Monday, December 17, 2018

A chip in my brain

Do we need to scan the brain of the other
in order to know his or her thoughts ?

It is possible to play the piano with your thoughts. We have seen it in my blog last week. However, research how your thoughts can steer your body via a brain implant is yet in an experimental stage, and we saw last week, for instance, that the pianist with ALS still had to be connected by a wire with a computer. But sooner or later also this problem will be solved, and then people with ALS will be able to do what every healthy person can do.
Research like this is not exceptional and it is done everywhere in the world. Not so long ago investigators of the Utrecht University in the Netherlands succeeded to let a woman with ALS express her thoughts on a computer screen, about in the same way as the pianist with ALS succeeded to play.
What happens here is that thoughts are downloaded to an implant and then converted that way that an apparatus external to the body proper is brought into operation. We can use this method in order to help disabled people. One step more is helping healthy people to function better. This is what Elon Musk – the founder of SpaceX and Tesla – had in his mind when he founded Neuralink Corp. The brain, so Musk, functions efficiently and fast, but once we want to put our thoughts into text and motion we slow down, and move at a snail’s pace. How much time it takes to write a short app on your smartphone, for instance! That can be done better. Simply download thoughts and transfer them to a machine or appliance. It will work so much faster! And why should we put a chip in the brain in order to read thoughts? A brain scanner will do as well. Okay, the present fMRI scanners that are often used for reading the brain are big and clumsy instruments but in future this problem will certainly be solved. Moreover, there are also other methods to measure brain activity and maybe thoughts. Anyway, Musk thinks that within five years it will be possible to tap thoughts from the brain in an efficient and useful way.
However, if we can download thoughts and use them, why couldn’t it be possible then to upload thoughts as well? This is also an idea Elon Musk is playing with, and not only Musk, for the field of artificial intelligence and its relation to the functioning of the human brain is a rapidly developing field of science. And once we can upload thoughts to the brain, the possibilities are endless. Many psychological illnesses but also physical illnesses that have their origins in the brain – and also ALS is such a disease – can perhaps be cured (or partly). Or we can communicate more efficiently with computers and smartphones. One step further is that we can communicate in a more efficient way with other people, when thoughts can be directly transferred from person to person. But will it all be positive? Esther Keymolen, technology philosopher at Leiden University, says in an interview with the Dutch daily De Volkskrant: “With this kind of technology, in fact you get a business undertaking in your head. Now already it is difficult to find out what technology companies do with your data and how they connect them.” Musk wants to prevent that artificial intelligence will control us instead of the other way round. But this development can also make that the artificial intelligent entity we are connected with sends things into our brains. “If that happens, you can ask: Who are we then?”
Indeed, who are you, if private firms send information into your brain? If a technology firm acts in good faith and sincerely wants to improve your life, you can say, it’s okay. But even then, your personality doesn’t depend any longer on what you make of it, but on what others make of it. If in good faith a company changes your characteristics, your memory, etc., maybe that’s what you want. However, then what makes you the person who you are has become in the hands of others (for can you really know what they upload to your brain, if already now you don’t know what they do with your data?). But what if the technology company that you deal with acts in bad faith? So if it doesn’t want the best for you but only for itself, anyhow? When this happens the company makes you according to its own design; not to yours. Then it is so that what makes you the person who you are has become in the hands of another. Then you are no longer you, but you are the other.
Yet one step further is that it is not a private company that manipulates you out of self-interest, but it is the state that does in order to control you and maybe all citizens by means of the new technology of artificial intelligence. Then it happens that Big Brother is not only watching you but that Big Brother is literally within you.

De Volkskrant, dated 15 Nov. 2016, 22 and 29 March 2017; 22 Nov. 2018.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The extended body thesis (2)

P.S. to my blog last week: An interesting TED talk on the extended mind and on the extended body (thanks to David Chalmers who draw my attention to this TED talk by him).

Monday, December 10, 2018

The extended body thesis

In one of my blogs I sustain the so-called “extended mind thesis”, developed by Andy Clark and David Chalmers. It says that the mind is not only in the head, but that a part of the mind is also outside the brain in the agent’s world. For instance, you have stored a mailing list in your computer and you know in which file it is, so you don’t need to keep the addresses in your mind. Or we write memos or tie knots in handkerchiefs in order not to forget things that are important for us. But how about the body? Do we have also body parts outside our body proper in an analogous manner?
I had to think of this, when I read a newspaper article about a woman who couldn’t play the piano any longer, because she suffered from ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a brain disease that leads to progressive muscular atrophy and so to paralysis). She got a kind of implant in the part of her brain that steers the hands. As a result she could play again, for instance, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.
It’s a well-known phenomenon that an instrument can feel as if it is a part of the body; or almost. If I want to push a pin in a pin cushion, I just push it with my finger and nothing goes wrong. However, if I want to hammer a nail in a piece of wood, sometimes, or maybe often, I miss the nail and hit my thumb. This will not happen to an experienced carpenter. Each hit is as it should be. It is as if the carpenter’s hammer is an extension of his arm. As if the hammer is a part of his arm. Even more, I think, it was the same so for the woman in my case, before she got ALS, since she was an experienced pianist. In those days, the piano had become an extension of her hands, if not of her body. When she was playing, she and her piano were one. And let us hope that once she has become used to the implant in her head and has learned how to use it, she’ll regain her fluency in playing the piano. Then she and her piano will again be one.
But how about the implant in her brain? In the end it is a piece of hardware, a kind of chip put by a surgeon in her brain. Is it just as if a surgeon has put a metal rod in your arm, when you have broken it and that she will later remove again? No, I think. The metal rod is not more than a temporarily support of your arm. You don’t move your arm with the help of this rod but with the help of your muscles. The only function of this rod to fix the broken bone in your arm, so that it will heal well. The rod has nothing to do with how your body functions. It’s a bit like a chair you sit down on when you are tired. Sitting down on a chair helps your body recover, but the chair as such doesn’t recover your body. It’s simply a support. That’s why the metal rod can be removed, after the broken bone in your arm has healed.
How different it is with the implant in the pianist’s brain. If the implant would be removed or would break down, she can no longer play the piano. Even more, she operates the implant in her brain: When she thinks of moving her hand and fingers in the way she does when playing the piano, the implant stimulates the hand and fingers in the right way, so that she can play the melody she wants to play, like Beethoven’s “Ode of Joy”. Moreover, she doesn’t feel the implant in her brain, just like a healthy pianist doesn’t feel the neurons in his brain firing when she plays the “Ode of Joy”. Of course, at present technically the system is still imperfect: The implant is yet connected with a computer through a wire. But who doubts that also this problem will be solved in future? When playing the piano this pianist is not only one with her piano but also one with the implant in her brain.
The upshot is that an external object – such as an implant in your brain, but as I want to add, also a piano or a hammer –  can become a part of your body. Then your body is not only in your body proper (the “flesh” it is made of). At least also the instruments you know to use can become a part of it. The transition between what still belongs to your body proper and what doesn’t belong to it or what does not yet belong to it can be rather vague, indeed. However, I think that my analysis shows that we don’t have only an extended mind but that we have also an extended body. There is not only an extended mind thesis but also an extended body thesis.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Detach yourself !

Montaigne's backroom in his castle where he
could retire and where he wrote his essays.

There has been a time that I wrote very short blogs or that a blog even consisted of a simple quote with hardly any comment or even no comment at all. Not all blogs were so then, but many were. And sometimes I think, why not write them this way again? Why spend thousand words on what can be said with hundred or less or with a good quotation? Why comment on what is obvious? And when I looked for a subject for this week’s blog, I came across this passage in Montaigne’s Essays and thought that just this was a passage that speaks for itself and that doesn’t need any additional comment:
“Wives, children, and goods must be had, and especially health, by him that can get it; but we are not so to set our hearts upon them that our happiness must have its dependence upon them; we must reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat. And in this we must for the most part entertain ourselves with ourselves, and so privately that no exotic knowledge or communication be admitted there; there to laugh and to talk, as if without wife, children, goods, train, or attendance, to the end that when it shall so fall out that we must lose any or all of these, it may be no new thing to be without them. We have a mind pliable in itself, that will be company; that has wherewithal to attack and to defend, to receive and to give.”
(Montaigne, “Of Solitude”, Essays, Book I-38 (or 39 in other editions), quoted from
“Detach yourself!”, is what Montaigne says here. It is good to have people around you and there is nothing against having possessions and even being rich, but know how to detach yourself from them when necessary and keep always a place for yourself. Have a backroom where you can retire. To be attached to what is dear to you is okay, but there are limits to it, and you must keep a space for yourself. In the end this free space is your mind. And we can say that you must not only know to keep distance from the persons and material things around you – at the right time – but also from the immaterial things, like oppressive thoughts or self-imposed rules, such as how to compose these blogs. But, oops! Again I cannot keep myself from commenting on this quotation. Hadn’t I said that it speaks for itself? So detach yourself from me and take have your own thoughts.

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Debtor’s Paradox

Πάντα ῥεῖ (Panta rei), everything is in flux, so Heraclitus. Therefore, you can’t step into the same river twice, he said. But is really everything in flux? Also your body? According to Epicharmus of Kos “Yes, indeed”. Epicharmus was a Greek dramatist and philosopher who lived about 500 B.C. He is said to have been the first to apply Heraclitus’s idea to the human body, which he did in one of his comedies. However, most of his work has been lost. Only fragments remain. So we know his “bodily version” of Heraclitus’s idea only from how others have reproduced it. It has become known as the Debtor’s Paradox.
Before telling how it runs, I must say a few words about the Growing Argument, which has also been introduced by the Old Greek. Say you show me a heap of pebbles and you take one pebble away. You ask me: “Has the heap remained the same?” “No, of course not”, I reply. Then you put back the pebble and add yet another one. You ask me: “Has the heap remained the same this time?” And again I reply “No, of course not”. Then you say: “One man grows and another shrinks, and so we change all the time. Never we are the same as we were just before and never we’ll be the same again”.
One year later I urgently need money and I call you up and ask you whether you can lend me thousand euros. “Of course, I can”, you say, “I am always prepared to help a friend. However, there is one condition: You must pay it back to me before the end of the year.” “All right”, I say “I’ll certainly do.” The next day I go to your home, sign a contract and receive thousand euros from you.
Next January I meet you on a New Year’s Party. “You still haven’t paid back the money!”, you reproach me.” “Why should I pay you money?” I return, “I don’t owe you any money.” After some quarrelling I say: “Oh, now I understand what you mean. You lent the money to a kind of lookalike of me. But don’t you remember the Growing Argument that you explained to my lookalike? And that you ended the explanation with the statement: We change all the time. Never we are the same as we were just before and never we’ll be the same again? That lookalike has changed into me, but it isn’t me. So I owe you nothing.”
Thus runs the Debtor’s Paradox (in my version). How did the story continue? I didn’t pay and it came to a court case. The judge asked me to show my identity card, she saw that the same card number was also written in the contract and concluded that it was I who had signed the contract, so that it was I who had to pay.
The upshot is that I am not my body, if we see a body as a fixed lump of matter. However, we are our body if we realize that it is a clustered lump of material characteristics. The composition of the lump may change but the cluster of material characteristics remains relatively stable, not counting the fact that we have also mental characteristics (and according to some identity philosophers it’s only the mental characteristics that are essential). So you can step into the same river twice, for the river is the flow and not the molecules.

P.S. Any agreement with the so-called “Ship of Theseus Paradox” is not a coincidence

Writing this blog I have been inspired by:
- Vincent Descombes, Puzzling Identities. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016; pp. 43 ff.
- “The Debtor’s Paradox”, on website

Monday, November 19, 2018

Philosophers at War

Monument for Ernest Psichari in Rossignol, Belgium

One week ago the end of the First World War (WW1) was commemorated in several countries; especially in France, Britain and Belgium. In 1914, this war was welcomed by many persons with great enthusiasm but this changed soon, when after a month it turned from a war of manoeuvre into a long lasting war of attrition. Finally after four years fighting ended on 11 November 1918. The political outcome was actually not more than a truce and twenty years later a new war started. The human outcome of WW1 was 17 million dead, both soldiers and civilians. For my blog the interesting question is: What did philosophers do in those days? In order to get a small impression I browsed the Internet. Here is the result. Note that the choice of the names is completely arbitrary and not representative. It reflects only my personal interest and what I happened to find during my search. The question would really be worth a thorough investigation.

- Ludwig Wittgenstein. On the outbreak of the war, Wittgenstein volunteered in the Austro-Hungarian Army. He served with the artillery but he has also been involved in some of the heaviest fighting at the front with Russia. Wittgenstein received several decorations for his courage. Later he fought at the Italian front with his Tractatus in his knapsack. There he was taken prisoner on 3 November 1918. It is clear that he run a serious risk to be killed, so how would philosophy have developed if Wittgenstein had died then or had lost his Tractatus?
- Bertrand Russell. Russell was a determined pacifist. He openly opposed WW1 and was, among other anti-war activities, active in an organisation that supported conscientious objectors. In 1916 he was fined for writing a leaflet supporting conscientious objection and in 1918 he was given a prison sentence of six months for “insulting an ally” (the American army). In 1916 he was dismissed from Trinity College (Cambridge University) because of his anti-war activities.
- Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead had written with Russell the Principia Mathematica on the foundation of mathematics. Different from Russell, he supported the war and sent off his two sons at war. One didn’t come back. Their different opinions about WW1 drew both philosophers apart, although they always stayed on relatively good terms. Later Russell wrote about this that Whitehead “was more tolerant than I was, and it was much more my fault than his that these differences caused a diminution in the closeness of our friendship.”
- Max Scheler. Scheler voluntarily joined the German army, but was declared unfit, so he remained working as a philosopher. In 1917-1918, the German State Department sent him to Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands to influence Catholic circles. He gave also lectures to sick and wounded German soldiers interned in the Netherlands. At the beginning of WW1 Scheler believed in the creative force of war. Later he changed his view and saw it as a moral disaster.
- Henri Bergson. Bergson supported in several philosophical writings the case of war. He was an important French advocate of the USA joining the war. In January 1917 he became a special envoy of the French government to meet the US president Wilson and he participated also in the negotiations that led to the American entry in the war.
- Edmund Husserl. Husserl lost one of his three children during WW1. Another son became wounded but survived. He saw WW1 as the collapse of the old European world. This meant for philosophy that it had to look for a new orientation.
- Ernst Troeltsch. Like most of his colleagues Troeltsch supported Germany’s war against France in 1914. “Yesterday we took up arms. Listen to the ethos that resounds in the splendour of heroism: To your weapons, To your weapons!”, he said. He considered the German soldiers as morally superior to their adversaries. Moreover, the French were decadent and arrogant, according to him. Later he changed his views. Already in 1916 his tone became moderate and after WW1 he supported the Weimar Republic.
- Mohandas K Gandhi. Of course, Gandhi, the advocate of non-violence and opponent of violence, did not support war. Nevertheless, he supported Britain actively in some sense. He happened to arrive in England on 6 August 1914 and one of the first things he did was helping to raise an ambulance unit. However, he became ill and didn’t serve in the unit himself, and soon after his arrival in England, he returned to India again. His motivation for this support of the British was, as he explained later: “I knew the difference of status between an Indian and an Englishman, but I did not believe that we had been quite reduced to slavery. I felt then that it was more the fault of individual officials than of the British system, and that we could convert them by love. If we would improve our status through the help and cooperation of the British, it was our duty to win their help by standing by them in their hour of need.”

The philosophers just mentioned survived WW1, mainly because they didn’t go to war themselves. Others were not so lucky and were killed in action. The names of most of them (as philosophers) will never be known or they have been forgotten by most of us. Take, for instance, Ernest Psichari. Some French readers may know his name, but I think that most readers hear of him here for the first time. I heard of him for the first time on one of my many trips along the battle fields of WW1. This French writer and philosopher died near Rossignol in Belgium on 22 August 1914, 31 years old. It was there on a stele that I read his name. Let him stand for all those fallen philosophers we never have heard of. This blog is dedicated to them.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The stag hunt

Once I was a deer hunter ... with my photo camera

There are several types of “games” like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I discussed already the Prisoner’s Dilemma itself, the Tragedy of the Commons and the Chicken Game. To finish this mini-series about games I want to treat the Stag Hunt Game. Game theory is a rather new branch of mathematics. It was developed during the Second World War. However, its roots are older and the idea of the stag hunt game was already mentioned by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). In his A Discourse on Inequality he describes it this way (quoted from Bovens, p. 160; see Sources below]:
“If it was a matter of hunting a deer, everyone well realized that he must remain faithful to his post; but if a hare happened to pass within reach of one of them, we cannot doubt that he would have gone off in pursuit of it without scruple ...”
A group of hunters decides to hunt deer together, since a good way to do this is with a group: They drive the deer to a corner of the wood, and if they see one, they shoot it. However, if one of the drivers leaves his post, there will be a gap in the chain of drivers and the animals will have room to escape. So if you want to hunt deer in a drive, it is best for each hunter to cooperate and to assume that the others will do as well. But, as Bovens says “if I cannot be assured that others will cooperate then it is better to defect”, and so take my chance to shoot a hare that rushes by, for maybe others will take their chances as well, if they see one, even though cooperating would be better, provided that everybody does. Anyway, this is so if you value a deer more than a hare and if enough deer will be shot for all. Although cooperation is what normally should be expected, the uncertainty what others will do (“take your chance”) plus the wavering character of many people (“shall I abide by my decision to cooperate?”) makes that cooperation is often so difficult.
This time I’ll leave it to you to make a payoff matrix, but the case made me think of the fable of the fox in the hen run. A farmer makes a net fall to catch a fox that each night steals one of his chickens. The next night the fox is caught and the noise awakens the chickens in the coop. “Help me”, the fox cries, “for the farmer will kill me”. The chickens don’t want to do it, glad that the fox has been caught. However, the fox promises “I’ll do anything you say, if you free me.” The chickens don’t trust him, for might the fox not kill one of them, once released? Who says that he’ll keep his promise? Then one of the hens gets an idea and says: “If we set you free from this trap, will you remain here in this coop and protect us from any other foxes that try to get in?” Since his life is at stake, the fox agrees and promises to stay with them for the rest of his life. At first the chicken don’t trust him, but after careful consideration, they decide to set him free. For will it not also be advantageous if the fox stays with them? If the farmer kills the fox, soon another fox will come and steal chickens and the whole story will start anew. Maybe that fox will be smarter and will not let himself be caught. And so it happened that the chickens freed the fox, the fox kept his promise, and chickens and fox lived peacefully together and the latter chased away all foxes that tried to catch one of the birds.
Maybe the case of the fox in the chicken coop is not a pure stag hunt game, but the moral is the same: Often you are better off to cooperate. This is so if you do, because you are in trouble and have no choice, but also even if you know that the other cooperates because s/he has no choice.

Postscript: These things can happen in real:

- Bovens, Luc, “The Tragedy of the Commons as a Voting Game”, in Martin Peterson (ed.), The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015; pp. 156-176 (especially p. 160).
- “The Fox in the Chicken Coop”, on website

Monday, November 05, 2018

The chicken game

You are driving on a narrow road. You are driving fast, for you are late. Then you see a car coming from the other direction, also driving fast. What will you do? Of course, you don’t need to think about it. You slow down and you swerve. Probably the other driver does the same. If you hadn’t swerved, you could have died in the accident that would follow, or at least the car would have big damage. And the same so for the other driver. Why take the risk that the other will not swerve? Nevertheless it sometimes happens that both drivers continue to drive straight on expecting that the other will give way, for why should it be you who must be the chicken? If both drivers think so, and no one swerves, even not at the last moment,  the consequences are fatal.
The case just described is an example of the so-called Game of Chicken. Sometimes it is really played as a game, often it is played in real with possibly fatal consequences, indeed. The Dutch Wikipedia ( ) mentions a game popular in New York in which youngsters throw knives to each other. Who ducks is a chicken. It also happens that the game is “played” in a real life situation in which the destiny of the world is at stake. A war of attrition is a chicken game of a sort. After mid September 1914, a month after the outbreak of the First World War, the front in Northern France had stabilized, with the Germans troops on the northern side of the frontline and the French and its allies on the southern side, it appeared to be impossible to force a breakthrough. It became a matter of waiting which party would be exhausted first and would ask for negotiations or would surrender. Finally it was Germany that gave way and lost. However, when we think of a political chicken game, the first that comes to mind is the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
My description of this crisis must be very simplified. What I must leave out, for instance, is that there was contact during the crisis, unlike what is supposed in the standard chicken game. It was not simply a matter of “you do this and I do that”, for there was room for negotiations; the “game” was not one-dimensional; etc. There wasn’t simply a good guy and a bad guy. But basically it was this that happened: The Soviet Union wanted to install missiles on Cuba that could reach US territory and so destroy it with nuclear bombs. Soviet ships with the equipment were under way to Cuba (in fact, some missiles had already been installed). When the USA discovered what was happening, it threatened to stop the ships. If no party would give in, so if the USSR didn’t withdraw the ships and the USA would stop them, the consequence could be a nuclear war. If one party would give in, while the other didn’t (the USA wouldn’t stop the ships and the USSR wouldn’t withdraw the ships; or the USA would stop the ships and the USSR would withdraw them instead of trying to sail them to Cuba with force), the chicken would suffer a defeat in front of the whole world. Here is a payoff matrix for this chicken game (the figures for the USA are first):

The figures are a bit arbitrary but I think that you see the point. Cell (a) describes a compromise and (d) a nuclear war. (c) involves that the USA wins, the threat has been removed and its political prestige in the world has risen a lot, while in (b) it’s just the USSR that wins and gains enormous in political prestige while the threat for the USA still exists. What really happened in 1962 was (a), but not exactly. The outcome of the crisis was a compromise of a sort for no party wanted to risk a nuclear war, but in fact the USA won: The Soviet Union withdrew its missiles, and the USA promised not to invade Cuba (as it had tried in 1961); the demand of the Soviets that the NATO missiles in Turkey should be withdrawn as well was ignored. Therefore (4,1) is a better description of cell (a) in this case. One result was positive for both parties and has been followed by other countries as well: It was decided to install a hotline between Washington and Moscow for direct communication between the political leaders in case of crisis. Unlike what many people think, the hotline is not a telephone connection but originally it used a Teletype equipment and nowadays it is a fax. Even if you play the game of brinkmanship, in the end it is better to connect.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Global warming and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

You and your partner in crime are in custody. You are kept in separate cells and cannot talk with each other. Of course, you both will try to minimize your sentence if convicted, and the sentence of each of you will depend on whether or not you confess and gives evidence against your partner. If both of you deny and keep silent about the other, each of you will get a sentence of two years in prison for some minor crimes. If both of you confess and testify against the other, each of you will get 10 years. If you confess and testify against your partner and the latter denies and keeps silent about you, you’ll get one year and your partner will get a sentence of 20 years; and the other way round. See this schema:

Your possible sentences are first in each cell and the related possible sentences of your partner are second.
The best for both of you is to deny your involvement in the crime if the other does as well, but how do you know that the other will deny? For if one confesses and gives evidence against the other, while the other denies, the former will be better off. We call this problem the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
There are many versions of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. One version is the Tragedy of the Commons, first presented by Garrett Hardin in 1968. It runs as follows: As happened and still happens in many parts of the world, herdsmen often pasture their herds on the common grounds of the community. If every herdsman increases his herd, at a certain moment the commons will have reached their maximum capacity for grazing. However, “as a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, ‘What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?’ ... The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another….” (Hardin, p. 169). Now it is so that the effect of adding one animal on the quality of the pasture lands will be so small, that nobody will notice it. Moreover, the costs of the damage of each animal added will be shared by all herdsmen, while the gains will go to the owner of the added animal. Usually these gains are higher than the additional costs (for the owner!). Therefore it will be rational for each herdsman to add livestock to his herd beyond the capacity that the commons can bear. This will go on till the system crashes and each herdsman earns less than he got before the commons had reached their maximum capacity.
This is what we see now – so Hardin warns us (p. 169) – in the problem of global pollution and, as I want to add – for when Hardin wrote his article, it was not yet a topic – in the problem of global warming (which actually is a pollution problem). But the Tragedy of the Commons doesn’t only point out the essence of the problem of global warming, but also why a solution is so difficult. For in the short run, it is you who profits by your pollution that contributes to the global warning, but the costs go to everybody. And why wouldn’t you go on producing pollution then? For if you stop doing so and others continue, you are the loser and these others gain (at least in the short run). So the Tragedy of the Commons is a kind of Prisoner’s Dilemma.
Hardin saw two solutions for the problem: privatization or a kind of central authority. However, privatization is not possible: you can subdivide the commons but not pollution, for wind and water will bring it to your neighbour. And I don’t see that there’ll ever be a kind of central world authority that will be more powerful than the now powerless United Nations. Rational cooperation on a moral base between the countries seems to be the only option, but how will it happen given the weak results of the past international conferences on global warming? Less developed countries will put the blame on the rich countries and say that they first must catch up. Even if this problem will be solved, the central problem of the Tragedy of the Commons, namely the dilemma of the conflict between individual and collective rationality, is still there. At least in the short run (and maybe in the long run as well), individually each person will profit by not ending his polluting practices.There are no sanctions, and moreover much pollution by an individual country, let alone by an individual person, has no immediate appreciable effect on the total pollution. And why wouldn’t you cheat, if others cheat as well (or so you think)? As Maclean states in the article that brought me to this blog: “If no one else surrenders his rights, you would be foolish to do so; and if everyone else surrenders his rights, you can gain further advantage by refusing to surrender yours”. (p. 225). It’s Hobbes’ dilemma without the possibility of Hobbes’ solution: Leviathan. But if the global pollution cannot be stopped, who will stop the global warming?

- Hardin, Garrett, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) in Ekistics, Vol. 27, No. 160, ECOSYSTEMS: man and nature (MARCH 1969), pp. 168-170.
- Maclean, Douglas, “Prisoner’s Dilemmas, intergenerational asymmetry, and climate chance ethics”, in Martin Peterson (ed.), The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015; pp. 219-242.
- Peterson, Martin, “Introduction”, in The Prisoner’s Dilemma (see above); pp. 1-15.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The intention paradox

You have a desire to achieve a certain goal, or you want to have something, or you have another desire like that. If the desire is really effective and not simply a vague wish, we say that you have an intention. Then you make a plan of action how to attain your goal and you perform the action or actions as planned. For instance, you get the desire to go to a concert tomorrow evening. So you look on the Internet for the programs of several concert halls in your town and in the towns nearby. You make your choice and buy your ticket online and tomorrow evening you go. This is a simple example of what happens when you have an intention and you have the chance to fulfil it and often it works fundamentally this way, also in more complicated cases like when you want to make a tour through South America. I could call it the direct way to fulfil an intention.
Take now this well-known case, described for the first time by Roderick Chisholm: Carl intends to kill his rich uncle because he wants to inherit his fortune. He believes that his uncle is at home and drives towards his house in order to execute his intention there. This agitates him that much that he drives recklessly. On the way he hits and kills a pedestrian, who happens to be his uncle. Therefore we can say that in an indirect way Carl’s intention made him kill his uncle. An intriguing question then is, of course, whether Carl is also responsible for the killing of his uncle, in view of his intention, for it may be so that at the moment of the accident Carl didn’t break any traffic rule and that the pedestrian (his uncle) suddenly crossed the road. I’ll bypass this problem, for here I want to raise another question. When we have an intention, it can be fulfilled in a direct or in an indirect way, as we just have seen. However, is it possible that an intention we have can be fulfilled only when we don’t have it or when we drop it? I think that such intentions exist. Emotions are a case in point, for, to take an example, we can never be happy unless we refrain from trying to be so. Then the intention has become its own paradox: Sometimes we get things we intended to get just because we didn’t intend them.

Monday, October 15, 2018


My blog last week was a clear case of self-censorship. Or rather, not the blog itself was, but I had self-censured the photo: I had uploaded another photo than I actually wanted to do, because I feared that it would be removed by some social media because it showed a nude female body. Or to be more exact, it showed a nude female shop-window dummy (placed as trash in the street). My fear that this would happen was not without reason, for I know that a photo of a 40,000 years old (!) rather abstract female figurine had been removed by Facebook simply for the reason that it was nude. And a museum in Antwerp, Belgium, warns that pictures with paintings by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) taken in the museum and uploaded to Facebook may be removed because they show nude women. Since I wanted to share my blog on several social media and since then automatically the photo of the blog is shown, I decided to change the image for this blog, even though the new photo was “more awful” than the original one. By doing so I self-censured my blog.
When we talk about censorship, we probably think in the first place of journalists and writers who are not allowed to publish their articles and books in dictatorial or authoritarian countries. However, a by far more common phenomenon is self-censorship. Here I’ll ignore psychological forms of self-censure, which involve that people don’t freely express their opinions because of the possible negative reactions of others, even if they are their equals. I have rather a kind of self-censorship in mind in a more or less institutionalized setting, like worded in this definition: “[T]he act of censoring yourself because you fear that governments, firms or institutions will find something you want to say objectionable, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient. It applies to person communications, news, social media, art, literature, film and entertainment. Self censorship may create an environment of fear that suppresses economic activity, culture, political freedom and social processes.” ( Now it is so that in my case I didn’t fear the social media. I changed the photo, since it would have no sense to announce my new blog, if this announcement would soon be deleted. But what difference does it make? The effect is the same: I censured myself.
Now you can say: “Okay, that may be true, but often we need to restrain ourselves in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts.” That’s right, but it’s different when values like freedom of speech and expression are at stake and that’s often the case when we censure ourselves because we fear the reactions of governments, firms and institutions, even in democratic countries. Then self-censorship becomes dangerous, because it undermines the values we value and should defend. We see this already somewhat in democratic societies but the mechanism is explicitly used in authoritarian and dictatorial states where what citizens do is controlled by fear. In order to demonstrate that the ban to say what is displeasing to the authorities and the ban to express yourself in the way you like must be taken serious, examples are set. People who allegedly don’t comply with the rules are arrested, sentenced, executed or murdered (sometimes under a pretext) or they simply disappear and are never again heard of. Think of the recent murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey. Social media like Facebook can exclude people from their websites, if they don’t follow their rules, even if their rules are not the generally accepted rules; or at least they remove displeasing content, which restrains people to express what they want to express (see the examples above). Since most people want to avoid the nasty consequences if they don’t follow the rules, the result is self-censorship. You can say, of course, why should I need Facebook and other social media? The problem is that in the present world you need them, for otherwise – for instance –  nobody will find your personal website. Then you are free to express yourself, but nobody knows. As a result, self-censorship becomes a kind of thought police, for it doesn’t only limit the expression of certain thoughts but in the end it makes that certain thoughts don’t pop up at all. Just as it is the function of the police not only to catch criminals but also to make that crime doesn’t happen. This is well expressed by a certain psychoanalyst in Montevideo, who had lived during the years of repression and dictatorship in Uruguay in the 1970s and early 1980s. During these years he and his wife kept silent and they were never detained or imprisoned, but “[o]ur own lives became increasingly constricted. The process of self-censorship was incredibly insidious: It wasn’t just that you stopped talking about certain things with other people — you stopped thinking them yourself. Your internal dialogue just dried up.” ( Although the consequences of the restrictions of the social media are not that dramatic, any imposed limitation of thinking, by others or by yourself, kills thinking a little bit, anyhow.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Can people be trash?

When reading Anne Applebaum’s book Red famine. Stalin’s War on Ukraine, I came across the following quote from Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman:
“I’m no longer under a spell, I can see now that the kulaks were human beings. But why was my heart so frozen at the time? When such terrible things were being done, when such suffering was going on all around me? And the truth is that I truly didn’t think of them as human beings. ‘They’re not human beings, they’re kulak trash’ – that’s what I heard again and again, that’s what everyone kept repeating ...”
Appelbaum’s book treats one of the most miserable periods in the history of the Soviet Union. Here it’s not the place to go into details but in the 1930s Stalin and the leadership of the communist party had decided that agriculture in the Soviet Union had to be collectivized: Individual peasant farmers had to join big cooperative agricultural farms, if not voluntarily then by force. Applebaum describes in her book how this happened in the Ukraine, the major agricultural area of the Soviet Union. There was much opposition in the Ukraine against this collectivization. In order to break the opposition Stalin and the communist leadership decided to kill and to starve out all farmers, peasants and others who opposed the plans. As a result that millions of people died – executed, in prison camps (the “gulag”) or by starvation. In those days the richer farmers and peasants were called “kulaks”, but actually it was so that every opponent and everybody who was against the collectivization was called so. Moreover, in the communist propaganda they weren’t simply seen as people who didn’t agree and didn’t cooperate; no they were considered “trash” or “vermin” and the like.
Now it’s so that the situation described in the book is something of the past, anyway – I hope and assume – for the readers of my blogs, although I don’t want to underestimate the number of regions in the world where people still are treated in such an inhuman way. But you, readers of my blogs living mostly in comfortable circumstances, look around and watch: Isn’t it so that in your immediate environment still many people are seen a little bit as trash or even as vermin? People belonging to other groups, to “lower” groups, to “lower” classes than the one you belong to are too often looked upon with contempt. Actually, as is often thought by the “higher” people (and maybe also by you???), it is that they don’t behave as it should be. Their opinions are not the “right” ones, just because they are “lower”. In fact they are seen a little bit as trash. Especially those people are seen that way who don’t lead a regular life: poor people, street people, tramps, illegal migrants from Africa and the Middle East in Europe and from Latin America in the USA. In their hearts – and sometimes openly as well – many people see them as trash or vermin. Throw them away from your life, tread down on them. Of course, not literally. We are human and civilized and put them in camps or on islands far away or keep a watch on them in another way. We even pay their return home, in case they are immigrants and are prepared to leave. We are human, aren’t we? But in fact, a little bit of the feeling described by Vasily Grossman is still in us.

Anne Applebaum, Red famine. Stalin’s War on Ukraine. London, Penguin Books, 2018; p. 226.

At first I had planned to upload here another photo by way of illustration of this blog (which you can find here on my Dutch photo website: Since I am almost sure that this photo will be removed by Facebook and some other websites where I always announce my blogs, I replaced it by the present one. The cynical thing is, of course, is that the present photo is by far more scandalous than the innocent photo that I originally wanted to upload here.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Are you weird?

Please go back for a moment to my last week’s blog and look at the picture of the Müller-Lyer Illusion. The weird thing of this figure is – and that’s why we call it an illusion – that the upper line looks shorter than the line under, though actually the lines have the same length. Or don’t you see the illusionary difference of length of the lines? If so, probably then you are not weird, or rather you are not WEIRD, for especially people from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies are tricked by the figure. In other words, whether you see the illusion or don’t is culture dependent. This is not only so for this illusion but for other illusions as well. But let me here concentrate on the Müller-Lyer Illusion as an instance of all illusions.
This illusion has been first described in 1889 by Franz Müller-Lyer. Since then several psychological explanations have been proposed. However, all tests of the illusion have been done by investigators with a Western background and almost everybody who has seen the illusion has this background as well. Therefore, it wasn’t realized that the illusion might be a WEIRD phenomenon. This changed in the 1960s when it was realized that seeing the illusion might have been influenced by cultural experiences. So Marshall H. Segall, Donald T. Campbell and Melville J. Herkovits got the idea that people living in different kinds of environments may see the illusion in different ways. To test this idea they selected peoples living in different physical environments, varying from environments with mainly straight lines like big cities with sky scrapers to environments with chiefly winding and varying lines like you find them in wood areas. Teams of data-collectors were sent to peoples in 15 different environments who were asked to estimate the length of the lines in the Müller-Lyer Illusion; or rather they had to judge the difference in length. In their summary of the project the investigators don’t specify the peoples involved but – to give an idea – you have to think of inhabitants of New York as opposed to Kalahari hunter-gatherers, Suku tribespeople from Northern Angola, and Bete tribespeople from the Ivory Coast. Care was taken that the test persons were not influenced by the data-collectors and, as said, the test had been developed that way that the informants could indicate what according to them the difference in length of the lines in the pair was, in case they saw a difference. (Actually, they had to judge not only the Müller-Lyer Illusion but four other illusions as well.) And what happened? The illusion appeared to be an illusion. Or rather some saw differences in length between the lines, but the differences were different for different peoples; in addition the differences were zero for some. Moreover, to what extent people were susceptible to the Müller-Lyer Illusion was dependent on the environment where they lived. People from Western societies – societies characterized by straight lines – proved to be more susceptible to the Müller-Lyer Illusion than non-Western peoples, i.e. for the former the difference in length was more than for non-Westerners. Also among the latter for some the difference in length of the lines was more, for others less, dependent on the environment where they lived. In other words, seeing the illusion or to what extent you see it depends on the culture where you live. In an older blog (dated 22 June 2009) we have seen that whether a certain epistemic intuition is really an intuition for you depends on your social-economic background. Here we have an example of the fact that illusions are culture dependent. Often it is so that mental and visual perceptions are related to cultural differences. And if you are weird you see illusions where others maybe don’t. But since the whole world still becomes more westernized to some degree, it’s not unlikely that in future more and more people will become weird.

References and related websites
- Barthelme, Simon, “Culture and Perception, part II: The Muller-Lyer illusion”:
- Donaldson, J; F. Macpherson, “Müller-Lyer” (Some explanations of the Müller-Lyer Illusion):
- Schulz, Colin, “Are Optical Illusions Cultural? People from around the world respond to optical illusions different. But why?”:
- Segall, Marshall H.; Donald T. Campbell; Melville J. Herkovits on their research:
- Wade, Lisa, “Cultural differences in cognitive perception” (Some statistics of the research by Segall et. al.):

Monday, September 17, 2018

Why do we believe?

An intriguing problem in philosophy is the question “Why do we believe?” And then I don’t mean “believe” in a religious sense but in a psychological sense, for instance as it is worded in the Wikipedia as “the state of mind in which a person thinks something to be the case with or without there being empirical evidence to prove that something is the case with factual certainty”.
Many philosophers think that we have no reasons to believe our beliefs. Of course, we may produce reasons why we believe that something is the case, but finally such reasons are mere justifications. In the end we believe without having reasons for it: we just believe. Wittgenstein said it this way in his On certainty:
“173. Is it maybe in my power what I believe? or what I unshakeably believe?
I believe that there is a chair over there. Can’t I be wrong? But, can I believe that I am wrong? Or can I so much as bring it under consideration? – And mightn’t I also hold fast to my belief whatever I learned later on?! But is my belief then grounded?
174. I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own.
175. ‘I know it’ I say to someone else; and here there is a justification. But there is none for my belief.”
As Wittgenstein puts it: There is no justification for a belief. Even empirical facts cannot give it. Take the picture at the top of this blog. It’s the well-known Müller-Lyer Illusion. Someone who doesn’t know it will believe that the line on the top is shorter than the line under, while actually the lines have the same length. I can say to him: “Take a ruler and measure it”. But he replies: “I have done it but a devil makes my ruler longer each time I measure the line below. That’s why it looks as if both lines have the same length.” What then? I believe that there are no devils and that his ruler is reliable, but I cannot prove that his belief is false. Each “proof” by me can be “falsified” by another belief. It will not be difficult to construct a false belief, and if you believe it, you believe it. And why shouldn’t there be a deceiving devil that steers our beliefs? Until Descartes reasoned that his existence cannot be denied by such a devil and until Spinoza implicitly reasoned against the existence of gods that steer our lives, almost everybody in the world believed that nonhuman beings have a big impact on how we live and what we think. Despite many false beliefs man successfully survived more than three million years and led a happy or less happy life.
According to Andrew Newbert, this is the matter (as discussed by Jackson Preston King in an article; see “sources” below).The world around us is very complicated and very extended. We can know only a fraction of it, even if studying the world would be our main task. To quote from King’s article: “An individual person, living in a specific physical location on the earth, will never in the course of a lifetime encounter 99% or more of all the information and/or experience that is available on just this one tiny planet. We won’t read all the books. We won’t visit all the places. We won’t meet all the people. Most of the animal species on earth we won’t even see a picture of in our lifetimes, let alone witness in person.” Therefore, the only option we have is to construct images in our minds of how the world might be, based on our limited knowledge. We do this by forming beliefs and structures (“schemas”) of beliefs. Then such beliefs and schemas of structured beliefs help us to find our way in the world and to act: “Dr. Newberg’s explanation is that navigating the limited piece of physical reality we encounter in life, and remaining mentally and emotionally secure enough to survive, find mates, and propagate the species, requires an unquestioning, and when you think about it, strikingly unreasonable confidence in ourselves and in the world. Since full awareness of reality as-it-is was not an option for our ancient ancestors (as the overwhelm caused by so much data would have diminished, rather than enhanced, their chances of survival), evolution equipped them – and, as their descendants, us too – with brains capable of generating a convincing illusion of the reality of our own small words.” (ibid.) That’s why we have beliefs. They are like beacons in the sea that guide the ships passing by. Even if a beacon is on the wrong place or has gone adrift, it may hold its function, especially when we don’t know that it will lead us astray (which may be the cause of many problems). Without beacons we feel lost and so we construct them then in our minds – if necessary as illusions. Happily, enough of our beliefs are okay in the sense that they help us lead a life that avoids most obstacles.
We believe because our knowledge fails and because we need to act anyway. Fortunately most of our beliefs – correct or not – are effective and useful guides, and so, as Wittgenstein said “I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own.”

- “Belief” in Wikipedia, ( )
- King, Jack Preston, “Why Do We Believe Anything, Anyway?”,
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty,