Monday, August 29, 2016

Being rational (2)


Since the Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli developed in 1738 what is now called the utility theory, it has been the mainstream approach in economics for explaining how people make their choices. It supposes that the relationship between the psychological value or desirability of money (“utility”) and the actual value of money is based on rational calculation. The theory has hold up until today, although its foundation begins to show serious cracks, thanks to the work of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and others. It will need a thorough study to explain why utility theory could stand so long (and it still stands), but that’s another problem than what I want to treat here. Now I want to discuss what’s wrong with it. In doing so I base myself on the so-called prospect theory developed by Kahneman and Tversky and described by Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (see my last blog; all data here are from this book).
Last week I showed already that man is not a rational being but that he or she is often guided by emotions, feelings and intuitions. Actually I think that it’s often better so and that what is rational is not always what is right. Here I want to develop the theme yet a bit more.
Someone offers you a gamble on the toss of a coin. If the coin shows tails, you lose € 100,-, and if it shows heads you win € 150,-. Would you accept it? The expected value of the gamble is positive, for you can gain more than you can lose. Therefore a rational person in the sense of the utility theory would accept it and that’s also what your System 2 tells you to do. However, probably you’ll decline, since your System 1 doesn’t like it. Most people stick to what they have and are afraid to lose it. The psychological cost of losing is bigger than the psychological benefit of gaining. This brought Kahneman to rule one – as I call it – of the prospect theory: Losses loom larger than corresponding gains, or people are loss averse. Of course, if the possible gain is high enough, you’ll accept the gamble. According to Kahneman the gain must be about € 200,- or more in the example. However, in some cases you’ll never accept the gamble, for instance if it is about losing everything you have or gaining € 10 mln.
Now (1) you are given € 1000,- in addition to what you have plus you are asked to choose one of these options: 50% chance to win € 1000,- or getting € 500,- for sure. Or (2) you are given € 2000,- in addition to what you have plus you are asked to choose one of these options: 50% chance to lose € 1000,- or lose € 500,- for sure.
According to utility theory there is no difference between (1) and (2): Either you’ll be richer by € 1500,- or you accept a gamble with equal chances to be richer by € 1000,- or € 2000,-. Nevertheless, most people prefer the sure thing in case 1 and the gamble in case 2. This leads to rule two of the prospect theory: The reference point from which options are valued determines your preferences.
This is not pure theory but it works also in practice. For example, you got a job in another town and you are going to move and must sell your house. For a rational agent the price to ask for the house should be determined by the current market price for such houses. Nevertheless, you’ll ask more if the current market price is lower than what you paid for your house ten years ago. Moreover, you are less willing to lower your asking price in this case than in case what you paid ten years ago was below the current price: Your reference point determines what you ask and you are loss averse. Or another instance – a personal one: During several years car dealers put cards under the windscreen wipers of my old car proposing to buy it for a good price. From the point of utility theory it would have been rational to sell my car, but I didn’t, for I stick to what I have.
Traders behave more in agreement with the utility theory than casual sellers and buyers. In fact this is another argument against the utility theory, for it illustrates that its applicability is dependent on people’s attitudes towards value and money. Also experiments carried out in the USA and the UK gave different results (Kahneman gives an example). But who had ever thought that what is rational for me is also rational for you?
Source: Especially chapters 25-27 in Kahneman's book (see last week).

Monday, August 22, 2016

Being rational



Man is a rational being. Also most economists think man is and they build their theories on it, which often fail. For basically man is not rational. Or rather most of the time he or she isn’t. Usually man lets guide him or herself by feelings and emotions, also in economic decisions and not only in matters of love and relations. That’s what the Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman found during many years of research, together with Amos Tversky and others. In 2002 he got the Nobel Prize in Economics for it. Actually, it would have been reasonable that all economic theories had been revised in that light, but it didn’t happen. As we know since Thomas Kuhn published his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: Mainstream theories that have been refuted in scientific discussions don’t disappear simply because of these discussions. Often they still remain mainstream for a long time, but they disappear because the advocates of these theories become older and have to give their places to a younger generation with new ideas. Mainstream theories are not toppled but die out.
A standard example of man’s irrationality is the research finding by Lawrence Williams and John A. Bargh that holding a warm cup of coffee makes you have more positive attitudes towards a stranger than holding a cup of ice coffee, for what has the temperature of your coffee to do with your likes and dislikes? But this instance doesn’t involve a kind of economic or quasi-economic calculation. So let me take this case, which I have used before in another context (just like the cup-of-coffee-case): A driverless, runaway trolley on a railway is heading for a tunnel, in which it would kill five people. You are standing on a footbridge above the track. You are slim and short but a fat man is just crossing the bridge. If you jump on the track, you will be run over by the trolley, which will kill you and the five people as well. If you push the fat man on the track, he will be killed but the trolley will stop and the five will be saved. A simple economic calculation tells you that this is the best you can do, for the net gain will be four lives saved. But even if you make this calculation, I’m sure that you’ll not push the fat man from the footbridge, for your intuition and your feelings, will tell you that this action is impermissible. And nobody will reproach you that you didn’t. But what if the fat man stumbles over a stone and will fall on the rails so that he will be killed by the trolley and the five other men will be saved, unless you stop him? I’m sure that also then you’ll not make an economic calculation and that you’ll not think: “I can’t help that he stumbled over a stone. I didn’t push him, but if I allow him to fall on the rails, the net gain will be four lives saved, so let him fall.” No, that will not be what you think, but you’ll follow your feelings and grab the fat man by his collar and stop him falling, in spite of the loss of five other lives. If you think, you’ll think “I have to save the fat man.” Nobody will reproach you that you saved the fat man and “so” let five other men die.
Generally we think that we are rational beings. That we are conscious, reasoning selves that have beliefs, make choices, and decide what to think about and what to do. However, psychologists have discovered that this is not how man is made up. Most of what we do is not rationally and consciously considered but we just do. We simply follow our intuitions and feelings, although it can happen that we actively and explicitly think about what we must do or decide, for example if what we are going to do is not routine, if it is complicated, if it requires attention or if we have the time for it. Psychologists say it this way: Our thinking is determined by two systems, a fast system and a slow system; or as the Keith Stanovich and Richard West called them, System 1 and System 2. As Kahneman explains in his book about the subject, System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. It’s here that we find our emotions, feelings and intuitions. System 2 allocates attention to effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. Here we find our subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration, so Kahneman. And it’s this System 2 that stands for the rational man, as understood by most economists, although it’s actually System 1 that makes most of our economic decisions. Maybe it’s better so that our thinking is organised that way, for if it weren’t, we would often lack the time to act. Too much time would be spent on thinking how to act. We wouldn’t have survived prehistory, for every smilodon or other carnivore that had passed our way would have had time enough to devour us, before we had decided to flee or to fight. It spares us also the impossible decision whether to save the fat man from falling on the railway or the five other men from being killed.
Source: Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin Books, London, 2012.

Monday, August 15, 2016

On the move with Montaigne


The French philosopher Montaigne (1533-1592) felt most at ease on horseback. No wonder that he loved travelling. Many trips had a practical reason. “For business”, as we would say today. But once he made a long tour through Central Europe and Italy, which lasted 17 months. As a tourist. The trip would even have lasted longer, if the French King hadn’t ordered Montaigne to return home for taking up the office of mayor of Bordeaux. He obeyed reluctantly.
Montaigne started his trip in Paris. It brought him to Switzerland, Southern Germany and Austria and finally to Rome. He kept a travel diary, which was not meant for publication, although he used some of his experiences in his Essays. The diary was discovered only two centuries later. It showed that Montaigne was an observant person. He wrote about the towns and the landscapes he passed, the habits and customs of the people, the food they ate, the design of the houses and palaces he visited and the rooms where he slept, the beauty of the women he saw, and much more. On my travels sometimes I pass places where Montaigne had stayed a while more than four centuries ago. And so it happened also a few weeks ago.
I first crossed Montaigne’s path when I arrived in Augsburg in Germany and then a few days later again in München. Montaigne doesn’t tell much about his stay in München, but he gives an extensive description of his observations in Augsburg, which was called the most beautiful town of Germany. He tells us that Roman Catholics and Protestants peacefully lived together and that mixed marriages between them were not exceptional. The Protestant ministers were paid by the Senate. For Montaigne all this was remarkable, for in his France one religious war followed another. But in the Thirty Year’s War (1618-1648) the situation would change in Augsburg, too, and nowadays it is an almost exclusively Roman Catholic town.
After München our ways parted, for we followed different roads to the south. However, our most interesting “meeting” had yet to come. When I went home again after a short visit to Northern Italy, our paths crossed anew. Now I followed exactly the same route Montaigne had travelled, but in the opposite direction. In Brixen I came on Montaigne’s road and I made a stop in Vitipeno. Montaigne had spent there the night. I arrived there before noon. I walked through the main street with its medieval houses and a high wall tower on the end. Just when I passed the gate under the tower, its bells ringed the Angelus. Montaigne certainly must have walked here, too, in his black or white clothes of a commoner. He preferred not to present himself as a noble on his trips, so that it was easier to make contact with the common people. Was the street then as crowded as today? If so, probably most of these people will not have been tourists, as now is the case.
Next via the Brenner Pass to Austria and Innsbruck. Of course, I took the old road that was also used by Montaigne. Then the road was busy and also safe. The latter was not obvious four centuries ago. Today the road is still safe but it has become quiet, used by locals and a lost tourist only. Montaigne was right: the road is easy to go, although it is a mountain pass.
Montaigne and his company stayed two nights in Innsbruck; I stopped there only for a lunch and a quick visit, since I had been there before. In the nearby Seefeld it was just the other way round and I spent there the night. Before I left next morning, I wanted to visit the pilgrimage church. I parked my car in front of a hotel that dates from the 14th century, as an inscription on the wall says. Was it here that Montaigne had taken the lunch? Then he walked to the church where he was informed why it was a pilgrims place. As Montaigne tells us: “The church ... is ... famous for a miracle. In 1384 a certain man ... refused to content himself on Easter day with the Eucharist as offered to the people, and demanded to receive that which was wont to be given to the priesthood alone. While he had this in his mouth the earth beneath him opened and swallowed him up to the neck, and while he held for a moment to the corner of the altar the priest withdrew the Host from his mouth [and the man was saved]. They still exhibit the hole covered with an iron grating, the altar which bears the impress of this man’s fingers, and the Host of a reddish hue like drops of blood.” Would Montaigne have believed it? In his Essays he is very sceptical about miracles.
Now I stood there, 436 years later, on exactly the same place, looking at the same hole covered with a grid and at the fingers prints in the altar. Just the idea. Impressed by this “meeting” I left the church. In the nearby Mittenwald, already in Germany, where Montaigne had stayed in the inn, I took a cup of coffee. Then our ways parted another time.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Shades of white


If people say that a statement is true, they suppose that there is a situation that really exists and that it is correctly described by the statement. As philosophers say: There is a correspondence between the statement and the fact or event. That’s why they call it the correspondence theory of truth. This theory has especially been developed by the Polish philosopher Alfred Tarski and it made him famous. As he said it “ ‘Snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white.” There seems to be nothing as true as that, but is it?
Take for example the question, who was the first soldier fallen for France in the First World War. Actually it is so that I had to think of this correspondence theory of truth when I read a book by the Dutch author Theo Toebosch about the first fallen French and German soldiers in this war. Let me concentrate on the question of the first fallen French soldier. Generally it is recognized that the unlucky man was the French teacher André Peugeot, who was then a corporal in the French army. The event took place in Jonchery in the French department of Haute-Marne, near Switzerland. When on August 2, 1914, Peugeot tried to stop a German reconnaissance patrol on French territory, he was killed in action. It is remarkable that in this action probably Peugeot killed also the first German soldier fallen in this war, namely sublieutenant Alfred Mayer, and that it was Mayer who had killed Peugeot. But that’s another story.
It seems clear what happened, but there is a problem. Peugeot was killed when France was not yet officially at war with Germany. Germany declared war on France only on August 3, although the German patrol was already one day before on French territory. That’s why Peugeot has the “honour” to be the first killed soldier. But then there must be another soldier who was the first one killed when the war “really” had begun. It was Fortuné Emile Pouget, killed by a bullet in the back of his head near Pont-à-Mousson north of Nancy on August 4, at 11.50 a.m. Since France always has stressed that it was only from August 3 on at war with Germany, it should be obvious that Pouget was actually the first Frenchmen killed in World War One. But on the other hand, the fighting near Jonchery was a real war action related to the whole range of events that we call the First World War. Should it have played a part when calling Peugeot the first French soldier killed that he was actively fighting when shot while Pouget was a passive victim, so that it was easier to make Peugeot a hero rather than Pouget?
And there is more, for some sources say that Peugeot was killed by mistake by his own men. Probably it is not what happened, but it’s a real possibility. And what to think of Mimoun Benichou and his comrades? As Toebosch tells us, he was one of the seventeen Zouaves killed in Philippeville in Algeria on August 4 at five o’clock in the morning, when the canons of the German cruiser Goeben bombarded the town. So, it happened before Pouget was killed. Note that there is a monument on the place where Pouget was hit that calls him the first French soldier killed in the war 1914-1918. Why is Benichou not honoured as such? Because he was from Algeria, and although Algeria was a part of France these days, was it really France ... ? It has the air of a political choice not to call him the first fallen.
But this blog is not about political choices. It is not about the problem who was the “real” first French soldier killed in World War One. I leave this question to be answered by others. Moreover, also whether Alfred Mayer was the first German soldier killed in this war is a matter of interpretation. And that’s what this blog about: About interpretation – and also about choices – and the relation with truth. What this instance illustrates is that there are no simple truths; there is no simple correspondence with reality. What is true is always a matter of interpretation. War is not just a matter of declaring war (even less so today), so whether Peugeot or Pouget (or Mimoun) was the first French soldier killed in WW 1 will always be controversial. Truth is a matter of interpretation and by that also a matter of choices (which may be political choices). What’s more, even if snow is white, there are always shades of white. Snow looks different in the shadow and in the sun and isn’t it so that on a photo snow sometimes looks blue?

The facts (sic) of my example are from Theo Toebosch, De eerstgevallenen. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2014.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Commemoration and remembrance

Memorial service for capt. Emile Driant, fallen in the first days of the Battle of
Verdun, Feb. 22, 1916 (photo taken Feb. 24, 2012 at Nancy) (see note below)

From talking about commemoration in the sense of memorialization to talking about remembering is only a small step. Commemoration is remembering in a certain way. When you commemorate you bring to the mind something that happened, often together with others, although the latter is not necessary. Usually we don’t commemorate the complete event but only certain aspects. Take, for example, how the Netherlands commemorates the Second World War. In the evening of May 4 the Dutch remember the people fallen or killed in that war, on May 5 the liberation, the end of the war, is celebrated. In other countries it’s done on the same day but never at the same time.
People who organize a commemoration for the first time, say one year or several years after the event, often still remember what happened because they went through or saw the event that is literally remembered (recollected) or they have known the person or persons remembered. We can say that a commemoration is then an institutionalized remembrance (recollection). But when a commemoration is not once-only but becomes a tradition, the number of people who actually saw the event or knew the person(s) remembered gradually disappear and the commemoration is performed by people who know what happened or who know the person(s) remembered only from stories, oral or written: the remembrance becomes derivative or secondhand.
Actually this is not very different from how I remember from my own personal experience. Experiences are stored as memories in the mind and when they are called up they become remembrances of what happened. But how are they called up? If memories are not triggered they fade away and will be forgotten and lost. But how to prevent our memories from being lost? There is a simple solution , or so it seems: Write them down or make a picture. Then they are stored for ever, like information on the hard disk of your computer. Just as you can look for secondhand information by calling it up from your hard disk (or from the “hard disk” of the Internet), you can call up your memories by opening the notebook in which you have written your experiences or by taking your photo album. I often use the second method. When I look at an old photo taken by myself I often immediately know what it is and where I have taken it and under which circumstances. However, there is something strange: Usually I know only the story directly related to the photo and not its wider context. About the way I came there on the site I often have only vague remembrances. So, if I see a photo of my mother, I remember, for instance, that I took it on a trip with her – and that she enjoyed such trips – and I know yet the exact location, but I hardly remember which trip it was, about when and such things, if I do at all. Actually, I remember things that a lot of other people could read from that photo, too, especially if they know me. In that sense, my remembrance has a shade of being secondhand. Then it’s only one step from seeing a photo and knowing that you have taken it, where you have taken it and so on, to thinking that you have taken the photo and know the circumstances that you have done it: You have become a false witness of your own experiences. I think that it’s something that happens more often than people realize. But if the remembrance called up is true, it can become a kind of personal mini-commemoration: If you are in the mood or have an urge, it’s often good to take old things in your hand, your photos of something special or not so special, or your notebooks with what you did, and give the past a moment’s thought as we sometimes do with others in a public ceremony.

Note: Actually I should have put here another photo, but since I don’t want to publish too private photos on the Internet, I have chosen one of a public commemorative ceremony.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Commemoration and time

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (France).
The detail in the right upper corner of the photo shows names
 of soldiers written on the memorial (since I took this picture,
 the memorial has been cleaned)

Times are changing. What once was obvious will sooner or later disappear. New phenomena will take their places. Passages, shop windows, coffee houses and street cafés, and souvenir shops as well are relatively new phenomena. Or take sending view cards when you are on holiday. It came up with the rise of mass tourism but now in the age of the mobile telephone it’s disappearing and it is replaced by phone calls, SMS messages and the like. As such tourism is a new phenomenon, which finds its origin at the end of the middle ages, when people begun to travel for educational reasons. Shop windows are typical of mass society. When products are produced on a massive scale you have to sell them and in order to sell show what you have and seduce people to buy it. That’s what happened at the end of the 18th century when the shop window was invented and gradually became to dominate the street scene in the centres of big cities. But do they have a future in this time of Internet shopping? Now we see already that many shops are closed, since people increasingly buy on line: The shop window is replaced by the screen of your computer or mobile. It will have consequences for the way city centres will look like. When shops disappear, shop windows will disappear, too. Only some types of shops will remain, namely those with products you want to see “live” or where you go for the fun of shopping. Cloth shops are of that kind. But even then probably the traditional shop window will change. It can already be seen in shopping malls: The separation between public space and shops becomes diffuse. More and more shops there have open entrances. There is no demarcation anymore between shop and public room (the “street”). Then there is no need for the usual shop window. The shop has become shop window and selling place at the same time.
Another phenomenon that has changed during the ages is commemoration. It has become a mass phenomenon as well. Don’t misunderstand me; it’s not negative. I just think that it’s a positive effect of the massification and democratization of society. Commemoration is as old as history and much older. People want and wanted to commemorate especially the dead and so they build and built monuments for them - monuments that often withstood the ages, like grave mounds and pyramids. These examples also illustrate that commemorating was often an affair of the wealthy and powerful. It’s not that the common people didn’t commemorate but only the rich and powerful could afford to build monuments that remained. Besides grave monuments, also war monuments that show the power and victories of the rulers and generals are already as old as history. The Egyptian obelisks are of that kind as are the Roman triumphal arches.
Now I must fly through history and ignore the little monuments for the common people. They certainly existed, although many have been lost, but think of the crosses in Christian countries that you find everywhere on places where something important happened in the past, like on cross roads or just somewhere in the field. But the real democratization of commemorating took place since the French Revolution, two centuries ago. If we take war monuments, since then not only the victorious generals are commemorated and get their memorials but also the ordinary soldiers. They are no longer simply thrown in anonymous mass graves, but they get their individual graves in grave yards. If their names have been lost, they get a decent grave or if buried in a mass grave, the mass grave gets a more or less striking monument. There are even monuments for the unknown soldier. And people do not talk only about the political or national aspects of the military facts (victory or defeat) but also about the bravery and sufferance of the individual soldiers. Commemorating is by everybody and for everybody.
Such thoughts came to my mind when the Battle of the Somme was commemorated on July 1. Although commemoration is still often by the elite and for the elite (and also often used and misused for political purposes, already since the first monuments were erected), commemorating has been democratized as never before and has become a mass phenomenon in the positive sense: Ordinary people are increasingly involved. Commemorating as such is an eternal phenomenon but the way we do is the product of the time we live in. For where, to take an instance, do you find a Roman triumphal arch with the names of the fallen soldiers written on it like, for example, on the Thiepval memorial to the missing of the Somme battles? Times are changing also for what is everlasting.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Freedom not to conform


In these blogs I have talked about Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, who have shown how easily people submit to the authority of other people and how they tend to behave cruelly if the situation is there and if they have the power to do so. I referred also to Hannah Arendt, who has dedicated an important part of her work to the question why people do what other people tell them to do even if it should be clear that it’s morally wrong. She called it the “banality of evil”. However, when reading Martha C. Nussbaum’s book Political Emotions I realized that I didn’t mention at least one important researcher in this field, to whom she dedicates several pages: Solomon Asch. There is no excuse that I didn’t, for already during my study at the university I became acquainted with his work. Even more, Asch’s work, which dates from 1955, is one of the most famous studies on submission to authority and conformity. Although there were already many studies on conformity then, Asch realized that their conclusions had not a solid experimental base. That is what he wanted to provide with his investigation. Here I’ll not discuss Asch’s study in detail but present only the main lines.
The most striking result is that people tend to conform to the majority, even if it is wrong. Asch studied small groups. One person was the test subject and the others were accomplices of Asch. If all accomplices gave the wrong answer to a test question, the test person tended to give the wrong answer as well, even if it was clearly wrong. On purpose I write “tend”, for unlike what some summaries of Asch’s experiments say, many test persons answered independently. But at least a third gave way to group pressure. A minority of that size can be more important than it seems on the face of it, if one realizes that such a minority – the number of votes he received in a parliamentary election – brought Hitler to power in 1933.
Asch subjected the testees not only to the group pressure of one against all. For what would happen if the correct answer to a test question was supported by at least one other person in the group, although all other stooges of the researcher gave the false reply? Then we see that the test person regains his independence: He (or she) answered again what was correct. This remained so even if Asch’s accomplice who gave the right reply left the group after a few tests with a good excuse (if he simply left without an apparent reason, the test persons tended again to conform to the others left on the questions that followed, even if all of them gave the wrong answers).
I think that Asch’s investigation is relevant when one wants to know why people obey to authority and conform to the majority, even if a society is not the same as a small group. The research gives insight into the processes that make people cave to pressure, also if they know that the others are wrong. Although there are always dissidents in a society, the pressure of the majority who follows the leader or an authority can be so high that people comply. On the other hand, just the presence of dissenters can be important: Dissenters, especially when they are visible, can make that people make their own choices and express them against a pressure to give way. It’s one of the conclusions of Asch in his investigation. As Nussbaum puts it: “Group pressure is dangerous under all circumstances, since it is an impediment to truth telling. ... [Therefore] all decent societies have strong reasons to nourish and reward dissent and critical thinking, both for its intrinsic importance and for its effect on others” (p. 193). Or in Asch’s words: “Life in society requires consensus as an indispensable condition. But consensus, to be productive, requires that each individual contribute independently out of his experience and insight. When consensus comes under the dominance of conformity, the social process is polluted and the individual at the same time surrenders the powers on which his functioning as a feeling and thinking being depends.” Independent opinions are important plus the possibility to express them freely and without fear of penalty of any kind, including the pressure to conform.

Sources: Solomon Asch, “Opinion and Social Pressure”, on website http://www.panarchy.org/asch/social.pressure.1955.html .
Martha C. Nussbaum’s book Political Emotions. Why Love Matters for Justice. Cambridge, Mass. etc.: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Monday, June 27, 2016

On the fringes of society


Some time ago I wrote a few blogs about what I called “passages”, which I described as a kind of non-places where you have to spend some time when being between a past destination (the place you left) and a future destination (where you want to go). They are non-places since you don’t do there a special activity, with the exception of passing, of course. You come to a passage with the intention to leave it as soon as possible. For society as a whole passages may be important, if they are ways to move on people as a smooth as possible. Therefore they are often large and wide (highways), provided with time tables (railway stations) or with signs that lead you into the right direction. In other words, passages are often constructed as passages. But for the users they are places they want to ignore, forget and pass through as quickly as they can. Seen that way they are pointless and that’s why the French anthropologist Marc Augé called them non-places.
Passages did not always exist. They belong especially to the modern age. Of course, also in the past people had to go from one place to another, but the roads and places a person had to go through usually had a different meaning for the passer-by, also because pre-modern man had a different time perspective, a different pace of life and different kinds of relationship towards other people, including strangers. Passages are a modern phenomenon, albeit one that gradually developed. It’s not so that we can say that in the 19th century they suddenly were there and that before that time they didn’t exist.
Passages are a kind of marginal phenomena in the sense that they don’t belong to what life stands for. We don’t long for them; we don’t strive for being there. They just came to exist and only when the unorderly way of their existence became a problem, they were constructed, for nobody likes to drive a car on a sandy road – unless as a sport –  or to get into a traffic-jam. Although being marginal, passages had a function and in that sense we can call them functional marginal phenomena or even, with a contradiction in terms, essential marginal phenomena.
Such marginal phenomena that developed into functional marginal phenomena or even became important are not exceptional in modern society. Especially since the 19th century – and maybe somewhat earlier – modernization brought into being a lot of them, as the Dutch historian Auke van der Woud has shown so well in his book on the New Man. To mention a few (I have added also examples of my own): Shop windows; coffee houses and street cafés; souvenir shops; monuments that were more than just for the glorification of emperors, generals and battle victories; lampposts and kilometer markers  – and some kilometer markers are used as little monuments, like those along the Voie Sacrée, the Holy Road that played such an important role in the Battle of Verdun for transporting troops and materiel –. These are only a few of those “marginal” phenomena. Look around and you’ll see more of them than you had ever thought. Most people don’t see them as such, as special modern phenomena, for they think that they are eternal, and they are only on the fringe of their attention or even outside their attention. Nevertheless, some are hardly marginal any longer, and that’s why I just used inverted commas when writing the word. Man and society are changing, as ever, and certainly in this age in which leisure but also public emotions have become increasingly important people have developed another view on what is meaningful in life. Even so, many such phenomena seem to be on the outer edge of life. They are what everybody knows to exist but nobody sees since nobody looks. However, they would miss them, if they weren’t any longer there.

Source: Auke van der Woud, De nieuwe mens. De culturele revolutie in Nederland rond 1900. Amsterdam: Prometheus-Bert Bakker, 2015.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Collective Intentionality and Individual Action

Collective intentionality by individual action

I have written a new article on collective intentionality, a theme that gets increasing attention in the philosophy of action. Below you find a summary of the text. Interested to read it? Then you find the full text here on my website: http://www.bijdeweg.nl/The%20possibility%20of%20group%20intentions.pdf
The article can alos be found on the website of www.academia.edu.

Abstract of “Collective Intentionality and Individual Action”
People often do things together and form groups in order to get things done that they cannot do alone. In short they form a collectivity of some kind or a group, for short. But if we consider a group on the one hand and the persons that constitute the group on the other hand, how does it happen that these persons work together and finish a common task with a common goal? In the philosophy of action this problem is often solved by saying that there is a kind of collective intention that the group members have in mind and that guides their actions. Does such a collective intention really exist? In this article I’ll show that the answer is “no”. In order to substantiate my view I’ll discuss the approaches of Bratman, Gilbert and Searle on collective intention. I’ll put forward four kinds of criticism that undermine the idea of collective intention. They apply mainly to Bratman and Gilbert. First, it is basically difficult to mark off smaller groups from bigger unities. Second, most groups change in membership composition over time. Third, as a rule, on the one hand groups are internally structured and on the other hand they belong to a larger structure. It makes that generally it cannot be a collective intention that moves the actions of the members of a group. Fourth, conversely, most individual actions cannot be performed without the existence of a wider context of agents who support these actions and make them possible.
My critique on Searle mainly involves that in his approach his idea of collective intention is superfluous and that he is not radical enough in his idea that collective action is based on coordinated individual intentions and actions. However, it is a good starting point for showing how collective action actually functions, especially when combined with Giddens’s structuration theory. Every agent in a group executes his or her own individual intentions, relying on what the group offers to this agent and asks from him or her. In this way individual actions of the members of a group are coordinated and it makes that the group can function and that its goals can be performed. And in this way the group is produced and reproduced by fitting individual actions together. An individual agent who belongs to a group only needs to know what s/he wants and what s/he has to do in the group, even if s/he has no knowledge of the intentions and commitments of the other members. Then he or she can do things together with others in a group without supposing that there is something like a collective intention.

Keywords:
collective intention, collective intentionality, collective action, we-intention, shared agency, shared action, joint action, joint commitment, joint intention, group intention, individual action, action, structuration, structuration theory, Bratman, Gilbert, Searle, Giddens.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Responsibility for what someone else does



The readers of my blog last week may think that it’s a strange view that there are actually no pure individual intentions and actions. How can this be so if most of the time it’s the agent who decides to act here and now? However, just after I had finished the draft of that blog I read in Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained (London: Granta, 2015) a passage that clearly illustrates what I mean. Therefore, let me quote a big part of it. But first a remark: I had thought out the mainline of this blog already before the Orlando club shooting took place, so it’s mere chance that in the quotation such a shooting is used as an example.
Here is the quote from Baggini, pp. 201-2:

“[In] the shootings ... at Virginia Tech in April 2007[,] Seung-Hui [Cho] killed thirty-two people and injured seventeen others before committing suicide, in [what was then] the worst massacre by a lone gunman in US history. The reaction of Hong Sung Pyo, a sixty-five-year-old textile executive in Seoul, was typical of many Koreans. ‘We don’t expect Koreans to shoot people, so we feel very ashamed and also worried.’ It was this sense of shame that led the South Korean ambassador to the US to fast for thirty-two days, one for each of the murdered victims.
Many Americans were baffled by this, but every expert on South Korea ... had the same explanation. ‘It’s a notion of collective responsibility’, said Mike Breen, author of The Koreans. “I can smell a collective sense of guilt,’ said Lim Jie-Hyun, a history professor at Hanyang University in Seoul. ‘There is confusion [in Korea] between individual responsibility and national responsibility.’ As [Tamler] Sommers concludes, ‘Koreans did not merely feel shame for the act of the Virginia Tech killer, they felt responsible. They wished to apologise and atone for the act.’
The psychologist Richard Nisbett has assembled an impressive array of evidence which suggests that deep cultural differences like these do actually change the way people think. In particular, the very idea of who performs an action differs across cultures. ‘For Westerners,’ writes Nisbett, ‘it is the self that does the acting; for Easterners, action is something that is undertaken in concert with others or that is the consequence of the self operating in a field of forces.’ This means that easterners have a sense of ‘collective agency’ largely absent in the West.”

So far my quotation from Baggini. I think that especially what Richard Nisbett says about the self clarifies my idea that there are no pure individual intentions and actions. No individual grows up by his or her own. A new child is born is educated by the parents and explicitly or implicitly also by others in his or her environment, like teachers, family, neighbours and actually everybody in his/her field of life. When the baby has grown to maturity, the once little child has developed a self. This self has a lone side and a collective side. The lone side is what the now grown-up person makes an independent agent, a person who makes his/her own choices from what s/he has learned – consciously or unconsciously; I am aware that much happens unconsciously within us –. The collective side is what someone has borrowed from other people and makes this person connected to the “field” around him/her. It makes that person Dutch or American; a father or a mother; a man or a woman in the sense of Simone de Beauvoir; an expert in a profession; and so on. It makes that someone at the same time is not only an individual agent but also a social agent in the sense explained in my last blog. Westerners tend to see an agent as a self, so to see the lone, individual side of the agent. “Tend”, for not always they do, for why else should parents feel ashamed for the evil their adult children do? Easterners tend to look at the collectivity an agent belongs to, so the collective side of the agent. Therefore they often feel ashamed for what a group member does. Every acting person has both sides. That’s why there are no pure intentions and actions and why it needs not be bizarre to feel guilt and shame sometimes for what others have done. Even more, sometimes it can be strange not to do so, for – ending with a quotation from Baggini (p. 203) –: “Given what we know about the importance of nature and nurture, for example, isn’t it actually unreasonable to hold the individual and the individual alone responsible for all the bad things they do?”

Monday, June 13, 2016

Digging your garden alone or Do pure individual intentions and actions exist?


A hot issue in the philosophy of action today is whether there is such a thing as collective intentionality and if so how it works. Collective intentionality is the idea that in some way we can ascribe intentions to groups and other collectivities, just as we do to individual agents. The phenomenon is discussed under different names like shared intention (Bratman), joint commitment (Gilbert) or we-intention (Tuomela). The main problem in ascribing intentions to groups is that the actual performers of what groups do are the individuals they are composed of and that only these individuals can be the bearers of intentions, for where else should a collective intention be stored than in the brains and minds of the group members? Recently I have written an extensive article on the matter that I’ll publish soon on my website and on www.academia.edu (you find the abstract already here: http://www.bijdeweg.nl/CollectiveIntention.html). I’ll tell you not yet my conclusions, although you can guess what they are from what I have written in my blogs. Here I want to discuss the opposite problem: In the analytical philosophy of action it is generally supposed that individuals have intentions but whether groups have is controversial. But do individual intentions really exist, at least in their pure form, or are they actually more or less collective? That’s what I want to examine now. By doing so, I want to go one step further than the view – discussed in former blogs – that many individual intentions are not as individual as they seem on the face of it and that they suppose the actions of others. I’ll state here that there are simply no pure individual actions.
Say, I have a garden behind my house, where I want to grow vegetables. However, it’s overgrown with weeds and before I am going to sow the lettuce, beets, beans and carrots, I want to dig it and change the little field into a nice piece of black soil with seed-beds. So I walk to the shed behind my house, take a spade, go to my garden and start to turn the soil over and make the seed-beds. Then I sow the vegetables. I do it all alone. Anyway, that’s what most people think, but is it so? Leaving aside that I had to buy or rent the piece of land where I make the garden, how did I get my spade and other garden tools I need? How did I get the seed? How did I get the knowledge how to make a garden and grow my own food? I think you have already guessed what I am going to say: I bought the garden tools in a shop, I ordered the seed on the Internet, and I learned gardening from a book. Even if I intended to make the garden alone, I couldn’t avoid that others were involved in it. Everything I planned to do in my garden supposed already that there were others who had done some groundwork for me like making a spade and producing seed. Or did you do all this yourself? Did you go to the wood, took a piece of wood and turned it into a spade by using a sharp stone you had found there? And did you collect the seed from wild plants? But how did you get the idea that you can make a garden? Did you invent it yourself like neolithic man some 20.000 years ago (but even this prehistoric man must have developed the idea of gardening in cooperation with his fellow men). Unless you are a Robinson Crusoe on an island and haven’t met yet your Friday (and maybe I must add: haven’t had a father and a mother) everything you want to do supposes a kind of – maybe hidden or under-the-surface –relationship to others and what others have planned and performed. Nobody can live and survive alone. Of course, not all allegedly individual intentions and the actions based on them include the intentions and actions of others in the same degree. In some the individual contribution is bigger, while others suppose more preparatory work by other agents. However, the upshot is that in the end there are no pure individual intentions. Max Weber famously defined “social action” as an agent’s behaviour that is meaningfully orientated towards the behaviour of one or more other agents. If we extend the agent’s intentions to the actions he or she performs we can say that in this way all individual actions are social but some actions are more social than other actions.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Mind and Brain

The Ghost in the Machine

My blog last week might suggest that I think that man is a kind of machine with a ghost in it. I certainly don’t want to say that. That man is not a ghostless machine doesn’t need to involve that there is a ghost inside the machine. Since Gilbert Ryle in his The concept of mind disproved what he calls “Descartes’ Myth” that there might be something like that and coined the expression “ghost in the machine”, it can be clear to everybody that man is not constituted that way. Problems that arise from this ghost-machine dualism are, for example, how the ghost is constituted. Where does it live? Is there a kind of little man (homunculus) in the machine? Can we catch it in some way? What moves the ghost? Maybe another kind of ghost? But if so we get an infinite regress. That cannot happen. Therefore I think that ghost and machine are one in some way.
But let me speak of mind and body instead of ghost and machine, as is usual. Then we see that the mainstream view tends to become the one that reduces the mind to the body. As the Dutch neuroscientist Dick Swaab has put it: “We are our brains”, and that’s it. If this were so, the mind is an illusion. It’s like the smoke that escapes from the locomotive, to repeat a metaphor that I used last week. Although more and more this becomes the main stream view, there are alternative ideas, as it always happens. Here it’s not the place to present these views, let alone to discuss them, but I think that none of them is true. I mean, neither the mind-is-an illusion view nor the alternatives are true. What has been presented by now as solutions to the problem cannot be more than useful suggestions that can lead to further research but that are far from being the solution, even not an embryonic one. To paraphrase Mark Balaguer in his introduction to the problem of the free will (a related theme): The question whether we have a mind is so hard that, given our current knowledge of the brain, we are nowhere near ready to answer it. It is not without reason that David Chalmers talked here about the hard problem.
I think that the whole neuroscientific approach is too one-sided: If you look for causes and suppose a material structure, you’ll find causes and you’ll confirm the idea that the structure of the brain/mind is merely material. Let me give an example that even in the physical world things are not simple as that. I got it from Julian Baggini: Striking a match will only start a flame if oxygen is present, and the presence of oxygen is not an a cause of the ignition but a reason for it. Baggini adds: “In a similar way, most of what we do is for a reason, but those reasons are not the actions or events that trigger what we do”.
I think that this simple instance points to a possible solution of the body-mind problem, namely that at least for a part the mind-body relation is a matter of different aspects. It’s the idea that the mental and the physical are two aspects of the same substance: When we talk about the mind, we mean something different than when we talk about the brain (and the same so, when we talk about free will and see what happens in the brain; or when we talk about action and behaviour). When I say that I liked the concert, I don’t mean that some neurotransmitters have been released in my brain that caused a sensation of happiness in me. I liked the concert in its commonsense meaning, but I don’t deny that some liking-arousing processes happened in my brain. Here, we don’t have only a different kind of description, we have also a different kind of event and accordingly a different kind of explanation.
However, we are yet very far away from a solution of the body-mind problem and my example and the dual-aspect theory that explains it might seem mysterious in view of the present state of knowledge of the brain. Therefore, I see this theory only as a useful suggestion that might guide a range of investigations. Since the mind-body problem is so hard, I don’t dare to stake my head on it that it is true. Maybe we find it later back on the dumping ground of scientific waste or in a brain museum in a display case with funny philosophical theories.

The quasi-quotation from Balaguer is from his Free Will. Cambridge, etc.: The MIT Press, 2014; p. 122. The reference to Baggini is from his Freedom Regained. The Possibility of Free Will. London: Granta, 2015; p. 42.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The ghost in the machine


Rationality is often not a matter of knowing the right thing but a matter of psychology.” That’s what I wrote last week. Psychology influences not only the way we calculate but – as we have seen already many times in these blogs – many other things we do as well. We tend to walk slower, when we see old people passing by. Holding a warm cup of coffee in your hands makes you having more positive attitudes towards a stranger than when you hold a cup of iced coffee. It’s surprising for it seems so irrational, especially the latter example: What has the temperature of coffee to do with my feelings towards somebody? But, alas, so it works. The mind is an odd instrument.
The consequences of such psychological effects can be far-reaching. They needn’t be limited to our individual behaviour towards others. Moreover, they can be annoying, for it’s weird that how we treat someone else depends on whether we take a café americano or an iced latte. In a job interview it can influence the career of an applicant and whom I’ll get as my new colleague. Our psychology can have wide social effects and affect important aspects of the structure of society.
That’s what I realized when I read in a newspaper about another such a surprising effect: French secondary school students had to draw a complicated figure according to a model. Some students were told that it was a drawing assignment and others that it was a mathematical assignment. In the former case the girls scored better than the boys but in the latter the boys surpassed the girls. However, in either case the assignment was exactly the same. Apparently the reason for this difference is that maths is felt to be for men, and maybe also – but I haven’t heard of this prejudice – that drawing is more for girls. Phenomena like these make that men are on the top in some social fields and women in other domains, even if they have the same relevant qualities. Actually it’s nothing new. It’s said so often, but when confronted again with it, it remains surprising. In this case the drawing assignment illustrates what I would call a combined Beauvoir-Thomas effect. It was Simone de Beauvoir who made clear to us that women are not born as such but that they are made as they are; and once they have been ascribed certain qualities this has consequences for the way they behave and are treated. W.I. Tomas has formulated the latter in his famous theorem saying that if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. Voilà the social outcome of a simple psychological phenomenon.
Without psychological characteristics maybe man would be rational, but s/he would not be more than a machine. Our feelings – if we had them – would not be more than a kind of epiphenomena unrelated to the way we behave. Then man as a machine runs as it runs and our alleged psychology would not be more than the smoke that escapes from the locomotive. Maybe it would be an interesting object for study, but it doesn’t influence how the locomotive moves on. If man would be made up that way, s/he would be really rational. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if man would be like this? Some will say “yes”: We would be rid of a lot of misery in this world – human misery like fear, pain, injustice, inequality, etc. Maybe all this would still exist but it functions just as Descartes thought about animals: Animals are a kind of machines; perhaps they have feelings but they don’t give attention it. However, I think that man is not that rational kind of being. Happily, I would say, for if psychology is not a substantial part of what man is, we would also lose a lot. We would have our feelings but yet haven’t them. We would exist without all kinds of misery, but also without everything we value like joy, creativity, relationship, love, wonder, discovery, meaning, ideas ... – just all those things that makes man human and that makes that s/he is not simply a ghostless machine.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The donkey and the money


You are participating in a TV quiz and you have reached the final round. You have to choose between three doors: A, B and C. Behind one door there is a cheque of 5 million euro. It will be yours if you choose that door. If you choose one of the other doors you’ll win a donkey. You love donkeys, but you prefer the money, also because you can buy then many monkeys plus you’ll have enough money for taking care of the donkey. So you want to win the 5 mln euro but you have no idea behind which door the cheque might be. The quizmaster doesn’t give you a hint. At last you choose Door A. “Okay”, the quizmaster says, “are you sure?” “Yes, I am”, you reply. “Then I’ll open one of the other doors. I know behind which door the money cheque is and I’ll open a door with a donkey”, so the quizmaster. He opens Door C. You see a donkey. “Dear Harry”, the quizmaster then says. “You have chosen Door A. However, the money might also be behind Door B. As I told you, I know behind which door the cheque is. Do you want to change your choice or do you still stick to Door A?” You are a rational man, or so you think: “There are two doors. The cheque is behind one door and behind the other one there is a donkey. So, the chances are even that the cheque is either behind Door A or behind Door B. It makes no difference which door I’ll choose. So why change? It has no sense”. You stick to A. You are lucky: The quizmaster opens Door A and you see the cheque.

Now you are a rich man, a millionaire, for you have won 5 mln euro. You are a donkey lover, so you’ll buy a donkey for the money you got. But was it rational to stick to your choice of A, because the chances that the cheque was either behind Door A or behind B were even? Most people will say it was. If they would have been in your shoes in the quiz, they would have thought the same and there is a good chance that they had stuck to their choice, too; for psychological reasons (but that’s another story). However, they and you are not right. It would have been rational to change your choice to B. Let me explain.

There are six possibilities how the money cheque and the donkeys are divided over the doors. I have written them out in a table:


Door A
Door B
Door C
win/loose
1
5 mln
donkey A
donkey B
2
5 mln
donkey B
donkey A
3
donkey A
5 mln
donkey B
+
4
donkey B
5 mln
donkey A
+
5
donkey A
donkey B
5 mln
+
6
donkey B
donkey A
5 mln
+


Let’s suppose that you have chosen A and the quizmaster opens a door with a donkey behind it. Then you change your choice to B or to C, as the case may be. The last column of the table shows what happens. If division 1 is the case, you are out of luck: The cheque is behind Door A and you have changed to a door with a donkey. Therefore I have written a minus sign in the last column. Also in situation 2 you are out of luck and will get a donkey. But in the situations 3, 4, 5  and 6 you’ll change to the door with the cheque, since the quizmaster has opened already the only door with the monkey. So the odds are two to one that you’ll win the cheque, on condition that the quizmaster knows behind which door the cheque is (and so opens the other one with a donkey).
But how about if you had stuck to your choice of Door A? Then you had won the money in situations 1 and 2 but you had got a donkey in all other situations (the minus signs become plus signs in the last column of the table and the other way round). Now the odds are one to two to get the cheque.

Was it rational to switch? Now you’ll say “yes”: It does sense to change your choice because the quizmaster knows what he does, when he opens one of the doors you hadn’t chosen. But most likely you’ll not be the only person who makes this mistake, unless he or she has read the explanation. Even more, after it had been published (in the American Statistician and elsewhere), still many readers thought that the chances were even. Among them there were highly educated and knowledgeable people. Rationality is often not a matter of knowing the right thing but a matter of psychology. Know who you are and what rationality means.


Source: Herman de Regt & Hans Dooremalen, Het snapgevoel. Amsterdam: Boom, 2015; chapter 5. If you want to know more about it, google then “Monty Hall problem”.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The end of the universe


In these blogs I talked already several times about thought experiments. Thought experiments are used in all kinds of philosophy but especially when discussing questions concerning man’s personal identity and analyzing ethical problems. The reason is that it is often impossible to do real experiments in these fields, for practical or for moral reasons. For example in the debate on personal identity it often happens that brains are switched between two persons. Should we take the risk that a man wouldn’t survive such an operation just for the sake of testing or developing a philosophical theory? So we use our imagination for answering our questions.
The first philosopher who used a brain switching thought experiment was John Locke in 1694 in his An Essay concerning Human Understanding. (Actually, Locke didn’t switch the brains but the bodies of a prince and a cobbler in his case). Before Locke Descartes used already thought experiments, for example when he developed the theory that led to his statement “Cogito ergo sum” – I think so I am. However, thought experiments are much older and also Greek philosophers employed them, although they didn’t call them by that name. Some of their cases are still used by modern philosophers, like “The Ship of Theseus”. One version of it is that gradually the planks of Theseus’ ship are replaced by new planks but that the old planks are again used for constructing a new ship. Which ship is the real ship of Theseus?
Although “Theseus’ Ship” is the best known thought experiment from classical philosophy, it is not the oldest one. That’s one ascribed to Archytas of Tarentum (428-347 BC), so Katerina Ierodiakonou in a Dutch philosophy magazine. His thought experiment is the first one that has been recorded. Archytas worked in the tradition of Pythagoras’ School and he is an interesting person. He is said to be the founder of mathematical mechanics and to have developed a kind of airplane that has even flown over a short distance. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. I think that for historical reasons, but also for philosophical reasons, this oldest thought experiment is interesting, also because it’s one that can be used in present-day philosophical debates. When discussing the problem whether the universe is finite or infinite, Archytas says: Suppose that you arrive at the end of the universe and extend a staff. Then you touch either a body or it is possible to extend the staff in empty space. In both cases you will not have reached yet the end of the universe and you can go on and repeat the same action when you have arrived at what you think now as the end of the universe, which will lead to the same result. The upshot is that the universe is infinite. What Archytas did not and could not consider is that the universe might be curved, so that nevertheless it could be finite. Is it important? As Karl Popper told us, every answer is significant for it gives us a starting point to discuss about and to improve it. But despite that, Archytas’s thought experiment is not only a contribution to the cosmological theory, but it has also a psychological meaning, for instance – “for instance”, for I guess that it can be given very different interpretations –: Even if you think that you have come at the end of your mental possibilities (for example in a conflict), stretch your mind and you’ll see that there still is some space to move and to solve your problem and to solve your inflexibility. Thinking is infinite, as are our ideas.
Source: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/aup/antw/2016/00000108/00000001/art00005