Monday, August 14, 2017

As if

Kwame Anthony Appiah's new book about "strategic untruth," not to be confused with Harry Frankfurt's (or Donald Drumpf's) "bullshit"...
Idealization is a fundamental feature of human thought. We build simplified models in our scientific research and utopias in our political imaginations. Concepts like belief, desire, reason, and justice are bound up with idealizations and ideals. Life is a constant adjustment between the models we make and the realities we encounter. In idealizing, we proceed “as if” our representations were true, while knowing they are not. This is not a dangerous or distracting occupation, Kwame Anthony Appiah shows. Our best chance of understanding nature, society, and ourselves is to open our minds to a plurality of imperfect depictions that together allow us to manage and interpret our world.
The philosopher Hans Vaihinger first delineated the “as if” impulse at the turn of the twentieth century, drawing on Kant, who argued that rational agency required us to act as if we were free. Appiah extends this strategy to examples across philosophy and the human and natural sciences. In a broad range of activities, we have some notion of the truth yet continue with theories that we recognize are, strictly speaking, false. From this vantage point, Appiah demonstrates that a picture one knows to be unreal can be a vehicle for accessing reality.
As If explores how strategic untruth plays a critical role in far-flung areas of inquiry: decision theory, psychology, natural science, and political philosophy. A polymath who writes with mainstream clarity, Appiah defends the centrality of the imagination not just in the arts but in science, morality, and everyday life. HUP


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Norms & Cliffs

I've been prodded to finalize my plans for the "Cheating" course this Fall, to which I'll contribute a block of two sessions. I already knew I'd call my contribution "Cheating truth," and that we'd read Harry Frankfurt's classic "On Bullshit"... but what else? This, I think:

Norms and Cliffs in Trump's America
...deflecting the discourse into one about norms, when we are really talking about premises and principles, is one more way of, well, normalizing Drumpf’s assault on democratic government. It turns what is really subversion into mere behavior. It’s one form of the frightened levelling-off that Drumpf has intimidated too many pundits and reporters into accepting.
Suddenly, all we hear about is “norms”—norms are here, norms are there, norms are everywhere: norms violated, norms overthrown, norms thrown back in the faces of their normalcy. Not since “Cheers” went off the air, back in the nineties, have we heard so much about Norms. “Cheers”—surely the best television comedy between “The Honeymooners” and “Seinfeld”—featured, you may recall, its own Norm, the saturnine barfly played by George Wendt, a good example of a man whose life consisted of nothing but norms. Putting a beer out for Norm was a norm of the bar: you did it because it was expected, though not written down anywhere. (“Beer? Have I become that predictable?” Norm occasionally asked, in feigned surprise.) An outsider once arrived at the bar and took his stool. “What do you do?” he politely asked an obviously enraged Norm. “Do? I sit there!” was the answer. These were Norm’s norms.

Norms are social conventions; they’re normative because they’re useful, and they’re not codified because they don’t have to be. One might say that every social game in which we participate has three elements: premises, rules, and norms. The premises state the concept; the rules regiment the play; and the norms inflect the action. Life is full of norms. A norm is a barstool reserved for a habituĂ©. A norm is the rule that you tip the bartender when his shift ends even if you are carrying over the tab. In Monopoly, the rules are written down, but it would be a dull game indeed if it were not played with norms that have developed over time—putting fine money on “Free Parking,” say, or getting double one’s salary for landing directly on “Go.” It may be a dull game anyway—as countless families are now remembering, on rainy days in summer cabins—but it would be a lifeless game without evolved and unwritten norms.

Donald Drumpf and his minions have been engaged, we are told, every day, in violations of what are being called norms—the expectation, say, that the President will not engage in an open war with his own Attorney General, or make reckless accusations of illegality on the part of former Presidents. Google “Drumpf” and “norms,” and you find a huge, alarmed journalistic literature, enumerating the norms of political discourse that Drumpf has overturned that week or day—but those same pieces will also, more often than not, point out that, after all, overturning norms is what he was elected to do. When people accuse Drumpf of violating norms, there is a near immediate concession that they are, after all, only norms. One man’s favorite barstool is the next man’s barrier to bar-service entry. Emily Bazelon, writing in the Times Magazine, summed up the problem this way: “Though some of our core democratic values are wrapped up in norms, it’s still easy to ask: If no laws have been broken, what’s the problem?” Bazelon (who, it should be noted, is well aware that these questions are hard ones) observed that it was “natural enough for his supporters to dismiss talk of ‘norms’ as the useless hand-wringing of a worse-than-useless establishment.”

But respecting the rule of law is not a norm. Telling the truth about matters of state—or apologizing when you haven’t been able to tell it—are not “norms.” They are premises. They aren’t enumerated or listed in advance in a legal document, not because they’re merely conventional but because they make all the other conventions possible. They’re not the way we wear our hats; they’re the ground beneath our feet. Call them—well, call them Cliffs, after Norm’s beloved mailman drinking partner, inasmuch as we fall right off the moral mountain to our obliteration without them. We take them for granted because without them there would be no way of standing up at all. We don’t list them not because they are mere manners and conventions but because they are the unstated absolutes that let everything else go on.

Nowhere on the Monopoly box does it say, “It is forbidden for the players to use guns to force a trade.” It doesn’t have to; sitting down to play Monopoly implies that you have already understood that. The Constitution does not say, in its preamble, “it is important to respect laws,” because it assumes that no one would, or could, seek power who did not share that assumption. Standing up to play the game of government implies good faith in it. Values and premises and principles are not codified because if you had to codify them you couldn’t have a code at all.

This difference is neither merely verbal nor philosophical; it is vital. For deflecting the discourse into one about norms, when we are really talking about premises and principles, is one more way of, well, normalizing Drumpf’s assault on democratic government. It turns what is really subversion into mere behavior. It’s one form of the frightened levelling-off that Drumpf has intimidated too many pundits and reporters into accepting. Every totalitarian country has a constitution—the Soviet constitution was a mockery not because its “norms” were not respected but because the ruling party had complete contempt for the premises it was based on. What mattered were not the norms of its enforcement but the social compact that was understood to underlie it and the mutual respect people showed for it. That Drumpf’s hard-core followers delight in his transgressions—even if such followers were a majority, which they are not—does not make them normative. It is exactly the point of a democratic government to say that, though norms may change, the premises aren’t directly or easily subject to a majority vote, even by the gleefully vengeful. Some of the rules are unwritten because if you had to write them down it would be an admission that there were people not ready to play.

So let us hear no more of norms. Do not let anyone convince you that Drumpf’s evils are matters of performance or personality or affect—that they can be overlooked, or that there is a mere violation of decorum underway. For that is exactly how tyrants have always engaged in the moral degradation of their followers. “I just have to look past the tweets” or “He has a problem with his tone” is the new moral equivalent of “Well, the trains run on time,” or, “At least the emperor has built a lot of marble temples.” Norms come and go, no matter how hardily they stick to their bar stools. The principles and premises of social contracts, which make both bars and republics possible, don’t.

-Adam Gopnik


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Don't fear the reaper

(4:20)...the Reaper was invented during the Plague to cope with the horrors of mortality, and really not much has changed despite our effort to cheat death by running on treadmills or eating kale. The Grim Reaper is always on his way, and while we wait for time to come all we can do is laugh. It may not be
much, but it's a brief respite from the existential grip that death holds after all when death comes knocking at the door he could just be a sore throat.

There are more than 100 of these. Still my favorite:

Image result for new yorker grim reaper cartoon Accelerating Intelligence News