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The Beauty of Forests Ravaged by Pine Beetles

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Don’t you find those swaths of beetle killed forests beautiful? Well you should.  At least that’s the conclusion I argued for last year in a talk I gave for an Environmental Studies Colloquium Series at CU.   So if you aren’t framing your prints of beetle killed forests yet, then you better read on.

The gist of my argument runs as follows:

1.  Appreciation of an aesthetic object requires that we appreciate it for what it is

2.  When we appreciate nature for what it is we find it aesthetically positive.

3.  Pine beetle killed forests are natural

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4.   When we appreciate Pine Beetle forests for what they are we find them aesthetically positive.

Aesthetic appreciation is more than beauty.   It means to appreciate our perception of something.  To truly perceive something we need to get beneath its surface reflections.  Perception is also a cognitive. Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ was one of the most important artworks of the 20th century, yet you wouldn’t know it by looking at it.  It’s not beautiful or pretty.  It is aesthetically significant because engaging the artwork asks the questions of “what is art?”  That is, it does that if you know something about the history of art.  Yes your child could paint something that looks like that (Cy Twombly painting) but your child couldn’t make that artwork.

Cy Twombly

Marcel Duchamp

Before you get bent out of shape by thinking that I’m denying your right to like representational paintings of cuddly kitties, that’s not what I’m saying.  You can like it, you just shouldn’t think anyone else should.

Of course, to appreciate pretty nature (like pretty art) doesn’t take much knowledge.  The Grand Canyon, the Maroon Bells, a rainbow  are easy.  Yet, like ‘Fountain’ there are more challenging aesthetic objects in nature.  A grasslands, maggots digesting a dead elk, or a pine beetle killed forest might require some background knowledge before one can appreciate what one sees.  However, if one does know something of ecology then there is no reason to disparage these cases.  Indeed viewing a wolf kill might be aesthetically challenging, but much more interesting than seeing those old, lazy Estes Park elk.

Now you might say, knowledge might help us like challenging aesthetic objects, but must we like maggots and beetle kills?   I mean, knowing about art, often helps us to dislike it.  This is true and highlights one difference between art and nature.  When we appreciate an artwork for what it is, in part we are appreciating the artistry.  Not all artistry is good.  Art can fail: it can fail to be interesting or it may be ambitious in vision but poorly executed.   Nature appreciation is not an appreciation of artistry.  We appreciate its history, its form, its vibrant cycle of creation and destruction, and the relationship of particulars to their community and to their species.   Nature cannot fail and so when we appreciate it for what it is, we should appreciate it positively.

Now a pine beetle assault like we have seen in Colorado is not an everyday occurrence, but it is not exactly a rarity either.   Pine beetles are native species to Colorado forests and outbreaks are a regular occurrence.    I’m not an ecologist, but fortunately the talk last October featured one: Tania Schoennagel.  She argued that the present outbreak is within the historic range of variation, that it seemed to have natural causes, and did not present any unique crisis in effect.   In other words, beetles are part of a “healthy” (although this is a more metaphorical than scientific term) forest.

So putting those premises together, if you appreciate the beetle killed forests for what they are: an integral part of the forest ecology then you should find it aesthetically positive.  This is not to say that you’ll find it pretty or beautiful, it’s an acquired taste.  However, it seems worthy of all sorts of positive attributes: interesting, dynamic, surprising (in some ways), and powerful.

So why do so many people think that beetle kills are ugly?  For the same reason that people think their children’s scribblings deserve to be put on display in a museum: ignorance.   With our temporal shortsightedness we see the dying trees and think “it will never be the same again.”  We get sentimental about dying things, and we think that dead trees are bad.  Dying aspen leaves are pretty because we are savvy enough to know that the trees don’t die and that the leaves grow back.   To worry about the lack of prettiness of a pine beetle forest is to appreciate it in the wrong way.  It imposes a landscape appreciation on nature and as such appreciates nature as art (not for what it is).

Now, that’s about where I ran out of time in my talk and it’s probably a good thing.  That’s because so far I have dodged some hard questions about beetles and beauty.   The first question is what effect have humans had on prolonging the beetle outbreak because of climate change?  During the Q&A I sort of waved my hand toward the scientist and repeated the phrase “within the historic range of variation”.   While that sounds good, it’s misleading.  Although the outbreak may be within the scope of past outbreaks this does not tell us whether the current outbreak is bigger than it would have been.

We deal with the same question in the climate change debate directly although environmentalists would like to pretend that we don’t.  That is, people who know, know that the earth has been hotter and colder than the range of changes predicted to come about from human caused climate change.  Said another way, the impending climate change is within the historic range of variation.  While the skeptics who point this out are scientifically correct they are morally obtuse.

Mother Nature is not responsible for her actions but we are.   We can do otherwise.  The people who know, know that humans are effecting changes that will cause (and maybe already are causing) harms to humans and other species.  We bear the responsibility for these harms.   So for climate change in general and the pine beetle outbreak in particular, it may look natural, but it isn’t.  It’s like “Fountain,” it may look like a urinal, but it’s not.

This then prompts the second hard question, how should this knowledge affect our aesthetic appreciation?   When we view the pine beetle outbreak we must view its naturalness but we must also view the heavy hand of humans which has likely extended it.  This mixed appreciation is worthy of mixed emotions.   It’s as if nature had created a beautiful stone arch and humankind decided that it was not round enough and so taken a chisel to it, or perhaps it’s like the beautiful sunset that we know has been enhanced by the particulate matter belched from industrial smokestacks.    Maybe more aptly, it is a case of poorly performed dynamics; a crescendo rendered too quickly and forte rendered fortissimo (o.k. it’s been since I was 12 since I played piano and knew –sort of- what these terms meant).   Perhaps as we learn more about the scope of our present effect on the outbreak we will learn more how to interpret and judge this event.   Given what we know at present, I think the human hand tarnishes the beetle kill’s aesthetic delight but does not dispel it.

Photo by Lauren Buchholz

 

Written by sturgis

October 24, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Do species have intrinsic value?

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Does our CU football team suck?

In a recent post in the NYT philosophy blog, The Stone, Jeff McMahan takes the radical view that if it were feasible we should attempt to eliminate carnivorous animals so as to reduce the amount of suffering experienced in the world by their prey.    Not surprisingly most comments on his post, miss the “were it feasible” part and so heap abuse on McMahan and philosophers in general for this absurd proposal.   Yet, his thought experiment is well formed and raises an important conflict that I think is worthy of further consideration: the value of suffering vs. the intrinsic value of other species.

In principle, the argument that we should stop animals from causing suffering to one another is no different from the view that we should stop a child or an insane person from causing suffering.  Even if the child or insane person can’t control themselves and doesn’t know better, the suffering they cause is bad.  As such those people who do know better and can do something about it should.  While that view strikes some people as patently absurd, I’m more interested in assessing the argument he gives against the intrinsic value of species.  Mc Mahan is evaluating a conflict between two values, but his solution is to deny that there is a conflict.  He does not argue that the suffering is more important than the intrinsic value of species but rather that there is not a coherent notion of intrinsic value to be had.  Here is what he says:

“There are no universally agreed criteria for their individuation.  In practice, the most commonly invoked criterion is the capacity for interbreeding, yet this is well known to be imperfect and to entail intransitivities of classification when applied to ring species.  Nor has it ever been satisfactorily explained why a special sort of value should inhere in a collection of individuals simply by virtue of their ability to produce fertile offspring.”

If you can wade through the jargon you’ll find two objections: 1) a species isn’t a real thing 2) the sort of thing it is, can’t have value.

Now of course most commenters did not press him on these points because it’s a weird sort of thing to say.  What does it mean to say that “intrinsic value” is real?  How would we know if a species had it?  Would we find it under a microscope?

Intrinsic value like values in general might seem mysterious and even supernatural, but it doesn’t have to be that way. When we say that something is instrumentally valuable people understand that you are valuing it for its usefulness.  When we value something intrinsically we value it, but not for its benefit to us but for its sake.  While most people may not have a conception of intrinsic value they do think that slavery is wrong.  They think that whether they believe in something like a soul or not.  Instead, to value people intrinsically is a way we value them.  We say that people have their talents and uses (their instrumental values) but that beyond that they are worthy of basic respect.  They are intrinsically valuable, or if you like, they have intrinsic value.   Now while the boundaries of people are usually pretty clear and so individuating us is not a problem, consider the value we place on our local or college sports teams.

Rooting for your  college football team can be a kind of intrinsic valuing.  There is a good of the team.  I can appreciate it.  I value it.  Of course I may get benefits from watching them and talking about them (and disvalue from their failures) but I value their success.  Importantly this is not the same as just appreciating the success of all the players for if a player transfers I don’t value their success (and in fact disvalue it).  Are the Colorado Buffaloes a real thing?  Does the team include the trainers and the coaches?  What about the cheerleaders?  I don’t know and it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter because you can understand quite clearly what I mean by valuing the Buff’s success (beyond whatever benefits I might get from their success).  So similarly while the boundaries of a species may at times be murky this is not a reason I can’t cheer for it.  Teams may be abstract entities with fuzzy boundaries (like corporations or nations) but this lack of individuation doesn’t stop us from valuing them.

Now McMahan argues that only things with a certain degree of awareness can have interests and if something is not interested in its existence (or suffering) it can’t have intrinsic value.   Since a species is an abstract sort of thing (if it’s a thing at all) then McMahan would say it isn’t capable of having a good of its own.  In other words, we can’t value something for its own sake if it doesn’t have a “sake”.  But despite their lackluster performance it would seem to be in the interest of the Buffs to win and although the players are sentient (mostly), the team (as an abstract entity) is not.  Similarly, while a species may not be sentient and may not be engaged in winning or losing, it is engaged in a pretty bad ass struggle for existence.  As such I can intrinsically value the (continued) existence of the Siberian Tiger.

Why should I root for the continuance of a species and should I care more about it than I do about the suffering that happens in the struggle for existence?  You might similarly ask why should someone care about their local sports team?  After all, I have nothing to do with the team’s success.  They don’t care about me.   To say that I enjoy watching sports does not get at the extent to which I might value the success of the team.  In the case of sports teams, people care because we see them as part of our tribe or community.   Similarly, for those people who are ecologically minded we see species as part of our biological community.  This perhaps explains then the passionate shouting down that McMahan’s argument received from the ecological crowd.   For McMahan to dismiss intrinsic value of species is to root for some of the players but to ignore the team.  Wanting to get rid of the predators is like wanting your team of the past million or so years to get disbanded.



Written by sturgis

October 11, 2010 at 11:23 pm

Fixing the Experience Machine

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Recently, David Sosa, dragged out one of philosopher’s favorite thought experiments, the experience machine.  The original model, created by Robert Nozick in 1974 looks like this:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? […] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think very that it’s all actually happening […] Would you plug in? (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 3)

The point of this thought experiment is to raise the question of whether happiness is a state of mind or whether it depends on state of the real world as well.  As Sosa notes, this question plays out in the film The Matrix, with Cipher selling out his friends in exchange for a “happy” life as a famous actor in the Matrix.   Most people think that Cipher makes a bad choice and that eating gruel in the real world is what a decent person would choose; it is actually the better, even happier life, since it is a real life.

Although this experiment has been run thousands of times by very smart people, it’s actually not that well designed by philosophical standards.  The problem is that although the experiment is designed to test one thing, it actually changes two.  The experience machine robs the participant of both the external world and the power of her choices.  Now it may be that the actual world is a choiceless (determined) world, but while philosophical enthusiasm for determinism runs high, few people would actually stake their lives on it (see earlier post on determinism).  Thus if we choose to plug in, we give up a world that is one that possibly includes choice as well as being real for one that we know is determined and also fake (but pleasant).

Now of course part of what makes the experience machine a plausible choice is that you don’t know you are in the machine.  Cipher says something like “I don’t want to remember anything” to which the controllers the Matrix agree.  So you would still feel like you are making choices.  Indeed if we live in a determined world, this is exactly our situation.  However (and I admit this gets a little tricky here) when comparing our real life to the experience machine, we are comparing a world that might include choice to a world that we know only feels that way.   Let’s see if we can fix the experience machine to get rid of the real world but keep choice.

If the experience machine runs more like a video game in a virtual world (where you control your character, no way am I going to say “avatar”) and not like a movie (yes, it’s 3d but where you are just watching the action) then I think a better case can be made for plugging in.  It’s true that your life in the real world is pimpled and unpopular, but in the virtual world you are a god or have a million hit points or some other incredible talent or wealth in virtual terms.   Keep in mind to make the experiment legitimate, this virtual world must be just as rich in sensory experience as the real world.  Indeed since there is supposed to be some reason to tempt you with the experience machine, it should be a better experience.  You should either be able to do amazing things in this virtual world or you should experience the same things better.  In other words, virtual surfing must feel just like or better than real world surfing.  If I am the one directing my experiences and if the set of fake “experiences” was better than the set of actual experiences (and of course I wouldn’t know which world I was in) I could see why plugging in might be a happier life.  So what would you do?  Would you plug in?

But wait, there’s more…  The original experience makes it sound like the experience of making friends is just the same as a few prods from a scientist.  Let’s look at this more closely (since who wants to live a lonely virtual life); consider two possibilities: single human or multi-human worlds.

Let’s start with the multi-human world, a world where there are many virtual players that all correspond to some real body somewhere.  This seems to be like the Matrix.  We’re really batteries but we think we’re living in late 20th century America.   Although we are deeply deceived about our physical existence, it actually doesn’t seem that such lives are that bad and may be happy.  We are, after all, still interacting with other real beings in potentially meaningful ways, just in a non-physical space.  It isn’t really all that non-physical.  That is while it takes places inside of a computer, it obeys physical rules and given its sensory richness feels very much like a physical world.  In this virtual space people could genuinely fall in and out of love, meet new friends, and have rather rich and varied experiences, all of which are central to having a genuinely happy life.  The fact that it takes place inside a machine is perhaps not as important of a fact as it might at first seem.  Yes it’s true that you never actually interacted in the same physical space as your best friends, but you did share ideas, feelings and experiences.  What’s so great about the physical world anyway?   Why should we consider it more real if all the meaningful stuff happens in the machine?  Why not opt for upgraded experiences?

What might seem like a harder case is the single player mode.  In this case, you make choices but you play inside a machine generated world with machine generated beings.  While this might seem like a lonely existence, these would have to be rather robust machine generated beings.  They would need to fool you not just once, but over the course of an entire lifetime.  Now here’s the leap, but I don’t think too ridiculous of one, although they are computer generated and therefore artificial they are nonetheless genuine minds, maybe even persons, albeit not human persons.  Yes, your computer generated spouse is made of silicone not flesh (and exists only in virtual space), but would that be a deal breaker?  She is not just spitting out preprogrammed responses, because remember that (at least) you still have genuine choices and so are not following a script.   So her responses (to be convincing) must respond to what you are saying and doing.   And we’re not just talking about a spouse but friends and acquaintances and strangers that do the same.  Thus, even a single human world does not look like a geek at his Atari playing space invaders.  It involves rich interactions with other caring (and sometimes uncaring) beings.

I know this sounds like an excuse for game playing geekdom, but it’s been 25 years since I played a computer game.  Remember that the point of the original experience machine was to raise a question about happiness.  Is it just an experiential state or does it depend on having some real relationship to the world.  I think what the souped up experience machine shows is that happiness is an experiential state, but that this sort of experience is not a thin passive state but a rich authorial and interactive one.

Written by sturgis

October 9, 2010 at 8:01 am

Unknown Atrocities

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What will future generations condemn us for?  That’s the question that Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah asks and it’s a good one.  It’s a question that I ask my students in order to provoke their thoughts about the objective character of ethical arguments.  Many of my students think they believe that morality is relative; that it’s all just a matter of opinion, or there is no genuine right or wrong (not synonymous theses but not distinguished for most of them).  Of course when I ask them what they think of slavery or the Holocaust they contend that these are genuine wrongs.  Yes, it’s their opinion that these things are wrong, but it’s also something more.  They have good reasons for thinking that these particular past practices are wrong and they think these reasons should trump the view that “Hey, you think slavery is wrong, but I think it’s right, so we should just agree to disagree.”  Since they may have spent a couple hours arguing about vegetarianism or abortion and did not convince their roommate they tend to think that perhaps the majority of objective moral questions have been settled.  I don’t mean to pick on my students because I am also guilty of accepting much of what is conventional and traditional as correct.   However, it really is surprising how shifting the framework of the question 100 or 500 years in the future can stir their imaginations to judge current practices differently.   I’ve asked the question about what practices will future generations condemn  of elementary, high school and college students. The responses I get are incredible and varied.  I hope you’ll consider weighing in (either by adding your prediction or defending an action you think has been wrongly singled out for moral obsolescence).

Appiah identifies four practices that he thinks are headed for moral obsolescence;

1)      Our prison system.  The U.S. imprisons a shocking ¼ of the world’s prisoners and only 4% of the world’s population.  Moreover the majority are non-violent offenders.

2)      Factory Farming.  Even pre-schoolers know that animals suffer.   I wonder are we still living with Descartes’ worldview (see earlier post)?

3)       Our treatment of the elderly.  Nursing homes are a horrible place to spend the so called golden years.

4)      Our treatment of the environment.   I can hear my grandchildren 40 years from now “you knew that fossil fuels caused climate change, you taught a class on environmental philosophy, and yet you often drove 100 + miles to ski for the day?”

Appiah’s list is very plausible but by no means the most obvious, imaginative, nor exhaustive (he doesn’t claim it is any of these).    One more obvious choice would be the prohibition against gay marriage.  That practice follows Appiah’sthree criteria for practices destined for moral obsolescence to the letter.   First, the arguments are not new.  The case against gay marriage seems lifted verbatim from the case against inter-racial marriage.  Second, the most common appeal against gay marriage is that it would change the definition of marriage.   As the opponents say “marriage just is between one man and one woman.”  This is simply another way of saying “tradition.”  Third there is plenty of strategic ignorance going on, where defenders of traditional marriage are apt to ignore the vast array of benefits and rights that they enjoy (adoption, hospital visitation, inheritance) .

As for the more imaginative, I emailed a friend in prison for a non-violent offense (growing marijuana) and asked him how he felt about Appiah’s first item.  He not surprisingly agreed and commented how absurd it seemed to him that in a country that claims to pride itself on personal freedom and choice would imprison people for growing a plant.    I was definitely intrigued by his addition to the list.  He wrote:

I’ve often thought about the age we all live in and how we are still very much a part of what I would consider the ‘Dark ages’ of human development.  I’m surprised he [Appiah] didn’t mention our atrocities commited in the name of ‘civilized’ warfare [my bold].  We are still a war-like people throughout the planet, killing each other over anything and everything.

The condemnation of civilized warfare is certainly a more speculative proposal for condemnation than Appiah’s other condemned practices.   However, it is more on the scale of condemnation of slavery than the treatment of the elderly.  Most people desire better treatment for the eldery and would not want to place their parents in a nursing home.  Like slavery, most people don’t like war, but see it as a necessary evil (by comparison “how else are we supposed to grow cotton”).   Of course, one important difference is that we fought a war to end slavery.  Yet a war on war would is self-refuting.

Even the rather mundane choices that Appiah offered were ridiculed by many of the commenters so it’s probably a good thing that he didn’t step too far out on the fringe.   As a blog that maintains that most of its ideas will probably be wrong, I don’t feel constrained by appearing reasonable.  I’m more interested in bold and imaginative ideas.

So what are your proposals for practices destined for moral condemnation?

Written by sturgis

September 30, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Is determinism dogma?

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Although the free will vs. determinism question is often cited as an example of a philosophical problem, it is rare to see contemporary philosophers give much of a defense of free will.  But has determinism one the day?  I don’t think so.  I think this issue offers a good example of an unknown, unknown where very smart people have repeated the same fallacy for long enough that it has become engrained.  A pretty standard defense of determinism is offered by Galen Strawson in recent NYT blog:

Strawson gives the following argument:

(1) You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you then are.

(2) So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain mental respects.

(3) But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.

(4) So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.

Strawson is a very smart person and well respected philosopher.   However I can’t figure out why he or anyone else thinks this is a compelling argument against free will.  As Strawson acknowledges the crux of the arugment is 3.  He elaborates on that claim as follows:

Why can’t you be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all? In answer, consider an expanded version of the argument.

(a) It’s undeniable that the way you are initially is a result of your genetic inheritance and early experience [italics mine]0.

Let’s stop here for a moment.  My experience is that when looking for dogmatic assumptions start with what the philosopher takes to be “undeniable.”  Why should we think that it is undeniable that the way we are is [ENTIRELY] the result of our genetic inheritance and early experience?  Of course these factors clearly play a very large causal role in our actions, but the very question we are trying to answer is whether there is anything more than genetic inheritance and early experience.  Strawson’s argument begs the question.   Said another way, if free will does exist then who we are now would not be the result of genetic inheritance and early experience, it would also be the result of the free will.

An aid to obscuring truth is repeating the dogma and so it is no surprise that we see the same fallacy crop up twice more:

(b) It’s undeniable that these are things for which you can’t be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise).

(c) But you can’t at any later stage of life hope to acquire true or ultimate moral responsibility for the way you are by trying to change the way you already are as a result of genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(d) Why not? Because both the particular ways in which you try to change yourself, and the amount of success you have when trying to change yourself, will be determined by how you already are as a result of your genetic inheritance and previous experience

(e) And any further changes that you may become able to bring about after you have brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by your genetic inheritance and previous experience [italics mine].

In 3(d) and 3(e) Strawson once again asserts, but does not argue for the claim that any change we attempt to make now will also be the result of genetic inheritance and previous experience. Of course that is what the determinist believes, but what argument do we have for believing this is true?   You might think that I am being overly selective and confusing Strawson’s outline for his argument, but you can read the post yourself.  The important question I want to consider in this blog post is not whether determinism is true but why is it so easy for philosophers to confuse asserting the truth of determinism for arguing for it?

I suspect that Strawson’s assertion passes for argument because of a dogma that all causal powers must be reducible to some basic hard rules of science (hereafter reductionism).  The determinism story is that since the first stages the universe has been ticking like an ordered clock and that each successive stage determines the next.  So for most determinists all causation  boils down to an ultimate reduction to the laws of physics.  So if we say that that x causes y (I caused myself to buy a loaf of bread) then this explanation must be resolvable into some more basic story about particles interacting with one another.  For Strawson it seems that he would like to include some hard basic biological rules about genetic inheritance as well.

The story of the universe acting like a ticking clock is plausible, but not obviously or necessarily true.  However, I think reductionism passes for truth because because it seems like the alternatives are either chance (no better for free will) or miracles (even worse).  But why should we think that those are the only alternatives?

It’s embarrassing how little I know about either physics or biology, however I’ll attempt to make a virtue out of this ignorance.  I know that even most determinists are willing to admit that post-Newtonian laws of physics don’t seem determined and I know that genetic inheritance is not iron clad either.  If the laws of physics and biology are indeterminate and so perhaps not laws in the strong sense then it could be that free will is a casual power that operates consistently with possibilities given but is not reducible to a single set of them.  I cannot freely will myself to fly, because that is not consistently with the range of possibilities.   Of course making rooms for the will as a causal power seems to make the universe a little messier place, but if Strawson is willing to include genetic inheritance along with the laws of physics as independently lawlike, then the lack of a simple single unified causal theory would seem to apply to his account of the universe as well.

So what do you think?  Is determinism (and more specifically reductionism) a belief like Descartes dualism that kept him from recognizing animal pain (see previous post)?  Do we have a good reason for thinking that universe must be a ticking clock?  What are the other problems of admitting multiple kinds of causes in the universe?

Written by sturgis

September 28, 2010 at 10:37 am

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Unknown Unknowns

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The phrase “unknown unknowns” was made famous by Donald Rumsfeld in a speech on Weapons of Mass Destruction.   Rumsfeld used it to feed paranoia about WMDs and Iraq, with the logic that even if something does not appear to be problematic, it might be dramatically worse than you imagine.   In his Opinionator blog for the NYT, philosophical filmmaker Errol Morris references the phrase to consider more general and personal cases of ignorance such as the case of the bank robber who thought spraying lemon juice on his face rendered him invisible to security cameras.  As Morris puts it, there are the things you know (e.g. that you exist) and there are the things you know that you don’t know (e.g. such as the melting point of Beryllium in his case).   With regard to the things that you know that you don’t know, you could look up the answer.   However for the things you don’t know, you don’t know, there isn’t much you can do about it.   Morris considers some fascinating cases of anosognosia, a condition where a person may be partially paralyzed yet seem to be unaware that this is the case.   In the concluding piece Morris wonders to what extent we might all suffer this kind of self-delusion about the nature of reality.

I first encountered the phrase in the Landmark Forum (long before Rumsfeld’s press conference) and have no idea where they got it.  Despite its deserved reputation for the hard sell and jargon, the Forum does (or did 10 years ago) genuinely concern itself with helping people see the dirty water we swim in.  In The Forum they used the phrase to refer to those parts of your personality that automatically run your life and affect the quality of your experience.   For example, you think you’re unhappy because your coworker is a jerk, but what you don’t know (and you don’t know that you don’t know it) is that it’s the complaint that it is sucking the life out of you.

The catchy phrase of “Unknown Unknowns” is a modern invention, but Plato describes the predicament in his allegory of the cave.   Plato thought that for most of us, the closest we get to reality is as prisoners watching shadows of puppets.  I mean, we don’t even get to see the puppets!

If the domain of the unknown unknowns was completely impenetrable it might make for some interesting thought experiments but it wouldn’t change much.   Yes, many of us have been intrigued by the prospect that we might just be “brains in a vat” but at the end of the month I still pay my phone bill.  What makes unknown unknowns intriguing is the possibility that perhaps they can be known.

In his piece, Morris seems rather despondent about our ability to come to know the UKUKs.  However we have plenty of historical examples of peoples and cultures coming to know things they didn’t know they didn’t know.  We’ve learned that earth is not flat, that people are not property, that germs cause diseases, and that we can discernibly impact the climate of our planet.

While the phrase “unknown unknowns” suggests a mystery as to how we might ever discover these truths since presumably we wouldn’t be looking for them, it doesn’t give us any reason to think that we couldn’t.   At least one well proven method for discovering the unknown unknowns is to reject false beliefs.  In some cases the truth may be right in front of us, but a belief or assumption may keep us from recognizing it.

Even the brightest people of an era can be guilty of believing some fundamentally incorrect things.  Descartes (a pretty smart dude) for example, believed that animals did not experience pain.  Descartes believed that there were fundamentally two kinds of “stuff” in the universe, soul stuff and material stuff.  Only humans had the soul stuff (as evidenced by our reason) and the rest of the universe (including animals) is just extended matter.  He argued that only the soul stuff could experience pain and so despite the horrendous cries of animals when subject to painful actions, it’s just an automatic response.  Descartes’ view seems absurd to any pre-schooler with a pet today (sadly still credible to many professional philosophers), but made sense given Descartes’ generally well reasoned arguments for why consciousness must be distinct from material stuff.  Since I’m not as smart as Descartes I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some important truths in front of my face too.

So one point of this blog is to question some of the fundamental beliefs of our age and your comments are welcome.   Of course questioning basic beliefs is not as ambitious as laying out an alternative picture, but if we don’t “see the puppets” at least we’ll know we’re looking at shadows.

Written by sturgis

September 27, 2010 at 6:26 pm