Yesterday I read an excellent article by Tomas Pueyo titled, “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance.” It is pretty long, but it is the best single thought piece I have seen on what to do about the coronavirus problem. Pueyo is the author of an alarmist article on the severity of the coronavirus a week ago that went viral and gained him a large audience. I hope this article gets as many reads as the previous one.
The main thrust of the piece is an outline of a plan for dealing with the problem, one that is similar to what I have argued in some comments here. (That, of course, is what makes him so wise.) His basic strategy, indicated by his title “The Hammer and the Dance,” is to implement immediately a lockdown (the Hammer) in the short term, to last only a few weeks, followed by some more relaxed strategy (the Dance) modeled after the efforts of countries like South Korea and Singapore. The short term lockdown, similar to what California has recently imposed, would be implemented not because it is a good idea in itself (he thinks it is not), but because we are at present so woefully unprepared to do anything more moderate, such as widespread testing, and quarantining and tracing the social contacts of identified cases. Exactly what the “Dance” would consist of is something we would have to figure out; he is necessarily vague about this, since we as yet know so little about what we’re fighting. Still, I find his strategy hopeful, and it is the most sensible program I have yet seen.
People familiar with Objectivism will remember an old article by Nathaniel Branden titled, “The Contradiction of Determinism,” (Objectivist Newsletter, May 1963). In it, he argues, not that the doctrine of free will is true, nor that determinism is false. Rather, he argues that if determinism is true, we cannot know it. And the reason we can’t know it is that, if determinism is true, no knowledge is possible at all.
The argument is that knowledge must be validated by a process of reason. Our suppositions about the world are not self-certifying. The mere presence of an idea in your mind does not establish that it is true. Therefore, we have to evaluate our suppositions about the world by means of sensory evidence and other tests, such as coherence. This must be done by a process of reason. But the process of reason cannot be realized by merely mechanical causation of the sort that is expressed by causal laws. Causal laws determine that a certain sort of event results in consequence of a certain sort of prior event, and this sort of determination is entirely different from that of seeing reasons or recognizing logical connections.
It has taken me a while to get around to reading Aaron Smith’s piece on Stoicism at the Ayn Rand Institute, which Roderick Long posted about already, but now that I’ve done so, I want to make a few comments.
What interests me particularly is Smith’s treatment of free will and determinism. It seems to me that Smith makes some common errors with regard to these, and it will help me to refine my own thinking on them a bit to comment on his remarks. I also think he somewhat misconstrues the impact of the Stoics’ determinism on their ethical philosophy. I should say that this is not hard to do. For the past several years, I have taught Stoicism every semester as part of my moral philosophy class, and when I started out, my interpretation was not so very different from Smith’s. But over time I have come to see—or so it seems to me—that their determinism has actually rather little impact on their ethics. It certainly is not the dominating influence that Smith makes it out to be. Or so I shall argue. Continue reading
A well-known argument, due to Frank Jackson, goes as follows. (You can read the short version here.) The brilliant genius Mary has complete knowledge of physical reality. All the sciences, physics, chemistry, neuroscience, etc., have been completed—there is nothing more to add—so that the fundamental physical constituents and causes of all phenomena are known, together with everything that supervenes on them, and Mary has mastered all of this. But although Mary thus knows everything about the physical world there is to know, she does not know everything there is to know. For, a peculiarity about Mary is that she has lived her entire life in a black and white room and has never been permitted to view anything except in black and white. Thus, on the day when she finally leaves her room and sees, say, a red object, she will learn something she didn’t know before. She will say, “Ha! So that is what seeing red is like.” If this is correct, then, apparently, red, or the experience of seeing red, is not part of physical reality.
The “Mary” argument is just one of several ways to bring out what is really an old, classic problem with any sort of reductionistic physicalism. It is this. Continue reading
In The Righteous Mind, Haidt invokes Michael Tomasello’s notion of “joint intentionality,” calling it our evolutionary Rubicon; i.e., the critical trait the evolution of which made us irrevocably human and led inevitably to the development of a large number of our most distinctive human characteristics, especially our groupishness. Haidt writes:
When everyone in a group began to share a common understanding of how things were supposed to be done, and then felt a flash of negativity when any individual violated these expectations, the first moral matrix was born… That, I believe, was our Rubicon crossing. (239)
I think Haidt gets a little too carried away over joint intentionality. The purpose of this post is to explain why and to suggest a more sensible alternative proposed by anthropologist Joseph Henrich.
In chapters 7 and 8, Haidt describes in detail his account of our innate “moral foundations”—a relatively small set of fundamental psychological mechanisms that underlie and produce our moral intuitions. In previous chapters, he has argued that moral judgment is driven primarily by moral intuition—that the intuitive dog wags the rational tail—and that our moral intuitions cover more areas of life than just harm and fairness. It is now time to get specific. Just what are these fundamental, innate sources of moral intuition, and how can we show that we really have them?
My love of The Flamingo Kid may seem misplaced in view of its meager 6.2 IMDB score—with a mere 3900 ratings—its lack of a Blu-ray edition, and unavailability on Netflix or Amazon Instant Videos. But this is not an unfamiliar thing for me, and probably for a lot of people. Actually, TFK is just one of several movies I love and have watched more times than it would be seemly to admit—not art movies (though there are those too), but Hollywood features with A-list stars—but which languish in obscurity and neglect. Why is this? Is my taste so idiosyncratic? Or bad? I want to suggest that the most popular movies—or songs, or novels, or whatever—are not as much better than others as their popularity would seem to imply. Sometimes they may be no better. By the same token, relatively neglected works are not so inferior and may be not at all inferior.
If popularity is determined by recognizable quality, why can’t hits be predicted in advance? You might think they could be, since once a hit is established, its quality seems evident, and people always say the reason they love a hit song or whatever is because it’s “so awesome.” But evidently not. Studies like this one of the book, music, and movie business and this one of the television business note the inability of industry professionals to predict which products will be hits—despite strong financial incentives to do so—and examine their strategies for coping with the problem. (The second article quotes the president of CBS to the effect that, “All hits are flukes.”) And it seems obvious, really, that these businesses would be managed quite differently from the way they are if the sales differentials could be predicted.
Yet hits generate massive sales, vastly outselling the songs/movies/books/etc. that they couldn’t be distinguished from ahead of time. Sting makes $2000 every day from “Every Breath You Take.” That one song generates over a quarter of all Sting’s music publishing income (see here for details). J. K. Rowling is another obvious example. The best selling book series in history has the usual story of early rejection. Twelve publishers rejected the manuscript of the first Harry Potter book before Bloomsbury finally picked it up. The editor who bought it advised Rowling to get a day job, since there was little chance the book would sell. Rowling would go on to become the first person ever to make a billion dollars by writing books (though not a billionaire, apparently, thanks to Britain’s highly progressive tax code). Examples like this couldn’t happen (or would be exceedingly rare) if stellar sales implied stellar quality.
Here is an interesting study of the phenomenon, focusing on the music business. The authors created their own music download website populated with indie songs from obscure indie bands unknown to the study participants. It was a large study, with over 14,000 participants. Participants were invited to listen to songs, rate them, and download them if they wished. There were two basic conditions: one in which the participants had knowledge of how many times a song had been downloaded, and one in which they didn’t. In the knowledge condition, outcomes were more extreme (i.e., there were higher peaks and lower valleys in numbers of downloads between songs) and less predictable from independent ratings of song quality. In the knowledge condition, songs that were independently rated highly almost never did terrible and songs that were rated terrible almost never made it to the top, but for all other songs, the popularity outcome was completely unpredictable: they could wind up at the top, the bottom, or somewhere in the middle. This was not true of the no-knowledge condition.
Thus, mere widespread knowledge of the preferences of others is enough to generate the phenomenon of the “awesomeness” of cultural products that couldn’t be differentiated from their competitors ahead of time even by seasoned professionals. Apparently a “contagion effect” causes chance initial success to snowball and catapult a work or artist to the stratosphere. The works thus left behind, therefore, are not necessarily inferior—or much inferior—to those lucky few that become “awesome,” any more than those few are necessarily superior—or much superior. So if there’s a movie or other work you love that doesn’t seem to have the popularity it deserves, don’t feel bad. Popularity is overrated.
The best Garry Marshall (1934–2016) movie you never heard of is a little gem called The Flamingo Kid (1984). If you want to watch something in memory of him, I highly recommend it. Starring Matt Dillon, Janet Jones, Richard Crenna (in a brilliant performance), Jessica Walter, and Hector Elizondo (and look for John Turturro and Marisa Tomei in bit parts), it is a coming-of-age comedy-drama with, as one review said, “more on its mind that stale sex jokes.” In Brooklyn, 1963, the summer after Jeffrey Willis (Dillon) graduated from high school, he chances to land a job parking cars at the swanky El Flamingo Beach Club (the real life Silver Gull Beach Club of Queens, which still exists looking much as it did in 1963; it is being featured in a series of New York Times articles this summer). There he is dazzled by the resort atmosphere, the girls, and the relative opulence. He falls under the sway of one of the club’s most well-to-do members, Phil Brody (Crenna), owner of a chain of high performance sports car dealerships (Ferraris, etc.). Brody is friendly, approachable, and evidently determined to be the best at whatever he undertakes. Significantly, he has no son of his own. He is called “The King” because of his prowess at gin rummy, the obsession of all the male club members. Jeffrey also excels at gin; this is how he happened to be invited to the club in the first scene. Brody is impressed by Jeffrey’s brains and card sense, and takes him under his wing. Brody’s charm and obvious success put Jeffrey’s blue collar father (Elizondo) in the shade, with predictable consequences when Jeffrey decides to follow Brody into car sales instead of going to college in the fall. The theme, obviously, is values. It all comes to a climax in a showdown over—what else?—gin rummy.
Dialogue excerpt that will show all readers of this blog why they must watch this movie:
[Jeffrey and Brody are riding in one of Brody’s dealership Ferraris, which Brody is letting Jeffrey test drive.]
Brody: You going to school?
Brody: Where are you going?
Jeffrey: I’m probably going to be studying at Columbia.
Brody: Good for you! That’s great!
Jeffrey: Did you go to college, Mr. Brody?
Brody: Yeah, well, I mean, I didn’t… You know, I didn’t go to college. My older brother used all the money, so there was nothing left for me. I went to night school. I graduated, NYU. Took a lot of business courses. Let me give you some advice. You can forget that literature, religion… music, philosophy, things like that. I mean, it’s okay, but… What are you going to do with philosophy? You’ve never seen a philosopher making fifty grand a year. You’ve never seen a philosopher driving a car like this.
Brody: Remember what I’m telling you. Socrates rode around on the back of a donkey.
Jeffrey: That’s a good one, Mr. Brody.
In chapters 3 & 4, Haidt elaborates his basic dual process model of the mind, which he represents metaphorically as a (rational, conscious, deliberative) rider on an (intuitive, unconscious, automatized) elephant. This sort of dual process theory is in a fair way to becoming orthodoxy in contemporary psychology. (Though it’s not there yet. See this symposium in Perspectives on Psychological Science, kicked off by this target article by Keith Stanovich and Jonathan St. B. T. Evans. The best single account of the dual process theory that I know of is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.) In Haidt’s version, emotions are emphasized in the elephant, and the rider is treated as subordinate and even subservient to the elephant. Thus, his view has more than a whiff of Platonic dualism about it, with the twist that the Platonic charioteer can’t control his team of horses. At best, the charioteer urges and remonstrates with the team. For the most part, the charioteer’s role is to persuade others that the team is going the right way, whatever the appearances may be.
This adversarial view of the relationship between elephant and rider doesn’t sit particularly well with me, much less the treatment of reason as mere post hoc rationalization. Continue reading