Monday, January 28, 2013

If everybody deceives …

Reading Parfit’s On What Matters, I came across this passage:

“Turn next to lying. Herman writes that …
‘… Universal deception would be held by Kant to make speech and thus deception impossible.’
Korsgaard similarly writes:
‘lies are usually efficacious in achieving their purposes because they deceive, but if they were universally practiced they would not deceive...
But no one acts on the maxim ‘Always lie’. Many liars act on the maxim ‘Lie when that would benefit me’.” (Vol. One, p. 278; my italics)

When I read this, I immediately thought: Lance Armstrong could have said it, especially the italicized part (cf. his interview with Oprah Winfrey). And indeed, what would it matter, if everybody would lie? If everybody would deceive everybody, in particular if everybody did it in the same way? Then Armstrong would still have been the best. But it doesn’t work that way. Even if 90% of all pro-cyclists would have used drugs in his days, as some say, then there is still this 10% that has been robbed of their victories or couldn’t renew their contracts because they performed “poorly” (or because they didn’t want to take drugs for obvious reasons). Not to speak of the sponsors, the crowd and others. The morality that an act is allowed if everybody does it …

Monday, January 21, 2013

Ride to the roots

Juniper bushes and grave mound

The bike ride wasn’t to be philosophical but historical, or rather prehistorical. Instead of making the obligatory Sunday afternoon walk to the centre of the town when we were there in that little provincial capital, I proposed my wife to make a bike ride through the fields and woods east of the town. I knew there a few interesting sites and I wanted to take photos.
So a few minutes later we were cycling along the street that leads to the park where once a manor had been. What had been left of the house had been torn down long ago and only a tomb remained.
Arrived in the fields we passed a farmhouse with a striking architecture not typical for the region. We crossed a brook and turned left. The centuries old farmstead had gone. It had become a victim of arson, just after it had been restored. Nobody knows what the reason of this act was. We followed a muddy path, trying to avoid the puddles and pools, and suddenly I saw what I had come for: a grave mound, there in the field. As such it is nothing spectacular but the idea that people had built it millenniums ago for honouring their dead and that it still was there … And then, in the wood behind the field many more: dozens of grave mounds that had withstood the ages.
The toadstool-shaped signpost showed that we had to go left. Again fields, again a little wood and muddy roads. A fence indicated the border of the nature reserve and archeological reserve. It was a place where I loved to come and play as a little child, with my parents. Later, when I was older, sometimes I made there a bike ride after the classes and before I started to make my homework. Nothing had changed since then. Only the fence was new.
We put our bikes against a tree, opened the gate and walked to the heather field. Not just a heather field but one of the few places where you could see juniper bushes. And in front of us the remains of prehistoric farmlands. With some effort you could still see the low embankments that once separated the parcels. Who were the people who had lived there and had struggled to survive on the very poor soil? Where did they come from and where did they go?
When we followed the path to the right again some grave mounds, rather high. The places where these petty farmers had been buried? Or only their leaders? Or maybe they were quite rich then? And what did these people think and think about? But the dead don’t talk anymore so we’ll never know.
Before us a marsh with a mere stretched out. Somewhere behind the trees on the other side there was a dolmen. I took my photos. Then we cycled back from prehistory to history. To the left we saw what remained from the low rampart raised for protecting the tent of a military minded bishop who had attacked the region. In vain. Returned to the present the coffee was waiting for us.

Monday, January 14, 2013

What thinking can

Actually it’s an intriguing idea that people can think consciously, or that they can “think” for short. Some scientists believe that thinking is merely an epiphenomenon. From this point of view, it would make no difference, whether we would think or not: we would behave in the same way in both cases. I don’t endorse this viewpoint, but here I’ll not discuss the arguments pro and con. Others scientists take the view that our thinking does cause or at least does influence our behaviour. This idea seems more plausible to me, but here I’ll pass over this viewpoint, too. However, even if the idea that thinking is a mere epiphenomenon is true and man would be a very complicated kind of machine (in the way Descartes thought that animals are), it remains intriguing: For who has ever heard of a man-made machine that thinks? Apparently man is more than just a construction of nuts and bolts that fasten a physical structure.
What I find even more intriguing than the idea that man can think is that man can think about thinking. In my last blog, I have given an example of such “meta-thinking”, when I wondered whether a certain thought of mine was a case of cognitive dissonance reduction or whether I “really meant” what I thought.
Scientists are divided over whether thoughts can influence the behaviour of the thinker. But how about meta-thoughts? Take this example from my last blog: You always wanted to buy a yellow car, but in the end you buy a grey one, because the dealer had only this colour in stock. You think: “Actually a grey car fits me better”. Then you realize that you are reducing a cognitive dissonance and you change your opinion: “A grey car doesn’t fit me better. I wanted a yellow car, but the dealer did not have it in stock. I had no choice, but I still prefer a yellow one”. In this case you had a meta-thought, but it had no influence on your behaviour. If your thinking is epiphenomenal, than your meta-thinking is as well.
Is this always so? I can take the study by Festinger again for showing how meta-thinking might influence behaviour, but actually thinking about thinking in order to influence our behaviour is something we often do. For instance, you have to do an exam on a theoretical subject. Your traditional strategy is to learn all the stuff by heart by repeating the required reading so often that it becomes stored in your brain. Then your teacher tells you that another good method is explaining the subject matter to someone else. You decide to test the method and you ask a friend to be your audience. By doing so your thoughts about how you think have changed your behaviour. In this way our meta-thoughts often change our behaviour.
The case just described seems to substantiate the view that our meta-thoughts can influence the way we think and by means of that our behaviour. If so, it will not be difficult to prove that thinking can directly cause behaviour as well. However, we cannot exclude the possibility that some unconscious process in the brain is triggered by what the teacher told and that it is this unconscious process that both changed the learning behaviour and produced the meta-thoughts about learning. Then meta-thoughts are adaptations to what you actually do, just in the way as reducing a cognitive dissonance is a way to make thoughts and facts fit.

Note: I took the argument at the end from William S. Robinson. See his blog

Monday, January 07, 2013

The dust in my eyes

In my last blog I wrote about the theory of cognitive dissonance. Say, we expect that the world will be destructed on December 21, 2012. However, the prophecy does not come true and two weeks later the world still exists. We feel quite ill at ease and we try to understand what went wrong. We think: A supreme being has given the world a second chance. Therefore we try to convince the people around us that the world can be saved. According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, we try then to reduce the dissonance between our expectation and what actually happened.
Suppose now that I am waiting for the train of 10.05 a.m. to Utrecht, where I’ll have an interview for a job. However, the train doesn’t come nor does the next one fifteen minutes later. So, I call the Railway Information Service. The telephonist tells me that there is a power breakdown and that there’ll be no trains for some hours. Next I call the selection committee that I’ll be too late, since I have to take my car.
What’s the difference? When you don´t belief in the prophecy, you’ll probably say: In the first case, the facts are adapted to the belief and in the second case the belief is adapted to the facts. Or something like that.
That’s clear, you might think. Is it? Take these examples:
- Many years ago I took part in a 5K track race (running). One of the other participants was a friend of mine. I finished the race in a good time but my friend left the race already after two laps. “I wasn’t in the mood”, he told me, although it took hem three hours of preparation to start, for the race was in another town. Do you believe him? I think that my friend himself believed what he said, but I didn’t, for he would be the first to stop for such a reason.
- You want to buy a new car. You always said: When I buy a new car, it must be a yellow one, because not many people have that colour.” However, the salesman tells you that you have to wait two months for it. Because your old car actually needs repair, you don’t want to wait so long and you choose a grey one of the same type. Later you say to yourself: A grey one fits me much better. Everybody would recognize me from far and say: “There’s John with his yellow car.”
- Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith asked a group of students to perform a boring task. The experiment was in fact more complicated, but the essence is this: After having performed the task, the students were asked to explain it to other people and to tell them that it was very interesting. Half of the students got one dollar for this job and the other half got twenty dollars. When interviewed, the latter told the researchers that the original task was boring, while those who got one dollar said they liked it. Apparently, receiving twenty dollars this was a good excuse for telling a lie. However, the students who received only one dollar had a mental problem: The low payment did not compensate the psychological burden lying. So they got the feeling that the original task was interesting.
Without a doubt, I could have chosen better examples, but what I want to say is this: Often we invent reasons that fit the facts after they have taken place. Moreover, there is no fundamental distinction between reducing a cognitive dissonance and giving a “real” explanation. Or rather, the extreme cases are clearly different and in case of a cognitive dissonance the facts are adapted to the belief whereas in case of “real” explanations the reasons are adapted to the facts. But between these extremes, the reasons can be more a bit of this or more a bit of that. There the difference is actually gradual and reducing a cognitive dissonance is something everybody often does to some extent. Something happens that we did not expect or did not want to happen and we have to act or form an opinion. So we rationalize. However, this doesn’t imply that we throw dust in our own eyes. This may happen but often our reasons are good reasons.
Since I have heard of the theory of cognitive dissonance I often think: Is this thought of mine a case of cognitive dissonance reduction or do I really mean it?

Note: For the research by Festinger and Carlsmith see