Berkeley’s Direct Tactile Realism In His NEW VISION

Oddly enough for those of us used to thinking of Berkeley as a thoroughgoing idealist, Berkeley maintains in his AN ESSAY TOWARDS A NEW THEORY OF VISION a direct realism regarding tactile perception.  Whereas the objects of vision — for example, the visible moon — do not exist outside the mind, the objects of touch — what is touched, tangible physical objects — do exist outside the mind in external space.  As George Pitcher puts it, speaking of what Berkeley is claiming in black and white in the NEW THEORY OF VISION:

What we feel are the tangible objects — i.e., the objects that are spread around us at various points in physical space.  What we see are objects that exist only in the mind.

George Pitcher, BERKELEY: THE ARGUMENTS OF THE PHILOSOPHERS  (Routledge, London and New York), p. 28. Henceforth BERKELEY

Tangible objects, in the system of the Essay, exist around us in real physical space.

George Pitcher, BERKELEY, p. 43.

And from the Master himself (passage 1):

Passage 1

For all visible things are equally in the Mind, and take up no part of the external Space.  And consequently are equidistant [in the next sentence Berkeley says ‘Or rather to speak truly…are at no Distance, neither near nor far…] from any tangible thing, which exists without the Mind.

George Berkeley, AN ESSAY TOWARDS A NEW THEORY OF VISION, paragraphs CXI and CXII, in The GEORGE BERKELEY COLLECTION: 5 CLASSIC WORKS, Amazon Print-On-Demand Edition, no pagination.  Henceforth A NEW THEORY OF VISION. 

Perceiving/sensing/understanding (for now I will take these terms to be more or less equivalent, as I think they are for Berkeley) for Berkeley is always a two-place relation between a Mind that perceives something and the thing that is perceived — the object of perception.  Berkeley calls the direct, that is to say, the immediate object of sensing/perceiving/understanding an ‘idea’:

Passage 2a

… I take the word idea for any immediate object of sense, or understanding — in which large signification it is commonly used by the moderns.

George Berkeley, AN ESSAY TOWARDS A NEW THEORY OF VISION, in BERKELEY Essay, Principles, Dialogues With Selections From Other Writings (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York) 1929) p. 36.  Henceforth A NEW THEORY OF VISION when referring to that Essay in this volume.

So henceforth I will be treating the terms ‘idea’ and ‘object (of touch, of vision, of hearing, etc.)’ as equivalent, except when the context makes it obvious that ‘idea’ is being used in another way.

Visible things, visual ideas — the objects of vision — for example, the Visibile Moon … these things have visible properties. The Visibile Moon, for example, has a round shape, is flat, luminous, and is of a kind of non-saturated yellow color. That this should be so ought not perhaps be too surprising. Things have properties, right? Shouldn’t visible things have visible properties? And should their bearing properties be gainsaid by the fact that these things exist only in the mind? I can see a wine red or viridian green or burnt sienna afterimage, right?

Vision is, I have said, assuming for the moment the guise of Bishop Berkeley, a two-place relation between the Mind and an object that exists only in the mind, a visual Idea. In the case of touch, this relation is a two-place relation between the Mind and a hard or soft or rough or smooth or sharp or rounded…physical object existing in external space. [By ‘physical object’, I mean ‘object that obeys the laws of physics,’ and I take it this is what Berkeley is also thinking of when he talks about things existing in ‘external space’.] Shortly, I will be talking about what these relations might be.

As regards vision, I do perceive an extra-mental object existing in external space — but only indirectly, or mediately, in a three-place relation. This relation comprises my Mind (me), the Visibile Idea (e.g., the Visibile Moon) to which my Mind is related directly, and the external object (the physical, tangible Moon) for which the Visibile Moon serves as a sign.  So with regard to vision, Berkeley maintains in the NEW VISION a representational theory of perception.  He is an indirect realist with regard to vision:  we see the physical object in external space just indirectly, in a way mediated by the mental object of color and shape that we do see directly.

But with regard to touch, Berkeley is a direct realist.  We perceive the physical object directly through touch.  We don’t perceive it by ‘touching’ or ‘feeling’ a mental object that represents the physical tangible object.  We are in contact with the object itself.  Put another way, our perception reaches all the way to the felt object.  In the case of touch, the perception is a two-place, not a three-place relation.

This direct realism in the case of touch comes as a bit of a surprise to those of us who think of Berkeley as a thoroughgoing idealist who thinks that everything is mental.  And in fact Berkeley apparently claimed in later writings that he theorized touch this way only to prevent his readers from freaking out from far too much counterintuitive idealism (Pitcher, BERKELEY, p. 28) which would only have served to distract his readers from what he wanted to focus on, namely, vision. In his own thoughts, ostensibly kept to himself at the time of A NEW THEORY OF VISION, he regarded the objects of touch as in fact mental.

But regardless of what the historical George Berkeley thought or did not think inwardly as he wrote that tract, treating touch in a direct realist fashion as involving direct perceptual contact with the touched/felt physical object is strongly motivated by two things.  First, Berkeley’s treatment of the objects of vision as being both mental and possessing visual properties leads to absurdities if applied to the objects of touch.  The absurdity disappears once one regards the objects of touch as being extra-mental, existing outside the mind.  Second, reflecting on the nature of vision and the nature of touch motivates (without forcing!) a direct realist theory of touch and an indirect realist theory of vision.  .

I’ve been speaking of the objects of vision and the objects of touch, whether these be the same [be sure to cash this out], or different, as Berkeley thinks. The object of vision is what is seen; the object of touch is what is touched. Berkeley calls the former the visual Idea, and the latter … well, to anticipate, I think one is likely to feel some discomfort in calling what is touched, the physical object, an ‘Idea’, given that Ideas are normally regarded as mental, as Berkeley regards the (direct) objects of vision. Be that as it may, objects have properties.

So it is not terribly surprising to see (as I have discussed in a previous post, The Truth Of Bishop Berkeley (Part 0)) Berkeley treating the visible object as having visual properties (what other kind would it have? [Yes, this is a trick question]).  The Visibile Moon, for example, is round, flat, luminous, and (although Berkeley never assigns it a specific color) of a certain pale cheese-like yellow. If I may be permitted to go at least a little distance out on a limb, I ascribe to Berkeley the idea that for a mind to sense ‘moon yellow’ and the other sensed properties of the Visibile Moon is simply for that object to have those properties and to exist in the mind.

But we run immediately into trouble if we try to apply that idea to the objects of touch. It seems rather strange to say that for a mind to sense rough, smooth, hard, soft and so on is for a rough (or smooth, hard, soft) object to exist in the mind. But surely no mental things can be rough etc.  Only physical objects — for example, the bark of a tree, the cool smoothness of marble — can have these properties.  Thus conceptualizing Ideas, the objects before the Mind, as having properties puts Berkeley straightway on the road to regarding physical objects existing in extra-mental space as the objects of touch.

But what happens, then, to the idea that to sense an object with its properties directly is for that object with its properties to exist in the mind? The object of touch with its roughness etc. exists outside, not inside the mind. How, then, can it be an Idea? An Idea, surely, is something that exists in the mind. And an Idea, remember, is what is sensed, what is perceived — the object of touch or of vision. If one ever suffered from the delusion that the Berkeleyan Idea was not a problematic concept, they should be stripped of that delusion now. [ It would seem that Berkeley would either have to jettison either the notion that an Idea is a mental object (with properties) in the mind, or that it is an object, mental or not, before the mind. the notion we have ascribed to him that ]

[What is this relation? At least in the case of vision, Berkeley seems to conceive of this relation in quasi-spatial terms — and he is not, of course, the only one to do so.  For him, to sense wine red, for example, is for wine red (deep crimson red) to be “in” (yes, do note the scare quotes) the mind. The origin of this spatial metaphor doubtlessly lies in a causal story of perception. Light bounces off the object (say, a translucent wine-red paper weight), strikes the retina, triggering other events that end up quite literally in the brain…and from there (though no story about the pituitary gland) ideas somehow slip into the mind. That Bishop Berkeley easily flips from talking about brains and physical processes to talking about minds and the ideas contained therein. As shown here, he starts out talking about retinas and brains, then suddenly corrects himself midstream and starts talking about minds. These easy flips make it more likely he will apply in a metaphorical or derived way to minds and mental objects spatial terms such as ‘in’ whose use is quite literal when applied to brains inside skulls. ]

[For now, I will leave the terms ‘mind’ and ‘mental’ as primitives, and assume that I and my readers understand them in roughly the way Bishop Berkeley understood them. We are all, after all, still swimming the still-powerful current of Cartesian dualism.]

[What is this relation? At least in the case of vision, Berkeley seems to conceive of this relation in quasi-spatial terms — and he is not, of course, the only one to do so.  For him, to sense wine red, for example, is for wine red (deep crimson red) to be “in” (yes, do note the scare quotes) the mind. The origin of this spatial metaphor doubtlessly lies in a causal story of perception. Light bounces off the object (say, a translucent wine-red paper weight), strikes the retina, triggering other events that end up quite literally in the brain…and from there (though no story about the pituitary gland) ideas somehow slip into the mind. That Bishop Berkeley easily flips from talking about brains and physical processes to talking about minds and the ideas contained therein. As shown here, he starts out talking about retinas and brains, then suddenly corrects himself midstream and starts talking about minds. These easy flips make it more likely he will apply in a metaphorical or derived way to minds and mental objects spatial terms such as ‘in’ whose use is quite literal when applied to brains inside skulls. ]

[For now, I will leave the terms ‘mind’ and ‘mental’ as primitives, and assume that I and my readers understand them in roughly the way Bishop Berkeley understood them. We are all, after all, still swimming the still-powerful current of Cartesian dualism.]

[But why doesn’t regarding the objects of vision likewise put one right on the road to viewing the objects of vision as extra-mental entities? Can a mental object be yellow, luminous, round, and flat?]

Whether such a reading is historically accurate or not, I am tempted to read the following passage (passage 2) as motivated by a discomforting sense on the part of Berkeley that there is something problematic about the notion of an Idea. What better way to eliminate the discomfort than to say the opposite? ‘There is nothing problematic about the notion of tangible ideas’, my psycho-analyzed version of Berkeley would say. ‘I am just using the phrase as everyone else among us moderns uses it’.

Passage 2

Note that, when I speak of tangible ideas, I take the word idea for any immediate object of sense, or understanding — in which large signification it is commonly used by the moderns.

George Berkeley, AN ESSAY TOWARDS A NEW THEORY OF VISION, in BERKELEY Essay, Principles, Dialogues With Selections From Other Writings (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York) 1929) p. 36.  Henceforth A NEW THEORY OF VISION when referring to that Essay in this volume.

But what is directly, i.e., immediately, i.e., im, that is to say, not mediately touched is the extra-mental physical object itself.  Given the passage just quoted, that would mean the physical object is an Idea — a tactile Idea — , at least when it is being touched.  Visual Ideas may be mental, but it would seem that tactile Ideas are not.  But surely, in the large signification the word ‘Idea’ is used by the moderns, as well as by all of us captive to what is still a Cartesian common sense, an Idea is something mental, something in the Mind.  Passages 1) and 2) are clearly in tension with one another.

One way to reconcile 1) and 2) is to reinterpret the concept of an Idea by applying to it a distinction between the content of intentional states such as seeing and touching and the object of these states.

A Berkeleyan Idea, I propose, is ambiguous between content and object.  In the case of feeling/touching [I shall use ‘feeling’ interchangeably with ‘touching’], the Idea is a mental content without properties but describable by seeking answers to the question ‘how’, or adverbially.   The intentional state with this content has a physical thing with properties as its object.  In the case of vision, the Idea is an “inner” mental object [I will take ‘inner’, ‘mental’, and ‘mind’ as primitives and pretend, at least for now, that there is nothing problematic about these terms] with properties.

Let me explain this distinction by making an analogy to the (commonly made in this context)  distinction between kicking a tree (an action directed towards an object) and kicking a kick (an action that may or may not be directed towards an object).  Let’s say that Dr. Johnson kicks a tree (while exclaiming ‘I refute Berkeley thus!’)  This event can be described in two ways:  ‘Dr Johnson kicked a tree’, and ‘Dr. Johnson kicked a kick’.  The kick, is of course, identical with Dr. Johnson’s action of kicking the tree and is, in spite of the direct-object grammatical role played in the sentence by the word ‘kick’, not the object of the kick.

Dr. Johnson is both kicking a kick and kicking a tree.

Now suppose that  Bruce Lee is demonstrating a particular martial art move which includes a kicking action.  The kick is directed towards the air, towards anything that might [the futural dimension] meet its thrust, in other words, to nothing in particular.  It is not directed towards any actual existing object.  Bruce Lee is kicking a kick, but the kick is not directed towards an object.

Continuing with this analogy, let’s say that the tactile Idea is like kicking a kick that may or may not have an object.  Suppose I am resting my elbow on a marble countertop.  I feel the coolness of the marble.  At the same time, I feel the equal and opposite force of the cool, smooth, hard marble as it meets my weight at my elbow while I lean into it. In feeling this equal and opposite force impinging upon my body, I  feel the marble’s hardness and resistance to my body.  Likewise, I feel the pressure on my somewhat rubbery skin as both the marble and the bone of my elbow press into it.   Oh no!  I have placed too much pressure on the countertop!  A piece of it has broken off and smashed into my toe! I feel the marble’s force, and my toe throbs painfully with such a salience that it becomes difficult to attend to anything else.

In the course of all this, I have enjoyed/suffered the following:  a coolness feeling, a force feeling, a hardness feeling, a resistance feeling, a pressure feeling, a pain feeling.  Some of these, although named by different words, may be identical events (e.g., hardness feeling, resistance feeling, force feeling).  These start, continue for a while, then end (I stop leaning on the counter; my toe eventually stops throbbing painfully).  They are, in short, events that have the same structure as the event kicking a kick.  I was feeling a hardness feeling, feeling a resistance feeling, feeling a coolness feeling, feeling an equal-and-opposite-reaction-comprising-a-force feeling, feeling a toe-throbbing-painfully feeling.

These ‘feeling a feeling’s I will call the content of the intentional state of feeling the marble countertop. In each case, the feeling is not the object of the various tactile events, but is identical with those events.  The object of  the events is the marble countertop itself and its various properties and capacities:  its hardness, its resistance to forces impinging upon it, its presenting those forces with equal and opposite reactions, its temperature. Dr. Johnson kicks a tree; I feel a marble countertop.

It is fairly safe to place the marble countertop in extra-mental space.  With just a little bit of work, I think, we can plausibly place the feeling inside the mind as a mental event.  I say ‘plausibly’ for now because later I hope to chip away a bit at any such clean separation of ‘mental’ from physical as would seem naturally intuitive to Berkeley and to anyone still caught up in the general thralldom of what is still common-sense Cartesian dualism.

Suppose I am now hallucinating the marble countertop.  I seem to be leaning my elbow on the countertop.  But there is in fact no marble countertop for me to lean on.  Instead, there are just the following:  a feeling a hardness feeling, a feeling a resistance feeling, a feeling a coolness feeling, a feeling an equal-and-opposite-reaction-comprising-a-force feeling, a feeling a toe-throbbing-painfully feeling.  These are, plausibly, events taking place inside me and only inside me.  They are taking place inside no one else.  If I am a Mind, a Spirit, then these events are taking place inside my mind.  They are mental events.

They are tactile Ideas.  When there is a marble countertop that I am feeling, they are tactile Ideas with both an object and a content — Dr. Johnson kicking a tree (object) and kicking a kick (content).  When I am hallucinating and there is no marble countertop that I am feeling, they are tactile Ideas with a content but no object.  They are Bruce Lee kicking a kick without kicking anything. Tactile Ideas are mental contents identical with events that may or may not have an object.

Regarding them as mental events, we need not think of them as objects with properties standing in front of the felt object and hiding it from our direct tactile view. Instead, they are best described by phrases that answer the question ‘how?’ and sometimes adverbially.  How am I feeling?  I am feeling impinged upon by a force that is equal and opposite to the force I am exerting on the countertop.  I am feeling impinged upon by the temperature of the marble.  I am feeling throbbingly/painfully in that area of space occupied by my toe.  Answers to the how question and (sometimes) adverbs better describe these events than do properties, states and capacities of objects (wine-red, translucent, cubical).

Thank goodness, because, as suggested above, if the tactile Idea had tactile properties such as hardness etc. by analogy with visual Ideas having visual properties such as luminosity and a particular shade of bright-moon-cheese-yellow, we would be in very strange territory indeed.  We would be faced with slabs of mental marble floating around (would something that has the property of heaviness float? — Maybe mental space is gravitation-free) in my mind possessing the properties of smoothness, coolness, and hardness, and capable of  exerting any force, whether gravitational or equal-and-opposite-reactional, upon any physical object, including upon that physical object that I am.  Were these allegedly non-physical objects actually capable of exerting/undergoing such forces, they would in fact be physical, that is to say, describable by the laws of physics. [By ‘physical’ I mean ‘describable by the laws of physics.]

(Later, however, I hope to submit to the consideration of my gentle reader the idea that maybe we should include the force exerted by the marble as part of the tactile sensation, the tactile Idea. )

By treating tactile Ideas as mental contents, Berkeley can retain his claim that touch gives us direct access to the physical object, without the mediation of any objects at all standing in the way — much less strange entities such as tactile Ideas seen as objects with tactile properties.  The tactile Idea is not an object mediating our access to the felt object in a three-place relation comprising mind, mediating mental object with properties, and physical object.  Rather, it is this access.

Of course, if visual Ideas are to be treated the same way, we would end up with a direct perception theory of vision, not a representational theory.  Visual perception would be a two-place relation between a mind and the physical object (when the visual experience has an object), not a three-place relation comprising mind, visual Idea, and physical object.  In the case of after-images and hallucinations, the visual experience would have a content (identical with the the event that is that experience), but it would have not object.  To the exclamation ‘surely you are seeing something when you see a wine-red afterimage or hallucinate that magenta rhinoceros grazing at your feet as you write this screed’, the proper rejoinder is ‘no, I am not seeing anything.’  For there is no inner, mental object that is wine red (in the case of the afterimage) or magenta (in the case of the hallucinated rhinoceros).

So if Berkeley is to retain his indirect, or representational theory of visual perception and admit the existence of physical objects as well, he has to retain the notion of a visual Idea as a mental, inner object possessing properties such as wine red, magenta, yellow ocher, or burnt sienna.  These objects stand in the way, between the mind and the physical object.

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When I “see” a wine-red afterimage, it may seem odd to deny the existence of something that has the property wine-red.  As a matter of my personal biography, I have found this denial a bit counter-intuitive to make. I see this wine-red thing, dammit!  It’s right there before me!  (Even though no one else can see it.)  Likewise, when I hallucinate a magenta rhinoceros grazing peacefully at my feet (this is my study rhino) … er … I mean … were I to hallucinate a magenta rhinoceros, I see all this rather powerful vivid magenta, dammit!  (Even though no one else can see what I see.)  How could a color exist without being the property of a colored thing?  So how could there not be something magenta before me?  Do you really want to deny that magenta exists (er, I mean, would exist) in my visual field?

But neither the afterimage nor the hallucinated rhinoceros are physical objects.  Were I to try to touch the rhinoceros, no equal and opposite reaction would meet my action.  And there is no way I can even try to touch the afterimage — it does not exist in a space in which reaching for it can make sense.  If these objects are not physical objects, they must be mental objects.  These are “inner” mental objects with properties, such as wine red or magenta or  yellow ocher.

Add to this line of thought the fact that every perceptual or quasi-perceptual event has a cause, and you get a theory of visual perception that renders visual perception indirect in the way articulated above.  [Combine this line of thought with the idea that the object of perception must be present, not just on the sensory surface, but inside it (the sensory object must be where the causal chain ends), and you end up with the notion that every object of visual perception must be an inner, mental object.]  In the case of visual perception, the event of kicking, which it is without exception describable as kicking a kick, is always also kicking a tree.  Visual perception always has a mental entity as its direct object; at best, a physical thing can be just the indirect object of perception.

Would the same type of argument pack any punch at all in showing (or seeming to show) that tactile perception has just an indirect “grasp” of the physical object?  Since there does not seem to be anything like an “aftertouch” that would correspond to an afterimage, I will focus on the possibility of tactile hallucination.

Suppose that I am hallucinating the following:  I am resting my elbow on a marble countertop.  I seem feel the equal and opposite force of the cool, smooth, hard marble as it meets the weight I press into it via my elbow — that is to say, I seem to feel the (ostensible) marble’s hardness and resistance to my body.  Likewise, I seem to feel the pressure on my somewhat rubbery skin as both the marble and the bone of my elbow press into it.   Oh no!  I have placed too much pressure on the countertop!  A piece of it has broken off and smashed into my toe!

But I am hallucinating.  There is no physical marble outside my mind that my body is leaning against.  Nor is there any slab of mental marble floating around (would something that has the property of heaviness float?) in my mind possessing the properties of smoothness, coolness, and hardness, and capable of  exerting any force, whether gravitational or equal-and-opposite-reactional, upon any physical object, including upon that physical object that I am.  Were these allegedly non-physical objects capable of exerting/undergoing such forces, they would in fact be physical, that is to say, describable by the laws of physics.

I am hallucinating the events occurring in my body as well.  My body exists, thank God, but I am hallucinating the various events that are ostensibly taking place within it and to it:  my elbow bone pressing into my skin and other flesh that is ostensibly in contact with the ostensible marble countertop; the ostensible marble pressing into that same flesh from the other side; the piece of marble dropping onto my toe.  None of these events is actually happening.  For the same reasons there is no mental marble slab floating around in my mind like an object in the opening of the TWILIGHT ZONE — but wait!  One of the ostensible properties of the ostensible marble is weight — so this mental slab couldn’t be just floating —  there is no mental ‘my body’ floating around there either.

To feel an object is to impinge one’s physical flesh-and-blood-and-bone self upon it, or to suffer its impinging upon this flesh-and-blood-and-bone self.  This is why any completely convincing tactile hallucination — if any such ever occur — would need to include hallucinatory (and ostensible) events occurring in and to one’s physical body.  And it is also why any object of a tactile Idea has to be physical.  It is not possible to get one’s hands upon, impinge upon, a mental, non-physical entity.  The smoothness, coolness,  hardness, resistance, capacity to exert or suffer a force of an object become tactilely perceived properties of an object only given the impact/suffering of tactically sensitive flesh.

What we are left with is an event, an action that looks less and less “mental” (I shall now start placing this word in quotes in order to cease pretending I really know what this word means).  If the ostensible object of my touching does not exist “outside the mind”, it does not exist.  There is something occurring, however — an event of feeling.  Idea. This Idea, however, is similar in structure to a kick, which usually is directed towards an object but sometimes is not.  When the marble countertop exists, the tactile Idea is akin to kicking a tree (which act is also describable as kicking a kick).  But when the marble countertop does not exist because I am hallucinating, the tactile Idea is akin to just an objectless kicking a kick.  In a sense that will be clarified later on [promissory note], I am not feeling anything.

On the kicking a kick side, the force-feeling, the hardness-feeling, the coolness-feeling, the resistance-feeling.

But then have to bring in the physical — the fingers and elbows and toe getting smashed, and it starts getting a bit problematic to call this an Idea.

Nonetheless:

It is not at all plausible (to repeat the point already made in paragraph x above) to argue:  ‘There are no non-physical slabs of marble existing only in my mind possessing  the properties of smoothness, coolness, and hardness and capable of of exerting forces upon another

My body does exist, thank God, but it is not exerting/receiving any forces from material objects.  That body exists only in my mind — so I will say, but only as a first approximation.

Afterimages don’t push back.

Think of as having same structure as kicking a kick | kicking a tree.  Touch is both.  No mental slab of marble.  Vision is always kicking a kick according to the above.  What would be possible reasons for thinking this.

*********

Of course, this interpretation of Berkeley is ever so slightly (just slightly, I hope!) tendentious.  So far as I know, Berkeley never explicitly says that Ideas have colors or have other properties.  The interpretation relies on the his seeming to equate the objects of vision (for example, the Visibile Moon) with conglomerations of Ideas.  The Visibile Moon is luminous, implying that it has some color or other.  It is difficult to see how Ideas could be conjoined to form a conglomeration with luminosity and a color unless they were themselves luminous and colored; therefore it would seem that visual Ideas have to have properties.

But there are interpreters, such as George Pitcher, who argue that we can make more pieces of what Berkeley says cohere with one another if we think of his Ideas not as objects of sensation (and therefore not as entities with properties), but as events or “acts”.

An Idea on this interpretation would be an event that has the same structure as a kick.  Let’s say that Dr. Johnson kicks a tree (while proclaiming ‘I refute Berkeley thus!’)  This event can be described in two ways:  ‘This person kicked a tree’, and ‘this person kicked a kick’.  The tree in the first description of of course the object towards which the kick was directed; the kick in the second description is not such an object, but is identical with the kicking event itself.

A kick may have an object towards which it is directed, as when Dr. Johnson kicks the tree.  Or it might not.  Bruce Lee, for example, may be demonstrating a particular martial art move without actually kicking anything.  Just so, the tactile Idea of cool, smooth marble may have an object towards which it is directed — the marble counter top over which I am passing my hands, or it might not.  I might be hallucinating the feeling of cool, smooth marble.  If I am hallucinating, the noun phrase ‘tactile Idea of cool, smooth marble’ names not some object to which the sensation is directed, but a sensory event.  [I will try to claim the event normally has “non-mental” aspects, my physical fingers passing over the marble.]

Because of the grammatical similarity between ‘tree’ and ‘kick’ in the above kick sentences, both serving as grammatical objects in the sentences, one could theoretically think that there is some sort of special object called a ‘kick’ towards which the event of kicking is directed.

Practically speaking, I rather suspect this sort of confusion is unlikely to occur when we are talking about kicks.  But this confusion may be occurring should one think that sensing a wine red color and sensing an oblong shape , say, is to be analyzed in terms of an event, sensing, that has as its object an entity that is both wine red in color and oblong in shape.  In short, a thing with properties.  If one “sees” a wine-red, oblong afterimage, or hallucinates a magenta rhinoceros, there is clearly nothing present in extra-mental space that is wine red, oblong, magenta, or shaped like a rhinoceros.  But (it would seem) there is something that is wine red and oblong (in the afterimage case) or magenta and rhinoceros-shaped (in the hallucination case).  Since these things do not exist in extra-mental space, they must exist “in the mind” — maybe even in some sort of “internal space”.  I know — let’s call these things ‘Ideas’.  Visual access to the physical objects available to us via touch would then have to be mediate in character — accomplished not directly but through the intermediary of visual Ideas.

As we have seen in the section above, this kind of analysis falls apart in the case of tactile sensations — tactile Ideas. Should one hallucinate the tactile presence of a slab of cool, smooth marble, or the tactile presence of rough bark, there is surely no mental, i.e., non-physical object that is cool and smooth in a marble-like way, or rough in a bark-like way.

In these cases, sensing coolness and smoothness | sensing roughness would need to be treated along the lines of an objectless kicking a kick.  At a first approximation, the coolness and smoothness | roughness would be identical with the events ‘sensing coolness and smoothness | sensing roughness.  [footnote:  I say ‘at a first approximation because later I intend to modify this claim substantially into a quite different claim.  For now, however, I will let it stand and use it as a kind of guide-post helping to lead one into a more complete analysis]

In the case of touching a physical object that does exist, thank you very much (the slab of marble, the bark), the treatment would be that of kicking a tree.  Kicking a tree is also kicking a kick, but now the event has an object it is directed towards.  There being no mental object with the requisite tactile properties, there is nothing that serves as a mental intermediary between the sensing events and their objects.  There would be a direct perception of the marble | bark.

Because Berkeley holds in the NEW VISION (at least in black and white) that that we do enjoy/suffer direct tactile perception of physical objects, applying to tactile Ideas the kicking a kick/kicking a tree analysis just given seems like a good way to interpret his tactile Ideas.

George Pitcher thinks there are additional reasons as well to interpret Berkeley’s Ideas generally in this manner.  [Link to this and to my digestion of it.]  Certainly one would want a consistent interpretation of Berkeley’s notion of an Idea that holds good both for visual and tactile Ideas, especially given this:

Note that, when I speak of tangible ideas, I take the word idea for any immediate object of sense, or understanding — in which large signification it is commonly used by the moderns.

George Berkeley, AN ESSAY TOWARDS A NEW THEORY OF VISION, in BERKELEY Essay, Principles, Dialogues With Selections From Other Writings (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York) 1929) p. 36.  Henceforth A NEW THEORY OF VISION when referring to that Essay in this volume.

Berkeley’s use of the word ‘object’ here presents problems for those proposing a violent reading of the text, to say the least.  But it does seem plain that he wants an interpretation of ‘idea’ that would hold good both for visual and for tactile (or “tangible”) ideas.  If tactile ideas are events rather than objects with properties, visual ideas should be as well.

[Direction.  The physical body. Kicking.]

So subjecting sensing tactilely to a kicking a kick vs. kicking a tree type analysis removes

Clearly, Berkeley’s tactile Ideas would need to be interpreted this way if he is to make physical objects existing in extra-mental space their direct objects.

overOne can kick a kick, and one can kick, say, a tree (perhaps as a way of saying ‘I refute Berkeley thus’).  Sticking to the Berkeleyan framework, having an Idea of wine red, for example, that is to say, sensing wine red,  is more like kicking a kick than it is like kicking a tree:  there is no mental object (and, for Berkeley, there are no other kinds) towards which the event is directed.  What is meant by a kick in ‘kicking a kick’ is exhausted by the act of kicking; what is meant by ‘wine red’ in ‘sensing wine red’ (having an Idea of wine red) is exhausted by ‘sensing wine red’.

Of course, kicking a kick may also be an act of kicking tree rather than an objectless act (done say, to demonstrate a particular move in a martial art). Likewise, unless one is a Berkeleyan idealist, one is likely to think that there normally exists an extra-mental wine-red object one is directed towards when the event ‘sensing wine red’ occurs.  The Berkeley of the NEW VISION thinks that there is no such extra-mental object in the case of sensing wine red, but there

When an event of sensing the smoothness and coldness of polished marble occurs (when there is a tactile Idea of marble smoothness and roughness, to state things in a Berkeleyan way),

Distance and Location

Apart from what Berkeley said in black and white and what he may or may not have actually been thinking as he put down his sentences in black and white, a brief look at touch and vision themselves show that touch and vision invite, tempt us towards, the sort of treatment Berkeley gives them in the NEW VISION, whether or not we accept that invitation.  There is something about touch that wants, so to speak, to be direct, and something about vision that wants to be indirect.

Touch lends itself to a direct realist interpretation in a way that vision does not.  The felt object makes its presence … well … felt … directly on the sensing surface, the skin.  There is no gap to leap across, so to speak, to get access to the felt object.  It presents itself right here as it impinges upon and transfers energy to this sensory surface, one’s skin, whether by its motion towards and into one (say as one is catching a ball) or by the opposite and equal force it directs into one as one leans on their elbow at the desk, or as they stroke silk, pressing ever so lightly and delicately into the silk.

But the seen object at least seems to be at a distance from the sensing surface of the see-er.  It makes its presence apparent (feel the weakening of the adjectives as I go from ‘makes its presence felt’ to ‘makes its presence apparent’) via what at first sight looks like an intermediary, i.e., photons reflected from the object that enter the sensing surface, the retina, and transfer their energy to that other important part of the sensing surface, the brain.

It would seem then that what is seen directly are photons — light.  What we normally take to be the objects of vision — tables, tea pots, chairs, trees, houses, pineapples, cacti, cliffs and stars — would seem to be seen just indirectly.  (In the cases of the stars, however, perhaps a case could be made that what we are seeing is indeed light.)  [Footnote:  if I am not mistaken, in certain moods Berkeley thinks that what we see is light.]  This is the path we are led into if we have the intuition that the direct object of a sense must impinge upon the sensory surface.  The greater-than-zero distance from the sensing surface of what is normally taken to be the object of vision beckons us to enter that path, is extending an invite.

As I suggested above, we do not necessarily have to accept this invitation.  One way to politely decline it is    But wait — shouldn’t the objects of vision be regarded as the sensed wine-red, sensed sea-glass viridian green etc. inside my brain?  Well no — not if we think of sensing wine red or sea-glass green as kicking a kick as opposed to kicking a tree.  All right, then, let’s regard the sensing event as comprising the events going on in the brain and what is going on in the retina and what is going on at the lenses and what is going on with the photons bouncing off the table, pineapple, cactus etc.   Then we can get back out tables and trees etc as direct objects of vision.

By contrast, there is no such question     there is zero distance between the sensing surface of my skin and the rough bark of the tree as I run my hand along the bark’s surface. Through touch, I am in contact with the physical object itself.  There is no question of the tactile experience having to “reach out” to the object because a physical me — an entity with weight and heft –, engaging my physical hand, has already done the reaching out.  Touch is the direct realist sense par excellence. There is something about touch that wants to be direct.

And, as I hope to show (soon, or at least sometime before I die), the visual experience actually does reach out (in some sense of ‘actually does reach out’) to the physical object (Merleau-Ponty), or at least seems to so reach out (Berkeley) because of the way touch is implicated in the visual experience.  Touch informs the direct realist character (real or ostensible) of visual experience.

Impression.  Presentation as opposed to mere representation:  the object has a presence because it, in its fullness, is impinging upon one.  Felt impingement.

Given this, that the seen object is (with the exception of that portion of one’s body that is in their view) at a distance from one can seem a bit paradoxical.

*********

This time my homage to Plato’s SYMPOSIUM takes the form of Brad Pitt in THE FIGHT CLUB.  This image seems appropriate for a disquisition on touch and brutal physical reality.

Brad-Pitt-Fight-Club

If Plato can have a thing for Alkibiades, I can have a thing for gorgeous rednecks.  This particular redneck needs to stop smoking, however.

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The Evangelicals Have Blood On Their Hands

The evangelicals also have blood on their hands by fostering violence against LGBT people. Let me explain how they are doing this.

Suppose that one of the Hebrew myths recounted in GENESIS included a story about Lot’s twin brother, Lotto, who made a pit stop on his journeys in the town of TwinGomorrah. The residents of TwinGomorrah have the peculiarity that they are all left-handed. Obviously unrelated to this peculiarity, they violate the same norms requiring hospitality for the strangers in one’s midst that the denizens of Gomorrah commit against Lot and his family. This norm was so important to the ancients that strangers were regarded as being under the protection of the gods. Naturally, the citizens of TwinGomorrah committed various violations of the stringent norm of hospitality against Lotto and his family using their left hands. (I will leave the specifics to the reader’s imagination.) Outraged by the violation of the norm, God destroys the city of TwinGomorrah.

Already bearing culturally-spawned prejudice against left-handed people, and needing a scapegoat to draw away their own sins (do you know what sorts of things right-handed people DO? Eww yuck), and perhaps not being the sharpest tools in the woodshed at least where scholarly labor is concerned (as one writer put it ‘The main scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind’), evangelicals start claiming the story of TwinGomorrah shows that God regards being left-handed as a sin. God hates left-handedness. Left-handedness is an abomination.

Of course, the evangelicals (and right-wing Catholics) realize they have to say something to the effect of ‘God doesn’t hate the left-handed person; what he hates are the actions performed by the left-handed person using their left hand.’ Now this is of course silly in a way that is too obvious to need elucidation. But for the moment let’s allow this to stand. God doesn’t hate left-handed people; he hates actions performed with the left hand.

The point that I want to emphasize is that this is a point that requires a certain level of sophistication to “understand.” (Of course, certain stupidities require a certain level of sophistication of embrace, but let’s leave that to the side for the moment.) Most people will not be able to grasp this wonderfully subtle distinction (irony fully intended). By constantly preaching that left-handed actions are “sinful”, they will naturally be fostering violence against left-handed people, just as the idea spawned by the Gospel of St. John that the Jews are murderers of God fostered violence against Jews.

UPHOLDERS OF THIS FINE WONDERFUL DISTINCTION NEED TO BE CONSTANTLY REMINDING THEIR BENIGHTED FLOCKS THAT VIOLENCE AGAINST AND VIOLATIONS OF THE RIGHTS OF LEFT-HANDED PEOPLE ARE STRENG VERBOTEN. In fact, they need to be marching in Left-Handed Pride parades to help protect the rights of Left-Handed people, rights the frequent violation of which their hateful preaching has motivated. Otherwise they will be guilty of fostering violence against left-handed people. Nothing else will absolve them from this guilt.

The evangelicals do not do this, for course. Therefore they are guilty of fostering violence against left-handed people. Just as they have blood on their hands regarding the Kurds, they have blood on their hands regarding left-handed people.

Generally, the evangelicals seem too dim to realize that their preaching morally requires them to actively defend the rights of left-handed people. (Again, the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.)

Evangelical Janet or evangelical Mel might examine their own consciences and find themselves to be Oh So Pure, but they are missing the point rather drastically. They are in the position of Mrs. Turpin in the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor’s short story REVELATION, in which the college student in the doctor’s office, suddenly and out of the blue, denounces Mrs. Turpin as being grossly hideous. The college student is obviously unbalanced mentally and is led away. But later Mrs. Turpin has a vision which leads the reader, and perhaps even Mrs. Turpin herself, to realize that just maybe the college student had a point, all of Mrs. Turpin’s feelings of moral self-purity and social superiority notwithstanding.

The evangelicals are guilty of fostering violence against left-handed people and have blood on their hands not so much because of what they do, but because of what they do not do. This makes it easier for them to wallow in the illusion that they are free of guilt.

.Of course, they do have to expend some energy in protecting this illusion, just as a bacterium has to expend some energy to expel the antibiotic molecule out through its membrane. Absurdly, they will attempt to deny that naitsirhC preachers in the United States, ignoring the fine distinction outlined above, preach death for left-handed people (the video of one doing just that ‘is more likely to be a plant’ said one evangelical in a moment of jaw-dropping stupidity). Likewise, they will attempt to deny that naitsirhC preachers in Africa foment violence against left-handed people on that continent, having lost the cultural war in North America.

But their attempt to deal with their obvious cognitive dissonance is an abject failure. The blood on their hands remains.


The Monty Hall Paradox And Borges’ GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS

Nota Bene: this is still very much a work in progress. I have not yet achieved that mental state at which I can indulge, at least for a while, in the delusion that I have achieved the maximum point of crystalline clarity.’ I am not responsible for any brain damage anyone reading this stuff may incur.

What is the point of the arguments that are about to follow? These arguments are one snippet in an attempt to get clear in my mind regarding the nature of probability. (Yes, I know, this is absurdly ambitious. You may be a bit less inclined, gentle reader, to break out in raucous laughter if you keep in mind I am just trying to arrive at the point at which, in a doubtlessly delusional state, I suffer from the strong conviction I have gotten clear in my own mind regarding the nature of probability. Once achieved, this strong conviction will doubtlessly evaporate like a mirage as I increase my knowledge of the field.)

The reason I want to get clear in my own mind about the nature of probability because I think this is necessary in order to uncover at least one relation that makes the antecedent relevant to the consequent in relevant indicative conditionals. I expect to be making changes to this post as time goes on.

What is the conclusion I am heading towards with all the verbiage below? This: the existence of a probability greater than 0 but less than 1 has as both its necessary and sufficient condition a ratio of ignorance/knowledge within a given perspective. Probability within these two limits is perspectival down to the very root for this reason; it could not exist within the “perspective” of an infinite mind that does not suffer any ignorance at all, partly because such a Mind would not enjoy any perspectives at all. Given a deterministic universe, this is the only way there can be probabilities between 0 and 1 noninclusive.

In the clearest cases, the role knowledge/ignorance plays in determining such a probability is easiest to see in the case of independent events; but dependent events, as in the case of the Monty Hall puzzle, can increase/decrease the probability of a given event.

The Scene. A Shell Game Is Set Up. Let me begin by describing the scene. In an apple and cherry orchard in Iowa, a table has been set up. The sky above is clear. Unknown to and hidden from the people in and about to enter the orchard, but within view should one occupy the right vantage point, a tornado is touching down intermittently across the Missouri River, in Nebraska. I describe the scene this way because it is a situation. A situation is partially defined by what is hidden from one and unknown to one, and by the information that is available to one. Situations will become important in later posts because some versions of Relevant Logic rely on them rather than on possible worlds. I describe this particular one now because I will be returning to it later.

Elizarraraz (although this is not relevant to the example, the name is Ladino for ‘poor king’. Ladino is the Sephardic counterpart to Yiddish, and in . Elizarraraz’ case the name, and his paternal ancestry, comes from Mexico. Although they were not officially allowed to, a number of conversos managed to emigrate to Latin America in order to place a more comfortable distance between themselves and the Spanish Inquisition. Just thought I would provide my made-up characters with concrete backgrounds. But I digress) sets up on the table a shell game with three shells and a single peanut.  The shells are labelled in order 1, 2, and 3. Employing a randomizing device of some sort (say, he throws a die), Elizarraraz places the peanut under the shell selected by his randomizer. Naturally, he knows under which shell the peanut is hidden.

At least for now, I will leave the concept ‘randomness’ as an unanalyzed primitive, explicated, not by a real, concrete example, but by a (vaguely described) ideal one. A fair 6-sided die would be suitably random if, after a very large number of throws, the average ratio of the times each number came up, divided by 6, remained sufficiently close to 1/6. And yes, I will leave ‘sufficiently’ undefined.

Smith (although this is not relevant to the example, the name is English for ‘smith’ as in ‘blacksmith’. But you knew that already) enters the scene. He knows that there is a peanut hidden underneath one of the shells. (Elizarraraz, who is a reliable conduit of information, has told him this.) Smith is about to play what I will call, for reasons that are about to become clear, the ‘non-Monty-Hall shell game. Again, using a randomizer, Smith selects one of the shells, and turns it over. Naturally, either there is a peanut showing up, or there is not. I think it would be uncontroversial to say that the probability there is a peanut there is 1/3, and the probability that there is not is 2/3.

Suppose no peanut was lurking under that shell — say, shell #1. Smith now knows that there was no peanut under shell #1. In at least some sense of the term ‘certain’, he is now certain that shell #1 was not the one hiding the peanut. But he knows that there is a peanut lurking under one or the other of the remaining shells, #2 and #3. I have, and I think most people will have, the strong intuition that the probability the peanut is under shell # 2 (alternatively shell #3) is 1/2. Given that the original sample space [*] of three has now been reduced to two, surely the probability is now 50/50! But hold that thought for a few more paragraphs [1] while I discuss for a bit the notion of ‘a possibility’.

At this point, Smith confronts two possibilities. A possibility is a possible outcome. Possibility #1: the peanut lurks under shell #2 and shell #3 is empty. Possibility #2: the peanut lurks under shell #3 and shell #2 is empty. To talk about ‘a possibility’ here is to say the following: because Smith knows there is a peanut under one of the shells (he just doesn’t know which one), there is a peanut under one of the shells. For if one knows that p, then p is a true proposition (or, better, a state of affairs that obtains [I follow Chisholm in identifying propositions with a proper subset of states of affairs]. From Smith’s point of view, the peanut could be under shell #2 or shell #3; that is to say, he doesn’t know which one. So, at least in cases like this one, [yes, I know, this needs to be more sharply defined] ‘a possibility’ requires a combination of knowledge and ignorance. Remove the ignorance, and the possibility no longer exists.

From Smith’s point of view, it is no longer the case that the peanut could be under shell #1. Its being under shell #1 is no longer a possibility for Smith. And the probability that it is under shell #1 is now 0. Were Elizarraraz to turn over the shell that does hide the peanut (say, shell #3) (and were Smith to see the peanut that had been hiding there, and were nothing at fault in Smith’s visual apparatus), it would no longer be the case that, from Smith’s point of view, the peanut could be under shell #3. It is under shell #3. Its being under shell #3 is no longer a mere possibility, but a certainty. Again, remove the ignorance, and the possibility no longer exists. From Smith’s point of view, the probability that the peanut is under shell #3 is now 1.

When Smith turned over shell #1 and discovered it to be empty, he decreased the size of the sample space from three possibilities (the peanut is under shell #1 and shells #2 and #3 are empty; the peanut is under shell # 2 and shells #1 and #3 are empty; the peanut is under shell #3 and shells #1 and #2 are empty) to just two (the peanut is under shell #2 and shell #3 is empty; the peanut is under shell #3 and shell #2 is empty). A sample space is a set of possibilities; the cardinality or “size” of the space is the number of possibilities it has as members. The metaphor of ‘a space’ is apropos here because a given space, a room, for example, can contain items, just as set “contains” its members. If a sample space contains n possibilities and each possibility is equality likely, then the probability of each event (subset of the sample space) must be expressible as a ratio with n as the denominator. If the size of the sample space is six, for example, the probability of each event must be expressible as 1/6, 2/6, 3/6, 4/6, and 5/6.

When the possibilities involve physical entities, such as a number of shells one of which hides a peanut, it is easy to think of the size of the sample space as equal to the number of those entities. Later, however, I intend to show that the sample space can include possible as well as actual entities.

Now Morgenstern arrives on the scene.

But maybe we are not entitled to be confident about this intuition. The Monty Hall paradox shows rather clearly that our intuition in these matters cannot always be accepted at face value. Let me briefly describe the Monty Hall paradox.

The name of the paradox comes from a television game show hosted by a certain Monty Hall. The show employed doors hiding cars and goats, but I prefer to stick with shells hiding either a peanut or empty air. The game proceeds as it does with the non-Monty-Hall shell game, but with this difference. After Smith has selected a shell, he does not turn it over to see if it hides the peanut. Instead, Elizarraraz turns over one of the peanuts. The peanut he turns over has to meet two criteria: first, it cannot be hiding a peanut; and second, it cannot be the shell (initially) selected by Smith. Elizarraraz then gives Smith the choice of either sticking with his initial selection, or switching to the remaining shell (that has not yet been turned over).

One can be forgiven for having the strong intuition that neither strategy has any advantage over the other. As one pictures the two remaining shells with the mind’s eye, may seem completely obvious that Smith’s chances of winning the peanut are 50/50 if he sticks with his initial selection, and 50/50 if he switches. The sample space, after all, would seem to comprise just two possibilities, just as does the sample space of the non-Monty Hall game. Possibility #1: the one shell either hides the peanut, in which case the other shell hides just empty air; or (possibility #2) the former shell hides empty air, and the latter shell hides the peanut. This is what could turn up, what could be very shortly in the near future.

But, as it will turn out, this is not the sample space of the Monty Hall shell game. And Smith’s chances of winning the peanut are not 50/50 regardless of his strategy, but 1 in 3 if he opts to stick with his initial selection, and 2 in 3 if he opts to switch. As if that were not (at least initially) counter-intuitive enough, it remains true that Smith’s chances of winning the peanut are 50/50 if he chooses by flipping a coin which of the remaining two shells to select; and his chances of choosing his initial selection |alternatively| choosing the shell that was not his initial selection are also 50/50. How can all of these propositions be true at the same time? How can the ‘2 in 3′ be true at the same time the ’50/50’ is true? And what can we learn about the nature of probability from the co-truth of these propositions?

Taking my cue, first from Judea Pearl, then from Luis Jorge Borges, I will prove the ‘1 in 3’ vs. ‘2 in 3’ probabilities for sticking with the initial choice vs switching. Then, after proving the 50/50 cases, I will show how these are compatible with the 1 in 3 and the 2 in 3.

Computer simulations of Monty-Hall-type games (for example, the one available online here or here) show definitively that Smith’s chances of winning the peanut are 1 in 3 if he sticks with his initial choice and 2 in 3 if he switches. One of the simulations I linked to repeats the game ten million times. Few, I think, would dispute that these simulations show that the chances are 1 in 3 | 2 in 3. But they won’t suffice to give one any intuitive sense why those are the chances. No Aha Erlebnis will be coming from just observing the simulations.

A table listing all of the possibilities, all the possible cases, goes some way, I think, towards giving one this intuitive sense. As shown in the table below (a modification of the table presented by Judea Pearl in his BOOK OF WHY (BOOK OF WHY, p. 191), which in turn is taken from Marilyn vos Savant’s column from the 90’s), there are nine distinct possibilities, nine possible cases. Each of the nine cases is equally likely. One can then start to see why the computer simulations would give Smith a 1/3 chance of selecting the shell with the peanut if he sticks with his initial choice, and a 2/3 chance if he chooses the remaining shell.

Shell #1 Shell #2 Shell #3 If Same If Different Which Means That
peanut, initial selection empty, not initial selection empty, not initial selection Smith wins Smith loses either shell #2 was turned over, leaving shell #3 to be select should Smith opt to change his selection; or shell #3 was turned over, leaving shell #2 to be selected should Smith opt to change … in either case, Smith loses if he opts to change his selection
empty, initial selection peanut, not initial selection empty, not initial selection Smith loses Smith wins shell #3 is the only shell eligible to be turned over, which means that Smith will choose shell #2, and win, if he opts to change his selection
empty, initial selection empty, initial selection peanut, initial selection Smith loses Smith wins shell # 2 is the only shell eligible to be turned over, which means that Smith will choose shell #3, and win, if he opts to change his selection
peanut, not initial selection empty, initial selection empty, not initial selection Smith loses Smith wins shell # 3 is the only shell eligible to be turned over, which means that Smith will choose shell #1, and win, should he opt to change his selection
empty, not initial selection peanut, initial selection empty, not initial selection Smith wins Smith loses either shell #1 was turned over, leaving shell #3 to be selected should Smith opt to change his selection; or shell #3 was turned over, leaving shell #1 to be selected should Smith opt to change. In either case, Smith loses if he opts to change his selection
empty, not initial selection empty, initial selection peanut, not initial selection Smith loses Smith wins shell #1 is the only shell eligible to be turned over, which means that Smith will choose shell #3, and win, if he opts to change his selection
peanut, not initial selection empty, not initial selection empty, initial selection Smith loses Smith wins shell #2 is the only shell eligible to be turned over, which means that Smith will choose shell #1, and win, if he opts to change his selection
empty, not initial selection peanut, not initial selection empty, initial selection Smith loses Smith wins shell #1 is the only shell eligible to be turned over, which means that Smith will choose shell #3, and win, if he opts to change his selection
empty, initial selection empty, initial selection peanut, initial selection Smith wins Smith loses either shell #1 was turned over, leaving shell #2 to be select should Smith opt to change his selection; or shell #2 was turned over, leaving shell #1 to be selected should Smith opt to change. In either case, Smith loses if he opts to change his selection

The table, however, is not perfect as a device for generating the desired Aha Erlebnis giving one to see that Smith’s chances are only 1 in 3 if he sticks with his initial choice. One may want to see rows 1, 4, and 7 in the table as each comprising two possibilities, not one, rendering problematic the math that gives us the 1/3 and 2/3 probabilities. One would be wrong, of course; nonetheless, it remains true that the table is burdened as an Aha-Erlebnis-generating tool by this complication. Also, the table does not show why the 50/50 chances (initially and perhaps even non-initially) seem so powerfully intuitive.

Listing out all the possibilities in the form of a tree, gives us a picture, another way of showing the 1/3 and 2/3 probabilities without the burden of this complication. We can picture repeated plays of the Monty Hall shell game as a trunk branching off into a number of branches. Doing so will nail down the 1/3 and 2/3 probabilities quite conclusively, though perhaps without generating an Aha Erlebnis, a concrete intuition.

Picturing the game this way will also provide at least a start at an explanation why the conclusion that the chances are not 50/50 seems so paradoxical. The idea of treating the game this way came to me in a flash of insight after reading Jorge Luis Borges’ short story THE GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS. (“You are so smart!” at work, though sometimes I suspect they mean this in a ‘you have a wonderfully intuitive sense for the blindingly obvious’ way), but, of course, essentially the same idea has occurred to other people, as one can see here and at numerous other places on the internet. I would like to think, however, that I have my own twist on the idea. Anyway, onto the chart shown below and an explanation of what it shows.

The Monty Hall Shell Game Considered As Conceptual Sleight Of Hand: In the chart shown below, Elizarraraz (employing a randomizing device) chooses which shell to place the peanut under (tanned orange). In order to make the chart readable, I show just Elizarraraz’ choice of shell #1. The possible choices that ensue from the “space” that would open up if Elizarraraz placed the peanut under this shell are, I claim, canonical. That is to say, they comprise a piece (shell #1) of the larger picture that enable one to draw conclusions about the larger picture (all three shells).

A moment later, Smith comes into the scene and, employing a randomizing device, makes his initial selection of a shell (pink). Elizarraraz then turns over one of the shells, employing, not a randomizer, but his knowledge of which shell Smith has selected and which shells are empty (baby-aspirin orange). Those shells Elizarraraz cannot turn over are crossed out by red lines.

Finally, using a randomizer, Smith decides either to switch shells or stick to his initial choice. The decision to switch is shown (for reasons that will become clear when I get to the ‘forking paths’ metaphor) by the bolded arrow. The winning shell (Smith gets the peanut) is shown by the darker viridian or “sea-glass” green color of the oval symbol picturing the shell. The losing shell is shown by the lighter viridian green, which looks like a light blue.

[Each oval represents a possible outcome (for example, Smith initially selects shell #1). Until we get to the culminating possibilities (represented by the green ovals), each possible outcome opens up (and sometimes closes down) what I will call a ‘possibility trail’, i.e., a “trail” in which one possible outcome follows another. Smith’s initial choice of shell #1, for example, opens up a path in which Elizarraraz turns over shell #2, which in turn forks into two paths, one leading to Smith’s winning the peanut and the other leading to his losing the game; and opens up another path in which Elizarraraz turns over shell #3, which path in turn forks into…; and results in a dead end, in which Elizarraraz is constrained by the rules of the game from turning over shell #1. ]

[Each fork opens up what I shall call a “cone” of possibility paths. Elizarraraz placing the peanut under one of the shells opens up three such cones, not labelled here. Smith’s choosing a shell opens up three cones, which I label A, B, and C. The paths in cone A culminate in four different possible outcomes; the paths in cone B and cone C each culminate in two possible outcomes. ]

[Cones A, B, and C match with rows 1, 2, and 3 respectively in the table shown previously. Each cone/row constitutes a wider sample space whose “places” or “slots” are themselves narrower “sample spaces” whose “places” are still narrower samples spaces defined by the forks and, ultimately, by the possible ending outcomes. These narrower sample spaces would (note the subjunctive mood) succeed one another in time; one such sample space, one set of possibilities would open up for example were Smith to initially select shell #1. There are two final sample spaces in cone A. These sample spaces begin, respectively, at Elizarraraz’ possibly turning over shell #2, or his possibly turning over shell #3, and include their ending “leaf” possibilities: shells #1 or #3; or shells #1 or #2 respectively. Both of these final sample spaces are included as places in the sample space comprising cone A. The sample space that is cone A is defined by the fork that gets generated by Smith’s possibly making the initial selection of shell #1. Cone A in turn, along with cones B and C, are included in the sample space that is generated by Elizarraraz’ possibly placing the peanut under shell 1.]

If Elizarraraz has placed the peanut under shell #1, then of course Smith has only a 1 in three chance of winning if he sticks by his initial choice. For in this case he will win the peanut only if that initial choice was shell #1. But the chances shell #1 was his initial selection are just 1 in 3. So his chances of winning by sticking with his initial choice are also just 1 in 3. It follows that his chances should he switch will be 2 in 3. If this conclusion is not already already intuitive to you, gentle reader, I think it will become more intuitive once I start laying out the forest of forking paths picture.

Suppose that Smith, compulsive gambler that he is, plays the Monty Hall Shell Game ten million times. At the end of each game, he is presented with just two shells. One was initially selected by him, the other not. Now suppose that the shell that was initially chosen is marked as such; ditto the shell that was not initially chosen. If Smith sticks to a strategy of of chosen the shell he did not initially select, he will win 2/3 of the time and lose 1/3 of the time. Conversely, if he sticks to a strategy of sticking to his initial choice, he will lose 2/3 of the time and win 1/3 of the time.

Now suppose the markings ‘initial choice’ and ‘not initial choice’ are removed from the shells — and, because the shells looks so similar, Smith cannot remember which one he had initially selected. No labels ‘shell #1’, ‘shell #2’, ‘shell #3’ have been applied to help guide him. Smith has to flip a coin to decide on which shell to select. I think it is clear from the chart that Smith will win the peanut 1/2 the time by flipping a coin. This 50/50 probability is, I think, what makes the Monty Hall Shell Game so drastically counter-intuitive. One looks at the two shells, each of which could be hiding the peanut, and (correctly) sees a 50/50 chance should they flip a coin.

But notice that in the game, Smith is not asked to flip a coin to decide between the two remaining shells. Instead, he is asked either to stick with his initial choice or to switch. That is the Monty Hall Shell Game, which presents Smith with a 2/3 (alternatively, 1/3) chance of winning. He is not asked to flip a coin to decide between the two shells. That is a different game altogether, one that results in a 50/50 chance of winning. Let me call this other shell game the ‘Monty Hall Shell Game With A Final Coin Toss Added In At The End For Good Measure.’

So which game is being played — and what the rules are for each — matters for what the probabilities are. The rules of the Monty Hall Shell Game require that Smith, the player, know which of the two shells remaining in the penultimate step was his initial choice, and which was not. The rules require keeping track of what happened in the past — there has to be a trail, a path, so to speak, leading from the past to the present. If Smith loses this trail — say, all shells have the tendency to look alike to him, and Elizarraraz does not bother to inform him which is which — then Smith has no available evidence to base his choice on except for flipping a coin.

[Since in both these games the designations ‘shell #1’, ‘shell #2’, ‘shell #3’ drop out of the picture, one may get the feeling that these are similar to the shell game as traditionally played, in which a slick operator switches the peanut between hard-to-distinguish shells by slight of hand. But here, of course, one is not trying to force their eyeballs on three actual shells in an attempt to keep from getting fooled within a single playing of the game. Shell stays the same; peanut surreptitiously moves. Instead, one is dealing with labels which stay the same even as the shells they apply to change with each new playing of the game. [How come 2/3 probability when only 2 shells remaining?]]

Under one description for the shells, the chances of winning the peanut are 50/50. Under another description (shell not initially chosen; shell initially chosen), the chances are, respectively, 2 in 3 and 1 in 3. But these are (at least at any given time) the same shells. What accounts for the difference? The difference, I think, lies in the history of how the shells got there. And in explaining this, Borges short story THE GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS will prove useful.

Enough of the shell games. Let me now apply a completely different picture, one inspired by Borge’s short story THE GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS. This picture will be of a forest containing within it a multitude of forking paths. It will, I propose, make it easier to articulate certain aspects of the paradox I am trying to make sense of.

Monty Hall Game Considered As A Tree/Forest Of Forking Paths

The chart above was originally drawn as a graphic tree depicting the Monty Hall Shell Game, but it can also be interpreted as a map depicting several forking paths in a forest. Smith will be walking the paths ten million times (he is an indefatigable hiker).

These paths are in a parallel universe which mirrors our universe, in which Smith is playing the Monty Hall Shell Game. The ovals in the chart above, which used to represent choices (Smith’s or Elizarraraz’), now represent clearings in the forest. The arrows, which used to represent ‘go on to the next step’ now represent paths leading from one clearing to the other. Which clearing Smith ends up in, and which path he takes, is determined by the choices he and Elizarraraz take in the shell game in our universe. So the forking paths picture will be a bit science-fiction-y; nonetheless, my hope is that it will result in a gain in intuitive clarity (certain points will be easier to make) which will make up for its contrived character. Think of it as like the Mercator projection which serves as the standard in maps of the world. In this projection, certain features are captured at the expense of distortions in the areas of the land and water masses mapped.

Each oval represents a clearing in the forest. Each arrow represents a path leading from one clearing to the next. There are three different starting clearings which map to Elizarraraz hiding the peanut under shell #1 alternatively shell #2 alternatively shell #3; above, only the clearing corresponding to his hiding the peanut under shell #1 is shown, since I take this to be canonical. Three paths fork of, or, more precisely, trident off from the starting clearing. If Smith takes the path to the left, These of course map onto Smith’s initially selecting one of the three shells. If Smith takes the path on the left, hink of the arrows in the chart above as depicting Let me first describe the forking-path interpretation in just enough detail to let me state the two points I want to make. Then I will lay out the interpretation in more adequate detail. We will be having Smith walk the paths…maybe ten million times would be cruel and unusual punishment, but enough times that a frequency becomes apparent. The paths end in a forest clearing which contains something stupendous which I will leave to the reader’s imagination. Maybe it is a glorious vision of a topless Channing Tatum clearing brush. Maybe it is seeing Edward in full shining resplendent crystalline display. Maybe it is seeing a gorgeously feral Jacob — another graceful son of Pan! Or maybe it is just an extra-special peanut that outshines any other peanut. Whatever.

When Smith, walking down the path for the x number of times, comes to the final fork in the path, he can do one of two things. First, he can select the path by flipping a coin. Or, second, he can adhere to a right-hand/left-hand strategy: always choose the path on the right (alternatively the left).

I think it is plan from the graph that if he chooses by flipping a coin, he will arrive at the clearing with the special prize (a view of Channing Tatum, or the extra-special peanut) one half the time. If he adheres to the right-hand/left-hand strategy, he will arrive at the clearing with the special prize two thirds of the time if he always takes the path on the right, or just one-third of the time if he always takes the path on the left. Always taking the path on the right corresponds, in the Monty Hall Shell Game, to Smith’s switching, and always taking the path on the left corresponds to his sticking to his initial choice.

The different strategies lead to different probabilities. In a short while, I will relate these differing probabilities to those of the Non-Monty-Hall Shell Game played by Smith and Morgenstern. I intend to show that just as knowledge (or lack of knowledge) accounts for the difference in probabilities in the Smith and Morgenstern case, the related concept of evidence (or lack thereof) accounts for the difference in probabilities in the forking path case (and in the Monty Hall Shell Game).

But given the difference in the probabilities established by the different strategies, one can explain why the Monty Hall Shell Game seems so paradoxical to about everyone, at least at first. For when one imaginatively confronts the choice faced by Smith (stick to the initial choice of shells or switch), one surreptitiously thinks of the choice in terms of a ‘let’s flip a coin’ scenario. This scenario is, after all, easy to picture imaginatively. The alternative is to have the choice guided by something like the graph above. This graph is, naturally, not at all easy to picture.

Let me now turn to a fuller explanation of the above chart, interpreted either as a tree (the Monty Hall Shell Game) or as a set of forking paths.

I think I have fulfilled my promise to use the forking paths picture to nail down even more firmly the 1/3/2/3 stick with the initial choice/switch probabilities. Now let me show how this picture helps explain why this result seems, at least initially, so counter-intuitive.

Now after Smith has traveled down one or another of the paths in one or another of the three possibility cones, he is presented with two shells (in cone C, for example, either shell #1 or shell #3). The peanut could be under either of those shells. At the time of this writing (September 8, 2019 — I note the date because particular pieces of my autobiography have in the past turned out, somewhat surprisingly, to be philosophically fruitful), it seems absolutely clear to me from looking at the chart that Smith’s chances of winning the peanut are 50/50. Later I may try to nail this intuition down more firmly by coding my own simulation of the Monty Hall shell game.

But note that what I am ascribing a 50/50 chance to is the peanut’s being under (for example) shell #1 or shell #3. I am not ascribing a 50/50 chance to the peanut’s being under the Smith’s initial choice of shells or his switched choice. The descriptions ‘initial choice shell’ or ‘switched choice shell’ have no meaning in this narrow sample space delimited by what could be, i.e., by the present and the potentialities of the (presumably) near future.

To get these descriptions, we have to go deeper than what could be and move into what could have been. We have to move into the past. Smith could have chosen shell #2, but he has chosen shell #3, which in turn made shell #2 the only possible choice of shells for Elizarraraz to turn over, which in turn left Smith with a final choice of shells #1 and #3. Were Smith to go back in time multiple times to his initial choice of shells but with his randomizer determining different choices — or, less science-fictionally, were he to repeat the Monty Hall shell game a large enough number of times, he would end up winning the peanut 1/3 of the time by sticking to his initial choice, and 2/3 of the time by switching.

The probabilities are determined by the sample space. When the descriptions ‘initial selection shell’ and ‘switched choice shell’ make sense, the sample space embraces three possibilities, the three possibility cones, one of which culminates in Smith’s winning the peanut should he stick to his initial choice, and two of which culminate in his winning the peanut should he switch choices. That’s the sample space that counts when those descriptions are meaningful. When those descriptions don’t make sense because we are restricted to what could be, that is, to the present because the sample space is restricted to the present, to what is facing Smith now, and to a narrow snippet of the near future, the sample space comprises only two possibilities: the peanut is under this shell or under that other one.

Were Smith told, when confronted with the two shells, to choose one of two strategies: switch or stick with the initial choice, neither strategy would make any sense at all unless he had access to enough of the past to let him identify which shell was his initial choice; or unless someone who was keeping track told him. And even then his adopting one strategy or the other would be incompletely rational unless he had plotted out all the cones with the possible paths that could have been, including both the paths that led to the present situation and the paths that ended up as dead ends. He would be better off not worrying about which shell was his initial choice and just flipping a coin.

What the sample space is, and therefore what the probabilities are, depends upon which game is being played — flip a coin, or stick-with-the-initial-choice-or-switch. Different sample space, different game; different game, different sample space. Although Pearl’s point in the following may be a bit different from what I have just described, his actual words still fit with my point. (Maybe there is another Borges story about something similar.) Pearl notes:

The key element in resolving this paradox is that we need to take into account not only the data … but also … the rules of the game. They tell us something about the data that could have been but has not been observed.

BOOK OF WHY, p. 192

When confronted with just the two remaining shells in the present, it is easy to forget that these are two different games.

Thinking about the the different cones containing different possible paths requires a certain amount of time, patience, and wetware power and bandwidth. Considering the possibilities when confronted (perceptually or imaginatively) with just two shells requires much less time, patience, and wetware power and bandwidth. This fact, plus the fact that it is perhaps not so obvious when staring at the shells that the descriptions ‘initial choice’ and ‘switching choice’ cannot be applied to the shells if one’s time horizon (and the resulting sample space) are too narrow are, I submit, at least one reason the actual probabilities of the Monty Hall shell game seem at first so drastically counter-intuitive.

As Pearl notes, there are probably 10,000 different reasons, one for each reader, why the actual probabilities of Monty Hall game seems so counter-intuitive. To return for a moment back to cars, goats, and doors:

Even today, many people seeing the puzzle for the first time find the result hard to believe. Why? What intuitive nerve is jangled? There are probably 10,000 different reasons, one for each reader, but I think the most compelling argument is this: vos Savant’s solution seems to force us to believe in mental telepathy. If I should switch no matter what door I originally chose, then it means that the producers somehow read my mind. How else could they position the car so that it is more likely to be behind the door I did not choose?

BOOK OF WHY, pp. 191-192.

The specter of mental telepathy is doubtlessly one reason the result seems so counter-intuitive; one’s tendency, resulting from the limitations on human mental power, to be perceptually/imaginatively restricted to what could be as opposed to what could have been is another. I won’t try to judge here whether one is more compelling than the other, especially since I have not yet wrapped my head around Pearl’s account of causality.

Now back (finally!) to the point of bringing up the Monty Hall puzzle in the first place. Regarding the non-Monty-Hall shell game, I asked what makes us so sure the probability is now 1/2 that the peanut is under one of the remaining shells after Smith has turned over one of the shells which turned out to be empty. Why should we trust our intuition in this case, when our intuition regarding the Monty-Hall case were initially so far off? Well, let’s provide a table of the possibilities.

Shell #1Shell #2Shell #3Shell Uncovered by SmithFormer Possibility Converted to Actuality
peanut empty empty 1 yes
empty peanut empty 1 no
empty empty peanut 1 no
peanut empty empty 2 no
empty peanut empty 2 yes
empty empty peanut 2 no
peanut empty empty 3 no
empty peanut empty 3 no
empty empty peanut 3 yes

There are two independent events a work here: Elizarraraz randomly placing the peanut under one of the three shells, and Smith’s randomly turning over one of the shells. Neither event affects the probability of the other. If we then eliminate the rows in which Smith happened to turn over the shell containing the peanut (as marked by ‘yes’ in the column ‘Possibility (that the shell hides the peanut) turned into actuality (yes, the shell did hide the peanut), we get 6 rows. Each of the three pairs of rows describes a probability: if Smith finds that shell #1 was hiding nothing except empty air, then row 2 (the peanut is under shell #2) and row 3 (the peanut is under shell #3) describe the situation. Since both rows describe equally likely possibilities, the chances are 50/50 that shell #2 hides the peanut, and the chances are 50/50 that shell #3 hides the peanut.

Our initial intuition is therefore vindicated. Smith’s turning over one shell and finding it empty changes the probability the peanut is lurking in any one of the remaining shells from 1 in 3 to 1 in 2. (It sure is nice to have a wonderfully intuitive sense for the obvious.) The probabilities changed because the sample space changed, just as changing the Monty-Hall game from ‘switch or stick with the initial choice’ to ‘flip a coin’ changed the probability of winning the peanut from 2/3 (if Smith switches) to 50/50. The probabilities in the Monty Hall case changed because the sample space relevant to the game Smith was playing changed. Having the ability to describe one of the remaining shells as ‘the initial choice’ expanded the sample space needed to support this description from two possibilities regarding each shell’s hiding or not hiding a peanut to three possibility cones each containing one or more possible paths to the current situation.

Now Morgenstern (German for ‘morning star) enters the scene, after Smith has put back the shell he turned over.  (Say, this is shell #1) She does not know that shell #1 turned up empty. The peanut is still under one of the remaining shells. Elizarraraz points to shell #2 and asks both Smith and Morgenstern what are the chances the peanut is under that shell. For Smith, surely, the answer is 1 in 2. For Morgenstern, the answer has to be 1 in 3. For Elizarraraz, who knows where he put the peanut, the answer has to be either 0 or 1. Were Elizarraraz to point to shell #1, the answer for both him and Smith would have to be 0. What the probabilities are differs from the perspectives of each of the three because the sample space differs for each given what each knows.

From Elizarraraz’s perspective, there is no hiddenness, no ignorance given how things stand with regard to the peanut under shell situation, because his knowledge is complete regarding that situation. Obtaining within that perspective is certainty: either a probability of 1 or of 0. I will go out on a limb and say that within that perspective there is no sample space at all.

Uncertainty, a probability greater than 0 but less than 1, can exist only given a particular ratio of local ignorance and local knowledge. If one’s local knowledge of the peanut under shell affair is 0 (one does not even know if there is a peanut under one of the shells) and even Elizarraraz has forgotten if he has placed a peanut under one of them or not, one can appeal to a (possibly hypothetical) infinite (or at least extremely large) Mind that does know, in which case the probability is either 0 or 1. Or one can appeal to a brute, currently unknown fact of the matter, in which case, again, the probability that the peanut is under any given shell is either 0 or 1.

But if there is to be a probability greater than 0 or less than 1 within anyone’s perspective — including the Infinite (surely impossible for that one) or at least Extremely Large Mind’s — there has to be some ignorance, some hiddenness as well as some knowledge. For an omniscient God, everything has either a probability of 1 or 0. Ignorance/knowledge is a necessary condition for such probability in between 0 and 1.

It is also a sufficient condition for there being, within a particular perspective, for there being such a probability. All that Morgenstern needs to know is that there is a peanut under one of the shells, and all she needs to be ignorant of is which one, for there to be, within her perspective, of a probability of 1 in 3 that the peanut is under this shell, or that one, or the one remaining one. The probability is 1 in 3 within this perspective because Morgenstern’s ignorance/knowledge determines the sample space.

Knowledge/ignorance suffices for the existence of a probability between 0 and 1. But other factors help determine what exactly that probability is. In the non-Marty-Hall shell game, we need only to take into account the increase in Smith’s knowledge in determining the size of the sample space when he turns over one of the shells and discovers it to be empty. The probability the peanut is under one of the shells increases from 1 in 3 to 1 in 2 because the two events — the placement of the peanut under one of the shells and Smith’s turning over one of the shells — are both random and independent.

But in the Marty Hall shell game, Elizarraraz’s turning over one of the shells doubles the probability that switching will win the prize from 1 in 3 to 2 in 3. It therefore constitutes evidence that the peanut is likely to be under the shell that wasn’t Smith’s initial choice, whether Smith is in a position to utilize this evidence for not. Since, prior to the final step in the Monty-Hall shell game, the only difference between it and the non-Marty-Hall shell game is that in the former Elizarraraz’s turning over one of the shells is, because of his knowledge, not random and is independent of neither his placement of the peanut under one of the shells nor of Smith’s initial selection of one of those shells, it follows that this lack of independence is another factor in addition to Smith’s knowledge/ignorance helping to determine the specific probability of Smith’s finding a peanut if he switches (sticks with the initial choice). By itself, all his knowledge/ignorance does by itself is guarantee a probability of at least 1 in 2 should he switch (stick with the original choice) ; given the additional factor of a lack of independence in the event of choosing which shell to turn over, that probability increases to 2 in 3 (decreases to 1 in 3) should he switch (stick with his initial choice).

At the time of this writing, however, I am unable to say anything more succinct and more sophisticated regarding why this should be so other than ‘look at the chart shown above; given the all the ovals crossed out because Elizarraraz’s choice of shells to turn over was neither random nor independent of the other events, this is how all the possibilities panned out — all three of the possibility cones, and all of the possible trails within those cones. Stay tuned.

Today’s homage to Plato’s SYMPOSIUM is Channing Tatum. Again. Who would want anything more?


What It Is To Be A Bigot

To be a bigot is to assert oneself as part of an in group by casting another group (defined by some characteristic such as religion, race, gender, or sexual orientation) as an out group whose status of whose members is inferior to one’s own status and deserving of contempt. The out groups are regarded this way partly in order to fill a need for status (to have some place in the hierarchy other than the very bottom), partly for other reasons, such as the desire to obtain cheap or even free labor (race) or to have someone serve as a scapegoat to draw away one’s own sins (sexual orientation). Sometimes the reason is simple fear of otherness (religion, culture) which serves as fertile ground for the imagination to come up with all sorts of horrors. Typically members of the out groups are faced with a constant threat of violence in order to keep them in their place. Obstacles are placed in the way of their attempts to thrive as human beings (employers can refuse to hire them on the basis of the characteristic that defines their membership in the out group; they are always at risk of getting fired, getting evicted, getting red-lined, getting refused service at a lunch counter or cake shop, getting socially quarantined through Jim Crow laws, prevented from entering into (an inter-racial or same-sex) marriage). Often the bigot expresses a violent, obstinate hatred of members of the out group, especially when bigot feels their status slipping away, or feels even the slightest theoretical possibility of such a threat.

The point of all of the above is to articulate a rejoinder to the assertion that when Mr. Cathy, the CEO of Chick-fil-A says the following:

“I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say ‘we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage’ and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.”

… he is being called a bigot only because one disagrees with what he is saying. But of course the idea that God has to exercise mercy on our generation because it has allowed people to marry people of the same sex (what is God restraining Themselves ((epicene singular pronoun)) from doing? Sending a plague? Killing all our first-born? Bringing forth frogs? Casting darkness on the land?) is difficult to disentangle from the fact that LGBT people serve as scapegoats onto whom members of the in-group project all their sins and whom God (so the in group thinks) wants to destroy like vermin. Maybe some theorist can try to come up with a ‘separate-but-equal’ type scenario in which God doesn’t hate f*gs but loathes same-sex marriage so much that they have to restrain themselves from bringing forth frogs upon the land; maybe Mr. Cathy happened not to experience any occurrent feeling of hatred against LGBT people when he uttered those words. Nonetheless, that scapegoating, that hatred forms the background from which those words are most likely to spring in the real world.

This — and not just the fat that one disagrees with his utterance — is why Mr. Cathy deserves the label ‘bigot.’

Bigotry, Southern Style
Bigotry, Covington High School Edition

No, This Is Not A Refutation Of Thomas Piketty’s CAPITAL IN THE 21st CENTURY — Why Do You Ask?

In an attempt to dismiss the conclusions advanced by Piketty, Saez and Stantcheva here, a certain right-wing personage pointed to an alleged factual error made by Piketty in his CAPITAL IN THE 21st CENTURY. In their paper, Piketty, Saez, and Stantcheva argue, on the basis of a model they have built, that:

The top 1% of US earners now command a far higher share of the country’s income than they did 40 years ago. This column looks at 18 OECD countries and disputes the claim that low taxes on the rich raise productivity and economic growth. It says the optimal top tax rate could be over 80% and no one but the mega rich would lose out.

Summary of the online column linked to above

Our right-wing personage refers us to some musings made by Thomas Sowell here, who asserts the following:


In Thomas Piketty’s highly-praised new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” he asserts that the top tax rate under President Herbert Hoover was 25 percent. But Internal Revenue Service records show that it was 63 percent in 1932. If Piketty can’t even get his facts straight, why should his grandiose plans for confiscatory global taxation be taken seriously?

Thomas Sowell, in column linked to directly above

Our right-wing personage implied this alleged error made by Piketty renders it prudent to dismiss anything written by Piketty, including the column linked to above arguing that that the top marginal tax rate could be higher than 80% without harming the economy.

Now of course the right-wing slime machine is infamous for playing fast and loose with quotes in order to defame those who challenge the established hierarchies (witness the recent slime job done on Nathan Phillips to defend Nicholas Sandmann’s obvious racism). So it would behoove us to look at what Thomas Piketty actually said:

Roosevelt increased the top marginal rate of the federal income tax to more than 80 percent on extremely high incomes, whereas the top rate under Hoover had been only 25 percent.

Thomas Piketty, CAPITAL IN THE 21st CENTURY, trs by Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 473

Now ” …the top rate under Hoover had been only 25 percent ” is a bit ambiguous. It could mean, as Sowell (disingenuously?) takes it to mean, that the highest tax rate reached only 25 percent throughout the Hoover administration. In that case, Sowell’s remonstration “But Internal Revenue Service records show that it [the top marginal tax rate] was 63 percent in 1932” would be a fair criticism of Piketty’s assertion.

But Piketty’s assertion could also mean: ‘the top marginal rate under Hoover had been 25 percent,’ which would be true even if that top marginal rate had been 25 percent just for one month of Hoover’s administration. Taken strictly, the assertion does not state for how long the top marginal tax rate had been 25 percent during the Hoover Administration, only that it had been 25 percent. Of course, this (top marginal rate of 25 percent for one month) would not be the most natural interpretation of Piketty’s sentence. But it does become a natural interpretation if the top marginal tax rate had been 25 percent throughout at least three-fourths of the Hoover administration, which, given the fact the top marginal rate had been increased to 63 percent only in 1932, it was.

If one is to avoid being a hack and a propagandist, which I do believe Sowell to be, one adopts a principle of charity in interpreting ambiguous statements — especially statements translated from French that are ambiguous in English! — and, especially those made by an opponent of one’s views. If only to make it easier to brush away the annoying right-wing lightweights hovering over passages like this like gnats (DO FIND SOMETHING — ANYTHING THAT CAN BE USED TO DISCREDIT PIKETTY!!!!) Piketty definitely should make the following revision in the second edition of his book:


Roosevelt increased the top marginal rate of the federal income tax to more than 80 percent on extremely high incomes, whereas the top marginal rate under most of the Hoover administration had been only 25 percent.

That Sowell takes a malicious interpretation of Piketty’s ambiguous statement to try to render Piketty so unreliable as to warrant our ignoring Piketty’s recommendations regarding global taxation hardly reflects well on Sowell. It is one data point among others that reveal him to be a right-wing hack and propagandist. That our young right-wing personage cites Sowell’s malicious interpretation to try to discredit Piketty/Saez/Stantcheva’s assertions regarding how high the top marginal tax rate can go without harming the economy in general reflects equally badly on him.

Even pointing all of this out makes one feel ridiculously pedantic. But someone has to do the intellectual garbage collection work, and I guess this unsavory work has fallen on me regarding this particular point.


The Nature Of Rights And The Alleged Conflict In Rights Between The Fetus And The Mother Carrying It

If You Hold That The Fetus Is A Person, You Must Decide Whose Rights Trumps Whose

A right can be thought of as like armor:  it protects the person who has that right.

By ‘fetus’ I will mean, principally, the just-fertilized egg and the fetus as it exists one day after.

It is also in the nature of a right that it trumps another interest or even another right. Something is a right BECAUSE it trumps another interest or right.  A right is always a right against the background of some interest or other right that it overrides.  Although I am not always a fan of ‘it would be odd to say x‘ type arguments, there is something just a little bit on the strange side, after all, to say something like ‘I have a right to touch the walls inside my apartment at any time,’ without there being something against which I assert that right — for example, some bizarre religious proscription against touching the walls of one’s domicile before 10:00 in the morning that some sect has an interest in trying to impose upon us all.

Here are some examples.  The first few of these should be, I think, plain to all.

A) If a smoker is poisoning my airspace, I will tell them ‘your rights end where my lungs begin.’  My right to breath and not get cancer or emphysema trumps their right to damage their own lungs.

B) If a woman is carrying a baby with Down’s Syndrome, her right to control her own body trumps any interest the state may have in not having to expend resources dealing with people with Down’s Syndrome. The state cannot justifiably force the woman to have an abortion. Her right to control her own body trumps the state’s interest in preventing the birth of another baby with Down’s Syndrome.

C) Likewise, Morgenstern’s right to life and his right to self-defense trumps Smith’s right to life should Smith attempt to murder Morgenstern. Morgenstern can, in certain circumstances, justifiably kill Smith to preserve his own life.

(Nota bene:  for this reason, the mother is within her rights to abort a fetus which is threatening her life.  But, of course, this reason applies only to the case in which carrying the fetus puts the mother’s life in danger.)

D) Again, If Jones wakes up in the hospital and finds that, without her consent, a famous musician has been hooked up to her circulatory system in order to preserve his life, Jones’ right to control her own body would trump the musician’s right to life. Jones would be perfectly justified in having the musician removed from her circulatory system if she so desired, resulting in the end of his life.

(Nota bene:  for this reason, the mother is within her rights to abort a fetus that was the product of a rape. But, of course, this reason applies only to the rape case.)

I do not think that the fetus is a person. But I also think one may be able to construct a plausible argument that the fact that the fetus is in development and on the way towards becoming a person with duties and rights and interacting with other members of a community suffices to make it a person, and therefore an entity with a right to life. In that case there would be a conflict between this unnamed person’s right to life and the woman’s right to control her own body.

If the fetus is not a person, then there is no conflict of rights, since the fetus does not have rights that would conflict with the woman’s.  But for the sake of argument, let us suppose for a moment that the fetus is a person with rights.  Since this (alleged) person is likely not to have a name (one sign by the way that an entity is a person), I will refer to is as an unnamed fetal person.

Whose rights, then, should trump whose?  Clearly, the woman’s right to control her own body would trump the unnamed fetal person’s right to life in the case of the fetal-person’s putting the woman’s life in danger, or in the case in which the woman was raped (see above). But what about the more normal case in which the woman does not want to carry the unnamed fetal person to term — say, she is financially or emotionally unprepared to care for a child? If the aforementioned examples are any guide, one right would have to trump the other right.  Either the fetal person’s right to life would trump the woman’s right to control her own body, or the latter right would trump the former.  How would we decide?

If we say that the unnamed fetal person’s right to life overrides the mother’s right to control her own body, we would be faced with a certain awkward consequence.  For killing the unnamed fetal person would, id we are to genuinely regard it as a person, would have incur essentially the same penalties (given the same relevant circumstances — the killing was a blameless accident, was accidental but reckless, was done in the heat of the moment, was done after much pondering, planning, and reflection, that is to say, in cold blood).  If the penalty for killing a person after much pondering, planning, and reflection, that is to say, in cold blood, is, say, death by  hanging in a particular state, say, South Carolina, then the woman who aborts the fetus she is carrying must suffer — at least approximately — the same penalty.  Doubtlessly trials are as stochastic as most other things, so that different trials may result in different punishments.  But any consistently large difference (the woman gets one month for aborting the fetus, the murderer of an adult gets hanged) would be a clear indication that the law was not truly regarding the fetus as a person deserving the equal protection of its natural rights as any other person, and therefore does not really regard the fetus as a person at all.

And certainly in the case of the just-fertilized egg, at least, it is difficult for anyone to regard this entity as a person.  Insisting that the just-fertilized egg be given a name, or baptized, or given a funeral should it die, is, after all, a bit strange.  That (generally) we do not engage in these particular practices is evidence that we do not (generally) regard the just-fertilized egg as a person.

To put the matter a bit colorfully, if the right to life of the unnamed fetal person were to trump the woman’s right to control her body, the highways and byways of South Carolina would need to be lined with the corpses of hanged women.  Since this is a rather unpalatable prospect, we may be inclined to have the right of the woman to control her own body trump the right of the unnamed fetal person to life.

I have experienced right-to-lifers throw quite a bit of dust in my eyes, and doubtlessly in their own eyes as well, in an attempt to avoid facing what must follow, both logically and morally, if the unnamed fetal person is to be truly regarded as a person whose rights merit a degree of protection equal any other person’s.  A right-wing lawyer may point out that this or that legal technicality would make it unlikely this particular beautification plan of South Carolina’s highways and byways would ever actually occur.  It is a question of standing, he might say.  He will try to intimidate one by attempting to claim that I am venturing on his home turf without his 40-years of experience in the legal field.  But I am talking about natural rights and moral obligations here, not legal technicalities.  The  alleged legal technicalities standing in the way of South Carolina’s beautification program would not remove the fact that one who genuinely believes the unnamed fetus is a person would be obligated morally and logically to try to remove whatever legal obstacles stood in the way.  Otherwise, they would not genuinely regard the unnamed fetus as a person, something that is, as we have just seen, genuinely difficult to do at the earliest stages of the fetus’ development.

The right-wing lawyer may also point out that the law does of course allow for different penalties in different cases — manslaughter vs. murder in cold blood, and so on.  Showing why this point is irrelevant to the argument I am making I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

A certain right-wing lawyer maintains that in this more normal case the conflict in rights should be resolved through a kind of “compromise.”

While ultimately I would conclude that the right of the unborn to life trumps the woman’s right in this case, the fact that there is a conflict of rights allows for a disparity of treatment between the woman and the person hiring the hit man. Thus, my conclusion as to the intent of the legislature who adopted that sort of law which outlawed abortion but did not punish the woman, would not be that they valued unborn life less, but that there was a counter right which, while it could not trump the right to life, could still affect how we treat those who caught in a situation of an unwanted pregnancy.

Right A trumps right B in the sense that the woman no longer has the right to control her own body.  But in the process of “resolving” the conflict of rights this way, right A becomes drastically attenuated.  The protection it affords — the thickness of the armor — has become drastically attenuated.  Some protection for fetuses in general perhaps, but obviously none that this particular fetus will receive.  But why do this?  The mere fact there is a conflict of rights won’t suffice, because in the cases A through D listed above of conflicts of rights one right trumps the other without in any way affording less protection.  One has to look elsewhere for a reason, and I think what this reason is is rather plain — this particular right-wing lawyer does not genuinely believe that the fetus is a person.

But one has to ask why make this dubious sort of “compromise” in the case of abortion but not in the other cases of conflict of rights listed above?  The mere fact there is a conflict won’t do it.

The woman undergoing the abortion does not get the same penalty she would get if she had hired a hit man to kill her husband, even though in both cases the right to life of a person has been arguably violated in cold blood. Instead, she gets, say, just one month in prison. But this way of “resolving” the conflict in rights is a bit strange, since BOTH rights have been violated. The unnamed fetal person is still dead in spite of its (postulated for the sake of argument) right to life. The woman still does not have control over her own body.

However, this “resolution” does have a striking advantage if one is right-winger concerned with maintaining the position of males at the top of the hierarchy:  it lets the state strip women of their right to control their own bodies, at the same time relieving the state of the duty to impose on the woman the same penalties that would be applied to the violation, under the same relevant circumstances, of any other person’s right to life.  But however attractive this “resolution” may be to those wishing to keep women in their “correct” place in the hierarchy, it is by no means a resolution of conflicting rights.  Clearly, to negate both rights is not a resolution.

Since it is in the nature of a right to trump another interest or right, I think it is more plausible to hold that either the unnamed fetal person’s right to life trumps the woman’s right to control her own body (in which case there would be a moral case for giving the woman the same penalty she would get had she hired a hit man, with interesting consequences for the beautification plans for the highways and byways of South Carolina), or the woman’s right to control her own body trumps the unnamed fetal person’s right to life. This is an either or situation. One right trumps another. “Resolution” by way of “compromise” is nonsense.

If You Don’t Hold That The Fetus Is A Person, You Don’t Face The Problem Of Deciding Whose Rights Trumps Whose

Of course, this problem does not arise if one holds that the fetus, lacking duties and responsibilities, also lacks rights and is therefore not a person.

Update October 16, 2018:  Made some changes to tighten the argument.


(Asymptotically) All Republicans Are Racist

In order to argue that (asymptotically) all Republicans are racist, you need to take time into account. Before actual Nazis and outright racists started getting NOMINATED, before Trump won* the presidency,before Republican politicians started issuing racist dog whistles, before Nixon put in place the Southern strategy, it was definitely possible to give any given Republican the benefit of the doubt. As time goes on, decent people leave the Republican party, disgusted by the (at first covert, now overt) racism. Now that the racism is overt, with actual Nazis getting nominated for office, it is morally incumbent upon any remaining Republican to either demand that the Nazis and overt racists leave the party, form a new party in which these people are not welcome, or join the democrats. As time goes on and they do none of these things, it becomes more and more apparent that these are not decent people deserving respect and deserving the benefit of the doubt. One starts to think that the same thing that draws the overt racists and the Nazis to the Republican party is the same thing that draws THEM to the party and keeps them there, i.e., racism, white tribalism, the desire to keep heterosexual white males on the top of the heap and to continue to be granted automatic deference.

All Republicans are racist.  Just to be clear, by ‘all’ I mean ‘asymptotically all’ — as time goes on the proportion of Republicans who cannot deny they are racists approaches 100% asymptotically.

The Republican party delenda est. The Republican party must be destroyed; salt must be plowed into its ruins.


The Time We Should Be Giving Any Republican The Benefit Of The Doubt Is Long Past

There are three questions that any Republican needs to ask themselves before they can be considered deserving of any respect at all. — And no, looking and acting avuncular does not entitle you to the presumption that you are a decent human being and deserving a minimum of respect for that reason.

These questions are inspired by this Washington Post article, and some of the wording is taken directly from that article.

1) Why is it that all these racists are so supportive of my party? Why is it that a bunch of actual Nazis won Republican nominations for elected offices this year, and our nominee for the Senate in Virginia is a neo-Confederate? Why is it that every white nationalist thinks they can find a home in the GOP?

2. What can I do to change that?

I and the writer of the article would be interested to hear their ideas. But so far, we’ve heard pretty much nothing.  In other words, Republicans are not especially interested in making their party unattractive to out and out racists and Nazis. Nor have we seen any effort to create a new, center-right party that does not draw overt racists and Nazis.

Given this, any honest Republican needs to ask themselves:

3) Especially given that I am not interested in making my party unattractive to racists and Nazis or forming a new party, how much of my own attraction to the Republican party stems from the same racism that attracts the Nazis? — the same racism, just not overtly expressed, and doubtlessly hidden even from themselves. (The human capacity for self-deception is practically infinite.)

Drawing on a certain informal principle of plausible reasoning, which can be stated as

 

Birds of a feather flock together.

or again as:

If you see a bunch of Nazi flesh flies feasting on a piece of rotting carrion along with a bunch of ostensibly non-Nazi flesh flies, all of them are probably drawn to the same stench.

I think the answer is a lot.

If you see members of a flock of birds perfectly content to associate with a bunch of birds with swastikas emblazoned on their wings, and if you observe them failing to form a new flock minus those members, this contentment renders more credible the conclusion that all of the birds feel a certain … affinity … with one another.

Likewise, the togetherness of the flesh flies renders more credible conclusion that both varieties of flesh flies share the same racism.

Among Republicans, this racism is usually not expressed overtly.  It is typically hidden from themselves by an immense amount of self-deception.  Nonetheless, given the usual vehemence with which they react to the charge, their racism is clearly a sore — though unacknowledged — wound for them.

The number of Republicans asking themselves the three questions posed above is vanishingly small. The number of Republicans deserving of any respect at all is vanishingly small. The time is long past that we should give any of them the benefit of the doubt.

Homework Assignment:  Relate the principle stated above to G. Polya’s PATTERNS OF PLAUSIBLE REASONING, especially to pages 111-116.