Sunday, March 27, 2011

This is your brain on drugs

     OK, I don't usually do this sort of thing, but, today, I'm gonna mention some paradoxes. Some philosophers love paradoxes. I merely like them.
     Here's one that, like it or not, I think about all the time, owing to how I make my living:

The Surprise Quiz Paradox:
[Y]our teacher tells you (i) she's going to give the class a surprise exam next week, and (ii) you won't be able to work out beforehand on which day it will be. Using this information, you work out that it can't be on Friday (the last day), or else you'd be able to know this as soon as class ended the day before, contrary to the second condition. With Friday excluded from consideration, Thursday is now the last possible day, so we can exclude it by the same reasoning. Similarly for Wednesday, Tuesday, and finally Monday. So you conclude that there cannot be any such exam. This chain of reasoning guarantees that when the teacher finally gives the exam (say, on Wednesday), you're all surprised, just like she said you'd be. (The Surprise Examination Paradox)
     As a teacher, hearing about this paradox is a little like receiving a notification from your insurance company that your policy is cancelled now that your dead. You're pretty sure you're not dead. But then there's this notice. Cool.  
     Here’s a paradox (or a set of paradoxes) that I often refer to in my lectures:

Puzzles (paradoxes) attributed to Eubulides of Miletus:
The Heap: Would you describe a single grain of wheat as a heap? No. Would you describe two grains of wheat as a heap? No. ... You must admit the presence of a heap sooner or later, so where do you draw the line?*
The Bald Man: Would you describe a man with one hair on his head as bald? Yes. Would you describe a man with two hairs on his head as bald? Yes. ... You must refrain from describing a man with ten thousand hairs on his head as bald, so where do you draw the line? (Sorites Paradox)
     Students imagine that every word can be defined with a precise definition.
     Nope. Imagine a series of slight modifications (removal of small amounts) of a chair. When does it cease to be a chair? Any answer will be unacceptable because it is arbitrary.

     VOTING. More than one thing is referred to as the “paradox of voting.” The particular “paradox” I have in mind (roughly) is discussed in the encyclopedia entry below:
The paradox of voting … is that for a rational, self-interested voter the costs of voting will normally exceed the expected benefits. Because the chance of exercising the pivotal vote (i.e. in case of a tied election) is tiny compared to any realistic estimate of the private individual benefits of the different possible outcomes, the expected benefits of voting are less than the costs. The fact that people do vote is a problem for public choice theory, first observed by Anthony Downs. (Paradox of Voting)
     Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in voting. I vote (most of the time). I think that I have good reasons to vote.
     But, in my view, one reason that I do NOT have for voting is the one we most often hear, namely, that “one’s vote counts!”**
     Unless one will countenance the fallacy of equivocation, one cannot really defend the notion that one’s vote “counts,” for, to say (in the relevant contexts) that one’s vote “counts” is to suggest that it will make, or it quite possibly will make, a difference to the election’s outcome (winning/losing). (I'm not particularly interested in the issue of self-interest; I'm interested in a point about efficacy.)
     Here’s where the so-called paradox*** of voting comes in. Obviously, for typical government elections (I’m not referring to elections involving small numbers of people—department elections and the like), the chances that one’s vote will make a difference to the outcome are extremely small.
     Consider the recent election for the “board of trustees” seat now held by TJ Prendergast, which was unusually close. The final tally was the following:

115,304 Prendergast
111,197 Muldoon

     As it was, Prendergast received 4107 more votes than Muldoon did. Suppose that Smith voted for Prendergast. Had Smith not voted, the outcome would have been only very slightly different: Prendergast’s total would have been 115,303, not 115,304.
     So, in fact, Smith’s vote, if it “counted,” it did not “count” in the sense that it made a difference (of any consequence) to the outcome. To be sure, his vote was “counted.” Nevertheless, it did not “count.” (Remember: equivocation is verboten.)
     It is true, of course, that it could have counted, though, in fact, it did not count. But, clearly, the odds of one’s vote “counting” are infinitesimal. Very likely, all of you who read this (hundreds!) will go through your entire lives voting and, in the end, there will not have been even one election in which any of your votes “counted” or even came close to counting in any meaningful sense.
     Some will respond to this by noting that, in recorded history, there have been elections in which a single person’s vote “counted” in the way I have in mind. (For an illustration, see Examples of Why Your Vote Counts.)
     Of course this occurs. Given the great number of elections that occur, this goes without saying, I think.
     But the occurrence of these events does not respond to the point at hand, namely, that, though it is possible that one’s vote will “count,” it is extremely unlikely that it will count. Given that one could live a great many lifetimes before encountering even one election in which one’s vote “counted,” in what sense is one being told anything true and motivating**** when one is told that one’s vote “counts”?
     In my view, when we seek to persuade people to vote on the grounds that their “vote counts,” we are either confused (i.e., we think we have a valid point when we do not) or we are lying/manipulating (we know that we have no valid point, but we offer it anyway perhaps because [we think] our end is good).
     My guess is that confusion more than lying is afoot.
     On the other hand, there are so many instances in which our “teachings” are manifestly (or nearly manifestly) invalid, we should consider the possibility that, yes, we offer this false point not “knowing” that it is false—but, still, it must be said that we have good reasons to suspect that, often, what we “teach” is logically hinky at best, and so, quite possibly, this is logically hinky too.
     Organic muffins, anyone?


   *So what's paradoxical about this? Well, you start with a heap of sand. Plainly, after removing grains of sand for a sufficient period of time, you end with a non-heap (one grain). And yet there is no "line" that you cross to get from "heap" to "non-heap." You cross a line, but there is no line to cross.

   **To act to influence large numbers of voters—something sometimes available to leaders—means the difference between a significant number of people voting for X or not. Here, whether or not “Smith’s vote counts,” the leader’s urgings might count a great deal. It will remain true, however, that not one of those votes counted.
   “Yes, but what if everyone thought that way.” It is of course true that what (say) 50,000 voters in state X do during a particular election can make all the difference. And that is why those who care about the outcomes of elections rightly concern themselves with persons and events that influence large numbers of voters. But all of that can be acknowledged without falsely supposing that each voter’s vote “counts.” That the collective vote of 50,000 voters “counts” does not imply that each of those votes “counted.”

   ***What is “paradoxical” here? It is, I suppose, that, though it matters a great deal how everyone votes, in fact it matters not at all how any given voter votes. That Americans in general voted for candidate X matters to the outcome of the election. That any given voter voted for candidate X does not matter to the outcome of the election. To endorse both statements might seem to be the endorsement of a contradiction, but it is not.

   ****Obviously, one is not being told anything of significance if one is being told merely that one's vote could mean something like the difference between Prendergast's receiving 115,304 and 115,303 votes. Why would anyone care about that difference?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Fookin’ Prawns

Guest writer: Alex Villarreal
     My girlfriend Katie and I were in the tub drinking martinis one night when our conversation drifted to the topic of District 9. For those unfamiliar with D9, it involves a group of malnourished and sick aliens found in a ship hovering above Johannesburg. The aliens (derogatorily referred to as "prawns") are taken to a government camp where the humans treat them with particular brutality.
     Katie commented how horrible it was the way the humans treated the aliens because the aliens were clearly intelligent beings so they deserved the same rights as humans.

     This got me thinking; what is it that makes a being worthy of so-called human rights?
     It seemed to me that Katie’s comment was implying that intelligence alone gives a being this privilege.
     The potential implications of that idea seemed interesting to me so I said for the sake of argument let’s assume the following:
1. A ‘being’ deserves fundamental rights on the basis of possessing some capacity or attribute
2. Furthermore, that attribute is intelligence
     Now wait a minute. Given those assumptions it appears to me there are whole groups of people in our society not deserving of human rights. Whether I refer to infants or the mentally disabled, certainly there are some unintelligent humans. Are those people unworthy of fundamental human rights?
     At one point in our conversation Katie claimed that infants and the mentally challenged do deserve rights because they are humans and humans are generally defined as being intelligent. Therefore they should be treated as intelligent (and consequently be worthy of natural rights).
     Now this reminded me strikingly of something professor Bauer said in ethics class concerning the nature of definitions according to Wittgenstein. He argued that you could never arrive at a set of necessary and sufficient conditions to define a word (for example try to find such conditions for the word game*). Bauer, following Wittgenstein, instead compared a word’s meaning to a system of family resemblances, pointing out that we could merely identify things that are generally true within the family but not exhibited by all its members.
     For example, in my family, the Villarreals are generally defined as being good motorcycle riders. But, you put my uncle on a motorcycle and you’re likely to donate a new hood ornament to some unsuspecting truck driver. So it would be ridiculous to treat every Villarreal as if they were all good motorcyclists.
     I think the same point holds true for humans. Just because humans are generally defined as intelligent does not mean we should treat every person as if they were intelligent. Clearly it would be ridiculous to treat a brain dead individual in a vegetative state as if they were intelligent. Distributing ballots to such individuals for the next elections would be an overtly absurd and wasted gesture.
     Regardless of where the line is drawn between an intelligent being and a non-intelligent being, there are certainly individuals who fall into the latter category. Consequently, if given that intelligence is the only thing that makes a being worthy of human rights, these individuals are not worthy of such rights.
     I definitely don’t like the sound of that. Of course I feel there is reason to give basic rights to infants (perhaps on the grounds of potential intellect) or to the mentally disabled (perhaps by a matter of degree or on some grounds independent of intellect) but if we assume that intelligence grants rights it comes down to the question: Where do we draw the line for intelligence? Is it some staggered hierarchy where the greater the intelligence of a being the more rights it deserves? Or is it some on/off switch where at hypothetical intelligence level “5” you have all your human rights and at level “4.99” you have none?
     Seems rather arbitrary to me… and particularly heartless. I just hope intelligence isn’t the only basis for human rights.
     I sure do love bath time =)

Alex Villarreal

    *Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games". I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? -- Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games' "-but look and see whether there is anything common to all. -- For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look!

—From aphorism 66, Philosophical Investigations