common problems with attempts to debunk is that debunking is not very discriminate; when not tightly constrained, it tends to spread very easily to other things like a fire. Joshi tries to argue that the debunking here is tightly constrained:

Many of our beliefs simply do not meet these conditions: either they are not incentivized and scrutinized by our communities, or they’re a priori obvious or easily verifiable, or the costs of being misinformed about the subject matter are sufficiently high.

This is certainly true, taken flatly; at any given time, a very great many of our beliefs (/public claims) are missing at least one of the characteristics noted before. The problem is that none of these characteristics are things that beliefs (or claims) have in and of themselves. What a community incentivizes or intensely scrutinizes is absolutely not stable; a claim that lacks this characteristic today might well have it next Wednesday. Whether something is easily verifiable depends on how clean or polluted one's evidence pool is (and we know that social influences sometimes incentivize tampering with the evidence pool), how easy it is to make certain arguments (and we know that some kinds of arguments are actively punished as a social matter), how accessible the means of verification are (and we know that this is highly influenced by social incentives to make them accessible). And the same goes for costs. (Indeed, with costs, Joshi later quite clearly understands this to be relative costs, because he talks about the first characteristic in terms of having costs that are greater than those that are the norm. But the relevant costs that are the norm change wildly over time and across cultures.) If any claim can be debunked in the way Joshi suggests, there is not a single claim that could not, at least in principle, become debunkable just by a change of the society around it. To be sure, many such changes are perhaps unlikely, and some might be actively detrimental to the society to which they would occur; but none are actually impossible. While most of our beliefs are in fact missing at least one of the characteristics at any given time, we have no beliefs that are such that they could never gain such a characteristic over time. Society can incentivize or disincentivize pretty much anything that can be put forward in public. It is highly suspicious to say we have a debunking argument, or in this case, a 'debunking challenge', that depends entirely on notoriously variable extrinsic circumstances, particularly given that we are supposed to be talking about a 'blocking debunker'. I could form a belief one week and you could form the same belief with the same evidential grounds next week, and if society had had a revolution between, my belief might not have been 'debunkable' but your belief might be 'debunkable'. Does that make sense? I don't that makes much sense. This does not seem to be a robustly truth-tracking form of 'debunking'.

In any case, Joshi gives a recipe for meeting the challenge, which is why the paper is not really a debunking argument at all. The recipe goes:

(1) Identify the groups that influence your social and professional success.
(2) Determine which claims are incentivized or rendered costly by these groups.
(3) Reduce confidence in any claim with the three previously noted characteristics.

Notice that the third step is reducing confidence, not rejecting; this is a sign that nothing has actually been debunked. What the argument really is, is an argument that everybody should be a contrarian and depreciate claims that are appreciated in a certain way by their society. While it's amusing to think of how that would work, this doesn't seem actually to get anyone closer to anything true; it, remarkably, requires us to be even more influenced by the society around us than we already are, since it makes a system of determining our own beliefs (/public claims) with an eye to what society is saying.

When we see this, it seems clear that Joshi is getting things the wrong way around. What's actually important are specific and definite processes of social obfuscation, which we should look for and not be tripped up by; which claims happen to be entangled in such processes at any given time is largely irrelevant. The beliefs are innocent, or at least not able to be proven guilty by an association that they themselves do not determine. They should just be assessed as they otherwise would be, by evidence and argument. Not they but the obfuscating processes are what need to be regarded with suspicion.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Links of Note Linked for Noting

* Rabbi Gil Student, Rabbi Sacks' Religious Pluralism: A Halakhic and Hashkafic Defense, at "Torah Musings" 

* Urban Hannon, God's Knowledge of Future Contingents: A Response to Alasdair MacIntyre, at "The Josias"

* Nevin Climenhaga, Epistemic Probabilities are Degrees of Support, not Degrees of (Rational) Belief (PDF). It's an interesting subject. The degrees of belief interpretation is an interesting example of inertia; it's always been weakly motivated, and several of the arguments that initially motivated it are either no longer accepted or are no longer thought to require the interpretation, but it continues because that's how people often learn it. But there are at least other interpretations and some of them have advantages worth considering.

* An interesting interview with a 21-year-old who was recently elected tax collector, at "North Carolina Rabbit Hole". It's so very easy to focus on the big fights, and it's always worth taking time to think of the immense value of elections to small, local office, which are often a very different animal from national elections; they often show how people can be opposed without being enemies and provide opportunities for people to get into office just by going out and talking to people.

* Bogdana Stamenkovic, Natural history and variability of organized beings in Kant's philosophy (PDF)

* Diane Scholl, Reading The Nine Tailors in a Time of Flu, Fire, and Flood, at "The Other Journal"

* Amanda Achtman, Canada's Orwellian Euthanasia Regime, at "Law & Liberty"

* Anne Jeffrey & Christa Mehari, The Primacy of Hope in Human Flourishing (PDF)

* Grace Paterson, Trusting on Another's Say-So (PDF)

* eigenrobot, effective altruism and its future

* A map of laboratory-acquired infections, put together by Christ Said

* Varol Akman & M. Burak Senol, The truth about "It is true that..." (PDF), an interesting argument against deflationism.

* Chris Dalla Riva, The Death of the Key Change, discusses a way in which popular music has become flattened and less structured (sometimes to good results but sometimes not), and the causes of this shift.

* Philip Jenkins, Jesus the Carpenter, and the Search for Biblical Words

* Alana Newhouse, Brokenism, at "Tablet Magazine"

* Caspar Jacobs, The Nature of a Constant of Nature: the Case of G (PDF)

Monday, November 21, 2022

Divine Lila

In certain Hindu circles, one of the divine attributes is lila, which is really hard to translate, but is often associated with playfulness; not that it has to be play in our sense, but that divine actions are purposeful but not bound to a purpose, in the way that (for instance) a young child playing is purposeful in action without having any real restriction to a purpose, able to shift purposes at will. I was reminded of this when reading James Reilly's paper, Two challenges for 'no norms' theism (PDF), which argues that someone who holds "that God is exempt from moral and rational norms" (which he calls 'no norms' theism or NNT) faces two kinds of problems. First, they cannot make use of what Reilly calls inductive arguments for the existence of God, which have a structure in which certain evidences are held to be more likely if God exists than if God does not exist. Second, that if God is not subject to norms, then God is effectively like Descartes's deceiver, and we are left with skepticism about our faculties. Reilly's paper is quite good, but I'm not convinced either challenge is particularly challenging.

I suppose I would be what Reilly calls a 'no norms' theist, although for what might be called ethical rather than theological reasons -- that is, I don't think there's any viable candidate for a serious account of obligations on which it would make much sense to say that God has obligations. If we have a positivistic account of obligations, there is no legislator or obliger who outranks God, so God doesn't have obligations. If we have a sentimentalist account of obligations, obligations are relative to natural sentiments, but God is impassible, and therefore has no obligations; and a sentimentalist account implies that it would be at least extremely difficult to work out what even nonhuman alien obligations might be, much less divine obligations. If we have a rationalist account of obligations, the two best accounts are natural law theory and Kantianism, and God doesn't have the kind of rational nature that is required to generate obligations on either theory. I suppose you could have a rationalist theory, maybe even a generalized natural law theory, on which, by a sort of deontic necessitation, God has an obligation to be God, and that is the entire list of God's obligations, but I don't see any prospect, in any theory of obligation worth taking seriously, of getting beyond that. Malebranche has a view in which God (the Father) loves Order, which is divine Reason and thus God (the Son), and therefore God is obligated by Order, which is, I think, the most serious attempt actually to make sense of what divine obligations would be; but the list of inconveniences and problems attaching to Malebranche's account of how God relates to divine Reason is quite considerable. It's pointless to say that God has obligations if we don't have any good account of obligations under which it makes much sense to say that God has obligations. Of course, there are many norms even in our own case that are not obligations -- norms of aesthetics, norms of etiquette, norms of technique, an entire forest of them. But many of the concerns with obligations do arise for at least many of the other norms.

I have no particular commitment to what Reilly is calling inductive arguments, but I think his account fails to take into consideration the flexibility of such arguments. For instance, if we take an analogous argument, an inductive argument to the existence of a particle, based on the idea of the effects that a particle would likely have, we are not arguing to the bare existence of the particle somehow. If I say, "This effect here in Texas is the kind of thing that would be caused by such-and-such particle," I don't mean that it is the kind of thing that would be caused by that particle if operating outside the Andromeda galaxy; I am saying that this is the kind of effect you get from such a particle doing particular things in particular ways (e.g,. hitting something in Texas). Likewise, inductive arguments for God's existence are not arguments to the bare existence of God acting anyway and anyhow; they are arguments to the existence of God as doing something relevant to the evidence. The inductivist is not committed to saying anything about what other things God might legitimately do. Norms, on the other hand, do cover other things that can be done; there are arguably no norms that cover one and only one action. Thus the inductive arguments don't really require appeal to norms; they just require appeal to something about the intelligible structure of particular actions, which could indeed involve norms, but might not (as there is much more to the intelligibility of any action than its position in a field of possible action governed by a norm).

Likewise, Reilly seems to have a rather expansive view of what involves norms; he takes, for instance, all appeals to goodness to be appeals to norms. This is certainly not true even in our own case; there are lots of goods that we do, not because of any norm, but just because they are good, where we could perfectly well do something else. If you identify something as good in a certain way, you are identifying it as a reason for action; but not all reasons for an action are norms for it. Reilly argues,

If God is not bound by the norms of goodness, then what reason do we have for supposing that he would favour a world of beauty and order over a world of chaotic ugliness? Why should we expect the existence of conscious life, rather than the cold sterility of a dead cosmos? The answer cannot be that it is better for such things as beauty, order, and conscious life to exist; once God is exempt from the norms of goodness, words like ‘better’ and ‘worse’ lose all relevant meaning. (p. 2)

But this is simply false; 'better' and 'worse' are not always or even usually defined in reference to norms. They do require a reference point so that you can get a comparison; but nothing requires that this reference point be functioning as a norm. What is more, a world of beauty and order is good, a world of chaotic ugliness is (thus far) not; you don't even need a reference point for that, because one description identifies a good and the other doesn't, so (thus far) there is a reason for one and not the other. Whether there is a norm governing God's favoring one or the other is irrelevant; by simply stating the case, you've given one reason one might favor the one over the other. Even if God were subject to norms, so that normatively he had to favor one over the other, whether a norm were relevant would depend on knowing all the reasons; we don't need to do that to identify that there is a plausible reason. I myself don't think you can argue this way -- it violates the principle of remotion and all good sense to pretend to have the kind of omniscience that can assess the reasons available to omniscience in such a definitive way -- but the inductive arguments only require reasons, not norms. They don't even require the norm that God should always follow reasons that meet certain conditions; they just require that they are reasons that God can consider. 

If someone is not bound by norms of goodness, what reason do we have for supposing he would favor a world of beauty and order? The same reason that we would have if he was bound by norms of goodness. If I say, "John might have preferred that painting because of its beauty", I am not saying that John's preference was bound by a norm of beauty, I'm saying the painting meets a standard of beauty that is a reason John might have incorporated into his preference. I'm not necessarily saying that it would have been bad or stupid for John to prefer another painting; I'm not necessarily saying that John had to prefer paintings specifically based on their beauty; I'm not saying there was some rule that John was bound by to prefer beautiful paintings; I'm not even saying that in preferring the painting because of its beauty he was doing so in one way (e.g., because he would like it) rather than another way (e.g., because someone he liked would like it), which I would need to in order to identify what norms, if any, might be relevant. I'm very definitely not saying that if he had preferred another painting, he would have violated any norm, because norms need not be involved at all.

The same goes for the second challenge. Descartes, to block the evil deceiver, didn't need to identify a norm to which God was subject. The principle that blocks the evil genius is not, "God should not be a deceiver", but rather "God is not a deceiver". The Cartesian principle doesn't work -- indeed, it is hard to see how it could work -- as a norm; it does so as a fact. (Since it is a kind of necessary fact, one might hold that it also implies, by deontic necessitation, a norm of not being a deceiver; but, first of all, it's not this that lets it play the role it does, and, second, lots of people don't like deontic systems that have deontic necessitation.) 

Reilly seems to have the notion that norms are the only things that make sense of intelligent action at all; it plays a role in his rejection of 'divine love' responses, for instance. But this is simply untrue. Even in our own case, many of our intelligible reasons for doing things are not norms; indeed, arguably, even in many cases in which they are consistent with norms, the norm plays no role in understanding the action itself. If I raise a beer in honor of a comrade, there's no norm that says I have to; I don't do it to fulfill a norm; I'm not being guided by a norm in doing it.  There are norms that are maybe relevant to someone else's assessment of what I am doing, but my consistency with those likely has no role to play in my actually doing it. It's just a thing I can do, and there's a reason one might do it, and even though I could perfectly well not do it or do something else instead, I do it for that reason. That makes perfect sense, and I haven't appealed to anything normative at all. Even in our own case, even when we can judge actions by norms, we can often explain them without any appeal to norms at all.

I suspect too that Reilly is confusing 'being guided by a norm or standard in preferring something' and 'preferring something because it has a quality assessed by reference to a norm or standard'. The NNT is not claiming that God's effects are 'no norms', just that God's actions are 'no norms'. God could very well, non-normatively, pick effects to be consistent with certain norms. A painter might not be bound by a standard for the act of painting to produce a certain painting, but he could perfectly will choose to produce a painting in light of a particular standard for the painting that is painted. The professional painter is not in any way bound by the rules of classical style in making a painting, for instance, but he can certainly choose to paint a painting that itself is governed by the rules of classical style. I am not bound by the rules of chess to play chess; in lots of circumstances where other obligations don't come in, I'm not even really required to consider myself bound by the rules of chess in playing chess -- I can make up a game of fairy chess as I go. But this doesn't prevent me from choosing to play a game of chess according to the rules of chess, and I could indeed do so simply because I like a game of chess played strictly by the rules of chess. My choice to play a rule-bound game of chess is not because my choice is rule-bound by the rules of chess. Norms for acts are not norms for intended objects of acts; norms for objects are not norms for acts. NNT is not claiming that God can't choose to make creatures that are bound by norms, but only that God is not bound by any. Indeed, it is entirely consistent with NNT to say that there are norms for any creatures God might create but not for God's creative action itself.

Someone who accepts NNT can perfectly well say that God likes norms for creation without having to say that God's liking is because of a norm on divine likings. Why, for instance, does God create James Reilly? Does he need to be guided by a norm in creating James Reilly? Maybe God creates James Reilly because God likes James Reilly; or maybe God likes something else, and James Reilly makes a sort of nice accompaniment or aperitif or heightening contrast to it, so why not make James Reilly, too; or maybe something of both. There seems nothing wrong, at least from the perspective of what 'no norms' theism requires, with saying that God does some things just because God likes them, just out of divine lila or superabundant divine goodness.

So in short, the basic position, NNT, seems not really to be affected by the challenges; someone who accepts NNT is only really going to have trouble with them if they for some reason also accept some of Reilly's more controvertible views about norms.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Fortnightly Book, November 20

 Sixty-five years ago, in 1957, a science fiction novel was published that had as its theme the role and power of the human mind. It was an instant bestseller and, despite being famous for certain peculiar literary choices, has remained in print and popular ever since,  and thus has claim to being one of the most successful science fiction novels of all time. It tells the story of a young woman who rises to prominence in a male-dominated and, we find in the course of the novel, passive-aggressively misogynistic industry; she succeeds by brilliance and competence, but finds it an ongoing struggle, because her male colleagues continually dump responsibilities on her, hoping that she will crash and burn, while continually shirking their own responsibilities. Instead of actually doing good work, they prefer to grease palms and trade favors in the good-ol'-boys network, using their connections to get themselves bailed out of the results of their incompetence. In the midst of her struggle, this dynamic young woman connects with a brilliant, hard-working inventor who has discovered a metal stronger and cheaper than steel, and with his help she hopes to be able to save her family's business and pave the path to a new future. Against them, however, is arrayed corporate America, with its long tendrils interlocked with those of parties in the U.S. government, and an endless field of non-governmental organizations willing to lie, cheat, and steal to oppose people who dare not to toe the party line. And on top of it all, the greatest minds of the day are mysteriously vanishing, one by one, as the U.S. economy heads toward collapse.

I am speaking, of course, of Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, her fourth and (notoriously) longest novel. It was largely hated by the critics, but has been a popular favorite, continually getting on lists of the best American novels of the twentieth century, whenever those lists are open to popular nomination and vote. Keeping enthusiastic readers for sixty-five years is not a minor accomplishment, and it is likely to be read for some time yet. 

One reason for doing this work now, besides its sixty-fifth anniversary, is the recent FTX scandal. FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange company, built not on actually producing anything but on a lot of promises, bought favors, and glittering appeals to altruism and giving, getting its support not from quality work but from pouring money into faddish progressive causes, relying on political connections rather than actual accountability, the perception of whose success depended not on actual achievement but on favorable press: one could not imagine a more perfect exemplification of what Rand criticizes in this novel. Even Rand would have hesitated, for realism's sake, in putting some of the justifications that were thrown around for FTX's behavior into the mouth of one of her (deliberately) melodramatic villains. Even Taggart Transcontinental and Associated Steel in her novels had to produce physical results sometimes. Truth is more cartoonish than fiction.