Monday, March 30, 2020

The Tragedy of the Commons and the coronavirus pandemic

Generally, I avoid to discuss old blog themes again. However, this can happen because I had forgotten that I had discussed the subject before or because I have a reason to do so. Therefore, last week I wrote again about the trolley problem, since it is relevant for the coronavirus crisis, and now I’ll discuss another old problem for the same reason: The Tragedy of the Commons, a theme that I treated in my blog dated 29 October 2018. Why is it relevant?
I’ll start with an observation. As yet, there is no medicine or vaccine against the coronavirus, so it’s effect can only be limited by following certain rules of conduct. The most important rules people have to follow are keeping distance from each other and avoiding groups and big masses of people. The authorities explicitly ask to follow these rules. The coronavirus is dangerous but not extremely dangerous like the ebolavirus, or as the plague was in the past; I mean in the sense that complete populations can be decimated. In the end most people will survive. The victims will be mainly older, already weak people. However, many people do not realize that this is a statistical connection. It is quite well possible (and it really happens) that young healthy people die as well. Moreover, the coronavirus disease is a nasty illness, by far more serious than a flu. You can better try not to get it. Nevertheless, many people think: It’s not that bad and I am not in the age group of the victims, and they ignore the rules, through carelessness or even wilfully. Especially younger people do.
What does this have to do with the Tragedy of the Commons? In order to make this clear, let me first repeat, what it is about (see also my blog just mentioned).
The Tragedy of the Commons, first presented by Garrett Hardin in 1968, runs as follows: In many parts of the world, it happens that herdsmen pasture their herds on the common grounds of the community. If every herdsman increases his herd, sooner or later the commons will reach the 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 is shared by all herdsmen, while the gains go to the owner of the added animal. Usually these gains are higher than the additional costs (for the owner!). Therefore, it is 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.
Let’s suppose now that you are a young man of 25 years old. You like to go out, to hang out with your friends in the park, and to do there what you like. If you stay at home, you become bored and maybe even depressive. So you think: I must go out and meet friends. And so you do. Or, another case, it’s a nice sunny day, a bit cold yet, but it makes that you want to go to the beach for a stroll. Staying at home on that beautiful day will make you unhappy. I think you can add lots of such examples: Going outdoors is personally (individually) better for you than staying at home. Going out has a positive utility for you, as philosophers call it. However, once you are there where you wanted to go, you see that so many people got the same idea and that the rules to get the coronavirus under control cannot be kept. You think: “Should I go home? No, I’ll stay here. My contribution to the spread of the coronavirus is so little that its impact cannot be measured. Moreover, the chance that I’ll become ill can be neglected. If I go home, I’ll miss my fun. The best for me is to stay here.” And that’s what we saw last weekend a week ago: Many people went out and broke the rules of conduct against the coronavirus. We saw it here in the Netherlands, in Germany, in Belgium, in Australia, and so on. I will call this I-don’t-give-a-damn behaviour, or “No-Damn”, for short.
Back to the Tragedy of the Commons (or “Tragedy” for short). I think that you see the analogy between the Tragedy and No-Damn. Both in Tragedy and in No-Damn it is advantageous for individuals to ignore what is useful for all. For just as in Tragedy the commons are damaged by individually advantageous behaviour, in No-Damn the coronavirus will be increasingly spread by individually profitable actions, with the consequence of more ill and dead people: Individual rationality leads to collective irrationality. That’s what we see when too many people ignore the rules to get the coronavirus under control.
However, both in Tragedy and in No-Damn I have supposed that individuals are isolated entities that don’t communicate with each other and take their decisions independently. Of course, the practice is different, and this brings me to three ways to prevent No-Damn (partly following Maclean p. 227):
- Privatizing the problem. In the case of Tragedy this means subdividing the commons, so that each herdsman has to pay the costs of overgrazing. However, I don’t see how this solution can be applied to the No-Damn case.
- Social pressure in order to change the behaviour of those who ignore the rules to restrict the coronavirus and to make that they (or most of them) behave like responsible citizens. That was the reaction of the Dutch media a week ago when too many people broke the rules.
- Leviathan, as Maclean calls it: The state takes absolute power to set rules and to enforce them. That’s what we see in China, Italy and Spain etc. If that happens, the no-damners are worse off than they thought, when they didn’t give a damn about the rules.

- Bovens, Luc, “The Tragedy of the Commons as a Voting Game”, in The Prisoner’s Dilemma (see below); pp. 156-176.
- 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.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The trolley problem and the corona virus

A columnist in the Dutch daily De Volkskrant, Ionica Smeets, drew my attention to the relevance of the trolley problem for the present corona crisis. Since I have discussed the trolley problem already several times in my blogs, I think that it’s good to devote a few words to this theme in my blogs as well. Without a doubt, most of my regular readers will certainly remember what the trolley problem involves, but for those who have forgotten it or simply don’t know what it is about, here it is in short:
Case 1. A driverless, runaway trolley on a railway is heading for a tunnel, in which it would kill five people. As a bystander, you can save their lives by turning a switch and redirecting the trolley to another track. However, there is a man walking on that other track that would be killed instead of the five. Would you kill one person in order to save five?
There is also another version of the trolley problem (actually there are more versions, but that’s not important here):
Case 2. The same situation but now you, the bystander, are standing on a footbridge above the track. You are slim and short but a large man is just crossing the bridge. If you jump on the track, you will be run over by the trolley, which will kill you and the five people as well. If you push the large man on the track, he will be killed but the trolley will stop and the five will be saved. Would you push the man?
Most people say “yes” in Case 1 and “no” in Case 2. Apparently, it makes a difference, whether you actively (intentionally) kill a person or passively (let it happen that it happens). To put it differently, in Case 1, you might reason, “Well, by turning the switch one person is killed instead of five, so four lives are saved.” Also in Case 2 four lives will be saved, but the first part of your reasoning will run now: “Well, by turning the switch I kill one person, etc.”.
Put yourself now the position of the governments, local authorities and others who must decide whether or not to close theatres; forbid sports matches; close schools; to place persons in quarantine, even if they are not or not yet ill; to forbid healthy people to go out for the simple reason that they are 70 years of age or older, even if they are top fit; or the same for handicapped persons, even if they are healthy and, say, running a big enterprise; and so on. This is a real moral problem. On the face of it, you might say, that many lives will be saved by the measures, since they help prevent that people are killed by the corona virus. On the other hand, there are many questions that may cast doubts on the  ̶  moral  ̶   rightness of the decisions or at least may show that all these measures to “lock down” the economy don’t simply lead to saving lives and that is it. For these measures will also lead to an economic downturn and it’s a known that in times of economic decline more people die because of the bad economic situation. So, this is the trolley case of five persons killed against one on a social level.
In addition, measures like closing restaurants, theatres, schools etc., forbidding events, stopping “non-essential” economic activities will ruin many people, especially those who work freelance, have a small business, are self-employed or have an independent profession. A part of them will be ruined and go bankrupt and some will never recover and will lead a miserable life for the rest of their lives (which may lead to an early death, by the way). Others will have to give up their present ambitions (like sportsmen who thought to take part in the Olympic Games but cannot prepare themselves well) and their lives can be turned into another unwished-for direction (which, in the long run, might also work positively, however). Or just a very different problem, say you are a doctor. The intensive care of your hospital is occupied till the last bed, and so are the intensive care units of the hospitals in your region. Now another patient for the intensive care arrives. What must you do? Let the patient die? Exchange a person who has more chance to survive without intensive care for this new patient? Or what if the new patient is a young man or woman who had an accident and who will certainly survive on condition that s/he is treated on the intensive care? Must the doctor exchange this patient for an old man or woman who will have only a few extra years to live if s/he survives? Probably, the doctor will not take the decision alone but together with his/her team, but this doesn’t change the moral problem as such. This case is clearly a case 2 type, but it is to be wondered whether case 1 types of decisions are really easier to take. And if you take a closer look at case 1 type decisions, it may turn out that they are not really different from case 2 type decisions and that in practice the difference between both types of cases is gradual. But what kind of decisions are taken, it is to be wondered whether in such trolley cases correct decisions do exist.

- Ionica Smeets, “Vijf doden”, in: De Volkskrant, 14 March 2020, Boeken&Wetenschap, p. 21
- Old blogs on the trolley proble. Go to “Search This Blog” at the top of the right column of this blog page and search for “trolley problem”.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The confirmation bias

In my blog last week I mentioned the confirmation bias. I think that I should say a little bit more about it, for it is one of the most important fallacies in human thinking. The confirmation bias is the tendency to look only for evidence that supports your belief, view, opinion and so on. This usually goes together with a tendency to ignore, deny and overlook what doesn’t fit what you already think or want to think. As such this might not be unreasonable, especially if you must take a quick decision. Gathering negative evidence that undermines your ideas often takes much more time than getting positive evidence that supports them. Moreover, for many people it is often quite frustrating to give up what they consider right or to admit that another person was right (certainly if they don’t like him or her). However, the confirmation bias can lead to serious mistakes, for the problem is that you can find confirming evidence for any idea that you want to defend, even if it is false. By considering only positive evidence and ignoring negative evidence, it will not be difficult to “prove” any statement or theory, for instance that Santa exists (don’t we find presents under the Christmas tree each year?). Even more, if we accept only positive evidence for what we belief or think right, we can never prove that it is false, even if it is. That’s why we must be open to counterevidence and be critical towards ourselves. However, studies have shown that we tend to dig in our heels, when we are confronted with evidence that refutes what we consider true.
Several human phenomena can be seen as variants or expressions of the confirmation bias. So, many people listen, watch or read only the media that fit their political views. Conservatives often watch only conservative news channels and liberals watch liberal channels. You find the same selective tendency on the Internet when you use a searching machine like Google, use social media like Facebook etc. But in this case the selective information is also often forced upon you, unknown to you and against your will. It’s called the “filter bubble”. Generally, searching machines select information based on what they “think” that you find interesting in view of your past searching behaviour. This makes that you mainly get information you already agree with, with the effect that the information you get is restricted to your “normative environment”. Critical information is screened out even if you just want to have it. It’s often very difficult to escape the filter bubble, even if you intentionally try it. The machinery works against you.
Cognitive dissonance is another example of the confirmation bias. Say, you expected that the world would be destructed on 2 March 2020. However, the prophecy didn’t come true and now two weeks later the world still exists. You feel quite ill at ease and you try to understand what went wrong. Then you might think: A supreme being has given the world a second chance. According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, you try to reduce the dissonance between your conviction and what actually happened by looking for an explanation that confirms our original view when it seems to fail.
We can also explicitly use the confirmation bias for manipulating others. I found a nice illustration in the Wikipedia, although there it isn’t presented as a case of manipulation but as an example of the influence of a question’s wording on the way people look for information in order to answer the question. Here it is: Participants in a test of a fictional child custody case “read that Parent A was moderately suitable to be the guardian in multiple ways. Parent B had a mix of salient positive and negative qualities: a close relationship with the child but a job that would take them away for long periods of time. When asked, ‘Which parent should have custody of the child?’ the majority of participants chose Parent B, looking mainly for positive attributes. However, when asked, ‘Which parent should be denied custody of the child?’ they looked for negative attributes and the majority answered that Parent B should be denied custody, implying that Parent A should have custody.” (, section 1.1) This example illustrates that the answer to a question often is dependent on the its wording. So, by “cleverly” asking questions you can “push” people to give the answers you want to have. One step further then is presenting the answers as the way people “really” think about a certain theme.
It will not be difficult to find more striking cases of the confirmation bias. They make clear that as such it is not bad to look for confirming information of your views, but often it can disturb your thinking and lead to false ideas. So, beware of what you believe and be open to what can undermine what you take as true. And now that you know what the confirmation bias is, you’ll certainly see it everywhere.

Arp et al. 2019 (see blog last week); Wikipedia (see above).

Monday, March 09, 2020

Conspiracy theories

In these days that the corona virus spreads around the world theories about its origin seem to spread even faster ̶ theories that say that the virus has been made by some malicious scientists or politicians who have developed it for their own evil purposes. Here I cannot write about corona virus conspiracy theories as such in order to unmask them, but I think that this is a good occasion to write something about conspiracy theories in general in order to give you some handles that will help you to see why they are false.
Before I’ll present my arguments against conspiracy theories, I want to state clearly that I don’t deny that conspiracies happen. The murder of the American president Abraham Lincoln is a famous case in point. Nevertheless, I think that almost all if not all so-called conspiracy theories are false.
What then are conspiracy theories? Let’s see, for instance, what the Wikipedia says about it. According to the English version, a “conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful actors, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.” Already this definition points to a reason why conspiracy theories are false. Often they suppose a complicated network of ­ internationally ­ cooperating scientists, politicians and administrators, although in practice such networks always are difficult to realize. Moreover, as a rule there are much simpler theories to explain the phenomenon (event or situation) that conspiracy theories try to explain. Then argumentation theorists say: Use Ockham’s razor. The 14th century philosopher William van Ockham said already that you must cut away what makes your explanation complicated. Simplest is best. It’s true that viruses can be made by man and spread among a population or in a country that you want to destroy. However, already as long as man exists and before man could construct viruses, they came into being spontaneously and killed people arbitrarily. Why would it now be different?
So, preferably a theory must be simple, but it should also be likely. Some say that the Chinese themselves have spread the virus. Do you really think that they are so stupid to hurt if not destroy their own population?
Next, any theory must be formulated that way, so methodologists say following Karl R. Popper, that it can be falsified. However, many conspiracy theories are formulated in such a vague manner that they cannot be tested. So, if a theory says that a virus has been escaped from a secret laboratory somewhere, ask then exactly which laboratory? For a really secret laboratory cannot be discovered if it is really secret, which makes the theory a circular argument. Or, even more extreme: “They want to make you think that there is no conspiracy.” We have come full circle.
A related argument against conspiracy theories is that people believing them tend to look for information that seems to confirm the theory concerned and to ignore information that contradicts it. This is the so-called confirmation bias. People in the West tend to believe that China has something to hide about the corona virus, while they ignore that the WHO praises China’s openness. Moreover, people tend to be uncritical towards information that seems to confirm their views. So, videos on the Internet tell us that people in China got the corona virus by eating bat soup. However, these videos have not been taken in China and there is no proof that bats have anything to do with the present corona virus.
My handbook on fallacies mentions yet a few other bad arguments that are often used in support of conspiracy theories. I’ll mention them here in brief without much comment. These bad arguments are:
- Moving the goal post: If one argument for the conspiracy is rejected, it is simply replaced by another related argument.
- Proof by verbosity: Using a lot of words in order to obfuscate your case. This can include giving random information (or even misinformation) that is not relevant but that gives the impression to support the case. For who will check it?
- Big events have big causes: The idea that if a phenomenon is very important and has big consequences, it cannot have a simple explanation. A simple virus with a natural origin cannot have such a big impact as the corona virus unless it has been brought in the world on purpose by some people.
So far my short treatise why conspiracy theories are false. However, each conspiracy theory has its own characteristics. Theoretical arguments must be specified for individual cases and once a conspiracy theory has been undermined another one will pop up. So, the main lesson of this blog is: Be critical, and don’t believe what others say, simply because they say it; and don’t belief what is on the Internet simply because it is on the Internet. Think yourself.

- Arp, Robert; Steven Barbone; Michael Bruce (eds.), Bad arguments. 100 of the most important fallacies in Western philosophy. Oxford, etc.: Wiley Blackwell, 2019.
- Keulemans, Maarten, “Vaste prik bij virusuitbraken: complottheorieën. Hoe wapen je je ertegen?”,
- other websites

Monday, March 02, 2020

Philosophy of everyday life

My blog last week about a cord hanging from a letterbox can be classified as an instance of philosophy of everyday life. This is a kind of philosophy that describes, studies and comments on phenomena around us that are often ignored because they are considered banal or not important since they are seen as routine. Everyone knows them but nobody talks about them, for why should they? In this way philosophy of everyday life ­̶ or everyday philosophy for short ­̶ should be distinguished from Grand Philosophy, which discusses Grand Questions, like evil, what is good, what gives life meaning, what is consciousness, free will, and so on; you’ll be able to think up such questions yourself. Now it is so that I have nothing against studying grand questions. I have done it myself in the past, also in these blogs, and I intend to do so in future as well. They are very important. Nevertheless, the importance of big questions is no reason to ignore the “little” phenomena that make up the stream of life, for to my mind they are as important. Without the stream of life there would be no life at all.
One of my main interests in philosophy is the philosophy of mind and action. This kind of philosophy is sometimes also called psychological philosophy. In the same way philosophy of everyday life can be called sociological philosophy. While in psychological philosophy the individual is the focus of study, in sociological philosophy our attention is fixed on phenomena in their social settings. So, for a philosopher of everyday life a cord hanging from a letterbox is not simply an action done by someone for a practical reason but it tells us something about society or social life as a whole; in this case that a characteristic of the society concerned is trust. Trust gives this action a meaning that is more than only practical but that is social and philosophical. Sociological philosophy must be distinguished from philosophy of sociology. The latter discusses the non-experiential foundations of sociology, while the former says something about society as a whole and about man as a social being. However, when describing everyday phenomena, everyday philosophy doesn’t want to judge and it doesn’t want to answer questions that tell us how we should arrange our lives; questions that can serve as guiding principles of our actions. This approach makes everyday philosophy also different from Grand Philosophy. Both types of philosophy are looking for a meaning in the phenomena they study, but while in Grand Philosophy ascribing a meaning involves ascribing a judgement about what is good or bad and what we should do, ascribing a meaning in everyday philosophy is a way of trying to understand why (for what reason) the phenomenon concerned happens and how it is related to other phenomena. In this sense everyday philosophy is often more a kind of theoretical sociology (just like psychological philosophy is often more a kind of theoretical psychology). Indeed, the difference between sociological philosophy and theoretical sociology are relative and they are ends of a sliding scale.
Why is a philosophy of everyday life important and necessary? Actually, I would say, because life is more than highlights, main points, essentials and morals. Basically, life is a stream and when the stream is absent, nothing happens. The significance of everyday philosophy is also (more or less implicitly) expressed in this quotation from an article by Finn Janning (pp. 2-3; see Sources below):
“A philosophy for everyday life is … an investigation of the raw reality of life, taking in all of life’s many ingredients. Such a philosophy is necessary because — this is my claim or thesis — we still have not tasted life in all its richness. We tend to cling on to certain norms or ideals in a way that does not honor our own experience and intuition. At worst our life becomes an imitation, image or representation of more authoritative ideals. An image is a copy, that is, a simulation of the real reality. We have lost contact with life because we follow ideas or images of how life should be. To paraphrase Jean Baudrillard … life no longer precedes our moral map, nor does it survive it. Instead, the moral map now precedes life and engenders it. We live our life as an imitation of a moral model, as if such a model was not just another human artifact.
A philosophy for everyday life tries to overcome seductive simulations and beliefs that the truth is certain, unchangeable, and universal. Instead, [it] … views each step as a courageous act because it invents the ground it steps onto. The point is to make philosophy, in every movement, concrete rather than abstract (or transcendent). … [A] philosophy for everyday life is relational. It favors direct contact.”
Or as Eric Kim, a photographer said about street photography:
I used to think that street photography was all about getting that one good shot... Wrong. Street photography is about cleansing and easing your mind. Street photography is about enjoying your walks (slowly) with your camera in your hand. Street photography is all about finding the beauty in the natural world. Street photography is about the common, plain, and rugged.” (source: see below; my italics). And so it is mutatis mutandis for the philosophy of everyday life as well.

- Finn Janning, “Philosophy for Everyday Life”, on
- Eric Kim, “How to Be a Zen Photographer”, on

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Rondom Montaigne


Mijn boek Rondom Montaigne nu ook als e-book. 

Meer informatie en bestelwijze zie de kolom hier links of volg onderstaande link:


Monday, February 24, 2020

Trusting each other

Look at the picture at the top of this blog. It shows a part of a wall with a house number and a letterbox. A cord with a clothes-peg is hanging from the letterbox. It looks quite banal, but actually it is a very meaningful and also intriguing picture. For why is the cord with clothes-peg hanging from the letterbox? I don’t know how it was or is in other countries, but I think that most Dutchmen will know the function of the cord: It is connected with the lock of the door (left; outside the picture) and if you pull at the cord, you can open the door and you can go in (it works only for certain types of locks). The peg prevents that the cord slides back through the letterbox.
Cords hanging from letterboxes was something you could see quite a lot in the past (in the Netherlands, at least, but I assume also elsewhere). It made that an occupant of the house could easily go in and out without using a key. In addition, neighbours and guests you were expecting could use it, so I read on the Internet, but as far as I can remember this wasn’t common. As I remember, it was mainly used by children playing in the street, who could go in and out this way without ringing the bell each time, so that their mothers didn’t need to open the door. As for others, people don’t easily go into another house, for by doing so they enter a private zone. Therefore, neighbours and guests at least would ring the doorbell or knock on the door before going in.
As said, hanging a cord through a letterbox was much done in the past; I guess until about the 1970s. It was like laying a key under the doormat, so that you didn’t need to take it with you and everyone in the house, especially the children, could easily go in and out. This was also often done. Or you hung a key on a nail in the shed. Although you couldn’t see the key from the street, everybody knew that this was much done, so actually it was not different from openly putting a cord through the letterbox. Weren’t people afraid that burglars would go into the house? No. Everybody trusted that it wouldn’t happen. Indeed, criminality was rather low in those days so it seldom happened that this trust was violated.
However, times were changing. Criminality increased, and people got also more and more expensive possessions, so it became more risky to keep an outside door unlocked. Therefore, people no longer let hang cords through letterboxes, no longer put keys under doormats or hung keys on nails in barns. People trusted each other less and less and these practices disappeared.
Or so I thought. For a few weeks ago I walked through the town of Delft. And suddenly my eye was caught by this old, almost forgotten, scene. It wasn’t a quiet suburb where I saw it. It wasn’t in a back street. No, I saw this cord hanging from a letterbox in a busy street near the centre of Delft, where many people continuously were passing by. I thought that trust in other people in general had gone and that it had become restricted mainly to relations with family, friends and acquaintances, and to relations where you have sanctions (like often in business relations, for instance; and actually you cannot speak of trust then). Trust in general in people you had no relation with and that you didn’t know or had never seen or met had gone, I thought. I was mistaken. Trust in unknown people still seems to exist, or, if I am optimistic, maybe it has even increased. Trust does still exist, for people are still hanging cords through letterboxes, so that everybody can come in, knowing that it will not happen.

Older blogs on trust
- Every citizen a criminal, 12 September 2009
- Trust, 15 November 2010
- Trust (2), 30 June 2014
- The cement of society, 12 June 2017
- The cement of society (2), 19 June 2017

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 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.

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


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.

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