Sunday, August 12, 2007

Epistemology

I've found many of your recent posts to be full of interesting ideas that are related to what is knowable, if one steps back a bit.

1) For example Stu spoke of the paradox of Buddhists (inner directed) that he is acquainted with, who appear to be L-minds. I may be totally wrong, but I'm guessing that these people are converts. On the other hand, I've known several people in Hawaii who were brought up Buddhist. They were happen to be pretty much mixed minded.

This introduces us to the problem of data from a self-selected set. The converts are self-selected and as such don't represent Buddhists as a group very well. We don't really know what conditions caused them to select this religion. For instance, during the sixties the pacifism of the Dali Lama and rebellion against parents was often a cause for conversions. Their alignment to political liberalism came before their selection of Buddhism. So, the general question we must ourselves, is whether self-selection biases a group we are studying. A particularly clear example might be the fact that students who take drivers education have fewer accidents. It's not the drivers education that causes the lower accident rate. It's the fact that they are sufficiently prudent to elect drivers education in the first place. In other words, their self-seclction biases the data.

2) Another remark (made by Ira) also set me to step back and think a bit. Ira believes that insurance companies should use all data in setting rates, because "selfishly" speaking that would lower his own rates. Since Ira has spoken in favor of "enlightened self-interest" before, I assume that is what's driving his view. I have trouble with several aspects of this approach to public policy. The first is the word "enlightened." This word is so vague that acting in one's self interest has no meaning. Anytime I choose not to act selfishly, I can call it enlightened. Other examples of such modifiers might be "compassionate conservatism" and "pragmatic socialism.

My other problem with Ira's approach is that we are not a Ross Perot democracy (thank God!). If each of us had a voting machine in his home and voted on each and every issue, one might argue that each person voting selfishly concerning insurance and everything else would produce the "best" result on average. (I say "might" because such a system provides no protection for minorities.) Given that we have a layers of representatives and regulators between us and public policy, I can't see how a philosophy based on selfishness can be justified. I propose that a philosopher needs a more objective approach that optimizes the result as if one had the responsibility of deciding for all, despite the personal consequences. We can borrow an idea from Plato here. A king needs to be a philosopher, but also, a philosopher needs to believe as though he had the responsibility of a king. Socrates chose to die rather than use the escape plan that had been arranged for him by his disciples. In short, his reasoning was that he would be setting a bad example for all others.

3) Several things that Howard wrote lead me to this general thought. None of us can get inside the head of another. We can observe actions and we can listen to a person's explanation for action, but we cannot determine motivation. We are therefore free (in the intellectual sense) to choose to believe what we will about the motivation of others. But, in the end we must recognize that choosing to believe does not make it so. Let's take the phrase "It's all about oil" agreed to by both Ira and Howard, as an example.

This phrase is somewhat like the "getting 'round the squirrel" anecdote from the Willam James, which hinges on the unknown intent in the use of the word 'round. In "It's all about oil" the key word is "all." For some, the phrase means that the real reason behind the war in Iraq is that powerful industrialists in the U.S. want to obtain Iraqi oil in order to profit in some manner. The word "all" implies the existence of a hidden agenda. For others like me, the phrase means that there is a war between the forces of despotic theocracy and individual freedom. Oil is a strategic material which can be (and has been) used as a weapon by despots to coerce democracies. For me, "all" means that a free worldwide market for oil is "crucial". We have a choice in the meaning which depends upon the unknowable motivation of our leaders. Both sides in this dispute can selectively point to actions that they claim support their belief as to motivation. However, in the end, we need to recognize that there is no proof positive as to motivation. With respect -Joel

2 comments:

Ira Glickstein said...

From: Ira, Re: Epistemology.

Definition of Epistemology: the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity.

Thanks Joel for introducing this new Topic and for giving the example of the "self-selected set" that may not represent the major part of the population well. Although I believe in sampling and the mathematics of "confidence level" in statistics, the whole enterprise fails if the sample is selected in a biased manner.

"Exit polls" have been a good method for predicting the outcome of an election several hours before the official count, but only for elections where one candidate wins by a substantial margin. The reason? Well, when accosted by an exit poller, a substantial portion of voters will *refuse* to answer! If candidate "A" and candidate "B" are in a close race, and more of candidate A's supporters value their privacy or are too busy to take the poll than B's, the exit poll will show B as a winner and the vote count may show A. Also, people lie and, if the poll-taker is young, or a woman or a minority, they may give the answer they think will make the poll-taker like them more. In addition, poll-takers may fudge the results to please their bosses.

Similarly, we tend towards what is called "assortive mating" and to associating with like-minded people in our families and professions. There are well-educated people who engage in an active public life who have never met a thoughtful Conservative and who therefore think we are all "red-necks" or worse. (And vice-versa for those who have never met a rational Liberal and think they are all socialists or worse).

Certain profesions, such as journalism, tend to attract "people persons" who have progressive views. A working journalist with more Conservative views will have trouble getting juicy assignments and promotions not because of purposeful discrimination by his (Liberal) superiors, but because they judge his or her reporting to lack empathy or balance.

Joel also brings up my use of the phrase "enlightened self-interest". I first heard that from another influential professor at Binghamton U., Donald Gause. He uses that term to distinguish between pure, unthinking "selfishness" (I WANT THAT ICE CREAM NOW! MAKE IT THREE BIG SCOOPS!) and the more "enlightened" view (IT WILL BE HEALTHIER FOR ME IF I DELAY MY GRATIFICATION UNTIL AFTER DINNER. ONE SCOOP WILL DO.)

The point of "enlgihtened self-interest" is that people and societies are healthier and ultimately have superior survival and reproductive rates if they establish customs that tend to delay immediate self-gratification. In many endeavors, those who "keep their eye on the ball" and consider the long-term results will be victorious over those who flitter from one course to another and are easily discouraged by relatively short-term setbacks. That sounds like a difference between C-minded and L-minded folks, doesn't it?

In reference to Howard's Comments and the issue of "motivation", Joel writes "None of us can get inside the head of another." Correct! There are several different versions of "The Golden Rule".

The positive version says: "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you."

The negative version says: "Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you."

I prefer the second version because what might be pleasant for you (e.g., opera, classical music) may not be pleasant for me or the majority of the taxpayers who finance public radio.

The cynical versions of "The Golden Rule" are: "Do unto others *before* they do unto you," and "Them that has the Gold makes the Rules."

Finally, thanks for your reference to William James and "getting 'round the squirrel"! I had not heard that phrase and had to Google it to read the lecture by James. What a great concept!

Applying that concept to "all" about OIL and the MidEast Joel said it perfectly:

"[T]here is a war between the forces of despotic theocracy and individual freedom. Oil is a strategic material which can be (and has been) used as a weapon by despots to coerce democracies. For me, 'all' means that a free worldwide market for oil is 'crucial'."

Ira Glickstein

Stu Denenberg said...

from Stu:
Ira said:

There are several different versions of "The Golden Rule".

The positive version says: "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you."

The negative version says: "Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you."

There is also Kant's version: Do only those actions that you could will to be a universal rule (which I think would translate to: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto others (ie everone else).

In any case none of the three formulations work very well for a sadist...