Review: From a Logical Point of View

Review: From a Logical Point of View
From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays

From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays by Willard Van Orman Quine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is difficult for me to review, mainly because there were so many parts of it that I did not fully understand. Quine is not writing for the general reader; he is writing for professional philosophers—a category that excludes people such as myself, who have not taken a single course in formal logic. Nevertheless, there are some parts of this book—particularly the first two essays, “On What There Is” and “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”—which can be understood by the persistent amateur.

I will try to explain what I think I know about Quine, subject to the very important caveat that these are the general impressions of somebody who is not an expert. I might easily be wrong.

Quine is an American, and so is very literal; he likes things he can touch, or at least can clearly define. This leads him to a kind of ontological puritanism: he wishes to admit as few types of entities into existence as possible. The most obvious token of this is his materialism. Quine thinks the world is fundamentally matter; thus, he rejects the existence of spirits, and, more surprisingly, of minds—at least minds as distinctly different metaphysical objects. (He is fine with keeping mentalistic terminology, so long as it is understood as paraphrases of behavioral phenomena.) This also prompts Quine to reject other, more banal, sorts of things like meanings and properties. In fact, Quine only acknowledges the existence of two sorts of things: physical objects, and sets (or classes). If I am not mistaken, Quine’s belief in something so abstract as a logical set is motivated by his famous indispensability argument—that we ought to believe in the types of things our theories of the world need.

Quine’s materialism is tied to two other -isms: holism and naturalism. By naturalism, I mean that Quine thinks that our knowledge comes from observation, from experience, from science; furthermore, that this is the only type of knowledge we have available. Quine would never attempt something like Descartes did, seeking to ground all of the contingent assertions of science with an unquestionable first principle (in Descartes’ case, this being that he thinks, and therefore is). Quine is even uncomfortable with doctrines such as Wittgenstein’s, which hold philosophy to be a sort of second-level activity, a discipline which tackles questions of a fundamentally different sort than those investigated by scientists. For Quine, there are no fundamentally different sorts of questions: all questions are questions about the natural world, and thus on identical epistemological and ontological footing. The only difference between philosophy and science, for Quine, is that philosophers ask more general questions.

Quine’s holism is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of his views. The logical positivists thought that individual statements could be accepted or rejected based on our experiences. In other words, we make a statement about the physical world, and then go about trying to verify it with some experience. But Quine points out that this is far too simple an account. Our statements do not exist in isolation, but are tied to an entire web of beliefs—some very abstract and remote from any experience.

Keep this in your mind’s eye: a huge, floating hunk of miscellaneous trash, adrift in the ocean. Now, only some of this trash directly touches the ocean; these are the parts of our knowledge that directly ‘touch’ the experiential world. A great part of this trash, however, lies in the center of the mass, far away from the water; and this is analogous to our most abstract beliefs. If this gigantic trash island were to hit something—let us say, a big boat—two things could happen. The boat could be destroyed, and its wreckage simply added onto the floating trash island; or, the boat could tear its way through the trash island, changing its shape dramatically. These are, roughly, the two things that can happen when we face a novel experience: we can somehow assimilate it into our old beliefs, or we can reconfigure our whole web of beliefs to accommodate this new information.

I will drop the metaphor. What Quine is saying is that there are no beliefs of ours that cannot be revised—nothing is sacred. We have even considered revising our principles of logic, previously so unquestionable, in the face of quantum weirdness. There are also no experiences that could not, in principle, be explained away: we could cite hallucinations or mental illness or human error as the reason behind the anomalous experience.

Keeping Quine’s naturalism and holism in mind, it is pretty clear why he rejects the main tenets of logical positivism. First, Quine points out the vagueness of what philosophers mean when they talk about ‘analytic statements’. The classic case of an analytic statement is “all bachelors are unmarried,” which is true by definition: since a bachelor is defined as an unmarried man, it could not be otherwise that bachelors are unmarried. But note that this relies on the idea that ‘bachelor’ has the same ‘meaning’ as the phrase ‘unmarried man’. But what is a ‘meaning’? It sounds like a mental phenomenon; and because Quine does not hold minds to exist, he is very skeptical about ‘meanings’. So in what sense do ‘meanings’ exist? Can they be paraphrased into behavioral terminology? Quine does not exactly rule it out, but is rather dubious.

Quine’s holism is also at odds with the project of logical positivism. For, as already noted, logical positivists regard the meaning of a statement to be its verification; but Quine believes—and I think quite rightly—that statements do not exist in isolation, but rely on a whole background web of beliefs and doctrines. Here is a concrete example. Let us say we wanted to go out and verify the statement ‘flying saucers are real.’ We wander around with our camera, and then suddenly see a shiny disk floating through the air. We snap some photos, and pronounce our statement ‘verified’. But will people believe us? Scientists look at the object, and say that it is a weather balloon; psychologists examine us, and say that we are demented. The statement has thus not been verified at all by our experience; and even if we had better evidence of flying saucers than a few photographs, it is at least conceivable that we could go on finding alternative explanations—secret government aircraft, some mad scientist’s invention, an elaborate prank, etc.

I will stop trying to summarize his arguments here, because I feel like I am already in over my head. I will say, however, that Quine’s argument against logical positivism seems to rely on his own presumptions about knowledge and the world—which may, after all, be quite reasonable, but this still does not make for a conclusive argument. In short, Quine may be arguing against the dogmas of logical empiricism with dogmas of his own. I often had this experience while reading Quine: at first I would disagree; but then, after formulating my disagreement, I would realize I was only begging the question, and that we were starting with very different assumptions.

Quine is preoccupied with this idea of ontological commitment. He is exercised by his felt necessity of postulating the existence of things used in discourse, like meanings, mathematical objects and so forth. These are, no doubt, important questions; yet I do not find them terribly interesting to think about. In my experience, wondering about whether something ‘really exists’ often leads up dark intellectual alleys. When it comes to things like UFOs, the question is doubtless a vital one to ask; but when it comes to things like ‘sets’ and ‘meanings’, it does not excite me: for what would be the difference if sets ‘really existed’ or if they were just tools used in discourse with no existence outside of names and thought? I will leave these desert landscapes of logic for ones more verdant.

To conclude, Quine was obviously a brilliant man; he was, in fact, so brilliant, that I cannot understand how brilliant he was.

View all my reviews

Review: The New Organon

Review: The New Organon

The New OrganonThe New Organon by Francis Bacon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since I’ve lately read Aristotle’s original, I thought I’d go ahead and read Bacon’s New Organon. The title more or less says it all. For this book is an attempt to recast the method of the sciences in a better mold. Whereas Aristotle spends pages and pages enumerating the various types of syllogisms, Bacon dismisses it all with one wave of the hand—away with such scholarly nonsense! Because Aristotle is so single-mindedly deductive, his scientific research came to naught; or, as Bacon puts it, “Aristotle, who made his natural philosophy a mere bond servant to his logic, thereby [rendered] it contentious and well-nigh useless.”

What is needed is not deduction—which draws trivial conclusions form absurd premises—but induction. More specifically, what is needed is a great deal of experiments, the results of which the careful scientist can sort into air-tight conclusions. Down with the syllogism; up with experiment. Down with the schoolmen; up with the scientists.

In my (admittedly snotty) review of Bacon’s Essays, I remarked that he would have done better to have written a work entirely in aphorisms. Little did I know that Bacon did just that, and it is this book. Whatever Bacon’s defects were as a politician or a philosopher, Bacon is the undisputed master of the pithy, punchy maxim. In fact, his writing style can be almost sickening, so dense is it with aphorism, so rich is it with metaphor, so replete is it with compressed thought.

In the first part of his New Organon all of the defects of Bacon’s style are absent, and all of his strengths are present in full force. Indeed, if this work consisted of only the first part, it would have merited five stars, for it is a tour de force. Bacon systematically goes through all of the errors the human mind is prone to when investigating nature, leaving no stone unturned and no vices unexamined, damning them all in epigram after epigram. The reader hardly has time to catch his breath from one astonishing insight, when Bacon is on to another.

Among these insights are, of course, Bacon’s famous four idols. We have the Idol of the Tribe, which consist of the errors humans are wont to make by virtue of their humanity. For our eyes, our ears, and our very minds distort reality in a systematic way—something earlier philosophers had, so far as I know, neglected to account for. We have then the Idols of the Cave, which are the foibles of the individual person, over and above the common limitations of our species. Of these may include certain pet theories, preferences, accidents of background, peculiarities of taste. And then finally we have the Idols of the Market Place, which are caused by the deceptive nature of language and words, as well as the Idols of the Theater, which consists of the various dogmas present in the universities and schools.

Bacon also displays a remarkable insight into psychology. He points out that humans are pattern-seeking animals, which leads us to sometimes see patterns which aren’t there: “The human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds.” Bacon also draws the distinction, made so memorable in Isaiah Berlin’s essay, between foxes and hedgehogs: “… some minds are stronger and apter to mark the differences of things, others to mark their resemblances.” Bacon also notes, in terms no psychologist could fault, a description of confirmation bias:

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

Part two, on the other hand, is a tedious, rambling affair, which makes the patient reader almost forget the greatness of the first half. Here, Bacon moves on from condemning the errors of others to setting up his own system. In his opinion, scientific enquiry is a simple matter of tabulation: make a table of every situation in which a given phenomenon is always found, and then make a table of every situation in which a given phenomenon is never found; finally, make a table of every situation in which said phenomenon is sometimes found, shake well, and out comes your answer.

The modern reader will not recognize the scientific method in this process. For we now know that Bacon’s induction is not sufficient. (Though, he does use his method to draw an accurate conclusion about the nature of heat: “Heat is a motion, expansive, restrained, and acting in its strife upon the smaller particles of bodies.”) What Bacon describes is more or less what we’d now call ‘natural history’, a gathering up of facts and a noting of regularities. But the scientific method proper requires the framing of hypotheses. The hypothesis is key, because it determines what facts need to be collected, and what relationship those facts will have with the theory in question. Otherwise, the buzzing world of facts is too lush and fecund to tabulate; there are simply too many facts. Furthermore, Bacon makes the somewhat naïve—though excusable, I think—assumption that a fact is simply a fact, whereas we now know that facts are basically meaningless unless contextualized; and, in science, it is the theory in question which contextualizes said facts.

The importance of hypotheses also makes deduction far more important than Bacon acknowledges. For the aspiring experimentalist must often go through a long chain of deductive reasoning before he can determine what experiment should be performed in order to test a theory. In short, science relies on both deductive and inductive methods, and the relationship of theory to data is far more intertwined than Bacon apparently thinks. (As a side note, I’d also like to point out that Bacon wasn’t much of a scientist himself; he brings up the Copernican view of the heliocentric solar system many times, only to dismiss it as ridiculous, and also seems curiously unaware of the other scientific advances of his day.)

In a review of David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, I somewhat impertinently remarked that the English love examples—or, to use a more English word, instances. I hope not to offend any English readers, but Bacon confirms me in this prejudice—for the vast bulk of this work is a tedious enumeration of twenty-seven (yes, that’s almost thirty) types of ‘instances’ to be found in nature. Needless to say, this long and dry list of the different sorts of instances makes for both dull reading and bad philosophy, for I doubt any scientist in the history of the world ever made progress by sorting his results into one of Bacon’s categories.

So the brilliant, brash, and brazen beginning of this book fizzles out into pedantry that, ironically enough, rivals even Aristotle’s original Organon. So, to repeat myself, the title of this book more or less says it all.

View all my reviews

Review: Organon (Aristotle)

Review: Organon (Aristotle)

OrganonOrganon by Aristotle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aristotle continues to provoke conflicting reactions in me. I am always torn between realizing his tremendous originality and historical importance, and suffering from his extraordinary dullness. This book exemplifies both sides of the coin. Seeing a man single-handedly create the field of logic, ex nihilo, is tremendous; yet reading through these treatises could put a coffee-addict in a coma.

I am not insensitive to the appeals of philosophy. Far from it; I think reading philosophy is thrilling. Some of my most acute aesthetic experiences have been had contemplating some philosopher’s idea. Yet I have never had this reaction to Aristotle’s writings. Part of this is due to his formidable difficulty; another part, to the nature of the works (which, I must constantly remind myself, are lecture-notes).

Nevertheless, Aristotle had a prosaic mind; even when faced with the most abstract phenomena in the universe, his first reaction is to start parceling everything into neat categories, and to go on making lists and explanations of these categories. He does make logical arguments, but they are often brief, and almost as often unsatisfactory. Much of the time the student is faced with the dreary task of working his way through Aristotle’s system, simply because it is his system, and not because it is empirically or logically compelling.

(Every time I write a review for Aristotle, it comes out so disappointed. Let me try to be more positive.)

My favorite piece in this was the Posterior Analytics, which is a brilliant treatise on epistemology, logic, and metaphysics. Aristotle succinctly presents an entire theory of knowledge, and it’s incomparably more rigorous and detailed than anything Plato could have produced. I also particularly liked the Topics, as there we see Aristotle as a seasoned debater, in addition to a bumbling professor. Of course, there is much of strictly philosophic interest in this work as well; a particularly memorable problem is that of the future naval-battle.

For me, Aristotle is at his best when he is discussing the acquisition of knowledge. For Aristotle, whatever his faults, more perfectly embodied the love of knowledge than any other thinker in history. He wanted to know all; and, considering his historical limitations, he came damn near close. Us poor moderns have to content ourselves with either a mastery of one tiny slice of reality, or a dilettante acquaintance with all of it; Aristotle had the whole world at his fingertips.

View all my reviews

The Illogic of Discrimination

The Illogic of Discrimination

Discrimination is a problem. It is a blight on society and a blemish on personal conduct. During the last one hundred or so years, the fight against discrimination has played an increasingly important role in political discourse, particularly on the left: against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and white privilege. Nowadays this discourse has its own name: identity politics. We both recognize and repudiate more kinds of discrimination than ever before.

This is as it should be. Undeniably many forms of discrimination exist; and discrimination—depriving people of rights and privileges without legitimate reason—is the enemy of equality and justice. If we are to create a more fair and open society, we must fight to reduce prejudice and privilege as much as we can. Many people are already doing this, of course; and identity politics is rightly here to stay.

And yet, admirable as the goals of identity politics are, I am often dissatisfied with its discourse. Specifically, I think we are often not clear about why certain statements or ideas are discriminatory. Often we treat certain statements as prejudiced because they offend people. I have frequently heard arguments of this form: “As a member of group X, I am offended by Y; therefore Y is discriminatory to group X.”

This argument—the Argument from Offended Feelings, as I’ll call it—is unsatisfactory. First, it is fallacious because it generalizes improperly. It is the same error someone commits when they conclude, from eating bad sushi once, that all sushi is bad: the argument takes one case and applies it to a whole class of things.

Even if many people, all belonging to the same group, find a certain remark offensive, it still is invalid to conclude that the remark is intrinsically discriminatory: this only shows that many people think it is. Even the majority may be wrong—such as the many people who believe that the word “niggardly” comes from the racial slur and is thus racist, while in reality the word has no etymological or historical connection with the racial slur (it comes from Middle English).

Subjective emotional responses should not be given an authoritative place in the question of prejudice. Emotions are not windows into the truth. They are of no epistemological value. Even if everybody in the world felt afraid of me, it would not make me dangerous. Likewise, emotional reactions are not enough to show that a remark is discriminatory. To do that, it must be shown how the remark incorrectly assumes, asserts, or implies something about a certain group.

In other words, we must keep constantly in mind the difference between a statement being discriminatory or merely offensive. Discrimination is wrong because it leads to unjust actions; offending people, on the other hand, is not intrinsically wrong. Brave activists, fighting for a good cause, often offend many.

Thus it is desirable to have logical tests, rather than just emotional responses, for distinguishing discriminatory responses. I hope to provide a few tools in this direction. But before that, here are some practical reasons for preferring logical to emotional criteria.

Placing emotions, especially shared emotions, at the center of any moral judgment makes a community prone to fits of mob justice. If the shared feelings of outrage, horror, or disgust of a group is sufficient to condemn somebody, then we have the judicial equivalent of a witch-hunt: the evidence for the accusation is not properly examined, and the criteria that separate good evidence from bad are ignored.

Another practical disadvantage of giving emotional reactions a privileged place in judgments of discrimination is that it can easily backfire. If enough people say that they are not offended, or if emotional reactions vary from outrage to humor to ambivalence, then the community cannot come to a consensus about whether any remark or action is discriminatory. Insofar as collective action requires consensus, this is an obvious limitation.

What is more, accusations of discrimination are extremely easy to deny if emotional reactions are the ultimate test. The offended parties can simply be dismissed as “over-sensitive” (a “snowflake,” more recently), which is a common rhetorical strategy among the right (and is sometimes used on the left, too). The wisest response to this rhetorical strategy, I believe, is not to re-affirm the validity of emotions in making judgments of discrimination—this leads you into the same trap—but to choose more objective criteria. Some set of non-emotional, objective criteria for determining whether an action is discriminatory is highly desirable, I think, since there is no possibility of a lasting consensus without it.

So if these emotional tests can backfire, what less slippery test can we use?

To me, discriminatory ideas—and the actions predicated on these ideas—are discriminatory precisely because they are based on a false picture of reality: they presuppose differences that do not exist, and mischaracterize or misunderstand the differences that do exist. This is important, because morally effective action of any kind requires a basic knowledge of the facts. A politician cannot provide for his constituents’ needs of she does not know what they are. A lifeguard cannot save a drowning boy if he was not paying attention to the water. Likewise, social policies and individual actions, if they are based on a false picture of human difference, will be discriminatory, even with the best intentions in the world.

I am not arguing that discrimination is wrong purely because of this factual deficiency. Indeed, if I falsely think that all Hungarians love bowties, although this idea is incorrect and therefore discriminatory, this will likely not make me do anything immoral. Thus it is possible, in theory at least, to hold discriminatory views and yet be a perfectly ethical person. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between whether a statement is offensive (it upsets people), discriminatory (it is factually wrong about a group of people), and immoral (it harms people and causes injustice). The three categories do not necessary overlap, in theory or in practice.

It is obvious that, in our society, discrimination is usually far more nefarious than believing that Hungarians love bowties. Discrimination harms people, sometimes kills people; and discrimination causes systematic injustice. My argument is that to prove any policy or idea is intrinsically discriminatory requires proving that it asserts something empirically false.

Examples are depressingly numerous. Legal segregation in the United States was based on the premise that there existed a fundamental difference between blacks and whites, a difference that justified different treatment and physical separation. Similarly, Aristotle argued that slavery was legitimate because some people were born slaves: they were intrinsically slavish. Now, both of these ideas are empirically false. They assert things about reality that are either meaningless, untestable, or contrary to the evidence; and so any actions predicated on these ideas will be discriminatory—and, as it turned out, horrific.

These are not special cases. European antisemitism has always incorporated myths and lies about the Jewish people: tales of Jewish murders of Christian children, of widespread Jewish conspiracies, and so on. Laws barring women from voting and rules preventing women from attending universities were based on absurd notions about women’s intelligence and emotional stability. Name any group which has faced discrimination, and you can find a corresponding myth that attempts to justify the prejudice. Name any group which has dominated, and you can find an untruth to justify their “superiority.”

In our quest to determine whether a remark is discriminatory, it is worth taking a look, first of all, at the social categories themselves. Even superficial investigation will reveal that many of our social categories are close to useless, scientifically speaking. Our understanding of race in the United States, for example, gives an entirely warped picture of human difference. Specifically, the terms “white” and “black” have shifted in meaning and extent over time, and in any case were never based on empirical investigation.

Historically speaking, our notion of what it means to be “white” used to be far more exclusive than it is now, previously excluding Jews and Eastern Europeans. Likewise, as biological anthropologists never tire of telling us, there is more genetic variation in the continent of Africa than the rest of the world combined. Our notions of “white” and “black” simply fail to do justice to the extent of genetic variation and intermixture that exists in the United States. We categorize people into a useless binary using crude notions of skin color. Any policy based on supposed innate, universal differences between “black” and “white” will therefore be based on a myth. Similar criticisms can be made of our common notions of gender and sexual orientation

Putting aside the sloppy categories, discrimination may be based on bad statistics and bad logic. Here are the three errors I think are most common in discriminatory remarks.

The first is to generalize improperly: to erroneously attribute a characteristic to a group. This type of error is exemplified by Randy Newman’s song “Short People,” when he says short people “go around tellin’ great big lies.” I strongly suspect that it is untrue that short people tell, on average, more lies than taller people, which makes this an improper generalization.

This is a silly example, of course. And it is worth pointing out that some generalizations about group differences are perfectly legitimate. It is true, for example, that Spanish people eat more paella than Japanese people. When done properly, generalizations about people are useful and often necessary. The problem is that we are often poor generalizers. We jump to conclusions—using the small sample of our experience to justify sweeping pronouncements—and we are apt to give disproportionate weight to conspicuous examples, thus skewing our judgments.

Our poor generalizations are, all too often, mixed up with more nefarious prejudices. Trump exemplified this when he tweeted a table of statistics of crime rates back in November of 2015. The statistics are ludicrously wrong in every respect. Notably, they claim that more whites are killed by blacks than by other whites, when in reality more whites are killed by other whites. (This shouldn’t be a surprise, since most murders take place within the same community; and since people of the same race tend to live in the same community, most murders are intra-racial.)

The second type of error involved in prejudice is to make conclusions about an individual based on their group. This is a mistake even when the generalizations about the group are accurate. Even if it were statistically true, for example, that short people lied more often than tall people, it would still be invalid to assume that any particular short person is a liar.

The logical mistake is obvious: even if a group has certain characteristics on average, that does not mean that every individual will have these characteristics. On average, Spaniards are shorter than me; but that does not mean that I can safely assume any Spaniard will be shorter than I am. On average, most drivers are looking out for pedestrians; but that doesn’t make I can safely run into the road.

Of course, almost nobody, if they had a half-second to reflect, would make the mistake of believing every single member of a given group had whatever quality. More often, people are just wildly mistaken about how likely a certain person is to have any given quality—most often, we greatly overestimate.

It is statistically true, for example, that Asian Americans tend to do well on standardized math and science exams. But this generalization, which is valid, does not mean you can safely ask any Asian American friend for help on your science homework. Even though Asian Americans do well in these subjects as a group, you should still expect to see many individuals who are average or below average. This is basic statistics—and yet this error accounts for a huge amount of racist and sexist remarks.

Aside from falsely assuming that every member of a group will be characterized by a generalization, the second error also results from forgetting intersectionality: the fact that any individual is inevitably a member of many, intersecting demographic groups. Race, gender, income bracket, sexual orientation, education, religion, and a host of other categories will apply to any single individual. Predicting how the generalizations associated with these categories—which may often make contradictory predictions—will play out in any individual case, is close to impossible.

This is not even to mention all of the manifold influences on behavior that are not included in these demographic categories. Indeed, it is these irreducibly unique experiences, and our unique genetic makeup, that make us individuals in the first place. Humans are not just members of a group, nor even members of many different, overlapping groups: each person is sui generis.

In sum, humans are complicated—the most complicated things in the universe, so far as we know—and making predictions about individual people using statistical generalizations of broad, sometimes hazily defined categories, is hazardous at best, and often foolish. Moving from the specific to the general is fairly unproblematic; we can collect statistics and use averages and medians to analyze sets of data. But moving from the general to the specific is far more troublesome.

The third error is to assert a causal relationship where we only have evidence for correlation. Even if a generalization is valid, and even if an individual fits into this generalization, it is still not valid to conclude that an individual has a certain quality because they belong to a certain group.

Let me be more concrete. As we have seen, it is a valid generalization to say that Asian Americans do well on math and science exams. Now imagine that your friend John is Asian American, and also an excellent student in these subjects. Even in this case, to say that John is good at math “because he’s Asian” would still be illogical (and therefore racist). Correlation does not show causation.

First of all, it may not be known why Asian Americans tend to do better. And even if a general explanation is found—for example, that academic achievement is culturally prized and thus families put pressure on children to succeed—this explanation may not apply in your friend John’s case. Maybe John’s family does not pressure him to study and he just has a knack for science.

Further, even if this general explanation did apply in your friend John’s case (his family pressures him to study for cultural reasons), the correct explanation for him being a good student still wouldn’t be “because he’s Asian,” but would be something more like “because academic achievement is culturally prized in many Asian communities.” In other words, the cause would be ultimately cultural, and not racial. (I mean that this causation would apply equally to somebody of European heritage being raised in an Asian culture, a person who would be considered “white” in the United States. The distinction between cultural and biological explanations is extremely important, since one posits only temporary, environmental differences while the other posits permanent, innate differences.)

In practice, these three errors are often run together. An excellent example of this is from Donald Trump’s notorious campaign announcement: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic.]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Putting aside the silly notion of Mexico “sending” its people (they come of their own accord), the statement is discriminatory because it generalizes falsely. Trump’s words give the impression that a huge portion, maybe even the majority, of Mexican immigrants are criminals of some kind—and this isn’t true. (In reality, the statistics for undocumented immigrants can put native citizens to shame, as demonstrated here.)

Trump then falls into the third error by treating people as inherently criminal—the immigrants simply “are” criminals, as if they were born that way. Even if it were proven that Mexican immigrants had significantly higher crime rates, it would still be an open question why this was so. The explanation might have nothing to do with their cultural background or any previous history of criminality. It might be found, for example, that poverty and police harassment significantly increased criminality; and in this case the government would share some of the responsibility.

Donald Trump committed the second error in his infamous comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was overseeing a fraud lawsuit against Trump University. Trump attributed the Curiel’s (perceived) hostility to his Mexican heritage. Trump committed a simple error of fact when he called Curiel “Mexican” (Curiel was born in Indiana), and then committed a logical fallacy when he concluded that the judge’s actions and attitudes were due to his being of Mexican heritage. Even if it were true (as I suspect it is), that Mexican-Americans, on the whole, don’t like Trump, it still doesn’t follow that any given individual Mexican-American doesn’t like him (2nd error); and even if Curiel did dislike Trump, it wouldn’t follow that it was because of his heritage (3rd error).

These errors and mistakes are just my attempt at an outline of how discrimination can be criticized on logical, empirical grounds. Certainly there is much more to be said in this direction. What I hoped to show in this piece was that this strategy is viable, and ultimately more desirable than using emotional reactions as a test for prejudice.

Discourse, agreement, and cooperation are impossible when people are guided by emotional reactions. We tend to react emotionally along the lines of factions—indeed, our emotional reactions are conditioned by our social circumstances—so privileging emotional reactions will only exacerbate disagreements, not help to bridge them. In any case, besides the practical disadvantages—which are debatable—I think emotional reactions are not reliable windows into the truth. Basing reactions, judgments, and criticisms on sound reasoning and dependable information is always a better long-term strategy.

For one, this view of discrimination provides an additional explanation for why prejudice is so widespread and difficult to eradicate. We humans have inherited brains that are constantly trying to understand our world in order to navigate it more efficiently. Sometimes our brains make mistakes because we generalize too eagerly from limited information (1st error), or because we hope to fit everything into the same familiar pattern (2nd error), or because we are searching for causes of the way things work (3rd error).

So the universality of prejudice can be partially explained, I think, by the need to explain the social world. And once certain ideas become ingrained in somebody’s worldview, it can be difficult to change their mind without undermining their sense of reality or even their sense of identity. This is one reason why prejudices can be so durable (not to mention that certain prejudices justify convenient, if morally questionable, behaviors, as well as signal a person’s allegiance to a certain group).

I should say that I do not think that discrimination is simply the result of observational or logical error. We absorb prejudices from our cultural environment; and these prejudices are often associated with divisive hatreds and social tension. But even these prejudices absorbed by the environment—that group x is lazy, that group y is violent, that group z is unreliable—always inevitably incorporate some misconception of the social world. Discrimination is not just a behavior. Mistaken beliefs are involved—sometimes obliquely, to be sure—with any prejudice.

This view of prejudice—as caused, at least in part, by an incorrect picture of the world, rather than pure moral depravity—may also allow us to combat it more effectively. It is easy to imagine a person with an essentially sound sense of morality who nevertheless perpetrates harmful discrimination because of prejudices absorbed from her community. Treating such a person as a monster will likely produce no change of perspective; people are not liable to listen when they’re being condemned. Focusing on somebody’s misconceptions may allow for a less adversarial, and perhaps more effective, way of combating prejudice. And this is not to mention the obvious fact that somebody cannot be morally condemned for something they cannot help; and we cannot help if we’re born into a community that instructs its members in discrimination.

Even if this view does not adequately explain discrimination, and even if it does not provide a more effective tool in eliminating it, this view does at least orient our gaze towards the substance rather than the symptoms of discrimination.

Because of their visibility, we tend to focus on the trappings of prejudice—racial slurs, the whitewashed casts of movies, the use of pronouns, and so on—instead of the real meat of it: the systematic discrimination—economic, political, judicial, and social—that is founded on an incorrect picture of the world. Signs and symptoms of prejudice are undeniably important; but eliminating them will not fix the essential problem: that we see differences that aren’t really there, we assume differences without having evidence to justify these assumptions, and we misunderstand the nature and extent of the differences that really do exist.

Quotes & Commentary #24: Ovid

Desire persuades me one way, reason another. I see the better and approve it, but I follow the worse.

—Ovid, The Metamorphoses

I like to this of this passage as the mirror image of the Jane Eyre quote I wrote about a couple days ago. Eyre overcomes her desires in order to do what she thinks is right; but in this story, told by the Roman poet Ovid, the desire wins in the end.

The passage comes from one of the most memorable tales in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that of Myrrah. Myrrah is the daughter of Cinyras, king of Cyprus. Due to the malicious intervention of the Furies, Myrrah falls madly in love with her father. She spends months fighting this desire, struggling all through the night, until finally she attempts suicide. Her maid discovers the suicide attempt and stops her; then, to prevent any further suicide attempts, the maid agrees to help Myrrah satisfy her taboo desire. In the end, Myrrah succeeds in sleeping with her father; then she is discovered, flees, gets turned into a tree (a common occurrence in Ovid’s universe), and gives birth to Adonis.

This quote stuck in my mind for summing up, with such pith and force, the all too common experience of wanting something you think you shouldn’t want. The case of having lust for your own father is obviously extreme. Most often, I have a craving for unhealthy food and excessive drink; or my desire to laze about and do nothing does battle with my urge to be productive.

I tend to think of these situations, not as my desires fighting against my reason, but as my short-term desires (bacon pizza) fighting against my long-term desires (living to be eighty years old). Reason is simply not a motivation for action. In and of itself, no action is more logical than any other action; the logicalness of an action is a consequence of whether or not it achieves its desired goal; in other words, only in the context of a goal can an action be said to be sensible or not.

In and of itself, no desire is logical or illogical either. Our desires are simply givens. They are facts, and facts cannot be logical or illogical. We are born with our desires, or we develop them; but we certainly don’t choose to have them. Desires become logical or illogical only in the context of other desires; that is, if one desire contradicts another one—such as the desire for bacon pizza and the desire to be an octogenarian—then some logic is needed to negotiate the internal conflict.

Thus, reason has two functions in decision making: negotiating between conflicting desires, and figuring out how to satisfy desires. Take the case of Myrrah. She had two very strong desires: first, she wanted to abide by the laws of society and maintain her position in the world; second, she wanted to have sex with her father. Those desires contradict. She was paralyzed by indecision, not because her reason prevented her, but because both desires were almost equally matched. She was inflamed by love, but also terrified of the consequences. (Fear is a type of negative desire.)

Now, normally we use our reason to envisage and understand the long-term consequences of an action. By envisioning the long-term consequences, we desire things far in the future. “Reasonable” action, as it is commonly called, is usually the desire for something far in the future; and “unreasonable” action, so-called, is desire for immediate gratification. The function of the reason is not to generate desires, but to help discover them, so to speak, by taking the long view. Without some ability to think abstractly, for example, I wouldn’t be able to understand that eating bacon pizza is not good for my heart, or that my heart is needed for long-term living.

We would call Myrrah’s action unreasonable because the short-term desire won out in the end. No matter how vividly she pictured the negative consequences, she still desired her father more than she feared being banished or killed. Yet Myrrah did have to use her reason—and quite cleverly, too—in order to satisfy this “unreasonable” desire, because she had to create a plan that would allow her to deceive her father. In a similar vein, I have been amazed by the care, ingenuity, and dedication that some marijuana users have shown in procuring and consuming their herb.

The case of Myrrah is obviously a special one. But I think it is generally true that everyone ends up doing things that they feel they “shouldn’t” be doing, because their short-term desire was too strong to resist.

One reason for this, I think, is that we have collectively chosen to call actions “wise” that are oriented towards the distant pleasures, while actions oriented towards immediate pleasures are “unwise,” or at the very least less wise.

Thus when we do something hedonistic or impulsive, we feel that we “shouldn’t” be doing so. But it is a basic rule of psychology that we always want what we are told not to want. We’ve known this since we were expelled from the Garden of Eden.

The story of Myrrah is another example of this. The poor girl wants the thing most strongly forbidden by society. And of course any time you draw a line in the sand, all you’re doing is tempting fate.

Besides, it is instinctive that telling someone that they “should” want something only makes them resentful towards it. Nobody likes doing things if they feel obligated to do them; nor is it easy to enjoy doing something if it feels like a responsibility.

The trick, I think, is not to tell yourself that you “should” do something or “shouldn’t” do another thing. It is to remind yourself that you want something, something in the future that you’ll really enjoy, and thus you are really not sacrificing anything in the long-run by acting “wisely.” Indeed, you’re doing the opposite of sacrificing: you are being intelligently hedonistic.