VIDEO: The Truth about Truth

I wrote about this content in 2019, but I wanted to revisit it for a video as well as create a podcast audio version.

Video: YouTube version of this page content
Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

In today’s segment, I am going to share my perspectives on the truth about truth. To start, I’ll let the audience know that I do not believe in the notion of truth. I feel the term is ill-defined especially in the realm of metaphysics and morality. I feel that when most people employ the word ‘truth’, what they mean to say is ‘fact.’ That a fire engine is red, for example, may be a fact, if indeed the fire engine happens to be red, but it is not true. This is a misapplication of the term. If you employ truth as a direct synonym for fact, then this is not what’s being discussed here, and perhaps your time might be better spent watching some content by the Critical Drinker.   

My argument is that truth is not objective. Rather it is subjective and perspectival. I concede that there may be some objective truth out there somewhere, but it is not and will not ever be accessible to us because of limitations in our sense-perception faculties and cognitive limitations. Per Aristotle, we only have five senses with which we can connect to the world, and these senses are limited. If there is anything out there that would require another sense receptor—a sense receptor not available to us—, we would never be able to sense it, to even know of its existence. Perhaps the universe emits 100 sense signals, but we are only capable of receiving and translating five. We’d be oblivious to 95 per cent of reality.

I am not making any claims that this is the case, but human cognition is so limited, that we can’t even conceive of what another sense might be. If you can, please leave a comment.

To be clear, I am not talking about senses we know other species possess. Bats may have echolocation, and sharks may have electroreception. Some animals may have greater sensory acuity—superior vision and auditory senses, olfactory and gustatory, tactile, or whatever. Some can see into infrared or ultraviolet light spectra. Technology that includes biomimicry provides humans with microscopes for the microworld and telescopes for the macroworld. We have x-rays and sonar and radar, radios and televisions that extend our senses, but these provide no new sensory receptors.

Like the story of the blind people and the elephant, we are left grasping at parts. But even if we are able to step back to view the whole elephant, to hear the elephant, to touch and smell or even taste the elephant, if there is more to the elephant, we cannot know it. The same goes for ourselves.

I know that some people might inject gods or psychic or paranormal energy into this void, and sure, feel free, but I am looking beyond these pedestrian concepts. What else might there be?

But let’s depart this train and head in a different direction. I want us to focus on the senses we do have. For the typical human, sight is our primary arbiter of reality, at least as defined idiomatically. We tend to believe what we see, and what we see, we assume as real—even if we are later mistaken. I guess that wasn’t a unicorn or a pink elephant. I must have been hallucinating or dreaming. I could have sworn that was Auntie Em.

There are several competing theories around truth, but I’ll focus on the Correspondence theory, which is simply put, the notion that, proxying reality for truth, human perception corresponds with the real world. And a pragmatist might argue that’s close enough for the government.

Keep in mind that historically humans have contorted themselves into making calculations. Remember how long people had been tying themselves into knots to show planetary motion in a geocentric system creating epicycles and retrograde motion to map understanding to a perceived reality.

One might even argue that we’ve progressed. It wasn’t true or accurate then, but now it is. And perhaps it is. Let’s look at some illustrations.

NB: Due to an editorial mishap, this paragraph was dropped in the podcast, hence dropped from the video, which shared the podcast audio source. As such, this image was also not used in the video. This is unfortunate, as it was meant to introduce those with limited maths knowledge to the asymptotic curve, as described. Apologies, and I hope this serves to orient any travellers who may have lost their way at this point.

In this first illustration, we see Truth (or relative truthiness) on the Y-axis and Time on the X-Axis. On the top, we see a threshold representing Reality. In the plane, I’ve rendered an asymptotic curve, where over time, we get closer and closer to the Truth. But we never quite get there. More on this later.

The next illustration will help to demonstrate what’s happening.

Notice there is a gap between the curve and the Reality cap. For one thing, we don’t really know where we are relative to Reality. In the case of the geocentric system, we might have been at the leftmost space. Once we determined that the system is actually solar-centric, we might have moved right on the curve to close the gap. We might be tempted to defend that we’ve finally reached the truth, but we’d have been equally willing to make the same defence from the geocentric position, so we need to be mindful of the past.

Perhaps, this last example was too obvious. We feel comfortable staking a truth claim—or at least a claim of fact. So let’s look at another example.

Let’s re-use the same axes—Truth and Time—, but rather than an asymptotic curve, let’s presume something more polynomial in nature—or not particularly cyclic. Rather than retrograde motion in planets, let’s visit the supposed progress of Newtonian over Einsteinian physics.

This takes a bit more setup but bear with me.  In this case, I have taken liberties and illustrated the Einsteinian physics gap to capture an inferior vantage on reality over Newtonian physics. Granted, I need to rely on a bit of suspension of disbelief, but in the bigger picture, I am trying to convey a scenario where some new paradigm puts the prior knowledge in perspective.

In this instance, both Newtonian and Einsteinian flavours of physics are based on a materialistic, particles-based model, which is where the modern physics consensus resides. But, let’s say that consensus changes in such a way that it is determined that something else underlies reality, say consciousness per Analytic Idealism as proposed by Bernardo Kastrup or per Integrated Information Theory (IIT) as advanced by Donald Hoffman and others. As with retrograde motion, we might end up finding that we were barking up the wrong tree. This might be a bit different because the particles are a directly perceived manifestation of the underlying consciousness, but I wanted to create a scenario where knowledge thought to have advanced actually regressed, but this wasn’t revealed until a new perspective was available.

Yet again, an important aspect of note is that we don’t actually know the distance between our perceptions and real Reality.

This last illustration builds upon the first asymptotic chart but has an in-built error margin meant to reflect language insufficiencies. There is some concept that people feel they grasp, but the consensus is not as unified as the group thinks.

I’ll share two examples, the first being the concept of justice. To me, Justice is what I deem a weasel word. It’s a word we commonly use, but it means different things to different people. To me, it’s a euphemism for vengeance by proxy, but for others, it transcends that and mirrors some impartial dispensation of just desert—some good old-fashioned law and order.

[Justice is] a euphemism for vengeance by proxy

Without getting stuck down some rabbit hole, my point is that if we aggregate these beliefs, the asymptotic curve represents an average consensus vantage rather than something as obvious as 2 plus 2 equals 4. On this note, allow me to clear the air.

Some viewers might be clamouring to say, “but 2 plus 2 equals four is true.” But this is tautologically true, which is to say that it’s true by definition. It’s a similar tautology to saying that it’s true that snow is white, or coal is black. We’ve already defined snow, white, coal, and black, so these may be facts, but they are true by definition.

Revisiting the chart, notice that there are two curves in the space. In this case, I illustrate competing truth claims from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. The case is whether the earth is an oblate spheroid or is flat. I am going to go out on a limb and assert the earth is spherical, as represented by the top blue curve—and we have some margin of error as to what that might mean. The bottom red curve depicts the perceived truth of the flat earthers, who also have some room for semantic error.

Given that I am presuming that I am in the right adopting the majority position—please be right—, the blue curve is closer to Reality than the red curve. Of course, in the event that the earth is really flat, then it proves my point that we don’t know where we are relative to truth, so we assume that the state of knowledge at any given time is what’s real.

Again, forgive my fanciful examples. Please don’t tell me that this spheroid versus planer earth is tautological too because you’d be correct, but I am already aware. They are just nonsensical illustrations. Nonetheless, I hope they’ve served to express a point.

I could have as well created curves that depicted two cohorts’ beliefs on the efficacy of tarot or astrology in predicting the future. I am sure that it might render somewhat like the last chart, but I’d also presume that both curves would have very low truth values as seen from an objective observer. Secretly, I hope tarot wins the truth battle.

Before I end our time together, I’d like to convey that for an Analytic Idealist, these charts might be more acceptable at face value. For a Realist, Naïve or otherwise, they may argue that this curve is not asymptotic and may in fact reach some tangency. I don’t happen to believe this is the case or I wouldn’t have spent my time assembling and presenting this. Time will tell. Or will it?

Video: Blame and Causa Sui

In this segment, I ponder the interplay between blame and Causa Sui. I’ll discuss the implications for moral responsibility as well as legal responsibility, which are not as in sync as one might imagine they might be.

Video: Blame & Causa Sui

To the uninitiated, Western legal systems have no pretensions about being about morality or justice. Legal systems are designed to maintain power structures and the status quo. They are deontological machines, making them prime targets for automation by the machine learning associated with artificial intelligence. This would also diminish the power of rhetoric over facts to some extent. But, I am no legal scholar, and all of this will have to wait for another segment.

I recently shared a video on causa sui and the basics of blame and blameworthiness, so I want to intersect those topics here.

Peter Strawson suggested that for humans, blame is a reactive response. It’s reflexive like having your knee jerk when tapped. Essentially, his position is that if blame didn’t naturally exist, we’d have to invent it, mirroring Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him’. Of course, this is because they serve the same power control purpose.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him

Voltaire

To be fair, blame is closer to real than God, but the point remains. Strawson’s point is also that humans are saddled with blame and it’s not going anywhere no matter how nebulous it becomes in execution. It’s natural.

To me, this starts to sound suspiciously like a naturalistic fallacy. Humans seem to selectively cherry-pick which so-called natural tendencies they choose to defend. One might use nature to argue that female sexual availability begins at menstruation, and yet we have decided to ignore this and defer this on the grounds of civility. It’s obvious that we could consider blame to be an animal instinct we want to domesticate away, but because it serves other purposes, per Strawson’s perspective, it’s a useful tool.
But what’s the causa sui challenge. Let’s quickly recapitulate.

Causa sui argues that one cannot be the cause of oneself, ex nihilo. Being full products of nature and nurture to adopt the lay parlance, any blameworthiness lies with the sources or creators. Since we are concerned with moral responsibility, we can eliminate nature forthrightly. Nature may be responsible—by many estimations approximately 40 per cent responsible—, it possesses no moral agency. And if the individual is not responsible, then we are left with the environment and society, including the social environment. Of course, the environment gets off the hook in the same manner as the genetic and hereditary factors of nature.

Before we consider society, let’s regard the individual.

Albeit the brain-as-computer is a bit facile, it’s still good enough for illustrative purposes. When you are born, your cognitive hardware is installed, as are your edge peripherals and update protocols. Any of these can become damaged through some degenerative processes, or external environmental factors, but since my interest is in optimistic rather than pessimistic scenarios, I’ll ignore these instances. Given that blameworthiness is directly related to presumed cognitive processing, factors that diminish these faculties, mitigate blameworthiness and factors than increase it, ameliorate it.

As a—quote—’normal’ child becomes an adolescent and then an adult, the probability it will become blameworthy, increases with age, ceteris paribus. A person with cognitive deficits or conditions such as aphasia or dementia decreases the probability of blame assignment. Even temporary impairment mitigates judgment—oh, she was drunk.

So, following the brain-as-computer analogy, your brain is a CPU with a self-updating cognitive operating system and instruction set. Essentially, there is also short and long-term memory.
In the case of cognitive deficits, one of these components might be effectively broken. The CPU might process too slowly; it might misinterpret what it receives; there may be issues with the sense organs or the nerves that transport signals.

I’ve got a mate who, due to medical malpractice at birth, experienced nerve damage. Although his eyes and brain are normal, his optic nerve cannot carry signals very well, effectively leaving him blind. Neither can he taste nor smell. So there’s that.

But assuming that this processing and storage hardware are intact, the causa sui constraint still applies, but let’s spend some time evaluating societal interactions.

All inputs come from society—cultures and subcultures. Apart from misinterpreted processing scenarios, if a person doesn’t receive a particular moral instruction set, that person should surely be considered to be exempt from moral blame. It may be difficult to assess whether an instruction has been input. This is a reason why children are categorically exempted: they may not have received all of the expected moral codes, they may not have been stored or effectively indexed, and their processing hardware is still in development—alpha code if you will. Brain plasticity is another attribute I won’t spend much time on, but the current state of science says that the brain is still not fully developed even by age 30, so this is certainly a mitigating factor, even if we allow leeway for the causa sui argument.

I mention subculture explicitly because the predominant culture is not the only signal source. A child raised by, I don’t know, say pirates, would have an amended moral code. I am sure we can all think of different subcultures that might undermine or come at cross odds with the dominant culture, whether hippies, religious cultists, militia groups, racial purist groups, and so on.

So, a commonly held moral in the subdominant group may counter that of the prevailing one. An example that comes to mind is some religious organisations that do not agree with human medical intervention. There have been cases where parents have allowed a child to die from an otherwise curable condition. Although in the United States, there is a claim of freedom of religion—a claim that is spotty at best—, parents or guardians in situations like these have been convicted and sentenced for following their own moral codes. But as with all people, these people are as susceptible to the limitations of causa sui as the rest of us. They are not responsible for creating themselves, but moral responsibility was asserted based on the beliefs of the prevailing culture. Even besides the legal context, persons in the larger society would likely blame the parents for their neglect—though they may be praised for being resolute in their righteousness by their in-group. This just underscores that morality is a collection of socially constructed conventions rather than something more objective.

Returning to causa sui, let’s say a person commits an act that society would typically assign blame. Rather than exercise some act of retributive justice—a concept with no foundation in a causa sui universe—the course of action was remediation. In this case, the desired moral instruction would be delivered thereby seemingly making the moral offender blameworthy. But would they be?

Presumably, (for what it’s worth) psychologists would evaluate the subject for competency in maintaining the programming. In the case of the aforementioned religious parents, they may be threatened with retribution for not abiding by the superseding rules of the prevailing power structure.

Although I might personally allow some leeway even with the causa sui in full force and effect, but I can’t say that I have much faith in the ability of humans to make a correct assessment. My impression is that any assessment would be one of convenience than something sounder.

Perhaps I’ll produce a more robust segment on retributive justice, but my feeling is that retributive justice is an area that legal systems should avoid altogether. If necessary, focus on restorative justice, rehabilitation (or ‘habilitation’ as the case might be) and quarantine models to ensure any bad actors are contained away from society. Again, this puts individuals at the mercy of cultures they find themselves a part of. I am not going to delve into this any further save to remind the listener of gang initiation schemes where a person needs to kill a member of a rival gang to become a trusted member. This is their moral code—quite at odds with the mainstream.

So there you have it. Owing to causa sui constraints, a person cannot be ultimately responsible for their actions. My primary thesis is—apart from metaphorical equipment failures—that any moral responsibility falls wholly on the society or culture. Full stop. And this isn’t as foreign as one might first feel. Although for most people blame is natural, in an individualistic society, people are interested in finding the culprit. In collectivist cultures, any culprit might do. Perhaps I’ll share some stories in a future segment.
Meantime, what are your thoughts on moral responsibility? Can someone be ultimately responsible? Some have said the ‘ultimate responsibility’ is a philosophical red herring and that we can still hold someone responsible, even if not in the ultimate sense, which causa sui disallows. Are you more in this camp? Is this enough to mete out so-called retributive justice? For me, retributive justice is a euphemism for vengeance, and justice is a weasel word. But that’s just me, and perhaps a topic for another segment.

Are there any topics you’d like me to cover? Leave a comment below.

Justice and Intent

When discussing the topic of justice, besides the element of the event of offence, another element is typically intent. In this case, a father inadvertently left an infant in his car. He was supposed to drop the child off at daycare but forget and instead drove directly to work. The temperatures were hot, and this contributed to the death of the child. Upon discovering this, the father suicided.

I have copied the story below in full, as these things have been known to go missing every now and again.

A Virginia father died by an apparent suicide after finding his child dead inside his hot car, authorities said.

It appears the father accidentally left the 18-month-old in the car for at least three hours on Tuesday, leading to the child’s death, Lt. Col. Christopher Hensley of the Chesterfield Police Department said at a news conference.

When the child didn’t arrive at daycare, the father apparently realized the toddler was in his car, Hensley said.

Around noon, family members called police to report that the father was talking about dying by suicide in the woods behind his house. The father was the only person home at the time, Hensley said.

Responding officers found the car in the driveway with an open door and an empty child seat, Hensley said.

Officers went into the home where they found the dead 18-month-old, he said.

As officers continued to check the perimeter, they found the father dead in the woods from an apparent gunshot wound, he said.

Hensley called it a “horrible tragedy on so many levels.”

This marks the eighth child to die from a hot car this year, according to national nonprofit KidsAndCars.org. More than 1,000 kids have died from hot cars since 1990, the organization said.

Click here for tips on how to keep children safe from hot cars this summer.

ABC News

An interest of mine is justice, hence this post. I’ll get to that, but there is also a narrative of social priorities to extract from here, too.

The first is that we live in a society where 18-month-olds almost need to be separated from their family. Of course, the privileged can defend that they have sitters or au pairs or nannies. In the past, there were extended families and Clinton’s Village. Each has its plusses and minuses. I am not a fan of the idea of women serving as baby factories, pumping out babies and serving their plight as wage slaves, but that’s not my call. I also understand that raising children is not the most mentally stimulating activity, but that’s beside the point.

In this case, the father was more focused on getting to work than the welfare of his child. And given the outcome, it’s obvious that he had feelings for the child—although perhaps it was more the fear of the repercussions of being blamed. One can’t know for sure, but I’ll opt for the charitable rendition.

Let’s return to justice. Justice is the sense that one gets one’s just desert, but what is just and what is desert? In the artificial form of justice purportedly practised by lawyers and jurists, this man would not likely be held responsible for legal reasons without even having to plumb the depths of philosophical reasons.

It’s been said that karma operates with three levers:
intent, action, and reflection.

In this case, intent appears to be absent and reflection seems to be apparent in the outcome. The action was the lost life of an infant, a human life. Equally weighted, he’d be one step back and two steps forward, so his register would not be in the black. But this is not how he judged himself.

Even given the karmic model, it’s easy to imagine the reactions. As easy as it is for me to sit back behind my keyboard and be dispassionate, I can imagine the mother not being so reserved. Humans are blame-machines. I’ve been spending the past three or four months researching this topic peripherally with a focus on human agency, but in a reductionist model, humans seem to need to blame. And if there is no object, they have no qualms about making one up. Humans are good storytellers—more so, story-receivers—, but let’s not get distracted. He knew he would be blamed. Not least of all, he blamed himself.

Although I don’t subscribe to the notion of self—or even of intent—, it seems obvious that this father did. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if this were me—and I don’t want to try. But let’s not lose sight of the complicity of society that forces humans to make a choice between family and survival.

Quarantine and Social Justice

Gregg Caruso is interested in the notion of Agency from the perspective of justice, desert, and sentencing. This is applied philosophy.

My main argument against the possibility of free will is Nietzsche-Strawson’s causa sui argument, which I’ve touched on a few times by now, but I haven’t yet fully articulated my position. I’ll get to that another day. I’d also like to create another video, as I would like to do for this as I explore in more detail.

Ostensibly, this is a compatibilist view that leaves a modicum of free will, even with causa sui in place. I hope this illustration will be helpful.

In the centre of the illustration is you, the self of some arbitrary person who shall act as our subject. Let’s assume a couple of basic premises:

  1. We either live in a relaxed causal, deterministic or indeterministic universe.
  2. Causa sui is in full force and effect: one cannot cause any aspect of one’s self.

I include the term relaxed in the first premise, so I don’t have to deal with a fully deterministic universe governed entirely by the notion captured by Schrödinger’s equation. The second premise is in place to serve as a limitation: even if consciousness is an emergent property, its emergence doesn’t grant some insuperable metaphysical powers. One cannot reach outside of one’s self.

The scenario plays out as follows. You have been apprehended for violating some statute. Let’s say that you’ve taken an item from a retail store. As you are leaving the store, the police stop you. When asked if you took the item, you answer in the affirmative. This is a very efficient municipality, so you are taken immediately to a magistrate to make a plea.

In this scenario, Caruso is your attorney at law. His argument is that, given causa sui, you cannot be responsible for who you are. We’ve been here before. Since you can’t be responsible for who you are, any sentence to punish you would be unethical, as you’ve done nothing to deserve it. This is the notion of desert in the realm of retributive justice.

The judge buys this argument, but s/he counters with three possible courses of action. You may not be responsible for who you are, but we are a community of laws. You are a victim of your circumstances, so we cannot look backwards. For whatever reason—and through no fault of your own, by definition—, you were broken relative to complying with community norms.

Social Justice

Firstly, we may wish to make an example of you, to signal the community that we will incarcerate people who break the laws. This is more a public service purpose than a punishment.

Secondly, if you had contracted a communicable disease—we’re looking at you Covid—, you can be quarantined under the consideration of the common good. Framed this way, it is not a punishment, we just don’t want it to happen again.

Lastly, we may also be justified on the grounds of rehabilitation. I highlight the ‘re‘ in rehabilitation because some people may not have been ‘habilitated’ in the first place. Perhaps think of them as feral. In any case, a computer programming analogy might make sense here.

So what’s this all about? Remember, causa sui says that you cannot be held responsible for creating yourself. The claim is that you are a product of your nature and nurture. Genetically speaking, perhaps there was some reason that you could not incorporate inputs into factors that allowed you to appropriately interpret this law—or any law, more generally. Or maybe, you were never exposed to this law or category of law before.

In the preventative vein, we could be signalling, ‘We caught You taking an item from a shop without paying. Now you know this, and we may make an example of you since you are caught as well’.

Quarantine may be a bit of a stretch in this scenario, so feel free to substitute a more serious offence if it helps you to remember this. Perhaps You killed someone. Even without punishment, we may want to get You off the streets before another killing is perpetrated. I’ll come back to this one.

Rehabilitation makes sense even if one is not responsible for one’s self. Presuming that you are a product of programming—family, culture, peers, and so on—, perhaps you just need to be rewired. Perhaps a particular subroutine was not implemented or activated correctly. This rationality could be used as a non-punitive justification.

Counterarguments

The public prevention case may be why offenders were pilloried in by-gone days. Display in a public square may inform some who may have missed the lesson the first time around, hence dissuading taking similar actions. But unless this ‘public service message’ reached enough people, it would probably not be the best rationale.

Quarantine may sound OK on the surface, but it’s actually rather specious. Firstly, that You knicked a trinket. What exactly is the risk of contagion? Petty theft is not known to be particularly communicable. Secondly, just because you’ve done something once is little measure of whether you’ll do it again. In fact, if this were true, then one might have assumed that you could never have committed the offence because of your history.

Rehabilitation may likely be the best option among these. If you missed that particular lesson or had forgotten or diminished the calculus, remediation may do just the trick. However, if your ‘operating system’ is not up to snuff, it’s not a matter of inputs. It’s a matter of processing capability.

Psychological intervention is in its infancy, so the probability of remediating this is low, if not a crap shoot. And not all such processes can be remediated. This could lead one to fall back on the quarantine option, but who is the competent assessor in this case?

It’s easy enough to assess if You is Hannibal Lecter or tells you straight out that s/he intends to repeat the offence. Some cognitive deficiencies are simple enough to recognise. But what about the grey areas—all of that space in between?

And who is making sure that the judges are not being punitive simply because they haven’t yet eaten lunch?

Enfin

Bringing this to a close, if we have no free will, it makes no sense to punish. Sadly, most justice systems promote retributive justice and punishment in sentencing. I’ll spare you my diatribe on how I believe most people attracted to jurisprudence, law, and law enforcement have been conditioned. And whilst Caruso feels justified in foreword action, I am more sceptical. This said, I’ll take what I can get.

This post is pretty much a stream of consciousness. I hope to give it better treatment in a future video.

Moral Responsibility

Can we be held morally responsible for our actions? Yes, says Daniel Dennett. No, says Gregg Caruso. Reader, you decide

Aeon Article, 4 October 2018

Caruso: [Dan,] you have famously argued that freedom evolves and that humans, alone among the animals, have evolved minds that give us free will and moral responsibility. I, on the other hand, have argued that what we do and the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and that because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions, in a particular but pervasive sense – the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. While these two views appear to be at odds with each other, one of the things I would like to explore in this conversation is how far apart we actually are. I suspect that we may have more in common than some think – but I could be wrong. To begin, can you explain what you mean by ‘free will’ and why you think humans alone have it?

Gregg Caruso

Dennett: A key word in understanding our differences is ‘control’. [Gregg,] you say ‘the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control’ and that is true of only those unfortunates who have not been able to become autonomous agents during their childhood upbringing. There really are people, with mental disabilities, who are not able to control themselves, but normal people can manage under all but the most extreme circumstances, and this difference is both morally important and obvious, once you divorce the idea of control from the idea of causation. Your past does not control you; for it to control you, it would have to be able to monitor feedback about your behaviour and adjust its interventions – which is nonsense.

In fact, if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent. Lucky you. You weren’t responsible for becoming an autonomous agent, but since you are one, it is entirely appropriate for the rest of us to hold you responsible for your deeds under all but the most dire circumstances. 

Daniel Dennett

if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent

Dan Dennett

So commences this debate. The argument unfolds largely on semantic grounds. Even here, one can see the debate over the distinction between control and causation. I understand what Dennett is attempting to parse here, but I object on the grounds of causa sui.

I recommend reading the Aeon article as there is much more than this distinction, but it does remain a semantic issue. I started a post on backwards- and forward-looking perspectives, that better articulate Caruso’s perspective, but I am also working on other things. This was quicker to post and I wanted to keep a bookmark anyway, so it’s a win-win.

Monopoly on Reparations

Many places have histories of exploiting a group or groups to the advantage of others. Although this scenario applies to these people in a similar manner, I am thinking specifically of the exploitation and reparations due to the black and indigenous people of colour, BIPOC, in the United States.

I believe that many people are familiar with Monopoly, the board game where, among other things, one accumulates properties and extracts rents from the other players. My intent is to illustrate with Monopoly the need for reparations, to illustrate why reparations are necessary to restore justice. This is a twist on John Rawls’ veil of ignorance thought experiment.

Slave auction advertisement

I have heard some people say that the past is the past, or if there were injustices in the past, that was ages ago, and now everyone has an equal chance. No special accommodations or affirmative actions are necessary. I don’t agree that this is true, but let’s just say for the sake of this exposition that opportunities are equal for everyone in a given society.

There are parallels between a game of Monopoly and the way we are thrown into this world. No one differs in this regard. We are all subject to a loin lottery.

Imagine that I already own all of the properties. You own none. Irrespective of how the game came to this condition, your chances of winning are nil to none. Now imagine that the reason for the disparate ownership was the result of a system of injustice perpetrated by the player I inherited my position from on the player you inherited yours.

No matter how fairly the game is from now until the end, if your starting place leaves me with all of the property and you without, your chances of winning are slim to none. Favouring tradition and inheritance already benefits some people over others, but when the benefit is the result of a pattern of injustices, it feels more egregious. Worse yet, even if I ‘give’ you Whitechapel Road, Baltic Avenue, or Rue Lecourbe and keep the rest, your chances have only slightly improved.

With the end of US Civil War and the emancipation proclamation, affected blacks were promised 40 acres and a mule. For most, this never happened. This remains an outstanding debt. And whilst 40 acres in some places would be a boon, not many today really need a mule, so descendants of slaves need to be made whole. Reparations are a way to accomplish this.

Reparations are payments in arrears to attempt to compensate for the centuries of an unbalanced playing field. And reparations should allow you to recover more than Whitechapel, Baltic, or Rue Lecourbe properties. At least get Bond Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, or Boulevard des Capucines. If you’ve played Monopoly, you’ll understand that this is still not enough.


Justice Prevails

If anything showcases how nonsensical the concept of justice is, just look at the Rittenhouse trial in the United States. Ultimately, justice is about perception. In a textbook, a bad person does something bad, and a process ritual is performed by judges and juries to divine the otherwise obvious badness, and the bad person is brought to justice. In the extended version, they learn the error of their ways and reintegrate into society and live happily ever after.

In reality, this is all bollox. Good and bad are subjective and contextual. But this post isn’t about that. It’s about the charade of justice. In the case of the Rittenhouse trial-slash-debacle, Kyle Rittenhouse shot some people and killed them. Whilst he is being charged with murder, some people view him as a hero—the good man with a gun rather than a vigilante.

Given these perspectives, whether justice is served is a matter of your starting perspective. People in the United States are generally divided on some fundamental political stands, and this predictably colours individual perspectives.

In the Bible, Christians are taught the story of King Solomon, wherein two women each claim a child as their own. Solomon suggests that they cut the child in half and by doing so, he reveals the true mother by judging their responses.

Spoiler Alert: I am only pretty sure that Solomon wouldn’t have followed through on his twisted joke.

This Bible story is part of the Western legal canon and teaches the impartiality of judges and some practical wisdom, but then we remember that it’s just a story.

Returning to Rittenhouse, irrespective of whether justice ends up being served is basically a coin toss. If you have been following the proceedings, you’ll notice that the pack is being stacked in his favour and the dice are weighted and the coin is biased.

Personally, I think the guy is an ass-hat. I feel that anyone who carries a weapon has anger and compensation issues. And if he wasn’t there in the first place, none of this would have unfolded as it did. I am a conscientious objector and believe this is precisely why the Second Amendment of the US Constitution relates to a well-regulated militia and not some pizza-faced wanker.

If he is judged not guilty, people like me will viscerally feel that justice is a sham. Obviously, I already maintain that opinion, but other people still believe in justice and Santa Claus. If he is judged guilty and gets a suitable sentence—another subjective constituent of justice—, then the other cohort feels that justice was not served.

One could argue, as Christians do, that God is the final arbiter of justice. Someone has to be, right? It also reminds us not to judge—probably because we’re not very good at it—, so there’s that, too.

I hold my original stance: justice is just another vapid weasel word.

Je m’accuse

I’ve been an absent owner. I’ve not been fertilising this blog as I’ve been attending to my professional blog and many other things IRL. But my brain doesn’t stop thinking, and I don’t stop reading just because my fingers stop typing contributions here. Today, I type.

No Free Will

The topic is the absence of free will debate. To be fair, I believe the notion of free will is a holdover from religious belief. And, like religion, it is used to control people and to formulate social cohesion and serve as the basis of legal systems. Free will and agency are core to any justice system. There is a system of laws. Conforming is good. Nonconformance is bad. People have agency to decide whether to conform. Relative to the system, a person is either conformant or not. Justice prevails. Nonconformance is punished, as it were. Society wins.

But let’s say there is no free will. I’m going to skip the entire argument and present this piece as a hypothetical. There is no free will. The universe is entirely deterministic. Now what?

Does anything happen? Does anyone notice?

If there is no free will, the universe already has embedded ‘code’ that will either reveal or conceal this information. If we are destined to know this, we’ll know it. If not, our future will unfold all the same.

If people have no real agency, can we punish them? Sure. We do it already. We inadvertently punish the innocent. We even punish those known to be innocent. But if history is pre-written and you are destined to be punished, the script has not only been written, but it’s already been recorded indelibly on film. We’re just waiting for the scene to come into view.

Given this, the so-called knowledge that there is no free will is useless. What’s the goal—to break the fourth wall and and liberate ourselves from the script? Wouldn’t that have already been scripted? What do you get—a director’s cut?

No Agency

What if it’s not so strict but that people don’t have agency? If people are all automatons, is it still ethical to punish them? Can rehabilitation be a goal if people are ostensibly wind-up dolls? If a person is a wind-up doll run amok, are we justified for separating them from the population at large?

I can see an argument for removing axe-wielding automatons from the public. And I’m sorry if they have no agency over their actions—like zombies. We all know what happens to zombies—and unmanaged zombies.

This scenario is different to that of a person who robs a store for food to eat—think Valjean in Les Misérables. This is an indictment of the system. If something needs fixing in this situation, it’s the system not the thief. But that’s not what generally happens. It’s easier to scapegoat a person than a system—even if that system is comprised of other people.

Conceptual Abstraction

Shared Concept Image

I tend to go on about weasel words and the insufficiency of language, but I tend to get a lot of resistance by people who insist the chasm isn’t as expansive as I make it out to be. This makes me wonder how one might create a test to determine how much is similar and how much doesn’t.

To summarise my position, abstract concepts of this type are specious archetypes that cannot exist in the real world: truth, justice, freedom, fairness, and so on. The common thread here is almost always that they exist in the realm of morality, another false concept.

It seems to me that one could construct a sort of word cloud intersecting with a Venn diagramme. I’d assume that more articulate people would have more descriptors, thereby creating landscape with more details and nuance for any given concept.

Additionally, I could see a third dimension which would capture diametric meanings. There is also the issue of diverse contexts, e.g. in the case of justice, we have distributive, retributive, restorative, and procedural flavours, so one would need to be taken into account.

In everyday existence, I notice that these terms are good enough and have enough substance to trick people into believing not only that it’s real but that the are operating with a shared concept. My point is that it’s more apples and oranges. We could employ dimensions that make these appear to be similar.

  • Approximate spheroids
  • Fruits
  • Contain fruits
  • Have skin

Additional scrutiny would illustrate the differences.

  • Colour
  • Taste
  • Consistency

This difference between this concrete case is that we can observe the objects to compare and contrast, but with abstractions, we have a sort of survivorship bias in play. We remember what we agree on and forget or diminish the parts we don’t agree on. And we don’t necessarily even know the complete inventory of descriptors of our counterparts.

The image at the top of the page is not to scale. I don’t know what the percent breakdowns are, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in a situation where there were 10 possible descriptors, that only 4 would be commonly shared—so 40 per cent—, leaving 6 not in common—60 per cent.

In any case, I wonder if anyone has attempted this sort of inventory comparison. I haven’t even looked, do there could be tome upon tome published, but I don’t suppose so.

Death of the Metanarrative

Until I recently read Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge I never quite understood why Moderns accused Post-moderns of being anti-science. I’d heard Jordan Peterson complaining, and I’d read forum and blog posts with the same attacks.

As it happens, postmodernism eschews the meta-narrative or is leery of it. This includes the meta-narratives underlying science and the Enlightenment more generally. If you’ve read my posts over the years, you’ll see that this is a common complaint of mine, that everything is a human construct. Although Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition, I only read it this week.

To be fair, I sought it out. I have been attempting to find some other philosophers who have asserted that Truth (and other notions like Justice and Progress) are nothing more than the result of a rhetorical victory. And although Lyotard does not come out and say this (at least not in this book), I feel that he would not disagree with the notion. I may have to read some more of his work.

The least one can do is find the underlying narrative. Feel free to operate day to day as per usual, but be aware. The inscription at Delphi was not exactly right. There is no self to know, and narratives change, but to ‘know’ the prevailing narrative of the day seems it might at least allow one to better assess what’s happening above ground. The Matrix trope may be overplayed, but it’s a fitting metaphor for seeing what underlies. There is no Truth, but for what it’s worth, there’s another data point.

We live on the map, but the terrain is inaccessible. The postmodern doesn’t hate science or progress. We merely question the veracity. One cannot assess progress without a vector, without velocity and direction, so we contrive stories to serve as a foundation.

The founding of these stories don’t need to be sinister or nefarious. They can grow organically. But the ones who understand the rules, Wittgenstein’s language game, can wrest power, and s/he who can bend the rules through convincing rhetoric, perhaps as Locke and Rousseau, can change to course of history. But this course can be changed again. When Marx tried to change the narrative, it threatened the status quo, so they try to delegitimatise it at every turn—primarily through the dissemination of disinformation in a sort of corrupt meme machine. Marx tried to embrace and then co-opt Capitalism, but the Capitalists were not ready to cede power. One hundred and fifty-odd years later, they still aren’t. And it might be that a different narrative is adopted before Marx’s vision is even able to take root.

I was a bit confused by Lyotard’s quip about utility being the arbiter under modern Capitalism in lieu of Truth, as I am not sure how many postmodernists embrace the notion of some objective Truth. To be clear, I don’t.

Lego Blocks

In the end, I feel it is better to deconstruct the concept of a knowable reality. The trick is not to try to reconstruct something from the pieces. It’s like deconstructing a Lego model and rebuilding a different model from the pieces whilst making the claim that this reconstitution is the true manifestation when in fact any construct is as ‘good’ as the next, but good cannot be determined until you’ve defined a context. Such is the role of the metanarrative. Once you define an end, you can then evaluate utility in light of it, but there is nothing to assess the choice of one end versus some other ends save by preference. And of course preference can be manipulated by rhetoric.