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Sep 24 14

Mental Parasites

by Bill Meacham

What if your brain were taken over by a parasite and made you want something you would not ordinarily want? What if it took over your second-order thinking and made you want to want that thing? Would your will then be free?

This is not so far-fetched a scenario as it might seem. There are numerous examples of parasites infecting the brains of animals to make those animals act contrary to their own well-being. Here is one:

The Lancet liver fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum has a very busy life. As an adult it spends its time in the liver of a cow or another grazing mammal. Here it mates and lays eggs, which are excreted in the host’s feces.

A snail eats the poo, taking in the eggs at the same time. The eggs hatch in the snail and make their way into its digestive gland, where they asexually reproduce. They then travel to the surface of the snail’s body. As a defensive maneuver, the snail walls the parasites up in cysts and coughs up the balls of slime…doing exactly what the parasites wanted it to do.

An ant comes along and gobbles up the fluke-laded slime balls. The flukes then spread out inside of the ant, with a couple of them setting up shop in the insect’s head. When night approaches, the flukes take control. They make the ant climb up a blade of grass and hold tight, waiting to be eaten by a grazing animal. If the ant is still alive at dawn, the flukes release their control and the ant goes about its day like normal (if the ant baked in the sun, the parasite would die, too). At night the flukes take over again and the cycle repeats until the ant becomes cattle food.(1)

It’s doubtful, of course, that the lancet fluke actually wants its host to do anything. That is just a figure of speech. But what is clear is that the ant’s climbing up the blade of grass has nothing to do with its own survival and well-being. Its mind, tiny as it is, has been hijacked by the parasite. If it had enough mentality to reflect on what it is doing, the ant could probably find plausible and compelling reasons for its actions. Perhaps it feels good to climb. Perhaps hanging out at the top of the blade of grass feels tranquil and comfortable. Or exhilarating. We’ll never know. But we can find out find how it feels in our own case, because we too are subject to parasitic hijacking.

Daniel Dennett makes the point that certain memes have the same effect on humans that the lancet fluke has on ants. A meme is a unit of cultural transmission, similar to the gene, which is a unit of biological evolution. Like a gene, a meme is a replicator, except memes replicate contemporaneously between minds rather than historically between bodies.(2) A meme is an idea or information packet that replicates itself by passing from mind to mind. Says Dennett,

It’s ideas – not worms – that hijack our brains. … There are a lot of ideas to die for. Freedom. … Justice. Truth. Communism. Many people have laid down their lives for communism, and many have laid down their lives for capitalism. And many for Catholicism. And many for Islam. These are just a few of the ideas that are to die for. They’re infectious.(3)

Such hijacking might be innocuous and unintended, the product of cultural memetic replication like a catchy tune, or it might be quite deliberate, as in brainwashing or propaganda. For example, here are a few memes that may have been installed in you or someone you know.

  • Those of other religions than yours are heathens and infidels and must be stopped at any cost.
  • Your form of government is the best one and works for your benefit.
  • People of your race (or gender or nationality, etc.) are better than those of other races (or genders or nationalities) and deserve better treatment.

And so on. You can probably think of more. In all these cases, our beliefs can induce us to act contrary to our own well-being (and to our genetic fitness as well, but that is not usually our concern).

But regardless of the effect on our own well-being, when we are so induced we seem to act as we do voluntarily, of our own free will. And yet, something else – our parents, our community, our culture, the information media we are exposed to, the government, the dominant economic class, etc. – determines our will, i.e. what we want, choose and strive for. And furthermore, that something determines our second-order will as well, what we want to want.

I have noted with approval philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s notion that freedom of the will consists in being able to make second-order volitions effective. It is second-order volition – our ability to control what we want based on our capacity for reflective self-evaluation – that distinguishes us humans from other animals. Our will is free, he says, when we succeed in making our second-order volition effective; that is, when the second-order volition actually governs the first order such that the preferred first-order desire is what results in action. When that happens, we judge that our will is free.

But what if somebody else controls our second-order will? Such a thing is quite possible through brainwashing, application of propaganda, and also operant conditioning and behavioral engineering as depicted in the novel Walden Two.

Robert Kane calls such control Covert Nonconstraining Control, or CNC. In cases of constraining control, a person is forced by physical causes to act against his will, for example by being physically threatened or locked up. In cases of nonconstraining control, a person’s will is manipulated so that the person willingly does what the controller wants done. The person is not obviously constrained, but is controlled nonetheless. Examples include operant conditioning, behavioral engineering and other forms of manipulation. CNC, covert nonconstraining control, occurs when the manipulation is hidden from the person being manipulated; that person does not know he or she is being manipulated and perhaps does not even know that the manipulators exist.(4)

When we find out that we have been manipulated we typically feel outraged. Take the fictional account of the fantasy world of Harry Potter. In that world one of the unforgiveable curses is Imperius, by which the witch or wizard controls the victim’s will. It is unforgiveable because it violates one of the most central aspects of our identity, the sense that we are in charge of our choices, and that our choices define (or reveal) who we are. Nobody wants to be a puppet. (The other thing that is central to our identity is how we perceive reality, our own unique point of view. But our perception, seemingly more passive, is not quite so central. Were we to find out that someone had distorted our perceptions, we would feel anger at being lied to, but not, I suspect, outrage at being controlled.)

So is our will free when we are covertly constrained? No, obviously not. Our choices and resulting actions are not ours, but our controller’s. But do we still have free will? In the sense of having the capacity for it, yes.

That capacity – whether or not it is actually exercised at any given time – is rooted in our capacity for reflective self-awareness, or second-order thinking. If your second-order will is determined by someone else, as soon as you know it you can take steps against it. Or for it, if you decide you like it that way. The point is, once you know someone is trying to control you, you have a choice about it. Second-order thinking is, potentially, self-correcting.

Now clearly it might not be so easy to find out. If your manipulator is sufficiently skilled, it might be very, very difficult indeed. You would feel no impulse to find out if you did not even suspect that you might be subject to manipulation.

That’s why philosophy is, in some ways, a subversive concern. Socrates famously asserted that the unexamined life is not worth living.(5) If we desire wisdom we are advised to examine our lives even if there appears to be nothing to be concerned about. A manipulator would not want you to do that, because you might discover the manipulation. Having discovered it, however, you would be better off, as you could then take steps to take back your will.

Eternal vigilance, it seems, is the price not only of political liberty(6) but of freedom of the will as well.

Notes

(1) Bennington-Castro, “12 Real Parasites That Control the Lives of Their Hosts.”

(2) Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, chapter 11, pp. 189–201.

(3) Dennett, Daniel C. “Dangerous Memes.”

(4) Kane, The Significance of Free Will, pp. 61-67.

(5) Plato, Apology, 38a.

(6) Berkes, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty (Quotation).”

References

Bennington-Castro, Joseph. “12 Real Parasites That Control the Lives of Their Hosts.” Online publication http://io9.com/12-real-parasites-that-control-the-lives-of-their-hosts-461313366 as of 19 September 2014.

Berkes, Anna. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty (Quotation).” Online publication http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/eternal-vigilance-price-liberty-quotation as of 24 September 2014.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene, New Edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Dennett, Daniel C. “Dangerous Memes.” Online publication http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_dennett_on_dangerous_memes as of 19 Sept. 2014.

Kane, Robert. The Significance of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Plato. Apology. Tr. Hugh Tredennick. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.

Aug 27 14

Book Review: Ethics Without Morals

by Bill Meacham

I’ve been published again; this it is time a book review in Philosophy Now magazine.  Here is the link:  http://philosophynow.org/issues/103/Ethics_Without_Morals_by_Joel_Marks. For your convenience, I reproduce the whole thing below.

 

Regular readers of this publication will know that ex-columnist Joel Marks underwent quite a profound change of outlook with respect to the study of ethics and morality. Formerly a Kantian who worked out in some detail how the moral dictates of pure reason apply to particular circumstances, he is now a moral anti-realist, asserting that there are actually no moral dictates at all! Marks’ book, Ethics without Morals, is a readable exposition of his new position, which he calls ‘amorality’, after ‘atheism’. Just as atheism denies the objective existence of God, amorality denies the objective existence of morality.

As philosophers, we need to get clear on our concepts. What is morality? Marks’ answer: morality is a set of absolute and universal imperatives and prohibitions – a set of rules which everyone is obliged to obey. This set of imperatives is supposed to apply to all human beings at all times and places. The moral rules trump all other rules, and manifest in our feelings as spontaneous intuitions or impulses to obey or enforce them. The essence of morality is its universal, unchanging, and absolute authority in matters of human behavior. Following Kant, Marks calls moral imperatives ‘categorical’, meaning that they apply unconditionally, and independently of how we feel about them. In brief, morality is a set of obligations that we are all supposed to obey. This is what we mean by the term ‘morality’, by and large, in common language. And morality in this sense does not actually exist, says Marks.

The Genesis of Morality

Marks argues that there are several possible explanations for our belief in morality, and that the one that does not assume that morality exists makes a lot more sense than the others.

The first possible explanation for belief in morality is that God legislates it and gave us a conscience so we would know right from wrong. The second is that morality is a built-in feature of the universe, much like gravity, and we have developed an intuition to perceive it. The third is that the belief in morality was a useful evolutionary adaptation that lingers on even though it is no longer helpful.

The evolutionary explanation makes the best sense, according to Marks. Development of a sense of morals was evolutionarily adaptive for early humans because it enabled them to live cooperatively in groups. We evolved to believe in morality because we have to live with others in order to survive, and moral rules regulate how we get along together. A shared sense of morals makes for group cohesion, and those who live in cohesive groups survive and reproduce better than those who don’t. As primatologist Frans de Waal has noted, human societies are support systems within which temporary weakness does not automatically spell death (Our Inner Ape, 2005, p.187).

Crucially, this explanation does not require that morality actually exist in an objective sense; all it requires is that people believe it does. There is an obvious objection here, and to his credit Marks considers it: this explanation does not require that morality does not exist, either. The evolutionary argument is quite compatible with either of the other explanations. Against this possibility, Marks argues a form of Occam’s Razor: the evolutionary explanation alone is simpler and conceptually more economical than it would be in conjunction with either of the others. But Occam’s Razor alone is not enough to discredit them, so Marks must consider each independently.

Against the God explanation he cites Plato’s Euthyphro, in which Socrates argues that it makes more sense to say that the gods love what is right rather than that the right is whatever the gods love. Hence, morality (ie right and wrong), if it exists at all, exists independently of the gods (or of God). This leaves the second idea – that morality is a natural feature of the universe. Against this, Marks argues a number of things: that morality in this sense would be a set of commands without a commander, a nonsensical notion; that the only way of perceiving moral commands is through intuition, but different people have different intuitions, and there is no way to adjudicate between them; and, that there exists no plausible account of how an objective morality has any connection to the rest of the universe we know about – the idea is metaphysically incoherent. Of the three explanations, the only one left standing is the evolutionary one.

With so much at stake, one would expect an extensive discussion of just how our sense of morality may have evolved, the various ways it manifests in our lives and societies, the different flavors it takes, and so forth, along the lines of Jonathan Haidt, Stephen Pinker, Richard Joyce and others. In fact Marks spends remarkably little time defending the evolutionary view. That’s because he takes it to be well established already, and because he has his sights set on something more: why it is advisable not even to pretend that morality exists: “A clear-eyed review of the relative effects of believing and disbelieving in morality would move us to prefer an amoral regime” he says (p.38).

Meta-Ethical Marks

Marks is so eager to divest himself of anything that sounds like morality that he says there’s nothing we should do (because there are no moral ‘shoulds’), only what we want to do – a view of human nature that he calls ‘desirism’. All we ever do is what we want to do, he says. So the goal of his work is to convince us to desire amoralism.

In this effort Marks succeeds brilliantly. His chapter entitled ‘Might Amorality Be Preferable?’ includes an excellent rant against the defects of our typical sense of morality: morality makes us angry; it promotes hypocrisy; it encourages arrogance; it’s arbitrary, because there is no final justification for saying anything is right or wrong; it is imprudent, leading us to do things that have obviously bad consequences; it makes us intransigent, fueling endless strife; it is useless as a guide to life; and it leads philosophers to waste time on silly puzzles. By contrast, amorality is free of guilt, tolerant, interesting, explanatory and compassionate (when the blinders of blame are removed, we are free to consider others with an open heart), not to mention true. The upshot is that amorality is far more preferable. If you read only this chapter, you will have gained a lot.

Marks is here making a meta-ethical claim – a claim about the status of ethics – which claim I like to explain in terms of the language used to express it. That is, throughout the history of philosophy there have been two competing domains of discourse regarding ethics and morals, the Right and the Good. The Right pertains to duty and obligation: it refers to an obligation to obey moral rules; laws that are taken to be applicable universally and independent of one’s own preferences. The Good pertains to benefits and harms: it refers to consequences of actions that may be good or bad for the agent or others. In these terms, Marks’ claim (which I find persuasive) is that Goodness trumps Rightness – that it makes more sense to speak of ethics (ie, ideas of the best way to live in society) in terms of benefits and harms than to speak in terms of duty and obligation. He does not quite spell it out that way, but his preference for ‘goodness’ or ‘benefit’ language is clear from passages such as these:

  • “Believing this particular truth, that morality does not exist, will make things go better.” (p.2)
  • “Morality… does not exist and… it would be good for us to believe that.” (p.3)
  • “Abandonment of moral thinking and speaking… would be more effective in achieving… [a] common goal of maximally satisfying our considered desires.” (p.63)
  • “Morality breeds escalation of conflict, which is often to no one’s net benefit.” (p.66)

But if morality does not exist and it would be beneficial for us to quit speaking in moral terms, what is the alternative? What is the best way to live our lives? Marks’ answer is to pursue only what you desire after due consideration:

“We now… have a replacement criterion to guide our actions in general, to wit: Figure out what you really want, that is, the hierarchy of your desires all things considered, and then figure out how to achieve or acquire it by means that are themselves consonant with that prioritized set of your considered desires.” (p.53)

We might call this Marks’ categorical imperative, except that he is quite clear that it is not a moral command but only advice. In contrast to morality, ethical commands, he says, are hypothetical, their application being contingent upon what is desired. By this he means that you can legitimately offer advice such as, “If you want to be trusted, then you ought to be honest” (ethics), but you can’t legitimately tell someone that they must absolutely be honest, without context and without reference to what they want (morality). Amoralist ethics is therefore quite practical, in that it lends itself to evidence-based assessments of how best to proceed; and it is intrinsically motivating, because its advice is based on what you actually want, not on what someone else tells you to do.

Amoral Advice

There’s a lot to like here. There are a few rough spots, to be sure. There’s an egregious bit of sophistry on p.24, in which Marks assumes what he says needs proving. The discussion of evolution deserves a lengthier treatment. (Hmm, ‘deserves’. Am I making a moral judgment?) And I suspect that it would not be so easy to abandon our sense of morality, since it is built in by several hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. But these minor blemishes are far outweighed by the great service Marks has done in pointing out that the moral emperor has no clothes. The practicality of amoralism, in contrast to the intransigence of moralism, is quite appealing.

But I feel impelled to articulate one criticism: that Marks does not go far enough. He tells us to consider what we really want and then to act on our desires; but he gives no guidance about what to really want – by which I mean, no guidance about what it is important or advisable to want. What is important enough to care about? He asks us to pay attention to “our considered desires,” but on what basis shall we consider them? Certainly we all have competing desires. How then shall we evaluate them? How shall we decide which of the contestants to favor? What is the best thing (or even a pretty good thing) to desire with sufficient intensity that we are moved to actually strive to achieve it?

‘What’s the best thing to desire?’ is not a trivial question. Rather, it is one of the fundamental questions that philosophers have considered, since Socrates or earlier. Marks should at least offer some advice, then. That’s what philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, is all about. (That’s a non-moral use of the word ‘should’, by the way: it means what is socially expected, not what is morally commanded.)

What would the advice be? My own view is that it would have to do with what leads us to a fulfilling and flourishing life. Thinkers as diverse as Kant and Socrates agree that the desire to survive, thrive and feel happy and fulfilled is fundamental and essential to all humans. If you disagree and think something else is more to be desired, then consider that in order to fulfill that alternative desire, you would have to survive and thrive at least enough to be able to attain it, and once you attained it, you would, I presume, feel happy and fulfilled. So functioning well enough to survive and thrive is the fundamental aim of all of us.

Given that premise, the philosophical question becomes an empirical one: what enables us to function well? How are we constituted, what is good for us, and what are we good for and good at? In short: What is human nature?

I won’t attempt to answer these questions here, but this shows there’s more to the story of ethics than just to do what you want after due consideration. We can for instance make generalizations about what makes most people happy or what promotes the welfare of most people, and we can generate advice based on those generalizations. Such advice, being empirically based, would have a great deal of force. I think Marks would agree that it would have much more force than moralistic judgments based on false metaphysical presuppositions.

In sum, Marks has produced a thought-provoking work. I have not described all of it. There is a chapter on how an amoralist would address the contentious issue of animal welfare, for instance. There is another chapter on various alternative ways to conceive of morality. Scattered throughout are hints that Marks doubts many of the usual conceptions of free will. Perhaps he will write about that topic in the future. If so, I expect to read it with as much pleasure as I had reading Ethics without Morals.

© Bill Meacham, 2014

Bill Meacham received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, made his living as a computer programmer, systems analyst and project manager, and is now an independent scholar in philosophy. He is the author of How To Be An Excellent Human, and his writing can be found at bmeacham.com.

Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality, by Joel Marks, New York and London: Routledge, 2013, 133 pages, ISBN: 978-0-415-63556-1

Aug 8 14

A Finely Tuned Universe

by Bill Meacham

One of the more superficially plausible arguments for the existence of a Creator God is that of the Finely Tuned Universe. It is a variant of the argument from design, that the contents of the universe are so intricately connected that an intelligent being must have designed them. That argument originally focused on biological complexity, but Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection trumped it by accounting for biological design by natural causes rather than an intelligent creator.(1) The argument that the universe is finely tuned to provide a home for human life extends the argument from design from biology to the cosmos as a whole.

The argument, in brief, is that the conditions that allow life in the universe can occur only when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range. If any of them were only slightly different, the universe would not be conducive to the establishment and development of not only life, but the diversity of physical elements, astronomical structures, and even matter itself. The probability of these values all being just so is so small that an intelligent Creator God is a better explanation than pure chance.

The list of such constants varies among adherents of this view; among them are the following:(2)

  • The ratio of the strength of gravity to that of electromagnetism;
  • The strength of the force binding nucleons into nuclei;
  • The Density parameter, the relative values of gravity and expansion energy in the Universe;
  • The cosmological constant, which defines the energy density of the vacuum of space;
  • The ratio of the gravitational energy required to pull a large galaxy apart to the energy equivalent of its mass; and
  • The number of spatial dimensions in spacetime.

Recently it has been suggested that the mass of the Higgs Particle, which is 17 orders of magnitude smaller than physicists would expect it to be were it “natural” (a technical term in particle physics, not the opposite of supernatural), is also one of these finely tuned properties of the universe. If it were what physicists would expect given other characteristics of small particles, there would not even be mass as we know it, let alone life.(3)

The Finely Tuned Universe argument asserts that the fact that all these values are set just so is highly, highly improbable. They have a Vanishingly(4) small chance of occurring just as they do by pure chance; so instead, an Intelligent Designer must have set them up that way. As a friend put it, what if you flipped a coin 100 times and it came up heads every time? Wouldn’t that be so improbable that we would suspect something other than random chance?

I think not. In rebuttal, let’s consider some points about probability and the anthropic principle.

Probability

The concept of probability applies only to that which has not yet happened, i.e., events in the future. The probability of an event happening is equal to the number of ways it can happen divided by the total number of possible outcomes. For flipping a coin to get heads there is one way the desired event can happen (it comes up heads) and two possible outcomes (it comes up heads and it comes up tails), so the probability of getting heads is 1/2 (0.5) or 50%. To find the probability of independent events that occur in sequence such as 100 heads in a row, you find the probability of each event occurring separately and then multiply the probabilities. That would mean 0.5 to the 100th power, which is indeed minuscule (7.88861E-31, according to Excel).(5)

But, after the events have happened, the concept of probability no longer applies! If you did indeed get 100 heads in a row, the probability, if you can call it that, would be 100%. Before you started, the probability of that outcome was minuscule. After you are done, that outcome is a certainty. It is no longer probable; it is actual.

So to say that we live in a highly improbable universe is bogus. It is certain that we live in the universe as it is.

That answer is unlikely to persuade most people. Yes, the universe is as it is, but before it got that way wasn’t it improbable that it would? My answer: Yes, it was quite improbable. But so was every other way it could have been.

Imagine, not a Creator God, but a Universe Generator. The Universe Generator is like a random number generator (except it does not have to be random) that generates universes, either all at once (the “multiverse”) or one at a time. Before any particular universe is generated, the probability of it turning out in a certain way is minuscule. The probability of a universe with different cosmological constants from ours, but each having a particular value, would be as minuscule as the probability of our universe with the values we find in it. At some point in meta-time our particular universe is generated. Then it’s a done deal, and here we are. That it was improbable before it got generated is nothing remarkable; so was every other universe before it got created.

I’m not sure the concept of a Universe Generator in meta-time actually makes sense, but it is a way of suggesting that the alleged improbability of our universe turning out just as it has is a bogus consideration.

Here is another way of looking at it. For simplicity, imagine flipping a coin, not 100 but only eight times. The probability of getting heads all eight times (HHHHHHHH) would be 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2, or 0.5 to the 8th power, which comes out to 1/256, or 0.00390625. That’s not Vanishingly small, but small enough to seem awfully improbable. Now consider the probability of getting some other result, say HTTHHTHT. Its probability is equally 0.00390625! Now matter how it comes out in the end, before you flip the coins the probability of any particular outcome is the same as any other. Similarly, that our universe was improbable is nothing remarkable. So was every other possible universe.

Anthropic Principle

Yes, one might object, but how come we get to be here and observe our world and think about it? Isn’t that strange? Not really. Consider the Anthropic Principle, the idea that observations of the physical Universe must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it. A variant called the Weak Anthropic Principle says that the universe’s ostensible fine tuning is the result of selection bias. Only in a universe capable of eventually supporting life will there be living beings capable of observing and reflecting upon any such fine tuning, while a universe less compatible with life would not be observed by anybody.(6) So it is entirely unremarkable that we are here to observe the universe. If the universe were such that it could not support life, we would not be there to observe and puzzle about it. There is no need to posit any sort of intelligent design to account for it. As physicist Stephen Hawking puts it, “Intelligent beings … should … not be surprised if they observe that their locality in the universe satisfies the conditions that are necessary for their existence. It is a bit like a rich person living in a wealthy neighborhood not seeing any poverty.”(7)

So What?

You can readily find on the Internet numerous other objections to the Finely Tuned Universe argument for a Creator God as well as numerous theological arguments that purport to refute them. I have offered a few objections in the interest of clarity of thought, but I suspect that the whole debate is what the Buddha called “questions which tend not to edification.”(8) Who really bases their faith on such arguments? Both theists and atheists come to conclusions on emotional grounds and then find arguments to rationalize their positions, as do we all in many arenas of life.(9)

William James addressed the question over 150 years ago: “It makes not a single jot of difference so far as the past of the world goes, whether we deem it to have been the work of matter or whether we think a divine spirit was its author.”(10) In either case, the world is as it is. From a practical point of view, speculation about origins is futile.

But what does matter is our orientation to life in the future. James, a theist who struggled to find a way to reconcile his urge to believe with science and philosophy, asserted that theism is preferable to atheism because it gives us hope for the future. I have addressed this question before. When objective science fails to provide an answer, our subjective experiences of what we might call a Higher Power can be decisive, particularly if our relationship with that Higher Power provides us benefits. If, for instance, we are happier and function better with such belief than without it, then we are justified in believing.

In that vein, I offer a gentle speculation. Consider the unlikely result of flipping a coin mentioned above, HTTHHTHT. The same result can be written in binary code, the language of computers, as 01100101. That is the code (in ASCII, for those who know what that is) for the letter “e,” the most common letter in the English alphabet. If we examined a computer-encoded text, we would find that sequence, 01100101, far more often than we would expect if its genesis were purely random. Indeed, we would probably find it more often than any other sequence of eight bits. That finding would tell us that the text is not random, but has some other organizing principle.

We cannot inspect numerous universes to see if more of them are amenable to life than we would expect from sheer randomness. But, as a friend suggests, we can look around the world we do live in to see if we can discern evidence of a Higher Power that takes a benevolent interest in us, God’s fingerprints as it were.

And if we find such evidence, we try to formulate a coherent story of how it fits in with the rest of what we know. There are many such stories in the world’s religions. Here is another one. In the beginning, it is said, was the Word.(11) Perhaps the universe we live in is a story that God is telling, a story that isn’t over yet. We are characters in the story; and unlike characters on the printed page, whose actions are determined by the author, we get to co-create the story. We get to make decisions and exert our will to make things happen. Maybe our actions are only eight tiny bits in a sequence that is Vastly long, but those bits make a difference. And it is up to us what kind of difference we make.

Notes

(1) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Design Arguments for the Existence of God.”

(2) Wikipedia, “Fine-tuned Universe.”

(3) Veith, “A Christian Physicist;” Barr, “On the Edge of Discovery;” Barr, “The Large Hadron Collider.”

(4) Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 207.  “Vanishingly” (capitalized) means very, very small, but not infinitely so.  Its reciprocal is “Vast,” meaning very, very large, but not infinite.

(5) Aczel, Chance, pp. 5-12.

(6) Wikipedia, “Anthropic Principle.”

(7) Quoted in Iron Chariots, “Fine-tuning argument.”

(8) Buddhist Writings, Majjhima-Nikaya, Sutta 63.

(9) Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, pp. 13-17.

(10) James, “Some Metaphysical Problems,” p. 71.

(11) Christian Bible, John 1:1.

References

Aczel, Amir D. Chance: A Guide to Gambling, Love, the Stock Market & Just About Everything Else. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004.

Barr, Stephen M. “On the Edge of Discovery.” Online publication http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2008/09/on-the-edge-of-discovery as of 6 August 2014.

Barr, Stephen M. “The Large Hadron Collider, the Multiverse, and Me (and my friends).” Online publication http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/06/the-large-hadron-collider-the-multiverse-and-me-and-my-friends/ as of 6 August 2014.

Buddhist Writings, Translated and Annotated by Henry Clarke Warren. Vol. XLV, Part 3. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. Online publication http://www.bartleby.com/45/3/201.html as of 15 November 2012.

Dennett, Daniel. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Design Arguments for the Existence of God.” Online publication http://www.iep.utm.edu/design/ as of 6 August 2014.

Iron Chariots. “Fine-tuning argument.” Online publication http://wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=Fine-tuning_argument as of 6 August 2014.

James, William. “Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered.” In Pragmatism and four essays from The Meaning of Truth. 1955. New York: Meridian Books, 1964. Online publication http://www.authorama.com/pragmatism-4.html as of 6 August 2014.

Veith, Gene. “A Christian physicist, the Higgs particle, and an anthropic multiverse.” Online publication http://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2013/06/a-christian-physicist-the-higgs-particle-and-an-anthropic-multiverse/ as of 6 August 2014.

Wikipedia. “Anthropic principle.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle as of 6 August 2014.

Wikipedia. “Fine-tuned Universe.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine-tuned_Universe as of 6 August 2014.

Jul 17 14

Some Observations on C. S. Peirce

by Bill Meacham

Charles_Sanders_Peirce_100The topic today is a single paragraph from a paper by the American philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce (pronounced “purse”) titled “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed For Man.” Peirce is considered a highly original and influential thinker, and by considering in detail Peirce’s assertions in this excerpt we’ll be able to see why. Here it is:

Passing to the distinction of belief and conception, we meet the statement that the knowledge of belief is essential to its existence. Now, we can unquestionably distinguish a belief from a conception, in most cases, by means of a peculiar feeling of conviction; and it is a mere question of words whether we define belief as that judgment which is accompanied by this feeling, or as that judgment from which a man will act. We may conveniently call the former sensational, the latter active, belief. That neither of these necessarily involves the other, will surely be admitted without any recital of facts. Taking belief in the sensational sense, the intuitive power of reorganizing it will amount simply to the capacity for the sensation which accompanies the judgment. This sensation, like any other, is an object of consciousness; and therefore the capacity for it implies no intuitive recognition of subjective elements of consciousness. If belief is taken in the active sense, it may be discovered by the observation of external facts and by inference from the sensation of conviction which usually accompanies it.(1)

This passage appears in a paper in which Peirce debunks a number of ideas that much of philosophy has historically considered true but that Peirce considers false. The first sentence expresses one of them:

Passing to the distinction of belief and conception, we meet the statement that the knowledge of belief is essential to its existence.

In this sentence Peirce states what he will argue against. The rest of the paragraph is his refutation of the proposition that in order to have a belief we must know that we have it. By “conception” Peirce means an idea, a notion, a judgment or a thought, something we entertain mentally. What he means by “belief” is at the root of Peirce’s contribution to philosophy, and will be made clear shortly.

Now, we can unquestionably distinguish a belief from a conception, in most cases, by means of a peculiar feeling of conviction ….

We can think of something without actually believing it. For instance, I can think “The cat is on the mat” without believing that the cat really is on the mat. The words are just a conception, an idea; perhaps the idea includes along with the words a mental picture of the cat residing on the mat or perhaps not. If I look and see that the cat is there, then a feeling of conviction is added to the conception. When I not only think but also believe that the cat is on the mat, then, Peirce says, a feeling of belief, a feeling of being convinced, is present in the experience as well.

This assertion should give us pause. Peirce is making a claim about one’s subjective experience of belief; and the claim is about all people, not just himself. How can we tell if he is right or not? To see if there is such a difference we would each have to examine our own experience of believing something and contrast it (in memory or in imagination) to our own experience of just thinking of something without believing it. I invite you, dear reader, to do just that. Let me know what you find out.

Peirce then says

… it is a mere question of words whether we define belief as that judgment which is accompanied by this feeling, or as that judgment from which a man will act.

[Note: Writing before the harmful effects of male-only language were recognized, Peirce means by "man" any human being.]

Peirce offers two definitions of the term “belief.” He does not mean to say that the two definitions are equivalent, as the phrase “mere question of words” might suggest. Peirce means to say that we can define the term “belief” however we like so long as the meaning is clear and we all agree on it. The first definition is what we have just discussed. The second is Peirce’s original and influential contribution to philosophy and the foundation on which Pragmatism as a philosophical movement is based. Belief, he says, is that upon which a person will act. In other papers he offers similar definitions:

If a man is made to believe in the premisses, in the sense that he will act from them and will say that they are true, under favorable conditions he will also be ready to act from the conclusion and to say that it is true.(2)

Our beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions. … The feeling of believing is a more or less sure indication of there being established in our nature some habit which will determine our actions. … Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises.(3)

In contemporary terms, Peirce is a Dispositionalist, one who thinks that it is the pattern of actual and potential behavior that is fundamental in belief. Believing that something is the case is equivalent to being disposed to act as though it is the case.(4)

It is instructive to consider how Peirce comes to this view. He does so by observing how belief and its opposite, doubt, actually function in ourselves and in the world. In his influential paper “The Fixation of Belief” he says that doubt and belief differ in three ways:(5)

  1. They feel different. The sensation of doubting is a kind of irritation. The sensation of belief is calm and satisfactory.
  2. They have different ways of determining our actions in the world. Doubt is a state in which we do not act with surety; it gives us no guidance; we do not know what to do, so we act hesitantly if at all. Belief is a state in which we do act with surety. We have confidence in what we believe and act on our beliefs quite readily.
  3. They have different ways of determining our actions toward themselves. “Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else.”(6)

Peirce was trained as a scientist and a logician and made his living taking scientific measurements for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. His method in all things intellectual is scientific. Instead of reasoning from putatively self-evident first premises, he observes reality and learns from it. In the case of belief he observes the effects that it and its opposite, doubt, have on the believer, both internally, how doubt and belief feel, and externally, in what way they affect further efforts of inquiry.

Returning now to the passage at hand, Peirce says

We may conveniently call the former sensational, the latter active, belief. That neither of these necessarily involves the other, will surely be admitted without any recital of facts.

Sensational belief is that which is accompanied by a feeling of conviction. Active belief is that which determines how we are disposed to act. Peirce claims that either one can occur without the other, but unfortunately adduces no facts in support of his claim. Let’s see if he is right. By constructing a truth table we see that there are four possible cases concerning a conception (or, as we would say today, a proposition) that might or might not be a belief. Let S stand for Sensational and A for Active belief; here is the table:

1 S true A true
2 S true A false
3 S false A true
4 S false A false

 

Case 1: Sensational is true and Active is true; the proposition is accompanied by a feeling of conviction and also disposes the person believing it to act. An example of case 1 is this: I am about to go out and want to know if it is raining. I am in a state of doubt. I look out the window and see that rain is falling. Now I am no longer in a state of doubt, but one of belief. I am quite confident that it is raining, and I take my umbrella with me to keep me dry. My belief is accompanied by a feeling of conviction and directs my action as well.

Case 2: Sensational is true and Active is false; the proposition is accompanied by a feeling of conviction but does not dispose the person believing it to act. An example of case 2 is this: I have a sudden feeling that there is a ghost in the next room, but I know that ghosts don’t exist, so I don’t do anything about it. The feeling is there, but not the impulse to action.

Case 3: Sensational is false and Active is true; the proposition is not accompanied by a feeling of conviction but does dispose the person believing it to act. There are a great many examples of case 3. By far the majority of our beliefs are not things we think of or pay attention to, but do influence our behavior, beliefs such as that the floor is stable and will not suddenly give way; that one’s cup is where one last put it; that plants need sunlight and so forth.

Case 4: Sensational is false and Active is false; the proposition is not accompanied by a feeling of conviction and neither does it dispose the person believing it to act. Case 4 includes two sub-cases, one in which we have no belief at all and the other in which we believe that a proposition is false. An example of the former (4a) would be the proposition that the flight from Austin to Chicago is delayed. I do not know whether that is so, and I don’t care, so I have neither a feeling of certainty nor a disposition to act. An example of the latter (4b) would be the proposition that the moon is made of green cheese. I believe the proposition false, so again I have neither a feeling of conviction in its truth nor a disposition to act. (I do, however, have a feeling of conviction in its contradiction, that the moon is not made of green cheese, so this case might properly be thought of as an example of case 1.)

An examination of cases shows that Peirce is correct in saying that sensational and active beliefs do not necessarily involve each other.

The next sentence is surprising: “Taking belief in the sensational sense, the intuitive power of reorganizing it will amount simply to the capacity for the sensation which accompanies the judgment.” It is unclear to me what reorganizing a belief would amount to, and to my knowledge Peirce nowhere else speaks of such reorganization. I suspect that this is a typographical error in the original, and the word should be “recognizing.” If so, the sentence would make more sense:

Taking belief in the sensational sense, the intuitive power of recognizing it will amount simply to the capacity for the sensation which accompanies the judgment.

On this reading the sentence would mean that the power of recognizing a conception as a belief consists in the capacity one has for the sensation, the “peculiar feeling of conviction,” to arise. The sentence is scarcely more than a tautology, but at least it makes sense.

What follows, however, is even more problematic.

This sensation, like any other, is an object of consciousness; and therefore the capacity for it implies no intuitive recognition of subjective elements of consciousness.

The sensation is certainly an object of consciousness in the sense that the person believing the proposition and paying attention to the sensation feels it. But it is also subjective in that only that person and nobody else feels it, so it would appear that Peirce is just wrong. The key to understanding this sentence is his use of the word “intuitive.” Peirce uses the term “intuition” in a special way. He means by it “a cognition not determined by a previous cognition of the same object, … [a] premiss not itself a conclusion.”(7) He thinks there are no such things, and the whole paper “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man” attacks in various ways the assertion that there are. An example of such an alleged intuition is Descartes’ famous Cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I exist.” From this alleged certain or self-evident proposition Descartes erects an account of reality that he claims to be indubitable because it rests on an indubitable foundation. Peirce scorns such a method. For Peirce, the way to find out about reality is to employ the scientific method: form a hypothesis; deduce from it some conclusions that can be verified experimentally; and then observe reality carefully in order to corroborate or disprove the hypothesis.

That said, I think his use of the word “intuitive” is unfortunate because it implies that we have no way of knowing the subjective elements of conscious experience other than by inference from publicly-observable facts. But, as Husserl has shown, conscious experience certainly does contain subjective elements; and one way we can know them is through introspective phenomenological observation, that is to say, from privately observable facts.

The final sentence in the passage at hand reiterates Peirce’s commitment to the scientific method:

If belief is taken in the active sense, it may be discovered by the observation of external facts and by inference from the sensation of conviction which usually accompanies it.

We quite often discover belief by observing external facts. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” comes to mind: If someone says they think the ice is safe enough to walk on but refuses actually to walk on it, we infer that they don’t really think so. A less overt example is what cognitive psychologists call Theory of Mind and philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the Intentional Stance, which consists of treating the object whose behavior you want to predict as a rational agent with beliefs and desires.(8) If something seems to move on its own rather than being pushed by another object, and it moves toward something as if trying to reach a goal, and it changes direction flexibly in response to what is happening in its environment, then we quite automatically take it to be an agent, a being with beliefs about its surroundings as well as things it wants to acquire or accomplish.(9)

Peirce also says that we can infer from the sensation of conviction that we will be willing to act on what we are convinced of. I suppose that is true, but in practice we hardly ever if at all go through an explicit chain of such reasoning. We just act on what we believe without any thought of whether we believe it. If thought is needed, it is to decide what to believe, not to figure out what we believe by considering our sensations of conviction.

In summary, this short passage illustrates several key ideas of C.S. Peirce’s pragmatic thought:

  • Reliance on scientific method, of careful observation of reality, to determine what it is reasonable to believe.
  • Reliance on observations not only of third-person objective facts but also of first-person subjective facts.
  • Understanding what a concept means by what practical consequences it has, and in particular understanding belief as that upon which a person is disposed to act.
  • The importance of action in the world, not just contemplative thought from an armchair, to determine the meaning of concepts.

Peirce is the founder of Pragmatism. If you would like to study his ideas in more depth, I recommend two articles, which, taken together, are the foundational statements of that philosophical movement: “The Fixation of Belief” and “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.”

Notes

(1) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” pp. 31-32.

(2) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” p. 42.

(3) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “The Fixation of Belief,” pp. 98-99.

(4) Schwitzgebel, “Belief.”

(5) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “The Fixation of Belief,” pp. 98-99.

(6) Ibid., p. 99.

(7) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” p. 18.

(8) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 15.

(9) Hauser, Moral Minds, pp. 313–322.

References

Dennett, Daniel. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Hauser, Marc D. Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

Peirce, Charles Saunders. “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 12, pp. 286-302 (January 1878). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 113-136. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/Peirce_HowToMakeOurIdeasClear.html as of 14 June 2014.

Peirce, Charles Saunders. “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 2, pp. 103-114 (1868). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 13-38. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication http://www.peirce.org/writings/p26.html as of 14 June 2014.

Peirce, Charles Saunders. “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 2, pp. 140-157 (1868). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 39-72. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication http://www.peirce.org/writings/p27.html as of 14 June 2014.

Peirce, Charles Saunders. “The Fixation of Belief.” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 12, pp. 1-15 (November 1877). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 91-112. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/Peirce_FixationOfBelief.htm as of 14 June 2014.

Schwitzgebel, Eric. “Belief.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Spring 2014 Edition. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Online publication http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/belief/ as of 16 June 2014.

 

Jun 27 14

Heidegger’s Phenomenology and Human Excellence

by Bill Meacham

Martin Heidegger is one of the most influential but also one of the most enigmatic philosophers of the 20th century. A few months ago I was invited to speak to a class of high school students about him, and recently the philosophy club has been studying the German philosopher. In preparation for all that I wrote an introduction to Heidegger’s thought. It is a bit too long to post here, so I have put it on my website as a separate paper. You can find the paper, “Heidegger’s Phenomenology and Human Excellence,” at http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/Heidegger_v2.html.

Jun 3 14

Daniel Dennett, Existentialist?

by Bill Meacham

It is curious, in a philosophical sort of way, to find Daniel Dennett sounding remarkably like an existentialist. Dennett is an important figure in contemporary philosophy of mind, having written extensively on the nature of consciousness, will, personal identity and related topics from the point of view of a thorough-going materialism. His materialism is long standing, stemming from his commitment to the scientific method. “I propose to see … just what the mind looks like from the third-person, materialistic perspective of contemporary science,” he wrote in 1987(1); and he has carried out that program quite assiduously throughout his whole career.

In contrast, existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir start from a first-person point of view. They are in a tradition that originates with the Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and includes Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and many others, a tradition in the family called, not very accurately, “continental” as opposed to “analytical” philosophy (one wonders why the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle are not also deemed continental).

Phenomenology is the practice of examining one’s own experience reflectively and without bias. The investigator inspects experience directly instead of using intermediary channels such as, for instance, an electroencephalograph to measure brain waves or psychological surveys to assess mental attitudes. The practice is called “reflective” because it is like seeing yourself in a mirror. The image you see is, in a sense, you yourself. Just so, the experience the phenomenologist examines is his or her own.

The bias to be avoided is the naive belief that the objects of our experience actually exist independently of us. One suspends judgment regarding the naive belief in the existence of objects in the world and examines phenomena only as they are given in experience.(2) The phenomenologist does not deny the objects’ existence, but neither does he or she affirm it. The phenomenologist merely attempts to avoid letting that naive believe influence the investigation. By putting aside, or “bracketing,”(3) our instinctive belief in a real world, we can perceive things that have been in our experience all along but to which we paid little attention, things such as perceptual judgments (is what I see a snake or a rope?), emotional colorings (is that dog a threat or merely exuberant?) and the like. The phenomenological investigator just pays attention to what is present in experience, without interpreting it as anything else.

The existentialists apply this attitude to the human condition, which they view from a similarly first-person point of view, the point of view of a free agent. As phenomenologists do, the existentialists try to avoid all preconceptions and presuppositions. De Beauvoir says “… let man put his will ‘in parentheses’ and he will thereby be brought to the consciousness of his true condition.”(4) By “in parentheses” she means that we set aside all theories from psychology, history, sociology, biology and similar sciences. We also set aside, as much as we can, all our taken-for-granted assumptions about who we are. Instead we describe our life purely as we experience it.

From that first-person point of view one finds a great many things, two of which are of particular interest: (a) that we can take ourselves as objects of consciousness and thought, we can pay attention to ourselves; and (b) that in so doing we transcend ourselves and can deliberately create ourselves. Existentialists such as Sartre and de Beauvoir have made a great deal of these abilities, asserting that we human beings are radically free to reinvent ourselves at every instant and that the failure to recognize and act on that freedom is a kind of inauthenticity: if we don’t act on our inherent freedom, we are not living up to what we could be.

Dennett has a very dim view of Phenomenology, calling it “dubious” and “solipsistic.”(5) No doubt he would say the same of existentialism. It is strange, then, to find him making claims similar to those of the existentialists.

Consider the following passages regarding self-awareness. Which ones are from a French first-person existentialist, and which from an American third-person materialist?

A. [A human being] is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so.

B. [A human being is] a being who … questions himself in his being, a being who is at a distance from himself ….

C. Reflective … investigation of everything is going to change everything. [W]e look closely at looking closely, … we increase our investment in techniques for increasing our investment in techniques ….

And what of these, regarding our ability to create ourselves?

D. [A human being] … is what he wills …. [He] is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.

E. There may be no constants of human nature left at all.

Probably you can tell by the language alone that C and E are from Dennett(6) and the others from French existentialists. A and D are from Sartre(7); and B, from de Beauvoir(8).

We normally think of self-awareness or self-knowledge as a subjective phenomenon, something in our own experience. Certainly we can talk to others about it, but what we talk about is our private business, how we perceive ourselves. How can a materialist talk about it from the third-person point of view?

Dennett begins by observing that we ascribe to others an interiority (my word, not his) much like our own; we all make use of what psychologists call Theory of Mind. The term “Theory of Mind” refers to the ability to attribute mental states – beliefs, intentions, desires, pretense, knowledge, etc. – to ourselves and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from our own.(9) What psychologists call Theory of Mind, Dennett calls the Intentional Stance:

[The intentional stance] consists of treating the object whose behavior you want to predict as a rational agent with beliefs and desires and other mental states exhibiting what Brentano and others call intentionality.(10)

“Intentionality” is a technical term meaning, roughly, “aboutness.”(11) It does not mean what it normally does outside of philosophy, doing something deliberately or on purpose. In a philosophy it means that when we are conscious we are conscious of something, and that when we make statements or have beliefs, they are about something other than the statements or beliefs themselves. Since “intentional” has a perfectly good everyday usage, it is unfortunate that Dennett used it to describe the stance we generally take toward other people, toward many animals and, figuratively at least, toward some non-living things such as computers. I prefer to call it an agential stance: we interpret others as agents. Dennett himself notes that he could have called it the “rational agent” stance.(12)

Dennett writes in the context of philosophical debates about what sorts of things beliefs are. Are they real states of a person’s mind, ultimately describable in terms of states of the person’s brain? Are they merely interpretations we make of a person’s behavior or speech? Dennett does not want to talk about states of mind that are perceivable only introspectively, not (I think) because he believes they don’t exist, but because he believes we can’t get any useful knowledge out of such talk. But he does want to say that beliefs and desires and the like really do exist in some sense out there in the world. They are reasonable explanations of observable phenomena which are usefully described as the actions and behaviors of agents.

In other words, his intentional stance is a way of describing reality that has predictive power in certain circumstances. Other ways of describing reality are the physical stance, in which we use our knowledge of the laws of physics (i.e., the discerned regularities of how physical things interact) to describe and predict events, and the design stance, in which we predict that a system will behave as it is designed to behave, ignoring the details of how that design is implemented.(13) The intentional stance is objective, revealing “patterns in human behavior that are describable from the intentional stance, and only from that stance, and that support generalizations and predictions.”(14) From that stance, beliefs and desires are quite as real as physical objects:

There are patterns in human affairs that impose themselves, not quite inexorably but with great vigor, absorbing physical perturbations and variations that might as well be considered random; these are the patterns we characterize in terms of the beliefs, desires and intentions [in the everyday sense] of rational agents.(15)

The intentional stance, like the others, is a “tactic of interpretation.” If Dennett can sound like an existentialist, he can also sound a bit like a pragmatist: “The intentional stance works remarkably well as a prediction method ….”(16)

That is about as far as Dennett will go regarding the reality of mental states, beliefs, desires and subjectivity in general. Of course each of us knows from our own experience that mental states are real; we know how it feels to be a conscious being. And we know that we are conscious. In other words we have the ability to investigate ourselves reflectively, as Dennett says, to be aware of and at a distance from ourselves, as Sartre and de Beauvoir say. That ability, which I call the capacity for second-order thinking, is the peculiarly human virtue, what we humans can do that other beings can’t.

And, as both Dennett and the existentialists recognize, self-awareness enables us to transcend ourselves. By noticing who we are and contrasting that with an idea of who we could be, we can change our thinking, our attitudes and our habits. Sartre and de Beauvoir take this idea to an extreme, claiming that we can decide at any moment to do something, and thus be someone, completely different from our past. I think that claim is exaggerated, but there is a grain of truth in it. After all the original goal of philosophy, the love of wisdom, was to find out how to live well; and that goal implies the ability to change the way we live. Otherwise, what would be the point of the inquiry?

—–

Notes

(1) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 7.

(2) This is the famous phenomenological epoché or bracketing. See Wikipedia, “Epoché.”

(3) Wikipedia, “Bracketing.”

(4) De Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity.

(5) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, pp. 157-158.

(6) Dennett, “Introduction,” pp. xxii – xxiii.

(7) Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism.”

(8) De Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity.

(9) Wikipedia, “Theory of mind.” Dennett is known to dislike the term because in everyday life we do not actually make use of a psychological theory such as behaviorism, cognitivism and the like. Our use of the intentional stance is more like a talent or competence than an explicit theory. See Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 73.

(10) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 15.

(11) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 240.

(12) Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 78, footnote.

(13) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, pp. 16-17.

(14) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 25, emphasis in original.

(15) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 27.

(16) Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 79.

References

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Tr. Bernard Frechtman. On-line publication, URL = http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/de-beauvoir/ambiguity/index.htm as of 6 October 2011. Another version, not as well proof-read, is here: http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/existentialism/debeauvoir/ambiguity.html as of 6 October 2011.

Dennett, Daniel. “Introduction.” In This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape The Future. Ed. John Brockman. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010. The book is an entertaining collection of essays by noted contemporary thinkers and intellectual luminaries on what trends in their fields of interest are likely to cause profound changes in society.

Dennett, Daniel. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Dennett, Daniel. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Tr. Philip Mairet. Online publication http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm as of 10 May 2014.

Wikipedia. “Bracketing (phenomenology).” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bracketing_(phenomenology) as of 14 May 2014.

Wikipedia. “Epoché.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epoché as of 14 May 2014.

Wikipedia. “Theory of mind.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_mind as of 14 May 2014.

May 7 14

Organisms Are Not Machines

by Bill Meacham

As I have discussed elsewhere the model of organism, of a living being, is a much more robust way of thinking about the whole of reality than the model of machine, of a device constructed from non-living parts. This is especially true when it comes to actual organisms. Steve Talbott, a researcher at the Nature Institute, has written an excellent screed condemning the tendency among biologists to think of organisms on the machine model.(1) Evidently, to do so is a common failing among biologists; and Talbott thinks that that way of thinking is just wrong, not in a moral sense, but in the sense of being incorrect, not the truth. To think of organisms as machines or as collections of machine-like parts rather than as integral wholes whose living form governs the parts fails to do justice to the plain facts, easily observable in nature.

Take the human heart. It is common to conceive of it as a pump, sending liquid through the numerous pipes – arteries, veins and capillaries – found in the body. But a mechanical pump could not possibly propel the quantity of liquid over the vast distances and through the tiny vessels that the human heart does. There are more than six thousand miles of blood vessels in the human body, most of them microscopically small, some so narrow that red blood cells must be deformed to squeeze through. And the system leaks; every day about eighty times the total volume of our blood plasma seeps out of the capillary system and into the surrounding tissues and then, via a circuitous route, back into the cardiovascular system. Talbott asks us to consider whether it is plausible that a mechanical pump could do the same:

Make a simple test for yourself. Try blowing, not even viscous blood, but just water, through a 100-foot-long rubber tube. Make it easy by choosing a tube with a one-millimeter, rather than a microscopically small, diameter. Or, for a yet easier test, simply try blowing a few lungfuls of air through the tube. You will realize soon enough that if your heart could suddenly exert enough mechanical force to move blood on a complete circuit involving those several thousand miles of invisibly small and leaky channels, your body would explode.

So it can’t be the heart alone that moves blood through the body. In addition, the arteries expand and contract in a wave-like fashion to move the liquid along, and other parts of the body do something similar to handle the blood plasma that is outside the capillary system. It’s true that the heart’s left ventricle gives impetus to the blood leaving the heart for the high-pressure arterial portion of the cardiovascular system, but that is only about 15% of the whole. The rest, including the capillaries, veins, right side of the heart, circulation through the lungs, and left atrium of the heart is governed by something else; but what? Talbott’s answer: the body as a whole organism.

A crucial fact is that … the heart’s output volume is … proportional to the oxygen consumed in all the body’s tissues. This suggests that the body’s metabolism is a primary driver of the blood. While muscular exertion, lung movement, and suction from the right side of the heart definitely play roles, the tissues themselves must continually replenish the volume of blood. In doing so they perform a major service in driving the blood back to the heart. The heart then acts as a subtle regulator of this flow — even restraining or damming it up to a degree. It thereby lends rhythm … while at the same time warming the blood and, in general, sensing and responding to overall conditions in a harmonizing way. Only in sick hearts does this “musical” performance tend to degenerate into a mechanically regular, metronome-like heartbeat.

The heart is not a mechanical pump. It is, rather, an element in a whole system that plays numerous roles. It pumps liquid to be sure, but it also regulates the flow of liquid pumped by other parts of the system and produces heat as well. Crucially, it senses overall conditions and responds in a way that produces harmony. You can understand how a a mechanical pump works apart from any particular installation, but you can’t understand the human heart without taking into account the whole organism of which it is an element. Says Talbott, “the one thing abundantly clear is that the picture of the heart as a pumping machine is hopelessly inadequate.”

Talbott makes a number of similarly trenchant observations:

  • Designs that are imposed from without, such as, for instance, the design of a stereo sound system, are quite different from those that grow organically from within a developing organism.
  • Organisms are so complex that what is a cause on some occasions can be an effect on others.
  • The molecules of life, being affected by quantum interactions that are inherently non-deterministic, are not well described as if they were static things like those found in our everyday experience and of which machines are made.
  • Nor are organisms computing machines. DNA is not digital; its four chemical bases are discrete entities like the binary bits of computer code only when they are dead, removed from their animated context. Embedded in a living cell they change their function depending on the chemical characteristics of their surroundings, how tightly the double helix is twisted, its distance from the cell nucleus and many other conditions.

I cannot do justice to Talbott’s article in this short summary. I urge you to read it yourself. The upshot is that organisms are not machines and it is a mistake to think of them as if they were. But if they are not machine-like, what are they? How do they function?

Talbott’s account of organisms contains themes remarkably similar to the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, which asserts that (a) process is better taken than substance as the most fundamental concept pertaining to all of reality and (b) everything has an aspect of mind as well as matter.(2)

Organisms as they develop, grow and mature are processes first, says Talbott, and only later discrete physical forms: “Structures result first of all from movement and flows.” Quoting Wolfgang Schad, Talbott says “The body does not behave like a plumber, first connecting the water pipes in a house and then turning the water on. … The first blood-like liquid … simply trickles through gaps in the tissues. … Preferred channels develop only very gradually as blood cells are deposited along the edges and eventually merge into the beginnings of vessel walls.” Thus, “in the organism stable form precipitates out of movement, and so long as a structure remains living, it is never absolutely fixed.”

This is the fundamental premise of process metaphysics. In that view, not just living organisms but all things are composed of processes, out of which stable form precipitates. What we see as fixed form, as substance, is a persisting pattern amid change, much like the flame of a candle.

Organisms have mind, awareness of their surroundings, and intention, says Talbott. Life has “intrinsic inwardness.” All material phenomena have an “inner nature.” The “idea of the arrangement [of the parts is] actively at work in the parts themselves.”

We can certainly understand how an organism can have a mind, because we ourselves are organisms and we are each directly acquainted with our own mind. But what does it mean to say that the idea of the arrangement of the whole is at work in each of the parts? For this to be true, each of the parts must have the ability to entertain an idea, i.e., mind. And that is just what process metaphysics asserts. Whitehead, a panpsychist, says that each elementary unit of reality is an “occasion of experience”(3), a momentary coming into being, becoming complete and passing away, that takes its surroundings into account in a manner analogous to how we humans experience our surroundings, albeit in a much more primitive fashion. The primordial experiences of the actual occasions comprising living organisms bind together and reinforce each other, giving birth to a higher-level experience. Talbott asserts that the binding together goes both ways, not just from part to whole, but from whole to part as well. The higher-level mental unity of the whole informs the mentality of each of the parts and gives direction to their growth and development.

The part cannot be fully understood in isolation from the whole. What is primary is the whole: “It is the whole that governs the parts,” says Talbott. An organism’s parts “interpenetrate each other” and “bear within themselves the imprint of the whole.”

If this is true of organisms, and the whole of reality is to be understood on the model of organism, then we ourselves are not only organisms in our own right but elements in a larger organic whole. We interpenetrate each other psychically; none of us is an island; what happens to one of us affects us all. Hence, it behooves us to try to alleviate suffering and promote health and well-being for everyone. Each of us bears within him- or herself the imprint of the whole of which he or she is a part. Hence, it behooves us to learn about the nature of that whole so that we can more consciously embody and enact it. We need, in other words, what the wisdom traditions of the world have long taught: compassion and insight.

Notes

(1) Talbott, “Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism.” All quoted passages without footnotes are from this paper.

(2) See my “Tao Te Ching Ontology” for a fuller discussion of Whitehead’s philosophy.

(3) Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 221.

References

Genetics Home Reference. “What is DNA?” Online publication http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/basics/dna as of 4 May 2014.

Meacham, Bill. “Tao Te Ching Ontology.” Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/TaoTeChingOntology.html and https://www.academia.edu/4341543/Tao_Te_Ching_Ontology.

Talbott, Stephen L. “Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism.” Online publication http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/org/comm/ar/2014/machines_18.htm as of 1 May 2014. Archived at http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/Talbott_ShamefulRefusal.html.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Wikipedia. “Atrium (heart).” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atrium_(heart) as of 4 May 2014.

Wikipedia. “Double circulatory system.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_circulatory_system as of 4 May 2014.

Mar 31 14

Objects and Agents: A World Alive (Video)

by Bill Meacham

A couple of weeks ago I was the guest speaker at Celebration Circle in San Antonio, self-described as “an inclusive, multi-faith community with a creative approach to spirituality. We honor and nurture the Sacred in ourselves, each other and all Creation.” My talk provided a philosophical framework for understanding the metaphysical principle of Oneness in a pluralistic world.  Click her to watch it. I had a lot of fun at Celebration Circle. They are a nice bunch of folks. If you are ever in San Antonio, check them out.

Mar 3 14

Arguing For God

by Bill Meacham

Committed believers should be embarrassed by the various arguments philosophers make for the existence of God, as most are fallacious sophistries. A recent article in Philosophy Now magazine by William Lane Craig helpfully summarizes eight of them for us.(1) (In what follows I summarize Craig’s summary, so if you want to pursue any of them further, more research is advised.)

First we need to know what these arguments mean by the term “God.” An excellent definition is given by Richard Swinburne:

By a ‘God’ [a theist] understands something like a ‘person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe.’(2)

['God' means] a person without a body (i.e., a spirit), present everywhere, the creator and sustainer of the universe, a free agent, able to do everything (i.e. omnipotent), knowing all things, perfectly good, a source of moral obligation, immutable, eternal, a necessary being, holy, and worthy of worship.(3)

Such a being is sometimes called the Personal OmniGod, as He (the OmniGod is most often referred to as male) is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (present everywhere) and omni-benevolent (all-good).(4) For Craig, who writes approvingly of a renaissance of Christian philosophy, this is what the term “God” means.

In the first of his eight arguments Craig says that God is the best explanation of why anything at all exists. The existence of the universe, the totality of spacetime reality, he says, is analogous to a ball, a human-made object, in the woods. As one wants to know how the ball came to be there, so one wonders how the universe came to be. But the two are not analogous. We recognize the human-made object against the background, the surrounding context, of a natural environment that is not human made. The universe does not have a surrounding context, as it is by definition all that exists. Hence, the analogy fails.

In argument 2 Craig asserts that God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe. The universe must have had a beginning, he says, and he wants to know what brought the universe into being. He argues for a cause “outside the universe itself.” But (a) there can be nothing outside the universe itself because by definition the universe is all that exists; and (b) there can be no cause before the beginning of the universe, because the concept before the beginning is self-contradictory. The beginning is “a spacetime boundary,” as Craig says, meaning that it is the beginning of time itself. There can be no before, because if there were it would mean that what we took to be the beginning was not in fact the beginning. It is meaningless to assert a cause prior to time itself.

Argument 3 asserts that the uncanny applicability of mathematics to the physical world requires us to assume a divine creator. Perhaps so; I do not have an explanation. But even if mathematics is a reflection of ideas in the mind of God, we have no warrant to assume that such a God has any personal interest in our lives. Indeed, mathematics is the epitome of impersonality, being the same for every competent practitioner.

In argument 4 Craig contends that the fine-tuning for life of the various constants and arbitrary quantities found in the universe is so highly improbable that they must have been put into place by intelligent design. This contention is a variant of the Anthropic Principle, that observations of the physical Universe must be compatible with the conscious life that observes it.(5) Some, Craig included, think that the improbability of the universe being just so indicates that something other than mere chance is at work. The idea seems plausible, but there are several objections.

First, the probability of the universe being exactly as we find it to exist is 100%. The concept of probability applies only to the future, which has not yet taken place. It is fallacious to apply it to the present.

Second, we can certainly imagine ourselves at some point in the past considering the probability of the present being what it is, and its probability would indeed be quite tiny. But if what is now present had become something else, the probability of that alternate present from the point of view of the past would be equally tiny, and its probability from the point of view of the alternate present itself would be equally 100%. The odds against each of the many possible universes are equally astronomical, yet one of them must be the actual universe. No matter how the present turns out we have no need to posit a supernatural intelligent designer to account for it.

Third, that we are alive and able to observe the universe shows merely that we are the result of a sort of selection bias: only in a universe capable of supporting life will there be living beings who can observe any such fine tuning. As such, it is entirely unremarkable that we find the universe’s fundamental constants to be within the narrow range compatible with life.

In argument 5 Craig asserts the God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness, that is of mind. “Intentionality” is a philosophical term for the “aboutness” of being conscious, that when we are conscious we are always conscious of something, and when we think we always think about something. There is no need to posit God as an explanation for this state of affairs. Craig’s argument merely rehashes the mind-body problem. He assumes that mind and body are two separate categories of existence, and hence he needs a theistic assumption to unite them. A different metaphysical assumption, panpsychism, assumes that everything has both an aspect of objectivity and an aspect of subjectivity; hence it is not at all surprising that intentional states of consciousness exist. The relevant argument is between dualism and panpsychism, not between theism and atheism.

In argument 6 Craig asserts that God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and duties. But there is reason to believe that moral values and duties do not exist objectively in the way physical objects and perhaps mathematical objects do but are instead socially constructed. If they don’t exist independently of us, there is no need to posit a theistic explanation for them. The relevant discussion is about the nature of morality, not about theism and atheism.

In argument 7 Craig restates Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, that we must conceive of God as existing because (a) God is the greatest conceivable being and (b) an existent being is greater than a non-existent being, so (c) we must conceive of God as existing. The ontological argument fails to consider, however, that what we can conceive does not determine what actually exists. To say that we must conceive of God as existing is to assert something about our conception, not about what exists apart from our conception. (There is much more to be said about Anselm’s argument. See Wallace, “The Ontological Argument,” for a good summary.)

Six of the eight arguments are totally fallacious, and one, argument 3, implies at best an impersonal deity, not a Personal OmniGod. That leaves argument 8.

Argument 8 is the only one that makes any sense for the existence of the OmniGod as traditionally conceived: a being who is all-powerful, omniscient, all-good and external to us but intimate enough to care about us. If you have an experience of such a God, says Craig, then you are justified in believing in God. For the person who has had a personal experience of God, arguments such as one through seven are at best intriguing intellectual puzzles. But for one who has not had a personal experience of God, even argument 8, as Craig himself notes, is no argument at all.

Please note that the fact that you can’t prove the existence of a Personal OmniGod does not prove that such a being does not exist. Absence of proof for something is not proof of its absence.(6) The arguments against the existence of God also fail, but that is a topic for another time. So a Personal OmniGod might indeed exist.

But the idea seems chimerical. There are numerous objections, and even though theologians have concocted answers to them they seem to have intuitive force. If God is all-powerful, can He make an object too heavy for Him to lift? If God is all-benevolent, why does He allow such evils as genocide and mass starvation in His world? And so on.(7) To the believer, these objections are as useless as the alleged proofs are to the unbeliever.

We all, believers and unbelievers alike, want intellectual coherence. If you have had experiences that lead you to believe that a Higher Power exists, manifests itself in a person-like way, and has some benevolent interest in you, then you have some right to believe these things. But that Higher Power need not be conceived as a Personal OmniGod; it could be conceived as the organic will of an animated universe.

Craig says “For those who listen, God becomes a personal reality in their lives.” A more useful question than these intellectual puzzles would be how to tell, when you hear a voice that seems to come from God, whether it really does so or is merely a delusion.

Notes

(1) Craig, “Does God Exist?”

(2) Swinburne, page 1.

(3) Swinburne, page 2.

(4) See, for instance, Wikipedia, “Omnibenevolence;” Kulikovsky; and Sutherland.

(5) Wikipedia, “Anthropic principle.”

(6) Wikipedia, “Argument from ignorance.”

(7) Harrison, “Arguments for and against the Existence of God.”

References

Craig, William Lane. “Does God Exist?” In Philosophy Now magazine, Issue 99, November/December 2013, pp. 6-9. Online publication http://philosophynow.org/issues/99/Does_God_Exist as of 27 February 2014. Archived at http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/Craig_DoesGodExist.pdf.

Harrison, Paul. “Arguments for and against the Existence of God.” In F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn and V. Turchin (editors): Principia Cybernetica Web (Principia Cybernetica, Brussels). Online publication http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/GODEXIST.html as of 3 March 2014.

Kulikovsky, Andrew S. “God’s ‘omni’ Attributes.” Online publication http://hermeneutics.kulikovskyonline.net/hermeneutics/omni.pdf as of 28 February 2014.

Sutherland, Mike. “The ‘omnis’ of god.” Online publication http://www.christian-apologetics-resources-and-education.com/God-Is-Omni.html as of 28 February 2014.

Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, 1993.

Wallace, Meg. “The Ontological Argument.” Online publication http://www.unc.edu/~megw/OntologicalArg.html as of 28 February 2014.

Wikipedia. “Anthropic principle.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle as of 3 March 2014.

Wikipedia. “Argument from ignorance.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_ignorance as of 3 March 2014.

Wikipedia. “Omnibenevolence.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omnibenevolence as of 28 February 2014.

Jan 23 14

Farewell to Dell: Reflections on Corporate Excellence

by Bill Meacham

Dell Logo

For the past nine years I have been employed by Dell, a large American corporation best known for building and selling a variety of computer products. (Dell also provides information technology services and consulting to others, but I was not involved in that part of the business.) I am now leaving Dell’s employ. I am quitting my day job, as it were, the better to pursue my interest in philosophy.

Working in a large enterprise in which the efforts of many people have to be coordinated in order to get things done has given me the opportunity to see the unique human virtue, our capacity for second-order thinking, in action.

By “virtue” I do not mean obedience to moral rules, as in “The Sunday school teacher is quite virtuous.” Instead I mean what the Classical Greeks called arete, translated as “virtue,” but also as “effectiveness” or “excellence,” excellence in performing one’s function. For instance, the excellence of a computer manufacturer is to build computers that are themselves excellent, that work smoothly, process data rapidly, are easy to use and last a long time without needing repairs. An excellent basketball player runs fast, shoots baskets accurately and works with his or her teammates to achieve victory. An excellent teacher imparts knowledge skillfully, and an excellent student learns quickly. These are all examples – and there are many more – of people and things fulfilling their functions and doing so well. To be an excellent human being, then, means to do well what humans do.

So what is it that humans do well? One thing is to think. We have bigger brains relative to body size than other animals and a greater capacity to envisage possible futures and make plans to achieve our goals. Certainly our skills at strategizing long-term goals and planning and executing projects are crucial for success in business, and Dell’s success over the years is a result of good thinking.

But our capacity to think is not unique to humans. Other animals also think, though none (as far as we can tell) so well as we do. What really distinguishes us from other living beings is a further skill: second-order thinking.

By “second order,” I mean the ability to take ourselves as objects of thought. The first order is to think about things in the world external to us, to plan and execute our plans “out there,” as it were. We can think of where the animals are and go hunt them. We can devise complicated computing machines and figure out how to manufacture them in great quantities quickly and efficiently. When we turn that capacity for foresight and analysis to ourselves we engage in second-order thinking. We have the ability to reflect on ourselves, to be conscious of and think about ourselves as well as the world we live in. It’s what the Delphic oracle recommended: Know Thyself.

I saw this ability in action at Dell. I was struck by something that Rhonda Gass, our IT Director at the time, once said in an all-hands meeting:

  • We see what needs to be done.
  • We get after it.
  • We get it done.
  • We see the results.

Seeing what needs to be done and accomplishing it are things that many kinds of animals do, although humans do them far more elaborately. It is the last step that sets us apart. I take seeing the results to mean not only enjoying the fruits of our labors and having a pleasant sense of accomplishment, but also seeing what went well and what didn’t and using that knowledge to do our task better the next time. The results we see include information that allows us to reflect on what we have done with an eye toward improvement.

The methodology for process improvement has been formalized in industrial settings, most famously in W. Edwards Deming’s “Plan, Do, Check, Act” cycle.(1) Plan means to establish what you want to accomplish and how. Do means to carry out the plan, and collect measurements on what happened. Check means to study the results and compare what actually happened to what you wanted. Act (some people now call this step Adjust) means to implement corrective actions to reduce the gap between what happens and what is desired.

My interest in this process is philosophical, in the sense of philosophy as love of wisdom. What if you applied this type of thinking to your life? On a personal, or idiosyncratic, level, you would first find out what you are good at, such as getting along with people, perhaps, or analyzing numbers or building things or any number of talents that people have. On a generic level, the level of you as a member of the human species rather than you as an individual, you would investigate topics such as how your cognition works and what causes it to go awry, how your emotions work and what they tell you about yourself and your world, how second-order thinking works and so forth. On both levels, the idiosyncratic and the generic, you would follow a similar process: Observe what you do and how it is working out. Think of ways to do it better. Try out the new approach. Observe how that works. Repeat these steps until you are satisfied enough to go on to something else.

Not that this is always an easy task. Sometimes it requires a lot of introspective work and the aid of trusted friends and counselors. But the capacity for self-reflection and self-improvement is what distinguishes humans from other animals. When we do them well, we exhibit excellence at being human. Philosophy at its best is about what it is to be an excellent human being and thereby live a fulfilling life; and that is what I discuss in my book, How To Be An Excellent Human.

I have seen Dell exhibit corporate excellence, and the company encourages personal excellence as well. Where else would you find a Vedika (knowledge-sharing) session on “Leading The Self”? The company certainly provided a venue for me to exercise my talents. For instance, I like writing, and I got to do a lot of it in my job. I would often get absorbed in writing and lose track of time, which was always gratifying.

My work would go in phases. Recently I had a bit of a lull, which often happens around the holidays at mid-winter (northern hemisphere). The devil makes work for idle hands, they say, so to avoid that fate I convened an ad-hoc “skunk works” committee to standardize a process that was being done differently by different teams. (A standard process makes for better metrics, which in turn make for easier process improvement.) It was fun. We accomplished a lot in a short time, I got to exercise leadership, the results very rapidly got up to the Director level, and we got a lot of praise for our work. It was a great opportunity to exert human excellence. And it felt good, even exhilarating. That is a characteristic of functioning well, by the way, that it feels good to do so, which is why the Greek word eudaimonia, the outcome of functioning well, is sometimes translated as “happiness.”

There are other things I enjoyed at Dell. Dell is a great place for someone like me, who enjoys accomplishing things. The company has a well-deserved reputation for demanding a lot of its employees, but the upside is that a lot is achieved. I liked the sense of camaraderie, of belonging to a team and working toward a common goal. We humans developed our big brains and our shared culture in tribal groups whose members cooperated with each other while competing with other groups. We have an ingrained need to pull for the common good, and a large enterprise is a good place to fulfill that need. Dell is proudly inclusive of many different kinds of people, people of different religions, races, nationalities, gender preferences and more; and its diversity makes it an endlessly interesting place to work. Dell has a strong sense of ethics, and I was happy that I did not have to compromise or submerge my own principles.

I also liked working for a company whose overarching goal is benign. We can apply self-reflective second-order thinking to evaluate not only our immediate goal but also the context in which the immediate goal is being pursued, and I was happy with Dell’s overall goal. My immediate goal was to collect information, write a Software Requirements Specification document and get it approved. That document served a larger goal of building or enhancing some software. That software serves a larger goal of getting more efficient at building computers and shipping them to customers. And the goal of providing computers is to improve people’s lives by enabling them to accomplish their own goals. Computers empower us to do all sorts of things we were not able to do before. (We can write blogs, for instance.) Indeed, Dell’s marketing slogan is “The power to do more.”

Of course, the overall goal is also to make a profit. What is at issue here is what the enterprise does in order to earn its revenue. Dell’s overall goal is fairly benign. Were I to work for a company whose goal or whose methods for achieving it were not so benign – Monsanto, for instance, whose corporate image is quite admirable, but which does brutal things to small farmers in its pursuit of market domination – I would have to spend some psychic energy to ignore the overall goal and immerse myself in the immediate one. I was happy that I did not have to do that at Dell. (Note to my political friends of all persuasions: I am deliberately not addressing the even larger economic and political context – global capitalism, regulations or lack thereof by nation-states, etc. – within which Dell operates. That topic is a bit too much for now.)

I don’t want to present too rosy a picture. Dell has its share of inefficiencies, troubled projects, management confusion, people who are less than optimally competent and the like. And, no doubt, other companies promote excellence as well. It’s just that Dell is the one I know best. As I write this Dell is changing directions, and it remains to be seen whether it can maintain its success in the marketplace. But as long as it fosters human excellence, it stands a good chance. I wish my former colleagues all the best.

——–

Notes

(1) Wikipedia, “PDCA.”

References

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at http://www.bmeacham.com.

Wikipedia. “PDCA.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDCA as of 30 December 2013.