Monday, March 31, 2014

A country governed by criminals

(for security reasons I blurred the fingerprints)

I live in a country governed by criminals. And then I do not mean men like a former president who has been twice in jail because of robbery and assault and who recently left his country behind with an empty treasury and an allegedly full foreign bank account for himself when he was chased away by the people (maybe you recognize Victor Yanukovych from the Ukraine in the description). No, I mean the leaders of a country many people wouldn’t have thought of: the Netherlands. Of course, nobody should expect that we live in a paradise here. Only the other day a cabinet minister has been bawled out by the parliament, since he hadn’t told the truth about the activities of his secret service (I am still surprised that the parliament didn’t dismiss him). Recently a politician who is prosecuted for corruption has been elected to a local parliament. And, to take another example, the leader of an ultra-right party has been accused of racist statements. These things are bad enough, but it is not what I mean.
A few weeks ago I went to the town hall for a new passport. What did the counter clerk ask, besides the usual things like a photo and to set my sign on a piece of paper? She wanted to have my fingerprints, or rather two fingerprints. I had been forewarned and as meek as a lamb and without any protest I obeyed the order. As a result, now I am a registered criminal. For as you know, traditionally only criminals are fingerprinted, and at the place of a serious crime, one of the first things detectives do is looking for fingerprints. For nothing is as sure for identifying a criminal, they say, as his fingerprints (certainly in the age when taking DNA not yet had been invented as a better alternative). So fingerprinting and being seen as a criminal have always been two sides of the same coin. And as the sociologist W.I Thomas said in the theorem that made him famous: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. In other words: once you are treated as a criminal, you are considered criminal and maybe even treated as a criminal. So now I am a registered criminal.
Does it help in the sense that more crimes are solved or prevented than would have been without this fingerprinting law? I doubt it. Besides that fingerprints are not as reliable as is often thought (although they do have a high reliability, indeed), a measure can only be effective when it is applied. But actually this preventive fingerprinting is simply a paper measure. In this blog it’s not the place to give a thorough foundation of what I blame the authorities for, but the fingerprints are taken, stored and forgotten most of the time. It is simply a too complicated approach for preventing and solving crime except in individual cases. For instance, if there is evidence that an airliner will be hijacked, the authorities should have the fingerprints of the possible hijackers and they should have to check the fingerprints of all passengers entering the airport. Do you believe that it works that way? There are much better methods for preventing a hijack. And it is the same for other serious crimes of that dimension. Fingerprints are only useful for small-scale individual cases of crime. But then it has no sense to criminalize the whole population of a country. Nevertheless this is what happens; in the Netherlands and elsewhere.
But back to my point and what I wanted to say. Of course, I am not the only one in this country being fingerprinted. Although George Orwell was right when he wrote “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”, here it is still so that rules like fingerprinting for your passport apply to everybody, which involves that not only I am fingerprinted but that every member of the Dutch cabinet who needs a new passport is fingerprinted as well, including the Prime Minister. Do you see what this means? Indeed, that this country is a country governed by criminals.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Word and image

Look at the picture above. Wittgenstein says in his Tractatus logico-philosophicus: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (5.6). I say: Even if I have given a complete description of what is in this picture, nevertheless I still do not know what is in it. However, when I look at it, I know how it is and what it looks like. So my world is wider than what I can describe with my language (And can I describe my feelings fully?)
Wittgenstein says in his Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” (7) I say: What you cannot say, you maybe can show.
The difference between the third person perspective and the first person perspective is of the same kind (This distinction is discussed for instance also by Wittgenstein in his The Blue and Brown Books).

Monday, March 17, 2014

Philosophy and facts

Can you TRY to forget that you were there?

Wittgenstein wrote on logic which is about thought. Is all philosophy only about thought? I had to think of it, when I read an article by Kevin Lynch recently (see note). Lynch starts his article with the observation that “according to a common assumption in the philosophical literature about how self-deception gets accomplished, subjects deceive themselves into believing something by the control of attention” (p. 63). However, Lynch casts doubt on this assumption, which he particularizes as the idea “whether people have the power to intentionally deceive themselves using the ordinary sources of their own mind and body”(ibid. - italics mine). Or yet more specific: The assumption states that it is possible to make “acquire oneself a belief which, before trying to do this, one knew to be false or at least unwarranted” (p. 64). This can be done, so many adherents of this idea (“attentionalists”) suppose, by shifting attention intentionally from the belief to be suppressed to an acceptable belief. So, attentionalists think that people can manage to successfully deceive themselves intentionally. In their theories they explain how this can be done. (cf pp. 63-64)
Then Lynch presents and discusses a few attentionalist theories. The essence is: Attentionalists, like Perring, Davidson, Audi and others, try to substantiate their idea by philosophical means, so by reasoning. And, as Lynch stresses, “these philosophers make no special effort to insist that these acts of shifting attention are carried out unconsciously” (p. 65; italics by Lynch). The acts are done intentionally and knowingly. They can be done by simply directing one’s attention away from the unwanted thought (pp. 65-69).
This is the theory and so it works according to the attentionalists. But does it really work that way? In order to answer the question Lynch takes an essential step: He turns away from philosophy and asks what psychology says about it, so he appeals to an experimental approach. Keeping it short: Psychological experiments have shown that one can’t suppress beliefs intentionally and consciously. Therefore the attentionalist theory is false.
What does this mean for philosophy? Probably I have said it more often, but there is thought and there is the real world (I don’t want to say that thoughts do not belong to the real world, but here I make the distinction for the sake of argument. I suppose that my readers understand what I mean). Philosophy is about thought. It reasons and discusses about concepts and their relations, about what is fundamental and cannot be shown and about questions of life. Without a doubt you can add a few themes more.
In his Tractatus logico-philosophicus Wittgenstein said: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life have still not been touched at all” (6.52). This is also true the other way round: Even if all possible questions of life and thought have been answered, we still know nothing about the real world. It’s the latter what science is about. I tend to say that all questions that can fundamentally be answered by science cannot be answered convincingly by philosophy. Even if philosophers give an answer, always the question remains: You say it, but is it true? You talk about facts, so look what the facts are and not how you think they are. However, often it happens that philosophers ignore that what they think and say can be tested against reality. Then they can say what they think, but what they say fails to have the right foundation: facts (whatever this may mean, but just that’s a philosophical question). The attentionalist question is typically a question that can and so need to be answered by science (and so has to be the subject of scientific research): Can you think away your unwanted thoughts? Well, try it and see what happens. But apparently no attentionalist philosopher has tried it, for it is impossible.
The upshot is: philosophy is for philosophers and the rest is for ... (to be filled in, for instance by “scientists”; however there is more in the real world than only science). Every man to his own trade (and the same for women).

Note: Kevin Lynch, “Self-deception and shifts of attention”, in Philosophical Explorations, 2014/1: 63-75.

Monday, March 10, 2014

“Logic must look after itself”

War Cemetery of the Austro-Hungarian Army: It could have been Wittgenstein's destiny

Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of my favourite philosophers. I think that only Montaigne is mentioned more often in my blogs. Moreover, I am interested in the First World War (1914-1918), especially in the human side of this war. Since I have read already many books about World War One (WW I), including novels and diaries, it is obvious that I should read Wittgenstein’s Notebooks 1914-1916 as well. So I ordered the book and a few days ago I received it.
You’ll not be surprised that I haven’t finished yet the Notebooks so I’ll talk not about its contents. Maybe I’ll do it later or maybe never. But I have browsed the book a bit. It is a book on logic, and the notes that Wittgenstein wrote down during his years at the front and behind the front as a soldier laid the groundwork for his world-famous Tractatus logico-philosophicus. What surprises me is that Wittgenstein wrote no word about the war and his life as a soldier in any of his notes. I may be mistaken, for I have only leafed through the book, but I discovered no word about the war and his fighting. It’s remarkable for Wittgenstein made the notes not at home on leave in his study but as a soldier in active service. I do not know much about the circumstances on the Eastern Front during WW I, but I guess that they were not fundamentally different from those on the Western Front in France and Belgium. There life was dreadful, difficult and dangerous, also during so-called “quiet” periods, when there was not much fighting. Sometimes, also during these quiet intervals or behind the front, soldiers had time for themselves. Most spent it relaxing, talking with their comrades, writing letters to those who stayed at home, and writing diaries and sometimes books about their war experiences. Not Wittgenstein. He wrote about logic.
On the outbreak of the war, Wittgenstein did not hesitate to volunteer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. He served with the artillery but he has also been involved in some of the heaviest fighting directly at the front with Russia. Wittgenstein received several decorations for his courage. It is clear that he run a serious risk to be killed. Later he fought at the Italian front with his Tractatus in his knapsack. There he was taken prisoner.
War cannot pass without having big effects on life and society. Bertrand Russell said that Wittgenstein returned from the war as a changed man. Paul, Ludwig’s elder brother, lost his right arm during the war and asked Ravel to write his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (so it wouldn’t have been composed without WW I). Others, including many soldiers, wrote novels and books with the war as the central theme in order to let the world know what happened or in order to come to terms with their misery. Henri Barbusse published his well-known Le Feu (Under Fire) with his war experiences already in 1916. Others expressed their experiences in paintings. And so on. That’s only in the cultural field. Also in other areas of social life and in politics examples abound.
But what about what we have lost by war so, in this case, by the First World War? Maybe – although it seems unlikely to me – Wittgenstein would never have put down the thoughts that led him to the Tractatus without WW I. However, I think that the risk was much bigger that he would have been shot during these years and that philosophy would have developed into a significantly different direction. One can wonder how many brilliant young men and not so young men have been killed in this war who would have pushed culture, science, politics and other fields of human interests into another directions, if they had survived. We’ll never know. History would have followed another path, but things do not work that way. Wilfred Owen, the great British war poem who was killed one week before the end of WW I wrote in his poem “To Eros”: “War broke: and now the Winter of the world With perishing great darkness closes in.” It was then true and it is still true. Winter brings much what is flourishing in nature to an end and so does war in life.
It seems that Wittgenstein kept the world of thought apart from the world of “real” life. He started his Notebooks 1914-1916 with the words “Logic must look after itself”. Of course, he gives it a philosophical interpretation in the notes that follow. But in view of the circumstances in which the Notebooks were written it is as if he wants to say: “I am here as a soldier and I am here as a philosopher”. The former refers to life, and I’ll be silent about it. I have nothing to say about it, but all the more so about what counts for the latter, even if what follows doesn’t refer to real problems.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Can a group have intentions?

A group of four or four individual cyclists?

In the philosophy of action almost all books and articles are about what individuals do. Action philosophers discuss about concepts like belief, desire, intention, action and behaviour etc. and their relations and about how we can explain and understand the doings of individuals with the help of these concepts. But how about groups? People are basically social. This is not only so because they live in groups and need other people in order to survive, but there are also many biological and psychological − not to speak of sociological − reasons for this claim. Nevertheless, most philosophers of action do not take notice of groups, although common sense ascribes intentional concepts not only to individuals but also to groups. Isn’t it normal to say things like:
- the government has decided to cut the budget
- the orange team has won the gold medal on the team pursuit
- we carried the piano upstairs
- the crowd chased away the president?
In common parlance it is normal to attribute a belief to a government and say it reduced the budget because it believed that this would stimulate the economy. It is okay to say that the orange team wanted to win the gold medal, although actually three skaters wanted to win. We can say that we had the intention to bring the piano together upstairs, since it was impossible to do it alone. And no one can chase away a president alone but a crowd can do it.
On the face of it there is no difference between these group actions and individual actions, and it seems obvious to attribute intentions, beliefs, desires etc. to groups as if they are a kind of aggregate individuals. Even so group phenomena are generally ignored by action philosophers. Exceptions are Raimo Tuomela and Philip Pettit, for instance, and just they have to say interesting things in this field. However, in this blog I’ll ignore them. Here I’ll discuss only whether it’s reasonable to bypass the question whether groups can be seen as agents in their own right.
There are several reasons why action philosophers do not discuss this question. I think that the one that stands out is that all so-called group agency is nothing else but what each agent individually does put together. However, is it?
I think that this problem has two sides. We can ask whether groups really exist in the sense whether they have properties that cannot be ascribed to the properties of their individual members. I think that there are good arguments for it – I cannot carry a piano upstairs alone – and against it – the individual members of the orange team only have to agree on how to skate together in order to win as a team –. Although in my view the arguments that sustain the idea of group agency are better than those that refute it, at the moment I am indecisive about this what philosophers call ontological question. However, I think that the problem of group agency has also another side, which makes that it is a mistake that it doesn’t receive more attention in the philosophy of action. In order to make this clear I’ll use the example of a river. In fact, a river is simply a flowing quantity of water molecules. Perhaps it is theoretically possible to reduce the effects of this water current on the landscape, the way a river flows, the occurrence of whirlpools and so on to the behaviour of separate water molecules, in practice this is completely impossible, of course. And although we can say that the flow of a river has a certain direction (from the mountains downwards to the sea, for instance), it sounds strange to say that single water molecules show such a kind of behaviour (molecule x flows downward to the sea and along the way it erodes the mountain). That’s why we consider rivers as phenomena of their own and treat them that way. Even if we could defend the thesis that a river is nothing but a number of separate molecules, it is not a workable approach and rivers are considered as independent phenomena. In this way many fluvial geomorphologic processes can be explained in a satisfying way. In philosophical terms, epistemologically it is sensible to treat rivers as such, even if they are nothing but a bundle of water molecules.
I think it is the same with groups in the philosophy of action. Groups behave often that way that the can be considered agents. They display behaviour that looks like the actions of individual persons: as if they have intentions, beliefs, desires and what more. Therefore I think that it makes sense to analyse them – or to analyse them also – from the intentional perspective, even if it is merely an epistemologically assumption and even if ontologically groups do not exist but only their members do. See it this way: We say that the team has won gold, although we give the medals to its individual members.