Archives for posts with tag: Plato

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow describes one of the capabilities of our automatic brain functioning as being able to match intensities between two completely irrelevant things. Lucky for me, the example that he uses is crime and punishment:

If crimes were colors, murder would be a deeper shade of red than theft. If crimes were expressed as music, mass murder would be played fortissimo while accumulating unpaid parking tickets would be a faint pianissimo. And of course you have similar feelings about the intensity of punishments. In classic experiments, people adjusted the loudness of a sound to the severity of crimes; other people adjusted loudness to the severity of legal punishments. If you heard two notes, one for the crime and one for the punishment, you would feel a sense of injustice if one tone was much louder than the other.

For those of you who have read Deuteronomy, this sounds an awful lot like an eye for an eye. We want the intensity of a crime to match the intensity of its punishment, but unfortunately, this thinking is automatic and wholly irrational. This is easy to see when you consider that a tonal range should in no way be responsible for the judicial bedrock of a civilization.

Further problems arise with this method of justice in other areas which Kahneman investigates. Automatic thinking is prone to extreme bias, and one of these biases is anchoring. Anchoring is an estimation being influenced by an offered baseline. For example, when estimating the price of a painting, and being shown on an irrelevant slip of paper the number 10, the estimation will be closer to the number 10 than if that irrelevant number was 100 (where the estimation would be higher). It’s why haggling salespeople will always start their initial offer extremely high as this baseline will strongly influence the buyer’s counteroffer. Relating this back to justice, if we assign the punishment of murder to being drawn, quartered, and mounted on a pike on the intensity scale, then it seems somewhat reasonable that a punishment for bank robbing might be getting one’s hands chopped off. If our baseline for murder was lower at say, 25 years to life in a modest correctional facility, then robbing banks might get 5 years or so in a similar institution. Our baseline scale of intensity will anchor how we determine what is an appropriate punishment for any given crime.

Another bias of our automatic thinking system is priming. A study Kahneman refers to shows that individuals who are exposed to words that signify being elderly, even without explicitly stating it, will actually cause them to physically slow down. The same is true with being exposed to symbols of money causing people to act more selfishly. Human beings are incredibly susceptible to subconscious influences, so if, for example, one person was exposed to the shooting of Philando Castile, while another was exposed to the subsequent shooting of the Dallas police officers, you can imagine the views they might have on the intensity of certain crimes and their reflective punishment.

Demanding an eye for an eye is thus entirely arbitrary, and therefore pointless to enforce, yet people clamour for it all the time. I don’t want to attribute this stupidity to visceral animality just yet, so let’s go back to Deuteronomy for a bit.

You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

I suppose that the eye for an eye is supposed to warn others to avoid following the criminal path. Nobody wants to lose an eye; it’s when things stop being fun and games, after all!  Except punishment has never been a deterrent. Harm actually perpetuates the opposite of justice, further destabilizing its already tenuous hold. Plato dismisses harm, even against one’s enemies, as plain preposterous. He compares it to harming a horse, as harming a horse reduces its capacity to be an excellent horse. Similarly, harming a person reduces their capacity to be an excellent person, and if we consider justice to be a form of human excellence, then punishment actually increases injustice. To show its true absurdity, I thus quote: “Will good men use their goodness to make others bad? It is not the function of heat to cool things, but of its opposite.” I’ve explained why punishment is barbaric on top of stupid before, for those seeking greater confirmation.

Plato offers another insight into the eye for an eye metaphor, asking us to consider justice as the settling of a debt. If something is taken, it must be returned in kind. This is a somewhat more civilized version, but it is just as quickly disregarded as Plato says that if someone lends you a weapon, and then falls into a murderous rage, it is not just to return to them their weapon. The context both of the initial contract, and the circumstances of its fruition, are both dependent on factors outside of the contract itself that make it just. A debt incurred out of necessity or coercion, for example, or a payment demanded at an inopportune moment are both insufficient to be declared a form of justice.

No matter how you look at it, eye for an eye justice is only ever an excuse to act out our sickest fantasies. It’s probably why Jesus Christ decided to get rid of it as a religious tenet:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

So unless you’re Jewish, any religious excuse is irrelevant. However, we still clamour for a providence of violent retribution. A perfect example is Vince Li, who brutally murdered and cannibalized the man sitting next to him on a Greyhound bus because he believed that God was telling him to do so. Li was declared not criminally responsible due to mental illness, and so the population expressed through various comment sections that Vince Li needed to die. I suppose they claim the same right to divinely ordained violence as Li, only they do not have a mental illness justifying their frothing wrath. People tend to place the responsibility for their sadism at the feet of the original victim and their family if not at the feet of God, as if granting them the right to schadenfreude is the perfect means for healing. Vengeance is no form of justice, no matter whose name it is done under.

What is justice, then? Well, I’ve already answered that one. Those of you who have read that earlier article can feel smug for knowing the answer this whole time.

One of the things people care about more than anything else in the world is ancient Greek philosophy. At parties, the person surrounded by the most rapt of audiences is the one describing their perspective on Epicureanism and its virtuous hedonism. Pestering a first date like a gadfly, inquiring into the nature of justice, is a surefire way to get them to suggest you drink hemlock; a celebratory homage to the father of Western philosophy, and a guaranteed second date if you can survive the hemlock. These are all true facts, but how did I learn that they are true facts? This is my very clever segue into Meno’s paradox, a conundrum spoken by Meno in Plato’s dialogue, the Meno.

If you know something, inquiry is unnecessary. If you don’t know something, inquiry is impossible. We can’t seek out something we don’t know about, and why would we bother trying to learn about something we already know? For example, if you didn’t know that Socrates was condemned to death for impiety and corrupting the youth, and willingly drank the poisonous hemlock as an act of defiance against willful ignorance, then how would you ever learn? Especially if you didn’t even know who Socrates was? Alternatively, since we’re all eager amateur historians of philosophy here, and you have a full understanding of the political embarrassment Socrates caused the powerful Athenian elites which contributed to his execution, then you reading all this again is redundant and pointless.

And yet, if you didn’t know, you have now learned these things. How on Earth did you resolve the paradox? Of course, maybe I lied or was too convoluted in my explanation, and you have come away with an imperfect belief. Or maybe history is hard to translate after 2500 years and some details are surely lost to the point where any story about the life of Socrates is essentially fiction. How do you know?

Plato’s solution is a theory of recollection. Human beings possess eternal souls, and being eternal, have an omniscient understanding of the universe. We know things because when we reflect on a subject, we can acquire a fraction of the infinite understanding that has a certain feel of knowledge that separates it from belief. However, I expect that there are fewer of you who would authentically subscribe to a dead mythology than who would willingly accept the inherent sexiness of Greek philosophy, so we’ll have to do better than that.

Plato’s theory is not entirely ridiculous, and instinctual knowledge, such as a baby knowing to suckle when things are put into its mouth, could be interpreted as biological memory of evolutionary development. Our primal drives are not learned in the traditional sense, but acquired through the collective mode of our very being. This kind of knowledge, however, does not include much of what we consider worth knowing.

There are actually eight ways of knowing with varying degrees of credibility relative to the infinite wisdom of an eternal soul: language, sense perception, emotion, reason, imagination, faith, intuition, and memory. Let’s go through them to see how we know what we know.

Language: You are reading this and possibly learning things based entirely on your ability to understand language. The words we have represent things in the world, and being able to name a thing or a concept allows us to discuss it. Of course, language is complicated, subjective, socially constructed and ultimately ambiguous in its communication (think of how many text messages are misconstrued because of their foundation grounded solely in language).

Sense perception: If you think about it, the only way you’re even able to read these words is because you have working eyeballs or maybe you’re listening to this on a text-to-speech program. We intake worldly experiences through our senses: taste, hearing, sight, smell, touch, and seeing dead people. Now, the senses are heavily flawed and human beings are rubbish at sensory input compared to other animals, so typically we utilize the sensory input of others to verify whether our perceptions are real or imagined. The addition of intrinsically flawed data does not seem to be the best format for gaining knowledge and really sounds more like it would compound the problem rather than ameliorate it, so let’s keep going.

Emotion: I’m following a list given by this website, so if you’re wondering why I just went from one of the most defensible positions in the accumulation of knowledge to probably one of the least, that’s why. When we experience an event, we typically respond emotionally to it, giving us an impression of how that event relates to us. However, let’s think about the movie What Dreams May Come. It’s a movie that moved me deeply, but those emotions are based entirely on a fiction. The reality of that film was actors in a studio surrounded by lights, cameras, microphones, and dozens of people bustling about to create that fiction. My emotional response is so far gone from the reality of what actually was happening in What Dreams May Come that to credit it as an indicator of knowing something about the world is absurd. My emotional response is going to be my interpretation about what is presented directly toward me, regardless of the inner contexts that might be contributing to that presentation. Also there is bias, subjectivity, etc. etc. It is a bad way to know things, is what I’m driving at.

Reason: There are two types of reason: deductive and inductive. Deductive reasoning is A=B, B=C, therefore A=C.  So, for example, all dogs have fur, Rex is a dog, therefore Rex has fur. This method of logic is entirely based on the veracity of its premises. Another example: all pit bulls are vicious, Rex is a pit bull, therefore Rex is vicious. This is valid based on the premises, but how do we know about the premises? #NotAllPitBulls. Induction is coming to a conclusion based on the repetition of observations; A has always appeared to lead to B, therefore A causes B. So dogs have fur (based on the social understanding of what ‘dog’ means) because every instance of a dog I’ve seen before has fur. You’ll notice that reason is heavily influenced by the already discussed, incredibly fallible empiricism of the senses. In addition, it is a shaky assumption that just because something has happened before it necessarily must happen again. This comic does a good job of looking at reason as a way of knowing, and has the line, “If man had not first experienced the sky, he never could have deduced the clouds from nothing!” which again shows how dependent reason is on the senses for its viability as a way of knowing.

Imagination: The explanation given for this one is if we think of a lemon or a lime, we can imagine what each tastes like and then infer which is more sour. This creates sensation without the sensory input. Alternatively, there is propositional imaginings, where one can imagine scenarios and infer information based on those imaginings. I mean, I guess this is kind of a knowledge, but it’s speculation based on memory at best, and not really a true way of knowing.

Faith: This is really just an extreme form of belief. I don’t know why they included it since knowing by definition is antithetical to faith.

Intuition: Intuition would be interesting to consider under a mythological pretext that I’m sure Plato would enjoy discussing, but the current common consensus is that what we know as intuition is the observations of our subconscious recognizing trends in the world and suggesting them to our brain before we consciously can perceive anything. Somehow I doubt that our subconscious observations are much better than our conscious ones, as they are still relying on sensory input, so unfortunately gut feelings aren’t all that great at being a way of knowing either.

Memory: The definition given by my go-to website here defines memory as “the faculty which allows us to retain information and reconstruct past experiences.” This is obviously a better definition than what I would have given as, “the tool with which we remember things we already knew.” My definition is a redundant way of knowing, and the website’s definition is probably worse since it is reconstructing past experiences, which in turn further degrades the already imperfect, original sensory input.

Holy fuck that was exhausting. Plus, we have even more problems than flawed ways of knowing. When I described language, your first thought was surely, “If language is subjective and socially constructed, then how do we even know what we mean when we say the word knowledge?” And you’d be absolutely correct. What is it to know something? Commonly, we interpret knowledge as a justified true belief. Knowledge is believing something based on some degree of evidence that matches with the reality of the world. Sounds legit. Enter Edmund Gettier.

The Gettier Problem is more thematic than specific, and it asks us to consider a shepherd who looks out at a hill and sees his sheep. However, this is actually a dog that looks like a sheep from afar, and isn’t his sheep at all. His sheep is on the other side of the hill, just out of view. This farmer may believe that his sheep is on the hill, which is as justified based on his observations and is indeed true, but his knowledge is still based on a falsity. Or a person who looks at a clock, sees that it is 2 o’clock at a time when it is indeed two o’clock, but does not realize that the clock had stopped exactly 12 hours earlier. Gettier’s actual problem is quite silly compared to these more reasonable ones, even though it still carries the main thrust of the argument. Here it is just so you can have a laugh:

Suppose that Smith and Jones have applied for a certain job. And suppose that Smith has strong evidence for the following conjunctive proposition: (d) Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket.
Smith’s evidence for (d) might be that the president of the company assured him that Jones would in the end be selected, and that he, Smith, had counted the coins in Jones’s pocket ten minutes ago. Proposition (d) entails: (e) The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.
Let us suppose that Smith sees the entailment from (d) to (e), and accepts (e) on the grounds of (d), for which he has strong evidence. In this case, Smith is clearly justified in believing that (e) is true.
But imagine, further, that unknown to Smith, he himself, not Jones, will get the job. And, also, unknown to Smith, he himself has ten coins in his pocket. Proposition (e) is then true, though proposition (d), from which Smith inferred (e), is false. In our example, then, all of the following are true: (i) (e) is true, (ii) Smith believes that (e) is true, and (iii) Smith is justified in believing that (e) is true. But it is equally clear that Smith does not know that (e) is true; for (e) is true in virtue of the number of coins in Smith’s pocket, while Smith does not know how many coins are in Smith’s pocket, and bases his belief in (e) on a count of the coins in Jones’s pocket, whom he falsely believes to be the man who will get the job

So not only are all the ways of knowing flawed in some fundamental way, but knowledge itself is indistinguishable from falsehood given the proper circumstances. This is all the more apparent when we consider the contrasting sources of knowledge that one can acquire via their Facebook newsfeed.  This Wall Street Journal algorithm pits the two realities of democrats and republicans against one another to show just how different they are. The bubbles we create around ourselves only feed us one side of the story, and when falsity stands side by side with reality, identical in every appearance, even without the purposefully fake news stories we still can only ever be uncertain about our knowledge and how we attained it, lest we fall victim to blind dogmatism.

So how do we get from one end of Meno’s Paradox to the other? We don’t, it seems. The best we can hope for is to continue learning, remaining skeptical of our own ideologies, open to new avenues of thought because being certain only proves our ignorance.

Regardless of whether you think he’s the only legitimate use of Godwin’s law, Donald Trump’s success has turned politics into the real-life circus that newspaper cartoonists have been prophetically satirizing for decades. I won’t bother explaining why Donald Trump is terrible. I figure if you’re a supporter of Trump and you’ve miraculously stumbled across this blog, your literacy levels would have prevented you from progressing past the word “legitimate”, and you have already given up reading. Thus it’s a safe bet we’re all in political agreement so far.

Where we might differ is that I don’t believe that Donald Trump is the failure of democracy, but the culmination of it. Plato in his Republic decries democracy as pandering to the masses, where the success of a leader is determined not by their ability to lead or their wisdom, but by their ability to appeal to the bulk of the people. Considering the Greeks invented the damn thing, it seems that even in its infancy democracy has borne the seed of the pupating Trump.

Donald Trump is unique among politicians in that he isn’t one. Trump is heralded as a man who brazenly speaks his mind among sleazy, lying politicians. Except Trump makes just as many false promises as those sleazy politicians and flip-flops on controversial topics depending on who he is speaking to. He is more overtly racist and misogynistic than his peers, but surely that can’t be his method of success.

Donald Trump is not a politician, but a salesman, and in a political system that inherently relies on image over substance, we see how his popularity is not an anomaly but is almost predestined by our adherence to it. And Trump is an amazing salesman. A linguist analyzed Trump’s response to a simple question, and found that he uses repetition, punchy, simplistic language, and a speaking style that subconsciously elicits agreement. Again, there is little of substance in what he says, but the way he says it manipulatively charms those who aren’t paying attention.

We live in an age where advertising has the finest tools of psychology behind it. I mean, ads directed to kids have so much psychological juju that they can sell cereal that is just a few grams away from being bowls of actual sugar under the guise of being a nutritionally healthy choice. Trump knows all these tricks; how else could it be explained that several bankruptcies, a grocery list of failed business plans, and pending lawsuits don’t dissuade people from associating the name Trump with success? John Oliver dedicated an entire segment to showcasing this phenomenon, and he concluded that the brand is so well marketed that disassociating Donald from the name Trump is the optimal solution since convincing people to rebel against their advertorial mind-control is a depressingly futile endeavour.

One might argue that the stupidification of the American public is more to blame than the problems inherent to the democratic system, and this is a fair point. A nation full of well-educated, critical thinking individuals would more than likely vote for someone better qualified than Trump. Though, a nation full of baboons would vote for someone better qualified than Trump, so maybe it’s a moot point. In any case, America exists in political and economic systems that profit from the pliability of its populace, and so dedicates its efforts to enforcing that attribute. As Plato predicts, any system existing under a democracy will eventually develop into one where someone like Trump will flourish.

In a bid to overthrow the democratic system, Republicans are actually contemplating blocking Trump’s nomination if he wins. Thwarting the will of the populace may become the last resort of a political party desperately clinging to shreds of sanity. And they are not alone. Isaac Asimov is floating around the internet as a bonafide meme, declaring that “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” This notion that intelligence or sanity supersedes another’s right to vote is thoroughly undemocratic, and suggests some kind of neo-aristocracy to rule over the vulgar masses.

Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” In the West, we started with democracy, and after a few affairs with some monarchies, theocracies, and the odd dictatorial despot, we decided to stick with it. Now we seem to be reaping what we’ve sewn. Trump would never be able to attain power in any other form of government outside of a democracy.

So now we are faced with a question: do we continue with Churchill’s worst form of government and just desperately hope that when the inevitable Trumps appear on the ballot that our nations have not reach Idiocratic levels of docility, or do we dream up a better way?