Sunday, May 13, 2018

Minding Minds: Motivated reasoning and the limits of reason and persuasion


Have you ever had an argument with someone about an issue that you cared deeply about, and you just knew you were right? But the other person kept citing statistics and studies and factual claims that felt suspect to you, but you couldn't prove it on the spot. So you went and studied it. And you discovered you were right all along! The statistics they cited didn't assume all the factors, the studies they cited were either biased or not strong enough for their claims, and the factual claims have been disproven in many places. How could your debating opponent have been so wrong? Maybe it was because they were so invested in their side of their argument they were willing to believe cranks, read only a few things that proved their side, and accept less rigorous work that supported their pre-existing beliefs. Or maybe you're the one so invested you ended up believing in false things?

I know I have been in the above situation, and I assume most of you have as well. And this is a traditional situation of motivated reasoning, in which our desired outcome for a situation shapes how we reason and evaluate evidence. As Ziva Kunda argues in her foundational paper on the subject, "motivation may affect reasoning through reliance on a biased set of cognitive processes: strategies for accessing, constructing, and evaluating beliefs" (480). She continues:
I propose that people motivated to arrive at a particular conclusion attempt to be rational and to construct a justification of their desired conclusion that would persuade a dispassionate observer. [...] In other words, they maintain an "illusion of objectivity" (Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1987 ; cf. Kruglanski, 1980). To this end, they search memory for those beliefs and rules that could support their desired conclusion. They may also creatively combine accessed knowledge to construct new beliefs that could logically support the desired conclusion.[...] The objectivity of this justification construction process is illusory because people do not realize that the process is biased by their goals, that they are accessing only a subset of their relevant knowledge, that they would probably access different beliefs and rules in the presence of different directional goals, and that they might even be capable of justifying opposite conclusions on different occasions. (482-483)
Motivated reasoning helps us understand why people are not convinced by the overwhelming evidence of human caused global warming, evolution, or the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. It is also useful to help us understand a variety of issues in political science, such as the tendency of people to often support their candidate even more when exposed to negative information about their candidate. If vegetarianism is, as Bill Martin has argued, an already won argument, perhaps motivated reasoning can help us understand why we seem to still have such trouble winning the already won argument

As I argued in my last post, one of the ways we can understand so many of the bad and factually incorrect arguments about eating other animals and the environment is because of motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is a way we help solve what is called cognitive dissonance, the problem of putting together two contradictory elements in our lives. Let me give you an example from a classic 1967 study. In it, participants were required to listen to recordings that produced information about cigarettes and cancer. But the recordings had a lot of a static, which could be solved by pushing an "anti-static" button. Smokers tended to let the static play over the parts that talked about cigarettes linking to cancer, and decreased the static when the recording talked about smoking not being linked to cancer. Non-smokers usually did the opposite. We have a lot of the elements here of motivated reasoning and cognitive dissonance. Say you smoke, and you want to keep smoking, but you also don't want to be at a higher risk of ill health. So you do two things: you tune out information explaining why smoking is bad for you, and seek out information explaining why smoking is not so bad for you. But this doesn't even fully capture how motivated reasoning changes your perceptions.

In my last post, I included a graph about how different foods affected the environment. On a discussion on social media about my post, I saw someone say they were pleased that milk didn't cause that much environmental harm--that it was comparative to plants we eat--and that she could get it humanely from her local farm. If you go back, that's clearly not what the graph says. What occurred is what Kahan et al. refer to as motivated innumeracy. In the study, participants were given information about a new skin-rash treatment. The information was a little complicated, and not everyone was able to understand it, but people who had high levels of numeracy were able to follow. However, when given information in the same format about the relationships of gun ownership and violence, those same people were often unable to correctly understand the information if it went against their pre-existing political beliefs. That is to say, liberal democrats had trouble processing information that gun ownership decreased violence, and conservative republicans had trouble processing information that gun ownership increased violence. Numeracy didn't protect people from these false readings of the data, indeed, the higher the numeracy, the more likely the person was to make a mistake when it came to the data about guns. Motivated reasoning doesn't just guide what information you remember, or seek out, it shapes your very ability to process information. Let's take an example from our (the pro-animal) side. The documentary Cowspiracy claims that at least 51% of all greenhouse gases (GHG) comes from animal agriculture. They get this number from an article by Goodland and Anhang, and those numbers have been attacked by a writer for The Union of Concerned Scientists, and several academics. Goodland and Anhang have responded. But if you don't want to do a lot of homework, I will break it down for you. Most studies put the numbers at about 15-20% of GHGs are from animal agriculture. There is a lot of fights about what numbers are appropriate to include, and how accurate certain counterfactuals are. If you are wanting, as Kunda puts it, to engage in an illusion of objectivity, the Goodland and Anhang will allow animal advocates that illusion while also claiming that stopping animal agriculture is the single most important environmental issue (as opposed to simply among the most important environmental issues). But how often do you believe a single analysis that produces significantly different numbers than most of the other people working the field? Normally this is not evidence we would find completely credible in situations where we are not interested in the outcome. Goodland and Anhang may be right, and I am persuaded by many of their particular arguments, but our tendency to believe them is almost certainly shaped by our desire for them to be right. This leads us to the second worrying conclusion about research in motivated reasoning.

In psychology there is a theory, going back in some form to William James, known as the dual process theory. Essentially we all think in two ways, one mostly unconsciously and emotionally, and another consciously and carefully. These two ways are often known as either implicit and explicit thinking, or System 1 and System 2 thinking (I'm drawing this story from Kahneman's enjoyable Thinking, Fast and Slow). So when it comes to motivated reasoning, the usual understanding is that our System 1 thinking--our fast, emotional, heuristic thinking--is impeding our rational and slower System 2 thinking. A possible solution to motivated reasoning might be, then, to get people to engage in more System 2 thinking. But increasingly that doesn't seem workable. Remember from the Kahan study above, people with higher levels of numeracy were more likely to get the gun ownership problem wrong. This follows previous work from Kahan that indicates "the experimental component of the study demonstrated that the disposition to engage in conscious and effortful System 2 information processing—as measured by the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT)—actually magnifies the impact of motivated reasoning." In other words, the more careful we are, the smarter we are, the more rational we are, the better our motivated reasoning. We are just better able to research to find things that support our biases, or better able to think of reasons why we are right. And this has implications for persuasion in animal rights.

As Kahan explains in his innumeracy study, the problem is not that people just don't have the correct information, or actively avoid the correct information (though those both might be true), it is also that they actively distort the information they are given. This is part of the identity-protection cognition thesis. We engage cognitive processes that seek to protect our identities, and our sense of goodness and correctness. This is why Kant, in the Groundwork, was so afraid of utilitarianism. Because he believed we could use it to justify any action as moral. So the eating of animals, which is central to so many people's identities, would be something we could expect to see a lot of identity protection around. This might explain why people, when eating out, are more likely to eat vegetarian food if it is not labeled as such and put in a separate vegetarian section of a menu. Furthermore, one of the key reasons people state for why some animals are allowed to be eaten, and others are not, is the quality of intelligence. But as Bastian et al have demonstrated, people routinely undervalue the minds of animals they eat, even if they are willing to think animals they don't eat have complex minds. Think here of how Americans believe in the hyper intelligence of dogs, but routinely undermine the minds of pigs, and especially cows. Expanding on this work, Piazza and Loughnan conducted a study that tests people's perceptions of minds in a fictional alien animal species, a real species we don't eat, and pigs. The study gave participants information about a fictional alien animal species. When they described the species in ways that showed clear intelligence, people felt they shouldn't be eaten. When they described the species in ways without clear intelligence, meat eaters believed they should be eaten. They then presented the same information showing clear intelligence about the alien species, tapirs, and pigs to the participants. Meat eaters felt that the alien species and the tapirs were clearly intelligent, but discredited the minds of the pigs even with the information in front of them. The problem here is clear, presenting clear information and engaging people in rational argumentation is not likely to change many minds and actions because they are trying to protect their identities.

So, if rational argumentation doesn't work, what are we supposed to do? Assuming I get my act together, that will be the third part of this blog series, where I plan to take up Kwame Anthony Appiah on honor worlds and Cristina Bicchieri on norms to explain how moral revolutions and social change can occur.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Eating Animals and Motivated Reasoning

One of the common questions I get asked is from people who want to remove part of the meat from their diet, but not all of it. They ask what animals they should give up eating. My usual response is that they are best of all not eating any animals, second best is to reduce eating animals. Promise to not eat any animals during, say, breakfast, and go from there. But usually there is a desire to remove eating a kind of animal, rather than meat reduction. And so I ask, "Well, do you care about reducing suffering to animals, or about reducing environmental destruction?" 
That is because the more concentrated and industrial the treatment of other animals, the less environmental destruction. And also because the animals that spend the least amount of time in factory farms are cows, which are also, by far, the most environmentally destructive form of livestock we produce (somewhere between 15% and 20% of greenhouse gases are produced by animal agriculture, of which cows take the, err, lions share of greenhouse gases). So if you care about the environment, and you still insist on eating other animals, eat chickens and fish from aquaculture.
( From J. Raganthan et al. 2016. “Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future.” Working Paper, Installment 11 of Creating a Sustainable Food Future. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute; Figure ES-2. Which I took from this blog post). 


Of course, those lives are the ones that are the most horribly, and graphically, awful. As some of you know, most male chickens are killed at birth, and most female chickens are separated into two groups: broilers, which are the chickens we eat, and layers, which are the chickens that lay eggs (Foer's Eating Animals is still probably the best on what it means to live as a chicken in the modern factory farm system, and this article is interesting if you want to just know more about how the chicken came to be so central in our diet).  Both lives are terrible beyond imagination.
So, eating as much as possible a plant-based diet solves both of these problems. You manage to both reduce, often significantly, your greenhouse gas emissions, while also decreasing the amount of animal cruelty in this world. But there are a lot of people who have made themselves very rich and famous by arguing the exact opposite, that by eating the least industrially produced animals, we also decrease global warming. Often even more than if we ate a plant-based diet. People like Michael Pollan and Nicolette Hahn Niman fall into this later category. 
Here is the thing, I don't think either are particularly liars or bullshit artist (cowshit artist?). Harry Frankfurt, in his On Bullshit, famously distinguishes between the two. Liars are interested in hiding the truth, bullshitters just don't care about the truth, and are interested in persuasion regardless of the truth. And there are plenty of bullshit artists in the humane meat movement. I think at this point it is hard to believe that Allan Savory, who argues that his holistic cattle management system restores dead land, is almost certainly a bullshitter. But I am less sure about some of the other. My brother famously took down Michael Pollan years ago in his "Green Eggs and Ham," and Hahn Niman's book gets a more sympathetic, but still thorough debunking, in this blog post from the Union of Concerned Scientists. What seems clear to me about both Pollan and Hahn Niman is that they are involved in bullshitting themselves as much as they are bullshitting the audience. They are involved in motivated reasoning. Being smart does not protect you from motivated reasoning, because the smarter you are, the better you are at coming up with believable accounts for your opinions, and researching people who agree with you. This is why we must learn to cultivate fallibilism. It is not easy to practice the Socratic Wisdom, or knowing what you do not know.  So Pollan and Hahn Niman and others engaged in journeys to convince themselves as much as the reader. They believe the bullshit artists. They come up with just so theories. They figure out why the dominate scientific consensus on animal agriculture and climate change is fundamentally wrong. And because they are smart, and good writers, and the world is filled with people who also want the same excuses to forgive their own behavior, their books become huge bestsellers and they become important "thought leaders." Motivated reasoning and disavowal are solid terms, but I think we need something even better to describe the desire to bullshit yourself, first and most of all. This great disavowal is what continues to be so central is so many articles and books. A desire to simply refuse to confront the basic fact that we make millions of animals suffer, and we contribute significantly to the destruction of our own planet, and the only solution is to stop doing that. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Why So Many Human Rights Advocates are into Vegetarianism and Veganism: Or, Fascism and Veganism, an only kinda complicated history.


Even worse was that all societies formed for the protection of the Rights of Man, all attempts to arrive at a new bill of human rights were sponsored by marginal figures-- by a few international jurists without political experience or professional philanthropists supported by uncertain sentiments of professional idealists. The groups they formed, the declarations they issued, showed an uncanny similarity in language and composition to that of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals. No statesman, no political figure of any importance could possibly take them seriously. --Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 292. 

There is a Vice article going around. One I hesitate to link to, because it is so obviously clickbait. Meant to both troll those who are vegans and vegetarians, while also causing us who are to defend ourselves against it, and share it again. These kinds of articles are frequent for this very reason. And it remains one of the reasons your vegan and vegetarian friends are, perhaps, a little touchy (remember).  But here's a link anyway. The Vice article, written by Alexis de Coning, argues that there is a strange history of white supremacists being vegan or vegetarian. To which I say, that's true, sometimes. She also ends by arguing, "To combat these racist movements, we must understand them, including how they can incorporate beliefs we usually associate with liberal or leftist politics. The diversity of this movement should not be underestimated." To which I fully agree. However, the history here is far more complicated than de Coning presents in this article, and certainly more so than the clickbaity title and blurb.

Let's begin with what should we even do if it turns out that vegetarianism and veganism are central to fascism. As Derrida responded to such a claim in For What Tomorrow...:
The caricature of an indictment goes more or less like this: "Oh, you're forgetting that the Nazis, and Hitler in particular, were in a way zoophiles! So loving animal animals means hating or humiliating humans! Compassion for animals doesn't exclude Nazi cruelty; it's even its first symptom!" The argument strikes me as crudely fallacious. Who can take this parody of a syllogism seriously even for a second? And where would it lead us? To redouble our cruelty to animals in order to prove our irreproachable humanism? (68).
It does seem silly, as I put it once, to go punch an animal in the face to prove you love humanity. Perhaps this argument is only useful to combat the people who claim that veganism magically makes you into a saint. But I think anyone who has belonged to the community for a while knows that basically every kind of person can become vegans. Assholes, saints, misogynists, feminists, racist, humanists, etc. It is, almost certainly, interesting to see why different people are drawn to veganism. As I argued in my Dark Animal Studies paper (a title I wish I could change), the draw of veganism for many people is the promise of purity, for many ethical purity. Boria Sax famously argues that the obsession with animal protection laws and vegetarians among the Nazis was a way of reducing everything to the biological and the natural. After all, the Nazis outlawed the hunting of wolves even though there were no wild wolves left in Germany. Such an action is purely symbolic. But this explains why the Nazis were also supporters of environmentalism. They were invested in a movement of blood and soil, so animals and the environment were to be protected as an extension of the hypernaturalization of the Nazi world. And while there does continue to be some neo-nazis who advocate veganism, there is no real sense in the Vice article about how much of the White Supremacy movement today is promoting veganism. Is this a fringe within the fringe? There is no proof that this is centralized, or a major part of the right trying to co-opt liberal or leftist discourses. Furthermore, there is as much as history, if not more so, of Nazis supporting environmental issues, and still occasionally doing so, especially through discussions of population controls. And no one thinks that environmentalists need to really argue that environmentalism is not thoroughly Nazi ideology.  And while the headline talks about white supremacy, that is certainly overstating things. While there were some high profile members of the Nazi party who supported animal protections (including, arguably, Hitler himself), you don't see similar things going on with Italian, Japanese, or Spanish fascisms. And while you continue to see pro-animal support in Nazi inspired mysticism and occasionally neo-nazi movements, you don't see this as being a part of the rhetoric of, say, the KKK. This seems to be an issue with exactly one (horrifying) historical moment, rather than something connected to either fascism or white supremacy as a whole. And if that's how we are playing the game, then the pro-human rights people being pro-animal rights is far more common trope.

As the epigraph from Hannah Arendt attests to, this remains a long history between those fighting for human liberation, and those fighting for animal liberation. Gandhi, famously, became interested in anti-capitalist and anti-imperialism through his time spent eating at Vegetarian Society meetings (as Leela Gandhi explains in her book Affective Communities). Carol Adams reminds us that early feminism and vegetarianism were often put together.
We can follow the historic alliance of feminism and vegetarianism in Utopian writings and societies, antivivisection activism, the temperance and suffrage movements, and twentieth century pacifism. Hydropathic institutes in the nineteenth century, which featured vegetarian regimens, were frequented by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and others. At a vegetarian banquet in 1853, the gathered guests lifted their alcohol-free glasses to toast: "Total Abstinence, Women's Rights, and Vegetarianism."(156, but see all of Chapter Nine). 
Henry Bergh founded both the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Toward Animals, and a similarly named organization to advocate on behalf of children. And I could name any number of other examples. Let me go google antifa and veganism. One second, stay around. Oh shit, Trevor Noah called antifa "vegan ISIS." I didn't even know that, but that's how much the movement is associated with veganism.

Look, the issue is not that veganism will magically make you against fascism and white supremacy. I wish it would. But there is a long history of people promoting human rights, and being opposed to fascism, who were also supporters of animal liberation. That is as much of our history as the Nazi stuff is. We do, of course, always need to be sure our veganism is intersectional, and opposed to these white supremacists. But the idea that there is something anti-human well-being at the heart of animal rights and environmentalism has got to end. As I have said before, the issue is that we all engage in partial sympathies. So rather than see sympathy as a fundamentally limited resource that decreases the more one uses it, we should see it as something that can be expanded, and become more powerful. The challenge still remains, what institutions, what practices,  and what aesthetics can we create to extend our partial sympathies. This is the task that remains to all of us.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Isonomia Appendix and Introduction

As Marx tells us in the first volume of Capital, every beginning is difficult. And I've been having a devil of a time trying to figure out how to start us out with Kōjin Karatani's Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy (Duke 2017, originally Iwanami Shoten 2012). For one, Karatani is something of an ambitious generalist, writing bold (and underdeveloped and under backed up) claims about anthropology, religious studies, philosophy, and political economy and statecraft in ways that we don't see as much anymore. For me, I am constantly going from being intrigued by his exciting schematization and insight, to going, "Uh, buddy, I don't think that's right." For another, Isonomia is something of a sequel to Karatani's even more ambitious, previous work, The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange (Duke 2014, which is a substainally modified version of a book published originally Iwanami Shoten 2010). Well, less a sequel, and more that Isonomia was originally conceived as part of that book, but it became so long and involved it ended up becoming it's own book. I, of course, have not already read The Structure of World History (SWH), and I think if I had realized that Isonomia was based on that work, I might not have suggested we do a public blogging event. However, I have picked it up, and started reading it somewhat alongside Isonomia, and also Karatani provides a very short, and actually helpful, appendix of the theoretical argument in SWH so that you can jump into Isonomia by itself.  Okay, so Isonomia tries to answer the following question, why is it that "around the sixth century BCE, Ezekiel and the bibical prophets emerged from among exiles in Babylon; Thales emerged in Ionia on the coast of Asia Minor; Gautama Buddha and the Jain founder Mahavira appeared in India, and Laozi and Confucius emerged in China" (1)?  How can we understand this explosion of world wide philosophical thought?
So against the normal narrative of the so-called Athenian Miracle, Karatani argues correctly that there are several different, and disconnected, strands of philosophy. So, why are all these things happening at once? It's certainly not because of a single intellectual tradition, or an emergent thinker who changes everything. It is also not, as Karatani points out, "straightforwardly based on socioeconomic history" (1). Now this brings us to Karatani's appendix.
In SWH Karatani challenges Marx's model of world history as being based on modes of production (this is not from a place of hostility toward Marx. Indeed, if you know of Karatani before these works, it was almost certainly from his work Transcritique, where he tries to synthesize Marx and Kant). Instead of seeing society defined by its mode of production, Karatani believes the controlling feature of a society is its mode of exchange. Karatani points out that when we hear mode of exchange, we tend to think of a capitalist commodity exchange. However, Karatani argues there are four different modes of exchange, of which the commodity exchange is but one mode. He labels them Mode A, B, C, and D. They work out this way:
Mode A  Reciprocity by gift and countergift
Mode B  Domination and protection
Mode C  Commodity exchange
Mode D  Mode that transcends A, B, and C (135)

Yeah, I like the specificity of Mode D too. In his defense, though, it's about as a good of a definition as Marx ever gave communism. The dominate mode of exchange ends up mapping onto all sorts of other features of society, such as the political structure of society. So mode A is the nation, mode B is the state, mode C is capital, and mode D is "X (Yet to Be Realized)" (137), though in SWH he also identifies Mode D with Kant's idea of the World Republic. And here in Isonomia, Mode D is also identified with the Dao. Why? Honestly not sure. BUT! it has something to do with each mode of exchange also mapping onto different structures of religion.
So Karatani goes on to identify animism and magic with Mode A (gift giving), transcendent gods and king-priests are associated with Mode B (domination and protection), in Mode C (commodity exchange) we get "a world god that transcends the old tribal gods and tutelary deities" (4). However, none of these represent a truly universal religion. Even the world god fails, because "the god would be abandoned if the empire were to be defeated" (4). A truly universal religion would be one that, unsurprisingly, would transcend the religions of of A, B, and C. As Karatani puts it, "universal religion is an attempt to recuperate mode of exchange A at a higher level, after it has been dissolved by modes B and C" (4). In other words, mode A of gift and countergift have a principle of "reciprocity and mutual support" that gets dissolved by Modes B and C. The question is, how do we go back to that part of A, while keeping all the universal parts of B and C? How do we get the mutual support, without the tribalism and the debt bonds of A? Or as Karatani asks, how do you get the religion of A without the magical phase of A? Karatani identifies in Confucius and Laozi two different responses to the dissolving of A. Confucius wants to just go back to Mode A, but the Dao represents an attempt to understand A on a higher level.
There are several points of this long discussion of universal religion, but the most immediate one is that it seeks to do away with the religion and philosophy divide. The idea that you have on one hand religious thinkers, and on the other, rational philosophers, just isn't there. And once you get rid of the notion of the divide between philosophy and religion, so many of the philosophers are seen as prophets of example. They seek to produce a way of living that calls forth, to use a Deleuzian expression not in Karatani, a new people and a new earth.
 The prophet does not know how to talk, God puts the words in his mouth: word-ingestion, a new form of semiophagy. Unlike the seer, the prophet interprets nothing: his delusion is active rather than ideational or imaginative, his relation to God is passional and authoritative rather than despotic and signifying; he anticipates and detects the powers (puissances) of the future rather than applying past and present powers (pouvoirs). (ATP 124, emphasis in original). 

Universal religion, therefore, is a task of the philosophical project that seeks to produce Mode D of exchange. The mode that is yet to be realized. And with that, philosophy is not birthed in Athens as the foundation of the West, but rather in a global context of people responding to shifts in modes of exchange.


***
Further thoughts. I really like the argument against the Greek Miracle, which will be one of the central conceits of the rest of the book, and I am sure I will have more to say. But it seems odd that he ignores here, for example, Egyptian philosophy and thought, which we know was relatively advanced centuries before Plato. Joseph, who I know teaches a bit of Egyptian philosophy in his Ancient Philosophy class might have more to say here. Also, so much of what I have written is produced by assertion with very little argument or examples by Karatani, which is terribly frustrating. Hopefully as I read more of SWH I will know if he just does the arguments there, or if this is part of a broader style of writing. But, for example, when I posted the above graph on facebook a couple of weeks ago, a few people pointed out the dates for some people were, at best, idiomatic, and at worse flat out wrong. It's this sort of lack of attention to detail that bothers me for some of his boldest and biggest claims.
The next official post will be on Thursday over chapter one, and will be at AnotherPanacea. Though Joseph and Josh might respond to the intro and appendix as the spirit moves them. If they do, or I see another blog doing so, I will make a post linking to that work.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Reading Group on Kojin Karatani's Isonomia

We are about to start a cross-blog reading group on Kojin Karatani most recent book, Isonomia. The first post, covering the "Appendix" and the "Introduction," will be posted this Tuesday, Oct. 10th. Then Josh will post on Chapter One at his blog, AnotherPanacea. Then Joseph will post on Chapter Two at his blog, Between Two Untruths. Chapter Three will be back at Josh's blog, then chapter Four at Joseph's, then lastly Chapter Five back here. None of us are Karatani experts, so I think we'd be happy for anyone to follow along at their blogs or on our facebook walls.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Radical Empiricists Against the Bifurcation of Nature


Over at PhilPercs, J. Edward Hackett is documenting his reading of Whitehead's Process and Reality for the first time. Hackett is a Jamesian scholar, so a lot has to do on the overlap between Whiteheadian process philosophy, and Jamesian pragmatism and radical empiricism. My own coming into studying James is a little idiosyncratic, especially for someone from the States. I started with French pluralists like Deleuze, and from there read Stengers, from Stengers I read Latour. Because of both Stengers and Latour I started reading Whitehead, and also started reading James. So I started seriously trying to read Whitehead and James at the same time. Usually the parts of Whitehead I understand, I understand because of James or Stengers. But sometimes I understand it backwards, and, one of the ways I most seriously understand James' project of radical empiricism is because of Whitehead's critique of the bifurcation of nature.

Whitehead's traditional statement of the problem of the bifurcation of nature goes like this:
For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. [...]  This means a refusal to countenance any theory of psychic additions to the object known in perception. For example, what is given in perception is the green grass. This is an object which we know as an ingredient in nature. The theory of psychic additions would treat the greenness as a psychic addition furnished by the perceiving mind, and would leave to nature merely the molecules and the radiant energy which influence the mind towards that perception. My argument is that this dragging in of the mind as making additions of its own to the thing posited for knowledge by sense-awareness is merely a way of shirking the problem of natural philosophy. That problem is to discuss the relations inter se of things known, abstracted from the bare fact that they are known. Natural philosophy should never ask, what is in the mind and what is in nature. To do so is a confession that it has failed to express relations between things perceptively known, namely to express those natural relations whose expression is natural philosophy. [...] What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream (The Concept of Nature, Ch. 2).

So what is this? It's Whitehead returning to a classic problem in empiricism. If empiricism means that experience is suppose to track reality, what do we do with the fact that sometimes there are many, or different, experiences? Locke famously tries to solve this problem by dividing things up into primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are things that inhere within the object itself, and secondary qualities are powers of the object to produce ideas (say, heat from a fire) into our minds. (For a more detailed account of the two forums of qualities, check out this article from Robert A. Wilson). Berkeley and Kant famously disagree in different ways, with Berkeley taking up the idealist position. However, Kant puts in the Prolegomena, "That I, however, even beyond these, include (for weighty reasons) also among mere appearances the remaining qualities of bodies, which are called primarias: extension, place, and more generally space along with everything that depends on it (impenetrability or materiality, shape, etc.), is something against which not the least ground of uncertainty can be raised"(40). To some degree or another, everything for Kant and Berkeley is secondary qualities. As we can see, what is at stake in the division of primary qualities and secondary qualities has become issues of objectivity and subjectivity. William James' radical empiricism ends up answering this problem in a different way.

So famously James contends that, "to be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as 'real' as anything else in the system" (ERE 42, emphasis in the original). The move, to accord to relations as much reality as any other part of the system, undermines the classical subject and object dichotomy. James again, "The instant field of the present is at all times what I call the 'pure' experience. It is only
virtually or potentially either object or subject as yet. For the time being, it is plain,
unqualified actuality, or existence, a simple that" (ERE 23). Subject and object are not pre-given states, rather they emerge only in the particularities of relations, and are constantly in process and revisable. There relationship is merely pragmatic, rather than metaphysically predetermined. But again, relations are as real anything else, and all of this in service of undermining a a kind of dualism. As James explains, "in opposition to this dualistic philosophy, I tried, in [the first essay] to show that thoughts and things are absolutely homogeneous as to their material, and that their opposition is only one of relation and of function. There is no thought-stuff different from thing-stuff, I said; but the same identical piece of 'pure experience'" (ERE 137-138). Everything that can be experienced, for James, is primary qualities. We can now return to Whitehead, and see how the bifurcation of nature is trying to do the same work of radical empiricism. What Whitehead is concerned with is the tendency of those to who claim to be doing natural philosophy to reaffirm the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. This is why we must resist any theory that depends upon psychic additions to the experience of nature. That is, we must reject the idea that thought-stuff is different from thing-stuff.  The implication of all of this, as James would say elsewhere and about other things, is "no mere speculative conundrum."
To quote (at length) from Brian Massumi:
The logic of coexistence is different from the logic of separation. The logic of belonging is different from the logic of being a part. This means that to get the whole picture (including the real, suspended ways it doesn't appear), you have to operate with both logics simultaneously: the conjunctive and the disjunctive. "Radical empiricism is fair to both the unity and the disconnection" James 1996a, 47). It translates metaphysical issues of truth and illusion, subject-object correspondence, into issues of continuity and discontinuity. [...] Things' only a priori function is of becoming. Approaching things this way saves you fussing over the cognitive status of your experience. Disbelieving, are you? Feeling a tad illusionary? Don't worry. Everything is as real as its next-effect. Just concentrate on the break and relation that will make a next-effect really felt. (Semblance and Event, 36, emphasis in the original). 
The realness of relations and the constant flux of pure experience is the answer to where novelty and creation come from. It puts the world in process, and as such means the world is constantly becoming. Such a philosophy will never give us reassurances that the world is saved, but it also gives us hope that the world is not damned, either.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Sounds Good To Me: The Importance of Resonance Conferences



Over at the Daily Nous, Justin made a recent post about what he calls resonance conferences. Much of the initial post, and almost exclusively all of the comments I read, have dealt with what did or did not happen at those actual conferences. Considering I did not attend either, and am not a member of either (though I have been wanting to attend the Society for Analytic Feminism), I am going to entirely ignore those particular controversies. Instead, I want to talk about resonance conferences as a concept.

Justin defines resonance conferences as such:
Feminism and Christianity are each rather big tents, of course—big enough for lots of disagreement within them. But still, there’s some set of substantive claims associated with each, and many of the attendees at these conferences endorse a sizable subset of those respective claims (which makes those conferences a bit different from, say, a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, or a conference on causation). It would be helpful to have a name for these types of gatherings. Let’s call them resonance conferences. Resonance connotes importance and agreement, and its technical meaning involves different objects vibrating at the same frequency—works pretty well as a metaphor, I think. Do resonance conferences have a different feel to them than standard philosophy conferences, and if so, how? I suspect one difference is that disagreement feels worse at resonance conferences. In part this is because people may go in expecting, well, resonance—people let their guard down among the like-minded—and so can be caught off guard by disagreement they did not brace themselves for. At standard philosophy conferences, one goes in expecting disagreement from top to bottom. An additional part to this may be that disagreement over one particular matter may be more frustrating with a party who agrees with you on nearly everything else than with someone with whom you have few views in common. Another difference might be that attendees at resonance conferences, in virtue of being members of a shared community of sorts, take what happens at such meetings more personally than they might at standard philosophy conferences. They may feel as if they are identified with what happens or with what others say at these meetings, so when something goes wrong, they feel it reflects on them personally. In turn, this may motivate people to try to “make things right,” either by working hard to eliminate disagreement or even by engaging in a kind of public-relations damage control. (Emphasis added, paragraph breaks eliminated). 

Let's bracket for now if the opposite of the resonance conference is really a "standard" conference (are most conferences like the APA?). I want to address why I go so often to resonance conferences, and the good I get out of them, and respond to some of the implicit critiques that Justin is forwarding.

As someone who principally does work within the field of animal philosophy, I mostly go to conferences where most people will be working on animal studies, or I know that there is specific outreach to animal scholars. This is because the usual paper times at a conferences (anywhere from 15-30 minutes) does not provide a lot of time to defend and repeat first principles. So if, for example, you are wanting to expand your work on weak antinatalism in animal ethics, you can't really do this if your only feedback is objection to veganism and vegetarianism, or questioning if we have moral duties at all to animals, and the like. There are certainly times and places where all of that is fine for debate, but a lot of us work in fields were are constantly asked to begin again from first principles, which means we don't get to do the kind of iterative work, and have the kind of feedback that is useful and exciting, that most people get to do at conferences. For example, think of trying to present a paper dealing with the ethics of geoengineering the earth because of global warming, and having most, if not all, of the Q and A eaten up by questions about if global warming is real, or caused by humans, etc. Those are all objections we have to deal with in our role as educators or public intellectuals, but the ability to engage in iterative and technical philosophical argumentation would be entirely derailed if those were the objections raised virtually every time you presented a paper on global warming no matter the specific philosophical intervention. So a lot of us go to the kind of conferences were we can do work, which means having a grounding of agreeing upon certain principles or facts, so that we can debate other principles or facts.

And this is when we need to break out of the metaphor of the resonance, with it's obvious connection to objects being forced to vibrate at the same frequency, and the etymological connections to echoing. We are not hoping to meet zero objections (or any more than any other academic who slightly hopes their paper will wow everyone into immediate agreement), but we are hoping to have different kinds of disagreements. Perhaps we can think of it as fine-tuning. I go to these conferences in order to refine, and strengthen my argument, or face counterarguments I cannot usually encounter at "standard" conferences. Indeed, with the repetition of the same objections over and over again at standard conferences, and the need to repeat the same basic principles again and again, we could in a real way call those standard conferences resonance conferences. But to find new tunes? To be able to get your work to play in a new key? Well, you need to go to these fine-tuning or technical conferences. This all has nothing to do with avoiding disagreement, but with finding interesting and productive disagreement.