Thursday, August 30, 2007

"It's What Makes Us Human"

Sometimes, when one person is gaily expounding the virtues of her chosen course of life or study, or two people are hotly expounding the shortcomings of eachothers', someone will reach for the "it's what makes us human" defense. The idea seems to be that there is an intrinsic value in doing the things that make humans distinctive. This kind of argument is especially common with respect to cognition: we should value thought, the argument runs, because it is what separates us from mere beasts.

Sometimes the word "human" is meant to pick out a set of stand-alone goods (eg. a rich emotional life; concern for others), and the speaker furnishes independent grounds for thinking that these really are goods. But sometimes the claim really seems to be that a trait possesses value solely in virtue of it making humans different from other species.* Is this claim reasonable?
*And sometimes people will exploit the ambiguity for rhetorical effect, trying to benefit both from the validity of the first claim, and advantage of the second claim (which consists in not obviously requiring any additional justification).

At first glance it looks a bit fishy. Suppose that a highly intelligent race landed on the moon and started interacting with us. Surely the presence of this race would not persuade us that cognitive excellence was no longer important, and that we should aim for the newly-distinctive trait of cognitive mediocrity. It seems odd that the presence or otherwise of another race could impact on our value system in this way.

However, of there is fishiness here I don't think it is a very solid fishiness. Most of us can appreciate the reasonableness of a country taking pride in its distinctiveness. Distinctiveness means standing out; it is a step away from anonymity. People value their "sense of identity."

Sure, distinctive national traits (superb cuisine, great landscapes etc.) are valued in themselves, because they guarantee citizens a good meal in that country, or a great view. And it would be easy to conflate this kind of value with the value of distinctiveness. But people are not just proud of their national excellences. They are also proud of their national quirks, their eccentricities, things that are hard to see as excellencies in themselves.

For example, in New Zealand we are proud of the Kiwi, a small flightless bird with a silly beak. If we found out that some other country also had a kiwi, we would feel uncomfortable. And if someone were to come along and kill off all our Kiwi, we would feel this to be a crime not just against Kiwis but also against New Zealanders.**
**Is this a reasonable feeling? For the sake of argument, let's say that it is. But it would be great to hear anyone else's thoughts on this.

The situation is more complicated than the above paragraph suggests. After all, a "sense of national identity" would not mean much if it were held by only one person. Our instinct to form groups is just as strong as our instinct to demonstrate the uniqueness of our own group. But it remains true that distinctiveness is a strong impulse. If the instinct is reasonable, then distinctiveness can constitute a reason for a country to favour a trait. Whether or not, in the final weigh-up, the value of distinctiveness overrides the value of togetherness, is something to work out carefully in particular cases.

But why should the same lines of argument carry over to the case of an entire race of people? Well, why not? They arguments seem to apply as well to the case of a family as to the case of a nation. In this case, I think, the onus is on the skeptic to show that there is a salient difference between countries and races, such that the blithe assumption of continuity is unwarranted.

In saying that, it's worth emphasising the relative weakness of the "distinctiveness" consideration. As noted above, one can't say in general whether distinctiveness or togetherness will carry greater weight. And the intrinsic value (or intrinsic disvalue) of a trait can easily override either of those considerations (cf. the case of cognition). In summary, it's OK to draw on the "it makes us human" defense, but it should be seen in context; it is not very convincing on its own.

The Good Hedonist

Imagine the life of a moral hedonist: one who performs good acts because they are good, but for purely selfish reasons. His greatest pleasure is performing good acts for others, but he couldn't care less about the people he helps. For the moral hedonist, charity is orgasmic. He strolls down the street joyously handing out money to beggars. He sends bulging food parcels to the local mission, he volunteers for UNICEF on weekends, he spends his evenings plotting the good health of his neighbour. And this gives him a very great thrill. But when his neighbour comes down with cancer or chilblains, his only regret is that there was never any chance for him to perform the good deed of saving the victim.

How do we assess this person morally, and how should we assess him? My suspicion is that society is disposed to be unfairly harsh on the moral hedonist. We tend to be more forgiving to the conventional hedonist (sex and chocolate, etc.) than the person who takes a selfish pleasure in helping others. (Possibly I am wrong here, and it's just me who is unfair. But there's nothing wrong with self-correction. And possibly the error is rather leniancy towards the conventional hedonist than harshness towards the moral hedonist. But possibly not...) So here are three small points in favour of the character just described.

1) Helpful deeds are (in general) still helpful when they are done selfishly. The beggar doesn't care if you don't care: he's got something to eat when he had nothing before. In many cases, the benefactor of a good act will not be in a position even to know whether we care or not. This is pretty clear in the UNICEF case. It's less clear in the beggar's case, but probably still true. At any rate, the true moral hedonist will make every attempt to suppress any signs of insincerity that might hurt the benefactor.

Granted, this strategy is unlikely to work for long in the case of a close friendship. In principle, I'm not sure that the perfectly skilled and dedicated moral hedonist would ever give himself away (we would need a situation in which revealing the deceit would not hurt the feelings of the so-called-friend). But in practice, the skill and dedication would have to be superhuman to have the right effect in the long-term. (And perhaps the imperfectly skilled moral hedonist would not form any friendships at all, given the hurt that the inevitable exposure would cause).

Nevertheless, it is still true that the moral hedonist can do an awful lot of good. If we think otherwise, it may be because intuitions tell us that an uncaring person is a nuisance. And of course this is true in the case of those misanthropes who take no selfish pleasure in doing good to others. But clearly the moral hedonist is a different kettle of fish.

2) The moral hedonist is not (necessarily) a hypocrite.
Sure, if he sincerely professes to act selflessly, then the moral hedonist is certainly mistaken. But this is primarily an epistemic mistake, not a moral one. There need not be any deliberate duplicity involved.

This is important because our (unwarranted) harshness towards the moral hedonist (if it exists) is probably due to our (warranted) harshness towards genuine hypocrites. We routinely despise people who profess that their good deeds spring from selfless intentions, when the opposite is the case. And often this judgment is justified. Perhaps the judgment is directed at the charitable politician who has both eyes on winning votes. Perhaps it's the rockstar who promotes third-world welfare just because it makes him or her more famous; or the businessman who puts money into the same third-world country to get a better chance of exploiting that country in the future.

These people necessarily deserve our contempt (because their selfish habits will have harmful consequences.) But the moral hedonist does not. The differences between the two cases have already been covered. In most cases the actions of the moral hedonist will "track the good"; and he need not be deliberately dishonest about his motives (indeed, he may publicly pronounce the truth about those motives).

3) As with religious "hypocrites," we may be phsychologically biased against the moral hedonist.
People get terribly prickly about heaven-seeking righteousness. "What fools, what contemptible fools! These people act rightly just because they're scared of being roasted when they die." And we tend to express our disgust by grouping these people alongside the duplicitous politicians and rockstars I described above (which is not quite fair, assuming the moral teaching of religions are not seriously misguided. Well, I did say not quite fair.)

My suggestion is that this prickliness is partly due to a kind of moral jealousy. We value the moral high-ground very much, and get hot under the collar when other people cheat their way to the top. Perhaps this attitude is beneficial in the long run, by protecting society against moral "false positives." But in individual cases it will lead to an unjust assessment of the moral worth of the hedonist.

I mean this point to apply to the case of the moral hedonist who is not deliberately dishonest about his motives, but who does not actively promote his true motives. We see this person go about their good deeds, and are anxious to point out that they are really not so selfless as one might think. And in the case where we assume erroneously that the moral hedonist is necessarily a true hypocrite, our prickliness compounds the error.

Conclusion: Of course, the uncaring person is less worthy than the person who acts in the same way for purer motives. But the two cases may be closer than we think. At the very least, I reserve the right to be unashamed when I derive a selfish pleasure from giving money to beggars.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


There are many good reasons to write dialogues. They let an author pursue a topic easily when she is in two minds about it. They encourage a reader to "see both sides of the story." The let an author distance himself from his opinions, which is useful when the opinions are tentative, embarrassing or invidious. They train a writer in the tough art of imitating human speech.

Most importantly, though, dialogues put thought in context, showing how it interacts with social and political and emotional factors. Sometimes this contextuality can a bit of a drag (arguments can be complex enough without being messed up by human emotions). But often it is a virtue: besides being entertaining, it can instruct us on the purpose, duties and difficulties of real-life discussion. Arguments always seem more urgent when they are presented by real-life actor (rather than the aloof and anonymous voice of, say, an academic). And when putting together an essay, it is easy (even obligatory) to polish away all the dead-ends and confusions that went into the final product; on the other hand, a good dialogue will "show its construction lines", giving a running lesson in the art of inquiry.

So dialogues are both performative and a performance. They are also an interesting point of contact between philosophy and literature. Interesting, because these two forms of inquiry tend to use dialogues as a means to quite different ends. For philosophy, dialogues help to balance out the life of the mind with the life of ordinary human activities. For literature, dialogue helps to balance out the life of ordinary activity with the life of conscious thought; the latter gains expression through dialogue.

The point of all this is to introduce a new category of writing on this blog. Or at least, to introduce the idea of a new category: for I have not done any diablogging so far. But I hope to do some soon, and I will aim to bring out the good and wholesome qualities that are inherent in dialogues, and to make my negligible but enthusiastic contribution to the world of the dialogue, a world that has a past and a present that is of course too lustrous and huge for any sub-servant of the genre to contemplate without embarrassment.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Second Impressions of Toronto

I had some first impressions but they didn’t last. I only managed to recover one or two of them, and I put them up over here just in case they were interesting. But now they’re outdated by at least a week, and useless except for research purposes.

The first of my second impressions was of getting out of bed in my hostel and discovering a) the lounge smelt more like a cheese-factory than ever b) the fridge was luke-warm inside and had done strange things to my milk c) there were no spoons in the kitchen and d) I would not stay sane for much longer if I did not leave this soap-forsaken place and do something fresh.

I went to St. Lawrence Market. There was a buskers’ festival on. It was a glorious day filled with ice-cream and sweat. Small children chased birds around the water-fountain. A small child chased a bird into the water-fountain, whereupon the bird flew away, chuckling to himself.

A man stood on top of a twelve-foot pole and juggled five meat cleavers while balancing on his nose a double-edged meat cleaver that span around on a small stick. At the end he said “Over at the Scotiabank tent you can nominate your favourite busker. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, it’s up to you. But my name’s Al….” And he said: “I do this for a living: if you don’t know how much to give, I’ll help you out. And for the Americans in the audience, the five-dollar bill is the big pink one.”

Another man juggled five balls while moving around in circles doing the splits on two skateboards with metal spikes all around their edges. He jumped through a flaming star on his skateboard, and then he said: “Over at the Scotiabank tent you can nominate your favourite busker. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, it’s up to you. But my name’s Sam, and you’ve been watching the Flaming Skating Phenomenon..” And he said: “I do this for a living: if you don’t know how much to give, I’ll help you out. And for the Americans in the audience, the five-dollar bill is the big pink one.”

To be fair. he also said, “I love children – couldn’t eat a whole one though,” and “I’ve the heart of a child – at home in a jar.” The whole audience laughed like children.

I went down to the waterfront, but it smelt like old bread and so I left.

A band played at the market. It was a rock band with a lead man who played the electric violin. He played so that he shaved hairs off his bow, and by the end of the gig his bow was trailing a whole mane of hair, and he threw it into the crowd. He was very thin and moved like a whip. When he played he scrunched up his face in ecstasy and went bright red.

The songs were big, operatic songs. The main idea was to start off slow and surprise the audience by rising to a thrilling climax, and then to repeat the process. After a while the audience was not surprised any more, but they were thrilled the whole time.

In the evening I went home through the business district, where the streets are clean and the glass buildings rise up like glaciers.

I had a long interview with a homeless person. She doesn’t do too badly. She said: “the lawyers who come down the street are not too bad. They give me a bit of this, a bit of that, some food.” Sounding immensely pleased, she said: “They give me loads and loads of chalk!” She had been off crack for six months, she said, and hadn’t touch alcohol for eight months. I said I’ld bring her some blankets and socks, but have not done so yet.

Further up the street there were tables piled up with books, and boxes filled with books piled up between the houses. Prices were 25cents for soft-copies and a dollar for hard. A guy had a go-cart and he was piling it up with books. In general there was a whole lot of piling going on, so I piled some books into a pile and went off down the street, feeling pleased with myself and strutting like a man with piles.

When I reached the hostel there was a band in the street, drumming away like mad, and people dancing in the warm evening. The street was cordoned off, and the street was filled with people dancing slowly.

My roommates are two people who call themselves proud Canadians. One is Sri-Lankan and the other is Taiwanese. Together we went to see Dracula (the film) set to Radiohead (the music). This took place in the living room of a small flat, with two guys in deckchairs collecting money on the front steps.

Dracula and Radiohead are a perfect match. The film was brown and grainy. It looked lonely, with all its sound taken away. Like all good vampires, Dracula was thin and stiff, with a high collar. Kid A came first, eerie and sad. OK Computer came next, with “Airbag” kicking in just as Dracula set out for England. The music was strange and mournful and ghostly, and everyone was so sad when the sun came up and Dracula died and the film ended.

We stopped briefly at a bar down the street, or at least that was the intention. (In Canada they sell three-pint jugs.) The Sri Lankan sang the Canadian national anthem and the Taiwanese joined in. I sang the first verse of the New Zealand national anthem and then hummed the rest. I surrendered to a state of drowsy intoxication, so much so that I enjoyed the dancing.

In the end we walked out of the bar, though not without paper bags. It is not possible that I failed to go through the hostel kitchen on my way to bed, but I did not notice it.

With the Sri Lankan I ate Chinese takeaways on the balcony and fell into discussion. He professed a deep confidence in the value of human freedom. I ventured one or two objections to this thesis. He relented, though not without substantive qualifications. I spilt fried rice on the ground. He said: “I belong to no groups except the group of people who vow never to belong, namely Canadians.” He said: “The reason suicide bombers should not be allowed to do whatever they want is because they stop other people from doing whatever they want.” Things got fuzzy.

In other news, I now have a bank account and a confirmed flat. Also, I discovered this week that my confirmed flat is right next to the largest cemetery in Toronto. This week I also went to a Graduate Conference in the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, which was interesting enough.

Listening Closely to Small Sounds

Big ups to writers who describe highly dramatic events in a highly un-dramatic manner.

Here is a passage from Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist.

Suddenly, Roberta cried out, and was sitting on the pavement, cradling a bloody mess that, Alice reasoned, could only be Faye. Yes, she could see an arm, white, pretty, whole, with a tangle of coloured bandages on the wrist.

Faye is one of the novel’s key characters, and the bomb blast that kills her is the climax of the novel. What a temptation it must have been to write this event as a climax, to puff it up with paragraphs of lush description. And what a joy it is for the reader to read it as a climax, to witness this narrative blast without seeing the author strain towards it with unnecessary words. (Words that would give a false account of the event anyway, since they would swell an abrupt experience into a slow-motion contemplation.)

Here are some other passages in the same style:

Faye lay on her back. Propped slightly up on embroidered and frilled cushions, ghastly pale, her mouth slightly open, and her cut wrists rested on her thighs. Blood soaked everything.
Alice stood screaming.

The smell on this floor was strong. It came from upstairs. More slowly they went up generously wide stairs, and confronted a stench which made Jasper briefly retch. Alice’s face was stern and proud. She flung open a door on to a scene of plastic buckets, topped with shit. But this room had been deemed sufficiently full, and the one next to it had started. Ten or so red, yellow and orange buckets stood in a group, waiting.

Here it is not the revelation itself but the events surrounding it that give force to the former. Drama is indicated by its effects, like the smell of shit diffusing through the house.

Gigantic Consumption of Empty Whimsies

Below, a future historian looks back on the popular culture of (presumably) the early-mid twentieth century. (From The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse, first published 1943)

We must confess that we cannot provide an unequivocal definition of those products from which the age takes its name, the feuilletons. They seem to have formed an uncommonly popular section of the daily newspapers, were produced by the millions, and were a major source of mental pabulum for the reader in want of culture. They reported on, or rather “chatted” about, a thousand-and-one items of knowledge. It would seem, moreover, that the cleverer among the writers of them poked fun at their own work. Ziegenhalss, at any rate, contends that many such pieces are so incomprehensible that they can only be viewed as self-persiflage on the part of the authors. Quite possibly those manufactured articles do indeed contain a quantity of irony and self-mockery which cannot be understood until the key is found again. The producers of these trivia were in some cases attached to the staffs of the newspapers; in other cases they were free-lance scriveners. Frequently they enjoyed the high-sounding title of “writer,” but a great many of them seemed to have belonged to the scholar class. Quite a few were celebrated university professors.
Among the favorite subjects of such essays were anecdotes taken from the lives or correspondence of famous men and women. They bore titles such as “Friedrich Nietzsche and Women’s Fashion of 1870,” or “the Composer Rossini’s Favourite Dishes,” or “the Role of the Lapdog in the Lives of the Great Courtisans,” and so on. Another popular type of article was the historical background piece on what was currently being talked about among the well-to-do, such as “The Dream of Casting Gold Through the Centuries,” or “Physico-chemical Experiments in Influencing the Weather,” and hundreds of similar subjects. When we look at the titles that Ziegenhalss cites, we feel surprise that there should have been such people who devoured such chit-chat for their daily reading; but what astonishes us far more is that authors of repute and decent education should have helped to “service” this gigantic consumption of empty whimsies. Significantly, “service” was the expression used; it was also the word donating the relationship of man to the machine at that time.

I wonder what Herman Hesse would have thought of blogging.

Interestingly, the titles quoted in the passage look a lot like the articles published by the scholarly elite of the historian’s time (which is supposedly a apex of intellectual skill and purity). Eg. “The Pronunciation of Latin in the Universities of southern Italy toward the End of the Twelfth Century”.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Political Correctness Gone Mad

As a member of Amnesty International, I clench my stomach in annoyance whenever someone writes off this organisation (or any similar organisation) as "politically correct." There is some truth in this kind of dismissal, but there is so much error that it is not at all misleading to ignore the truth completely and concentrate on the mistake. And the mistake here is not just a factual mistake (thought it is often that). These dismissals have their root in a broader and more dangerous mistake, one that we should cut out of our thought before it does too much damage.

Writing off AI etc. as "politically correct" is a double insult. It suggests that the cause is inauthentic, that it serves no worthy end. But it also suggests that the members of the organisation are motivated by desires that are unadmirable, even blameworthy. "Politically correct" brings to mind groups of well-meaning but mean-minded beaurocrats, all getting smugly together in the spirit of middle-class righteousness. The conclusion is that these are not the sort of organisations you should connect with, or even what you would want to associate with.

Now it just so happens that AI and many other organisations like it do contain many people who do worthwhile work for the best possible motives. Even if this were not the case, however, the source of the "politically correct" mistake would be worth talking about. In general, the mistake is to have an emaciated conceptual and explanatory life, and hence to apply the most fashionable phrases in the most unsuitable contexts.

In this particular case, the mistake is to call AI etc."politically correct" not because one knows it to be so, but because one knows it to bear an accidental resemblance to pursuits that are "politically correct" (insofar as the phrase has a clear meaning). The mistake is also to attribute "politically correct" motives to AI members not because they evidently possess such motives, but because people who possessed such motives would act similarly.

Occasionally these fashionable phrases will result in true statements. But this hardly gets around the problem: for those statements are likely to have such indeterminate meanings that they cause more confusion than otherwise; and the speaker is likely to use them without thinking, which is not a good habit to get into. At any rate, the consequence of applying "politically correct" falsely are enough to urge caution in all cases. The consequence is the denigration of causes that society would be well-advised to support, and which have little enough support as it is (what with complacency, ignorance, etc.) without adding intellectual carelessness to the list of deterrents.

Sometimes the problem seems not only that phrases like "PC" are applied vaguely and unthinkingly. It is also that "political correctness" is regarded with such loathing that there is (somehow) no need to do anything more that apply the label to a person or practice. Simply calling a thing "politically correct", without actually showing that it fits this description, is enough to discredit the thing. (I seem to remember that mere accusations of "witchcraft" were enough to blot forever the reputation of a member of certain past societies, regardless of any evidence for or against the accusation. Accusations of "political correctness" seem to have a similar power to them, and a similar absurdity).

Moreover, the vagueness of the term tends to disarm any objections to its use. How does a person respond to a statement that carries a strong tone of disgust but no clear meaning? One response is to differentiate the various meanings of the term, and ask the speaker to say which one they meant to use. Perhaps a more effective response would be to ask the speaker what they really mean to say - and if they can't say it, then there's nothing more to say.

How do these problems arise, and how can we avoid them? They arise partly because certain phrases become popular (which is understandable enough), to the extent that other phrases, which would otherwise offer more accurate shades of meaning, are no longer used (which is dumb). But the other part of the confusion is the vagueness of these phrases: with frequent use they grow meaning like new limbs, until they are as clumsy and hard-to-handle as a baby with five arms.

Hence, one sense of "politically correct" is just "pursuant of healthy social causes." But another is "foolishly self-righteous about minor social causes." And because these senses are not spelt out and differentiated, a cause that answers to the first description is automatically hit with the second. Moreover, the senses are so strangely mixed in the speaker's mind that the association goes unquestioned: it's as if a group who pursues healthy social causes must do so, necessarily, in a foolishly self-righteous manner.

I'm not sure if there is any more precise antidote to this sort of confusion than general intellectual carefulness. Faced with a mis-used word or phrase or explanatory pattern, a community does have a number of options. They could do away with the item altogether, and start anew. Or they could retain the item, but take care when using it to clarify its meaning when misunderstanding is likely.

Either of these routes would send us in the right direction, I think. The former would have the advantage of forcing people to find new ways of expressing the old ideas, and this practice would hopefully lead to a more fine-grained language. But it would mean doing away with terms that may actually be useful when used in the right way. The latter would keep what was valuable in the old items; but it would risk a slippage back into the former, undesirable, usage.

Perhaps there is a middle way, where the offending term is retained, but pared back to a single clear meaning (with members of the community encouraged to fill in the gaps with new, more nuanced terms). But the main problem here is not deciding which route to take, but ensuring that it is taken. It is notoriously difficult to control popular thought and popular language usage: one can legislate, but one cannot very easily enforce (and in many cases there will be ethical objections to the latter). Perhaps the best that any individual can do is to avoid these fashionable errors in their own work, and point them out when they appear in the work of others. Hopefully, writing about them explicitly will help out as well.

Why Must Scientists Be Poor?

[Update: The University of Toronto has increased the profitability of working with the institution to bring inventions into the marketplace. Clearly this blog has some high-powered readers.]

According to a talk I heard at a recent conference, it is the view of orthodox scholarship that scientific discoveries should not be eligible for patents. (By “patent” I mean an agreement by which the discoverer is entitled to a financial reward from those who make use of the discovery).

This seems odd to me. Is there any good reason to deny scientists (and academic researchers in general) to benefit financially from lucrative applications of their work? A few reasons jump to mind, but they don’t seem very convincing. I wonder if I am missing something here, or if scientists (and academic researchers in general) oppose patenting just on the grounds of scholarly purity.

The first temptation is to reach for the “discovery”/”invention” distinction. How can a person claim ownership of some pre-existing thing that they just happen to stumble upon, like a wallet in the street? Quite easily, I should think, if the thing in question is not already owned by someone else, and if the process of discovery was long and difficult.

Why would we think otherwise, except by relying on the misleading analogy with found physical objects, like wallets? Certainly we have no problem with the practice of rewarding people for their discoveries (Nobel Prize, anyone?) Why should we baulk at making this reward financial?

Perhaps we have a problem with rewarding ideas, as opposed to objects or practices. But is this distinction tenable? Patents for ideas would only ever apply to ideas that have been somehow realized in practice, in which case they are objects and practices. In this case, surely at least some of the credit should go towards the author of the idea, without whom the objects or practices could not have existed. It seems inconsistent to reward a person who designs and builds a particular kind of fridge, but not the person who formulated the theories of thermodynamics that the designer relied upon.

Of course, it would be a tiny bit impracticable to patent the laws of thermodynamics(so many different uses, with such a complex and sometimes distant relationship with the original laws). But surely not all scientific discoveries are of such a general kind.

(It is possible that the distinction between ideas and objects/practices is sometimes conflated with the distinction between thoughts and statements, or between notions and thoughts. Of course one cannot patent an unexpressed idea. And it would be hard to justify the patenting of a vague idea or notion, as opposed to a clearly formulated idea. But obviously a scientific discovery can take the form of a clearly formulated statement.)

What about the “communal effort” objection? Granted, scientific discoveries are the result of many people’s work, stretching back for many decades. But so are new drugs, and new tennis racquet designs. And if it’s impossible to grant a patent to an individual scientist, why not try the research team who did the important work on a particular discovery?

This pretty much exhausts the plausible objections to scientific patents, as least that I can think of. Am I wrong to think that scientists are currently denied the right to patenting their work? Or are scientists that concerned about the integrity of their work that they are unwilling to accept direct financial rewards (or perhaps their employers are unwilling to let them)?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

First Impressions of Toronto

It's big. Flying over the city at night it was bigger than Lake Ontario, all red and orange and sequined.

The traffic lights have yellow backgrounds (not black, as from where I come from). The lights switches are upside down. The toilets are permanently flooded. Driving down the road is like cutting your own hair in a mirror.

In the main street there are stalls and beggars and men with blind sticks playing the flute. There are bits of cabbage in the gutters and the footpath suffers from a measles of bubblegum. In the windows of Asian eateries there are animal carcasses strung up for display. They are red and sunburnt and shiny with sweat, and the chickens have floppy necks.

In the hostel where I stay there are no teatowels in the kitchen. The hall smells like a fish-and-chip shop and the lounge like a butcher's. The air-conditioning works, but the air comes in from a back-alley filled with the smell of ancient grease. In the entrance there is a sign on the wall saying "No soliciting."

The hostel is in a place called Kensington. Kensignton is cramped and shabby and leans on a funny angle. The shabbiness is partly a fashion statement and partly a sign of poverty and neglect, but it is hard to know which is which.

Bills grow like bark on the lampposts. Some of the graffiti is neat and colourful, bordered with thick black lines. The rest of it is black and jagged and suggestive of social problems. Men with limps walk down the street talking to themselves. A thin man puts up small yellow posters and makes loud barking noises. I go up to one of the yellow posters: it is an advertisement for the Kensington community centre family weekend.

In the evening there are tramps in the shadows and shiny new Beetles in the street. Walk ten metres off the main street and you see a respectable neighbourhood with new cars rolling down the road and squirrels playing in the trees. It is strange that a city so big can be so compressed.

I have never thought of Universities as decadent places: all that studiousness is disarming. But compared to its surrounds, the University of Toronto is luxurious. It has wide green spaces. It has a football field with clean black gates and grass as bright as new beans. It has ivy and red bricks and spires. It has buildings with signs outside featuring short biographies of the architect. It is clean.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Historians: Working Towards a Better Past

In two days I go to Canada to study the History and Philosophy of Science (many thanks to Toronto University.) So now is a good time to say something about History.

Below is an excerpt from a History book. The passage was written by a Maori man called Horeta Te Taniwha, and it is about the arrival of the first Europeans on New Zealand soil. (These were not the first Europeans to find the country. Abel Tasman discovered New Zealand about a century earlier. But natives killed three of his men and he went home).

I quote this passage because it illustrates some things I like about historical writing.

There is the overall sense of nostalgia, of looking back on a rich and vital time from the past, a time that might have been more cruel and uncertain than our own, but which was at least as interesting as anything else we know. Historians are good at picking out the juicy bits from the past, and there are a lot of very juicy bits. Some people say that Historians make History. Mostly they are wrong. But Historians are witnesses to the making of History, and it’s a fine thing to witness.

There is the sense also of getting only a partial account of something. So much from the past is lost. But everything that has been found is a gesture towards what has not been found. The importance of the things described starts to raise images into symbols (the kumara, the stick of charcoal). What completes the job is the incompleteness of the account: written History is filled with the meaning of undocumented events, like old photos.

Then there are all the strange meetings. They are strange because they take place between people who come from different worlds. The story below is the story of two bubbles coming together and trembling. Philosophers of History write a lot about the strange things that happen when people from different backgrounds come together. Often they overbalance (usually by emphasising the problems, moral and epistemic, that accompany these meetings). But following passage sets them right: it strikes a wonderful balance between difference and likeness, confusion and understanding, awe and familiarity.

There is the misunderstanding over the European “goblins.” The “knocking together of stones” (which goes unexplained in the end, even to the reader). The “hissing” tongue of Captain Cook, the “eyes in the back of the head.” These details, casting strange shadows on familiar things, are balanced by evidence of commonality between the two groups of people. The implied syllogism (“Goblins do not eat kumara and cockles; these men are eating kumara and cockles; therefore these men are not goblins.”) – this shows how the two peoples, oceans apart, share a common reason. They share an appreciation for food, too; and also a keen instinct for human kindness (note the attitude towards Captain Cook).

Of all the symbols in the passage, the one I like best is that of the two peoples talking to eachother in their two languages, not understanding eachother in the least, but both of them laughing. My next favourite is the final scene, where communication begins.

The passage is from a book called “Two Worlds: The First Meetings Between Maori and Europeans.” Not all History is the meeting of two worlds from the past. But all History is the meeting of two worlds, the world of the past and the world of the historian. And participating in the latter relation is as strange and rewarding as observing the former relation.

On top of the above, there is the method of History. All that tiny detail (dates, the spellings of foreign names); the clutter of a thousand events in a thousand places. The Historian has less reason than the philosopher or the poet or the scientist to feel confident about making sense of all that fractured motion (the philosopher is not concerned about time past, but the timeless; the poet is not obliged to tell it all exactly; and the scientist has her laws.) But this means that the historian has more reason to feel proud when she does make sense of her subject matter.

And in making sense of it, there is as much need for an empathetic, imaginative approach to events as there is for rigorous checking of sources. So I am going to Toronto to witness the making of history, to discover new symbols, to watch civilisations tremble like bubbles, to make sense out of chaos and to make a match out of separate disciplines. What could be better? (Answer: to study philosophy at the same time.)

Now, I give you….

The account of Horeta Te Taniwha (a child when Cook arrived on Endeavour in Whitianga, 1769).

In the days long past, when I was a very little boy, a vessel came to Whitianga (Mercury Bay). Our tribe was living there at that time. We did not live there as our permanent home, but were there according to our custom of living for some time in each of our blocks of land, to keep our claim to each, and that our fire might be kept alight on each block, so that it might not be taken from us by some other tribe.

We lived in Whitianga, and a vessel came there, and when our old men saw the ship they said it was an atua, a god, and the people on board were tupua, strange beings or ‘goblins.’ The ship came to anchor, and the boats pulled on shore. As our old men looked at the manner in which they came on shore, the rowers pulling with their backs to the bows of the boat, the old people said, ‘Yes, it is so: these people are goblins; their eyes at the back of their heads; they pull on shore with their backs to the land to which they are going.’ When these goblins came on shore we (the children and women) took notice of them, but we ran away from them into the forest, and the warriors stayed alone in the presence of these goblins; but, as the goblins stayed some time, and did not do evil to our braves, we came back one by one, and gazed at them, and we stroked their garments with our hands, and we were pleased with the whiteness of their skins and the blue eyes of some of them.

These goblins began to gather oysters, and we gave some kumara, fish, and fern-root to them. These they accepted, and we (the women and children) began to roast cockles for them; and as we saw that these goblins were eating kumara, fish and cockles, we were startled, and said, ‘Perhaps they are not goblins like the Maori goblins.’ These goblins went into the forest, and also climbed up the hill to our pa (fort) at Whitianga (Mercury Bay). They collected grasses from the cliffs, and kept knocking at the stones on the beach, and we said, ‘Why are these acts done by these goblins?’ We and the women gathered stones and grass of all sorts, and gave to these goblins. Some of the stones they liked, and put them into their bags, the rest they threw away; and when we gave them the grass and branches of trees they stood and talked to us, or they uttered words of their language. Perhaps they were asking questions, and, as we did not know their language, we laughed, and these goblins laughed, so we were pleased.

…There was one supreme man on that ship. We knew that he was the lord of the whole by his perfect gentlemanly and noble demeanour. He seldom spoke, but some of the goblins spoke much. But this man did not utter many words: all that he did was to handle our mats and hold our mere, spears, and waha-ika, and touch the hair of our heads. He was a very good man, and came to us-the children, and patted our cheeks, and gently touched our heads. His language was a hissing sound, and the words he spoke were not understood by us in the least. We had not been long on the ship when this lord of the goblins made a speech, and took some charcoal and made some marks on the deck of the ship, and pointed to the shore and looked at our warriors. One of our aged men said to out people, ‘He is asking for an outline of the land,’ and the old man stood up, took the charcoal, and marked the outline of the Ika-a-maui (the North Island of New Zealand).

Originally appeared in: John White, 1887, The Ancient History of the Maori: Tainui, Vol V, Wellington, Government Printer, pp.121-24. Reprinted in: Anne Salmond, Two Worlds: First Meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642-1772, Viking, 1991.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Music and Poetry in English

If I ever get around to teaching English at secondary level, I will make sure that I exploit the analogies between music and literature. I think the analogy is quite illuminating, with regards to the distinction between “form” and “content” and the relationship between them. More importantly, it is likely to interest students more than a lesson that stuck solely to poetry or prose. Most school students have musical interests of some kind, and with a bit of prodding most should recognise that the appeal of a piece of music is bound up closely with the relationship between its form and its content.

In a song, of course, the relationship holds between the lyrical part of the work and the instrumental part. The distinction between form and content, when made out in this way, is easier to grasp than the same distinction as it is manifested in poetry. It is easy and natural to make a separation, even a physical separation, between the words and the music in a song; whereas it is not so easy to make the separation between the “message” of a poem and its “delivery” (Partly because a student needs to know about things like rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, metaphor etc., before they can give a full account of the distinction; and partly because the distinction is problematic in poetry anyway).

As well as this pedagogically convenient difference between music and poetry, there are pedagogically convenient similarities. Much of the “form” of a poem comes from its sonic effects. Also, at least one thinker (Walter Pater) has held that it is the mark of a good poem that it gets close to the condition of music; and some interesting poetry has been written on the basis of this idea (eg. Gertrude Stein).

Many of the ideas about the form-content distinction that one needs to learn in the poetry case, can be straightforwardly carried over to the music case. Here are some examples:

That a good piece of art should achieve a match between form and content; and also that there may be some exceptions to this rule.

That the same content, given a different form, can be given quite a different meaning.

That form and content can match up in different respects: they might match in their mood, their tone, their pace, their degree of order and regularity.
That the work can vary in these respects, and the artist take steps to ensure that form and content vary concurrently.

That some elements of form are (for various reasons) quite rigid and non-negotiable, while others are easier to manipulate.

That it is tempting to relax the more rigid elements to give the artist more “freedom of expression” (Radiohead, Walt Whitman); but that this relaxation can have its downfalls as well as its advantages.

One of the dangers of doing this sort of thing, apart from annoying the class next door, is that students might resent this intrusion of school life upon their music life. Putting Nirvana in a classroom might “take all the fun out of it.” But I should think it more likely that a student would welcome the opportunity to discuss and explore their out-of-school interests during class time. And the idea that excessive analysis can destroy an artwork, or at least fail to illuminate its appeal, is an idea worthy exploring; and another of the useful analogies between music and literature.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

System, O My Darling

Following on from this little thing about method and matter, here is a little thing about system. A fine thing, system, and worth talking about. From one direction, it looks like the value of system is unique to matter: system is all about taking objects and arranging them neatly. But it is important to method as well. Methods are not just processes, but systematic processes. And the best part about teaching matter is ontology, the part where students learn how a subject is made up of a system of parts. System is not a bangle on the wrist of learning, but the fibre in her cloth, the leather in her shoes. Praise her!

Anyway, system makes things easier to remember, for the same reason that it is easier to remember Pascal’s triangle than phone numbers. But it also confers understanding. Indeed, arguably the pursuit of understanding just is the attempt to bring more system to our awareness of the world.

I guess some disciplines are more amenable than others to a systematic approach to teaching. Mathematics, that powerhouse of systematicity, should surely be taught so as to bring its neatness to the fore. Currently students are taught two different ways of solving simultaneous equations (substitution and elimination) when really they are the same thing. Subtraction is analogous to division, but you would not know it from text books. A lot school-level of algebra is based on a handful of basic rules (associative, distributive, commutative etc.), but this tends to get lost. Rediscover this, and school maths would look more like University maths. And maths in general would at once become easier and more interesting.

One senses that English might not work so well under a systematic tutor. Is there really a method for writing a poem? And would we want one? But still there are parts of that subject that make more sense when put in an ordered way. Like any other subject, it contains concepts and statements that can be illuminated by their interrelations. A simile is not something completely different from a metaphor, and pedagogy usually reflects this. A symbol is not completely different from a metaphor either, nor from an epitome or an image. And the following words all mean much the same thing: trait, characteristic, feature, quality, attribute. Pedagogy should reflect these things too.

A plausible objection to all this system is that it makes everything too rigid. It would be to deny the variety of mathematics, the way in which there are often many different paths to the right answer. And it would suck all the creativity out of the study of literature.

But there is no need for system to suppress the profuseness of mathematics. For most students the choice is usually between using a consistent and transparent method, and using either the wrong method or no method at all. And for those students who can see a variety of right methods, there is value in showing them how these are connected (eg. how geometric and algebraic methods are analogous to one-another). There is value, too, in showing them how some methods are better than others, in the sense of being more elegant or simple, or using less extraneous information (as in the case of simultaneous equations, mentioned above).

It is also wrong to conflate system with over-authoritative teaching, at least in mathematics. The fact that different aspects of any subject are richly interlinked would surely make it easier for the teacher to take a passive, guiding role in the learning process. They can point out connections and leave the student to follow them up, extrapolating from prior knowledge. How might you extend this formula to the 3D case? How might you solve a system of three equations rather than 2? Look for other ways in which negation is analogous to division. All of these are good exercises, and they rely for their success on the system that is just sitting there in all mathematics, waiting for teachers to grab it.

Almost certainly, an over-emphasis on system would indeed suck the creativity of literature. I expect it is easy to do it badly. But this is no reason not to use the system in the parts of the subject where it does exist. And it is still worth pursuing a kind of systematicity in more unruly parts of the subject. We want students to draw comparisons between different texts, to set characters alongside one another and see what we find, to look for repeated images. All of this is a move towards a more organised view of a novel or poem or whatever. (It’s just that we look along different lines in the English case: we look for similarities in respect of personality, manner, mood, instead of shape or angle).

It’s all very well going on about how system is the greatest thing since Dewey. It’s another thing to give some examples of how it could be achieved in practice. Given the right proportions of time, energy and brown bread, I will try to do this in some later posts.

Method and Matter

One complaint about current education is that it puts skills before facts. The nub of this distinction, as I see it, is the distinction between processes and results. Another way to express the complaint is to distinguish between method and matter. Here the underlying distinction is broader, since it is between processes and objects, where the latter includes results but other things as well.

Both distinctions make good sense. But the first one can be misleading because it is narrow. Clearly there is a virtue in teaching students to master a systematic processes for reaching conclusions, rather than teaching them to memorise conclusions that others have reached. But there are things that are not skills or facts, and which are also valuable.

I trust that the term “matter” has quite a lot of intuitive content. Think “subject-matter” and you are close enough. Roughly, it is the stuff that students apply their methods to. Only once the method has been fully applied will results appear – call this resulting stuff the end matter.

Here are some reasons why students should be taught matter, so defined, as well as method.

Methods are usually only applicable to certain classes of matter. Knowing these classes, and knowing how to match them up with the right methods, is an important part of the learning process. The methods of solving simultaneous equations are not much use for solving differential equations.

Is this a trivial thing, this process of using knowledge of matter to make methods work? Once we have learnt the methods for solving simultaneous and differential equations, do we really need an extra lesson to tell us how to apply them to the right sort of matter? Sort of. I guess knowledge of matter tends to be smuggled in with knowledge of method. Because of this, it would be hard to neglect matter even if we never thought about teaching it. But it is worth making the point, in case of situations (which I can’t think of right now) where the marriage between the two kinds of learning is not so tight.

End matter can also be useful as an examplar. One way to learn how to do something is to look at the end result and work backwards. This works partly because it is not always clear at the start what one wants to achieve (what does it mean to “solve this equation for x”? Showing a solution is a good way to answer this question). It works also because the end result usually contains information about its genesis (look closely at a finished building and you can get some idea of how they built).

I don’t recommend that students check the answers to every maths question before solving them. As a general method, this is close to useless. But as a method for learning how and why the right method works, it is quite useful.

Learning matter includes learning about the basic constituents of a subject, and how they differ from the basic constituents of another subject. In philosophy, questions about what is are at least as important as questions about how we know. Why not think the same of education?

One reason why not is that ontology is not very useful. If we know how to get the right results, and we know why our method works, what’s the use in learning more about the things we applied our method to? Well, perhaps there is not much use, in an instrumental sense. But if this kind of usefulness is our aim, why not forget about justification as well? The reason one would teach students why a method works (and not just how to apply it) is to enrich their understanding. This seems like a good reason to teach ontology as well.

Lastly, methods would not act at all if there were nothing to act upon. Sure, it is important for a History student to learn the general skill of writing essays. But they can’t write an essays at all without first learning something about History. Methods cannot be applied in every direction all at once from the beginning (one can’t expect a fourteen-year old to learn everything about an historical period from primary sources; some facts need to be taken on trust).

Of course, often it will be appropriate to teach matter in a methodical way. We don’t want just to tell students that maths is made up of such-and-such a collection of basic parts. We want to illuminate the process by which we came to possess this information, as for any other bit of information. But recognising that matter is worth knowing about is also an important step.

Envy, Part I

CLIMBER: My friend, today we saw a flame ascend.
No, not that. No-one would, I think, offend
A sense or taste, to say they saw not one
But more, a whole sun of flames, a flaming sun,
Go burning round a solar ring tonight.
What skill! Unearthly skill, unearthly bright!
Hot eloquence and wit, and humour too,
A brave unswerving urge to say what’s true,
Deeply true and truly deep. And so clear!
A standard orbit stays in higher air:
Strange to enter depths as well, sending lights.
But what is this? For all the lofty heights
I saw today, my spirits are not lifted.
The heights of others bring me low. Gifted,
That’s the thing to be, brilliant. Enough
Is said of jealousy and greed, enough
To make my sickness plain. But what’s the cure?
How can one who knows, and knows for sure,
That every job his mind can slowly do
Is done with greater pace, in fewer moves,
By someone else – how happy can he be?
(The plight of normal minds, redundancy,
Is double-edged. A deficit of skill:
A surplus to demand. If books could kill..)
A mind like syrup, slow-poured and dense.
A lack of speed, but quite enough to sense
Its own slowness. It’s worse to know than have
A love of wisdom, but an arid love
Unfed by streams of running wit,
But earnestness and pride, mud and grit.
Dark sights, and these are what the suns reveal:
High lights, highlighting fog. But this appeal
Is not an aimless thing. I train my ills
On you, my friend, to claim whatever pills
You give and know or own, to lift my pain.

RAMBLER: Well, well. A fine speech, well-declaimed,
As lurid in the lows as in the peaks.
(And a strange speech indeed, from one who speaks
So well.) Now listen well, and soon you’ll find
More syrup in your words than in your mind...

to be continued…

Short, Sharp and Shallow

The main lesson of working life is that there is no room for polish. There is never time to make a masterpiece instead of a sketch, and no-one would notice the difference anyway.

Conclusions need only be as fine-grained as the choices that depend on them: if the choice is between walking and running, let’s not labour the difference between strolling and ambling. And because certainty will elude even the most prolonged and earnest study, let’s not quibble about justification: a few short reasons will do. The most profound investigation will only ever be useful in summary form. Profound investigations never get finished anyway: better a complete draft than a disjointed final.

It is interesting to apply the same lessons to philosophy. At the very least, it frees up more time to write about stupidity and cows. More, it is good training in brevity. So here is a short Q&A on some philosophical topics that have been on my mind recently.

What distinguishes excellence from mere prowess? A person who can tie their shoelaces very fast does, in one sense, excel at a task. But we would not say they have achieved the kind of excellence that a brilliant physicist achieves, or even a brilliant athlete. What’s the difference?

Not very interesting, this one. Excellence requires prowess in a valued practice. The general question of where values come from is more interesting, but it is much too deep for this post.

To what extent must the pursuit of excellence compromise a person’s relationships with other people? There is something selfish about pursuing excellence for its own sake. How bad is this form of selfishness?

In general, the answer to the first question is “a moderate amount.” Excellence takes a lot of time, leaving less time to get involved with other people. Excellence leads to strong relationships with the few people who share our chosen excellence. But it weakens relationships with the large number of people who don’t. Particular forms of excellence may, however, make us more skilled at caring for other people (eg. excellence in social work).

“Not too bad” is the answer to the other question. Reclusiveness does not harm other people, except those who long to know one better (this harm is heavily case-dependent). Excellence in a field creates problems for everyone else who wants to be the best in the field. But arguably people should not measure their success in relative terms. And excellence helps a person’s colleagues insofar as it inspires and instructs them to do better.

Given that rationality causes everyone to think the same thing, how can rationality make us more autonomous?

Rationality on its own gives us one kind of autonomy, the kind that comes from the deliberate pursuit of an excellence. Philosophers have this kind of autonomy, but so do mathematicians and bakers. Moral autonomy is a different thing. Rationality only gives us moral autonomy insofar as we apply general principles to the facts of our individual lives. Sometimes the facts are obvious, and the principles are the hard thing to know. Other times it is the other way round. In the latter cases, philosophy is not much use.

There is value in living an examined life, and it has something to do with autonomy. But how much of this value can be gotten through philosophy?

Not all of it. If autonomy is to mean anything at all, it must require autonomy of action as well as thought. And thought does not become action without strength of will. Autonomy also means acting in according with the facts of one’s own situation (see previous Q). Which requires knowledge one’s own desires, interests and abilities. This knowledge usually comes about through cognitive work, but sometimes it is more like the work of the historian, the journalist or the poet than that of the philosopher.

Not all of it, you say. But how much? And isn’t that an empirical question, and one that philosophers qua philosophers are not equipped to answer?

I don’t know how much. Perhaps it depends on the individual. Don’t ask awkward questions.

Clearly it is best for people to be sensitive to the “facts of their own situation”, as you put it. Best to satisfy one’s own values, rather than someone else’s. But is self-expression valuable for its own sake?

For some people more than others. A good painter will have a style different from other good painters. This is not just because the painter is particularly good at that style, or because he valued that style before he began painting, and has finally achieved it. He will value that style simply because it is his own. It is him. Self-expression looks bad because it is used as a cheap marketing ploy by hundreds of clothes shops. And it seems to be more highly valued in the arts than the sciences. And it is suspect because it looks so easy: what could be more uninspired than merely being oneself? But talk to the painter who has “found his style” and you will see that self-expression is both difficult and highly prized.

What can we really learn from art?

Art teaches by presenting dry topics in an entertaining form (eg. the dialogues of Plato). It also teaches by acting powerfully on our psychology (the baddies have ugly skin so we try to be good). But art only teaches in these ways because people are epistemically flawed. This makes art useful, but not very impressive. Art also works on the emotions, uplifting and depressing and making us content or restless or happy. In this way art changes our moods, but not our beliefs.

Well…? Consider the ideal philosopher (who loves even the driest wisdom and cares not for moods). Would that person have any use for art?

Art excels in particulars. And particulars lead us, in various ways, to a better grasp of general principles. Most simply, particulars suggest problems. They can also help to solve problems. But this is not terribly helpful. The question you should ask next is how the particulars in art (which are often quite different from experiments in science and thought experiments in philosophy) can help to solve scientific and philosophical problems.

How can the particulars in art (which are often quite different from experiments in science and thought experiments in philosophy) help to solve scientific and philosophical problems?

Good question. Part of the answer is that art deals in particulars relating to ordinary human experience (love, ageing, death, etc.). Another part is that art embeds those particulars in a rich context. For the rest of the answer, you’ll have to go somewhere else. Thanks for asking.

A large part of our moral reasoning consists in “weighing up” different considerations, and this is a form of quantitative reasoning. What does this tell us about the scope of moral philosophy, given that philosophy is usually regarded as a form of qualitative reasoning?

It is true that philosophy does not usually use numbers in its reasoning (except in an elementary form). But we do not usually use numbers in the “weighing-up” process you just described. And insofar as we do use numbers, it’s a matter of basic arithmetic. The real work comes in when we a) work out which considerations are just red herrings, having no weight at all b) work out which considerations we have missed out so far c) work out how to interpret those considerations so as to form an easy numerical problem and/or d) use qualitative techniques (eg. analogy) to solve the problem, when it resists an easy numerical interpretation. The ethicist is well-equipped for all these tasks.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Loose Relation

“The poems stand in some such loose relation as a ring of flushed girls who have just stopped dancing and let go hands.”
From The Notebooks of Robert Frost, edited by Robert Faggen. More over here.