About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bad reasoning about reasoning

by Massimo Pigliucci
A recent paper on the evolutionary psychology of reasoning has made mainstream news, with extensive coverage by the New York Times, among others. Too bad the “research” is badly flawed, and the lesson drawn by Patricia Cohen’s commentary in the Times is precisely the wrong one.
Readers of this blog and listeners to our podcast know very well that I tend to be pretty skeptical of evolutionary psychology in general. The reason isn’t because there is anything inherently wrong about thinking that (some) human behavioral traits evolved in response to natural selection. That’s just an uncontroversial consequence of standard evolutionary theory. The devil, rather, is in the details: it is next to impossible to test specific evopsych hypotheses because the crucial data are often missing. The fossil record hardly helps (if we are talking about behavior), there are precious few closely related species for comparison (and they are not at all that closely related), and the current ecological-social environment is very different from the “ERE,” the Evolutionarily Relevant Environment (which means that measuring selection on a given trait in today’s humans is pretty much irrelevant).
That said, I was curious about Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber’s paper, “Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory,” published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (volume 34, pp. 57-111, 2011), which is accompanied by an extensive peer commentary. My curiosity was piqued in particular because of the Times’ headline from the June 14 article: “Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth.” Oh crap, I thought.
Mercier and Sperber’s basic argument is that reason did not evolve to allow us to seek truth, but rather to win arguments with our fellow human beings. We are natural lawyers, not natural philosophers. This, according to them, explains why people are so bad at reasoning, for instance why we tend to fall for basic mistakes such as the well known confirmation bias — a tendency to seek evidence in favor of one’s position and discount contrary evidence that is well on display in politics and pseudoscience. (One could immediately raise the obvious “so what?” objection to all of this: language possibly evolved to coordinate hunting and gossip about your neighbor. That doesn’t mean we can’t take writing and speaking courses and dramatically improve on our given endowment, natural selection be damned.)
The first substantive thing to notice about the paper is that there isn’t a single new datum to back up the central hypothesis. It is one (long) argument in which the authors review well known cognitive science literature and simply apply evopsych speculation to it. If that’s the way to get into the New York Times, I better increase my speculation quotient.
The second thing that ought to strike the reader as strange is the very idea that one can meaningfully talk about “reasoning” as if it were a well defined biological trait, like having a prehensile tail. Reasoning is a complex activity that draws on a variety of brain structures that certainly predated the “evolution” of reasoning itself, which means that — at best — natural selection has co-opted bits and pieces of those structures as in a sort of Rube Goldberg contraption. That would account for the “puzzling” fact that human reasoning is so prone to failure.
Moreover, as commentator Darcia Narvaez (University of Notre Dame) put it in the Times article, “reasoning is something that develops from experience” and language — which is necessary to communicate our reasoning (and therefore for arguing) — is a very late comer in human evolution. The unspoken corollary being that therefore there has been comparatively little time for natural selection to have much of an impact.
Things get even more odd if one begins to pick apart the Mercier and Sperber paper. They start out by saying that “we outline an approach to reasoning based on the idea that the primary function for which it evolved is the production and evaluation of arguments in communication.” But this assumes, again, that “reasoning” is a sufficiently coherent biological trait that historically took on a well defined “function,” none of which is at all uncontroversial or well established.
But the real problem with the paper comes near the end, when the authors have to admit that human reasoning actually works pretty darn well — when it is used in a group context and people are motivated to seek the truth (as opposed to an individual context, or when people are motivated by personal gain). For instance:
“In group reasoning experiments where participants share an interest in discovering the right answer, it has been shown that truth wins ... In these group tasks, individual participants come up with and propose to the group the same inappropriate answers that they come up with in individual testing. The group success is due to, first and foremost, the filtering of a variety of solutions, achieved through evaluation. ... Reasoning is responsible for some of the greatest achievements of human thought in the epistemic and moral domains. This is undeniably true, but the achievements involved are all collective and result from interactions over many generations.”
No kidding. There is absolutely nothing new here. For instance, sociologist and philosopher Helen Longino has long pointed out that science itself works because it is a social process of continuous peer review, where individual biases are countered by other individual biases (and by the existence of an actual physical world that doesn’t care about human biases). So it turns out that it isn’t that humans are bad at reasoning, but rather that reasoning itself is an inherent social activity, that works well in a group context. Is this a different phenomenon from individual reasoning? Is this too the result of natural selection? At the group level, perhaps? Mercier and Sperber do not say.
There also seems to be a basic logical flaw in the authors’ argument. When, for instance, they say: “in most discussions, rather than looking for flaws in our own arguments, it is easier to let the other person find them and only then adjust our arguments, if necessary.” That may very well be true, but wouldn’t that select for better and better ways to spot bad arguments in other people’s reasoning? And wouldn’t that lead to the evolution of near-perfect logicians? You see how easy it is to spin evopsych scenarios?
Moreover, there is a question of how necessary the invocation of a new theory actually is in this context. Again Mercier and Sperber: “True, most of [our] predictions can be derived from other theories ... In our discussion of motivated reasoning and of reason-based choice, not only did we converge in our prediction with existing theories, but we also extensively borrowed from them.” Oh, so other explanations are both possible and viable, and there are no new data to discriminate among the offerings. Do I smell pseudoscience here?
Finally, a comment on the way these “findings” have been reported. While the Times article is actually a pretty good reflection of the paper itself (and of the peer commentaries thereof), the tone and particularly the title suggest that philosophers, logicians and the like have been misguided in their insistence on the power of human reason. But if anything Mercier and Sperber’s theory (or, more seriously, the vast literature on cognitive biases) argues that we need philosophy, logic, science and critical thinking all the more — as a counter to the natural tendency of humanity to think badly. When commenting on the fact that a relatively small percentage of people is capable of sound reasoning (for instance in the famous Wason selection task — which I teach in my critical reasoning course), the authors say: “this is an acquired skill and involves exercising some imperfect control over a natural disposition that spontaneously pulls in a different direction.” Right, and those skills are honed precisely by studying and by exposing people to constant (as rational as we can muster) dialogue. I wonder why that little observation didn’t make it into the Times article.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Michael’s Picks

by Michael De Dora
* If you live in or near New York City, there is a film festival about morality and social justice sponsored by the Human Rights Watch ongoing until June 30.
* A United Nations resolution marks the first time the international body has officially endorsed the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people.
* A New York Times editorial argues that: “Many judges wrongly view mandatory disqualification rules involving election money as a personal insult and a threat to judicial independence. The real threat to independence lies in doing nothing to protect judicial integrity in the face of obvious conflicts.”
* A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that Freakonomics author Steven Levitt had outlined on his blog his case for “The Daughter Test” of morality and law. Weeks later, Levitt’s post is still being discussed. The latest addition to this conversation is on The Economist blog, in which the author proposes a corollary called “The Parent Test.”
* Noted neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has written a new book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, and has done a couple of interviews about it. Here are two I’ve found worth the read: The Los Angeles Times and Wired.
* Should public schools rent their space to religious organizations? Here is a news story (from The Tennesseean) and an op-ed (in the Times).
* A post arguing that humans are the only animals with morality.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Michael Hecht-Rationally Speaking affair

by Massimo Pigliucci & Julia Galef
As many of our readers and podcast listeners have now learned, author, colleague and friend Jennifer Michael Hecht has started an internet campaign on June 22nd using social media to accuse us of plagiarism. This was done without contacting us first, despite a long association of both Rationally Speaking and NYC Skeptics with Jennifer, an association which has included a full episode of the podcast featuring her as a guest, as well as her recent appearance at the April 2011 Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism.
Jennifer apparently believes that we in some form stole her ideas, as presented in her 2008 book, The Happiness Myth, and is so upset about it that she has even contacted Julia’s family about the matter. We have immediately called and emailed Jennifer directly to ask what was going on — initially under the not entirely implausible hypothesis that someone had stolen her online identity and used it for nefarious purposes (we have received in the past and continue to receive death threats and plenty of insulting or smearing emails, so this isn’t as far fetched as it may sound). Instead, Jennifer confirmed that she was indeed upset with us.
We then asked her exactly what the problem was, as we were absolutely sure that we hadn’t even opened her book in months and certainly couldn’t have plagiarized anything from it. At this point the story becomes confusing, as Jennifer seems to be accusing us of different things at different times, including: that we stole verbatim from her book; that we covered “the same topics in the same order”; that we adopted her “tapestry” when talking about happiness; that we stole from the previous podcast we did with her; or that we stole from a conversation she had with us at NECSS.
We protested our innocence, emphasizing that the only areas of overlap between her book and our podcast concern a few very common topics about happiness (its treatment by Aristotle and Epicurus, so-called happiness “set points,” and the question of whether wealth is connected to happiness). These, we pointed out, are so fundamental to a discussion of happiness that they are practically mandatory in any treatment of it. It would be odd indeed to have a show on happiness and not mention the research on set points, or on income and happiness — sort of like talking about evolution without mentioning Darwin and natural selection. We also pointed out that said topics make up only a small fraction of those we discussed in the podcast, and of her book for that matter. These ideas are certainly not Jennifer’s original contributions (of which there are many genuine examples in her book); rather, they have been widely discussed in the media, academic journals, and in many popular press books, such as Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Todd Gilbert, Authentic Happiness by Martin E. P. Seligman, and The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt.
It is important to understand that a podcast (as opposed to, say, a book, or a technical paper) is a summary for a lay audience, and is not in any way a scholarly pursuit towards defining new ideas on the topic. This means that it isn't even clear how the very concept of plagiarism could possibly apply in this context. Nevertheless, we asked Jennifer — multiple times — to provide us with a detailed list of her charges, such as at what points in the podcast we used exactly what from her book. We thought that was fair, considering that she was the one making the potentially damaging charges. She refused, stating that we should do that kind of home work on our own. So we did. Below is a table that Julia and I put together, with a minute-by-minute summary and commentary of the entire podcast.
We maintain that the following points ought to be clear to anyone who has both read Jennifer’s book and has listened to our podcast:
a) There is nothing in the podcast that was lifted verbatim or close to from her book. 
b) In no sensible way does the podcast follow the outline of the book. 
c) Those ideas that do overlap with Jennifer’s are common knowledge in the field. 
d) Several of the sources we use appeared subsequently to Jennifer’s book (Amazon says it was released on 5 February 2008, so none of her sources could possibly be more recent than 2007, while almost all of ours are).
We deeply regret this incident, particularly the manner in which Jennifer has chosen to exploit social networks to smear our reputation before even attempting to contact us and hear our side of the story. We stand by the content and form of our podcast, which we think is intrinsically interesting (while certainly not groundbreaking!). We also still profess admiration for Jennifer’s work, not just about happiness, but in her other books as well, and hope that this ugly incident can soon be put behind us so that we can all get back to what we enjoy doing: writing and talking about interesting topics for an intelligent and informed audience.


Annotated transcripts of Rationally Speaking podcast on “The Science and Philosophy of Happiness,” released on 19 June 2011:


Massimo explains that the ancient Greek philosophers treated the question of happiness as an ethical question; Aristotle said that the life of “flourishing” (eudaimonia) isn’t just the life that you want to live, it’s the life you ought to live. And Plato connected the idea of that life to the idea of a flourishing society.
This is common knowledge – you’d find it in any intro to ancient Greek philosophy.
Massimo explains concept of “akrasia,” or weakness of the will, which keeps us from living the flourishing life. 

This is common knowledge.
Julia introduces the field of “positive psychology” – recent trend in the field of psychology that focuses not on fixing negatives, but on getting more positives. 

This is common knowledge – Julia just explained what you’ll find under “positive psychology” on Wikipedia.
Julia mentions the spate of books about happiness that have come out recently (including Jennifer’s The Happiness Myth), and Massimo notes that Jennifer was fairly skeptical of happiness research. 

This obviously doesn’t need a source.
Julia explains one striking finding from happiness studies: the idea that we have happiness “set points” that we return to.   

Widely discussed, but Julia first encountered it in Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk.
Massimo talks about correlational studies that try to explain the variation in happiness between people: about 50 percent apparently is due to the set point, 10 percent is the result of circumstances that people find themselves in. And 40 percent of the variance in happiness is the result of activities people choose to engage in.

Common knowledge – see this article from Psychology Today, for example. Massimo’s original source (found through Google Scholar) was: “I am so happy cause today I found my friend: friendship and personality as predictors of happiness” by Meliksah Demir and Lesley A. Weitekamp. Journal of Happiness Studies, volume 8, pp. 181-211, 2007. This fact does not seem to be mentioned in Jennifer’s book.

Julia makes the point that even though a lot of events that happen to you might not budge your happiness from your set point, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some things you could do, if you knew what they were, to budge your happiness permanently.

Julia talks about some findings from positive psychology that have been empirically shown to increase happiness:
- thinking about what you’re grateful for
- seeking out and forgiving people
- pursuing meaningful personal goals
- reflecting on your strengths and using those regularly

Julia is describing research from this paper, which Massimo emailed her before the podcast to look over: Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions.


Massimo says that you can’t be happy if you just keep pursuing pleasure, because of the hedonic treadmill – you get a short term boost but then go back to your earlier happiness level.

The concept of the “hedonic treadmill” is common knowledge. For instance, it is discussed in the above mentioned paper by Demir and Weitekamp.

Massimo brings up Epicurus, who said that friendship is a crucial component of being happy (and Facebook friends don’t count!). Julia argues that Facebook friends can increase your happiness, even strangers; Massimo disagrees.

Our debate about Fb was original; Epicurus’ endorsement of friendship as being crucial is common knowledge, discoverable even on Wikipedia.
Massimo discusses Christakis & Fowler’s research showing that human behavioral traits spread through social networks, similarly to an infectious disease.

Source is Christakis & Fowler. See for instance this commentary: “Biology, politics, and the emerging science of human nature” by James H. Fowler and Darren Schreiber. Science, volume 322, pp. 912-914, 2008.
Julia points out that cultural attitudes about happiness can bias people’s self-reports.

Julia first encountered this idea in a blog post by Will Wilkinson.
Massimo talks about ways around the measurement problem: don’t use the word ‘happiness’ (just ask person to rate the quality of their life).

Common knowledge in social science research. Again, see Demir and Weitekamp.
Julia brings up the “squishing effect,” in which you can’t be sure two people who rate their happiness a 7 out of 10, e.g., are actually experiencing the same level of happiness.
Julia first encountered this idea in Dan Gilbert’s book “Stumbling on Happiness.”

Massimo says you can get around that by measuring physiological symptoms like stress, which are highly correlated with self reports of happiness.
This is common knowledge – for instance, it’s discussed on the Wikipedia page for “Positive Psychology.” Massimo’s specific source was: “International happiness” by David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper n. 16668, 2011.

Julia brings up a study by Dan Haybron which showed that people in a noisy office were more stressed, physiologically, than people in a quiet office – and yet they self-reported as being equally stressed. So maybe we don’t have conscious access to our happiness level?
This is the study: Do We Know How Happy We Are? On Some Limits of Affective Introspection and Recall. Julia found it because it was cited in an article by Will Wilkinson.

Massimo points out that the Greek philosophers weren’t saying there’s only one way to lead a flourishing life. There are many paths to flourishing, but there are also many wrong paths.
This is common knowledge in philosophy.

Massimo discusses the connection between money and happiness: GDP has risen steadily in the US but self reported happiness hasn’t. One study found that every extra $1,000 corresponds on average to an increase of .002 on a social science index of happiness from 0 to 1. So it takes a lot of money to make much of a difference in self reported happiness.
Noting that GDP and happiness are different, the UN has invented a “Human Development Index” including things like health and education, which make for good predictor of happiness.
The data looking for a pattern between money (both individually and nationwide) and happiness have been very widely discussed, both by economists and in the popular media. Here’s a book about it called The Progress Paradox. Massimo’s original source was the Blanchflower and Oswald paper cited above.

Julia expresses skepticism that people’s self-reported happiness is actually a good measure of how they feel. Maybe people report being happy if they believe that their life circumstances are supposed to make them happy.
Julia thought of this point herself.

Massimo brings up data on happiness and having children. Parents’ self-reported life satisfaction is higher, but their experiential happiness (measured on a moment-to-moment basis) is lower. We argue about whether it makes sense to have high life satisfaction but low experiential happiness.
The findings about happiness and children have been very widely discussed in the media in the last two years. Julia first learned about them in this New York magazine article, “Why Parents Hate Parenting.” Massimo’s source was the Blachflower and Oswald paper.

Massimo talks about overall trends in happiness: women tend to be happier, wealthier and healthier and more educated people tend to be happier; married people are happier; whites are happier; people who exercise and eat fruit are happier.

These are facts from widely available surveys of happiness. Details in the Blanchflower and Oswald paper.

Massimo talks about cross-national happiness – Western Europe is quite happy, whereas most unhappy places in the world come from Eastern bloc countries. Factors correlated with national levels of happiness: Low unemployment and inflation, low inequality, strong welfare states, high public spending and democratic participation, etc.
Sources and references in the Blanchflower and Oswald paper.

Massimo talks about happiness over the course of a lifetime – it’s a U-shaped function. It’s shifted between the US and Europe – most unhappy age in US is 40, whereas in Europe it’s 54. Julia theorizes that it might have to do with the American obsession with youth and beauty.
Sources and references in the Blanchflower and Oswald paper.

Julia brings up a question from a blog reader who asks about our reaction to the views of Pascal Brueckner, a French philosopher who says the pressure to be happy is making us less happy. Julia quotes a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon.
The source of this topic was the reader who asked us the question.

Massimo talks about a study showing that Americans tend to be optimistic about the future, but discontent about current situation, whereas Europeans are content now but not optimistic.
Massimo was referring (from memory) to this article.
Julia says there is some truth to the idea that focusing on happiness is misguided, so it seems that actively pursuing happiness is not the best way to achieve it; she quotes John Stuart Mill.
Julia originally got this idea from Bertrand Russell, in his book “The Conquest of Happiness.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lena's Picks

by Lena Groeger
* All about Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (my favorite philosopher-atheist-novelist) and the way religion has shaped her life and her fiction.
* How would you measure the better life? This interactive graphic lets you rank countries based on which topics (education, health, life satisfaction, etc.) you decide are the most important. 
* In this “ecosystem of interruption technologies,” how do we tell stories of slow violence? The difficulty of communicating about environmental disasters.
* In his controversial new book on the nature of human cruelty, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen defines evil as an absence of empathy. (For your own “empathy quotient,” you can take his online test here.) 
* Why the 17th century philosopher Spinoza is a hot stock. Descartes, not so much.
* “The ‘truth’ produced by think-tank denizens lies somewhere between that of journalism and academia.” Eric Alterman on how notion of truth shifts depending on whether your concern is tenure, deadlines, or grants.   
* Apparently a new brain implant can restore memory (in rats). 
* Whether you take it as disturbing rhetorical art project or political statement, the Death Coaster — or “hypothetic euthanasia machine” — is bound to spark some heated debate.
* “Some people claim never to have been bored. They lie.” Everything you never really wanted to read about boredom. 
* The Guardian published a series of takes on A.C. Grayling’s star-studded “New College for the Humanities.” Here, here, and here.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The five top regrets of dying people

by Massimo Pigliucci
Bronnie Ware is the author (a bit too much on the mystical-touchy-feely side for my taste) of the blog “Inspiration and Chai” (QED). But she has also worked for years in palliative care, thereby having the life-altering experience of sharing people’s last few weeks and listening to what they regretted the most about their now about to end lives. The result is this list of “top five” things people wished they had done differently:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This is, of course, anecdotal evidence from a single source, and as such it needs to be taken with a rather large grain of salt. But it is hard to read the list and not begin reflecting on your own life — even if you are (hopefully!) very far from the end.
Ware’s list, of course, is precisely why Socrates famously said that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (in Apology 38a, Plato’s rendition of Socrates’ speech at his trial), and why Aristotle considered the quest for eudaimonia (flourishing) a life-long commitment the success of which can be assessed only at the very end.
Let’s then briefly consider the list and see what we can learn from it. Beginning with the first entry, I’m not sure what it means for someone to be true to oneself, but I take it that the notion attempts to get at the fact that too many of us cave to societal forces early on and do not actually follow our aspirations. The practicalities of life have a way of imposing themselves on us, beginning with parental pressure to enter a remunerative career path and continuing with the fact that no matter what your vocation is you still have to somehow pay the bills and put dinner on the table every evening. And yet, you wouldn’t believe the number of people I’ve met in recent years who — about midway through their expected lifespan — suddenly decided that what they had been doing with their lives during the previous couple of decades was somewhat empty and needed to change. Almost without exception, these friends in their late ‘30s or early ‘40s contemplated — and many actually followed through — going back to (graduate) school and preparing for a new career in areas that they felt augmented the meaningfulness of their lives (often, but not always, that meant teaching). One could argue that such self-examination should have occurred much earlier, but we are often badly equipped, in terms of both education and life experience, to ask ourselves that sort of question when we are entering college. Better midway than at the end, though...
The second entry in Ware’s list is more likely to make sense for Americans than for other people, particularly Europeans. There is much to admire in the work ethic of Americans, but it is also true that in this society people willingly forgo vacation time, weekends, and evenings just so that they can get more work done, even when their job is not helping to fulfill their lives but simply a means to an end. American workers are significantly more stressed than other people, and as a result they enjoy their lives much less. To add insult to injury, they are steeped in a society that actually makes fun of, say, France's short work week, or more in general, disdain the European “socialist” approach that allows people (God forbid!) to take sick leave without losing their pay, or to take care of their infant children while retaining their jobs.
The third point is also a bit puzzling from the point of view of a non-American. My European and South American friends seem to have little trouble expressing their feelings, and that goes for both men and women. But the US is, of course, the country where the quintessential icons are the tough silent guys with a gun (midwest and south) or the Woody Allen-type neurotic individual who spends a lifetime in therapy — neither of which seems a particularly appealing model to me. I suspect one’s ability to express feelings is greatly facilitated by the presence of the fourth ingredient of a happy life: friends.
Accordingly, the fourth entry — about friendship — follows the same pattern as the ones above. For Epicurus, friendship is a major way to ataraxia, or tranquillity in life: “Of all the things which wisdom provides to make life entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.” Aristotle developed a sophisticated theory of friendship, recognizing three types: of pleasure, of utility, and of virtue. The first kind applies to situations in which one is a person’s friend because of the direct pleasure that friendship brings — for instance because you like people who are good conversationalists, or with whom you can go to concerts, and so on. Friendships of utility are those in which one gains a tangible benefit, either economic or political, from the relationship. The implication is not that one has utility friendships for the purpose of exploiting the other person, first because of course the advantage can be reciprocal, and second because a business or political relationship doesn’t preclude you having genuine feelings of affection for your partner or colleague. For Aristotle, though, the highest kind of friendship was one of virtue, where you are friends with someone because of the kind of person he is, because of her virtues. I suspect it is largely the latter — most precious and difficult to achieve — that Ware’s patients had in mind during the last few weeks of their lives.
Finally, we have this idea of letting oneself be happy. This, I think, is actually the result of what one does with the other four. Happiness in the sense of flourishing — Aristotle’s lifelong project — is the compound outcome of doing what one finds meaningful, of achieving a balance between work and other aspects of one’s life, of being able to engage our fellow human beings at both a rational and an emotional level, and of cultivating true friendships and other important relationships. It is therefore a bit misleading to think of “letting” oneself be happy. Eudaimonic happiness is actually hard and constant work, but it is the kind of work that allows you to get to your final few weeks of existence, look back, and think: wow, it really was a good life that I lived. And a bit more examination here and there will likely help you to arrive at that happy conclusion.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

New 5-minute Philosopher video: On miracles

Marta: Hello David! How are you today?

David: Hi Marta, I'm fine thanks. I wonder if you have a moment to talk about miracles.

M: As you know, it's one of my favorite topics David, what specifically did you have in mind?

D: I'm trying to understand David Hume's famous argument about miracles, which is still used today by skeptics of religion and of other unusual claims. In the words of astronomer Carl Sagan, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

M: Yes, that was Sagan's rendition of Hume's famous conclusion that "a wise man proportions his belief to evidence."

D: Right, but how did Hume arrive at that conclusion, Marta?

M: Well, he started out by acknowledging that human experience is fallible, and that we have all manners of degrees of confidence concerning specific matters of fact.

D: Right, from what I understand, Hume thought that it is reasonable to doubt in particular alleged facts that have rarely or never been reported before.

M: Exactly. So Hume proceeded to define miracles as violations of the laws of nature, and to argue that the validity of the laws of nature is one of the things we can be most sure of, because we observe it every day.

D: Did Hume distinguish between miracles and just very unusual occurrences?

M: Yes, he said: "It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country."

D: Ah, right, that is an important difference. So now I understand why he said that "no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish."

M: Precisely, my dear David. Indeed, Hume went on to argue that when someone confronts us with the possibility of a miracle we need to ask ourselves "whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened."

D: On that basis Hume concluded that there is not a single reliable case of a miracle in all of human history. But how did he explain the fact that people report miracles nonetheless?

M: Here is what he said in response to that question: “The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived.”

D: So his opinion was that people are fascinated by strange occurrences, and so readily believe them. And I think he also pointed out that it is easy for some people to take advantage of the credulity of others, or even simply that one feels good about having witnessed such an extraordinary event. All of which explains why people are so easily mistaken or credulous about miracles.

M: Not only that. Hume also pointed out that, strangely enough, one doesn't see many miracles these days, possibly because people have gotten a bit more sophisticated and less credulous.

D: And if I'm not mistaken he went on to make some remarkably daring statements for his time. He said that "it is impossible the religions of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China should, all of them, be established on any solid foundation.” I guess he meant that it is rather strange for any particular religion to claim that it is the true one, when there are so many others making the same claim, all of them based on precious little evidence.

M: Exactly. Hume also had a viable theory for how some religions manage to establish themselves in the long run. He said: "In the infancy of new religions,the wise and learned commonly esteem the matter too inconsiderable to deserve their attention or regard. And when afterwards they would willingly detect the cheat, in order to undeceive the deluded multitude, the season is now past, and the records and witnesses, which might clear up the matter, have perished beyond recovery.”

D: Do we have any recent examples of this phenomenon that one may study?

M: Oh yes, plenty. Take for instance the establishment of the Mormon religion in the 1820s, or the even more recent rise of Scientology, invented by science fiction writer Ron Hubbard in 1952.

D: Wow, Hume surely had guts to talk about this stuff back in the 18th century. Did he get into trouble for that?

M: Well, nothing serious. He could never get a university post, and his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion were published after his death, originally anonymously. But Hume lived in the age of the Enlightenment, and thankfully by then the time of witch burning was over.

D: Still, modern philosophers and skeptics certainly owe David Hume a major debt for his clear treatment of all sorts of nonsense.

M: Indeed David, Indeed.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Podcast Double-Teaser: The science and philosophy of free will AND Q&A with Julia and Massimo

by Massimo Pigliucci
Time for another couple of episodes of the Rationally Speaking podcast. In the first we are going to tackle the never ending debates about free will, with a couple of twists. We will begin by examining the concept of free will from the standard philosophical perspective, then ask what — if anything — modern neuroscience can tell us about it, and come back to the interface between philosophy and science to explore how the two approaches may complement each other.
David Hume famously defined free will as “a power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will,” i.e. free will is the ability to act according to our considerate desires, or as Timothy O’Connor put it: “the ability to select a course of action as a means of fulfilling some desire.”
The main problem facing philosophical discussions of free will is the issue of determinism. The crucial question is: if everything that happens in the universe is the result of causal necessary relations (e.g., the laws of physics), then how can one have a “free” will in the sense of a decision making mechanism that is independent of both external (e.g., environmental) and internal (e.g., one’s genetic makeup) influences? There are essentially three types of answers to this issue, which divide philosophers into compatibilists, “libertarian” incompatibilists, and deterministic incompatibilists. We will explore all three during the episode.
It also turns out that there are several conceptions of volition that can be investigated neurobiologically. Specifically, neurobiologists distinguish among at least the following five possibilities: 1) free will as initiation of motor activity, as in Benjamin Libet’s famous experiment (more during the podcast); 2) as “executive control,” Libet’s own idea that we still have veto power over our unconscious decisions; 3) as a feeling of ownership, which turns out to have its own distinctive neurological basis; 4) as intention, which philosophers think of as a representational stage between deliberation and action (although according to some, intentions may be unconscious); and finally 5) as decision making, which can be a long process that may in fact take hours or days, depending on its object. This situation may reflect the very real possibility that “free will” isn’t a unitary phenomenon after all, but a broad label that we apply to a set of disparate things that the brain does.
In the second episode, Julia and I will do what we like to do from time to time: simply take your questions and turn them into a lively open ended discussion between friends. So, fire away your suggestions for topics...

Monday, June 13, 2011

Drug testing for welfare

by Michael De Dora
As you may have already heard, Florida recently became the first state to require adults applying for cash welfare assistance (i.e., not food stamps and housing assistance) to undergo drug screenings. Florida Gov. Rick Scott defended the new rule by arguing that:
“It’s not right for taxpayer money to be paying for somebody’s drug addiction. … On top of that, this is going to increase personal responsibility, personal accountability. We shouldn’t be subsidizing people’s addiction.”
The new law, according to Scott, would ensure cash welfare funds go to their primary target (disadvantaged children) and also provide incentives for welfare recipients to not use drugs. The sentiment driving Scott’s reasoning is admirable: there are needy people, and the government is trying to help them, but many are abusing this act of kindness by using the funds on drugs instead of their children. Yet, there are problems with the basic logic of requiring drug tests for welfare recipients.
I should state up front that I believe making “drugs” illegal is largely a mistake, with the exclusion of several hard drugs. There is simply no good reason to consider many of the commonly used recreational drugs, such as marijuana, more dangerous than tobacco or alcohol. Arguably, marijuana is the safest of the three. But this is an issue for another essay, so let us focus on more practical questions concerning the new Florida law.
The most powerful argument against the new law stems from a constitutional standpoint. Organizations such as the ACLU have argued that the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from being searched without probable cause. As the amendment reads:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The ACLU’s position has been upheld in prior court rulings. For instance, in 2000 a similar Michigan law was struck down. To be sure, the Supreme Court and lower courts have allowed drug testing — but in very specific situations, not broad ones like the proposed Florida law. As such, I think there is good reason to think that the new law will eventually be rejected (whether on the Fourth Amendment or the Equal Protection Clause).
Even if implemented, there are serious doubts about whether the law will have any success. Will the law actually re-direct money to the children? Will it lessen drug use in welfare households? The answer to both questions is, at best, “maybe.” The new law stipulates, “those who fail the required drug testing may designate another individual to receive the benefits on behalf of their children.” This would last for at least six months, and up to one year; if the person in question fails the test a second time, there would be a three-year ban. But is there any assurance that the person designated — who I assume will be a relative or close friend — won’t simply hand the funds to the banned recipient? Whether the law will lessen drug use in welfare households is equally unclear. Oppressive American drug policy has done little to deter people from seeking to use drugs, and I don’t see any reason why the same approach would suddenly work in this case.
But the most compelling question to me is this: why drug test poor people? Gov. Scott’s argument hinges on the concept of “benefits”: the state is providing aid to a human being in need, and that human being should prove he or she is not spending any of the said aid on drugs. Yet as State Rep. Alcee Hastings notes, there are many groups of people who receive such “benefits” from the U.S government:
"If Governor Scott wants to drug test recipients of TANF benefits, where does he draw the line? Are families receiving Medicaid, state emergency relief, or educational grants and loans next?"
Of all possible options, why choose the poor? It would seem more reasonable to subject educational grants and loans to such standards! Or defense contractors, who make billions and are given license to kill in foreign countries. Or perhaps we should test lawmakers and judges and other public officials who govern our daily lives (laws requiring this have been struck down). Or, for that matter, why not test every American citizen? In some sense we all “benefit” from living in this society, whether financially or socially. Of all possible options, there seems no compelling reason to pick the poor. We could find drug users in many pools of the population. Requiring an entire group to be tested necessitates more than just an argument from use.
I have a feeling many of the people who are for drug testing welfare recipients have an underlying objection to welfare itself. These people believe things like: “the federal government should not play the role of parent; people should not depend on the government to live; we all have the ability to succeed and no one group of people should get special treatment” (of course, let us remember that the special treatment in this case = trying to keep people fed, clothed, and in homes). And, they see a higher rate of drug use in welfare recipients as evidence of an abused system.
If one adheres to any sort of concept of free will, then it must be true that people have the capability to control their lives, to a point. But modernity has demonstrated convincingly that human beings need certain minimum levels of money, food, and opportunity to be in a position to use those capabilities to the fullest extent. Placed in lower standards of living, every human will have a tougher path with less opportunity. This likely means you will be slightly more prone to use drugs, or maybe it just means the cops pay more attention to you. But, this is most likely a result of your situation having been largely outside of your control to begin with.
My point here is twofold: many of the problems associated with welfare (drug use) are not problems because of welfare; and while welfare might not be ideal, it is necessary and fixable. There are many ways to improve the current welfare program (and I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments). Considering welfare recipients lazy, government money-hoarding second-class citizens is not one of them. Those in poverty are often born into poverty, with little support from either the government or society, and lead terribly challenging lives that many of us cannot even fathom. Why we would want to further punish them is beyond me. Instead, we should consider supporting them even more, which might help these people escape the circumstances that lead to higher drug use. Indeed, that might be the the most productive route toward fixing the welfare system.