Friday 23 December 2011

The enforcement of rules

This afternoon, at a supermarket checkout, I witnessed one of life's absurdities. Two people, together but paying for their shopping separately, were both buying alcohol, along with food. They both looked as though they were about 20. The gentleman was asked for proof of age, and produced it, so he was allowed to buy his alcohol. The lady was asked for proof of age, but had none, so she was not allowed to buy hers. Could the gentleman buy her alcohol instead? No, because he would be buying it for her, and that would be illegal if she were under 18. We were all held up while a supervisor was summoned. She confirmed the ruling, and the supermarket lost a sale of three bottles of bubbly.

If the gentleman had gone round the shop again, picked up identical bottles, and presented himself at a different checkout, he would have been able to buy them. Moreover, the lady might not have wanted the bottles for herself. They might have been to give as presents. In that case, the gentleman could have bought them, and given them as presents himself, all within the law. And it is entirely possible that once the couple got home, he would have opened a bottle from those he did buy and shared it with her. The law against buying alcohol for someone else, aged under 18, to consume off the premises of purchase is unenforceable.

I assume that the supermarket acted from an abundance of caution. The couple might have been agents provocateurs, checking on behalf of the police that the law was being enforced. If they had been, and if the supermarket had nodded the purchase through on grounds of common sense, the police might not have been sympathetic.

This raises a question. Is it possible to build common sense into rules? Suppose that an exception for this kind of situation had been written into the rules. The exception might be for situations where there was one person in a group who could prove that he was over 18, offering to step in and purchase alcohol that had been in the shopping basket of someone else who looked as though she was probably over 18, but who could not prove her age. That would not help when the second person looked as though she was under 18, but was in fact over 18, and the first person offered to be the purchaser in her stead. (Then the first person would just go round the shop again.) A comprehensive set of exceptions, that would have the same reach as common sense, would be impossible to compile. This does not make defined exceptions useless. They can eliminate many absurdities. But they are not likely to be a perfect solution.

I suspect that the main problem is that enforcers expect 100 per cent compliance. If they were prepared to ignore a small rate of rule-breaking, especially when the offence would be victimless (buying alcohol for someone who, if under 18, was not much under, or smoking in an enclosed public space), life would be better. Enforcers could tighten up if the rate of rule-breaking started to rise. We should not assume that all slopes would be slippery.

Monday 5 December 2011

Targeted adverts

I am struck by the acuity of the software that selects the adverts on Facebook. I am regularly offered jobs for philosophers (although when one clicks the link, one finds that no job is available today). I am also offered courses in the English language, and hope this is because I use the German interface, rather than because of the way I write in English. Today, I was offered a villa in Portugal, presumably because I mentioned the country in a comment on a post yesterday.

Should we be scared? One might feel that the software was watching one's every move, amassing data and using it in a plot to increase sales. I am more relaxed than that, precisely because it is a mass-production software system, doing the same thing to millions of people. I do not attribute agency to the software, let alone a propensity to fiendish plotting.

I attribute agency to the people who devised the Facebook business plan, and who specified the functions they wanted the software to perform. But they were only out to make money, not to kidnap my soul. The making of money is one of the most harmless of motives a collector of data on people may have. When adverts for groups of political dissidents start to appear on the page, I shall really worry that I am being watched.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

The metre

Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations, part 1, section 50, commented that we could not say that the standard metre bar in Paris was one metre long, nor that it was not one metre long. He went on to explain that this was not to ascribe some strange property to the metre bar, but only to note its peculiar role in the language game of measurement with the metre standard. Much has been written about the problem since. A good starting-point is the paper by W J Pollock, "Wittgenstein on The Standard Metre", Philosophical Investigations, 27:2, April 2004, available here:

Moving on to the modern definition of a metre as a certain fraction of the distance travelled by light in a second, we can reproduce the problem. One thing of which we cannot say either that it is, or that it is not, a metre is the distance travelled by any instance of a beam of light in vacuo in 1/299 792 458 of a second.

The philosophical analysis may be a bit different because the demonstrative referent (the referent of "that" in "that is what we mean by a metre") is not a physical object but a reproducible phenomenon, and one that is integrated with our physical theory. The words "any instance of" are included in order to separate examples from the theory, and get us as close as we can to actual metal bars. Our theory guarantees that it does not matter which instance we take.

Monday 7 November 2011

Where was I before I was born?

Here is one of my favourite paragraphs, written by Angela Carter.

There's a theory, one I find persuasive, that the quest for knowledge is, at bottom, the search for the answer to the question: 'Where was I before I was born?' In the beginning was ... what? Perhaps, in the beginning, there was a curious room, a room like this one, crammed with wonders; and now the room and all it contains are forbidden you, although it was made just for you, had been prepared for you since time began, and you will spend all your life trying to remember it. ('Alice in Prague or The Curious Room', in Angela Carter, American Ghosts & Old World Wonders, London, Chatto & Windus, 1993, page 127.)

This could mean lots of things. The interpretation of the first sentence that most resonates with me is that each of us has a tremendous urge to merge his or her perspectival view of the world, the view from his or her own point of view, with a non-perspectival view from nowhere. Each perspectival view only endures for a lifespan. The non-perspectival view is in principle available at any time and the same for all, although different people would interpret what they saw differently, but that view is in practice available to no-one. To see the world as it was before I was born, or as it will be after I die, I would have to be somewhere at a time when I was not, or will not be. There would have to be a place I was before I was born, and a place I would be after death. What I can in fact do is see traces left by the past, and current indications of what the future might hold, and make inferences from those traces and indications. But that is not the same thing at all.

Sunday 30 October 2011

Psychology and folk psychology

How closely should a theory of thought and behaviour reflect the perceptions of those who are its objects? We would have no qualms if a theory of canine psychology wandered very far from how dogs perceived themselves and the world. We suppose that dogs have no theoretical conception of themselves or of the world at all, so the question would barely arise. But if a psychologist theorizes about our minds, in psychological terms rather than in neurological terms, it seems that the theory ought to keep reasonably close to our own perception of ourselves. We think that we are formed and driven by experiences, thoughts and emotions. We expect the psychologist to draw on the vocabulary that we use in our folk psychology, and to use it in the same way, so that the conclusions make sense to the rest of us. New connections may be made. Trends of previously unnoticed significance may be highlighted, as when Stephen Pinker, in The Better Angels of our Nature, assembles a range of economic and social factors that help to explain the diminution in our level of violence. But there still seems to be an expectation that the theory will stay close to everyday understanding. Furthermore, this expectation is often met. Articles in Psychological Review, for all their talk of cognitive architecture and their reconceptualizations of phenomena, are still written in a language that is adjacent to the language of folk psychology.

What support does this expectation have? We should not impose any such constraint on the sciences in general. If we imposed it on physics and chemistry, expecting them to use languages that were adjacent to the language in which we describe the everyday objects around us, most of the progress that has been made in the past century would not have been made. It is hard to see how we could justify imposing it on psychology by saying that the discipline is about our minds, and that we know our own minds from the inside. The data we get from the inside may be distorted in all sorts of ways. Moreover, we can imagine aliens, without a sense of our own minds from the inside, devising a human psychology that would be very effective in predicting or explaining thought and behaviour, but to which we could not relate in the way that we can relate to folk psychology, because the aliens had not drawn on that folk psychology. One option seems to be left. Our discipline of psychology is still too immature to construct a full enough set of robust, contentful, concepts, using its internal resources. It still needs to piggy-back on the content that is supplied by folk psychology. So long as it needs to do that, a requirement to stay close to the language of folk psychology imposes a useful control, ensuring that theorizing does not go off on an undisciplined frolic. But any such dependence on folk psychology is not guaranteed to continue.

Friday 7 October 2011

Mathematics as a native language

A couple of days ago, I was in a discussion in which I expressed one of my favourite views. This is that we should not be disturbed by our puzzlement at the meaning of quantum mechanics, or anything else of that nature. Explanations that try to picture the quantum world in the terms that are appropriate to our life in the macroscopic world are bound to be inadequate. The reality is in the mathematics, and the only thing to do is to start speaking mathematics as a native language.

I think my interlocutor agreed. But afterwards, I wondered whether there would be any reason why mathematics could not be a native language, in the way that French and German can be. Obviously, it is learnt later than other languages. The pattern of human development prevents its being a native language in the sense of the first language one learns. But that would not prevent its being a native language in the sense of a language in which one thinks, a language that is transparently meaningful. Likewise, someone who moves to a country with a different language, even as an adult, can go native, and take on his or her new language as a native language.

One possible difficulty would be that languages do not exist in isolation from the world. Just as one needs agency and a sense of agency in order to have a full sense of self, one needs to live in the world and navigate it, as well as living within a linguistic community, in order to know what words mean. Words need to latch on to the things with which one has dealings. This is not true of all words, but it needs to be true of at least some of them. How can this be true of mathematics?

The obvious answer is our starting-point. We live in the world that physics describes. Various mathematical statements can be interpreted to be about that world. So the terms and structures that are used latch on to the world. They could latch on to different things, but so could terms and sentences of a natural language. There is more scope for mathematical terms to latch on to something different than for terms of natural languages to do so. The mathematical terms are more neutral as between forms of life. Moreover, a given mathematical theory could latch on to any one of a set of isomorphic worlds, and the concept of isomorphism here underlines the neutrality as between forms of life. But this does not strike me as debarring us from seeing mathematical talk as latching on to the world in which we live.

The main problem would seem to be that the form in which the mathematical expression of quantum mechanics represents that world is utterly unlike the form in which the world is experienced by us. But even this does not strike me as a decisive objection to going native. As someone learns quantum mechanics, he or she learns how the quantum world gives rise to our everyday experience of medium-sized objects. The new picture of the world is linked to our experience through that understanding. Furthermore, the mathematical terms and methods that are used also have direct application in the world as it is experienced. We can come to understand them in that context, then apply them in the quantum context.

That leaves one last gap to close. Is anything lost when we transfer our understanding of mathematical terms and methods, acquired in the world as experienced, to our conception of the quantum world? I think it is not. At least, there is no loss that would debar us from taking on mathematics as a native language for the purpose of making sense of quantum mechanics.

Monday 12 September 2011


I have just started to write in LaTeX. using the Kile package. It is an interesting experience. LaTeX makes one focus on the structure of the document. The tree of chapters, sections and subsections that Kile provides on the left hand side of the screen is a constant reminder of where one is in the structure. I do not know whether this will lead to better writing, but there is a good chance that it will. I expect to stick with it. The visible structure very helpfully makes it easy to jump back and forth, filling out a section here and a paragraph there, rather than working through a document from beginning to end time after time.

A question lurks here. The technology of writing has changed enormously since computers came into general use. What difference, if any, has that made to the finished products? Would a book or article produced today, using helpful software to structure, write and correct it, have come out much the same, or very different, if it had been produced using old-fashioned methods? It would have taken longer to produce, but the author might still have come to the same point eventually. And if an author changes from Word, LibreOffice or some similar package to LaTeX, will that change the nature of his or her finished products?

The style of LaTeX brings back happy memories. Commands are distinguished from text to be typeset by starting them with special characters. I came across the same approach when I first used computers, at Cambridge around 1980. I think it was the Zed text editor that distinguished commands by starting them with a full stop that followed a space, unlike full stops in ordinary text (for example .italic, although I cannot remember whether that was an actual example).

Monday 29 August 2011


A newspaper article reminds us that it is 20 years since Linus Torvalds set about writing the Linux kernel:

As a big fan of Linux, who started with Ubuntu and has now switched to Mint (both of which are at least as user-friendly as Windows and the Mac OS, as well as being free), I feel inclined to celebrate. But there are also some questions to ponder.

How exactly does the evolutionary environment for Linux distributions (distros) work? Anyone can create a new distro, and plenty do. Many of these are direct developments of existing distributions, for example, Mint from Ubuntu. If an existing distro lacks something that enough people consider important, such as lightness, or changes course in a way that many do not like, as with Ubuntu's switch to Unity, a new distro will arise. If it is good enough, it will attract fans away from existing distros.

This may look like simple Darwinism. New variations arise, and the ones that are well-adapted to the environment (the demands of users), grow fat. But there is a feature that we do not find in nature. The creation of new variations is not random. Someone takes a conscious decision that there is a niche for a new distro, and further conscious decisions as to how best to fit into that niche.

It would be an interesting exercise to model that process as random variation, making the conscious thought drop out of the picture. One might identify the population of distro ideas in the brains of all Linux developers with the existing members of a species, then assume that members of the population bred new members (new ideas) at random, then assume that some new ideas were crushed straightaway by the immediate environment (the individual developer's brain identifying an idea as silly), but that others got out for discussion in the community, meme-like, and a few led to actual new distros.

Thus one would have to change the focus from distros to ideas, in order to model the process as one without conscious direction. That would also change one's identification of the payoffs for good adaptation to the environment. With distros, the payoff for the distro itself is reproduction on lots of computers. The payoffs for the human beings who take the conscious decisions are kudos and, sometimes, the opportunity to sell support services. (A distro itself can be sold, on CD, but it must also be available free because of the terms of the Linux licence.) With ideas, the payoff is simply reproduction, in the heads of all others who agree that the idea is a good one.

We can also ask about the effects on the software industry. Those who make money out of software may complain about free alternatives. Witness Steve Ballmer's infamous "Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches". A (secondary) source is here:

That remark was, however, made ten years ago, and I think the complainers now know that they have lost the battle. Anyone who still complains should be referred to Frédéric Bastiat's wonderful Pétition des fabricants de chandelles, bougies, ..., in which the candlemakers argued that curtains should be kept closed during the daytime in order to defeat the unfair competition of the Sun. The text is here:

Friday 29 July 2011

Retouched photographs

The National Portrait Gallery in London currently has an exhibition "Glamour of the Gods", showing photographs of film stars from the 1920s to the 1960s. One of the displays shows a photograph before and after retouching. The label explains that retouching was meant to remove the effect of harsh lighting in accentuating blemishes. Thus the retouched photograph would give the viewer a fairer impression of what he or she would see, in ordinary light, on meeting the subject. Or perhaps, it would yield the photograph that would have been produced if high-resolution film could have been used in ordinary light.

These two are different, because only the latter respects the fact that one still has a photograph, and that seeing a photograph is not the same as seeing its subject in the flesh. We doubtless do some unconscious work on a photograph before our eyes, in order to imagine the experience of a meeting in the flesh. That makes the latter characterization better than the former, because it leaves a place for that unconscious work.

But it is still problematic. There is the obvious practical problem of limiting the extent of retouching. The difference made is astonishing, and one can assume that the photographer was happy to go way beyond correcting for the harsh studio light, in order to produce a false perfection. Beyond that, there is the theoretical problem of thinking in terms of a photograph that would have been produced if photographic technology had been different. The notion will only be well-defined if we can specify the respects in which it would have been different, and can justify our choice of one particular set of differences rather than any other set.

Conveniently, there may be a good answer here. We may assume either that the same film could have been used in much lower light because the subject could have kept perfectly still, or that the chemistry of film might have been different, so that fewer photons were required to produce a high-resolution image. But once we probe a bit, it seems that even those answers are not perfect. A human being who sets out to remain perfectly still for a minute will hold herself differently from one who is not required to do so. And there comes a point when fewer photons lead to blurred edges: a minimum number of photons is required for a given quality of image, regardless of the film's chemistry.

We should therefore ask whether we ought to make arbitrary assumptions in order to save an aesthetic analysis, on the ground that the assumptions look as though they are about something that is independent of the work of art: in this case, how people hold themselves, or the physics of light.

Saturday 9 July 2011

Public space

Yesterday I noticed that yet another bookshop along Charing Cross Road has been transformed into a café. So what? Cityscapes change. Cafés in London are often too crowded, so we could do with more. And we can find books, new and secondhand, on the Internet. It would not even be difficult to reproduce the pleasure of browsing by integrating shops' catalogues and the sample pages that are visible on Google Books. Only the musty smell, and the exchanged smiles with fellow hunters of obscure volumes of desire, would be lost.

Those losses would be real, but not great, and there are gains too, in this case café space. But cafés are for those with the money to buy their wares. London has never encouraged the hire of a table for the whole morning by the purchase of a single round of espressi. Even decent restaurants tell you that you have only 90 minutes for lunch. So we cannot see the proliferation of cafés as providing the public space for all that is so valuable. In fine weather, there is no lack. There are squares and parks. But when it is cold or wet, we need something else. We have it in London, up to 6 pm or thereabouts, in our splendid, and free, museums. But they are not places to chatter too loudly, or to sit down in large groups and gossip.

I offer no particular remedy, not even agorai in giant plastic bubbles. But it strikes me that public spaces, open to all, without payment or any other qualification such as residence or respectability, are vital. It therefore pains me to see large chunks taken out of Hyde Park and walled in for commercial events, as often happens on the eastern side of the park. More generally, those thinkers (often right-libertarians) who are opposed to all public property, who would put all land into private ownership on the basis that it will be in the interests of the landowners to sell admission to others, suffer from far too narrow a vision of human life.

Thursday 16 June 2011


On Tuesday, I went to hear Ray Tallis and Robin Dunbar speak at the British Academy, under the title "Neuroscience and Neuromania". The point of departure was Ray's new book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Ray's thesis was that while neuroscience was great, we should not expect it to explain everything about us. In particular, the key to understanding what is special about us, our self-consciousness and our capacity for creative thought and action, is not to be found there. Furthermore, this is not just a matter of complexity, of the fact that a neuron-by-neuron description of a human being would be hopelessly unwieldy. I agree with his conclusion, to the extent that I would certainly place my bet for it, rather than against it. But I do not think that his reasons are sufficient to make the conclusion even close to certain.

The humanities are definitely not going to become redundant as keys to our collective self-understanding any time soon. But I would not go so far as to say "never". There was some discussion of whether Ray underestimated the potential of neuroscience. It has, after all, made great strides in recent decades, and no-one knows how it might progress in the next fifty years. As Ray pointed out, we cannot place much weight on such promises, any more than we can on an assurance that "your cheque is in the post". And if we look at current neuroscience and expect more of the same - greater refinement in distinguishing the physical correlates of mental states, for example - then we can easily make a case that the contribution to our self-understanding of future neuroscience will be pretty well as limited as the contribution of present neuroscience.

But that would be to neglect the possibility of fundamental reconceptions, within neuroscience. We cannot yet see what such a reconception might be like, but we can draw a parallel. It would be natural to think that the unity of consciousness depended on the activity of some locatable part of the brain. But it now seems that it is more likely to be a consequence of some overall co-ordination that is located nowhere in particular within the brain. (See for example chapters 44 and 47 of the Blackwell Companion to Consciousness, ed. Velmans and Schneider, 2007.) If we can make other leaps of this kind, from looking at concrete neurons to looking at abstract structures, without losing touch with the biochemical underpinnings that make the subject neuroscience rather than anything else, the explanatory reach of the subject might turn out to be far greater than current work would lead us to expect.

I have another worry about Ray's case against the pretensions of neuroscience in the hands of the neuromaniacs. To set it out, I must outline the two central themes in his case.

The first theme was that we can only understand what we do if we do not have too narrow a focus. A little action is part of a whole life. He gave the example of the Libet experiments. An experimental subject moves a finger, as the experimenter directs. But the subject also got himself to the laboratory. Before that, he decided to participate. He looked in his diary, and saw that an hour at the laboratory would fit nicely in between the other things he had planned for the day, perhaps some shopping and a drink with friends. And so on, perhaps right back to an education that made him feel that it was worth contributing to the advancement of knowledge, and perhaps right forward to an idea that one day, he might be able to tell his grandchildren that he participated in experiments that proved to be of great significance.

The second theme was that certain things, absolutely crucial to our condition and our experience, are missing from what the natural sciences provide. These are points of view, intentionality and secondary qualities. The natural sciences describe the world without describing it as it would appear from any time or place, they find no place for the outward-directed gaze that underlies intentionality ("I am thinking about, looking at, acting upon this glass of water"), and they do not recognize secondary qualities such as colours. We, on the other hand, are keenly aware of our locations in space-time, locations that allow us certain experiences and actions, but make others impossible. We also think about, pay attention to and act upon particular things, and our experience is replete with secondary qualities.

Now consider the matter-maniac, a replacement for the neuromaniac. This matter-maniac takes the point about wider context, and acknowledges that we need to look way beyond the contents of someone's head. We need to look at the whole planet, over a long stretch of time, in order to understand what people do. But, the matter-maniac maintains, we can do all we need by talking in terms of particles and their trajectories.

We can identify thoughts with certain dispositions of particles, not just at the moment of thought but before and after (in order to provide the context that makes sense of thoughts). We can do the same for actions. We can identify points of view by working out what information can reach a given person, and what lies within her influence - at the most extensive, her past and future light-cones. We can accommodate intentionality by identifying relations between pre-existing brain states, their origins in prior events, current dispositions that would mean that any changes in objects that were the focus of attention would produce certain responses in the subject, and the practical effects of changes of brain states that would normally be identified as decisions to act in certain ways. Finally, we can correlate secondary qualities with the influences of some particles (those that reflect green light, for example) with others (in brains when people experience green).

The problems with the matter-maniac's approach are legion. I do not think it is a sensible approach at all. But anyone who wants to see off the neuromaniac decisively without falling into the clutches of the matter-maniac, and to do so on the basis of the need for broad focus and the need to accommodate points of view, intentionality and secondary qualities, must show that it is a bad approach. Furthermore, it would be dangerous to do so on the basis of the many specific difficulties in a particle-by-particle approach. The matter-maniac's approach is easily generalized, to something that says "We only need to find one description, of any sort, that is couched in the terms of physics, chemistry and biology, that has a broad focus and that somehow accommodates points of view, intentionality and secondary qualities. Then we can conclude that the neuromaniac has only been shown to be mistaken in detail, not in principle". Such a general threat must be seen off with a general response.

One general response that was offered after the formal proceedings is interesting but it does not, in my view, do the trick. This is the response that the matter-maniac has helped himself to the notion of a point of view, in describing the world in material terms. That is, the matter-maniac must conceive himself as standing somewhere and looking at the world. He relies on the notion of a point of view, and does so in a way that he cannot support merely by identifying the consequences of the people within the world that he conceives having the spatio-temporal locations that they have.

This response fails if, as I think is the case, we can conceive and discuss a world without, even in imagination, perceiving it. If, for example, we want to set out a structure of space-time, we give the mathematical formulation. Then we can give data on how the space-time is populated (beyond any population that is necessary to give the structure itself). Just to see off a challenge to my counter to the response, I take it that we can set out some mathematical data without worrying about where they are written down or the point of view from which we contemplate them. Mathematical structures (including sets of data) are not spatio-temporally located, even though representations of them are. This may look like dangerous Platonism about mathematics. I regard it as harmless Platonism. Mathematical structures just are, without being here or there, although physical instantiations of them are here or there. If one thought of the structures as here or there, the flavour of serious mathematical thought would be vastly different from what it is.

Suppose that this counter to the response failed. Then there would be another counter. Even if the matter-maniac must perceive the world he conceives, whether in imagination or in reality, he could perceive without bringing the fact of his perception into consciousness and analyzing it. He would not need to recognize the existence of his point of view. He would therefore have no need of the notion of a point of view, applied to himself, logically prior to the points of view that he analyzed out of his data on the conceived world.

If neither of these counters worked, then the independence of the natural sciences from more humanistic disciplines would be under threat. Reductionist ambitions that would create dependence of the humanities on the natural sciences may very well be excessive. But to create the reverse dependence would be implausible in the extreme.

Saturday 4 June 2011

Vincible ignorance

Last week, a friend pointed out an inadequacy in my terminology. I referred to people who do not believe in evolution. She pointed out that we should refer to people who do not know about evolution. The creationists and the advocates of intelligent design are just plain ignorant.

If we take a couple of reasonably uncontroversial principles, that knowledge implies true belief and that doxastic voluntarism is suspect, we can unpack this a little.

Given that the broad evolutionary account is true, and that there is a stack of evidence for it, and that research institutions and practices are such that we probably would not believe it if it were false (satisfying a tracking condition), those who do believe it and who are sufficiently in touch with the progress of science that they would become aware of major changes in the direction of thought, also know it. And those who do not believe it certainly do not know it, because knowledge requires belief.

Then we come on to the accusation of ignorance. This is not, in this context, a mere accusation of failure to be aware. The creationists and the advocates of intelligent design do know about evolution, to a limited extent. They are aware of the evolutionary account in outline, and of some of the evidence. But they claim to have weighed the evidence and to have rejected evolution.

It is easy to suspect them of straightforward doxastic voluntarism. It looks very much as though they have decided to reject evolution, and have then deliberately misread some evidence, and ignored other evidence, in order to support that position. The obvious motive would be to bolster their position within a group of people, usually a religious or religious-political group, who take pride in something that from the outside can be seen to be intellectual perversity. The perversity is a great instrument for distinguishing between the in-group and the out-group. If you can only join by professing to believe something that goes against the grain of rational thought, that gives the group a certain exclusivity.

There is, however, another twist. It seems unlikely that many people could live with naked doxastic voluntarism. That is why flat-Earth societies and the like have very few members. It would be almost as hard to live with a nakedly selective choice of evidence, to know that one had looked at certain fossils but had deliberately ignored others.

I suspect that what allows those who reject evolution to live with themselves is the fact that the evidence is far more subtle and extensive than a collection of fossils in a glass case. We have genetic mechanisms, features of the genome that can be traced across species, the geographical distribution of species, and so on. One needs some understanding of genetics, of molecular biology, and of mathematics, to grasp the significance of all that evidence. So those who lack such understanding can overlook the evidence without deliberately rejecting it.

That is where we should level the charge of ignorance at creationists and at the advocates of intelligent design. They simply do not know enough to grasp the evidence. My friend was correct to say that they do not know about evolution, but primarily because knowing about it means more than knowing the rough outline. That is also why it is so hard to convert them to good sense. They need to go back to school first.

Sometimes, one observes the same phenomenon in other fields. I once knew someone who was utterly convinced that something supernatural was going on when people walked across glowing coals. It had to be, because the coals were at a thousand or so degrees. I tried to explain that while the temperature was high, the thermal energy that was held by the coals was low, so the temperature of the coal-walker's feet did not rise to a thousand degrees. (Do not try this at home: it can go wrong, and people do get badly burnt.) Alas, she just did not have the concept of thermal capacity, and probably did not have the concept of energy as it is defined within physics.

Saturday 21 May 2011

Injunctions and privacy

Lord Neuberger has just published his report on privacy law and injunctions. The Lord Chief Justice, Igor Judge, has complained that the Internet is out of control. Allegations can appear there regardless of British court orders. Something needs to be done about this.

No it doesn't, and no it shouldn't. The courts have got used to having their authority respected, so one can understand their fury when technology means that people can take action that flouts court orders within the jurisdiction, while at the same time saying "Stuff you, I am outside the jurisdiction". My view that the law not only has lost, but should lose, is based on the following considerations.

1. The state has never had any business controlling what we say, or what we read, or offering help to others who would like to control what we say or read. Artificial technology is at last coming to the rescue of natural justice.

2. The harm that is done to reputations is the mere disclosure of truth. No-one has any right to keep the truth hidden. If you did not want it made public, you should not have done it. The law of privacy, in the form of an enforceable right against non-public bodies, is an invention for which there is no justification.

3. Since the harm done is mere embarrassment, there is no justification for effectively extending the writ of courts of one country to other countries through international agreements.

4. Lies are also put up on the Internet, but if there is to be a remedy there, it lies in the law of defamation, not in injunctions. And if there were no injunctions, it is much more likely that the truth would appear in the mainstream media, undermining lies on the Internet.

Monday 9 May 2011

Impact and the funding of research

Like many others, I have watched in dismay, and have signed every petition I can find, as some of those who hold the purse-strings in humanities research have accepted that politically trendy mantras have a role in the allocation of funds. The Arts and Humanities Research Council has adopted "the Big Society", a silly slogan if ever there was one. And the management of the British Academy have negotiated a settlement on the importance of the impact of research, rather than telling politicians and civil servants that they will have nothing to do with the concept. The latest, and excellent, petition on the AHRC is here, and I encourage everyone to sign it:

Today, I came across one of the best, and scariest, comments on impact, in a letter in the 28 April edition of the London Review of Books. It is by Richard Bowring, Professor of Japanese and Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, the college where I had the privilege of studying in the 1970s. It is available here:

He points out that while everyone knows that the concern with impact is nonsense, people will care about their institutions enough to go along with it, and will put something down on the forms in order to secure some funds. The ultimate beneficiaries will be institutions in Europe and in North America, which will welcome the really talented people from our universities with open arms. To put one of Richard Bowring's points in game-theoretic terms, our universities are in a multi-player version of the prisoner's dilemma (except that communication between players is possible). All would be better off if all resisted, but the cost of resisting when others do not is so high that all will capitulate.

And yet, some sort of control is needed. We cannot just hand over taxpayers' money, without some check that it is not being wasted. Fatuous research does get conducted, and the taxpayer should fund as little of it as feasible. It is a matter of finding the right control.

The perfect control from the point of view of saving money might appear to be one that imposed external monitoring on every research proposal. Indeed, one reason to be concerned about impact is that it would encourage precisely that approach. It is not the only supposed measurable that could do so, nor would it have to be used in that fashion. But impact has the special characteristic that it is not a quality that is naturally defined within the context of an academic discipline, unlike, for example, profundity or being wide-ranging. So the external authorities who have imposed the criterion are the natural people to say what it means, and to decide which pieces of research are likely to have it.

In fact, external monitoring of every research proposal would be a bad idea, even if the external authority was often within the institution, as when a general board monitors the proposals that a faculty board approves. Universal surveillance cramps creativity and twists research proposals. But if we are not to have universal surveillance, we must accept that some fatuous research will get funded. That is undesirable in itself, but it is a reasonable price to pay. A certain amount of money may need to be wasted, as a side-effect of properly funding worthwhile research. But we want to make sure that not much is wasted. What sort of control might do? Here are two suggestions.

The first suggestion is to monitor the achievements of our universities against those in other countries. (One reason to make comparisons with foreign universities, rather than with other domestic universities, is that it takes away a sense of competing with others for the same pot of funds, a sense that can all too easily lead to game-playing, and that can also encourage enthusiastic politicians and bureaucrats to devise games, the playing of which will increase their influence over what universities do. The assessment of impact is a game like that, whether or not that was the intention.) There is something wrong if a university does not attract a reasonable amount of private funding, or does not attract people to its conferences in the way that others do, or does not find that its professors are occasionally lured away to prestigious institutions elsewhere, or does not produce enough widely-cited publications. (It would not matter that work can take years to get recognized and widely cited, because in any one year, publications from earlier years should come to maturity and start to get cited.) These measures are chosen at random, but the principle is not. Universities that did badly in international comparisons would lose research money, while those that did well would gain it. Each university would then use its money to fund the research that it chose. It would be helpful to apply the test to each university as a whole. Then each university could develop the departments that it saw as most worth developing. The same scheme could however be applied to faculties separately.

The second suggestion is to put the decision in the hands of the faculties in each discipline. Make a central decision on how much is to be spent on philosophy, how much on history, and so on, across the country. Then ask each faculty member in each university to divide the pot among all university departments in his or her own discipline, excluding his or her own university, first supplying each person with information on the sizes of the departments. Then average the results for each discipline, possibly adjusting in some pre-defined way for the effects of more votes coming from some universities than from others, and leave each faculty to decide what research to fund with the money that it has been allocated. The point is that there should be enough collective wisdom across the country to ensure that departments that did good work, and that picked worthwhile projects to fund, would be favoured. A certain amount of discussion between people before voting would lead to some lack of independence of decision-making, so we would not get the full advantage of the wisdom of crowds. And the process would be at least slightly corrupted by mutual back-scratching. But it should not be too bad.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Mobility and opportunity

The Cabinet Office has just published Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility. It is available here:

There are a lot of good practical ideas in this document. But what is the aim, and what are the implications of having that aim?

One possible aim would be to create a meritocracy, albeit in economic life in general, and not as the political system that the suffix -cracy would suggest. But the document suggests that it is not the outcome, but the fairness of the game, that matters to the Government. That is, the aim seems to be equality of opportunity. In that case, the inequalities that are inequalities of natural endowment, rather than of opportunity, and that should influence the outcome even in a fair game, need to be identified. Genetically determined intelligence? Genetically determined physical abilities or robustness of general health? The opportunities for political incorrectness are legion.

I do not think that the term "social mobility" should have been used. We must remind ourselves of the difference between two things. One is everybody's circumstances improving, which is perfectly possible. The other is everybody moving up in society relative to others. Unfortunately, the term "social mobility" suggests the latter. It sounds great, but elementary mathematics shows that it is impossible. If "social mobility" is to be a sensible objective, it cannot mean getting people to move up the order, because the steps up by some and the steps down by others will, in aggregate (sum of (people x size of move) ), cancel each other out.

It must therefore mean ensuring that movement up and down is not impeded by factors that should not impede it. But if that is what is meant, the term "equality of opportunity" should have been used. The use of that term would have several advantages. It would accommodate both the possibility of everybody's improving their circumstances at the same time, and the possibility of individuals moving up on merit. It would avoid suggesting that we must in fact have more movement up and down the order (more movement might or might not be the result of introducing equality of opportunity). It would encourage us to draw on the very considerable philosophical literature on equality of opportunity. And it would not tempt us to hope for the mathematically impossible.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar

I have just tried to go to, not to buy cigars (I do not smoke), but because I came across the brand in another context and was idly curious.

I was redirected to, and was shown the message:

"We are sorry due to national legal restrictions we can not grant you access to our Website Thank you for your understanding."

This appears to reflect the prohibition on tobacco advertising in the UK. Not only are we not allowed to see adverts, across which we might stumble by accident. We are not allowed to go in search of information on a product that we already know is made of tobacco.

I had feared that in due course, the great firewall of the UK would be built to keep out messages that were politically subversive, or pornography at which uptight politicians took offence. But no, the first target is innocent information on a perfectly legal product. (It is not quite a firewall. The page appears to be one of Davidoff's own, and is presumably displayed if one has a UK IP address. But the effect is the same.)

Davidoff did not think of this themselves. They, or tobacco companies in general, must have been asked to do it, by the UK government. Some politicians, presumably in the last government, or some senior civil servants, had such a casual disregard for freedom of information that they thought it worth interfering with that freedom for a plainly inadequate reason.

We should be worried at the existence of such an attitude, anywhere in government. We should also be told the names of the guilty politicians or civil servants. Meanwhile, I used a proxy server to get to the forbidden, and not in the least bit dangerous, site.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

The ONS and subjective well-being

The Office of National Statistics is taking an interest in subjective measures of well-being. A new paper has just appeared, "Spotlight on: Subjective well-being", edited by Stephen Hicks. There is a link to it at the top of this page.

My immediate reactions to this ONS exercise include the following.

1. We need to sort out whether we mean happiness as flourishing or happiness as an internal sense that may be joy, contentment or something else in that general area. If the surveyors ask people about their levels of happiness, I expect that most people will take an internal sense to be meant. But if public policy is to be steered by the results of this kind of work, should we mean flourishing? And if we should, is that something subjective, to be measured by asking people about their own lives, or something to be measured by other means? Eudaimonia is discussed on page 13 (the fifteenth page of the pdf) and on page 16, and it is treated as something to be measured subjectively.

2. If we do mean flourishing, it would be interesting to see whether we could define it in more elevated terms than the meeting of needs one finds in the bottom three or four layers of Maslow's hierarchy, while still having a robust definition, and whether we could do so in a way that would overcome the paternalism objection in the report (top of page 3). The question (the fourth question at the top of page 15) avoids paternalism by asking for an opinion about the value of whatever content the subject's life happens to have. Alternative questions about a sense of autonomy avoid paternalism by asking about the actual form of a life (not one's evaluation of it), rather than considering the life's content. These are different approaches, and we should think hard about which would be the better approach.

3. Should this sort of thing steer public policy, either by leading the state to choose measures that have the main goal of increasing well-being, or by using the results of work in this area as one factor to consider when choosing between policies? My own inclination is to allow the latter but not the former. The former would only encourage an already hyper-active state, and would also be beyond what I regard as the legitimate competence of government. There was a Cabinet Office paper in 2002, "Life satisfaction: the state of knowledge and implications for government" by Nick Donovan, David Halpern and Richard Sargeant. Official nervousness about government involvement in this field was revealed by the fact that every page bore the warning "This is not a statement of government policy". (The paper is now available here.)

4. We must both be sensitive to cultural differences when comparing answers to questions about happiness from different countries, and not get excited about small differences, such as those between Britain, Australia and Sweden (top of the page numbered 7). Such differences in sample results may signify nothing of any importance, and certainly do not signify anything that is large enough for governments to even think about action on the strength of the differences. The levers of government policy are too crude to make small adjustments without having large side-effects.

5. It is disappointing that philosophers do not feature much in the bibliography to the ONS report. This sort of work is interesting, but if the ONS could get thinkers from a range of disciplines (philosophy, anthropology, psychology, etc) actively involved, on the inside and not just as external commentators, the result could be much richer.

Friday 25 February 2011

Philosophy, money and incommensurability

I have just been to an excellent talk by Angie Hobbs (University of Warwick) on the ethics of money. The talk made an eloquent case for the involvement of all kinds of thinkers, including philosophers, historians, psychologists and anthropologists, in debates on the financial system. I think that is right. Moreover, the hard-pressed philosophy lecturers who need to build up their CVs with technical papers should not be seduced into thinking that this would be second-rate philosophy, because not sufficiently technical. It is what Plato and Aristotle did, and it needs re-doing in modern circumstances. Correspondingly, it needs to be given sufficient credit by those who appraise university departments and hand out the money.

One of Angie's central points was that if we are going to get money, banking and the like right, we have to be clear about what we want on a broader scale: what kind of life, what kind of society, and so on. In particular, we can miss a lot if we think that everything is even potentially reducible to monetary terms. On the other hand, there is a strong temptation to try to reduce everything to a common scale of value, because it makes decision-making easier.

She suggested that some important things were not quantifiable. I am not sure that we need to go that far, in order to accommodate the evident phenomenon that some decisions as to what to do are not mechanically computable. It could be that there are quantitative scales, or at worst orderings, for many goods, including cultural goods such as beauty and mental challenge. For example, if there is any sense to the notion of one kind of music being objectively better than another, then Mozart is better than the Beatles, even if one happens to prefer the Beatles. But the problem is that there are many scales, orthogonal to one another or otherwise incommensurable. So we can rate options along single scales. We can perhaps place options on indifference hyper-surfaces that cover a limited selection of scales, then use a production possibility hyper-plane to find a local optimum for the limited selection of scales. But we might still lack the means to find global optima, or even local optima across reasonably wide localities (a locality being defined as a set of scales).

This thought does not of course exclude the possibility that some goods are indeed absolutely non-quantifiable. There can be grounds for thinking that, apart from the fact that some decisions are not mechanically computable. But the optimist in me does not want to rule out quantification, or at worst ordering, in advance.

One thing of which I am convinced is that if something can be measured on a single scale, it cannot be the good for humanity. The utilitarianism of the modern proponents of the science of happiness is refuted as soon as they claim that human happiness is measurable on a one-dimensional scale. It is not just that we happen to be too complicated for one dimension. One-dimensional value would be unworthy of us. We need the space for irresoluble conflict, in order to be human.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Deleuze and clarity

I have just had an interesting discussion with people who work on, or in the tradition of, Deleuze. I maintained that Deleuze, and others of that ilk, were wilfully obscure, making it impossible to tell whether there was anything of worth in their works. I also maintained that Sokal and Bricmont did the intellectual community a very great service by writing Intellectual Impostures (American title, Fashionable Nonsense). They exposed the large amount of nonsense, and the gross abuse of science, that are to be found in the work of their targets. Others in the discussion naturally disagreed with me, both on Deleuze and on Sokal and Bricmont.

Even if I am right, that would not exclude the possibility of worthwhile work in response to Deleuze and his ilk. Those who engage with Deleuze may well have worthwhile thoughts of their own, which can then be published and which may deepen our understanding in a variety of fields. Interaction with others often has that effect. Work on Deleuze and his ilk may also contribute to our understanding of intellectual history.

The discussion raised the question of standards of clarity and obscurity. I maintain that some works, such as those of Kant, those of McDowell, and texts in physics, are legitimately challenging by virtue of their subject matter. But others are obscure without good cause. Works by Hegel, Deleuze, Lacan and Derrida are like that.

Such judgements should, however, be supported by some robust and generally acceptable criteria of clarity - although it would be too much to expect that even those who agreed on the criteria, would reach the same conclusion on every difficult book that they considered. I propose two criteria. First, does each sentence make sense? (We cannot expect to get the full sense, or even the correct sense, of a sentence without paying attention to its context; but each sentence should still mean something in isolation.) Second, can I state in my own words what the author has said, listing some specific and worthwhile propositions, and be confident that I have not just invented something that I think he should have said?

The second criterion suggests something that Deleuze scholars might like to do. If they conclude that Deleuze himself said certain things and that those things were worthwhile, they should reflect on whether they have really found those things clearly in the text, or whether they have had to read their own thoughts into the text in order to extract some definite meaning. In particular, could they just have easily have extracted some other, contradictory, meaning? And could they tell when two pieces of writing in the Deleuzian style did contradict each other?