Sunday, January 30, 2011

Great male hope

Today Andy Murray lost his third major tennis final. He’s the best tennis player Britain’s produced for a long time. He’s also a lot better than plenty of people who have won majors, but he seems to be a victim of the ruthless consistency of his contemporaries. The days when Gaston Gaudio or even Carlos Moya could rock up and win the French Open seem to be gone. If you’re in a major final and you’re not Federer or Nadal then the chances are your opponent is, and as a result Murray may never get a better chance of winning a major than he did against Novak Djokovic today. Seeing him blow it in such unspectacular fashion must have been disappointing for his fans, though personally I wasn’t that bothered.

What does bother me is that the media seem to think it a cause of acute shame to British tennis (whoever British tennis is) that the last British man to win a major singles final was Fred Perry in 1936. They say it all the time. They said it when Henman and Rusedski teased us in the 90s, and for all I know they used to say it about Jeremy Bates and John Lloyd. Well I think this whiffs of sexism. We’ve had six major singles champions since Perry. Courtesy of Wikipedia, they are: Dorothy Round Little, Angela Mortimer Barrett, Shirley Bloomer Brasher, Ann Haydon Jones, Virginia Wade and Sue Barker. They are, of course, all women. But so what?

As an experiment, imagine what you’d think if John Isner got to the Wimbledon final and the American media remarked ruefully that there hadn’t been a white American major singles champion since 2003. If they said it gleefully, you’d think they were making some kind of point about African-Americans being better tennis players than white Americans. But if they said it ruefully, as the British sports media do when they mention Perry, I suppose the point would be that what they want is a white champion, and the achievements of Venus and Serena Williams are either a shaming contrast or an irrelevance.

Now, when I hear people moping about Fred Perry it doesn’t sound quite the way it would in the racial case, partly because I’m used to it but partly because in tennis men and women compete separately. I’m glad they do. But it isn’t like football where the level of professionalization is very different in the men’s and women’s games, and I don’t think the achievements of female tennis players are less impressive than those of men. If Anne Keothavong starts wiping the floor with the Williamses, the Russians and Kim Clijsters then British tennis should stop moping. Maybe it would, but this means it should shut up about Fred Perry. Given the amount of money it spends, it’s embarrassing enough it hasn’t had a major champion since Virginia Wade.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Gambling with goodness

I was recently pointed to these essays on reducing suffering. They’re interesting, and most aren’t long. One frightening theme I hadn’t come across before in this context relates to the possibility of scientists creating infinitely many universes in a lab. These would contain an infinite amount of suffering, so the idea is that the expected suffering reduction resulting from making this procedure any less likely will be infinite, so if we can make it less likely then that’s what we should do instead of faffing around with finite effects on the universe. I’m not going to talk about the view that an outcome containing infinitely many suffering-supporting universes would be infinitely bad. What I’m interested in is the role played by expected consequences here. (‘Expected’ is used in the technical sense: an action’s expected resultant goodness is the sum of the products of the goodness of each possible outcome and the probability of that outcome.)

Within consequentialism, there’s room for at least two natural views about how good an action is. One says it’s as good as its expected consequences, and another says it’s as good as its actual consequences. I’ve generally sided with the latter view, but I also thought the dispute had no practical implications since if you're trying to be as good as possible then you'll maximise expected goodness either way. I no longer think that’s right, and the practical implications may be quite serious.

On Deal or No Deal the banker’s offer is typically lower than the expected amount in the contestant’s box, which will be the amount of money left in the unopened boxes divided by the number of unopened boxes. I’ve heard people say the contestants are therefore always irrational to take the offer, but that’s not true. The expected consequences may be better for them if they deal, because of diminishing returns: if someone gave me £10,000 that would probably improve my life less than twice as much as if they gave me £5,000. Benefit needn’t be proportional to prizemoney so expected benefit needn’t be proportional to expected prizemoney. But even if the expected benefits of dealing are less than those of not dealing, it might still be rationally permissible to deal because that way you’re sure of getting something. If you played many times the expectation-maximising strategy would be very unlikely to do worse than the dealing strategy, but if you’re only playing once there’s a significant chance you’re better off dealing. So why not deal? (I don’t know if there’s a rule against a season’s contestants agreeing to maximise their expected prize each time and share their winnings, but there should be.)

Returning to consequentialism: if you’ve got two probability/goodness distributions of much the same shape you should probably go with maximising expectation. Since everyday choices are repeated many times, the expectation-maximising strategy will generally have a similarly shaped distribution to and a higher expectation than the play-it-safe strategy, so you should probably maximise expectation. With unusual situations with very differently shaped distributions it’s not at all obvious though. Here are three thought experiments.

Suppose you’re in a situation where you have two options. On option A two people will die. On option B there’s a 75% chance one person will die and a 25% chance four will. You’re trying to prevent deaths. What should you do? Option B has 0.25 fewer expected deaths, but maybe you should go with A, because B has a significant chance of turning out much worse.

Now suppose option A kills one person, and option B will probably kill nobody, but has a 1% chance of killing 110 people. B has more expected deaths, but maybe you should go with B anyway because it’s 99% certain to be fine and otherwise the poor victim of option A will certainly die.

Now suppose that we could make the infinite-suffering scenario 0.02% less likely by sending everyone to seven years at a gruelling re-education camp between the ages of 16 and 23. Should we do that? Or should we take our chances?

If actions are as good as their expected consequences, then it isn’t up to us what we do if we’re trying to do good. If actions are as good as their actual consequences though, it is up to us. We can risk doing bad things, and if the gambles don’t come off then our actions will indeed be bad, but if they do then our actions will be better than if we’d maximised expectation. So will the world. Now maybe our treatment of risk isn’t up to us, and there’s only one moral attitude to take. But if actual-consequentialism is true, then it is up to us, and that matters.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The homogeneous spinning disc

People like me who like Humean supervenience, four-dimensionalism and things like that probably ought to pay more attention to the homogeneous spinning disc argument. It gets attributed to Kripke and Armstrong in the 1970s and CD Broad earlier than that. (Broad had currents in a homogeneous liquid.) The argument means to show that how the world is qualitatively at each time doesn’t determine how it is qualitatively overall, because a world containing only a disc of homogeneous matter would be the same at each time whether the disc was spinning or not. Katherine Hawley seems to have fairly similar inclinations to me, but she still responds to the argument by rejecting Humean supervenience, saying that there are non-supervenient relations holding between instantaneous bits of the disc at different times, in virtue of which an instantaneous bit at one time is a future stage of an instantaneous bit at another. It seems to work. I don’t have a big problem with the very idea of immanent causation grounding temporal counterpart relations, but I don’t generally think of it as fundamental, because violations of Humean supervenience are odd. The spinning disc argument is powerful though, and I should have a response. I think Hawley’s arguments against the responses she considers look pretty good, but lately I’ve been wondering about a different one. I don’t know if it’s already out there, but I’ve not seen it before.

The difference between the spinning disc and the stationary disc is supposed to ground counterfactuals about things like what would have happened if some paint or a volleyball had landed on the disc. I’m wondering whether a homogeneous disc really would do different things to some paint or a volleyball when they landed on it. If a homogeneous disc would interact with its surroundings in exactly the same way whether or not it was spinning, it’s easier to deny that it makes sense to say that a homogeneous thing is spinning or not. One way of thinking about it is that when something is internally moving like when a disc spins or there are currents in a liquid what’s really moving are the inhomogeneities. Now, in the actual particulate world a particle can be looked at as an inhomogeneity, especially if you’re a supersubstantivalist. So on this way of thinking, particles still move. But to say that the contents of a homogeneous region of space was moving internally wouldn’t make sense, for the banal reason that inhomogeneities are what moves, and it doesn’t contain any of those.

So why will the disc interact in the same way with the volleyball or the paint whether it’s moving or not? We don’t have a true theory of physics for homogeneous matter, so we have to think about it in an intuitive way, or at best in a Newtonian way. Essentially the idea is that the disc is perfectly smooth, and that means it won’t have any friction and won’t exert an angular force on the volleyball. It’ll just spin smoothly underneath it. The paint is a bit harder to picture, but I’m not sure the paint will properly stick to the disc. If the disc is smooth it’ll exert no angular force on the paint and just spin underneath it without affecting the circular puddle that forms. At least, I don’t know that that’s wrong.

I’m not sure how to make the case that the disc would behave the same way whether or not it was spinning if you drilled a hole in it, but I can believe there’s a case to be made. Perhaps a spinning disc would just flow around the drillbit. I don’t have a brilliant grip on the difference between a homogeneous liquid and a homogeneous solid. There’s an intuitive way of thinking about it, where the liquid disc would flow around the drillbit and the solid disc would get an arc-shaped hole in it, but that doesn’t fit well with the Newtonian picture in which under the microscope all matter is in the same state of being composed of tiny indestructible billiard balls. Would a piece of homogeneous matter behave like a giant impenetrable indestructible billiard ball, or more like a gas? I don’t know how to settle a question like that. I’m suggesting that to get homogeneous matter to behave anything like normal matter behaves we may already need the non-supervenient properties or relations, like non-supervenient frictional properties of smooth surfaces and cohesion properties of homogeneous substances. If that’s the case, it isn’t that the counterfactuals are there and the Humean can’t explain them; the counterfactuals aren’t there in the first place unless the non-supervenient properties and relations are introduced. This is because inhomogeneities aren't just the things the move; they're also the things that act. The Humean can say that non-particulate matter would have to be metaphysically weird to behave anything like normal matter does, so pieces of homogeneous matter would have to behave like big particles, and particles don't internally move. I suspect that showing whether or not they'd be right would take some hard work.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ed Balls update

Today Ed Balls was made Shadow Chancellor, and all I can say is: about time! Well, I can also say congratulations, since although it’s not a proper job and he won’t get a payrise, it’s still a promotion of sorts. But seriously, it’s about time. If I’ve understood Ed’s career correctly, his were a large portion of the brains behind Gordon Brown’s chancellorship, and various ideas like giving the Bank of England more independence were largely his. Then it became apparent that Brown might one day need a Chancellor of his own, so Ed got himself elected in 2005 so he’d be eligible for the job. In 2007 Brown became Prime Minister as we all assumed he eventually would, and... Alistair Darling was made Chancellor. I don’t completely blame him for the global economic meltdown that happened largely on his watch. I expect that things would be different if he’d acted differently over Northern Rock, RBS and the rest, but the issues are very complicated and I don’t really understand them. I doubt he did either.

I never worked out why Brown picked Darling as his Chancellor. Perhaps he offered Ed the job, but Ed saw the crisis coming and knew that nothing could be done that would leave the Chancellor looking good, so he did what Hague should have done in 1997 and bided his time. Or perhaps Brown got cold feet the way Sven did with Theo Walcott at the 2006 World Cup. Either way, now it’s finally Ed's job to tell us all how we ought to be dealing with the mess the economy’s in, and to oppose Mr Osborne when he does something else. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does. If he does a really good job, I might even vote Labour next time. Probably not though, because I don’t live in a marginal and I’m still annoyed about those wars.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Oliver Goldsmith

A while ago it was reported that Ed Balls, then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, was going to be able to decide what schoolchildren would have to read in their English classes. ‘Great!’ I thought. ‘Now that this power has been put in the hands of someone accountable to people without children, I can bother him with my ideas on the subject.’ So I did. I didn’t get a proper reply (I understand this to be his secretary's fault), and he can’t do anything about it now anyway, because Alarm Clock Britain voted him out of government. I haven’t changed my mind though. Kids should read Oliver Goldsmith. So here’s what I said to him. I could rewrite it, but this way I can kill two birds with one stone, letting you know why kids should read Goldsmith and the tone I use when I write to ministers. Are you reading, Mr Gove?
Dear Mr Balls Gove,

I hear there's a plan to have ministers choosing the books on the English syllabus, and that if it passes it will be up to you. My suggestion is that the kids read Oliver Goldsmith, and here's why:

1) He's unique in that he has only three major works, and they're a novel (The Vicar of Wakefield), a play (She Stoops to Conquer) and a poem (The Deserted Village), so it's feasible to do the whole canonical part of an oeuvre spanning all three major literary forms. The poem's long and less fun so extracts are probably the way to go with that.

2) He's funny and the novel isn't long, so the kids might actually read it.

3) The play's still performed quite a lot and is hilarious, so the kids could go on school trips to see it.

4) He's eighteenth century, which is under-represented in schools, and shows that the century wasn't just about interminable epistolary novels and brilliant but barely comprehensible proto-postmodernism.

I know you're busy, but if you haven't read the book or seen the play, at least give them a go. They're not long, and they're hilarious. The poem's less fun, like I say.


Michael Bench-Capon

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Move over, St Francis

From the ages of about sixteen to nineteen inclusive I was a vegetarian, because I thought that eating animals was wrong. Then I studied moral philosophy and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t wrong, so I became an omnivore again. Now I’m thinking of going back to vegetarianism though, because although I don’t think it’s wrong to eat animals, I would like to cause less animal suffering. Indeed, I already eat a bit less meat than I would if I didn’t care at all about the suffering of animals, and going the whole hog would just be an extension of that.

I don’t think it’d be sensible for me to go quite the whole hog though. Being strict about things like the rennet in some cheese and onion crisps or frying my falafel in the same oil someone used for their sausages wouldn’t be worth it, because the inconvenience it would cause me would outweigh the negligible or nebulous impact on animal suffering, at least in my preference distribution. It’d be more efficient to inconvenience myself less in some money-saving way and then donate the saving to Oxfam. This situation probably generalises even to consequentialists who cut out meat for moral reasons. You start off cutting out burgers and bacon, because the savings are big and the inconvenience small, but there’ll presumably come a point when the inconvenience outweighs the suffering saved. So I won’t really count as a vegetarian, because I’ll still eat animals when not doing so is very inconvenient. I also won’t be cutting out E120, because I don’t care about beetles.

One thing I’m not sure about is whether eating happy animals increases the balance of suffering over happiness at all. I suspect it doesn’t. The main effect on animals of vegetarianism is that there are fewer of them. I assume that the suffering of factory-farmed animals is great enough that it outweighs any happiness they might enjoy, and the hedonic calculus would be rosier if they’d never been bred. If there are happy farm animals this presumably won’t be the case for them, though.

Some people will presumably say that it’s wrong to rear animals so that we can kill and eat them, even if the animals are happy and wouldn’t otherwise have lived. The usual thought experiment pushing this line of thought asks us to imagine that Earth is actually a farm set up by some aliens who steal our bodies and eat us when we die. We’re supposed to say that what the aliens are doing is wrong, and that what organic farmers do is similarly wrong. I find it hard to sympathise with or even believe people who say that if this is what’s happening then they’d rather the aliens hadn’t set up the farm in the first place. I’m pretty keen to have been born, and even in my unselfish moments I'm keen for humans to still exist. Of course, if you’re not a consequentialist then you can maintain that even if a world with organic farms and planetary human-farms is better for the livestock, and the livestock are glad their farm was set up, the farmers are still acting wrongly because of autonomy or dignity or whatever. I think people who look at things this way are like bulls in a china shop, blundering round as their consciences tell them with little or no regard for the consequences of their actions. I hope not many people act like that in real life. I hope if I’m presented with the opportunity to save the lives of five people about to be hit by a runaway train by pushing a fat guy in the train’s path then I’ll have the guts to do it. But since I’m unlikely to be presented with such opportunities for heroism, I’ll cut down on the burgers instead.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Stop it!

I’d like to get gobby about the overuse of the word ‘surely’ in academic philosophical writing. I’ve just finished reading an otherwise fairly good book by a professional philosopher which seemed to use it every other page. I won’t say who he was, though some people who know me will know already. I dislike people saying ‘surely’ in much the same way I dislike people using the Nazis as their example of anything of which the Nazis are an example, using ‘scare’ quotes, and using italics to indicate that now what they’re saying is particularly important.

Proust (I haven’t read much of À la Recherche, but as a first year undergraduate I had to read the first 200 pages) made the point about scare quotes better than I could. Paraphrasing from memory, he said that it’s like you’re saying “I’d never use this word, but I’m talking about what buffoons call ‘____’”. But when you do this, you’re using the word yourself! (Believe it or not, I don’t have a problem with exclamation marks.) If you’re not a buffoon, why are you using the word? Why not use the word you normally use? So don’t use scare quotes, and don’t use air quotes either. You especially shouldn’t use scare quotes when you’re doing philosophy of language, because you’re probably already using quotes to talk about words, as in “my wife is Claudia, and her name is ‘Claudia’”. It’s sometimes confusing, and even when it’s clear it’s silly.

Enough’s been said about using the Nazis as an example already. The problem I have with italics is that it’s either a lazy way of adding emphasis, a patronising attempt to show the reader how to read, like a composer who puts instructions all over his scores, or it’s the writer saying “look, I know you’re not paying attention to most of the waffle I’ve suckered you into reading, but this bit’s really important”. If you’re doing that, maybe I’ll only read the italicised parts, though for some writers that wouldn’t save much time.

What I don’t like about ‘surely’ goes a bit deeper than these stylistic gripes, though. It’s not just bad writing; it’s one of three other things. It’s either bad philosophy, bad writing which leads to bad philosophy, or a brazen acceptance of the bad philosophy that even people who don’t say ‘surely’ do from time to time. The problem is that philosophers aren’t like scientists with their evidence or mathematicians with their genuine rigour. A lot of the time we just say things and hope the reader will agree. I think we do this too much, and there are other, better ways to do philosophy. Saying ‘surely’ draws attention to the fact you’re not offering an argument for a claim, but appealing to the reader to agree with you anyway. The worst is when they say something genuinely controversial, and back it up with ‘surely’. For example, they might say “surely a thing can’t have properties if it doesn’t even exist”. Well Graham Priest, Ed Zalta, Terence Parsons and a gaggle of others think things can have properties without existing, so this ‘surely’ business is either ignorant or disingenuous. There’s no shame in saying “some people think things can have properties without existing, but I don’t want to make that concession so I’m going to try to solve the problem at hand without making it”. Surely that sounds better.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Selling out

Without committing myself one way or another on the whole “are they selling out or aren’t they” debate (yet), I can at least see why celebrities endorse products. They’re paid to. If someone offers you a truckload of money to tell people to wear Nike trainers, that gives you a reason to tell people to wear them that you didn’t have before. Maybe it’s wrong to decide which trainers to endorse on the basis of who pays you rather than on the basis of who makes the best trainers. Maybe I’d vote for a party who said they’d ban paid celebrity endorsements. But it’s not illegal yet, and I can see what motivates the celebrities.

What I can’t see is why it works. People see Tiger Woods or Terry Wogan or whoever telling them to drink Coca-Cola or what have you, and they know they’ve been paid to do this, but they still respond by drinking Coca-Cola. Apparently, some people really respond this way. I hope I don’t, and you presumably don’t, but some people do. They must, or celebrity endorsements would be bad business. I’ve got a few theories about how it works, and I’m not happy about any of them.

My first theory is that people are extremely naive. They understand that celebrities are paid to endorse the products they endorse, but they think they pick the products they really like, and see the fee as a kind of bonus, or thankyou, or expenses. Or perhaps they’ve been watching Peep Show and think that money’s an energy and a lot of it seems to flow towards celebrities. If some of this is as fees for their autonomous and principled endorsements, well, that’s just the way the world works.

If people aren’t this naive, maybe they’re just suggestible and confused. Consciously they know that the celebrity is just doing what they’re paid to do, but unconsciously it still makes them want the product, as if the celebrity had endorsed it out of principle and for free. This doesn’t seem far-fetched to me. If a century or so of hilarious psychology experiments have taught us anything it’s that even intelligent people are easily manipulated in spite of themselves.

The third possibility is that putting a Nike logo on a celebrity is like putting one on a pretty girl. People like things they see next to things they like, so this will make the celebrity’s fans like the product.

So, are the celebrities selling out? I think it’s fairly obvious that if the second theory turns out to be true, celebrity endorsements are like subliminal advertising and it’s arbitrary not to ban the former once we’ve banned the latter. Even if we don’t ban endorsements, if that’s how they work then the people involved are much like subliminal advertisers. If the third theory is right, then I suppose the celebrities are selling out their fame, but only in the way that pretty people in car ads are selling out their prettiness. If the first theory is true, then celebrities who endorse products they wouldn’t endorse for free are, in a way, liars. But they are only lying to extremely naive people. At least they’re not lying to me.