After the 2016 presidential election, I’ve had some more time to reflect on the various causes of what has been aptly dubbed Trumpism, and also to reflect on some strategies that we as a nation need to implement in order to successfully move forward.
Many would be hard pressed to name another period in American history that has been defined by as much political polarization and animosity that we’ve seen in the last year. The Civil War that transpired in the mid 19th century is perhaps the closest runner up to match this “great divide” plaguing our nation. In the interest of moving forward, we need to find quicker and more pragmatic ways of bridging such a divide. We’re not going to agree on most issues, but there are some things we can do a hell of a lot better. For starters, I think that we all need to stop talking past one another and acknowledge that there were legitimate reasons to vote for Donald Trump (keep in mind that I thought Clinton was the only sane choice which was why I knew I had to vote for her). The majority of people on both sides of this debate have been demonizing the other rather than being intellectually honest (let alone charitable) about one another’s position. Unfortunately the damage has already been done and Trump is now going to be our president (barring some miracle occurring between now and January 20th).
I’m in no way attempting to underplay the moral travesty that a large number of voters are responsible for, and which happened despite the fact that they were outnumbered by almost 3 million Democrat voters in the popular vote (which actually set a record for the highest margin direct-democratic victory for any candidate voted against by the electoral college). I am however trying to open up a civil discourse between progressive liberals such as myself and those that voted for this inexperienced plutocrat for at least some legitimate reasons. We may still disagree on the importance of those reasons when weighed against all others under consideration, and we may disagree on how effective Trump would be in actually addressing any one of them (even if they were the most important issues), but we should acknowledge those reasons nevertheless.
Economy, Immigration & Terrorism
Before looking at some of these specific reasons, I think it’s important to note the three main issues that they seem to revolve around, namely terrorism, immigration, and the economy. It’s also interesting to note that all three of these issues are themselves intimately connected with one another with respect to the impetus that turned the election on its head. For example, many immigrants and refugees from nations that are predominantly Muslim are getting unfairly lumped into a category of would-be terrorists — largely resulting from anti-Muslim sentiments that have escalated since 9/11, and perhaps climaxing with the formation of other Muslim extremist groups such as ISIS. And on the economic front, Mexican or other Hispanic immigrants in particular are getting flack in part because of their being largely indistinguishable from illegal immigrants, and some people think that their jobs have been or will be taken from illegal immigrants (or taken from legal immigrants that many simply assume are illegal) that are willing to work for below minimum wage.
Of course the irony here is that conservatives that embrace true free market capitalistic principles are shooting themselves in the foot by rejecting this “free market” consequence, i.e., letting the markets decide what wages are fair with no government intervention. It’s one thing to argue against illegal immigrants breaking immigration laws (which everyone agrees is a problem, even if they disagree on the degree of the problem), but one can’t employ an economic argument against illegal immigrants or legal immigrants based on sub-par wages or a lack of jobs without also acknowledging the need for government-imposed market regulations. These market regulations include having a minimum wage that is enforced let alone raised to provide a living wage (which is now at risk with Trump’s newly elected Secretary of Labor Andy Puzder, given his history of screwing his fast food workers while raking in millions of dollars per year).
It goes without saying that the anti-immigrant (even anti-legal-immigrant) mentality was only exacerbated when Trump filled his campaign with hateful “build the wall” rhetoric, combined with Trump calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, despite the fact that immigrants comprise a lower percentage of criminals and rapists compared to non-immigrants in the U.S. None of this helped to foster any support for embracing these generally decent people that are crossing the border looking for a better life in America. Most of them are looking for better opportunities, for the same reasons our ancestors immigrated to the U.S. long ago (both legally and illegally). Having said that, it’s also true that illegal immigration is a problem that needs to be addressed, but lying about the actual impact of undocumented immigrants on the economy (by either denying the fact that they can suppress wages in some industries, or by denying that there are benefits that these people can produce in other work sectors), is only going to detract from our ability to solve the problem effectively and ethically. Hate mongering certainly isn’t going to accomplish anything other than pissing off liberals and hindering bipartisan immigration reform.
As for Islam, people on the right are justifiably pissed off that most people on the left don’t even acknowledge the fact that Islam has dangerous doctrines that have been exploited to radicalize Muslims into Jihadists and Islamists that have fueled various forms of terrorism. Saying that ISIS isn’t fundamentally Islamic is ridiculous once one sees that its adherents are in fact motivated by a literal reading of the texts (i.e. the Koran and Hadiths) including a true belief in eternal paradise and glory for martyrs that die on the front lines or by flying a plane into a building.
As a progressive liberal, I’m disappointed when regressive liberals call anybody that points this out a racist or an Islamophobe. It’s true that many people that make these points (generally on the political right) are also racist and Islamophobic, but many of them are not (including some liberals such as myself) and it actually pushed a number of people toward Trump that would have otherwise stayed away from a clown like Trump. If only the left had done a better job being honest about these facts, then they wouldn’t have scared away a number of people that were sitting on the fence of the election. A number of people that ran away once they believed that Clinton was being either dishonest or delusional on this point, and who subsequently saw Clinton (albeit erroneously) as someone who was not as likely to handle this terrorist threat effectively. It’s clear to me that she was the most likely to handle it effectively despite this concern given the facts that she was by far the most qualified and experienced candidate, including having valuable and relevant experience in helping to take down Osama Bin Laden as Secretary of State. This misperception, induced by this bit of dishonesty, gave fuel to a ignorant bigot like Trump who was at least right on this one point, even if for all the wrong reasons, and even if he combined this point with bigotry and bogus xenophobic rhetoric based on his ignorance of Islamic culture and Muslims generally.
So while the Trumpers had some legitimate concern here, they and most others on the right failed to acknowledge that Islamic doctrine isn’t the only motivating factor behind ISIS terrorism as there are a number of geopolitical factors at play here and also some number of radicalizing leaders who simply high-jacked Islamic doctrine to fuel terrorism with the primary goal of meeting those geopolitical goals. Many Trumpers also failed to realize that most Muslims in the world are peaceful people and are not members of ISIS or any other terrorist group or organization. Many failed to realize that Trump has absolutely no political experience, let alone specific experience pertaining to national or international security, so he is the last person that should claim to know how to handle such a complicated and multi-faceted international conflict. Furthermore, Trump’s “I’ll bomb the shit out of them” mentality isn’t going to appease the worries of our Muslim allies nor our non-Muslim allies that are seeking diplomatic resolutions at all costs.
I think one of the biggest oversight of Trumpers is their failing to realize that Trump’s threat to place all Muslims residing in the U.S. into a fascist registry and the effects of his anti-Muslim rhetoric are, if anything, accomplishing exactly what ISIS wants. ISIS wants all Muslims to reject Western values including democracy, equality, and humanism, and what better way to radicalize more Muslims than having a large number of (mostly) white Americans alienating them through harassment and ostracization. What better way could there be to lose the trust and cooperation of Muslims already residing within our borders — the very Muslims and Muslim communities that we need to work with to combat radicalization and domestic terrorism? Trump’s hateful behavior and rudderless tactics are likely to create the ultimate Islamic Trojan horse within our own borders. So while many on the left need to acknowledge that Islam does in fact have an ideological influence on terrorism, and is thus an influence that needs to be addressed honestly, those on the right also need to appreciate the fact that we need to avoid further alienating and angering Muslims such that they are more compelled to join radical groups, the very radical groups that we all (including most other Muslims) despise.
Multi-culturalism & Assimilation
Another big Trump-voter motivational reason is the ongoing clash between multi-culturalism and traditional American culture or perhaps better described as well-established highly homogeneous cultures in America. Some people were driven to Trumpism by their feeling culturally threatened by immigrants that fail to assimilate to the already well-established cultures in various communities around the country. If they’ve lived in a community that is composed of only English speaking, reality-TV-watching, hamburger-eating, football fans (to give an example), and then they start seeing other languages and entirely foreign cultures in schools, on the bus, at their workplace, etc., they feel that their way of life is being encroached upon. When immigrants fail to assimilate to the predominant culture of an area (including learning the English language), with the natives in these communities pressured to adopt bilingual infrastructure, to suspend cultural norms to make new religious exceptions, etc., people understandably get pissed off because humans have evolved to be highly tribal and most of us fear change.
Some feel like there’s a double-standard at play where natives in a community have to adapt to accommodate the immigrants and their cultures, but without having the immigrants compromise by accommodating the native cultures and norms (or at least not to a large enough degree). As a result, we often see pockets of foreigners that bud off to form micro-communities and groups that are very much like small versions of their home countries. Then when there’s an influx of these immigrants in schools and certain workplaces, there is increased animosity toward them because they are that much more likely to be treated as an out-group. This is no doubt further fueled by racism and xenophobia (with vicious cycles of increasing prejudice against immigrants and subsequent assimilation hurdles), but there needs to be a give-take relationship with better cultural assimilation so that the native communities don’t feel that their own culture is threatened while simultaneously feeling forced to preserve and make way for an entirely foreign one. Additionally, we need to better educate people to be more accepting of reasonable levels of diversity, even if we place pragmatic limits on how far that diversity can go (while still maintaining solidarity and minimizing tribalism).
If it’s not a two-way street, with effective cultural assimilation, then we can expect a lot of people to run away looking for someone like Trump to throw them a proverbial life preserver with his “I’m the greatest and I can fix it all and make America great again” motto (perhaps disguising the implicit motto “make America WHITE again”) even if it’s really nothing but a bunch of snake oil demagoguery so he can get into power and rob the nation blind with a cabinet full of fellow billionaire plutocrats (including those tied to Big-Oil and Goldman Sachs). Trump learned fairly quickly how effective demagoguery was, likely aided by his insider knowledge of American TV-junkie culture (including The Apprentice), his knowledge of how bigoted so many people are, how attracted they are to controversy and shock-value (rather than basic common decency) and how he could manipulate so many voters through hatred and fear given such weaknesses. But none of that would have worked if there weren’t some grains of truth in the seeds Trump was sowing, if Trump wasn’t saying things that many Americans were simply too afraid to say out loud (including that which was largely racist, bigoted, and ignorant).
But rather than most people on the left acknowledging the inherent problems with unlimited multi-culturalism, including it leading us down a path where the population becomes less and less cohesive with less solidarity and common goals, the left largely labeled all people with these legitimate concerns as racists and bigots. While it’s true that a substantial chunk of Trump supporters are racists and bigots (perhaps half, who really knows), an appreciable chunk of them are not racists or bigots. Much like those that saw obvious problems with Islamic ideology in the modern age as it pertains to terrorist threats (with race being irrelevant, as can be seen by radicals such as Adam Gadahn), many saw problems with immigration in terms of the pragmatic limitations of multi-culturalism (rather than problems with any particular race). On the other side however, Trump supporters have to at least acknowledge that even if they themselves are not racist, their support of Trump does in fact validate his racist rhetoric and the racist supporters fueled by that rhetoric (even if Trump himself had no racist intentions, although I think he did). So they may still think it was worth it to support Trump but they can’t have their cake and eat it too. They have to own up to what Trump’s rhetoric fuels and take at least some responsibility for it, including any consequences that they do not like or endorse.
Political Correctness, Safe Spaces, & Free Speech
Last but not least there are debates regarding things like political correctness (which play into the multi-culturalism battle), safe spaces, and freedom of speech, that deeply affected this election. For one, I acknowledge and sympathize with others’ aggravation in terms of political correctness, where sometimes people are just trying to communicate some semantic content and don’t want to be bogged down with ever-changing social conventions on what terms one is and is not allowed to use. But I also understand that social conventions change as a result of what comprises a society’s “stream of consciousness”, including the ever-changing ethical and moral concerns of the day, issues with social justice, stereotypes, marginalization of one group or another, etc. People on the right should try not to be completely callous and inconsiderate about social conventions and work harder to understand why others are offended by certain terms, and those on the left need to try harder to understand the intentions of those using possibly offensive terms. If we each work to give a little leeway to the other and try to put ourselves in their shoes and vice versa, we’ll have better chances of getting along and finding common ground rather than being demonized and never getting anywhere in terms of societal progress. People on the left should work harder to not to be so thin-skinned that everything offends them (in other words, try harder not to be like Trump), and people on the right should try to show a little more empathy and try not to be inconsiderate jerks.
Safe spaces have become another problem. While it’s true that some events can be and should be exclusive to certain groups (for example keeping Nazi or KKK members out of a Jewish festival or speech), it is crucial that we don’t fall down a slippery slope that abolishes freedom of speech or that establishes constant safe spaces that exacerbate the polarization plaguing our political sphere. For example, social platforms like Facebook and the like allow people to block the comments of others, feed their wall with news and articles that fulfill their own cognitive confirmation biases and prevent their ideas from being challenged. The irony is that while many Trumpers raised legitimate concerns and dismay over the concept of safe spaces as espoused by those on the left, they too were guilty of the safe space methodology on their own Facebook pages, etc. Even my own sister (a Trump supporter after Cruz lost) blocked me after I pointed out a few flaws in her logic and reasoning with regard to a couple Trump apologetic posts she had shared. After her husband came in to defend her (she never attempts to defend herself for some reason), I refuted his points as well in a civil way and then she blocked me from her wall. This is a problem because people on both sides are making their own safe spaces not allowing diversity in the opinions and points they are exposed to. It only increases the in-group/out-group mentality that is ripping this country apart.
Trump is ironically the worst offender using safe spaces that I’ve seen, with his “Sean Hannity” safe space on the radio, his one-dimensional rallies (filled with supporters to boost his ego and who have been encouraged by Trump himself to punch protesters in the face, with him offering to pay their legal fees like some kind of totalitarian mobster), his disdain for the free press, free speech, and journalism in general — not to mention the libel laws he wants to change so that he can sue news organizations that report on facts he doesn’t want made public. The chronic safe space mentality has got to go, even if we reserve the right to safe spaces for some places and occasions. There needs to be a careful balance so people are exposed to diverse ideas (not just what they want to hear) and we need to protect free speech (limiting one group opens the doors to limit them all).
Where to go from here?
While there may have been some other legitimate reasons to vote for Trump (I couldn’t think of any others to be honest), these seemed to be the primary ones I noticed at play. So what do we do now? Well, people need to stop talking past one another, and better empathize with the opposition and not simply demonize them. The sooner everyone can acknowledge that the opposition had at least some legitimacy, the sooner we can have more civil discourses and keep moving forward to heal this great divide.
I’ve been thinking a lot about WikiLeaks over the last year, especially given the relevant consequences that have ensued with respect to the 2016 presidential election. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the trade-offs that underlie any type of platform that centers around publishing secret or classified information, news leaks, and the like. I’m torn over the general concept in terms of whether these kinds of platforms provide a net good for society and so I decided to write a blog post about it to outline my concerns through a brief analysis.
Make no mistake that I appreciate the fact that there are people in the world that work hard and are often taking huge risks to their own safety in order to deliver any number of secrets to the general public, whether governmental, political, or corporate. And this is by no means exclusive to Wikileaks, but also applies to similar organizations and even individual whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden. In many cases, the information that is leaked to the public is vitally important to inform us about some magnate’s personal corruption, various forms of systemic corruption, or even outright violations of our constitutional rights (such as the NSA violating our right to privacy as outlined in the fourth amendment).
While the public tends to highly value the increased transparency that these kinds of leaks offer, they also open us up to a number of vulnerabilities. One prominent example that illustrates some of these vulnerabilities is the influence on the 2016 presidential election, resulting from the Clinton email leaks and the leaks pertaining to the DNC. One might ask how exactly could those leaks have been a bad thing for the public? After all it just increased transparency and gave the public information that most of us felt we had a right to know. Unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that. Beyond the fact that it can be difficult to know where to draw the line in terms of what should or should not be public knowledge.
To illustrate this point, imagine that you are a foreign or domestic entity that is highly capable of hacking. Now imagine that you stand to gain an immense amount of land, money, or power if a particular political candidate in a foreign or domestic election is elected, because you know about their current reach of power and their behavioral tendencies, their public or private ties to other magnates, and you know the kinds of policies that they are likely to enact based on their public pronouncements in the media and their advertised campaign platform. Now if you have the ability to hack into private information from every pertinent candidate and/or political party involved in that election, then you likely have the ability to not only know secrets about the candidate that can benefit you from their winning (including their perspective of you as a foreign or domestic entity, and/or damning things about them that you can use as leverage to bribe them later on after being elected), but you also likely know about damning things that could cripple the opposing candidate’s chances at being elected.
This point illustrates the following conundrum: while WikiLeaks can deliver important information to the public, it can also be used as a platform for malicious entities to influence our elections, to jeopardize our national or international security, or to cause any number of problems based on “selective” sharing. That is to say, they may have plenty of information that would be damning to both opposing political parties, but they may only choose to deliver half the story because of an underlying agenda to influence the election outcome. This creates an obvious problem, not least because the public doesn’t consider the amount of hacked or leaked information that they didn’t get. Instead they think they’ve just become better informed concerning a political candidate or some policy issue, when in fact their judgment has now been compromised because they’ve just received a hyper-biased leak and one that was given to them intentionally to mislead them, even though the contents of the leak may in fact be true. But when people aren’t able to put the new information in the proper context or perspective, then new information can actually make them less informed. That is to say, the new information can become an epistemological liability, because it unknowingly distorts the facts, leading people to behave in ways that they otherwise would not have if they only had a few more pertinent details.
So now we have to ask ourselves, what can we do about this? Should we just scrap WikiLeaks? I don’t think that’s necessary, nor do I think it’s feasible to do even if we wanted to since it would likely just be replaced by any number of other entities that would accomplish the same ends (or it would become delocalized and go back to a bunch of disconnected sources). Should we assume all leaked information has been leaked to serve some malicious agenda?
Well, a good dose of healthy skepticism could be a part of the solution. We don’t want to be irrationally skeptical of any and all leaks, but it would make sense to have more scrutiny when it’s apparent that the leak could serve a malicious purpose. This means that we need to be deeply concerned about this unless or until we reach a point in time where hacking is so common that the number of leaks reaches a threshold where it’s no longer pragmatically possible to selectively share them to accomplish these kinds of half-truth driven political agendas. Until that point is reached, if it’s ever reached, given the arms race between encryption and hacking, we will have to question every seemingly important leak and work hard to make the public at large understand these concerns and to take them seriously. It’s too easy for the majority to be distracted by the proverbial carrot dangling in front of them, such that they fail to realize that it may be some form of politically motivated bait. In the mean time, we need to open up the conversation surrounding this issue, and look into possible solutions to help mitigate our concerns. Perhaps we’ll start seeing organizations that can better vet the sources of these leaks, or that can better analyze their immediate effects on the global economy, elections, etc., before deciding whether or not they should release the information to the public. This won’t be an easy task.
This brings me to my last point which is to say that I don’t think people have a fundamental right to know every piece of information that’s out there. If someone found a way to make a nuclear bomb using household ingredients, should that be public information? Don’t people understand that many pieces of information are kept private or classified because that’s the only way some organizations can function? Including organizations that strive to maintain or increase national and international security? Do people want all information to be public even if it comes at the expense of creating humanitarian crises, or the further consolidation of power by select plutocrats? There’s often debate over the trade-offs between giving up our personal privacy to increase our safety. Now the time has come to ask whether our giving up some forms of privacy or secrecy on larger scales (whether we like it or not) is actually detracting from our safety or putting our democracy in jeopardy.
Over the last year, I’ve been reading a lot about Karl Friston and Andy Clark’s work on the concept of perception and action being mediated by a neurological schema centered on “predictive coding”, what Friston calls “active inference”, the “free energy principle”, and Bayesian inference in general as it applies to neuro-scientific models of perception, attention, and action. Here’s a few links (Friston here; Clark here, here, and here) to some of their work as it is worth reading for those interested in neural modeling, information theory, and learning more about meta-theories pertaining to how the brain integrates and processes information.
I find it fascinating how this newer research and these concepts relate to and help to bring together some content from several of my previous blog posts, in particular, those that mention the concept of hierarchical neurological hardware and those that mention my own definition of knowledge “as recognized causal patterns that allow us to make successful predictions.” For those that may be interested, here’s a list of posts I’ve made over the last few years that I think contain some relevant content (in chronological order).
- Knowledge and the “Brain in a Vat” scenario
- Knowledge: An Expansion of the Platonic Definition
- Neuroscience Arms Race & Our Changing World View
- Neurological Configuration & the Prospects of an Innate Ontology
- Darwin’s Big Idea May Be The Biggest Yet
The ideas formulated by Friston and expanded on by Clark center around the brain being (in large part) a prediction generating machine. This fits in line with my own conclusions about what the brain seems to be doing when it’s acquiring knowledge over time (however limited my reading is on the subject). Here’s an image of the basic predictive processing schema:
The basic Predictive Processing schema (adapted from Lupyan and Clark (2014))
One key element in Friston and Clark’s work (among the work of some others) is the amalgamation of perception and action. In this framework, perception itself is simply the result of the brain’s highest level predictions of incoming sensory data. But also important in this framework is that prediction error minimization is accomplished through embodiment itself. That is to say, their models posit that the brain not only tries to reduce prediction errors by updating its prediction models based on the actual incoming sensory information (with only the error feeding forward to update the models, similar to data compression schema), but the concept of active inference involves the minimization of prediction error through the use of motor outputs. This could be taken to mean that motor outputs themselves are, in a sense, caused by the brain trying to reduce prediction errors pertaining to predicted sensory input — specifically sensory input that we would say stems from our desires and goals (e.g. desire to fulfill hunger, commuting to work, opening the car door, etc.).
To give a simple example of this model in action, let’s consider an apple resting on a table in front of me. If I see the apple in front of me and I have a desire to grab it, my brain would not only predict what that apple looks like and how it is perceived over time (and how my arm looks while reaching for it), but it would also predict what it should feel like to reach for the apple. So if I reach for it based on the somato-sensory prediction and there is some error in that prediction, corroborated by my visual cortex observing my arm moving in some wrong direction, the brain would respond by updating its models that predict what it should feel so that my arm starts moving in the proper direction. This prediction error minimization is then fine-tuned as I get closer to the apple and can finally grab it.
This embodiment ingrained in the predictive processing models of Friston and Clark can also be well exemplified by the so-called “Outfielder’s Problem”. In this problem, an outfielder is trying to catch a fly ball. Now we know that outfielders are highly skilled at doing this rather effectively. But if we ask the outfielder to merely stand still and watch a batted ball and predict where it will land, their accuracy is generally pretty bad. So when we think about what strategy the brain takes to accomplish this when moving the body quickly, we begin to see the relevance of active inference and embodiment in the brain’s prediction schema. The outfielder’s brain employs a brilliant strategy called “optical acceleration cancellation” (OAC). Here, the well-trained outfielder sees the fly ball, and moves his or her body (while watching the ball) in order to cancel out any optical acceleration observed during the ball’s flight. If they do this, then they will end up exactly where the ball was going to land, and then they’re able to catch it successfully.
We can imagine fine-grained examples of this active inference during everyday tasks, where I may simply be looking at a picture on my living room wall, and when my brain is predicting how it will look over the span of a few seconds, my head may slightly change its tilt, or direction, or my eyes may slowly move a fraction of a degree this way or that way, however imperceptible to me. My brain in this case is predicting what the picture on the wall will look like over time and this prediction (according to my understanding of Clark) is identical to what we actually perceive. One key thing to note here is that the prediction models are not simply updated based on the prediction error that is fed forward through the brain’s neurological hierarchies, but it is also getting some “help” from various motor movements to correct for the errors through action, rather than simply freezing all my muscles and updating the model itself (which may in fact be far less economical for the brain to do).
Another area of research that pertains to this framework, including ways of testing its validity, is that of evolutionary psychology and biology, where one would surmise (if these models are correct) that evolution likely provided our brains with certain hard-wired predictive models and our learning processes over time use these as starting points to produce innate reflexes (such as infant suckling to give a simple example) that allow us to survive long enough to update our models with actual new acquired information. There are many different facets to this framework and I look forward to reading more about Friston and Clark’s work over the next few years. I have a feeling that they have hit on something big, something that will help to answer a lot of questions about embodied cognition, perception, and even consciousness itself.
I encourage you to check out the links I provided pertaining to Friston and Clark’s work, to get a taste of the brilliant ideas they’ve been working on.
Back in 1984, Derek Parfit’s work on population ethics led him to formulate a possible consequence of total utilitarianism, namely, what was deemed as the Repugnant Conclusion (RC). For those unfamiliar with the term, Parfit described it accordingly:
For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.
To better explain this conclusion, let’s consider a few different populations, A, A+, and B, where the width of the bar represents the relative population and the height represents the average “well-being rating” of the people in that sub-population:
Image taken from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/repugnant-conclusion/fig2.png
In population A, let’s say we have 10 billion people with a “well-being rating” of +10 (on a scale of -10 to +10, with negative values indicating a life not worth living). Now in population A+, let’s say we have all the people in population A with the mere addition of 10 billion people with a “well-being rating” of +8. According to the argument as Parfit presents it, it seems reasonable to hold that population A+ is better than population A, or at the very least, not worse than population A. This is believed to be the case because the only difference between the two populations is the mere addition of more people with lives worth living (even if their well-being isn’t as good as those represented by the “A” population, so it is believed that adding additional lives worth living cannot make an outcome worse when all else is equal.
Next, consider population B where it has the same number of people as population A+, but every person has a “well-being rating” that is slightly higher than the average “well-being rating” in population A+, and that is slightly lower than that of population A. Now if one accepts that population A+ is better than A (or at least not worse) and if one accepts that population B is better than population A+ (since it has an average well being that is higher) then one has to accept the conclusion that population B is better than population A (by transitive logic; A <= A+ <B, therefore, A<B). If this is true then we can take this further and show that a population that is sufficiently large enough would still be better than population A, even if the “well-being rating” of each person was only +1. This is the RC as presented by Parfit, and he along with most philosophers found it to be unacceptable. So he worked diligently on trying to solve it, but hadn’t succeeded in the way he hoped for. This has since become one of the biggest problems in ethics, particularly in the branch of population ethics.
Some of the strategies that have been put forward to resolve the RC include adopting an average principle, a variable value principle, or some kind of critical level principle. However all of these supposed resolutions are either wrought with their own problems (if accepted) or they are highly unsatisfactory, unconvincing, or very counter-intuitive. A brief overview of the argument and the supposed solutions and their associated problems can be found here.
I’d like to respond to the RC argument as well because I think that there are at least a few problems with the premises right off the bat. The foundation for my rebuttal relies on an egoistic moral realist ethics, based on a goal theory of morality (a subset of desire utilitarianism), which can be summarized as follows:
If one wants X above all else, then one ought to Y above all else. Since it can be shown that ultimately what one wants above all else is satisfaction and fulfillment with one’s life (or what Aristotle referred to as eudaimonia) then one ought to do above all else all possible actions that will best achieve that goal. The actions required to best accomplish this satisfaction can be determined empirically (based on psychology, neuroscience, sociology, etc.), and therefore we theoretically have epistemic access to a number of moral facts. These moral facts are what we ought to do above all else in any given situation given all the facts available to us and via a rational assessment of said facts.
So if one is trying to choose whether one population is better or worse than another, I think that assessment should be based on the same egoistic moral framework which accounts for all known consequences resulting from particular actions and which implements “altruistic” behaviors precipitated by cultivating virtues that benefit everyone including ourselves (such as compassion, integrity, and reasonableness). So in the case of evaluating the comparison between population A and that of A+ as presented by Parfit, which is better? Well if one applies the veil of ignorance as propagated by the social contract theories of philosophers such as Kant, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, whereby we would hypothetically choose between worlds, not knowing which subpopulation we would end up in, which world ought we to prefer? It would stand to reason that population A is certainly better than that of A+ (and better than population B) because one has the highest probability of having a higher level of well-being in that population/society (for any person chosen at random). This reasoning would then render the RC as false, as it only followed from fallacious reasoning (i.e. it is fallacious to assume that adding more people with lives worth living is all that matters in the assessment).
Another fundamental flaw that I see in the premises is the assumption that population A+ contains the same population of high well-being individuals as in A with the mere addition of people with a somewhat lower level of well-being. If the higher well-being subpopulation of A+ has knowledge of the existence of other people in that society with a lower well-being, wouldn’t that likely lead to a decrease in their well-being (compared to those in the A population that had no such concern)? It would seem that the only way around this is if the higher well-being people were ignorant of those other members of society or if there were other factors that were not equal between the two high-well-being subpopulations in A and A+ to somehow compensate for that concern, in which case the mere addition assumption is false since the hypothetical scenario would involve a number of differences between the two higher well-being populations. If the higher well-being subpopulation in A+ is indeed ignorant of the existence of the lower well-being subpopulation in A+, then they are not able to properly assess the state of the world which would certainly factor into their overall level of well-being.
In order to properly assess this and to behave morally at all, one needs to use as many facts as are practical to obtain and operate according to those facts as rationally as possible. It would seem plausible that the better-off subpopulation of A+ would have at least some knowledge of the fact that there exist people with less well-being than themselves and this ought to decrease their happiness and overall well-being when all else is truly equal when compared to A. But even if the subpopulation can’t know this for some reason (i.e. if the subpopulations are completely isolated from one another), we do have this knowledge and thus must take account of it in our assessment of which population is better than the other. So it seems that the comparison of population A to A+ as stated in the argument is an erroneous one based on fallacious assumptions that don’t account for these factors pertaining to the well-being of informed people.
Now I should say that if we had knowledge pertaining to the future of both societies we could wind up reversing our preference if, for example, it turned out that population A had a future that was likely going to turn out worse than the future of population A+ (where the most probable “well-being rating” decreased comparatively). If this was the case, then being armed with that probabilistic knowledge of the future (based on a Bayesian analysis of likely future outcomes) could force us to switch preferences. Ultimately, the way to determine which world we ought to prefer is to obtain the relevant facts about which outcome would make us most satisfied overall (in the eudaimonia sense), even if this requires further scientific investigation regarding human psychology to determine the optimized trade-off between present and future well-being.
As for comparing two populations that have the same probability for high well-being, yet with different populations (say “A” and “double A”), I would argue once again that one should assess those populations based on what the most likely future is for each population based on the facts available to us. If the larger population is more likely to be unsustainable, for example, then it stands to reason that the smaller population is what one ought to strive for (and thus prefer) over the larger one. However, if sustainability is not likely to be an issue based on the contingent facts of the societies being evaluated, then I think one ought to choose the society that has the best chances of bettering the planet as a whole through maximized stewardship over time. That is to say, if more people can more easily accomplish goals of making the world a better place, then the larger population would be what one ought to strive for since it would secure more well-being in the future for any and all conscious creatures (including ourselves). One would have to evaluate the societies they are comparing to one another for these types of factors and then make the decision accordingly. In the end, it would maximize the eudaimonia for any individual chosen at random both in that present society and in the future.
But what if we are instead comparing two populations that both have “well-being ratings” that are negative? For example what if we compare a population S containing only one person that has a well-being rating of -10 (the worst possible suffering imaginable) versus another population T containing one million people that have well-being ratings of -9 (almost the worst possible suffering)? It sure seems that if we apply the probabilistic principle I applied to the positive well being populations, that would lead to preferring a world with millions of people suffering horribly instead of a world with just one person suffering a bit more. However, this would only necessarily follow if one applied the probabilistic principle while ignoring the egoistically-based “altruistic” virtues such as compassion and reasonableness, as it pertains to that moral decision. In order to determine which world one ought to prefer over another, just as in any other moral decision, one must determine what behaviors and choices make us most satisfied as individuals (to best obtain eudaimonia). If people are generally more satisfied (perhaps universally once fully informed of the facts and reasoning rationally) in preferring to have one person suffer at a -10 level over one million people suffering at a -9 level (even if it was you or I chosen as that single person), then that is the world one ought to prefer over the other.
Once again, our preference could be reversed if we were informed that the most likely futures of these populations had their levels of suffering reversed or changed markedly. And if the scenario changed to, say, 1 million people at a -10 level versus 2 million people at a -9 level, our preferred outcomes may change as well, even if we don’t yet know what that preference ought to be (i.e. if we’re ignorant of some facts pertaining to our psychology at the present, we may think we know, even though we are incorrect due to irrational thinking or some missing facts). As always, the decision of which population or world is better depends on how much knowledge we have pertaining to those worlds (to make the most informed decision we can given our present epistemological limitations) and thus our assessment of their present and most likely future states. So even if we don’t yet know which world we ought to prefer right now (in some subset of the thought experiments we conjure up), science can find these answers (or at least give us the best shot at answering them).
After reading and commenting on a post at “A Philosopher’s Take” by James DiGiovanna titled Responsibility, Identity, and Artificial Beings: Persons, Supra-persons and Para-persons, I decided to expand on the topic of personal identity.
Personal Identity Concepts & Criteria
I think when most people talk about personal identity, they are referring to how they see themselves and how they see others in terms of personality and some assortment of (usually prominent) cognitive and behavioral traits. Basically, they see it as what makes a person unique and in some way distinguishable from another person. And even this rudimentary concept can be broken down into at least two parts, namely, how we see ourselves (self-ascribed identity) and how others see us (which we could call the inferred identity of someone else), since they are likely going to differ. While most people tend to think of identity in these ways, when philosophers talk about personal identity, they are usually referring to the unique numerical identity of a person. Roughly speaking, this amounts to basically whatever conditions or properties that are both necessary and sufficient such that a person at one point in time and a person at another point in time can be considered the same person — with a temporal continuity between those points in time.
Usually the criterion put forward for this personal identity is supposed to be some form of spatiotemporal and/or psychological continuity. I certainly wouldn’t be the first person to point out that the question of which criterion is correct has already framed the debate with the assumption that a personal (numerical) identity exists in the first place and even if it did exist, it also assumes that the criterion is something that would be determinable in some way. While it is not unfounded to believe that some properties exist that we could ascribe to all persons (simply because of what we find in common with all persons we’ve interacted with thus far), I think it is far too presumptuous to believe that there is a numerical identity underlying our basic conceptions of personal identity and a determinable criterion for it. At best, I think if one finds any kind of numerical identity for persons that persist over time, it is not going to be compatible with our intuitions nor is it going to be applicable in any pragmatic way.
As I mention pragmatism, I am sympathetic to Parfit’s views in the sense that regardless of what one finds the criteria for numerical personal identity to be (if it exists), the only thing that really matters to us is psychological continuity anyway. So despite the fact that Locke’s view — that psychological continuity (via memory) was the criterion for personal identity — was in fact shown to be based on circular and illogical arguments (per Butler, Reid and others), nevertheless I give applause to his basic idea. Locke seemed to be on the right track, in that psychological continuity (in some sense involving memory and consciousness) is really the essence of what we care about when defining persons, even if it can’t be used as a valid criterion in the way he proposed.
(Non) Persistence & Pragmatic Use of a Personal Identity Concept
I think that the search for, and long debates over, what the best criterion for personal identity is, has illustrated that what people have been trying to label as personal identity should probably be relabeled as some sort of pragmatic pseudo-identity. The pragmatic considerations behind the common and intuitive conceptions of personal identity have no doubt steered the debate pertaining to any possible criteria for helping to define it, and so we can still value those considerations even if a numerical personal identity doesn’t really exist (that is, even if it is nothing more than a pseudo-identity) and even if a diachronic numerical personal identity does exist but isn’t useful in any way.
If the object/subject that we refer to as “I” or “me” is constantly changing with every passing moment of time both physically and psychologically, then I tend to think that the self (that many people ascribe as the “agent” of our personal identity) is an illusion of some sort. I tend to side more with Hume on this point (or at least James Giles’ fair interpretation of Hume) in that my views seem to be some version of a no-self or eliminativist theory of personal identity. As Hume pointed out, even though we intuitively ascribe a self and thereby some kind of personal identity, there is no logical reason supported by our subjective experience to think it is anything but a figment of the imagination. This illusion results from our perceptions flowing from one to the next, with a barrage of changes taking place with this “self” over time that we simply don’t notice taking place — at least not without critical reflection on our past experiences of this ever-changing “self”. The psychological continuity that Locke described seems to be the main driving force behind this illusory self since there is an overlap in the memories of the succession of persons.
I think one could say that if there is any numerical identity that is associated with the term “I” or “me”, it only exists for a short moment of time in one specific spatio-temporal slice, and then as the next perceivable moment elapses, what used to be “I” will become someone else, even if the new person that comes into being is still referred to as “I” or “me” by a person that possesses roughly the same configuration of matter in its body and brain as the previous person. Since the neighboring identities have an overlap in accessible memory including autobiographical memories, memories of past experiences generally, and the memories pertaining to the evolving desires that motivate behavior, we shouldn’t expect this succession of persons to be noticed or perceived by the illusory self because each identity has access to a set of memories that is sufficiently similar to the set of memories accessible to the previous or successive identity. And this sufficient degree of similarity in those identities’ memories allow for a seemingly persistent autobiographical “self” with goals.
As for the pragmatic reasons for considering all of these “I”s and “me”s to be the same person and some singular identity over time, we can see that there is a causal dependency between each member of this “chain of spatio-temporal identities” that I think exists, and so treating that chain of interconnected identities as one being is extremely intuitive and also incredibly useful for accomplishing goals (which is likely the reason why evolution would favor brains that can intuit this concept of a persistent “self” and the near uni-directional behavior that results from it). There is a continuity of memory and behaviors (even though both change over time, both in terms of the number of memories and their accuracy) and this continuity allows for a process of conditioning to modify behavior in ways that actively rely on those chains of memories of past experiences. We behave as if we are a single person moving through time and space (and as if we are surrounded by other temporally extended single person’s behaving in similar ways) and this provides a means of assigning ethical and causal responsibility to something or more specifically to some agent. Quite simply, by having those different identities referenced under one label and physically attached to or instantiated by something localized, that allows for that pragmatic pseudo-identity to persist over time in order for various goals (whether personal or interpersonal/societal) to be accomplished.
“The Persons Problem” and a “Speciation” Analogy
I came up with an analogy that I thought was very fitting to this concept. One could analogize this succession of identities that get clumped into one bulk pragmatic-pseudo-identity with the evolutionary concept of speciation. For example, a sequence of identities somehow constitute an intuitively persistent personal identity, just as a sequence of biological generations somehow constitute a particular species due to the high degree of similarity between them all. The apparent difficulty lies in the fact that, at some point after enough identities have succeeded one another, even the intuitive conception of a personal identity changes markedly to the point of being unrecognizable from its ancestral predecessor, just as enough biological generations transpiring eventually leads to what we call a new species. It’s difficult to define exactly when that speciation event happens (hence the species problem), and we have a similar problem with personal identity I think. Where does it begin and end? If personal identity changes over the course of a lifetime, when does one person become another? I could think of “me” as the same “me” that existed one year ago, but if I go far enough back in time, say to when I was five years old, it is clear that “I” am a completely different person now when compared to that five year old (different beliefs, goals, worldview, ontology, etc.). There seems to have been an identity “speciation” event of some sort even though it is hard to define exactly when that was.
Biologists have tried to solve their species problem by coming up with various criteria to help for taxonomical purposes at the very least, but what they’ve wound up with at this point is several different criteria for defining a species that are each effective for different purposes (e.g. biological-species concept, morpho-species concept, phylogenetic-species concept, etc.), and without any single “correct” answer since they are all situationally more or less useful. Similarly, some philosophers have had a persons problem that they’ve been trying to solve and I gather that it is insoluble for similar “fuzzy boundary” reasons (indeterminate properties, situationally dependent properties, etc.).
The Role of Information in a Personal Identity Concept
Anyway, rather than attempt to solve the numerical personal identity problem, I think that philosophers need to focus more on the importance of the concept of information and how it can be used to try and arrive at a more objective and pragmatic description of the personal identity of some cognitive agent (even if it is not used as a criterion for numerical identity, since information can be copied and the copies can be distinguished from one another numerically). I think this is especially true once we take some of the concerns that James DiGiovanna brought up concerning the integration of future AI into our society.
If all of the beliefs, behaviors, and causal driving forces in a cognitive agent can be represented in terms of information, then I think we can implement more universal conditioning principles within our ethical and societal framework since they will be based more on the information content of the person’s identity without putting as much importance on numerical identity nor as much importance on our intuitions of persisting people (since they will be challenged by several kinds of foreseeable future AI scenarios).
To illustrate this point, I’ll address one of James DiGiovanna’s conundrums. James asks us:
To give some quick examples: suppose an AI commits a crime, and then, judging its actions wrong, immediately reforms itself so that it will never commit a crime again. Further, it makes restitution. Would it make sense to punish the AI? What if it had completely rewritten its memory and personality, so that, while there was still a physical continuity, it had no psychological content in common with the prior being? Or suppose an AI commits a crime, and then destroys itself. If a duplicate of its programming was started elsewhere, would it be guilty of the crime? What if twelve duplicates were made? Should they each be punished?
In the first case, if the information constituting the new identity of the AI after reprogramming is such that it no longer needs any kind of conditioning, then it would be senseless to punish the AI — other than to appease humans that may be angry that they couldn’t themselves avoid punishment in this way, due to having a much slower and less effective means of reprogramming themselves. I would say that the reprogrammed AI is guilty of the crime, but only if its reprogrammed memory still included information pertaining to having performed those past criminal behaviors. However, if those “criminal memories” are now gone via the reprogramming then I’d say that the AI is not guilty of the crime because the information constituting its identity doesn’t match that of the criminal AI. It would have no recollection of having committed the crime and so “it” would not have committed the crime since that “it” was lost in the reprogramming process due to the dramatic change in information that took place.
In the latter scenario, if the information constituting the identity of the destroyed AI was re-instantiated elsewhere, then I would say that it is in fact guilty of the crime — though it would not be numerically guilty of the crime but rather qualitatively guilty of the crime (to differentiate between the numerical and qualitative personal identity concepts that are embedded in the concept of guilt). If twelve duplicates of this information were instantiated into new AI hardware, then likewise all twelve of those cognitive agents would be qualitatively guilty of the crime. What actions should be taken based on qualitative guilt? I think it means that the AI should be punished or more specifically that the judicial system should perform the reconditioning required to modify their behavior as if it had committed the crime (especially if the AI believes/remembers that it has committed the crime), for the better of society. If this can be accomplished through reprogramming, then that would be the most rational thing to do without any need for traditional forms of punishment.
We can analogize this with another thought experiment with human beings. If we imagine a human that has had its memories changed so that it believes it is Charles Manson, has all of Charles Manson’s memories and intentions, then that person should be treated as if they are Charles Manson and thus incarcerated/punished accordingly to rehabilitate them or protect the other members of society. This is assuming of course that we had reliable access to that kind of mind-reading knowledge. If we did, the information constituting the identity of that person would be what is most important — not what the actual previous actions of the person were — because the “previous person” was someone else, due to that gross change in information.
My sincerest condolences go out to all the victims and the friends and families of those victims in the Orlando (“Pulse”) night-club shooting. While it is still uncertain and under investigation whether or not there were any ties between the shooter (whom I won’t bother naming) and some Islamic extremist organization, there was in fact a proclaimed allegiance to such an organization voiced by the shooter himself to the police prior to the incident. Even if no direct ties are found between the shooter and this or any other radical Islamic extremist organization, the possibility will remain that this was a “self-radicalized” or “self-actualized” Jihadist Muslim. The man very likely knew that he was going to die one way or another that night (by police or otherwise) and so a belief in martyrdom and in an eternal paradise after death would have been perhaps the most powerful reason to not care about the consequences. And a person believing that they are carrying out the wishes of an invisible magic man in the sky, and that are doing so in order to achieve eternal paradise, has more than enough motive to commit this kind of heinous act.
Obviously we don’t know what the man was thinking and can’t confirm his alleged motives, but if we take any of his own words seriously, then this is yet another incident that demands that the difficult religious conversation that many people want to avoid be opened further. A conversation involving the topic of reforming Islam with the secular moderates that claim membership in that religion, and a conversation involving a recognition that when those religious texts are plainly read in their entirety, they clearly advocate for violence and oppression against non-believers. There may be some good messages in those texts, as there are in just about any book — but to deny the heinous contents that also exist in those very same texts and to deny the real religious motivations of these murderers who are inspired by those texts is nothing but intellectual dishonesty and delusion.
Regressive liberals aren’t making things any easier as they throw out accusations of racism and bigotry even in cases where it is only the religious ideas themselves that are being criticized, with no mention of any race or ethnicity. That has to stop too. It’s true that many conservatives that are also racists and bigots and that have racist motives behind their anti-Islamic agenda, are also some of the same conservatives that are mentioning the dangerous ideas in Islam. But as an intellectually honest liberal myself, I can both recognize and abhor those racist motives common to many conservative social and political circles, yet also agree with some of those conservatives’ claims pertaining to the dangers of certain Islamic religious ideas.
I suspect that one of the reasons for the origin of the regressive liberal movement and its commitment to eliminating any and all criticism of Islam is that it has conflated the racism and bigotry directed at Muslims that is often coming from conservatives (including political clowns like Donald Trump), with the criticism against Islamic ideas that make no mention of race. I suspect that because many of these anti-Islamic claims are also coming from the same conservative sphere, that regressive liberals have unfortunately lumped all anti-Islamic claims into the same category (some form of racism and bigotry against Islam), when those two kinds of claims should be in entirely different categories. There are criticisms of Islamic ideas that have nothing to do with race and there are criticisms of Muslims that are clearly racist — and the latter is what liberals and everyone should continue to fight against. But the former type of criticisms are simply a part of a reasoned discussion on the topic and one that needs to take place in the public sphere. I have propagated the former type of criticisms (based on reason and evidence, not prejudice or racism) and I have seen many other free-thinker and humanist advocates do so as well.
Bottom line — we have to begin to talk more about the dangers of believing in and relying on faith, dogma, revelation, and any other belief system not grounded on reason and evidence. These epistemological “methods” are not only demonstrably unreliable and fallacious, but they are also being high-jacked by various terrorist organizations that have their own aims. Even if the leaders of a dangerous extremist organization don’t actually believe in the religious ideas that they proclaim as their motivation, they know that if others do, and if others are already willing to die for their faith and to do it for such compelling reasons as eternal paradise, then those leaders can get people to commit heinous acts. As Voltaire once said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can also make you commit atrocities.” These words of wisdom still apply, even if the leaders that (initially) spread those absurdities don’t believe them. Now I think that many of the leaders that spread these ideas do believe them, but I’m betting that there are also many that do not. If people begin to see the dangers of faith and dogma and are instilled with an ultimate appreciation and priority of reason and evidence, then these radical recruitments will be far less effective if not rendered entirely ineffective.
Religious ideas don’t get a free pass from criticism just because people hold them to be sacred. Because, sacred or not, the reality is that this kind of muddled thinking can and has ended many innocent people’s lives throughout human history. Bad ideas have bad consequences and it doesn’t matter where those bad ideas come from. Despite the fact that we are living in a post-enlightenment age, not everyone has accepted that paradigm shift yet. We must keep trying to spread the fruits of the enlightenment for the good of humanity. It is our moral obligation to do so.