Thursday, November 17, 2016

On Moral Buck-Passing

I want to enlarge upon an issue briefly discussed in the last post. It is, I think, an incredibly thorny problem, and I’d like to workshop some possible solutions or constructive approaches.

I’ll be looking at the issue here through the lens of consequentialism. Other moral theories undoubtedly have unique takes on it, but my metaethics and metaphysics have lead me pretty decisively to the view that any moral properties deserving of realist countenance must be, first and foremost, properties of states of the world and properties of actions or persons only in a derivative sense. I’ll lay all this out in argument form in a future post.

For now, though, let me throw a few scenarios at you:

(1) A man at a zoo, ignoring all posted warnings, scales a fence and enters the lions’ enclosure. He is attacked and killed. Who between the man and the lion bears greater responsibility for the man’s death?

(2) A mentally ill man with tendencies toward violence is denied insurance coverage (for legally sound reasons) for medications he would otherwise be unable to afford, which are necessary to keep his symptoms under control. Unmedicated, he eventually kills someone. Who is to blame?

(3) A small cult is publicly satirized and shamed. Indignant, its members retaliate and an innocent bystander to the whole affair is killed. On whose hands is the bystander’s blood?

(4) You learn that a company has been engaging in unethical (though by some technicality still legal) activity. You take to your social media platform of choice and spearhead a large-scale boycott. Profits fall precipitously and the company duly ceases the unethical behavior but also, in order to absorb the financial blow, lays off a third of its ground-level work force (most of whom had no participation in or even knowledge of the unethical activity). Who is to blame for the suffering of those now unemployed?

Now, in each of these examples, focus only on the proximate cause of the bad consequence: the lions, the mentally ill man, the aggrieved cult members, and the company (or its executives). However you ultimately came down on each question, I suspect you found a greater willingness to assign blame to the proximate cause as you progressed from (1) to (4), perhaps with a corresponding increase in reluctance to assign blame to the more remote causes (the man climbing the fence, the insurance company, the satirist, and the boycott leader) whose ultimately negative effects are brought about through the actions of the more proximate causes. In any case, I want you to think about how you reasoned in each case and see if you can pinpoint the factors on which any changes in your judgments about the more deserving focus of blame seemed to depend.

Consequentialists seek to act in the world in order bring about outcomes that realize or facilitate some moral good—whatever that may be per the particular species of consequentialism in question. In order to do this reliably, they must try to predict the likely consequences of a considered action (as far downstream as feasible) and weigh the costs and benefits of each. Often, a very important element of this calculus consists of the responses other persons are likely to have to the action. In some cases, we might have good reason to think that a person is likely to respond to an action in an immoral way (i.e., with an action of his or her own that brings about some state that would be reckoned a moral harm by the consequentialist). Now, suppose we go ahead with the action and the other person duly brings about the bad consequence we predicted. Let us further stipulate that the harm brought about by the second action is greater in magnitude than the benefit brought about by the first. Is the other person wholly at fault for that consequence or do we share any of the blame? Generalizing the question: Can a consequentialist ever safely pass the moral buck?

It’s tempting to seek to answer this question by appealing to juridical notions of culpability. We want to know whether the proximate cause of a bad consequence was of sound mind at the time the action in question was taken, whether that person was capable of understanding that the action was wrong, and so forth. These are important considerations, but they don’t, I think, comprise all the relevant moving parts. Before we dig any deeper, though, we need to do a bit of terminological housekeeping.

In a consistently consequentialist framework, talk of moral responsibility is, I contend, ultimately a sort of shorthand for talk about where in a causal chain one might most effectively intervene in order to bring about good outcomes or prevent or ameliorate bad ones. We punish agents (i.e., persons of sound mind) who’ve done bad in order to dissuade them from doing bad again or to dissuade others from doing bad at all, and we praise and reward those who’ve done good in order to incentivize them and their observers to do good in the future. To determine the most appropriate locus of intervention, we must assess, as best we can, both the ease of bringing an intervention to that locus and the likelihood that such an intervention will have the desired effect. The relevant relationship may be crudely expressed as follows:

Degree of moral responsibility = P(I&S) = P(I) * P(S|I),

where “P(I)” is the probability of bringing the intervention and “P(S|I)” is the probability of success once the intervention is brought.

A more complete calculus would also have us factor in the net cost of the intervention, but this simplified version will do for the present discussion (one could argue that the above two probabilities jointly capture the cost—or at least a considerable amount of it—insofar as costlier interventions will be less likely to be attempted and will have higher thresholds for success). It is also the case that for a given node in a causal chain, there may be several feasible interventions with differing costs and probabilities of success. It’s an interesting question whether the moral responsibility of a node might depend in some way on the number of options available for influencing its behavior, but that’s a topic to be taken up another time. In what follows, then, we’ll only consider for each node the intervention with the highest value of P(I&S).

Another issue we need to bring to the table is what we may call moral justification (I would call it moral rightness, in contrast to moral goodness, but “justification” brings out the essential feature more clearly). In epistemology, of course, the justification of a belief is widely distinguished from its truth value. One could be justified in believing something (e.g., in accordance with solid epistemic principles and all the best presently available evidence) which nevertheless turns out to be false. And one could, of course, believe something that’s in fact true without being justified in doing so, as when one believes something for irrelevant reasons. In a similar vein, one may have very good reasons to suspect that an action under consideration will bring about net good, when it in fact turns out to do the opposite. It seems that in cases like these, the individual is responsible for the bad outcome but still justified in doing what she did (i.e., she did not exhibit any marked failure of rationality in arriving at the conclusion that the action was the right thing to do).

Now, how we answer the justification question affects what sorts of interventions it is reasonable to bring to a responsible moral agent. If the agent had been well-intentioned in the first place, then simply knowing of the unforeseen bad consequence may be more than enough to prompt an appropriate change in her behavior (e.g., attempting to account for a new variable, brought to light by reflection on the present case, in relevantly similar future situations). It is, of course, also possible that the bad outcome was due entirely to lousy moral luck, and that nothing gleaned from the episode militates toward any change in the moral calculus used by the agent. In such cases we wouldn’t, I think, wish for her to alter her behavior at all, and so no intervention will be needed.

Now, the above scenario embeds only a very simple causal chain with two nodes: An actor and the (unforeseen) bad consequence she brings about. In cases like the four with which we began this post, there is another actor between the two nodes whose (foreseen) response to the original action serves as the proximate cause of the bad outcome. So, we’ve got something like the following causal structure:

(A) → (a1) → benefit 
(B) → (mb) → (a2) → harm,

where (a1) and (a2) are the two actions undertaken by (A) and (B), respectively, (mb) is some mental state of (B), and |harm| > |benefit|. 

In trying to decide what action to perform, (A) must take into account what (B) is most likely to do, as best she can ascertain, and what (B)’s degree of moral responsibility for that action would be. Now, in each of our four opening examples, the occupiers of the (B) node all had pretty high likelihoods of bringing about bad consequences. These outcomes were highly foreseeable from the (A) node occupiers’ vantage points.

What about responsibility? The problem, as I see it, is that simply in virtue of entertaining these sorts of moral questions with an open mind, (A) will have a higher value for P(I&S) than (B), at least as best as she'll be able to judge. That is to say, she knows a moral intervention will be more likely to succeed with her than with (B)—since she is already of the right sort of moral disposition—and will thus always be more justified in holding herself responsible for the bad consequence than in holding (B) responsible. At the point of contemplation, (A) is in a unique position vis-à-vis her moral epistemology, for she is her own surest intervener. And in the mere act of contemplating the decision in the first place, she has shown herself to be a more promising target of moral intervention than anyone to whose mental states she has no direct access (i.e., anyone else).

This isn’t to say that (B) could not be saddled with some degree of responsibility, perhaps modulo his soundness of mind or reflective capacity. The problem, though, is that whatever the actual values of P(I&S) for (A) and (B), (A) must ultimately make a dichotomous choice: Do the action under consideration or don’t. Now, if she knows that the action is likely to ultimately lead, via the counteraction of (B), to a state of net moral harm, and if she judges herself more responsible for that state than (B), then it would seem she must conclude that she shouldn’t perform the action.

But this seems absurd. If this reasoning were followed consistently, the moral would end up hamstrung and held hostage by the immoral. Bullies and terrorists everywhere would be rewarded and incentivized. Clearly, the ideal situation would be one in which (A) performs the action (for remember, it is beneficial on its own) and (B) abstains from or is prevented from performing the counteraction, but it seems it will always be more morally rational for (A) to refrain from initiating the causal chain in the first place than to initiate it and hope (B) doesn’t do what she knows he’s strongly inclined to do. What looks like individual rationality would breed collective catastrophe.

There’s another important dynamic here concerning the relative power (A) and (B) wield over each other. When (A) has the resources necessary to punish (B) and so disincentivize its counteraction, then (A) may feel much more justified in going through with the initial action, despite (B)’s threats. The central dilemma of this post becomes particularly acute, though, when the power ratio is reversed. To venture briefly out of the realm of the abstract: This is precisely the circumstance in which America’s (and indeed the world’s) marginalized find themselves. They face a situation in which any overt attempts to secure fairer treatment for themselves are likely to be met with retaliatory assaults by a more powerful social class on whatever measures of justice they had already managed to win. Now, the solution that leaps most readily to mind vis-à-vis cases like this involves (A) seeking sufficient coercive power over (B) to be able to hold it to moral account, but, of course, each move toward securing this power is apt to instantiate the same problematic causal structure.

To the surprise of no one who’s been even a casual browser of Vox or The Atlantic over the past couple years, centrist liberals have in large numbers already decided that the marginalized and their allies—the (A) node occupiers—bear the greatest share of responsibility for the Molotov cocktail (as Michael Moore put it) the alt-right and their allies have just lobbed into the Oval Office. But if everyone else shared this belief, whence would come the necessary justice for (A)—or do the centrists believe that no further justice is needed? If so, they ought to explicitly articulate and defend this claim. In preaching reconciliation, they are willing to risk an awful lot of protracted harm—harm which most of them would not in any direct way have to bear—on the hope that the aggrieved right can be wheedled toward greater acceptance of the people they view as line-cutters and cheats. For reasons canvassed in the previous post, I’m not terribly sanguine about this prospect.

So, what prima facie options are there for a consequentialist to justify passing the moral buck to (B) in situations like these?

A few:

One might, of course, simply take this as a reductio of consequentialism. However, I’m very reluctant to give my intuitions at the level of applied ethics authority over my intuitions at the metaethical level. To do so would seem to tacitly commit me to a view that I already had a coherent, broadly truth-tracking unconscious moral “theory” prior to any attempts to ground it metaphysically in the world, and I’m extremely skeptical of this being the case.

Of course, one might also seek to jettison or supplement the account of moral responsibility sketched above. I’m open to this move in the abstract, but care will need to be taken to ensure that any proposed alternatives aren’t ultimately founded on any irreducibly deontic or aretaic intuitions.

One might adopt a sort of proximate consequentialism which would doggedly restrict moral judgment to only the most proximate causes of (A)’s action. My first thought here is that such a move seems unprincipled and ad hoc, though there are (a small number of) consequentialists who hold this view due to deep skepticism about our ability to predict the future beyond the most immediate effects. It should be noted, however, that this stance will not likely sanction buck-passing in every scenario in which it is desired. If (B)’s counteraction precedes the intended effects of (A)’s action in time, then ought the proximate consequentialist regard (B)’s counteraction as the proximate effect of (A)’s action—a fortiori if proximate consequentialism was adopted on the basis of uncertainty vis-à-vis remote effects? This approach would seem to penalize any sort of long-term moral planning. I am not quite ready to accept that we can’t do better than this.

Perhaps the most obvious answer is a sort of rule consequentialism that would sanction moral buck-passing as a way of keeping us from getting immured in local minima in what we might call moral error space. Note that this approach, in attempting to see beyond the horizon of the local minimum, is rather straightforwardly antithetical to proximate consequentialism. Now, there are likely cases in which moral buck-passing really should not happen; a rule can be a very blunt instrument, and I think what’s really wanted here is a more nuanced decision procedure. So what conditions must be met in order to justify (or prohibit) an instance of buck-passing? Again, I’m skeptical that legal notions of culpability are the right ones to lean on here. It seems fairly obvious to me that an actor of sound mind could, due to personal convictions, be much more resistant to moral instruction and rehabilitation than an actor deemed unfit to stand trial for his actions. 
The juridical view would have us ask to what extent (B) could have responded to (A)’s actions differently. Alternatively, we might ask to what extent (B) could have realized the harm of its action even if (A) had done nothing. On this view, in order for (A) to be responsible for the harm realized by (B), (A)’s action would have to be a necessary—and not merely contributory or sufficientcause of (B)’s action. This seems to give us acceptable answers to cases (1) and (4) discussed above. The lion cannot eat the man until the man makes himself available to the lion, so (A) gets the—ahem—lion’s share of responsibility in that case. The corporation, on the other hand, is in a position to lay off employees with or without some profit-harming boycott. On closer inspection, though, thinks get murky pretty quickly. 
This notion of “could have” needs a lot more unpacking. Are we talking here only about something like a broad capacity? It seems it can’t just be that, since the lion had the capacity to kill the fence-scaler all along and had hitherto lacked only the opportunity. The mentally ill man, on the other hand (I am assuming most would not wish for the moral buck to be passed to him), has both capacity and opportunity for the murder he commits. What the lack of medication seemed to cause for him was a particular desire to kill. But do not the acts of (A) in scenarios (3) and (4) also provide the requisite desires for the harmful counteractions taken by (B)? Perhaps it matters whether the particular desire is character-consistent for (B). The corporation in (4) may have no particular predilection to fire those low-level employees prior to (A)’s boycott, but it has a more general willingness to downsize in order to offset profit loss. So (A)’s boycott only gave the corporation incentive to act on a pre-existing stable disposition. Sounds…kind of right, but look again at scenario (2) in light of this. Perhaps the man has no particularly strong general proclivity toward violence as long as his symptoms are controlled. But perhaps it is part of even his healthier character that he is willing to respond violently to sufficiently strong perceived threats. And suppose the murder he commits was due to him misperceiving the victim as just such a threat. Could not the desire on which he murderously acts be regarded as character-consistent in the same way as in scenario (4)? Does it matter that he acts on faulty perception while the corporation does not?
Ok, enough for now. Suffice it to say that a rule consequentialist justification for buck-passing—though, it is in my view the most promising route—will take a lot of work to get off the ground.
Any other ideas?

Bonus task: Start noticing how just terrifyingly ubiquitous this problem is.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Architecture of Rage

So...a thing happened. Again.

A pretty bad thing, by most objective measures, and more bad things are undoubtedly waiting in the wings.

We need to talk about it. And we need to do a better job of talking about it than we've been doing.

In the years since my matriculation in evolutionary psychology, I’ve grown pretty damned skeptical of many of its core tenets, methodologies, and conceptual schemata. One element I continue to find valuable, however, is the notion of environmental mismatch and behavioral misfire: the idea that apparently bizarre or maladaptive behaviors can be reckoned--indeed, explained--as adaptive to some environment other than the one with which the behavers are presently engaged. For the evolutionary psychologists, this other environment is, invariably, the EEA: the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. But it needn’t be this, and in what follows I’d like to consider the idea of mismatch more generally.

That the perceived world often differs from the real world is hardly controversial. But the world-as-perceived never seems to play much of an explanatory role in standard narratives about the resurgence of the radical right. Many of our self-appointed cultural oracles have regarded such as attitudes and behaviors as intemperate but ultimately rationally tractable reactions to their practitioners’ extant material circumstances. So Trump support doesn’t really stem from bigotry but from economic discontent in sectors like manufacturing--this despite the fact that the unemployment rate in manufacturing has been decreasing since 2010 and has been lower than the rate for the country as a whole for the past four years. On the other hand, the alternative, far left, take that this support stems from a deep well of racism, sexism, Islamophobia, etc. is likely quite incomplete—at least insofar as it treats these attitudes merely as long dormant demons only recently enabled, rather than created, by the current political climate. 

There are elements of truth to both of these explanations, but only elements. What the conservatives and classical liberals get right is that this phenomenon is primarily reactive, rather than proactive, and what the progressives get right is that it has much more to do with identity than with economics.

The world as perceived by many Trump supporters is a world in which white people—and white men in particular—have become an oppressed minority. A world in which “white” and “man” have become slurs, a world in which one’s pale skin and Y chromosome have become barriers to public discourse and participation, invitations to censure and ridicule. Dr. Arlie Hochschild, a social psychologist who spent five years in immersive ethnographic study of the Tea Party and nascent pro-Trump movements, describes their worldview as follows:

"You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you're being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He's on their side. In fact, isn't he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It's not your government anymore; it's theirs" (Source: Mother Jones).

Now, to any member of an actual oppressed group (and to many others besides), this view will seem ludicrously out of step with reality, or at least grossly incomplete. Regardless, we all need to start reckoning honestly with the fact that, however wrong, this is what Trump supporters sincerely believe. On this matter, I think it is the far left that has too often fallen into the error of explaining (or dismissing) this support by sole reference to the actual material conditions of the supporters. Because these folks, blue collar though they may often be, are still considerably advantaged over e.g., poor urban minorities, their claims of marginalization are apt to be regarded as not merely untruths but as outright lies, as moves in some cynical ploy to shore up existing privilege.

But Hochschild, for one, has little doubt about the sincerity of these people, and I've come away with the same impression from my own encounters with and observations of them. When these folks talk among each other, they're not reveling in their privileges; they're complaining, much as they do publicly, about the endless perceived threats to their ways of life. Plenty of others have also taken note of this sincerity, but the moral and practical takeaways from their expeditions in Trump’s America seldom go much beyond calls to greater empathy. Empathy is important, of course, but I think we can—and must—do more. The doing, however, will demand we first get a better handle on why and how these folks came to view themselves as such beleaguered underdogs in their world, even--and especially--when they aren't.

There'll be plenty of fingers pointed at the usual suspects: Fox News, Breitbart, fire 'n brimstone pastors. And yes, these parties have been gleefully feeding the marginalization narrative for years, but this cannot be the whole story. And yes, in the weeks to follow, we’ll undoubtedly hear from many centrists and old school liberals that the intemperate rhetoric of the activist left was to blame, silencing and shaming and scaring away potential white allies. Members of the far left, in turn will excoriate the free-speech-before-all-else center for their fetishization of “civil discourse” and the legitimization of bigotry to which it has allegedly led.

For my part, I recommend we all take a step back and look not at the seed or the planters but at the soil. The above are explanations pitched broadly at the social and cultural level; their explanandum is the behavior of Trump supporters as a group, and the causes entertained are exclusively the actions of other groups or institutions. Inveterate reductionist that I am, however, I think we'd be well served to also start considering potential psychological causes operating at the individual or lower levels. Permit me, then, in the spirit of my former field of study, a bit of just-so storytelling (I promise this will all be relevant in the end).

On Hierarchy: A Theory-Sketch

Social hierarchy in H. sapiens actually presents a bit of an evolutionary puzzle. Now, plenty of primates form hierarchies (including even bonobos, despite the romanticizing of certain lazy science journalists), and it’s common to hear from redpillers, MRAs, PUAs, neo-reactionaries, and similar types that this sort of social arrangement is a natural state of affairs, a part of human nature that it would be calamitous to suppress. Prima facie, though, this claim sits rather uncomfortably beside the fact that extant hunter-gatherer societies tend to be fiercely egalitarian. Now, hunting and gathering on the African savannah is how we spent 99.8% of our uniquely human natural history; the challenges posed by this subsistence strategy were chief among the selection pressures that took our brains from roughly chimp-sized to their modern proportions. If any social arrangement could claim evolutionary default status in our species, then it would seem to be egalitarianism, not hierarchy.

Nevertheless, social hierarchies reliably emerge as soon as individuals are able to store substantial amounts of resources (often this coincides with a shift toward agriculture or pastoralism, but it needn’t—the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest were traditionally a sedentary and hierarchical h-g society). So what’s going on here? Why would a species apparently finely adapted for egalitarianism form hierarchies so readily when material conditions allow for it?

I’ll withhold the long argument here, but what the above suggests to me is that both egalitarianism and hierarchy are products of the operations of simpler neuropsychological processes or--though I'm wary of using the word--mechanisms. I think there are many such processes, but I want to draw particular attention to the following three:

(1). We will fight desperately for our “fair” share of both material resources and social approval.

In h-g groups, hunting is usually cooperative and meat sharing is widespread. Now, imagine you’re living in such a group and you notice that your neighbor has received a significantly larger share than you. Assuming you both have equivalent dietary needs and given that your group does not store this resource (making any excess your neighbor receives worthless to him), his getting more than you likely means you aren’t getting enough. Since the lack of food storage means h-gs are never very far from starvation, this is a situation that requires prompt corrective action. I suspect this is why we have such a powerful negative emotional response to even relatively trivial instances of unfairness/injustice. In the environment of our uniquely human evolution, the equitable distribution of resources was a matter of life and death.

And we treat social approval similarly, whether due to natural selection or mere classical conditioning, because it would have been a reliable predictor of resource allocation. If you were in good standing with your fellows, you could reasonably expect to get your fair share and would be more likely to have success in pleading your case when you didn’t get it.

(2). We emotionally habituate to our current circumstances.

Hopefully this won’t be controversial. I don't wish to commit myself here to any particular model of this process (e.g., Solomon's Opponent-Process Theory), but only to note that it's a well-attested psychological phenomenon. Even amoebae habituate.

(3). We assess our material and social standings via comparison to those nearest or most similar to us.

Here too I doubt the claim will raise many eyebrows. The people we’re going to regard as part of our community are the people we see and interact with regularly. In small h-g bands, everyone constitutes the local community, but in larger, more stratified societies, the privileged will tend to mingle most with their own kind; likewise for the underprivileged.

The principal interest lies in the joint operations of these processes. In an environment which allows little to no accumulation of resources, everyone polices everyone else and the aggregate upshot of these individual demands for a fair share will be a social arrangement in which resources are distributed roughly equally. But what will happen when, say, horticulture (and later agriculture) takes over as the primary means of subsistence and substantial amounts of valuable resources can now be stored? For one, adequate food production will come to depend less on the coordinated cooperation of the entire group. The population will also grow as the group of necessity becomes more sedentary. These two developments will make it more difficult for any one individual to monitor and police the distribution of both resources and social approval. Theft will become possible, and so notions of private property to guard against it will become necessary. Sub-communities will form, based first on proximity and later on wealth, and people within a given sub-community will compete with each other for additional resources with all the fierceness and desperation with which their h-g forebears clamored for their fair share of meat. Political reality will come to reflect and recapitulate economic reality, and so there will soon be chiefs, kings, god-kings, lower ruling classes, etc.

I am, of course, abridging and simplifying a great deal. The point I’m trying to make at this juncture is simply that the same psychological forces that reinforce egalitarianism in conditions of scarcity can reinforce hierarchy in conditions of plenty (it's worth noting, as further proof of concept, that well-structured hierarchies have been observed to emerge spontaneously under certain material conditions even in species that are not typically social). 

But let's flash forward to modern times and see if we can't paint a clearer picture.

Consider: A white cis-het dude is born into an upper middle class home in an upper middle class neighborhood. He attends an upper middle class school, befriends other upper middle class dudes, gets a business or finance or tech degree, and duly enters the world of white collar employment. On a surface level, perhaps, he knows that he’s in good shape materially, but his emotional calibration is still that of a hunter-gatherer forever only a few unlucky days away from starvation. I don’t mean to suggest that this calibration constitutes anything like an unconscious belief. I don’t think it has any propositional content. It’s simply that case that, under the conditions in which whatever is uniquely human about our brains evolved, those individuals with stable dispositions to respond forcefully and effectively when they perceived others receiving more resources tended to survive much better than those without such dispositions. And there would have been no need, until perhaps very, very recently (too little time, evolutionarily speaking), to augment these dispositions with any sort of contextual sensitivity. The explanation here is roughly analogous to that of why we crave sugars and fats to such a (now) unhealthy degree: These nutrients were sufficiently rare in the ancestral environment that we never needed a motivational architecture capable of anything more subtle than compelling us to gobble them up wherever and whenever we found them.

So our dudebro’s attention will be primarily taken up with those similar to him (i.e., those in his local community) and particularly those whom he perceives to be better off than he is, for these are the people it would have been most ancestrally important to monitor. Raising his status relative to theirs will feel, in some sense, like a life and death affair. And so it will be for each of his competitors as well, and we'll thus have a feedback loop. Meanwhile, those who actually live with their backs against the void will be, for all practical purposes, ignored by these people.

So it will be, I suspect, for just about any contemporary hierarchy. Those not explicitly structured by material resources will be structured instead by what was, ancestrally, their nearest proxy: social prestige. And the means of attaining social prestige will, of course, depend upon the values of the local community within which the hierarchy is instantiated. What makes privilege blindness so tricky to combat, I submit, is that its basis is not merely a lack of awareness but a powerfully skewed focus. No one feels privileged, whatever the reality of their situation, because the people that serve as the comparata by which one determines one’s social standing are always disproportionately people who are better off/better regarded than oneself.

Trumpism Revisited

Now, this was an example from the white collar world. Let's return to the working class. Consider Dr. Hochschild's narrative in light of the above. For the blue collar Trump supporter, those better off and better regarded are the educated liberals, the celebrities and media elites, the President, and those they champion—viz., African Americans, women, Muslims, Latin American immigrants, people of LGBTQ orientations, etc. They see these people as the beneficiaries of unfairly special treatment. Remember, they are not looking behind them, at those worse off, at the long histories of oppression and disenfranchisement. They are looking at the Affirmative Action hires and welfare recipients. They are looking at the unfaithful wife or girlfriend whom other women rush to defend from slut shaming. They see special parades held for the non-straight, entire months dedicated to non-white history. There hear “(Only) Black Lives Matter” rather than “Black Live Matter (Too).”

And they hear that it is now their moral duty to step aside for these line-cutters. They hear that their voices (what voices? they wonder) have been heard for long enough and that it's time for them to be quiet now. They hear that their whiteness alone has made them racist from birth (they didn't, of course, get the memo about the distinction between structural racism and racism qua explicit attitude). And this is all just so much more insult to (perceived) injury.

This, then, is our great moral quandary. Members of the far right are in a psychological survival mode no less intense than that of so many of the marginalized on the far left. But most of those on the far right are not in fact in equivalently perilous situations (this isn't, of course, to say they're all fine and dandy). The perceived world to which they are reacting is incomplete and heavily distorted by the operations of the above-canvassed processes. For their counterparts on the far left it matters little for the accuracy of their worldview that their focus is primarily captured by those better off; most of their fellow citizens are in fact better off. But this selective capture may have just led those on the right to vote in a disaster far greater than the one they think they're currently facing.

How do we correct this skewed picture? Unfortunately, I don't have a very clear idea at the moment. We need to better understand how these processes operate if we're to successfully marshal them to the service of truth and goodness. A younger me would have put his trust in the persuasive power of rational argumentation, but...well. It is possible, of course, that the very real harm likely to be done to marginalized people under a Trump presidency will effect a temporary reorientation of focus and allow his supporters to see their relative position in greater perspective. But the ways in which news and information are now ideologically filtered and curated leave me little hope on this count. For every story of, say, white-on-black violence likely to reach the ears of Trump supporters, they will have heard ten previous stories of black-on-white violence and five on hoaxes and false flags.

While it's yet unclear how we can best go about fixing this, it's a good deal clearer how we can make things worse. Unfortunately, this is as much prediction as it is proscription. 

How to Feed Disaster

Many members of (actual) marginalized groups are very scared right now, and justifiably so. Centrist liberals, not being in a survival mode of near comparable intensity, will insist on a long-term strategy involving outreach to and accommodation of Trump supporters, a strategy that, as they might put it, eschews the divisive rhetoric of identity politics and restores the free and open exchange of ideas--all ideas--to pride of place in civic discourse. The supreme cruelty of the reality of our present situation, however, is that the costs and risks of any strategy along these lines will be borne disproportionately by the actually marginalized. And the marginalized, of course, know this. For the ideas allowed and legitimated by debate in the public sphere would have to include: the idea that black men really are more dangerous; the idea that gay people are mentally ill; the idea that trans people don't really exist, and so on.

So the progressive wing will push back against this strategy--indeed, they're already doing so. And a few of the bolder among the centrists will claim that the far left in fact ought to bear the greater burden of reconciliation because, they will insist, the far left bears the greater share of responsibility for the alienation of Trump supporters. The progressives, already convinced that the right is beyond discursive engagement, will increasingly view the centrists similarly. Suspicions that "white ally" and "feminist man" are in fact contradictions in terms will flourish. The centrists, perhaps beginning to feel as denigrated and ostracized as actual Trump supporters, will duly live down to these deflated expectations and the outcome will be a hopelessly balkanized left unable to unite behind any future candidate.

Meanwhile, Democratic leadership, still hopelessly embubbled, absorbs all the wrong lessons from its defeat and decides that the key to victory is running a famous egomaniacal prick. And so we'll be stuck with a Trump v. West matchup in 2020 (I hope I'm at least being hyperbolic on this point).

How to Maybe Put Disaster on a Diet

The unfortunate truth is likely that the centrists are right about there being a causal connection between progressive activism and right wing reactionism. But the centrists assume without argument that this is sufficient for blame, and it's worth remembering that the reaction did not happen in a vacuum but against the backdrop of a powerfully skewed picture of the reactionaries' true social standing. There's a question of moral buck-passing here, and I'm convinced it's actually an incredibly difficult and important one. The question arises in any situation with the following structure:

An agent, A, performs or contemplates performing some action which, assessed in isolation, furthers the moral good. However, a second agent, B, averse to this action, performs or vows to perform some counteraction with a negative moral impact of larger absolute value than A's initial action. This counteraction is foreseeable by A.

Who bears responsibility for what B does? Different moral theories are apt to give different answers to this question, and I suspect our pretheoretical intuitions will not be unanimous across all real-world instantiations of the dilemma. Considered only in the abstract, this may seem a philosophical trifle, but this abstract structure can be found in a large number of particularly thorny contemporary moral problems, so we need to start addressing it squarely. For the moment, it may be less important that we get the right answer as that we get an answer that the centrist and progressive wings of the left can broadly agree upon. That would at least give us one useful tool for adjudicating likely future strategic or tactical disputes.

Now, centrists may be less than inclined to see progressive activism as an example of agent A's good-in-a-vacuum action because their prevailing image of the progressive is still the coddled millennial whose obsession with political correctness, safe spaces, and demographic identity is itself an expression of the sort of luxuriant privilege they play at criticizing. To such centrists I can only advise that they practice a bit of the empathy they've been preaching. It's an old cliche that the extreme ends of the political spectrum resemble each other more than either resembles the center. While there are certainly similarities in the levels of psychological desperation out of which Trump support and progressive activism arise, this should not be taken to suggest that the desperation is for each group similarly grounded (or ungrounded) in reality. To speak only briefly on progressive identity politics: the marginalized individual is not obsessing over her identity in an effort to advertise herself as some special snowflake. She obsesses over it because others are already obsessing over it. Since she doesn't look or behave like the majority, she hasn't the luxury of a member of the majority of eschewing definitions based on group membership, of letting her recognized identity be shaped wholly by her work, her interests, or the particulars of her personality. She's going to be put in boxes in the minds of most of her fellows, whether she likes it or not; the most she can do in light of this fact is to claim for herself the choice of which boxes she goes into.

The larger point is that at this juncture it's probably more important to build and fortify bridges within the left than between the left and the Trumpian right. The centrists ought to be prepared to make the greater share of good faith effort here, for they have more luxury to do so than their counterparts. The progressives, for their part, need to be willing to work with the centrists on something like a common vocabulary (there's been far too much talking past one another on the issues that divide these camps) and a common set of standards for the evaluation of arguments and policy proposals. We need clearer answers not just concerning moral dilemmas like the one discussed above, but about, e.g., the kinds and extents of epistemic advantage different forms of marginalization are taken to afford. Many progressives have grown wary of attempts to articulate universal standards or principles, having observed that many projects flying the banner of universalism in the past ended up primarily or only reflecting the values and interests of the powerful. This skepticism is understandable, but a de facto relativism is no foundation for a successful sociopolitical movement--or for much of anything else, for that matter. We need a clearer articulation (and defense!) of the moral and epistemic principles that are to animate and guide our efforts against the catastrophe ahead of us, and we need to ensure that marginalized people are equal coauthors of these principles. This needs to be a proper group project.

Alas, I don't nurture much hope of this happening. It's hard not to see deeper and deeper division and epistemic isolationism in the years ahead. In truth, the best feasible long-term outcome may depend very little on what the left does. It may simply require that Trump's presidency be so disastrous that it harms and terrifies even his erstwhile supporters (not a terribly remote possibility), buying us all, after the smoke clears, at least another generation or two soberer politics.

...those of us who make it through, at any rate.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Triptych (draft)

[Photographs by Claire Powell]

We are the stone’s
Long dream, thundercracked
Into sudden smoking dawn;
Unsealed with the mist—
A spell forbidden, half-
Forgotten, we dance the
World alive,
Wild air in wild teeth and
In our eyes the unaugurable fire
Of every chartless star.

Our day, our
Summer cauterized, closed
In a sightwide salamander rictus
That kisses the cobble hills alight,
Blushes the taut
Canvas of our artless cheeks, then gutters
Down its eyeless hell as
Something more tremendous yet turns
The bright cipher of our bones on its
Ancient tongue, speaks.

You came to me in rumors,
Snatched breaths, a thing
Collected but
Never held. I received you
As a ruin receives the earth. And you
Loved me, I know, the best
My architecture would allow, folded up
My aching walls, made me
Home, at last, to a hunger
Not my own.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Find me in the evening

—where the dogwood erupts
by the tin roof shed
—wordless mostly,
our fingers latticing, unlatticing,
dirtward eyes —then
whisper-burst of ruddy warmth
—thunder foaming up
from a dusky belly of sky—
silver tendon threading our lips, then
snap! —and laughter
ringing down the night’s long throat
—I in sudden dereliction,
in breathless serein baptism,
vortexed under milky bracts
—sphinx moth, solemn witness
marks the passing

Find me in the evening

—in the garden floor
where the hornworms pray,
cherry tomatoes in our hair
—soft alien geometry and
chimeras of breath and tears
immolating everything
—hosannas like bottle rockets
tunneling black air
as tumbled loam accepts the blood,
—our wreck of desperate flesh
on this secret tongue of earth,
salt-rheum in greedy teeth,
—the world a turgid oath
killed and birthed a thousand times
in the anthem of the katydid

Find me in the evening

—in the deltaed ebb
of a spilt cocktail sunfall,
past the barn owl's haunted versicle
—you, delivered up
with the moon, minnow-swift
in the stone circuitries of this otherworld
—I, oafish in the permalight
of street- and carlamps,
easing into the drink easing into me
—first lash of lightning calls your laughter back
and we are stormed
—stutter-stumbling through buzzing neon Calvary,
my lips in the rain in your hair,
begging your blood into dance—
to the barn owl and to us, somewhere,
the argiope responds

Find me in the evening

—where the buckled sky bruises
in a coma-gasp of fog,
in the garden floor where
the tall years
topple me
—you, quick tempest
of hands and flooded cheeks and words,
creasing me into your waking terror
—night, its claws in my eyes,
yawning like a fallow field—
—I, leaking breath and memory,
find again that thunder-stolen laugh, stagger after,
cicadas swell a silver hymn into the gloam
—the wind, from the dogwood,
pulls a canticle of leaves

Find me in the evening

—when the noise-thick sun
sloughs its final blister in the hills,
—when the day drags its ochred belly
to a tear-drunk sleep
and the prayers lie silent with the plowshares,
—I, in gathered moments, unfurl to you
with the dogwood,
am sung to you in the storm’s slow psalm
where the horizon blushed with us
by the tin roof shed—
my lips in the rain in your hair
—drink me
from the argent censer of the moon,
reclaim me from the sphinx moth’s
searchless stare—
O, do not hunt me in the golden maw of heaven—

Find me in the evening

Monday, April 18, 2011

Saturday, April 16, 2011

On the Harris-Craig Debate

Sam Harris recently debated philosopher and evangelical theologian William Lane Craig on the issue of whether objective morality is possible without God. The entire two-our event, held at Notre Dame, can be viewed below:

Craig set out to defend the biconditional: Objective morality if and only if God, while Harris attempted to explain and advance his secular alternative. Several summaries and dissections already pepper the blogscape, with many noting that the two speakers were largely talking past each other and concluding that Harris was the greater culprit in this regard. Sam has posted a brief follow-up explaining why he took the tack he did.

The question of appropriate tactics here is a tricky one. Craig has been debating professionally for literally longer than I’ve been breathing, and his technique is by now immaculately polished. A comparative novice would likely have little time to present and explain a positive case if she or he attempted to rebut Craig’s criticisms to the complete satisfaction of a lay audience. It is interesting comparing the Craig-Harris debate with an earlier one Craig had with philosopher Shelley Kagan on the same topic: (note, this debate is in 10 parts, only the first of which is linked here). Kagan does a much better job of interacting with Craig’s arguments, and actually controls the majority of the debate (this is undoubtedly helped by a different format which allowed the speakers to directly question each other). However, I felt at the end that I had a much less clear view of what Kagan’s objective moral theory actually is and how it allegedly works than I did of Harris’ at the end of his debate.

Harris’ refusal to spend much time directly engaging Craig’s criticisms invites the questions: Do these criticisms have any merit? During the debate, Craig laid out what he called a “knock-down” argument against Harris’ moral theory. It goes as follows:
On the next to last page of his book, Harris makes the telling admission that if people like rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people, then his moral landscape would no longer be a moral landscape; rather it would just be a continuum of well-being, whose peaks are occupied by good and evil people alike (p. 190).

What’s interesting about this is that earlier in the book Harris observed that about three million Americans are psychopathic, that is to say, they don’t care about the mental states of others. On the contrary, they enjoy inflicting pain on other people (pp. 97-99).

That implies that there is a possible world which we can conceive in which the continuum of human well-being is not a moral landscape. The peaks of well-being could be occupied by evil people. But that entails that in the actual world the continuum of well-being and the moral landscape are not identical either. For identity is a necessary relation. There is no possible world in which some entity A is not identical to A. So if there is any possible world in which A is not identical to B, it follows that A is not in fact identical to B.

Since it’s possible that human well-being and moral goodness are not identical, it follows necessarily that human well-being and moral goodness are not the same, as Harris has asserted.

It’s not often in philosophy that one finds a knock-down argument against a position, but we seem to have one here. By granting that it’s possible that the continuum of well-being is not identical to the moral landscape, Harris’ view becomes logically incoherent.

Sola Ratione has offered a cogent criticism of this argument. I think there’s a major additional problem. Craig argues (seemingly on the basis of Kripke’s work) that identity is a necessary relation and that because he (and apparently even Harris) can imagine a possible world in which “good” and “conscious wellbeing” are not identical, then they are in fact not identical in any possible world, including the actual world. What Craig doesn’t deign to mention is that Kripke showed that identities were only necessary between rigid designators like proper names or natural kind terms that pick out the same thing in all possible worlds in which they exist. Even if Harris had truly admitted that goodness and wellbeing could possibly come apart (and he did not; see Sola’s post above), it would not necessarily imply that they are not identical in this world, but only that at least one of the terms is not a rigid designator. This should not be a controversial conclusion to anyone who’s not a Platonist about things like “goodness” and “wellbeing”. Craig has projected Platonic presuppositions onto Harris, but Harris needn’t at all view either “goodness” or “wellbeing” as rigid designators, and may thus maintain their contingent identity.

This also allows Harris to rebut Craig’s earlier accusation that he is merely making a semantic argument, arbitrarily trying to define goodness as conscious wellbeing. On Kripke’s view, at least, only necessary identities can fix meaning, so there would seem to be no problem with Harris arguing that goodness and conscious wellbeing are (contingently) identical, even though we may not recognize them as having the same meaning. As an aside, it’s interesting to see how much, despite his admonitions, Craig himself equivocates between moral semantics and moral ontology in his criticisms of Harris. Craig’s “knock-down” argument proceeds on the assumption that Harris is making a substantive ontological case, yet this assumption is inconsistent with Craig’s claim that Harris is merely engaged in an undermotivated definitional game.

Mind you, Harris may not be philosophically savvy enough to recognize that the above option is available to him, but Craig has no such excuse. His “knock-down” argument is nothing but a disingenuous assault on a straw-man. None of this is meant to suggest that I completely agree with Harris’ theory; I don’t, in fact, but I think Craig’s counterarguments are very poor and appreciable as such by atheists and theists alike.

Craig, in stressing that his case was an ontological one, claimed that he was using moral terms merely in their common senses. Perhaps more than anything else, what I’ve taken away from this debate is the pressing need for critical scrutiny of our commonsense notions of words like “goodness” and “value,” to say nothing of “objective.” This is not the post to further mine that vein, but I’ll be dealing with the topic extensively in an upcoming series in which I’ll lay out my own proposed framework for objective morality.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


It happens from time to time that real life intrudes into and disrupts the easy routine of e-life. Due to a series of such disruptions, this blog sort of fizzled on the launch pad. Nearly a year later, however, r-life has relaxed its Samsonesque grip on my attention and energies and I am thoroughly re-galvanized for this project, eager--desperate, even--to get back into a regular rhythm of writing (really!).

I've got a few major multi-post series planned: one on the possibility of objective morality (a very hot topic among secularists today, thanks largely to Sam Harris), one on evolutionary psychology (what I hope will be a helpful critique), and one on...well, it's a surprise.

Stay tuned!

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Proper Introduction

It's due, I suppose.

Welcome to Ain Sophistry, a humble but focused attempt to dismantle, dissolve, or at the very least dissect some of the cognitive impediments to a mutually fruitful inter-articulation of science and philosophy. Topics may include, but almost certainly will not be limited to: cognition and consciousness; the prospects of an objective secular ethics; reduction and other intertheoretic relations; epistemology and semantics in a neuroscientific context; ontology and modality in a neuroscientific context; arguments for and against the existence of God; evolutionary psychology and the broader role of teleological (or quasi- or pseudo-teleological) explanations of human behavior

Participation is strongly encouraged.

At present, anyone can post here (to those of you who were unable to post earlier, my apologies; the problem has been fixed); I ask only that you observe the following guidelines:

1. Be civil. Many of the topics covered here--consciousness, morality, God--we have strong opinions about. Don't be afraid to share them (preferably with appropriate support), but know and respect the difference between trying to raise consciousness and trying to raise blood pressure.

2. Don't spam. Just...don't.

3. Don't merely preach. I would have never thought to include this were it not for certain recent forum experiences. Incessantly preachy posts with little or no argumentative support will be considered spam and treated as such. You are, of course, welcome to share and try to persuade others of your view, but I expect you to engage them as a party genuinely interested in these issues, not as a bot thoughtlessly spewing boilerplate and fishing for converts or drama.

Nothing too Draconian, I hope.

Have fun.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Incoherence of Nonreductive Physicalism

What better topic to inaugurate a blog on the uneasy trysts of science and philosophy than the ever-contentious Philosophical Zombie?

I find myself perennially surprised to see otherwise scientifically-minded secularists suddenly throwing up their hands and pleading a sort of “mysterianism” (to borrow Dennett’s term) when discussion turns to the nature of consciousness. Now, it’s perfectly fair and accurate to say that our scientific understanding of what consciousness is and does is presently incomplete. I’m very skeptical, though, of any attempts made by philosophers like David Chalmers to adjudicate from the armchair on what science ultimately can and cannot explain, and I’m disappointed to see generally clear-headed secular thinkers like Sam Harris voicing similar sentiments lately.

Chalmers calls his position “nonreductive physicalism.” He argues for an explanatory gap between properties rather than substances, and so his view is (at least ostensibly) monistic. It’s a step up from Cartesian dualism to be sure, but I think it’s still indefensible. More pointedly, I think it’s fundamentally incoherent.

Now, according to reductive physicalism, all facts at any supra-physical level of description are reliably fixed, ultimately, by physical facts, such that two entities identical in all their physical properties will be identical in all their supra-physical properties as well. According to this thesis, if I wanted to build a perfect replica of myself, I could in principle do so using only knowledge of the subatomic constituents that comprise me. By accurately specifying all these basic physical properties, I could expect my replica to instantiate all my higher level properties—metabolic, neurophysiological, phenomenal—automatically; no further specification required.

To effectively attack this position, the nonreductivist must establish the conjunction of two claims:

(1). The phenomenal properties of consciousness are not reliably fixed, proximally or distally, by physical facts.

(2). The phenomenal properties of consciousness are information-bearing, such that possession of them facilitates or constitutes a form of knowledge. If we are to claim that there is some domain that is irreducible in a way semantically distinct from the way we might claim that the domain of fairies and unicorns is irreducible, then there must exist apprehendable facts about that domain through which we come to knowledge of it. Of course, a domain about which there are no facts cannot enter into a fact-fixing relation, but neither can it enter into a knowledge-having relation.

Chalmers’ “Zombie argument” (beginning on p. 100) is a well-known attempt at establishing the first claim. The “knowledge” arguments of Thomas Nagel and Frank Jackson (“What It’s Like to Be a Bat” and “Mary’s Room,” respectively) are well-known attempts at establishing the second claim. I think, however, that there’s a fatal tension between these two claims such that one can only be secured at the expense of the other. We can see this most clearly by simply combining the thought experiments each of the above three authors has invoked to motivate their arguments (we’ll even throw in Searle’s “Chinese Room” for good measure):

Suppose I am the world’s premier bat expert; I know everything a non-bat could possibly know about bat brains and behavior. I’ve built a remote-controlled robotic bat that looks just like the real thing and is capable of the same full range of movement. A team of scientists—also bat experts—are going to be subjecting both a real bat and my toy bat to a series of identical tests designed to probe the bat’s cognitive activity—its knowledge—as deeply as possible without simply opening it up to see if there’s a real brain there. The real bat goes first, and as it’s being subjected to all these tests, a recording is made of its brain states. When it is time for my toy bat to be tested, I view this recording and (because I know everything a non-bat could possibly know about bats), using my remote control, translate the neural activity into behavior I think will be identical to that exhibited by the real bat. Assume that the same tests are applied in each case and that the testing periods have identical temporal profiles (that is, all the events were spaced equally apart). I have not specified exactly what the tests are because that is largely up to your imagination. Make the interactions as complex and protracted as you like. Now, I have complete knowledge of the bat’s neural activity, but the real bat (presumably) possesses knowledge that I lack—namely, first-person experience, what it’s like to be a bat.

The question: Will the scientists in principle ever be able to discern a difference between the two bats on the basis of this alleged knowledge asymmetry (note that this doesn’t require them to know which one is real and which one is fake; they simply must be able to find some cognitively relevant difference)?

That is only the first part of the thought experiment. Now imagine the same thing happening on Zombie Earth, a possible world in which qualia do not exist but which is identical in all of its physical facts to this world. The same question is asked of the scientists here.

A variety of permutations suggest themselves. With a little more imagination, we can make this a bit fairer to Searle’s Chinese Room by replacing both the bats and the scientists conducting the tests with intelligent bat-like aliens whose neural economies (and thus presumably qualia) are wildly incommensurable with our own. Here, I know everything a non-bat-alien can know about bat-aliens and remotely control a perfect replica of one, which will be tested by real bat-aliens. As before, the interactions are up to your imagination, so long as the discerned difference, if any, is due to the special knowledge the real bat-alien has which I (presumably) do not.

Now, if we are tempted toward the view that the possession of qualia constitutes or allows for real knowledge of some sort, then there should be some possible test or another which can pick out the difference this knowledge makes for the bat. But if we hold that the scientists can discern a difference in the first scenario, then we must concede that they will be unable to discern a difference in the zombie scenario, and this violates the restriction that the two worlds be identical in all their physical facts. Minimally, then, metaphysical supervenience (a fact-fixing relation) of qualia on physical properties seems to hold.

If on the other hand, we deny that a difference is discernible on Earth, we can maintain a solely phenomenal difference between our world and the zombie world, but only at great cost. We bite the bullet not only on epiphenomenalism (and potentially panpsychism), but on a deep phenomenological skepticism, for we seem to have given up the view that there are any apprehendable facts about our qualia. To maintain that our possession of qualia still amounts to a kind of “knowledge” is to completely destroy the term. The problem beckoned by this maneuver is twofold. For one, we would have to ask: How, if we are otherwise wholly physical beings, can we come to have knowledge of something that makes no physical difference in the world? For two, we must ask: How, if we are otherwise wholly physical beings, can this knowledge not itself make any physical difference in the world (even in principle)? Put simply, taking Chalmers’ argument seriously seems to rob us of the ability to say with any confidence that we are not the zombies.

Of course, we could claim that the knowledge is stored in some nonphysical substrate. This is, of course, substance dualism, but it is no longer an attractive option in philosophy of mind. The alternative, though (if we are still determined to take a nonreductivist line), seems an even bitterer pill. We are faced with a kind of epistemic (and, in at least Searle’s case, semantic) solipsism, saying in effect: “I have this special kind of knowledge whose contents and very existence are necessarily confirmable only by me.” The fact that any alleged knowledge can be “secured” in this way (say, a devout Christian's special, privately revealed knowledge of the divinity of Jesus Christ) should give pause to anyone—especially any secularist—tempted to argue along these lines.

I think the core problem with the nonreductivist position resides in an ontological interpretation of what is really an epistemic issue, a confusion of a particular mode of knowledge access for a particular kind of knowledge content. The “neurophilosopher” Paul Churchland touches on this in his review of Searle’s 1992 book, The Rediscovery of the Mind:

The focal issue is Searle’s claim that mental phenomena are irreducible to the objective features of the physical brain. The sticking point here, according to Searle, is the subjective character of mental states, as opposed to the objective character of any and all physical states. In the face of this ‘rock-bottom’ divergence of character on each side of the alleged equation, how could mental phenomena possibly be identical with, or somehow constituted from, sheerly physical phenomena? They are as different as chalk from cheese.

The argument, let us admit, is beguiling. That is why it is famous. Searle is not offering us a new argument, but an old one, one made famous in the modern period by Thomas Nagel and Frank Jackson.

There is also a standard and quite devastating reply to this sort of argument, a reply that has been in undergraduate textbooks for a decade. On the most obvious and reasonable interpretation, to say that John’s mental states are subjective in character is just to say that John’s mental states are known-uniquely-to-John-by-introspection. And to say that John’s physical brain states are objective is just to deny that physical brain states have the hyphenated property at issue. Stated carefully, the argument thus has the following form:

1. John’s mental states are known-uniquely-to-John-by-introspection.
2. John’s physical brain states are not known-uniquely-to-John-by-introspection.
Therefore, since they have divergent properties,
3. John’s mental states cannot be identical with any of John’s physical brain states.

Once put in this form, however, the argument is instantly recognizable to any logician as committing a familiar form of fallacy, a fallacy instanced more clearly in the following two examples.

1. Aspirin is known-to-John-as-a-pain-reliever.
2. Acetylsalicylic acid is not known-to-John-as-a-pain-reliever.
Therefore, since they have divergent properties,
3. Aspirin cannot be identical with acetylsalicylic acid.


1. The temperature of an object is known-to-John-by-simple-feeling.
2. The mean molecular kinetic energy of an object is not known-to-John-by-simple-feeling.
Therefore, since they have divergent properties,
3. Temperature cannot be identical with mean molecular kinetic energy.

Here the conclusions are known to be false in both cases, despite the presumed truth of all of the premises. The problem here is that the so-called “divergent properties” consist in nothing more than the item’s being recognized, perceived, or known by somebody, by a specific means and under a specific description. But no such “epistemic” property is an intrinsic feature of the item itself, one that might determine its possible identity or nonidentity with some candidate thing otherwise apprehended or otherwise described. Indeed, as the two clearly fallacious parallels illustrate, the truth of the argument’s premises need reflect nothing more than John’s overwhelming ignorance of what happens to be identical with what. And as with the parallels, so with the original. Despite its initial appeal, the argument is a non sequitur.

(From “Betty Crocker's Theory of Consciousness”; all emphases in original)

I would put the point as follows: my inability to know what it’s like to be a bat reflects nothing deeper than the fact that my brain is not adequately configured to perform the particular cognitive operations that instantiate the bat’s phenomenal states. This doesn’t by itself tell us anything about whether or not those phenomenal properties are ultimately fixed by physical properties. From the simple neurobiological fact that I am unable to run the bat “software” (don’t take the metaphor too literally; I don’t intend a literal “symbolicist” construal of cognitive activity here), it doesn’t follow that the contents of that software constitute an ontologically distinct category inaccessible in principle except to the sole individual in which that software currently resides.

Let’s look at a more mundane case. Say I and another are observing a painting, and I have access to some representation of both his and my own brain states. If I can see that these states are very similar, I can probably conclude that our phenomenal experiences of the painting are very similar as well.

A simple permutation of the above may prove more illustrative. Suppose our cognitive states are not very similar, but suppose I am hooked up to a machine which stimulates my neurons in such a way as to bring our states into isomorphism. I could then probably conclude that I at the very least have a good idea of what it’s like to experience the painting as this other person does. I find this conclusion much less controversial than its denial, which would take us back out into Chalmersian territory, with all the aforementioned problems therein entailed.

Now, say I were born cortically deaf and am observing a symphony with another individual. The same basic story applies; I have access to some sort of representation of both his and my own cognitive states. Because this other individual has neuralphysiological processes devoted to audition while I do not, our states will not be completely isomorphic and I will not be able to apprehend the entirety of his subjective experience of the symphony. In this case, though, we can quickly see that it would be faulty for me to conclude that the individual’s auditory qualia were in principle unknowable to anyone but him.

We don’t have to invoke such fanciful examples (though their logical possibility alone is sufficient to refute any a priori nonreductivism) to drive the point home. Consider your own left and right cerebral hemispheres. We know from patients with certain congenital diseases and patients who’ve had an entire hemisphere surgically removed that each hemisphere is a cognitively and consciously sufficient entity (at least insofar as we know that anyone besides ourselves is a cognitively and consciously sufficient entity). Yet we are not two mutually inaccessible first-person perspectives crammed together into one skull. Our right hemisphere processes visual information in our left visual field and our left hemisphere processes visual information in our right visual field, yet our visual phenomenology is perfectly integrated. This is because in normal humans, our hemispheres are connected through a large mass of fibers called the corpus callosum, which makes the cognitive activities of each hemisphere accessible to the other (interestingly, patients in which this has been severed or has failed to develop do seem to have something very much like two mutually inaccessible first-person perspectives crammed into one skull). And the phenomenal unification that results from this interaction is only possible if there are reliable fact-fixing relations between qualia and brain processes. If we take seriously Chalmers’ argument that phenomenal properties are metaphysically free to vary over physical properties, this unification becomes a deeply mysterious, if not downright miraculous, thing.


I am not the first to comment on the instability of nonreductive physicalism. For other arguments, see Kim (1989), and Melnyk (1991).

Addendum 2:

I've just been pointed to a paper by Tillmann Vierkant in which a somewhat similar combined thought experiment is proposed in order to illustrate the tension between Chalmersian and Jacksonian anti-reductionist arguments. The author sees this problem as far more injurious to Chalmers' case than to Jackson's, and posits (without defending or endorsing) what he calls "Common Sense Realism" as an option left open to the nonreductive physicalist. I may take this topic up in a subsequent post.