Monday, September 18, 2017

Moral dilemmas in real life

Cases like the trolley problem are much discussed in philosophy. The idea behind studying cases is that it helps gain insight into complex problems, especially when experimentally testing can’t be done for practical or ethical reasons. So the trolley problem helps us gain insight into moral dilemmas. Instead of having professional philosophers discuss such cases, we can also put them to test persons or to the man in the street. For instance, a philosophical experiment on the trolley case showed that 10% of the testees were prepared to push the fat man onto the track in order to save the five people.
However, the value of such theoretical discussions for real life situations is a bit dubious. Of course, it helps to be prepared for what happens in practice and it is useful that judges and others who have to judge what people did in real life situations have a moral schooling. Nonetheless, the study of theoretical cases is not more than a help. Will you really think about the moral rules you learned, if you have a only a moment to decide what to do when confronted with a dilemma of the trolley problem type? Moreover, situations are seldom as black and white as suggested in the trolley case. You see a driverless, runaway trolley heading for a group of five people on the track, but if you turn a switch and redirect the trolley, it will head for a workman on the other track. But probably you’ll not be sure that the five or the single workman will die when hit by the trolley. Often, people are “only” seriously hurt when touched by a train but not killed. Furthermore, you can try to warn the five or the single workman. So, it’s not unlikely that you’ll turn the switch in order to save lives and that you’ll shout at the workman: “Look out! A trolley is heading for you!” You hope that the workman can jump aside or let himself fall between the rails, so that the trolley literally will run over the workman but without touching him. As we see here, philosophical problems are often not the copy of real life problems. That’s what Camus knew when he preferred his mother to the movement for the independence of Algeria (see last week). Besides that, what you’ll say when asked what to do in the trolley case may also depend on the wording used like whether the man you have to push onto the track is described as “a fat man” or “a big, heavy stranger”; whether he or the others involved are persons you know, whether or not they belong to a despised minority, and so on. There are also all kinds of other reasons that may determine what you’ll do, like your emotional resistance that you yourself have to act in order to kill an innocent single workman even if it will save five other persons.
Many moral dilemmas as they are discussed in philosophy leave out such practical circumstances and in the end they never lose the feeling of being ivory tower problems, how realistic they may be. Emotionally and otherwise it is different whether it is your mother that might be hit by a bomb in a real civil war or whether you discuss it in a philosophy class when no civil war is waging. Philosophical problems often get a different taste in real life and certainly they don’t have the drama of real life as this occurrence shows:

“On 7 January 2015 Corrine Rey, a cartoonist at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo ... returned from picking up her daughter from kindergarten. She was confronted by two French Jihadist gunmen, who threatened to shoot her daughter unless she keyed in the entry code at the door for the magazine. She did; and the gunmen entered to murder twelve people, including two policemen, as well as shooting eleven others. ..
Should Corrine Rey have been willing to sacrifice her daughter”, so the quote continues, “and herself rather than allow obvious murderers to enter the magazine and possibly kill everyone? Can a mother be blamed for only thinking of protecting her child?”

Kelly L. Ross, who made the website that I just quoted, says that the mother should not have been put in that position and that the safety measures should have been better, but I think that that’s not the problem. Life is such that not everything can be foreseen. In retrospection everything could have been done better, but for good or bad reasons the right measures are often not taken. That’s life and that’s the situation in which we have to take our decisions. Life is not an armchair.

Source: Kelly L. Ross, Some Moral Dilemmas”, on

Monday, September 11, 2017

The trolley problem (2)

The trolley problem is one of the most discussed cases in analytical philosophy. Readers who find its description in my last blog too vague or are not good in visualizing written texts can watch this only 97 seconds lasting video that explains what it is about:
There are several versions of the case and last week I discussed the “tunnel version” in which the five cannot escape because they are in a tunnel. Your only choice is either turning the switch and lead the trolley to another track where a man is walking or doing nothing. However, there are alternative versions in which you perform another action instead of turning a switch in order to save the five people. All involve different, though related, ethical problems. The most treated version is one in which you can push a fat man onto the track, so that the trolley will be stopped, but the fat man will be killed. People may think: Be a hero and jump yourself onto the track. However, because you are as meagre as I am, you will simply be knocked down by the trolley or it will push you aside. Therefore the only options are pushing the fat man onto the track or doing nothing.
Most people judge that it is allowed to turn the switch to save the five but not to push the fat man onto the track, even though in both versions one person is killed and five persons are saved. Philosophers have written a lot about why this is so (and also most philosophers think that it is not allowed to push the fat man), but here I have to bypass their reasons pro and con. The essence is that sacrificing the fat man is a means to save the five, while sacrificing the single walker on the track is a side-effect of turning the switch (while the latter action is the means). In terms of my last blog we can also say that killing the fat man is done, while killing the single walker is enabled (actually I should say: that the single walker is killed is enabled).
For a non-philosopher cases like the trolley problem (if not its more complicated versions) may look weird. You might think that cases are the playthings of philosophers. This can be so, indeed, but these toys have often serious meanings. By analyzing the trolley problem it becomes clear that it is important to distinguish between means and side effects. But the case also exemplifies the question whether we are allowed to do the lesser evil in order to get the bigger good. To answer such questions is not always easy. Therefore it makes sense to rack your brains on simple cases, which in the end appear to be not simple at all. Here are some practical examples that are actually trolley-like problems:
- Many will say that in a war it is allowed to bomb a munitions factory of the enemy. But what if the factory is situated near a residential quarter? For the factory will explode and it will kill many civilians. What if only a few civilians are likely to be killed by the explosion? What if we need to drop hundred bombs for destroying the factory and it is sure that about ten bombs will not fall on the factory but will directly kill civilians living near the factory?
- Stalin and his co-communists thought that it was allowed to kill the “kulaks” for the bigger good of communism. It’s an extreme case of what often happens.
- Is it allowed to demolish the house of an old woman if we destroy her happiness – because she has lived there her whole life – since we want to build a road there, even if this woman is compensated in all ways possible?
- Sartre tells somewhere that an ex-student of his asked him for advice: He wants to join the Free French forces in order to fight against the Nazis. However, then he must leave his mother alone in difficult circumstances, while it might also get her into trouble with the Germans.
Big and small problems are often kinds of trolley problems. The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus dealt with trolley-like problems in his work. His standpoints in such questions made him controversial, so Sarah Bakewell, also because it made that he didn’t support the rebels in the fight for independence of Algeria in the 1950s (Camus was from Algeria). But when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, he explained in an interview: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” Philosophy is as practical as philosophy can be.

- Bakewell, Sarah, The existentialist café. London: Vintage, 2016; pp. 7-8, 246.
- Kamm, F.M., The trolley problem mysteries. With commentaries by Judith Jarvis Thomson, Thomas Hurka, Shelly Kagan. Edited and introduced by Eric Rakowski. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Monday, September 04, 2017

The trolley problem

The tripartite distinction between doing, allowing and enabling harm, which I discussed in my last blog, can put many philosophical and daily problems in another light, for example the well-known trolley problem. Although the trolley problem is often discussed as a pure philosophical problem, there are many practical versions, like those treated by Dostoevsky and Sartre. Here I’ll focus on a philosophical version of the case, called Bystander: A driverless, runaway trolley on a railway is heading for a tunnel, in which it will kill five people, if nothing stops it. A bystander can save their lives by turning a switch and redirecting the trolley on to another track. However, there is a man walking on that track that will then be killed instead of the five.
There are also other versions of the philosophical trolley problem, for example that there is a driver on the trolley who can turn the switch; that a bystander can stop the trolley by pushing a fat man on the track; etc. But this simple version will do in order to show my point.

Judith Jarvis Thomson discusses the following principle that can guide the decision whether or not to turn the switch: “Though (1) killing five is worse than killing one, (2) killing one is worse than letting five die”.
The principle seems reasonable and moreover it is typical for the debate on the trolley problem, where actually every participant agrees that:
(I) the bipartite distinction between doing and allowing harm applies;
(II) turning the switch so that the single walker dies is an act of killing that the bystander does.
I start with assumption II. I have my doubts that turning the switch so that the single walker dies is an act of killing. Of course, it is so that the single walker is killed, if the bystander turns the switch, and it is also the case that killing is a matter of degree, ranging from killing by accident to outright murder. Nevertheless, if we say that the bystander kills the single walker by turning the switch, to me it sounds somewhat odd. It is as if the bystander has the intention to kill the single walker in order to save the five. However, the bystander doesn’t have this intention at all. He merely wants to save the five people. If he could save the single walker as well, he would be very happy. Moreover it is not the bystander who kills the single walker but it is the trolley that does. I think that there is more to say for it that the person who made that the trolley started moving or could move in the direction of the switch is responsible for the killing of either the five or of the single walker. If someone would be punished for the death of one or five persons respectively, it would be him.
Be that as it may, let me examine what the bystander does. The bystander has the intention to save the lives of the five persons on the track. The bystander thinks that he can save these five lives only by turning the switch. Therefore he turns the switch and the five persons are saved. However, the single walker is killed as an unintended consequence of this action. Should we say then nevertheless that the bystander kills the single walker? For, hadn’t the bystander turned the switch, the single walker hadn’t died. It looks the same as if the bystander had killed some by accident.
In order to solve this problem we must look at assumption I. The reason why we say that the bystander kills the single walker is that this assumption gives us only the possibilities to say either that the bystander does something (turning the switch) and then it follows that he kills the single walker; or that the bystander allows something to happen (the switch leave as it is) but then the single walker survives and the five people die. Since the bystander turned the switch, we must say that he killed the single walker. However, as we have seen in my blog last week, the bipartite distinction between doing and allowing harm is not correct and must be replaced by the tripartite distinction between doing, allowing and enabling harm. And if we do so, then we need no longer to say that the bystander killed the single walker, but that by turning the switch he enabled that the single walker was killed (namely by the trolley).
I think that introducing the category of enabling in the debate will put the trolley problem in a new light and maybe it will make that much reasoning on the theme must be revised. One thing that might be changed is the principle quoted above. I think that it’s true that (1) killing five is worse than killing one. It may also be arguabel that (2) killing one is worse than letting five die. However, now we should add a lemma like (3) letting five die is worse than enabling one being killed – assuming that it is possible to defend this view (which I am not yet sure of, since it depends a lot on the conditions that occur).

Reference: Judith Jarvis Thomson, “Kamm on the Trolley Problems”, in F.M. Kamm et al. The Trolley Problem. Mysteries. Oxford, etc.: Oxford University Press, 2016; pp. 113-134 (quotation on p. 114).

Monday, August 28, 2017

On doing and allowing and enabling harm

The distinction between doing and allowing is a generally accepted dichotomy in the philosophy of action. I, too, have used it in my blogs. In short we can say that doing is intentionally making things happen, while allowing is intentionally not intervening when things happen. For instance, John is in coma and has no chance to recover. His family and the medical staff see it as the best solution for John to turn off the life-support machine so that he dies. Therefore the doctor responsible for John’s treatment turns off the machine and John dies. Usually this seen as a case of allowing: The doctor lets John die, we say. However, if a criminal sneaks in John’s room and turns off the machine, since he wants to take revenge on John for some reason, we see it as an intentional killing and call it murder. (see my blogs dated 17 and 24 June 2013) Although I added in my blogs that actually the distinction between doing and allowing is a matter of degree, nevertheless one can ask: Is the distinction really basically bipartite?
I got my doubts when I read an article by Christian Barry who put forward the idea that there is yet a third category, namely enabling, and that the bipartite doing-allowing distinction is not exhaustive. In order to substantiate their thesis the authors do not found their point only on theoretical arguments, but they test it in an experimental setting. Moreover, they don’t consider the distinction in general but they investigate only the distinction between doing and allowing harm. In their investigation they use four cases:
Push: A cart stands at the top of a hill. John pushes it. The cart rolls down the hill and injures Tom, who is sitting at the bottom of the hill.
Stayback: A cart is rolling down a hill. John could put a rock in the way of the cart that would stop it, but he does not. The cart rolls down the hill and injures Tom, who is sitting at the bottom of the hill.
“Push and Stayback are straightforward in the sense that their classifications under the traditional doing-allowing distinction have been uncontroversial among philosophers”, so Barry “Philosophers generally agree that Push and Push-like cases are cases of doing harm, and Stayback and Stayback-like cases are cases of allowing harm” (p. 68). Actually I don’t fully agree with this remark, but for this blog, I can ignore my criticism.
Two other cases used by the authors in their investigation are:
Interpose: A cart accidentally starts rolling down a hill. Tom, who is sitting at the bottom of the hill, will not be injured by the cart if he can get out of the way of its path. John puts a rock on the ground. The rock stops Tom, and he is injured by the cart.
Remove: A cart is rolling downhill towards a point where there is a rock that would bring it to a stop. John removes the rock. The cart rolls down the hill and injures Tom, who is sitting there.

While Push and Stayback are cases of doing and allowing, Interpose and Remove exemplify enabling, so Barry In order to explain this, they refer to a study by Barry and Øverland who introduce two factors that separate enabling from doing and allowing: “Relevant action, the first factor, obtains if the question of how an agent is relevant to some harm refers to some action of theirs.” (cf John’s pushing of the cart by which Tom is injured in Push.) “The second factor obtains if there is a complete, intact causal process initiated by the agent’s action that links this action to the harm.” (The cart pushed by John injures Tom in Push) (p. 70). Both factors are present in Push and absent in Stayback. However, in Interpose and Remove the first factor is present but the second factor isn’t: John’s action has an impact on the result of the cart rolling down (namely that Tom is injured), but the relation between John’s action (moving the rock) and Tom being injured is indirect. Therefore we say that moving the rock enables that Tom gets injured and that’s why enabling is a special category next to doing and allowing.

Is this idea also shared by non-philosophers? In order to investigate this, the authors presented several versions of the Push etc. cases to a number of test persons. In a first experiment testees were asked to classify cases as doing or allowing harm. The result was that Push cases were clearly seen as doings and Stayback cases as allowings. However Interposing and Remove cases scored somewhere in between: About half of the testees saw them as doings and the other half as allowings. This suggests, so the authors, “that the traditional bipartite doing-allowing harm distinction cannot capture Interpose and Remove cases.” (p. 77). That enabling can be seen as a separate category was confirmed in a second experiment. Now the test persons were asked to categorize cases as “doing harm”, “allowing harm” or “enabling harm”. It appeared that Interpose and Remove cases were clearly more often seen as enablings than Push and Stayback cases (which hardly were). A third experiment investigated the question whether enabling harm is normatively distinct from both doing harm and allowing harm by asking the testees in different test versions whether John should compensate Tom for the injury. Also now the Interpose and Remove cases emerged as a special category, though not so clearly as in the other experiments.

I think that the conclusion of Barry et. al. is convincing that there is not a bipartite distinction between doing and allowing harm, but a tripartite distinction between doing, allowing and enabling harm. This result has not only theoretical consequences. It is only practical, for it appears that enabling harm is a specific normative category. This means that it has to be allowed for when talking about questions of guilt, responsibility and compensation. What remains is the question whether the tripartite doing-allowing-enabling distinction applies only when someone is harmed, or whether this tripartition generally replaces the dichotomy of doing and allowing.

Source: Christian Barry, Matthew Lindauer and Gerhard Øverland, “Doing, Allowing, and Enabling Harm. An Empirical Investigation”, in Tania Lombrozo, Joshua Knobe, Shaun Nichols, Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy. Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014; pp. 62-90.

Monday, August 21, 2017

First encounters (2)

The place where Lenin and Stalin met for the first time
 in what is now the Lenin Museum in Tampere, Filand

When I was on holiday in Finland recently, one of the things I wanted to do anyway was visiting the Lenin Museum in Tampere (also known as Tammerfors). The museum as such is interesting and also the building is because of its typical style, which is a mixture of the Neo-Renaissance style and Art Nouveau. However, for me it was especially important that it was here that Lenin and Stalin met for the first time, for in those days hundred years ago the building was used by the Tampere Worker’s Society as a meetingplace for workers.
Sometimes first encounters are quite dramatic, as I wrote a few weeks ago in my blog on the first encounter between the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright and Ludwig Wittgenstein in Cambridge. But after a bad first encounter between both philosophers, in the end they became friends. Also the first time that Lenin and Stalin met was not really good. Lenin was already the big man of the Russian revolutionary movement and when the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party held a congress in Tampere in the Russian -ruled Finland in December 1905, Stalin was looking forward to it: Now he could meet the man whom he admired a lot. But Stalin left the congress disappointed. “I was hoping to see the mountain eagle of our party”, he wrote later, “a great man, great not only politically, but ... physically, too, for Lenin had taken shape in my mind as a giant, stately and imposing”. But he appeared to be “the most ordinary man, below average height, in no way ... different from ordinary mortals”. Moreover, Lenin was criticized by the other conferees –  also by Stalin – and in the end he had to take back his proposals, defending himself that as an émigré he had lost contact with the Russian reality. Later the relationship between both men would improve and Lenin would become Stalin’s mentor. However, not long before his death – it was in 1923 and he was already ill – Lenin judged that it was better to replace Stalin by Trotsky as the General Secretary of the Communist Party, for Stalin was ill-suited for the position while Trotsky was the most capable man in the General Committee according to him. It didn’t happen, and a few years later Trotsky had to flee and in 1940 he was murdered by a Soviet secret agent in Mexico.
Trotsky’s first encounter with Lenin is also worth mentioning. Usually we see other persons for the first time in public and semi-public places, at parties and meetings and the like. But in a bedroom? It’s quite unlikely that you even met your partner there for the first time. Not so Trotsky and Lenin. Trotsky had an appointment with Lenin in London, where the great communist leader lived then (not far from where Karl Marx had written his Capital). Lenin was already to bed and slept, when Trotsky knocked on the door. Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, let him in in her nightclothes and brought the visitor to the bedroom.
As you see, first encounters can happen at the most unexpected places, and as said before in a blog, they say so much about the way we live and the kind of person we are.

- Rolf Hellebust, Flesh to metal. Soviet Literature and the Alchemy of Revolution. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003; p. 92.
- Robert Himmer, “First impressions matter: Stalin's initial encounter with Lenin, Tammerfors 1905”, on
- Stephen Kotkin, Stalin. Paradoxes of Power 1978-1928. London, Penguin Books, 2015.
- Nancy Caldwell Sorel “First encounters: When Lenin met Trotsky”, on
- Wikipedia

Monday, August 07, 2017

Sleeping like a bird

Most of us know it: In an unfamiliar bed you don’t sleep well. At least not during the first night. From the second night on the insomnia is over. Maybe you think that it is because you are a nervous type of person. However, researchers of the Brown University have discovered that it’s normal and that most people suffer from it. It’s probably a relic from prehistoric times. They call it the “first-night effect” and they see it as a typical sleep disturbance when you pass the first night in a novel environment.
The researchers let a number of test subjects sleep in an unfamiliar environment and subjected them to several tests. I’ll spare you the details, which you find in source (1) below, but they found that the different hemispheres of the brain have different levels of activity during the first night of sleeping at an unfamiliar place, while the activity levels are the same during the next nights. To be exact, it was the left hemisphere that slept lighter and was more vigilant to external signals than the right when the first-night effect occurred. So, a soft sound will awake you during the first night, because your left hemisphere is watchful, while during the second night in the same bed you will continue sleeping and not hear it. You can see the enhanced vigilance of the left hemisphere also in an electroencephalogram of the two hemispheres: The left hemisphere shows more abrupt and short shifts during the first night when the effect occurs. The consequence is that during a first night in a novel bed you have a fitful sleep that leads to faster awakening upon detection of deviant stimuli by the left hemisphere of your brain.
Why does it happen? The researchers speculate that the regional asymmetry between the two brain spheres is linked with a protective mechanism that is sensitive to potential danger in an unfamiliar sleeping environment and with the increased need for vigilance during sleep. In other words, you never know whether there might come a lion or murderer into your room, so stay alert. However, when nothing special happens during the first night in a novel bed, your brain seems reassured and it doesn’t expect any longer that a danger will show up. Actually it’s a bit strange, for as soon as a lion or murderer has learned about this mechanism, for example from own experience, he might get the idea that it’s best to drop by not during the first night but later. It will give more chance of success. But apparently, in prehistoric times it worked and we survived, or at least those survived who got it in their genes. That’s why we are now cursed with it, although we no longer need it and although actually it has become a bit annoying. It belongs now to the human constitution. And not only to the human constitution, for you find this unihemispheric sleep as a protective mechanism also in some birds and marine mammals, so that they can monitor their environments and detect predators when sleeping. To say it tersely: In a novel bed you sleep like a bird.
How sad for me, for when I go on holiday, I often travel around and stay no longer than one or two nights at the same place. When touring about with my tent, you can say that the bed remains the same and that only the environments change, but when moving from hotel to hotel, each night or two nights means another bed. It involves much insomnia. However, it seems that travellers can become accustomed to the phenomenon of the unfamiliar bed and that the first-night effect disappears. Anyway, during a travel I gradually sleep better. But basically there are no solutions for the first-night effect. Maybe it helps to arrive a few days before an important appointment if you need to spend the night in a hotel. It might also help to take familiar things from home with you and put them next to your unfamiliar bed, or to take your own pillow with you. They may make you feel at ease. Sleep well and good night.

(1) Masako Tamaki et al., “Night Watch in One Brain Hemisphere during Sleep Associated with the First-Night Effect in Humans” in Current Biology,
(2) “Scientists reveal why we sleep poorly the first night we stay in an unfamiliar place”,
 (3) “Sleeping away from home? Half your brain is still awake”,

Monday, July 31, 2017

Path of freedom

“ ... [I]f it is true that a spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities (e.g., by a place in which one can move) and interdictions (e.g., by a wall that prevents one from going further), then the walker actualizes some of these possibilities. In that way, he makes them exist as well as emerge. But he also moves them about and he invents others, since the crossing, drifting away, or improvisation of walking privilege, transform, or abandon spatial elements. ... [T]he walker transforms each spatial signifier in something else. And if on the one hand he actualizes only a few of the possibilities fixed by the constructed order (he goes only here and not there), on the other he increases the number of possibilities (for example, by creating shortcuts and detours) and prohibitions (for example, he forbids himself to take paths generally considered accessible or even obligatory). He thus makes a selection.”
From Michel de Certeau, The practice of everyday life. Berkeley etc.: University of California Press, 1984; p. 98.

Authorities try to plan and guide behaviour, but people are free and follow their own paths.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Forget it

Social media distort your self-image. They distort your personal identity, as well. That’s what we have seen last week. But it’s only an extreme consequence of the phenomenon that we tend to forget our experiences and that we forget selectively. You and I remember mainly only what was important or what made a big impression. Sometimes we explicitly try to retain memories by taking photos and making videos; by writing about our experiences in diaries and letters; or even by erecting memorial stones. The latter happens when a dear one has died, for example by placing a stone on her grave. But we forget much of what we experienced and what happened to us. Maybe it was not important – or we think so –, or it happened so long ago that the memories fade away. In addition, there is the weird phenomenon that someone tells you the story of something she experienced and later you think that it was you who went through it. I’ll leave this further aside, but we can say that all these distorted memories make that actually you are not the person who you think you are. Or maybe you are your self-image, for it’s your self-image that you represent towards others, but the person you think to represent is then not the person you actually lived. It’s why Julia Shaw ends her book The memory illusion with the statement: “Our past is a fictional representation, and the only thing we can be even somewhat sure of is what is happening now.” (p. 255).
This distorted self-image or even double distorted self-image, if we think of the impact of the social media, is not only an individual phenomenon. It happens also on a collective level. What we see everywhere is that groups, groupings and bigger collective units like nations tend to forget their bad and criminal actions in the past and stress what they think they can be proud of, even if the latter is often a clear exaggeration. Many point or pointed after Germany, which was responsible for the holocaust – but which is also one of the few countries that tried to account for its criminal past –, but few countries acknowledge the anti-Semitism within their own borders. White countries try to hide their contributions to black slavery or depict it as less worse than it was. Many countries have persecuted their minorities and but don’t mention it in their historical records. These are only a few big facts. The smaller distorted “facts” are even more frequent. I think that every reader understands what I mean, and I mention it only in order to illustrate that we see distorted identities on all levels: the levels of personal identity, group identity – not discussed here – till national identity.
We find a kind of forgetfulness also on a level where you may not expect it: the level of daily life; the level of the most ordinary things around you. In fact, it’s hardly possible to talk here of forgetting, for if you see but don’t watch, you don’t notice. Nevertheless there are many things around you that you know they are there and nevertheless, when they are out of your sight, they are out of your mind, even though they help to constitute the world you live in. Without them, your world would collapse, or – which happens more often if not most of the time – be a little bit more complicated or less pleasant. Following a description by Sarah Bakewell, I mean the things that make up your “barely noticed social, historical and physical context in which all our activities take place, and which we generally take for granted.” Look at the photo at the top of this blog. Probably most of you have seen a thing like that. Maybe there is one in your street. It took me some time to find out what it is, but it is a distribution box for electricity – if I am right! Nevertheless, if I would ask you to describe your street, you would probably forget to mention it, even if you know that there is one. It seems so unimportant that it doesn’t pop up in your mind. Nevertheless, how unpleasant would your life be today without electricity, so without such distribution boxes. But you have walked often along it, maybe you have bumped into it, and still you forget that it is there. It makes up your life world a little bit but mentally it doesn’t belong to it. So it is with much in your life world and with your personal identity as well. You pass it over, for it doesn’t stir your mind. Forget it!

Sources: Sarah Bakewell, The existentialist café. London: Vintage, 2016; p. 130; Julia Shaw, see blog dated July 10, 2017.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Social media and identity

Last week my conclusion was that it is not our memories that make our personal identities but that experiences do (at least, for a part, for elsewhere I have shown that our bodily make-up is also important). However, experiences are not independent of memories: How we experience an event we go through or what we are doing is determined also by how we experienced such events in the past or how we remember what we did before. What we think of a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony depends not only on the performance we hear now but also on what we remember of performances of the same symphony in the past. And after we have heard the symphony several times, maybe we can hum even parts of the melody: When we recall something we did or experienced in the past, we get a better retention of it. When we tell others about what we experienced or when we reread our diary notes, we keep what we lived through better in the mind. On the other hand, we tend to forget what we don’t repeat. One important way for reviving memories is looking at old photos. When we see them again, usually we know what we did then, and in case we have taken the photos ourselves, we can often also tell how we have taken them and where we stood. However, we tend to forget what we don’t repeat by such artificial means or otherwise. What is not in a photo, gradually vanishes from the memory. What is in a photo is highlighted and determines the recollection of the doing or event.
In these days of the internet we share our life experiences increasingly via the social media. Of course, we leave out what we don’t want to share and we share only what we see as highlights or worth to mention. Therefore, as Julia Shaw says in her book on memory quoted last week: “remembering life events through social media is going to enhance memories for those particular events” (pp. 213-4). However, publishing life events in the social media is not a neutral affair. As said, we don’t share everything, but we select. Moreover we present what we present there in a certain way: We don’t share how we are but how we want to be seen. We don’t present in social media our selves but our better selves and our improved selves, on purpose or unconsciously. But since bringing back memories is selective, especially when it happens with artificial means, like photos, in fact we get a distortion of reality. This is the more so, when we bring back memories via what we have uploaded in the social media. This has important consequences for the self-image. As Shaw says, “[w]hat is different about social media is that the prompts are being selected from your online persona so they already represent a distorted, social media appropriate, version of your life. This amounts to a double distortion – distorting the memory in your brain with a previously distorted memory from your online persona.” Even if we originally knew that we are not the way as presented in the social media, in the end we tend to believe in it.
“By having the social media dictate which experiences count as the most meaningful in our lives”, so Shaw goes on, “it is potentially culling the memories that are considered less shareable. Simultaneously it is reinforcing the memories collectively chosen as the most likeable, potentially making some memories seem more meaningful and memorable than they originally were. Both of these are problematic processes that can distort our personal reality.” (p. 215) When this happens it is no longer that we shape ourselves in the social media but that the social media shape us. Then it’s the social media that shape our personalities, even if these personalities are distorted, and by that they shape our personal identities.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Personal identity and memory

The author's memory

What makes a person P2 at time t2 the same person as person P1 at time t1? Following Locke (1689/1975), in contemporary analytical philosophy, this question is usually answered in psychological terms, to wit by specifying a psychological criterion that shows, when continuity or connectedness between P1 en P2 exists: Memory. Although currently memory is no longer seen as the only criterion of personal identity, it is still considered an important determinant of personal identity over time. As a rule reference is made to only episodic memory, so to certain events or experiences in the life of the individual concerned. Other kinds of memory, like semantic memory and implicit non-conscious kinds of memory, are generally ignored by the mainstream of personal identity theorists when they consider what makes a person a person. So it is episodic memory that makes that the little schoolboy who went to school in a provincial capital in the Netherlands is the same person as the man who writes this blog on one of the first days of July 2017. Of course, everybody forgets many of his or her life experiences, but personal identity theorists have thought out several solutions for overcoming this problem of forgetfulness. But is episodic memory really a reliable criterion for personal identity?
When someone forgets about what s/he did or experienced in the past, determining the personal identity is a matter of reconstructing the connection between the person who acted in a certain way some time ago or who experienced then this or that and the person who s/he is now. However, if s/he explicitly remembers what s/he did it seems obvious that the person in the memory and the person now who remembers are the same. But is it really so that we can say that what a man or woman remembers now as something that s/he lived through or experienced some time ago makes him or her the same person as the one in the recollection?
Much has already been written about the unreliability of our memory but I think that the next investigation well substantiates my point:
Memory expert Julia Shaw selected a group of test subjects for what was allegedly a study on emotional memory. First she asked each participant about his or her memory of a true emotional event which Shaw had learned from a person who had informed her about the participant. It might be being bullied at school, fainting on vacation or something else. Next Shaw introduced a false event, telling the test subjects they did something that she knew they actually did not, like telling the participants that they had committed a crime with police contact – assault, assault with a weapon, or theft – or had experienced another emotional event – an animal attack, a bodily injury, losing a large sum of money or getting in trouble with their parents. Shaw did as if someone the test subject knew, like his/her parents, had informed her about the event. At first the participants said correctly that they didn’t remember the event. After a visualisation exercise, which gave the test subjects access to their imagination instead of their memories – which they didn’t know – the participants still hadn’t much to tell about the event. Then they were sent home with the instruction not to talk about the test and to try to visualise the memory at home. One week later in a second interview the test subjects were asked to tell both about the true emotional event and about the false event. Many participants began to “remember” and report of details of the false event. The visualisation exercise was also repeated. Next the participant were sent home again with the instruction of trying to get more details of the false event. One week later in a third interview the second interview session was repeated. “After three interviews”, so Shaw, “... many participants are divulging a tremendous number of details about an event that never happened, talking about them with confidence.” In other words: The false events had really become part of the memories of the test subjects. Don’t think that only exceptional persons “recollect” false memories. Shaw found in her investigations that at least 70% of the participants develop full false memories about criminal and emotional events. Most of us will do in the right circumstances.
Perhaps you think that Shaw’s case is extreme. Maybe it is, but as Shaw shows in her book: Everybody’s mind is probably full of false memories. There are many reasons why we get them and it is unlikely that anybody is free of them.
What does this mean for the view that episodic memory is the most important determinant of man’s personal identity as the mainstream of personal identity theorists maintains? On the base of a false memory each of us could be a criminal while s/he is in fact a honest burgher. Even more, as Shaw makes clear, it also happens often that we adopt recollections told to us by others as if they were our own. If so this would mean – following the mainstream of the personal identity theorists – that such a recollection would give the person with the adopted recollection the personal identity of another person, at least partly. It would literally put him or her in someone else’s shoes. The upshot is: What we remember may be important for us but it doesn’t make our identities. Only what we really lived through and experienced does, but it’s not obvious that we remember all of it nor that we lived through and experienced everything that we remember.

- John Locke, An essay concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975 (1689).
- Noonan, Harold W., Personal Identity. London etc.: Routledge, 2003.
- Shaw, Julia, The memory illusion. London: Random House Books, 2016. You can find the case described on pp. 171-175.