Making Principled Unprincipled Choices

I like principled decision making. Indeed, few things inspired me as much as this quote from Leibniz:

if controversies were to arise, there would be be no more need of disputation between two philosophers than between two calculators. For it would suffice for them to take their pencils in their hands and to sit down at the abacus, and say to each other (and if they so wish also to a friend called to help): Let us calculate.

Alas, there’s no decision making situation where this vision holds, even in principle. But still, I like my decisions to conform to some articulable rationale, preferably in the form of some set of general rules.

But some of my rules are meta-rules which focus on resource use. Obviously, one goal of decision making rules in to maximise the chances of making the “right” choice. But for any metric of rightness (let’s say, an appliance with the best value for money) there’s a cost in the effort to assure the maximum (e.g., research, testing, comparing…lots of shopping). That cost can be quite large and interact with subsequent satisfaction in a variety of ways. I’m prone to this and, indeed, end up in decision paralysis.

In response to this, one of my meta-rules is “don’t over-sweat it”. So, for small stuff, this reduces to “don’t sweat the small stuff”. But, because of my anxiety structures, I tend to see certain classes of small stuff as big stuff. So, I dedicate some effort to seeing small stuff as small. Sometimes, this means making it invisible to me. Poor Zoe often has to make the actual purchase after I’ve done the research, or even make the decision after I’ve done the research. For various classes of minor, irrevocable sub-optimal decisions, I prefer not to know about them. I will obsess, and that doesn’t help anyone.

When the decision is essentially arbitrary (because all choices are incommensurable in toto, or their value is unknowable at the moment), I try to make myself flip a coin (metaphorically, at least). What I try to avoid is building a fake rationale (except when that enables the choosing or makes me happier with the arbitrary choice).

Technical (or teaching) decisions often are best treated as arbitrary, but we have tons of incentives to treat them as requiring a ton of analysis to make the “right” choice. At the moment, I’m evaluating what Python testing framework to use and teach in my software engineering class. I currently use doctest and unittest and have a pretty decent lesson plan around them. doctest is funky and unittest is bog standard. I’d consider dropping doctest because I need room and we don’t do enough xUnit style testing for them to really grasp it. They are also built into the standard library.

But then there’s pytest which seem fairly popular. It has some technical advantages, including a slew of plugins (including for regression testing and BDD style testing). It scales in complexity nicely…you can just write a test function and you’re done.

But, of course, it’s a third party thing and needs to be installed. Any plugins would have to be installed. Is it “better enough” to ignore the built in libraries? Or should I add it on with the builtin libraries? AND THERE MIGHT BE SOMETHING YET BETTER OUT THERE OH NOES!!!!

No. The key principle here is a meta-principle: Don’t invest too much more effort. Make a decision and stick with it. In the end, any of the choices will do and a big determiner will be “does it spark my interest now?” while the other will be “how much extra work is that?”

And that’s fine.

 

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A Bit on Alfie Evans

Note: This is all phrased in cold, blunt terms. I don’t think any member of his family will read this and it’s not at all the kind of language one should use when discussing it with people who are involved. I’d caution about reading this if you had an analogous loss: I didn’t write it with such readers in mind so the way I put things might be upsetting. Self care is important! What I wrote isn’t mind blowing or so unique that anyone needs to read it.

Kevin Drum wonders why cases like Alfie Evans generate so much activity from the sanctity of life folks:

The general tenor of their criticism was that the abortion lobby was no longer satisfied with killing infants in the womb. Now they wanted to kill them after they were born based on nothing more than their opinion about Alfie’s quality of life.

I find it puzzling that this is a hill they want to die on. It’s much like the Terry Schiavo case, and in both cases the pro-life folks were defending the notion that a person could still be alive even if their brain was all but destroyed. Why? There are always judgment calls to be made about when life ends, but lack of brain activity is pretty clear cut. In the case of Alfie Evans, his parents were effectively performing an experiment to see how long a brain-dead child’s heart can be kept beating.

But wouldn’t it be better to have that argument in a case that’s genuinely on the bubble rather than a case in which it’s absolutely indisputable that the child’s brain is gone? Why is the pro-life right so attached to cases like this? Keeping the heart beating in a brain-dead child really doesn’t seem to serve anyone’s purpose.

I want to talk a bit about the ethic of this case, but first a quick point about the politics and Drum’s question: It’s almost certainly not planned or the result of any strategy. Basically, only hopeless cases generate much conflict between caregivers and family members. Some few of them go viral and there you are. Even if there were master planning, hopeless cases might make sense precisely because they are irrational (so the judges and caregivers and sensible family members won’t defer). That the pro life movement is never up in arms against insurance companies is awful and terribly inconsistent, but yeah, that’s how political movements are. The narratives are not subject to overall consistency checks but to identity, repetition, history, etc.

Ethically, if we ignore the parents wishes for a moment, this is an easy case. There was no treatment and there was (essentially) no brain (or at least no brain that supports any cognition or experience). There’s was no medical point in maintaining the body.

From what I can tell, there’s no suffering either. Even if some sort of pain signals and processing occurred, there’d be no subject to experience it.

But here’s where it seems a big old “Why not let the parents do the pointless thing they want to do?” question has a lot of punch. It’d be a tremendous waste of resources to have flown Alfie Evens to Italy, but it was all, essentially, private money. We “waste” money on all sorts of things, including elaborate coffins. Drum discusses the need to protect the parents from hustlers, but here the “hustler” is the Catholic Church. And they would pay for it. We don’t think that’s the kind of hustle adults need or get protection from. (Obviously, if you don’t think the Catholic Church isn’t a hustle but a reasonable form of life and a respect worthy culture, this point is even stronger. However, even if you do think its a hustle, it’s a protected hustle and definitely not on part with quacks and pop up cults, etc. The family won’t lose all their assets at the end of it.)

Even if we take a strong line against medical quackery and on the welfare of the child, it seemed pretty clear that there was no child. If we believe that, then all that’s left is resource allocation, family suffering, and political fallout. It’s private money, the family probably suffered more with the given decision, and it was probably net bad politics. (I.e., it didn’t make sensible rulings, decisions, and laws more likely and may have made them less likely.)

In medicine, preserving dignity is important, but we have to be very careful when determining what concept of dignity is controlling. Given that Alfie wouldn’t suffer harm (since he was already dead), how the parents wanted to deal with his (breathing!) corpse seems to control (up through resource allocation and safety).

I doubt that yielding would have that much beneficial political effects though it might have yielded fewer death threats. But the family would have been happier.

The Viz Fallacy

Taxonomies are fun and usually treeshaped. Trees are “easy” to visualize. When people have a taxonomy they often like to visualize them.

But the results aren’t always so nice. Given that this is a taxonomies of fallacies, I found their misuse of a visualization highly amusing. It is also reminiscent of one of my thesis topics (non logical reductios).

mc et al called this the pathetic fallacy (of RDF).

The Risk of Appropriation and Inappropriateness

The copy of Whistle Down the Wind that I bought from the HMV bricks and mortar store.

My sweetie, Zoe Mulford, is white. I’m at least half white (depending how you count my Iranian father). We both grew up with a fairly high socio-economic status and we retain a big ole chunk of that. We can afford for Zoe to be a full time musician with essentially zero net income (or, properly accounted, negative, as we subsidize her work from the household income). There was a point where this was challenging on our joint income (though we always had family and friends to help out…which makes a huge difference) but we’re pretty well off now. Our household income is well in excess of the median for the UK.

So we are very very privileged on a world scale and even on a US/UK scale.

Zoe is a folk musician…a singer-songwriter. I believe that she’s is very very good. (This isn’t too surprising, given my relationship with her, but there’s plenty of other evidence thereof.) However, she is, to date, obscure. She has had a slowly rising profile, but it’s small. Having “The President Sang Amazing Grace” covered by Joan Baez is a big (potential) inflection point for her career. I’ve been obsessively tracking reviews and other events that mention Zoe’s song and there’s been a lot of good stuff. A lot. Way more (by volume, not necessarily intensity) than ever before.

We figured that if any song from Small Brown Birds would blow up at all, it’d be “The President Sang Amazing Grace”. We did a little prep for this (mostly making a video).

And this is great. I’m exhilarated and proud and excited. If you look at Zoe’s songbook, you’ll see this is no fluke. She deserves notice.

However, the song is about a tragedy and Obama’s response. That tragedy happened to black people because they were black. We’re benefiting indirectly from that tragedy. We will receive some money in terms of royalties. Zoe already gets some from sales of Small Brown Birds, but I expect that will be tiny compared to the royalty check…not that the royalty check will be huge. If it were to go gold, it might…might…yield tens of thousands of dollars (total). That would be really surprising as no Baez album since the 80s has gone gold. In today’s world of streaming etc. it seems very unlikely. While there’s a big (by our standards) publicity push, it’s not like her label is paying HMV to put Whistle Down the Wind on an endcap. Obviously, it’s still a pretty significant career boost, so that’s a benefit as well and a pretty significant one.

Note: I just went to HMV and Whistle Down the Wind does have special placement. I don’t know if I just missed it yesterday or they put it up after I was there. You can see in on the “New and Trending” wall.

Thus, we have to deal with issues of appropriation and inappropriateness.

The song came to Zoe, as many do. The election of Trump had just happened and she kept thinking about how we were going to miss the Obama’s in the White House. The contrast in policy and propriety between the Obama administration and the Trump could not be more dramatic. “The President Sang Amazing Grace” came out of that feeling of loss and dread. She was concerned about whether she had the right…or whether it was right…to write and record and perform this song. She consulted with various people who were positive, but we both can imagine other people who would not be. There is a case for it being, if not quite typical appropriation, of being inappropriate. There’s inherently some degree of standing over rather than standing with when people in our position benefit from our reactions to such events. There’s also some standing with!

One mitigation is to donate some chunk of the royalties (or beyond!) to Black Lives Matter (or similar groups; BLM is our first stop). That’s our current plan.

The best thing would be for history to change so the shooting never happened and that Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson survived that day as an ordinary, quiet day.

Degrees of Belief

I’m not sure why this paper showed up and lingered in my tabs, but it did. I vague recall thinking “oh that sounds interesting!” then being disappointed.

It starts with a weird argument for why the topic (the metaphysical status of beliefs) is worth exploring. But the arguments seem pretty…weird. One is to help formal epistemologists avoid having to say “all out belief” or “binary belief” instead of just “belief” and then taking about degrees of confidence rather than degrees of belief. I guess I’m losing some aspect of being a philosopher because that sounds like a really dumb reason to write a paper.

We then see one rebuttal of a supposedly common argument:

Assumption 1: The property of having confidence that p is identical to the property of having belief that p.
Assumption 2: ‘Belief’ and ‘confidence’ pick out the same thing.

They then infer that since the property of having confidence, or the thing picked out by ‘confidence’, comes in degrees, it follows that belief comes in degrees.

However, no reasons are given for Assumptions 1 and 2. They seem to just be assumed. Now, on the face of things, belief and confidence do seem to be similar sorts of mental entities; perhaps they are identical. On the other hand, our having formed different words for them is some evidence that they are distinct. So, as it stands, I see no convincing argument here that beliefs come in degrees. We will have to look elsewhere for better arguments.6

Now I want to say, “are you kidding me”. First I want to know is how common this argument is. Next I want to know what problems this eliding causes, if it exists. Finally, I want to know whether the author has even seen a thesaurus. Multiple words for the same thing happens all the time.

But it gets worse:

Consider (i). One can talk of much hope, little confidence, much desire, and so on. For any paradigm propositional attitude that comes in degrees, higher or lower degrees of that attitude can be attributed to a person by way of an occurrence of a mass noun. This is inductive evidence for (i).

Consider (ii). One cannot ascribe higher or lower degrees of belief to a person with ‘belief’. (5) does ascribe belief by way of a mass noun, but this only ascribes a number of single beliefs to a population, not a degree of belief to a single individual. Whenever belief is ascribed to a single person by way of a noun, it is by the occurrence of a count noun and not a mass noun. That is why (3) and (4) do not make sense. From (i) and (ii), it follows that beliefs do not come in degrees.

Say what? We easily say that I have a strong or weak believe or that this belief is stronger than that one. And language is quirky! Consider temperature! It canonically comes in degrees! But I can’t say that I have much or little temperature!

Just no.

And, you know, people ask “Ok you believe P, but how much do you believe it?” “100%!”

“Do you believe it more or less than you believe the earth is round?” “Oh much less.”

So I remember now why I gave up with irritation. If you are going to argue from natural language to metaphysics (which I find weird in this day and age) and even if we accept confining yourself to English (which is bad) a minimal constraint should be a systematic linguistic analysis! Not a couple of cherry picked examples and some blather about mass vs count terms!

(Note that I don’t believe my example prove that belief does have degrees because I am not a silly person. I recognize that people might well talk about things in funny ways!)

In any case, I would have thought a metaphysical paper would have explored the, you know, metaphysics. Eg looked at the ontological aspects of beliefs. One might explore whether neuroscience dictates some aspect of the metaphysics of belief. (If beliefs supervenes on excitation dispositions they have a natural degree aspect in us independent of evidential strength.)

I’m so grouchy.

RIP Lynne Rudder Baker

She died last month.

I first heard of her cognitive suicide argument at a Wesleyan Philosophy of Mind symposium (a futile attempt to keep Ken Taylor there, IIRC). Jay Garfield discussed it (his talk also was my introduction to Sellarsian dot quotes). I was fascinated by it. My thesis proposal came out of that fascination (and because a different sort of cognitive suicide).

(In the attic purge, I found lots of thesis printouts. I may be able to look at them.)

I didn’t realise how theistic she was!   That’s interesting. It puts some of her intellectual history in a new light, although don’t think she was a supernaturalist in any real way. I suspect that she’s a bit Kantian in wanting to make room for God, freedom and immortality (though again, not in a supernatural way).

I never met her or see her talk, but Saving Belief was a friend. We grew apart, but I still have fond college memories of it.

MLK on Love and Power

Scribd threw up in unlimited an audiobook with bits of MLK recorded speeches. Needless to say, it’s pretty fabulous.

MLK wrote some pretty amazing books and I wish they were more widely read.

One bit I found arresting (partial transcript)

What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. (Yes) Power at its best [applause], power at its best is love (Yes) implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. (Speak) And this is what we must see as we move on.

This is pretty clearly bound up in King’s theological/philosophical perspective, which I’m definitely not in tune with, but I still find it pretty cool. There’s a koanness to the line power at its best. Power (at its best) is love implementing justice and justice is love…er…crushing its enemies? (Justice is love correcting antilove. Simple substitution clearly doesn’t work. Interesting, the goal here seems to be attacking (in part) the black power movement:

Now what has happened is that we’ve had it wrong and mixed up in our country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through love and moral suasion devoid of power, and white Americans to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience. It is leading a few extremists today to advocate for Negroes the same destructive and conscienceless power that they have justly abhorred in whites. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times. (Yes)

I generally don’t quite agree with King about Black Power, but I’d love to see a full scholarly treatment about his relationship to the movement.

This latter quote also makes me think of the very cool Bernie Boxill essay “Fear and Shame as Forms of Moral Suasion in the Thought of Frederick Douglass“. I’ve had my quarrels with Bernie over this article (more on whether fear is either a necessary or sufficient condition, or even a promoter, of moral suasion than on Douglass exegesis), but it seems to engage the King above on several fronts. Worth a read (always).