Wednesday, May 30, 2012


The more ideological and the more emotion-based a belief is, the more likely it is that contrary evidence will be ineffective.
Robert Todd Carroll

There are times when evidence and logic persuade, and minds are changed. But those instances rarely extend to beliefs that are heavily laden with emotion and meaning. Beliefs that underlie a person's worldview - what I call "weight-bearing" beliefs - are particularly unlikely to be changed by evidence or reason.

In fact, beliefs that bear important weight in a person's identity or meaning structure are likely to be strengthened by contrary evidence, in a cognitive phenomenon known as the backfire effect. Hearing bad things about your political party makes you support it more. Evidence that your cult leader is a fraud (such as a predicted cataclysm failing to arrive) makes you even more loyal to him. This is only surprising to the degree that we conceive of reasoning as a tool for discovering the truth. The backfire effect is entirely predictable from the modern view that reason's function is almost purely social.

Unfortunately, the most interesting, important epistemic problems are precisely those that are wrapped up in emotion, those in which beliefs underlie meaning structures and identity. Suicide, birth, and the meaning of life are such problems. None of us humans (myself of course included) can approach these problems without beliefs we already strongly hold warping our investigation, selecting the facts that must be explained by the theory and those which may be ignored (largely unconsciously), and even determining whether a conclusion feels logical or absurd.

Even when it seems to all of us that a question has a correct answer, we are likely to continue to disagree as to what the correct answer is. As for the important questions, it is not a matter of updating on the right facts. Questions about the meaning and/or desirability of life are, for practical purposes, like theological arguments: solutions carry with them a higher degree of uncertainty than is felt by the holder of the belief.

To the extent that we care about truth, evidence of an epistemic peer who disagrees with us should cause us to have greater uncertainty in our previous belief. Ironically, in reality, disagreement seems to cause us to hold our belief with even more certainty than before. Our natural mental processes seem to be serving purposes other than the pursuit of truth, and often purposes in direct opposition to truth.

Uncertainty is an important part of our picture of the world. It has important consequences: the more uncertain we are in our conclusions, the less drastic action may be justified by them. If we are less than absolutely sure of our conclusions, we should avoid, for instance, excommunicating, exiling, imprisoning, torturing, or killing based on these conclusions. Unfortunately, uncertainty is cognitively difficult to maintain; our minds, it seems, do not have a natural uncertainty function, and tend to reduce complexity to comfortable certainty. Nature has its own reasons why certainty should be comfortable for us, and they are not necessarily our deepest reasons. They are not necessarily based on compassion, charity, and love for the expanding circle; least of all are they based on love of truth. Our squirrel brains treat disagreement as a fight in which we might use all kinds of underhanded tactics in order to win, including molding our actions and policies toward supporting our preferred view of reality.

Since maintaining appropriate uncertainty is not natural to us, if we want to behave charitably and rationally, we must consciously cultivate uncertainty where appropriate. More importantly, we must attend to the real-world consequences of this uncertainty by avoiding the natural tendency to use acts and policies as weapons in support of our beliefs. Given our limited capability for undestanding the world, a just world is one in which no one is forced to suffer for beliefs he doesn't hold. It is fine, I think, to admire the emperor's majestic outfit, but it is a grave mistake to imprison those who claim not to see it.

In sum:

(Charity response)
Disagreement Uncertainty Charity in acts and policies respecting uncertainty
(Fight response)
Disagreement Greater certainty Weaponization of acts and policies to promote our side's view

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cold Reading and the Meaning of Life

The high value we place on truth and rationality puts us in a difficult position. A broad body of evidence points to the conclusion that self-deception plays an important part in being happy and finding life meaningful. If both happiness and meaning on the one hand, and truth and rationality on the other, are valuable, how do we resolve the deep conflict between them?

The first step is acknowledging that a conflict exists, and few are inclined to go even this far. However, it is becoming more common for writers to acknowledge that self-deception helps us in various ways, and that a purely accurate appraisal of reality can be harmful to us. Robert Todd Carroll, a righteous skeptic, acknowledges the benefits of the illusion of control and posits that we might be able to get some of the benefits without selling our souls to the faith healer, but wonders how far this limited acceptance of deception might go:

I suppose we could make it a rule that the illusion of control isn't a bad thing as long as it doesn't lead to delusional thinking that results in harm to oneself or others. If we did make that a rule, what would we then say about financial advisers who convince their clients that their system of economic forecasting is a good bet? Are these folks in the same category as people who pray instead of having their child's diabetes treated by a medical doctor?

Once we allow some amount of self-deception in the door for its instrumental benefit, how do we keep it from infecting everything? Perhaps more importantly, once we become admitted deceivers, what standing do we have to cast stones at more egregious deceivers?

Religious folks are even in touch with the conflict, at least as far as it concerns the secular world. Ross Douthat lampoons secular liberalism's lack of grounding in a base value; presumably, he is able to do this because he is comfortable that God really exists as a base value in Douthat's own system. Regardless of his beliefs, what Douthat is pointing out is the function, the instrumental value, of a God or other (pretend) final value upon which all other values, beliefs, acts, and stories may be based. I agree with Douthat that such a base value has an important function; my only disagreement is that such a value (God, in this case) exists.

In The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking (ordered, but I haven't read it yet), Matthew Hutson seems to come down firmly on the side of using self-deception for our benefit. I am interested to see how he proposes to keep us from deceiving ourselves as to precisely what "our benefit" is - not to mention that of others.

Which brings us to cold reading. Why cold reading works is subjective validation: subjects motivated to find meaning in random pronouncements tend to be able to do so. Given vague stimuli - the letter H, the month of May - most subjects are able to think of meaningful events in their lives to link it to. This is, I propose, exactly the same process by which people find meaning in life - interpreting random events in such a way as to feel that they have meaning and fit into a story, confabulating and ignoring evidence as necessary to make the story fit. An observer of humans not committed to the value of truth and factual accuracy might find even label this process healthy.

My challenge to the defender of both truth and meaning is how to distinguish this "healthy" process of finding meaning in life from the process of being a sucker in a cold reading. Or, perhaps, is John Edwards a great benefactor of humanity?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Suicide as Constructive Trust

Is suicide unethical? Viewed narrowly, suicide ends the suffering of the person who chooses to die, but also imposes suffering on those who loved or depended on that person and had an expectation that he or she would continue to live. Suicide does seem to cause serious harm to those left behind. Death from other causes (the inevitable conclusion of a life that doesn't end by suicide) causes suffering to them as well, but can't be blamed on the dying person. In fact, death from other causes is often seen as a harm to the dying person; even if death is sudden and not painful, the dying person's hopes and expectations for future life are thwarted.

In a sense, then, suicide is an involuntary transfer of well-being from those who love the suicidal person to the suicidal person himself. Involuntary transfers (in certain circumstances, called "theft") are broadly proscribed as unethical. In economic terms, involuntary transfers are suspect because there is little assurance that the transaction benefits both parties on net.

However, there are some circumstances in which the law, as well as economics, favors involuntary transfers: when the involuntary transfer is necessary to right a wrong. One circumstance in which this happens is quasi-contract (also known as unjustified enrichment); when someone receives a benefit at another's expense and it would be unjust to let him keep it without paying, the law makes him pay, even though he didn't agree to pay for it. My perennial example in my contract law class is that your neighbor has ordered a pool to be built behind his house while he's on vacation. The contractors mistake his address for yours and begin building a pool in your back yard; you say nothing, but happily watch the contractors build the pool. When they're done and ask for payment, you say, "nice of you to build a pool there, but I didn't order one!" You'd likely be legally required to pay for the reasonable value of the (un-ordered) pool, because allowing you to keep it without paying would be unjust, especially since you could have easily stopped the process of building.

Another circumstance in which involuntary transfer is legally favored is the constructive trust. When a wrongdoer illegally acquires the property of another (such as through theft), the wrongdoer is said not to acquire legal ownership of the property; instead, he holds it "in trust" for the rightful owner. This is called a constructive trust, and it is a legal fiction that recognizes that an involuntary transfer at some point might be necessary to right a past involuntary transfer. Constructive trust may even affect holders of stolen property who were not themselves the thieves, if they benefitted from the thief's crime.

Suicide, then, is the involuntary transfer of ill-gotten gains. The person who wishes to die was robbed of utility by being born; he is taking back his own neutral "negative bliss" state from those who robbed him of it and their transferees. Even though one's friends and relatives other than lineal acestors did nothing to cause one's birth, they have in essence benefitted from a wrong, to the extent that creating a suffering person is a wrong against that person.

Similarly, transferees of a swindler can be expected to repay the swindler's victims to the extent of their benefit, even though the transferees themselves weren't the thieves.

Ultimately, involuntary transfers (such as thefts and births) may be best prevented by a policy that allows involuntary transfers away from beneficiaries of these original involuntary transfers.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Not All Births Are The Same

Are antinatalist types just depressed? This is a common response from laypeople learning about antinatalism, and I think it is worth considering the relationship of affect to morality.

To a normal, healthy, cheery person, life seems so clearly worthwhile that the AN position seems downright pathological - exactly the way the pro-birth position can come to seem pathological to a committed AN. Of course, the former position carries more weight in our society because of the medicalization of depression; I would venture that most people who have never experienced severe depression, and even some who have, conceive of depression as a curable medical condition. The positions are not treated as having equal weight, not only because the cheery position is more common, but because the sad position is pathologized as a departure from healthy, rational thinking.

Of course, even psychiatrists admit that not all depression is curable. The kind of depression that the DSM-II used to call endogenous depression - the kind of life-long, severe, probably hereditary depression that I have - is particularly intractable.

Even if we define this type of depression as a pathological departure from rationality, it remains the case that it is an often incurable, extremely painful condition. Viewed from its lens, life does not seem obviously worthwhile at all; quite the opposite.

It is interesting that two types of people with radically different stable affects come to radically different conclusions about the worth-it-ness of life. Is it possible that the morality of creating life is determined by the eventual affect of the created person?

This seems to be what pro-lifers claim when they want to weigh the pleasures of life against its suffering. But there are some folks - let's say we're a small minority - for whom life is mostly experienced as suffering. If it is sometimes okay to create living beings who will experience more pleasure than pain, isn't it just as wrong to create living beings for whom suffering will outweigh pleasure?

Not all births are the same. The ethical harm involved in creating a person may be felt by the person to be great, or may be felt as negligible or even negative (i.e., many feel benefited). It's as if there is a Euclidean and a non-Euclidean morality, depending on affect.

But does this not all mean that we should, at a minimum, avoid creating depressed people? People receive genetic counseling mostly for selfish reasons - to make sure their child will not have a disorder that makes it hard to care for or disappointing. However, it would be of great benefit to potential people like me if people received genetic counseling geared toward the happiness of future offspring. My proposition: it's extremely wrong to create a depressed person, and the fact that research and screening are not directed toward preventing likely-depressed people from being born shows that the entire reproduction industry cares not a whit for the suffering of those it causes to be born.

If you are a cheery person who thinks it's okay to create people, or if you know someone like this, what do you/they think of creating people who are likely to experience severe depression?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Rational Suicide Under Prohibition

In a previous post, I proposed a psychological theory as to why people believe that suicide is easy, in the face of evidence to the contrary.

In this post, I'll analyze the decisions faced by a would-be suicide under the kind of suicide prohibition in force in developed countries today. The modern suicide prohibition can be summarized as follows:

  1. Anyone caught attempting suicide will be hospitalized in a degrading, humiliating manner.
  2. Anyone caught attempting suicide will have his injuries forcibly treated and will be kept alive against his will.
  3. Since barbiturates are illegal, available suicide methods mostly require inflicting extremely unpleasant trauma on oneself, such as by jumping off a tall building, shooting oneself in the head, cutting one's arteries, or hanging oneself.
  4. A person who attempts suicide by trauma and fails may experience sequelae that render his quality of life much worse than the original worse-than-death quality of life he experienced before the attempt.
  5. A person who attempts suicide by trauma and fails may render himself unable to end his life in the future because of injury.
  6. Anyone who renders assistance to the suicidal person (such as by holding the dying person's hand and watching to make sure the person dies as planned) may be prosecuted for the crime of assisting a suicide.

It is often convenient for cheery folks (and even cranky old Richard Posner) to model the decision to commit suicide as if the only variable were expected quality of life pre-suicide, and to implicitly treat the probability of successful suicide (given an attempt) as 1. If future quality of life (summed over the expected lifespan) is less than zero (and present quality of life is less than zero), one should, in this naive view, commit suicide; else don't.

This naive model ignores the considerations outlined above: given even a small probability of failure, the downsides to failure (injury, paralysis, hospitalization) may make it rational to suffer through a quality of life that is significantly worse than the zero-value of death. In fact, the unpleasantness of the method itself may have this effect as well (I am certainly not looking forward to jumping off a bridge if it comes to that; would you want your sick grandma to have to do that?).

Many Choices

Another aspect of the problem is that the would-be suicide faces not just a single decision (suicide or no), but a never-ending series of decisions: suicide now, or wait an interval of time and face the same problem again after that interval. Again, given either a nonzero chance of failure or extreme unpleasantness of methods available, and on the other hand given the possibility of future change (e.g., you might meet a shady character with access to the appropriate pharmaceuticals), it may be the welfare-maximizing choice even for a suffering individual to stick it out for another day. In the moment, the cost of waiting another day might rarely exceed the cost of jumping off a bridge, or the (negative) expected value of the small probability of waking up with akinetic mutism while medical experiments are performed on one.

The Only One That Wakes Up Is You

Ordinary calculations of the expected value of continuing to live versus making a suicide attempt assume high comparability between the zero-state of successful death and the hugely negative welfare one would experience if one were to survive an attempt. There is an important intuitive difference: if successful, no one experiences the (desirable) zero-value of death; your experiencing self simply stops. On the other hand, if the attempt fails, someone - YOURSELF - experiences the misery of post-attempt hospitalization, injury, paralysis, and the like.

In Denis Johnson's novel Already Dead: A California Gothic, a suicidal character walks into a pond to drown himself, but is unexpectedly "rescued." From this, he concludes that he will exist perpetually, that his conscious, observing self will somehow find the path among the Many Worlds that allows him to survive - a bit like the narrator in Greg Egan's novel Quarantine, minus the quantum trappings. In a less mystical sense, if you attempt suicide, the only future you can expect to wake up into is a future in which you have failed. The only future self that exists is the suffering future self of the worst case scenario. Even if this is a mathematically tiny probability, it is the only future self that exists - the same you who longs to shrug off the present suffering would bear the heavy consequences of failure. (There is something about a conscious observer waking up that boggles the mind, as Sleeping Beauty halfers and thirders alike must admit.)

A suicide wants to avoid the suffering he experiences now. But if he fails, he will have made it much worse; and the only future he'll be awake for is the one in which it's much worse. In an environment of suicide prohibition, we cannot be at all certain that the people walking around today experience positive utility. Many people who experience extreme suffering and want to die nonetheless rationally choose to keep living, under the current regime. Isn't the reason for all this prohibition precisely that society expects many people to have expected utility so low that they want to die?

For those concerned with suffering, comfortable suicide is low-hanging fruit. If we ended the suicide prohibition to (a) allow comfortable, reliable suicide by barbiturates and (b) decriminalize the "assistance" of suicide, we could be much more certain that people are alive because they genuinely want to be. The easier it is to exit, the less harmful is the creation of a conscious entity.

Friday, May 4, 2012


As my readers know, my formal education has been heavy on STEM and light on humanities. My first exposure to critical theory was in high school, researching a paper on Wuthering Heights; in the local university library, I found incomprehensible papers full of Freudian jargon that seemed to have nothing to do with the novel. So when the Sokal thing happened in my first year of college, I was happy to accept the conclusion that the entire field was a farce with nothing to offer. Not until recently did I develop a good understanding of the term "deconstructed" as used in critical theory.

Of course, we right-thinking people regularly (if a little facetiously) use the term "deconstructed" in a limited sense relating to food. In this sense, it means that the components of the dish have been separated and put back together in a new order. So deconstructed apple pie might be something like foamed apple caramelized into a cracker, topped with wheat pudding and cinnamon sorbet.

It turns out that the food sense of "deconstructed" is not the interesting sense. To deconstruct something means to remove from it the layers of meaning that are applied to it by society and culture. Euphemisms often contain a layer of "construction" - one might deconstruct the concept of "home" by removing its meaning-layers to reveal it as just a house. "Starting a family" might be deconstructed into having a baby. Most things we use or speak of have many layers of human meaning applied to them, and deconstructing them means stripping away the meaning-layers to reveal the substance the meaning has been applied to. Marriage is often deconstructed (by those who oppose its sentimentalization or governmental regulation) as merely "a piece of paper," for instance.

Deconstruction is a concept that deserves to be used. We should be able to speak about the meaning applied to objects and relationships, including the fact that such meaning-layers exist. Deconstruction is not limited to the boring sense of taking something apart. In the proper sense, deconstructed apple pie is Daniel Chong drinking his own urine in a holding cell after DEA agents arrested him for using drugs and then abandoned him for five days without food or water.

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