On Philosophy

October 31, 2007

Hoarding Knowledge

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Modern science, and indeed academic endeavors in general, are based on the idea that knowledge should be shared. Almost everything in the academic world is designed to encourage sharing; everything good comes from making your discoveries public and no benefits arise from keeping them to yourself. As far as I can tell this is simply the best way to expand what we know, since discoveries are made public everyone has the opportunity to evaluate them and develop further ideas as extensions to them if they stand up to scrutiny. In fact it is hard to even imagine a scientist hoarding their knowledge without some extraordinary circumstances being involved.

But not all knowledge is made public in this way, there is one area of study that is an exception to this general way of doing things: software. Programmers who develop software are making new “discoveries” (in a very loose sense of the word, in the same way we might say that a mathematician makes “discoveries”, even though there is no mathematical world to make discoveries about), they discover ways to make the computer do certain tasks. But, unlike in every other intellectual field, programmers tend not to share their knowledge. Usually they are making their discoveries when in the employ of the some company, and the company feels that it should keep these discoveries secret for their competitive advantage. And for them this seems like simply the way things are done. But, from an outside perspective, the whole thing seems absurd.

Consider what other fields would be like if the people involved hoarded their knowledge instead of sharing it. If doctors and biologists hoarded their knowledge then each hospital you visited would practice medicine in a different way, and would know how to treat different diseases. Doctors that moved from one hospital to another would have to learn how to do medicine all over again. This would have the overall effect of making hospitals worse in general. With medical discoveries staying with the walls of the hospitals that they originated in, in order to maintain their competitive advantage over other hospitals, we would still be stuck with 19th century medicine. And it would be similarly absurd if engineers had to purchase science like they purchase software. (Is gravity 4.5 compatible with aerodynamics CS 2?) Although the people managing scientists might be much richer, the world as a whole would be worse off.

Obviously I can’t pretend that hoarding knowledge is completely without its benefits. The ability to maintain an unnatural monopoly on such discoveries does allow companies to make more money than they would be able to otherwise. And some might even argue that the potential profits drive discoveries in certain uninteresting areas that few would be motivated to explore otherwise (involving boring software). But these benefits hardly seem to outweigh the harm done by the artificial barriers raised to sharing knowledge. Simply considering what other fields would be like were they to engage in similar knowledge hoarding should make us wonder what software would be like were its knowledge to be shared freely.[1] Also, we have to consider that knowledge flourishes best when it is pursued for its own sake, and not because of any immediate applications (since often avenues of research that are at first thought to have no practical importance turn out to have a number of useful applications). Separating software discoveries from corporate profits is required for them to be pursued for their own sake as knowledge, and thus for significant headway to really be made.

Now some involved with software may assume at this point that I am ignorant of the free software movement, where programmers make their discoveries public under certain restrictions that require those who use them to make their discoveries public as well (the GPL). This is reminiscent of the way ethics might emerge in a hypothetical world full of selfish people. Obviously two people who act ethically when dealing with each other will both be better off than two people who interact selfishly. But if someone acting ethically interacts with someone acting selfishly they will end up losing out and it will be selfish person that comes out ahead. This might seem to prevent ethical people from ever emerging, since they would always lose out to the existing selfish people. However, all that is needed is some way for the ethical people to identify each other, and then they can act ethically with each other and selfishly with outsiders, resulting in the community of ethical people thriving and eventually dominating society. And some may see the free software community in a similar light, as a community that agrees to act ethically with each other (by sharing their knowledge), but unethically with those who refuse to share.

The problem with this is that, while sharing knowledge is the ethical thing to do (since it is what is in the best interests of the community) the GPL is not the best way to do it. What is missing is the right motivations. In the case of ethics the people who joined the ethical community benefited. But it is not clear that by joining the community of knowledge sharers the corporations will benefit. True, they will gain the advantage of being able to draw upon the knowledge shared in that community, but they will no longer be able to profit from this knowledge, since the GPL essentially prevents their usual business model from working. Furthermore, in the case of the ethical and selfish people the ethical people were put at a disadvantage when they dealt ethically with selfish people. But there is no harm done to the community of sharers when someone who isn’t sharing uses their knowledge. If everyone was free to use their work without sharing in return there would be only minor differences, the community of sharers wouldn’t shrink, at least not by much. And by allowing everyone else to use their knowledge it would improve the rest of the software world. Thus it would seem like the really ethical thing to do in this situation would be allow everyone to use your knowledge, regardless of what they plan to do with it, which is essentially how the academic world works. Of course there is a software license that works in this way (BSD), it’s just much less popular.

However, the real world may seem to contradict my claims. After all there is plenty of free software, and yet little of it seems definitively better than software developed without knowledge being shared. For example, while Linux may be considered technically superior to OS X or Windows it doesn’t seem to be a superior operating system, given that we judge the merits of an operating system by how much they appeals to the users (who are the judges that really matter). Now it might be argued that there are other factors that interfere with people adopting Linux, but it is somewhat hard to believe. If one product is genuinely superior to another in a way that actually matters to people (meaning that they will prefer the one to the other given an exposure to both) then it will tend to spread. Firefox is great example of this, as before IE caught up with tabs it had noticeable usability advantages that made people want to switch to it.

The reason that the apparent knowledge sharers aren’t triumphing over those who don’t share knowledge (especially since the knowledge hoarders aren’t allowed to benefit from the work of the sharers) is, I claim, because even amongst the apparent knowledge sharers knowledge is effectively being hoarded through obscurity. If you make your knowledge public it doesn’t benefit anybody if no one besides you can understand that knowledge; effectively everyone has to re-develop that knowledge from scratch. The problem with the software sharers is that they are intent on sharing their programs, and are sharing their knowledge only as a by-product. Imagine, for example, that all scientists were also engineers. And that, as engineers, they were primarily interested in sharing the things they designed with their scientific theories, such as bridges and airplanes. Sure, they would also share their equation-dense notebooks, but the equations are all tailored to that specific project, and they aren’t really made for public consumption. Working in this way the knowledge is still effectively hoarded, just by neglect rather than on purpose. To develop a better airplane what you would have to do it take an existing airplane, spend a long time trying to understand it, and then make small improvements to the existing design. What you couldn’t do is consider the physical theories apart from it and then use them to make your own airplane from scratch. And this certainly happens in the world of software. Consider the aforementioned firefox. It’s source code is notoriously hard to understand. Which makes pulling out its URL parser, javascript engine, or HTML rendering engine probably difficult if not impossible, with the difficulty in actually understanding how they work probably best left unconsidered, to the point that it might be faster simply construct a new one from scratch if you really want to do something with it.

The problem then is primarily one of attitude, and I’m not sure exactly how to fix that, although it is possible that it will simply work itself out in time. One possible way to overcome the problem is to focus on programming and sharing done in a more abstract language, one so abstract that it can’t even compile to an actually functioning program by itself. The idea is that this abstract language forces work done in it to be understandable and modular. Of course to actually convert it to a working program additional files must be added, in order to clarify it sufficiently for a computer to work with. But the idea is that by understanding the abstract description we can work primarily with it, and using it as a map to implementation details when needed. There might be other possible solutions as well, although none pop into mind at the moment, but I am sure that there is some way to solve the problem of hoarding by obscurity, because certainly programming is easier than theoretical physics, and we have no problem in sharing our knowledge about physics.

[1] Naturally in such a world programmers wouldn’t be hired by companies (or at least it would be about as rare as a physicist hired to do physics), but this doesn’t mean that programmers would be left out on the streets. We need software as a society, and so they would probably end up either as academics or employed by the government as public servants.

October 30, 2007

Method: Philosophical Investigation

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Essentially there are two kinds of investigations we can pursue in philosophy, we can inquire about specific claims, such as “should we be just?”, or we can search after general theories, trying to answer questions such as “what is justice?”. The way we investigate the two isn’t identical, but since the second kind of investigation occurs as a part of the first I will discuss only how to investigate specific claims, with the idea that it isn’t hard to simply omit certain parts of the investigation. But I guess before I get into those details I should say a few words about what an investigation is. A philosophical investigation is not the same as a philosophical theory or claim, philosophical theories and claims are the result of philosophical investigations. Nor are philosophical investigations the main component of philosophy papers, again philosophy papers are ways of expressing the results of investigations. The investigation itself then is the thinking and research we do in order to arrive at our philosophical ideas; once we have arrived at them the investigation itself withers away to some extent. Which is not to say that we abandon the work that composed the investigation, but only certain parts may provide a suitable basis for justifying our claims. And although the investigation is the process by which we come to entertain certain theories it is not necessarily the method by which they are best evaluated. But, even though the investigation doesn’t do everything we might wish, as it doesn’t necessarily produce perfect claims, it is a starting place, and we have to start somewhere.

Suppose then that we are considering whether we should be just. We probably have some existing intuitions about whether we should or shouldn’t be just (hopefully that we should be just). But these intuitions are not a suitable place to begin our investigation. Although we can produce a claim on the basis of intuition it is hard to justify that claim because we haven’t achieved any understanding about what is involved in it. We might try to back up our intuitions by arguing that they are widely shared, or that they are a simple extension of other opinions, but such arguments are rarely successful in the long run, because opinions and intuition are subject to change. And so such a defense of the claim can only stand up to scrutiny until someone who believes the opposite produces an analysis that reverses our intuitions (such as by successfully describing justice as a tool of oppression) or, worse, arguing for the opposite in a way that is completely free of intuition and opinion. To do better we must achieve some understanding of the larger issues that are involved with the claim, and then on the basis of that, arrive at a conclusion. Usually what these larger issues are is fairly apparent, they are anything that is of a debatable nature found in our original question. In our case it is fairly obvious that what we need to understand is the nature of justice and what we should do (normativity) and then, on the basis of them, try to arrive at a conclusion about whether we should be just.

In most cases understanding things such as justice and normativity will result in our ability to give what looks like definitions, claims of the form “justice is …”. And so it might seem that we are looking for our claims to be revealed as true or false on the basis of the definitions alone. But that is definitely not what we are looking for, at least in the vast majority of cases. Now this is not to say that legitimate definitions can never demonstrate certain claims. For example, when considering the claim “water contains hydrogen” we might legitimately lean on the definition “water is H2O” to simply demonstrate that the claim is true on the basis of the definition of water, assuming we have correctly defined water. The problem with such demonstrations, however, is that we can only be confident in their results to the degree that we are confident in the definitions involved. In this specific case, for example, it would be far preferable to determine the truth of the claim by testing a sample of what is considered water for the presence of hydrogen, thus bypassing completely our reliance on having a correct definition of water. But I digress, the point I am trying to make is that if the claim is really worth investigating, meaning that we aren’t completely sure whether it is true or false, then demonstrating it on the basis of definitions will not be satisfactory. Because if we are unsure of its truth and it is entailed by the definitions this means we aren’t sure of the definitions, and hence that we haven’t made any real progress. For example, we could answer our original question if we simply defined justice as the things we should do, but then, since we clearly are unsure whether we should be just, we must thus be uncertain about whether justice really is the things we should do. But, on the other hand, it is pretty clear that our question can only be answered by an appeal to the nature of justice and normativity, since, unlike the example with water, there is no way to test the claim by itself.

What we must do then is investigate the philosophical ideas themselves in such a way that doesn’t presuppose a particular definition, at least in any way that matters. To do that we need to begin with essentially ostensive definitions of the terms involved, meaning that we begin with definitions that in some way point out the things we are interested in, but don’t presuppose that they have any particular properties (or if we must presuppose that they have some properties then they must be properties that will be irrelevant to the later theory we develop about them). For example, we might ostensively define water as “the kind of stuff that makes up lakes, rivers, rain, and so on”. By picking out water in this way the only things we presuppose about it are that it must be able to appear to us in certain ways (because our ostensive definition picks it out essentially by what it looks like), and that is safe because we aren’t attempting to define water in terms of its appearance. Naturally such definitions are much harder to provide for philosophical terms, but it is essential that we start with them because otherwise our investigation will include a kind of logical circle. Unfortunately I can’t give an example of this for justice, as I myself have only been able to define justice as part of a larger theory, and never by itself. I suppose that if you wished to embrace some form of ordinary language premise you could always begin with the ostensive definition “that kind of thing that is called ‘justice’”, because certainly what it is called has no impact on what justice is. But this is not the only way to construct an ostensive definition of philosophical terms, just a very lazy way.

Of course that is only half of the investigation, and the easier half at that. Once we have some way of picking out what we want to investigate in a neutral way the next step is to actually create a theory about it. This means first seeing whether there is actually some kind of thing that our ostensive definition connects to. For example, we can’t construct a theory about leprechauns because there are no actual leprechauns for our ostensive definition to really point at. Nor would we be able to successfully theorize about water if every example of water was chemically distinct, because there would then be no kind of thing that united all our samples. Having established that our ostensive definition actually connects with something the next step is to examine what makes it distinct from the rest of the world. What properties does it have and which does it lack that distinguish it? Note that these properties do not have to appear in absolutely every case, it is enough that they appear in most cases, as we can allow that our ostensive definition is occasionally in error. And this gives us the theory we were after. Of course this process doesn’t produce a defense of the theory. We might have to argue that our theory is the correct theory about justice because it largely conforms to certain strong intuitions about justice (possibly captured in our original ostensive definition) or we may simply stipulate it as what we mean by justice in this context, under the assumption that what we have defined as justice is an interesting enough category that our claims about it will be worthy of consideration in their own right, even if not everyone agrees with us that what we have defined is “really” justice.

With these various theories in hand we can now return to the original topic of our investigation. And it may be that we can deduce a relevant claim directly from our theories. But this won’t always be the case. If we have defined justice, for example, as a category of laws defined by property A, and we have defined what we should do as things that are good for us, then it isn’t immediately clear whether we should be just unless A happens to be the property of being good for us. However, in this case it is probably easy for us to work with the theories and arrive at what we want to know, specifically by considering the effects of acting in accordance with the laws having property A. If doing so turns out to be always good for us then we should be just, under these definitions. Or it may turn out that such laws are always harmful to us, in which case we shouldn’t be just. Or, finally, it may turn out that sometimes those laws are good for us and sometimes they are bad for us, so that our answer will have to be qualified by reference to the relevant situational facts that make the difference, or we may even concede that there is simply no relationship between the two.

Unfortunately, even given well-developed theories of all the philosophically interesting terms involved in the specific question we are tackling there may be no obvious way to apply the theories to arrive at the answer, meaning that we simply can’t see how the theories connect at all on this issue. For example, if we were attempting to determine how words refer we could have suitable theories about words (as certain patterns of sound or shape) and suitable theories about reference (such as some kind of correspondence between assertion and states of affairs), but these theories simply don’t seem to shed any light on our question. What is missing might be called “middle terms”, things that have some relationship to both of the theories, such that through the theories about the middle terms the two can be connected. The problem is, naturally, determining what the middle terms are, and this can be a process that sends us down a number of dead ends, because the way to proceed is simply to try different possibilities, developing theories about each, and then seeing whether those theories can make the necessary connections. A good place to start is often with how the objects of the theories that we can’t connect yet are actually related. In our case that would be individual words and the actual objects they refer to. And such considerations would lead us to try middle terms either involving the causal relationship between naming events and individual words or the mind of the users of those words (assuming that the speaker is able to think about those objects). But this is just a place to start, it isn’t guaranteed to produce the desired middle terms.

With this process complete your investigation is at an end, you have reached a conclusion about what you set our to consider that is grounded in an understanding of what is involved in that claim. But of course that doesn’t guarantee that you are correct, and considering the merits of this claim may necessitate investigating it again, but this time beginning with different ostensive definitions, relying on different common properties to define the term, or taking additional factors into account when deriving conclusions on the basis of those properties. A topic for another time.

October 29, 2007

Intellectual Cowardice

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Intellectual cowardice is one of the many sins that an academic can be accused of (I believe it falls immediately after sloth but before not having tenure). When considering it three questions come to mind. First what is intellectual cowardice? Secondly, why is it bad? And, thirdly, how does it actually manifest itself? Defining intellectual cowardice is the easiest of these three tasks, and so I will start with that. To say that someone is demonstrating intellectual cowardice is to say that they are simultaneously putting forward a claim as a claim and refusing to stand by it. For example, a scientist could demonstrate intellectual cowardice by presenting an empirical generalization on the basis of data but refusing to stand by that generalization as a good one. Intellectual cowardice is motivated by a fear of being shown to be wrong, hence its name, but at the same time desiring to recognized for intellectual accomplishments. And this leads to the somewhat contradictory practice of putting forwards claims in one context, but at the same time adopting the position that the claim is not necessarily worth standing by. This allows them to accept any compliments that come their way as a result of the quality of their claim, but at the same time dismiss any criticism of it as reflecting badly on them, because they refuse to stand by it.

Now that we have defined what intellectual cowardice is we can consider whether it is really a sin. Obviously the way it has been described makes it seem like being an intellectual coward is a bad thing. But just because we can cast it in a negative light doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to be rejected. After all, fear can be appropriate in some contexts. And isn’t what really matters the claims being made? Why should we care about the attitudes adopted towards those claims by the people putting them forwards? In a sense this is right, in an ideal world all that matters is the claims, and the people behind them are irrelevant; we judge the claims, not the people. But this is not an ideal world, and unfortunately we don’t have an infinite and perfect capacity with which to evaluate claims. Wasting our time with inferior claims can greatly slow down our ability to make progress. And, more disastrously, a claim revealed to be flawed leads people to reject similar claims, and that can be a real problem if some of those similar claims are far superior to the flawed claim. Indeed this is often a problem in philosophy; some position will be discarded in a famous way, and subsequently all similar positions will be rejected as well just because they are reminiscent of the flawed one. The problem with this is not that people tend to reject similar claims to those that have been shown to be bad in the past; that is a reasonable heuristic. The problem is rather with proposing claims that are inferior to some of their close neighbors. But what does this have to do with intellectual cowards? The problem with intellectual cowards is that, because they have no fear of being proven wrong, given their lack of commitment to the correctness of their claims, they tend to produce inferior claims. It is worrying about being wrong that makes us explore all the consequences of our claims and how they stand up in comparison to variations on them, to leave none of their details unexamined, so that they can be the best claims that we can make when we actually put them forward. Someone who isn’t worried about being in error isn’t bound by this constraint. Instead they are free to put forward whatever claims satisfy their pragmatic desires, which are usually for intellectual recognition. This results in pandering to popular ideas, constructing claims so that they will be maximally acceptable to the sensibilities of those who will judge them, or in constructing claims purely to be controversial, so that those claims will receive wider attention simply because so many will wish to object to them. Neither process results in the best possible claims.

So the problem with intellectual cowardice is essentially that it is a form of dishonesty. We treat all of the claims put forward as serious claims, claims that have the full backing of the people responsible for them. Being an honest intellectual coward then would require them to preface their claim with statements explaining that they do not endorse them, or some equivalent disclaimer expressing their belief that a negative reception of these claims is somehow irrelevant. But of course no one would do that, because claims prefaced in this way would never receive any serious attention, which defeats the motives of the intellectual coward. So, to recap, intellectual cowardice isn’t necessarily a problem, we could be perfect evaluators of claims, or the intellectual coward might be such a good theorizer that they produce the best possible claims despite their unwillingness to commit to them. But, in most cases, the intellectual coward will produce inferior claims, because they don’t share the motivations that lead the rest of us to obsess over the correctness of our claims, and most of the time these claims will not be immediately recognized as inferior, and thus have the potential to interfere with honest investigations. And that is why intellectual cowardice is an academic sin.

Finally, allow me to describe how intellectual cowardice often manifests itself. Because few think of themselves as intellectual cowards; I doubt that many actually realize that they are hiding behind a shield that protects them from criticism and that it is interfering with their ability to theorize. Thus, in order to help us recognize possible intellectual cowardice in ourselves let me consider one specific way of being an intellectual coward. The example I have in mind is the simultaneous rejection of truth within a specific field, or that a claim made within it can be correct for everyone, which amounts to the same thing, and making claims within that field. We can imagine, for example, someone insisting that there are no ethical truths, that whether an ethical claims is correct or not depends solely on how it is reconciled with your pre-existing ethical judgments, and still making ethical claims, proceeding on the basis of various ethical intuitions to arrive at them. And you can see how this is an example of intellectual cowardice, because obviously if we contradict them, and argue that their claims are in error, they can simply say that we must have different pre-existing ethical judgments than them, and that while the claim may not be valid for us that it is valid for them, and possibly for other people as well. And naturally either by itself is not an example of intellectual cowardice, you are free to claim that there are no ethical truths, no way of determining what is right in ethics in an objective way, so long as you don’t make any ethical claims yourself. Or you are free to make ethical claims so long as you are open to the possibility of those claims being possibly turning out to be wrong (even if you judge that possibility to be small).

However, I doubt that if we confronted someone who was being an intellectual coward about ethics in this way that they would admit it. Perhaps they might argue that their ethical claims are still relevant because many people share the same intuitions as they do, and that in some way the claims they are making are thus “right” for a large number of people. But the entire edifice rests of the idea that somehow deduction from intuitions to specific ethical claims, or the coherence of ethical beliefs, matters. And that is an assumption that is completely without motivation given the belief that there is no absolutely “right” answer when it comes to ethics. If we believe that there is a right answer then clearly coherence and incoherence matter because of truth preservation and entailment; incoherence implies that some of the claims involved must be in error, possibly the very claim that we are trying to establish, and so in striving for the truth we attempt to eliminate incoherence. But when truth doesn’t matter incoherence has no ill-effects. Certainly there are contradictions buried within many religious belief systems (the problem of evil, for example), and even if those contradictions can be somehow ironed out by dedicated theologians it is clear that most of the religious approach matters naively, such that their beliefs contain actual contradictions. And clearly these contradictions do them no harm. Of course it is true that from contradictions anything can be derived, and thus that we cannot entertain a contradiction when we are attempting to derive a truth. But this isn’t a problem if there aren’t absolute truths in ethics, because we don’t attempt to derive truths from premises that aren’t themselves believed to be true. On the other hand, there is nothing stopping them from stomping their foot and simply insisting that coherence is required, even if nothing necessitates that coherence. But if nothing necessitates that coherence then it is simply an opinion, and if they wish to be intellectually honest they should preface their claims in ethics with a statement noting that they proceed on the basis of coherence despite the fact that they have no reason for doing so besides personal preference. Obviously doing this would result in people not really taking their claims seriously, but the omission of such a disclaimer is intellectually dishonest, since caring about coherence strongly implies the belief that claims can be true or false in this domain without it. And hopefully pointing out that fact would indicate to those who are intellectual cowards in this way that they are doing something wrong, even if it doesn’t exactly reveal the nature of the error.

October 28, 2007

Lives Lived Without Reflection

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 12:00 am

Entertainment is a large part of modern culture, the proximate cause being simply that modern people have more free time than those who came before us did. But is entertainment the right way to be using this new abundance of free time? A life devoted entirely to labor is, to a certain extent, a meaningless life. Certainly that life served a purpose for society, and thus for other people, but the individual living it didn’t get much out of it. So in an ideal world people would have used their new free time for themselves, on things that are important to them, in order to make themselves more than a cog in the machine of society. Now it may be that entertainment is simply the best thing for most people, and I won’t deny that it certainly does seem to make people happy. Thus we clearly can’t reject it out of hand without making some presuppositions about what is valuable. But certainly entertainment seems like an escape, a diversion, not something that makes a life good.

But first, what is entertainment? Obviously entertainment is a source of some pleasure, but so are many things. I think what distinguishes entertainment from other activities is that nothing is produced as a result of it. Some activities we engage in change us. For example, studying a subject or practicing some skill improves our abilities. Other activities, perhaps most activities, result in some finished product. Building a house produces a house, and my thinking about philosophy produces these posts. But entertainment does neither of these; although it engages the mind it does not improve us, and it certainly being entertained doesn’t produce something. The primary function of entertainment thus seems to be to distract, when we are being entertained our consciousness is busy with the entertainment itself, and has no room for other concerns. And indeed that is true when we are engaged in any activity that requires attention, when we are active, our consciousness is caught up with what we are doing. And thus I characterize a life that has all its potentially free time filled with entertainment of some form as a life lived without reflection, because the person living it is constantly caught up with what they are doing, and thus has no time to contemplate larger issues.

The larger issues I have in mind specifically are thoughts about what is valuable and whether their own life is valuable in any objective sense. Obviously it is quite possible to avoid ever thinking about these issues if we simply distract ourselves from them, and this is the value of entertainment. If you are always busy with something else these issues need never arise. But just because such questions are left unconsidered doesn’t mean that the person is necessarily living poorly, there is nothing special about these issues that somehow grant a life some special meaning when considered that is missing otherwise. The reason I bring them up is simply because how the person deals with them determines whether their life is meaningful or not. A life is well lived only if it meets the person’s standards for being valuable, whatever those standards are. Naturally in a life lived without reflection the person never directly considers this question, but whether their life is well lived is determined in the same way, we simply have to consider how they might evaluate their lives were they to consider them.

And it is not impossible that they might think that being entertained is valuable in its own right, and thus that their lives are good ones. But I doubt many would reason in that way. To believe that your own life is valuable requires thinking that some things are valuable and thus concluding that your life is valuable because of its relationship to those things (often as a producer of those things). And to consider something to be valuable requires standards, such that some things in a kind are valuable and some aren’t based on some of their features. If there are no standards involved then nothing is really valuable, the word simply isn’t designating anything of value as value essentially involves a relationship of being better. A way to see what this is so is to note that everything which has value has some amount of value, such that things can be more or less valuable than each other (the ark problem, which I discussed some time ago, leads us to concede that if things are valuable then they aren’t all equally valuable). And if that is the case then clearly by valuable we can’t mean the whole spectrum, everything that has some value, we must mean the upper part, those things that have the most value rather than the least value. I bring this up simply because some people erroneously believe themselves to have judged their own lives to be valuable in reflection when they have considered these matters, when what they have actually done is dodged the issue by deciding that all lives are valuable, or something to that effect, which is really not to make a judgment about value at all, and hence which doesn’t imply that their lives are really valuable.

In fact, because it neither improves us nor produces anything, relying on entertainment to fill your free time is thus often a sign that a life is not actually a good one, by the analysis provided above. If the person had actually made judgments about what is and isn’t valuable then we would expect them to spend at least some time devoted to those things, because believing something is valuable entails almost as a matter of necessity that you will make every effort to devote some of your time to those things or deem your own life as a poor one by failing in that pursuit. And thus a life with free time devoted to entertainment strongly implies that it is a life lived by someone who hasn’t really made any judgments about what is valuable, and thus whose own life cannot be valuable.

Suppose we want to escape this, that we desire lives that are valuable by our own standards. What is required to have such a life? I would say that there are two equally necessary components. The first is having standards about what is and isn’t valuable. Now we may simply introspect and find ourselves with pre-existing standards, but not everyone has an inner reserve of such opinions. Usually we have to develop standards by an engagement of some kind with the world at large. Suppose that we are exposed to a class of things. Initially we may have no opinion about these things, or perhaps we like some and dislike others. But at this point we don’t have standards, just some vague opinions. By investigating this class of things more thoroughly we come to categorize them, to understand both their differences from each other and their relationships to the world at large. It is on the basis of this understanding that standards about value are developed. Of course in some way such judgments are still opinions, and indeed we can never quite get beyond opinion in these matters. Still, our value judgments are more than simply feelings that we have, they are motivated principles and reasons. So while they may be opinions they are opinions that we can explain and defend, both to ourselves and others.

But making value judgments is only half the problem. It is not enough simply to decide that some things are more valuable than others in order for our lives to be valuable in our own honest opinion. No, we need to actually act on these value judgments, to pursue what is valuable. And that requires a certain amount of will power and dedication. Because having standards means that we can’t simply pursue what is valuable haphazardly. We have to devote time both to improving ourselves, in order to be able to pursue what is valuable, and to the pursuit itself. And often these activities aren’t immediately pleasurable. Which means that in order to lead a good life we must have the ability to devote ourselves to tasks because of their eventual rewards, and not because they are immediately fun or because there is some threat of punishment hanging over our heads.

Thus to lead a good life by more than accident (which I won’t claim is impossible) requires a certain kind of character. It requires the ability to reflect on things and make reasoned judgments about which are good and which are bad and why. And it requires a certain amount of self-discipline, both to honestly consider what is valuable and to actually pursue it. Do we as a society encourage these traits or do we discourage them? Are we failing ourselves?

October 27, 2007

Fan Fiction About Reality

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

As I assume you are aware there are some significant differences between fiction and reality. The most striking is, naturally, that fiction isn’t actual, the events portrayed in fiction don’t really occur, we cannot be affected by them, only by descriptions of them. But here I am more interested in the other substantial difference between fiction and reality, that reality is “completely” defined while fiction is not. What exactly a fictional world is defined by is a matter of some debate. The most natural answer is that it is defined by the material the creator has published about it, but some would argue that it is defined by the author’s conception of it. However, no matter how it is defined, it is defined only incompletely. There are a nearly infinite number of facts about the fictional universe that the nature of the work implies are fixed, but are completely undefined. A famous example of this is Hamlet’s eye color. Obviously Hamlet is portrayed in play about him as having some eye color, otherwise the other characters would surely remark about its absence. But we are never told what that eye color is. And thus Hamlet’s eye color is simply not defined in this fictional world, there are no facts about it. There a quote by Douglas Adams I stumbled upon recently, in which he says basically the same thing.

”The book is a work of fiction. It’s a sequence of words arranged to unfold a story in a reader’s mind. There is no such actual, real person as Arthur Dent. He has no existence outside the sequence of words designed to create an idea of this imaginary person in people’s minds. There is no objective real world I am describing, or which I can enter, and pick up his computer, look at it and tell you what model it is, or turn it over and read off its serial number for you. It doesn’t exist.”

But because we become involved in these fictional worlds, and take them somewhat seriously, there is a strong temptation to treat them as real worlds. And thus fan fiction is born, which I will define generally as an attempt to describe the contents of the fictional world beyond what has actually been defined. Sometimes this can take the form of stories written by other people who describe things that they supposed have happened in this universe, but which were not described in the original works. On other occasions fan fiction takes the form of explanations that attempt to put the events described in the fictional universe as described in some wider context that justifies those events, so that they are reasonable given the nature of the universe. A great example of this is Star Wars and Star Trek fan fiction, which extend their respective universes by describing how the technologies and societies of these fictional words work, often in order to resolve possible consistencies, or just to fill in details that are considered interesting but never officially explored. But fan fiction is not doing what it purports to, it is not revealing new information about this fictional universe. Rather it is creating a new fictional universe that overlaps significantly with that which was its inspiration.

A significant portion of this fan fiction is motivated by the desire for explanations. Why, for example, are star destroyers shaped as they are? What advantage does a wedge shape confer in space? Because we treat fictional worlds mentally in essentially the same way we treat the real world we expect these explanations to be in the form of further facts about the fictional world, about how the empire’s technology and strategists motivated this design for their battleships. But, despite our expectations, these are not the correct explanations, these explanations are not uncovering the real reasons, they are creating reasons that seem plausible to us. The real reasons have to do with the artistic direction of the film, and why the people involved thought that design would look good on camera, or simply appealed to them on some level. And even those explanations might not exist. It is not impossible for a book or film to be created by an entirely random process (for example, by monkeys). When considering a work created in this way there are simply no explanations to be found at all. If monkeys wrote Star Wars there would be no reason at all behind the shape of the star destroyers, their shape would just be a bare fact, with no further facts behind it, that star destroyers have a consistent shape at all would simply be a coincidence. None of this affects the fact that explaining their shape in terms of further facts about the fictional world is the most satisfying. And that is because we approach the question with certain expectations about what explanations should be like, formed from our experience with the actual world in which explanations tend to take certain forms. But just because these explanations are the most satisfying doesn’t mean that they are correct in any way. And indeed they aren’t, they are pleasing inventions, with the real explanations having to do with the actual sources of the fiction.

But, while this talk about fictional worlds may be interesting (or not), uncovering how to best think about fictional worlds is not my aim here. I claim that certain theories about the actual world are essentially fan fictions about reality, that they extend the world beyond where it is actually defined (meaning that they make claims about which there can be no way, even in principle, of deciding their correctness, or are in some sense meaningless), and are thus are essentially fictions. This doesn’t necessarily make them worthless, but in realizing that they are fictions most of our reasons to care about them seriously evaporate, with squabbles about them being reduced to the same level as an argument about whether the shape of the star destroyer was arrived at because of constraints of hyperspace or because the designers had a thing for triangles. The debate may be an interesting intellectual exercise in argument and constructing consistent fictions within certain constraints, but it has no real consequences, it doesn’t tell us anything about the actual world (in the case of fan fiction about reality) or the original fictional world (in the case of ordinary fan fiction).

But first allow me to say which facts are defined for the actual world. I can do this relatively simply: the actual world, by definition, is defined completely by the set of facts that are the transitive causal closure (the causes and effects of that fact, and of those facts, and so on) of an arbitrary physical fact (since this transitive causal closure is the same for all physical facts). Let us simply take the existence of my desk lamp as that arbitrary physical fact, for convenience. As an example of a fan fiction about reality let us consider an arbitrary theory about universals that describes them as anything more than a way of talking about certain physical facts. An example of such theory would be one that claimed that they universal was something of its own, either an independent thing or something that was extended throughout all the instances of that universal. Obviously this is to make assertions about more facts than are included in the actual world, defined as the transitive causal closure of my desk lamp, assuming the absurd assertion that universals have causal effects on the world in addition to those resulting from the particulars is not made, because the facts about these universals are additional facts that can be neither true or false. Now we must ask ourselves why someone would make such assertions. Certainly there is no need to make them; nothing requires the universals’ existence. For example, if we wish to know why two objects seem the same we could simply point to psychological facts, noting that beings who were wired differently might see them as quite different, and not similar at all. Or we might wonder why they have similar causal properties, but in this case there simply are no further facts, the physical facts and their relationships are all there is to the world. (There is an analogy here with the fictional work created by a random process; just because we can ask why that fictional world is constructed as it is doesn’t mean that there is an answer, and just because we can ask why the physical facts are as they are doesn’t mean that there is an answer.) The reason that universals are thought to exist then is not because they are needed, but because of the ways in which we tend to think about them. For example, we often describe two similar objects as sharing something in common. And we talk about abstract categories as if they were themselves things, which can have properties and relations of their own. Just as taking a fictional world as real world leads people to construct “internal” explanations for facts about it so do such ways of thinking about universals lead people to postulate their existence, because they have given us certain expectations about the form the explanations must take, that to say why two objects have something in common we must say what they have in common and how it is related to them. But just because it is natural to explain the apparent validity of such ways of thinking by appealing to the actual existence of universals doesn’t mean that this is the correct explanation, any more than our tendency to think of fictional universes as real justifies the explanation of star destroyer shapes in terms of star destroyer designers. Of course because these ways of thinking about universals seem to work that means that they probably mirror some statements that are simply generalizations over the actual facts. It’s not my purpose to provide such translations here, only to point out that the apparent validity of certain ways of thinking doesn’t imply that they are themselves correct descriptions of the world.

Now just because some philosophy is essentially fan fiction about reality doesn’t mean that all philosophy is fan fiction about reality. And indeed there are theories about universals that aren’t such fictions, those that explain universals in terms of how assertions apparently about them reflect certain general statements about the world. But we must be wary of creating such fictions without realizing it, of being led by our ordinary way of talking about the world from misleading us as to the kinds of explanations that are required.

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