Monday, February 17, 2020

Misunderstanding: What it is



Sometimes I am surprised that some phenomena get hardly any attention in philosophy. Take for example “waiting”. We spend a lot of time on it and I think that it is one of the basic aspects of life. I also think that the meaning of waiting differs from culture to culture. It should be interesting enough to draw the attention of many philosophers. It doesn’t. However, here I don’t want to talk about waiting. Once I devoted already a blog to it (my blog dated 2 June 2009). Here I want to write about another neglected phenomenon in philosophy, one that I mentioned already in my blog last week: Misunderstanding. One might expect that it would have received much attention in philosophy, especially in analytical philosophy, but I found only one article on the theme and this article had even been published in a medical journal (see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20871003). Also Wittgenstein hardly mentions the phenomenon and he doesn’t analyze it. Actually we can learn more about what misunderstanding is from psychologists; for example from Frith.

Misunderstanding can be an individual affair, but more interesting are misunderstandings in relations with others (and actually many individual misunderstandings in fact are of that kind). Seen this way, misunderstanding may be better described as miscommunication, for misunderstanding mostly arises because I have an idea in my head and you have an idea about the same in your head but your idea is different from mine; however, we cannot bring them in line and – and that’s the point – we don’t realize that they are not in line; at least we don’t realize it in the beginning. So we think that we are talking about the same thing while actually we are talking about different things.

Frith (I mentioned him already in my last week’s blog) nicely describes how it works: I have a model of your idea in my head and from this I predict what you will say next. But you, of course, have a model of my idea in your head and you predict what I’ll do. Based on our ideas of the other we talk, adapt our mutual ideas, etc. It’s called the communication loop. It’s very different from “communication” with the physical world. In that case, the communication is one-sided, for the physical world has no ideas. It just is, so there is no communication loop (and here we find the origin of individual misunderstanding, which is a kind of false interpretation of the physical world). However, in human communication you give me feedback and I give you feedback, and so our models in our heads describing the ideas in the head of the other are adapted and developed. In this way, “in a succesfull communication”, so Frith, “the point is reached where my model of your meaning matches my own meaning”, and the same for you. When there no longer is discrepancy between my model of your idea and your model of my idea, “mutual agreement communication has been achieved.” And, Frith continues, which is very important: “By building models of the mental world, our brains have solved the problem of how to get inside the minds of others.” So far Frith, for what Frith doesn’t say here is that this building of models in our heads of what others think is also the foundation of possible misunderstanding. Although I have a model in my head of what you think, it is a model of what I think that you think (and the same for you, the other way round). When communication ends, for instance when we think that my model and your model match, there is no guarantee that our models really match. And alas, too often it happens that our models do not match while we think they do. If this happens, we have a case of misunderstanding. Happily, many misunderstandings don’t remain hidden for a long time. Sooner or later we are going to act on the base of our false ideas and then it will come out that they are false. Then it comes out that my idea of what you thought is not what you really thought. If that is the case, our misunderstanding can be solved as yet.



Source
Chris Frith, Making up the mind. How the brain creates our mental world. Malden, MA, etc.: Blackwell Publishing, 2007; p. 175

Monday, February 10, 2020

Misunderstanding



Bats
In my last blog I touched the question whether a computer can give meaning to its manipulations in the sense that the computer itself understands what it does. For example, the Google translating machine translates the question “How many members does your family have?” into Chinese this way: 您家有几口人?(observant readers of my blog will notice that I had translated this English sentence in a different way in my blog: see the photo there). But does the Google translating machine understand the English and Chinese sentences in the sense that it knows their meanings? I think that most people will say: No, a Google translating machine does not understand the meaning of the sentences that appear on its screen, while man does understand what s/he says. Unlike a computer, man cannot only translate sentences but also understand the meanings of the sentences s/he translates. And an experienced translator knows that often a verbal translation is impossible and chooses a translation with a meaning that is as close as possible to the original text. Since translation computers cannot capture meanings, they often makes stupid mistakes. They “just” translate. Take these Dutch sentences:
- Toen mijn moeder aan de was was, zag ik twee vliegen vliegen. Daar was ook een bij bij. Ze vlogen onder de deur door, over de weg weg.
They should be translated as:
- When my mother was doing the laundry, I saw two flies passing by. They were accompanied by a bee. They passed under the door and flew away over the road.
I once tried to translate them with a translating machine and I got this:
- When my mother was doing the laundry, I saw two flies passing by. They were accompanied by a bee. They passed under the door and flew away over the road.
I am afraid that you don’t understand a word of the computer translation. Or rather, you understand the meanings of the separate words but not the meaning of the sentences. Apparently the translation machine translated the Dutch sentences word by word and didn’t understand the pun. Without doubt, in future this problem will be solved more or less, but there’ll still remain a residual category of “impossible translations”. Or is translating a matter of “Weak AI”, as Searle calls it? (see my last blog) But then computers must be able to “understand” puns.
Does a human translator better? In principle s/he does but not always. The Chinese poet Li Shangyin (c812-858) wrote a famously obscure poem, which has been translated into English in many different versions (now I follow, more or less verbally, Frith 2007, pp. 163-5). Even the translations of the title are different, so Frith: “The Patterned Lute”, “The Inlaid Harp”, “The Ornamented Zither”. In order to illustrate the different ways that the end of the poem has been translated (or how obscure the poem is), Frith gives three translations of the last sentence:
- Did it wait, this mood to mature with hindsight? In a trance from the beginning, then as now.
- And a moment that ought to have lasted for ever has come and gone before I knew.
- This feeling might have become a thing to be remembered, Only, at the time you were already bewildered and lost.
Each translator seems to give a different interpretation of the last sentence (and of the whole poem). Which is the right one? I think we’ll never know, for, as Fritch explains, “[t]he problem is that we have no direct access to this hidden meaning ... All we have is the text.”
Actually we have two problems here: Firstly, there is no context or the context is obscure to us. Take the word “bat”. It can mean either a mammal species with wings or a specially shaped piece of wood used for hitting the ball in sports like baseball or table tennis. From the context we immediately know what is meant. The other problem is the absence of communication between the interpreter and the speaker/writer/etc. of a sentence. Frith (p. 165): “... I want to communicate to you. ... But how can you ever know that the idea in your mind is the same as the idea in my mind? There is no way you can get into my mind and compare the ideas directly. Communication is impossible.” It’s what philosophers call “the other mind problem”: How to get access to the thoughts of the other? What you see here is that the absence of the other needs not only be physical but it can also be psychological. However, both context and access are important if we want to be able to understand and to know that we understand in the right way. Of course, the access to the other is only necessary insofar as someone else is involved. But the access to the other can seldom be complete and also the context is often not fully clear or it is obscure. If so, then complete understanding or fully grasping the meaning is hardly possible. What remains then is misunderstanding.

Reference
Chris Frith, Making up the mind. How the brain creates our mental world. Malden, MA, etc.: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Monday, February 03, 2020

The Chinese Room


My last two blogs were on the question whether a physical world is all there is. Two weeks ago I discussed the case of Mary, locked up in a black and white room. Mary learned there all physical facts that can be known about colour. Then she was released and for the first time in her live not only did she learn about colour, but she experienced colour. The conclusion was that the world isn’t merely physical but that there are also non-physical phenomena, namely sense experiences (which are often called qualia in philosophy).
One week ago I discussed Thomas Nagel’s famous question whether we can know what it is like to be a bat. Nagel’s answer was “no”: The bat way to experience the world via its system of echo location is so different from the human way that it is intrinsically impossible for man to take the point of view of a bat. Therefore we must distinguish between a subjective and an objective point of view.
In the introduction to my last week’s blog I mentioned a philosophical case that is even more famous than Mary’s fate and than the bat question, namely John Searle’s “Chinese Room argument”. I want to complete my discussion of physicalism by discussing it in this blog. The case is very famous in philosophy and it is very much commented on and I limit myself to put forward only what is important for my point. You can find Searle’s original presentation of the case here: http://cogprints.org/7150/1/10.1.1.83.5248.pdf ; see further https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chinese-room/#4
Mary has been released from her black and white world, as we have seen, but after she has seen red tomatoes, pink pandas and other colourful objects, she is locked up in another room for a new experiment, although in other respects Mary is well cared for and the room is comfortable. Among the objects in the room she sees a book that acts as an instruction set, a complete database of Chinese characters and the utensils to write them with. However, Mary doesn’t know what the Chinese characters stand for, for she doesn’t know Chinese. Then outside the room a Chinese woman starts to ask Mary questions in Chinese: She writes them on pieces of paper and pushes them through a slot in the door. For example the Chinese woman asks: How many members does your family have? Mary reads the question, follows the instructions in the book to determine which characters she has to write as a reply, writes the characters prescribed on another piece of paper and pushes it through the slot. In this way, Mary replies one question after another and she always gives correct replies, so that the Chinese woman and other people outside the room become convinced that Mary is fluent in Chinese. Nevertheless, she doesn’t understand a word of it but simply has followed the instructions. The result of the experiment is that it is possible to converse – verbally, in written text or otherwise – with someone else in a certain language without understanding what you and your interlocutor say in the sense that you grasp the meaning of the words in a correct way. Applying a syntax in the right way doesn’t imply semantically understanding the related piece of behaviour. However, any native speaker is not only able to speak his or her language correctly but s/he also understands what s/he says. Apparently meaning is more than machine-like behaviour.
Searle used this example in order to argue that artificial intelligence (AI) is not possible. Or actually, Searle admits that what he calls “Weak AI” – which merely replicates human intelligence without understanding what it does (just as in the example) – can be performed by “intelligent” computers, but “Strong AI” in which “the computer is not merely a tool in the study of the mind; rather, the appropriately programmed computer really is a mind, in the sense that computers given the right programs can be literally said to understand and have other cognitive states” cannot happen. “In strong AI, because the programmed computer has cognitive states, the programs are not mere tools that enable us to test psychological explanations; rather, the programs are themselves the explanations.” Such computer programs will never exist, so Searle. (p. 2 see the link above)
However, the possibility of artificial intelligence is not what I want to discuss here. For my discussion of the possibility of physicalism Searle Chinese Room example contains an important lesson. We had already seen that not all phenomena can be reduced to physical states. Qualia are a case in point. We have also seen that there are objective facts and subjective facts. In the end facts are dependent on the point of view we take. Now we see that the meaning of facts cannot be reduced to the way they are physically brought about. Having said this, we still don’t know how meanings are realized. However, ask a physicist and I think that in the end s/he cannot tell us what the world essentially is constituted of but that s/he can produce the mathematical formulas that describe the phenomena.
And Mary? After having been released from her Chinese room she lived happy ever after.

Monday, January 27, 2020

What is it like to be a bat?


In my blog last week I defended the view that Frank Jackson’s article “What Mary Didn’t Know” doesn’t reject the thesis that the world is entirely physical, as it pretends. At most the article shows that there are two types of knowledge: physical knowledge, which describes the world in a physical way, and experiential or phenomenal knowledge, which says how we experience the world. But it is quite well possible that our experiences have a physical foundation. Can’t we say more about how the world is constituted?
One thesis that says that the physical is not all there is, is John Searle’s “Chinese Room argument” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_room). However, here I want to discuss another famous contribution to the debate: Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?”. This article was first published in 1974 and is about the mind-body problem. I will talk here only about the first part of the article, which leads to a conclusion which is relevant for my question how the world is constituted.
Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon that we cannot ignore, so Nagel. It occurs not only in man but at many levels of animal life. Although it exists in several forms, the essence is “the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” And “[A]n organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism – something it is like for the organism.” (166). Nagel calls this “the subjective character of experience” (166) and says that this cannot be reduced to functional or intentional states. Robots and automata can have such states, and men can have them, too, but unlike men robots and automata experience nothing. (167) Now the question is: Does subjective experience, or at least its phenomenal features, have a physical basis? Nagel’s reply here is: “If physicalism is to be defended, the phenomenological features must themselves be given a physical account. But when we examine their subjective character it seems that such a result is impossible. The reason is that every subjective phenomenon is essentially connected with a single point of view, and it seems inevitable that an objective, physical theory will abandon that point of view.” (167)
In order to make clear that there is “a connexion between subjectivity and a point of view” and that there are “two types of conception, subjective and objective” (168) Nagel presents his famous bat example. Bats are in many respects like us, but they have a way of life and a sensory apparatus (a kind of echolocation) that is so different from the human way of life and set-up that it is a problem for man to imagine and experience what it is like to be so. Man can imagine and experience a lot and “[t]he subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth is not accessible to me, for example, nor presumably is mine to him. [Nevertheless, t]his does not prevent us each from believing that the other’s experience has such a subjective character.” (170) And so we can imagine and experience in a certain sense what it is like to be deaf and blind from birth, but what is it like to be a bat? In more than three pages in his article Nagel explains that this seems to be impossible. (168-171) Therefore, “[r]eflection on what it is like to be a bat seems to lead us ... to the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth of propositions expressible in a human language. We can be compelled to recognize the existence of such facts without being able to state or comprehend them.”(171; my italics) This then brings Nagel to “a general observation about the subjective character of experience. Whatever may be the status of facts about what it is like to be a human being, or a bat, or a Martian, these appear to be facts that embody a particular point of view.” (171)
Let’s return to the beginning of this blog. There I stated that there are – at least – two kinds of knowledge: physical knowledge and phenomenal knowledge. Following Nagel we see that there are also two kinds of facts: physical facts and phenomenal facts. We can also say: objective and subjective facts. Physical knowledge is about physical facts; phenomenal knowledge is about phenomenal facts.
I assume that I don’t need to explain what physical facts are. Yet a few words about phenomenal facts. It looks as if they are purely personal, in the sense that they count only for you or only for me. That’s not the case. As Nagel explains: “The point of view in question is not one accessible only to a single individual. Rather it is a type. It is often possible to take up a point of view other than one’s own ... There is a sense in which phenomenological facts are perfectly objective: one person can know or say of another what the quality of the other's experience is. They are subjective, however, in the sense that even this objective ascription of experience is possible only for someone sufficiently similar to the object of ascription to be able to adopt his point of view...” (171-2; my italics)
Wittgenstein famously said “The world is the totality of facts” (Tractatus 1.1). We have now seen that there are physical facts and phenomenal facts, but, alas, we don’t know how these facts are constituted.

Source
Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?”, in Mortal questions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991; pp. 165-180.

Monday, January 20, 2020

What Mary Didn't Know



A much discussed subject in analytical philosophical is the so-called “knowledge argument”. In order to explain what it involves, I’ll extensively quote from Frank Jackson’s article “What Mary Didn't Know”, which was the start of the present discussion:

“Mary is confined to a black-and-white room, is educated through black-and-white books and through lectures relayed on black-and-white television. In this way she learns everything there is to know about the physical nature of the world. She knows all the physical facts about us and our environment, in a wide sense of ‘physical’ which includes everything in completed physics, chemistry, and neurophysiology, and all there is to know about the causal and relational facts consequent upon all this, including of course functional roles. If physicalism is true, she knows all there is to know. For to suppose otherwise is to suppose that there is more to know than every physical fact, and that is just what physicalism denies. Physicalism is not the noncontroversial thesis that the actual world is largely physical, but the challenging thesis that it is entirely physical. ... It seems, however, that Mary does not know all there is to know. For when she is let out of the black-and-white room or given a color television, she will learn what it is like to see something red, say. This is rightly described as learning – she will not say ‘ho, hum.’ Hence, physicalism is false. This is the knowledge argument against physicalism in one of its manifestations. ... The knowledge argument does not rest on the dubious claim that logically you cannot imagine what sensing red is like unless you have sensed red. ... [It] is not that ... [Mary] could not imagine what it is like to sense red; it is that, as a matter of fact, she would not know. But if physicalism is true, she would know ...” (pp. 291-2; italics Jackson)

To summarize: Mary learns all physical facts that there are about, say, colour. However, Mary lives in a black-and-white world, so if she sees a ripe red tomato for the first time in her life, she learns something new about colour, namely what red is. So it is not possible to describe the world as if it is entirely physical. The upshot is that the thesis that the world is entirely physical is false, so Jackson in this article.

Now it is so that Jackson, who published his article about Mary in 1986 (and a related article in 1982), was not the first one to draw attention to this “knowledge argument”. Already in 1689 John Locke had put forward the same idea in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and, for instance, in 1927 Bertrand Russell wrote “It is obvious that a man who can see knows things which a blind man cannot know; but a blind man can know the whole of physics. Thus the knowledge which other men have and he has not is not a part of physics.” (quoted from Crane 2019, p. 18) However, it was Jackson’s article that led to a long lasting discussion, which actually lasts till the present. Recently yet, Cambridge University Press published a book that examines the relevance of the knowledge argument in philosophy of mind today (Coleman 2019).

Here I don’t want to discuss this book, but most articles in it reject the knowledge argument. As I see it, the essence of Jackson’s article is that the idea that the world is entirely physical is false because of the knowledge argument. However, I think – and I am not the only philosopher who thinks so – that Jackson confuses two levels. One level is how the world is like; another level is how we know about the world. The first level is a matter of ontology (how things are), the second level is a matter of epistemology (how we describe and know about things). To take an analogy, look at this picture: 


You can describe the colour of this square as pink. But even in case you see and describe this colour rightly as pink, you still don’t know how this pink is constituted. For it can be made by mixing the colours red, green and blue (RGB), but it can be made also by mixing the colours cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CYMK). Rightly interpreting the colour as pink and knowing how it is constituted are two different things. Ignoring the saturation, brightness and hue of a colour, this pink can be described technically by its RGB values 235-184-198. Alternatively it can be described also by its CMYK values 5-35-11-2. Nevertheless you don’t know how the colour is produced, if you know only the description. Analogously, a description of the world doesn’t say how the world is constituted. So, say, someone states that the world can be described entirely in physical terms, then the knowledge argument shows that this view is not right, but it doesn’t refute the view that the world is entirely physical.

I think that the thesis that the world is entirely physical is false. For example, meaning and culture are two non-physical phenomena. What red is like is another case in point. But this physicalism thesis is not false because of the knowledge argument.

Sources
- Frank Jackson, “What Mary Didn’t Know”, in: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 83, No. 5. (May, 1986), pp. 291-295.
- Sam Coleman (ed.), The Knowledge Argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
- Tim Crane, “The Knowledge Argument is an Argument about Knowledge”, in Coleman (2019), pp. 15-31.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The banality of life


The end of the year holidays are behind us. Christmas and the New Year – we all have celebrated these days, or many of us have. Most then celebrate Christmas the 25 and 26th of December; others, like many Russians, do it the 7th and 8th of January. In Spain and other countries they celebrate also Epiphany on the 6th of January, which is especially for children. Without a doubt in other countries they have their own around the end of the year celebrations and traditions as well. But then it’s over and we have turned back to the daily routine. I guess that most readers of this blog have even forgotten already these days of celebration and relaxation, when they read this blog.
So we are again in the daily rut. Banality reigns again, for highlights are the exception. Otherwise they wouldn't be highlights. We go to the office, park our cars, do our shopping, clean the windows and peel the potatoes. Banality. Is it banality? What is banal wouldn’t be banal or it has happened that sociologists have studied it and have written articles and books about it; and photographers have photographed it. I, too, regularly take photos of “banal” objects and events, for I think that also the banal is interesting. And also in some blogs I have written about it. Why gets banality so much attention? Because actually nothing is banal, even if it seems so at first sight. For you can see the ordinary things, the everyday events and the drag of daily life also in another way: These so-called banal routine activities just sustain our lives. They keep life going. You can see the routine as the stream of life. Then the “obstacles” in the stream that brighten and break the life are as rocks and islands in a river, bridges that connect the banks, and whirlpools that you have to sail around: They symbolize the peaks and lows of our lives. They break the stream and so the banality. As a skipper you try to avoid them or they are just your target where you want to moor and stay for some time. Therefore you can say that the banal is the foundation of our life activities. Without doing the banal you cannot live the highlights, and without the banal there’ll be no setbacks. Banality is important!
That we can call the daily stream of life banal, says a lot about life today, I think, for I wonder whether there has always been such a “banal” stream of life. In a sense it is a recent phenomenon, for in the past life was so full of risks and unexpected happenings that it was hardly possible to talk of routine, and also many normal daily activities lacked routine. Illness, death, accidents, war, hold-ups, sudden meetings (note that nowadays we call up when you want to meet someone, but till not so long ago you just walked or travelled to his or her house without giving notice that you would come) were once integrated in daily life. Also, for instance, the work of a carpenter or smith was not routine. A big part of life was like a whirlpool. But medicine, social order, technology and so on have embanked the life stream and brought it under control. The wild water became a peaceful flow and sailing became routine. Banality set in and it became more and more exceptional that the routine was broken. And so banality became a characteristic of modern society. However, as you know now, nothing is banal. Enjoy it!

P.S. A few days after I had written this blog, I discovered that taking banal photos in the way I do has even a name: Deadpan photography. https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/what-is-deadpan-photography/

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Nieuw boek: Rondom Montaigne


Mijn nieuwe boek. My new book: Rondom Montaigne. Essays. Inhoudsopgave en beschrijving op
http://www.bijdeweg.nl/RondomMontaigne.html
Bestellen in de boekhandel en op https://www.kelbo.nl/nl/boeken/9789087599034/rondom-montaigne
ISBN 9 789087 599034


Beschrijving
De Franse filosoof #Montaigne is in Nederland vooral bekend om zijn levenskunst. Zijn denken was echter ruimer. Montaigne was een nauwkeurig observator van zijn tijd. Hij schreef over allerlei onderwerpen en gaf er zijn mening over. Veel blijkt nog steeds actueel. Bij de schrijver van dit boek roepen Montaigne’s observaties gedachten op die hedendaagse verschijnselen in een nieuw licht plaatsen.
Montaigne is ook als persoon interessant. Zijn denken en leven zijn niet te scheiden. Om hem beter te leren kennen bezocht Bij de Weg plaatsen waar Montaigne gewoond en geleefd heeft. Dit moeten we heel ruim zien, want Montaigne was een fervent reiziger. De schrijver zocht Montaigne dus niet alleen op in zijn kasteel, maar ook elders waar hij verbleef.
In dit boek komen beide aspecten aan de orde. In het eerste deel ontmoeten we Montaigne in zijn kasteel, in Bordeaux waar hij gestudeerd en gewerkt heeft en op zijn reis naar Rome. In het tweede deel gaat de schrijver in op Montaigne’s denken, met thema’s als eerste ontmoetingen, macht, vertrouwen en woede. Hierbij wordt Montaigne niet als geïsoleerd denker gezien maar zijn opvattingen worden in verband gebracht met die van andere belangrijke filosofen.


Inhoudsopgave op http://www.bijdeweg.nl/RondomMontaigne.html
Bestellen in de boekhandel en op https://www.kelbo.nl/nl/boeken/9789087599034/rondom-montaigne
ISBN 9 789087 599034

Monday, January 06, 2020

Moral fog


Moral fog actually is a term that comes from the military world. It refers to the phenomenon that in complex situations, which are so typical for war, moral lines and distinctions become vague and obscure, so that it becomes difficult to distinguish right from wrong. This is worsened by the fact that in war situations military decisions come to have priority: What is good from a purely military point of view is good as such. This has been worded by Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s: “We all make mistakes. We know we make mistakes. I don’t know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There’s a wonderful phrase: ‘the fog of war.’ What ‘the fog of war’ means is: war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.” (from: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Fog_of_War ) McNamara talks here of “mistakes” but actually this is an understatement if not hiding the facts, for often moral fog situations bring also outright crimes with them as well. But here I don’t want to talk about evil in war but about evil online.
The world of the Internet hasn’t broadened our world a lot only positively but also negatively. As for the latter: There is much evil online, and then I don’t only mean what is done by criminals who try to steal our passwords and inlog data in order to steal our money, for instance, but much evil is done by people who are seemingly good souls; souls like you and me so to speak. Take for instance the phenomenon of happy slapping: knock down someone, record it with your mobile camera and upload it to Facebook. For fun. For fun? What kind of fun is it if you physically and probably also mentally hurt someone else and show it to everybody? It’s evil! Or someone has sent you a nude picture in trust because you are Internet friends. But you both get into a virtual fight and you share the picture publicly online in order to blame him or her. It’s evil. Etc. Cases abound. Would you do such things outside the Internet in “real life”? The answer for most of us is “no”. Why then is your Internet conduct so different from what you do offline? In order to explain this Dean Cocking and Jeroen van de Hoven have broadened the use of the idea of moral fog and have applied it to the Internet as well. For there is much in the online world that makes our moral lines and distinctions vague, as they state in their book Evil online.
On the Internet, just like in war, so Cocking and van den Hoven, “our abilities to make and act upon reasonable judgements about our conduct, and about where we are headed, are fogged up in some atypical and hugely amplified ways.” (p. 87) To mention a few factors that make our online world foggy:
- “Filter bubbles”: searching machines select information based on what it “thinks” that you find interesting in view of your past searching behaviour. This makes that you mainly get information you already agree with. So your view is restricted to your “normative environment”. Critical information is screened out.
- The human tendency to associate with similar others and copy their behaviour.
- Anonymity. But also that online you can easily present yourself better than you are and leave out what you want to hide for others. And many believe you.
- Social isolation. You are alone behind your computer and nobody really controls you. You can have the weirdest ideas in your mind and put them online.
These are only some of the characteristics of being online that are treated in Evil online. They make that our social lives change and are different in online situations from what they are in the face-to-face world. Relations that were once clear and distinct become vague and obscure like in a fog: What is public, what is private? Who can we trust? What can we show of ourselves to others online, for example when we think of intimacy (if not to speak of nude pictures and sex?). And to mention yet something else: in the age of the Internet it has become more difficult for parents to check what their children do. The rise of the online world has education made more complicated than before. This is not only so because children are often more knowledgeable about the online world than their parents are, but also because it is easier for them to hide their Internet behaviour from their parents than their “real life” behaviour.
Factors like these make that the online world is foggy and nebulous in comparison to the “real world”, so Cocking and van de Hoven make clear, with the result that, to quote a book review by Robert Crisp, “[t]he internet environment causes us to be blind to morally salient features of what we’re doing, screening off our moral understanding. The technology distances us from the people we are harming, and the moral authorities that provide us with guidance are no longer our parents, our teachers, ordinary role models, but our internet ‘friends’ ”. And then the fog can becomes so thick that we lose sight of the moral lines we always followed and still follow in the “real world”. “[W]hat was obviously bad, now seems fine” , so Cocking and van de Hoven (p.97). When you have come that far, there are not many thresholds anymore for you to commit evil online.

Sources
- Cocking, Dean and Jeroen van de Hoven, Evil online. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2018.
- Crisp, Robert, “Evil Online and the Moral Fog”, on http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2018/10/evil-online-and-the-moral-fog/