Sunday, March 29, 2020

What's Wrong with Philosophical Arguments? (continued)

 
New Version: In keeping with the theme of this essay,
this is a revised version based on edits from before and
after a Human Values Network meeting discussion.
This is the result of a collaboration, without giving credit to
individuals who made the contributions. (People are welcome
to add comments at the end of this article.)


Summary: Are debates between adversaries the best way to
establish what is true?  Is it better to use more cooperative
methods?


Is there a problem with the way the arguments and discussions are made 
when they are done in an adversarial, confrontational way?  Prof. Martin Lenz 
argues in the following excerpts from his article that there are problems 
with the way philosophical arguments are done.  Interested readers should 
follow the link and read the entire article.  (Prof. Lenz will have a book 
coming out soon.)

Maybe I should explain what I mean by an adversarial argument, 
for people who are not involved in science or academia.  
A classic example of an adversarial situation is a legal 
trial in which there is a prosecution and a defense lawyer 
and they are opposing each other, in an effort to give both 
sides to a judge or jury, to come to a decision that is reasonable.  
Academic adversarial situations don't have both sides in the same 
room, and they can go over decades.  One scholar may write a paper 
or give a talk at a conference that makes a hypothesis to explain 
 a observation.  Perhaps at the same conference, or over time in 
print, others criticize or point out limitations.  These can lead 
to arguments or disagreements that can last for years.

Being known for a discovery may help the academic get grants or funding, 
so there may be a monetary reward.  But that reward is usually a secondary 
consideration.  The main motivation is to be known for a discovery, for 
getting a reputation for expertise, and for recognition among peers.

Exerpts from article at 
https://aeon.co/ideas/the-adversarial-culture-in-philosophy-does-not-serve-the-truth

Professor of history of philosophy explains why adversarial
criticism is antithetical to truth
By Martin Lenz

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been 
republished under Creative Commons.
Written January 12, 2020 

"Philosophical discussions, whether in a professional setting or at the bar, frequently consist of calling out mistakes in whatever has been proposed.... This adversarial style is often celebrated as truth-conducive. Eliminating false assumptions seems to leave us with truth in the marketplace of ideas... "I doubt that it is a particularly good approach to philosophical discussions.... [It implies that] Claims are either true or false; arguments are either valid or invalid.... "...A more fluid attitude towards authorship [is] if you discuss an idea among friends, tossing out illustrations, laughing away criticism and speculating about remote applications. "The appropriate metaphorical resources for naming this philosophical practice should not be derived from warfare but from playgrounds, where reinvention and serendipity guide our interactions." "[But then] whose idea is it at the end of the night?..."
This last point gets into the issue of why people do this sort of thing in the first place, namely to get credit for the idea or "own" it. They are remembered for the idea. They want to be remembered by getting their name on a Law or Principle or Hypothesis. This is a source of meaning for people's entire careers as scientists or scholars in some subject area. Lenz makes good points but for somewhat wrong reasons, in my opinion. For a lot of problems in society, the solution has to come from getting people to cooperate to act together. If one smart philosopher comes up with an answer but can't convince other people to do it, then it won't solve the problem. If he/she can address criticism but not in a way that is inspiring and charismatic, people won't follow the lead even if they can't see a logical flaw. They must be convinced to buy into the goal and the path forward. This is a reason that, in business, a committee is needed to work on a project, because if many people don't agree to work on it, the project won't get done. That doesn't mean that there aren't questions with true/false answers that can be decided by adversaries. That's the way the court and legal justice system is set up to determine if someone is guilty or not guilty. This also leads into another point that Lenz makes. When a group solution is accepted and then modified by a group discussion, the idea doesn't belong to one person any more. One person may have originated the initial idea. But the person can't continue to claim ownership if there are contributions from many people. In the world of science, this issue is addressed by having multiple authors on publications. Usually, there is no notation about which author worked on which part of the paper. In movie projects, there are credits at the end that go on for many minutes with details about who had which jobs. But if you buy a product like an iPhone, it has a company logo on it, but who knows what person actually worked on which parts? There may be a wonderfully innovative part of the phone that no one knows who came up with the idea. It is also a problem of coming up with new ideas and finding new ways to encourage new ideas and new ways to do things that can solve social problems. As Lenz wrote, new ideas come from a sense of play, which takes an extra kind of trust and collaboration. Are the ideas for free, and people only get paid for the work of developing them? Some say that Ideas are a dime a dozen, so they are cheap. Is work the only thing that is paid for? Patents can be filed for new inventions, but the inventor doesn't get paid unless there is actually a product or service that is developed and sold based on the patent idea. Getting solutions to work, like getting videos to "go viral," is an entirely different effort from coming up with an idea. It comes from marketing to promote an idea. It is getting others to be excited about it. If people are only paid for promoting ideas, but not for coming up with new ideas, will we have a society that advertises but doesn't create? As an example, I just heard a lecture on Da Vinci. He had a lot of engineering drawings of inventions with exploded diagrams showing the parts to machines. Even now, it is not known whether he actually invented the machines, or whether he just drew machines that were in common use that someone else built. Is he getting some credit just because he was the guy who wrote it down and made the drawings? During the group discussion, people pointed out a number of ways that ideas and development work are done without giving credit to anyone. Open source software is written with input from many people. Glenn Curtiss developed many inventions for airplanes in the 1910-1920's that were shared, partly with competitors like the Wright Brothers' company, to help build new planes, partly for the World War I effort. Curtiss was very successful. Jonas Salk didn't parent polio virus in order that everyone had access to it. Thomas Edison took a lot of credit for inventions that were collaborations of his research lab. See recent movie "The Current
War" between Edison and Tesla.

There are collaborations, brain-storming sessions, and networking 
at conferences, in addition to presentations by individual or 
groups of authors.

There is an expression that good managers try to give 
credit to others rather than take credit for themselves to be successful.

Friday, February 14, 2020

What's wrong with Philosophical Arguments?

Summary: Are debates between adversaries the best way to 
establish what is true?  Is it better to use more cooperative 
methods? 
 
 
People have had philosophical arguments for thousands of 
years.  There has been some progress on some problems, 
but there are some topics, like ethics and rules of behavior, 
that have not given rise to rules that are considered to be 
philosophically definite. 
 
Is that because the problems are difficult, or is there a 
problem with the way the arguments are made?  Prof. 
Martin Lenz argues in the following excerpts from his article 
that there are problems with the way philosophical arguments 
are done.  Interested readers should follow the link and read 
the entire article.  (Prof. Lenz will have a book coming out soon.)

Exerpts from article at https://www.alternet.org/2020/01/professor-of-history-of-philosophy-explains-why-adversarial-criticism-is-antithetical-to-truth/
Or https://aeon.co/ideas/the-adversarial-culture-in-philosophy-does-not-serve-the-truth

Professor of history of philosophy explains why adversarial criticism is antithetical to truth
By Martin Lenz

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Written January 12, 2020  
  
 "Philosophical discussions, whether in a professional  
setting or at the bar, frequently consist of calling out 
mistakes in whatever has been proposed.... This  
adversarial style is often celebrated as truth-conducive. 
Eliminating false assumptions seems to leave us with 
truth in the marketplace of ideas...  I doubt that it is a 
particularly good approach to philosophical discussions.... Claims  
are either true or false; arguments are either valid or invalid....

"...A more fluid attitude towards authorship [is] if you 
discuss an idea among friends, tossing out illustrations, 
laughing away criticism and speculating about remote 
applications, whose idea is it at the end of the night?...

"The appropriate metaphorical resources for naming this 
philosophical practice should not be derived from warfare 
but from playgrounds, where reinvention and serendipity 
guide our interactions."


 Lenz makes good points but for somewhat wrong reasons. For a lot of problems in society, the solution has to come from getting people to cooperate to act together. If one smart philosopher comes up with an answer but can't convince other people to do it, then it won't solve the problem. If he (or she) can address criticism but not in a way that is inspiring and charismatic, people won't follow the lead even if they can't see a logical flaw. They must be convinced to buy into the goal and the path forward. This is a reason that, in business, a committee is needed to work on a project, because if many people don't agree to work on it, the project won't get done. 

That doesn't mean that there aren't questions with true/false answers that can be decided by adversaries. That's the way the court and legal justice system is set up to determine if someone is guilty or not guilty. But even questions that look like they should be this kind of problem, like "Is it good to believe in God?" or "Is it right to kill?", can depend on situations or the group that a person is in. If someone is born and raised as a fundamentalist among a fundamentalist community, then the answer to the first question may have to be yes. For a soldier in battle, the answer to the second may also be yes.

This also leads into another point that Lenz makes. When a group solution is accepted and then modified by a group discussion, the idea doesn't belong to one person any more. One person may have originated the initial idea. But the person can't continue to claim ownership if there are contributions from many people. 

In the world of science, this issue is addressed by having multiple authors on publications. Usually, there is no notation about which author worked on which part of the paper. In movie projects, there are credits at the end that go on for many minutes with details about who had which jobs. But if you buy a product like an iPhone, it has a company logo on it, but who knows what person actually worked on which parts? There may be a wonderfully innovative part of the phone that no one knows who came up with the idea. 

This may seem like a modern problem that applies to intellectual property, but the same issue goes back to the dawn of civilization. As soon as people sold their labor and lost control of the goods that they produced, they lost the credit and meaning for doing the labor. For their effort to have a meaning, they had to get something meaningful in return. This may be the reason that money has gotten its value, not just as a measure for exchanging goods but also as a important value in itself. Money represents the way that labor matters in society. Similarly, for this reason, slavery has failed as a way to provide labor in society because slaves aren't given anything that shows the value of their effort. They only get punishment if they stop working. 

Group efforts are as old as civilization, but they are getting more important in technological society. How do we find a way to share credit on a group project? For example, I posted a version of this essay online. What if I edit it to add comments from the discussion of a group? Is the essay still mine, or do I have to add coauthors or give credit to people who made contributions? 

A current example is given by the website TikTok. People make 15 sec videos of lip synching or dancing to a song. The site is Chinese and they don't worry too much about copyrights. But it raises the question of who owns the video. Is the dancer stealing the music, or is it a friendly collaboration?  What happens if the videos help to promote the song to make it a number one hit, as happened for the song "Old Town Road"?

The modern problem is still whether people are paid, and what they are paid for. It is also a problem of coming up with new ideas and finding new ways to encourage new ideas and new ways to do things that can solve social problems. As Lenz wrote, new ideas come from a sense of play, which takes an extra kind of trust and collaboration.  

Are the ideas for free, and people only get paid for the work of developing them? Should ideas be valuable, or is work the only thing that is paid for? Patents can be filed for new inventions, but the inventor doesn't get paid unless there is actually a product or service that is developed and sold based on the patent idea. In government, companies write proposals with ideas about what they plan to do, but the proposals are written for free. They don't get paid until they carry them out.

Getting solutions to work, like getting videos to "go viral," is an entirely different effort from coming up with an idea.  It comes from marketing to promote an idea.  It is getting others to be excited about it.  It may even come from an employer who says "Do it in a new way or else you'll be fired."   

If people are only paid for promoting ideas, but not for coming up with new ideas, will we have a society that advertises but doesn't create? Is that the kind of society that we want to have?



Wednesday, January 01, 2020

How to get social change without wanting it

"Game of Thrones’ final season told flattering lies about wanting power." Although the article was about the TV show, it seems to me that the point of the article can be applied to the problem of activism and achieving social change.  But allow me to explain.

For anyone not familiar with Game of Thrones plot, the show is set in a fictional medieval time period in which several characters are competing to become the absolute ruler of the Seven Kingdoms by sitting on the Iron Throne.  One of the leading candidates, and a fan favorite to become ruler, was a woman named Daenerys (or "Dany") Targaryen.  But in the final three episodes of the series, this character strangely and inexplicably changes from a benevolent ruler into a tyrant who shouldn't be queen.  (I won't give away any spoilers from the plot, but this transition has generated a huge amount of fan criticism about the conclusion of the show, including a movement to redo the ending of the series.)

VanDerWerff also criticizes this transformation of the character, writing:
The argument the show tried to advance throughout its run was that Dany’s desire for the Iron Throne had caused her to lose sight of her larger goals — that the truest way to determine who should gain power was looking for someone who didn’t actually want to sit on the Throne. Lord Varys came right out and said this..., “Have you considered the best ruler might be someone who doesn’t want to rule?”  
VanDerWerff continues by arguing that the desire to be queen shouldn't disqualify a candidate from being queen.  Why should that make any sense?  Does wanting a position of power immediately make a person power-mad and therefore undeserving of having power, because they may be tempted to use the power for their personal benefit?

In order to understand this problem, it is important to understand the role of prosocial behavior (sometimes called "altruism") in the role of a ruler.   I've written previous essays about the development of prosocial behavior from group selection in evolution, here and here.  

The prosocial behavior of a ruler or leader is useful to the group if the leader is thinking about the best interests of the entire group, not just the best interests that are personal to the leader alone.  A leader like a king, general, or CEO of a corporation has their authority recognized by members of their organization because they are given the responsibility to act in ways that are a benefit to the entire organization.  For complex organizations, without a leader of that kind, the organization would simply fall apart and be ineffective.

But even though a leader has the responsibility for the entire organization, the person still has personal interests.  No one who understands human behavior would think that personal interests are erased.  As a result, the leader has to show a balance in their behavior.  They have to demonstrate their interest and commitment in the organization to keep the trust of the members.  They have to make their personal interests look secondary, even if these interests aren't actually less important to the leader.

This dichotomy can look like it is a deception, or it can actually be a deception.  The best leaders with oratorical capabilities can convince most of the members of the group that they are sincere.  Barack Obama used the slogan "Yes We Can" to convince people to work together to solve problems under his leadership.  John F. Kennedy had the memorable line in his inauguration speech, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." On the other hand, Pres. Donald Trump is clearly personally benefiting in financial ways from his presidency from his hotels and real estate rentals, although he claims he is losing money compared to what he could otherwise make. However, such claims may make him look more truthful to some people compared to other politicians who claim to be altruistic.

These conflicts of interest can be troubling for dictators or absolute monarchs.  To return to Game of Thrones, the idea of giving absolute power to a monarch with personal goals and no oversight can be dangerous.  This is the source of discomfort for aristocrats about a ruler like Dany, who may make choices based on her personal goals and preferences that are binding on the entire society.  Dany would have to give an indication that she could restrain her goals based on advice from her advisers.

Activists who are attempting to create social change have a similar problem.  They have a personal conviction that change to society is necessary, and they have a personal stake in causing society to change.  But that personal interest is exactly what makes them suspect as leaders.  In the same way as Dany, it is difficult for followers or other members of society to know whether the activists will show restraint and prudence to the opinions of others, if they are given positions of power.

This kind of conflict of interest is unavoidable in group selection.  For a leader to generate social change among all the members of society, they have to look like they don't want it too much.  They obviously want it to some degree, but they have to be willing to yield their desire to social pressure and political prudence.  Abraham Lincoln is considered to be a great president because he had the ability to balance many competing interested among factions of people, rather than simply considering his own opinions.  

Good leaders or social activists have to convince other people that the ideas and goals are good for everyone, but if other don't agree then they won't be forced to agree.