Kant, Hegel, and how to be enlightened citizens

[Reflections on reading Robert B. Brandom, “Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegel’s Idealism”, in his book Tales of the Mighty Dead (Harvard UP, 2002).]

Both Kant and Hegel were writing in a time of thorough-going Enlightenment. For the most part they had moved beyond many of the basic philosophical tasks that kept the early modern philosophers busy, such as staking out what we can be certain of, distinguishing reality from appearance, working out a system of substances, accidents, and causal powers, charting how far human freedom extends, explaining moral obligation, and setting the foundations of political stability. In the span of time separating Descartes and Kant, a Newtonian and Lockean framework had come to dominate the European intellectual scene, which meant that the foundational questions of science, religion, and politics had largely been settled, at least in general outline. The urgent questions for Kant and Hegel were more institutional in nature: how can our social and political institutions be rational? How is the rationality of institutions connected to the rationality of individuals? Or, to put the big question in burdensome Kantian style, what is necessary for the possibility of Enlightened citizens in Enlightened institutions?

In the context of these concerns, what was important about individual human beings for Kant was their capacity to engage in conversations about what is true. Enlightened citizens do not merely squawk in response to environmental pokes and prods; they make assertions for which they assume responsibility. In asserting a claim, they signify that they accept the consequences of that claim, and are willing to provide justification for the claim. Enlightened citizens, in short, think of themselves as grown ups who can engage in a discourse of reasons, and can responsibly navigate their way through dialogues with other similarly Enlightened citizens, giving reasons to one another and responding to them with further reasons.

But at the same time, of course, Kant knew that humans are animals in the natural world, and so this raises a problem. How can animals in the natural world operate as Enlightened citizens? Or, to return to Kantian jargon again, what is necessary for the possibility of animals operating in such a way? The answer to this question was Kant’s set of Critiques. The overall picture Kant offered in answer to this question was that human animals must be able to plug themselves into a system of concepts and judgments that define the structure of rationality. The situation is analogous to learning a language. French has its own grammar and vocabulary, and when I learn French, I learn how to speak according to its structure. Similarly, according to Kant, human animals somehow become able to think and speak in the language of reason, which has its own grammar and vocabulary. But unlike any particular natural language, the language of reason is precisely what enables us to make objective claims about reality, morality, and justice. The language of reason is necessary for the possibility of our efforts in science, morality, and politics — in any language whatsoever.

Kant offers very little insight about the origins or ontology of this language of reason. His concern is to lay out its structure and justify its use, not explain how it came to be. Perhaps he had good reason to claim that no such explanation is possible for us, since it is itself the language in which all explanation takes place, and so it cannot reach outside itself and tell its own origin story. But this is the task Hegel set for himself, and when we experience the vertigo inherent in his attempt — to account for the origins of the framework by which we provide all possible accounts — we might forgive him for writing such maddeningly torturous prose. His answer has something to do with a grand Idea unfolding its own character over time through human history. In any case, what results from his account is the view that Enlightenment is not the expression of a fixed and unchanging system, but one that evolves as we evolve, discovering for ourselves what counts as good reason. 

And so it is with Hegel that we find the highest optimistic hope in Enlightenment: not that we fully know how to be Enlightened citizens, but that we can get better at it by working at it, in constant dialogue with one another. For Hegel, there is no way we can fail in the grand project, because every local failure shows us what we should have known, or should have been paying attention to. The deepest challenge to such high-flying optimism is that there is in fact no way to structure an advanced society that does not oppress and marginalize people, or require slavery, or flatten out individuality and suppress creativity and authenticity. Those challenges, in short, are the criticisms of Marx, Foucault, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. 

Those criticisms must be seriously considered. But there is a cloud of implausibility hanging over them, I think. If the critics of Enlightenment are right, then it is somehow impossible for us to make better and more just societies through rational discourse. Perhaps we can do so by some other means (like trusting to humanity’s innate sociability, or becoming who we are, or something), or perhaps there is really no such thing as a “more just” society, but in any case, the critics charge that rational discourse of the kind that Kant and Hegel sought to establish and explain is of no help at all. And that seems to me very implausible. Civic life has become more humane and just over recorded history, and I think the sort of rational discourse championed by the Enlightenment has had something to do with that improvement. The suggestion that if we all just stopped trying to engage one another with reasoned arguments, then life would get better, or even get no worse, seems absurd to me.

Still, the critics of Enlightenment rightly point out the various ways humans have screwed up, and can do better. They tell us that we must not allow our concerns for efficient and flexible markets and systems to force us treat human beings as mere means; we must encourage the arts and pursuits of authenticity; we need “outsider critiques” of what our institutions are forcing us to do to one another and to ourselves. In short, the critics can be regarded as critics of the imperfect manifestations of Enlightenment — but not of Enlightenment itself. Any rational discourse must be critical if it is to also be constructive.

Posted in Historical episodes, Kant and/or Hume, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff | 2 Comments

3QD: What is living and what is dead in the Enlightenment?

Talking about “The Enlightenment”, when understood as something like “an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries” (thanks, Wikipedia), is like talking about Batman: do you mean classically heroic comic Batman? or the delightfully campy Adam West Batman? or the Batman of the movies, or of the gloomy Dark Knight era? The Batman one selects will determine what further questions need to be settled, and what scales of evaluation should be used. 

Similarly, the Enlightenment can be seen as a cluster of philosophical values (placed upon individual liberty, human equality, political and scientific progress, and independence from religion), or the ways in which those values helped to form economic institutions (slavery of various forms, global capitalism, and free markets), or as a stand-in term for whatever deep injustice people think has become dominant over the last three centuries (global economic inequalities, political states favoring the wealthy, and enduring white privilege). It is often thought that the Enlightenment is somehow a single thing behind all these things, in the way some of us think there can be a steady “Batman” character behind his various depths and flavors. 

These various flavors of “Enlightenment” are not wholly disconnected. For example, John Locke formulated a system of rights, contracts, and obligations that justified slavery on at least some occasions. The notion of actual human equality was interpreted by colonizers to mean potential human equality, which licensed the brutal process of more civilized nations forcing benighted savages into “more advanced conditions”. Scientific progress seemed to demand that we regard the natural world as a resource to be controlled and consumed, and soon our air became unbreathable. Freedom from religion came to mean that the only considerations that belong in the public sphere are measurements of material loss and gain; so “sin” and “virtue” need not apply.

And so, the criticism goes, the core ideals of Enlightenment lead to an alien and inhuman operating system that maximizes material well being for some, while annihilating any local traditions and values that are not readily uploaded into the system.

Read more here

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IAI: The self in the cloud

…But these scientists and philosophers are forgetting about locks. Just as keys have the shapes they have because of the locks they fit, people have the selves they have because of the lives they fit. My memories and beliefs are shaped by what I have experienced, but they are also tuned to the people I ordinarily meet, what I take to be their expectations of me, and networks of obligations and responsibilities I negotiate on a daily basis. My attitudes, desires, hopes, and fears are quite fluid, adapting to my circumstances and the attitudes of others around me. I am the particular self I am because of my on-going, changing relationships to people around me, as well as to the culture, economics, and politics of my time and place….

Read the rest here

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3QD: Living through lives of others

Observations are laden with theories, or so we are told, and theories are laden with cultures. There’s a good reason for thinking this. Theories, after all, spring out from people’s heads. But people’s heads grow within languages and cultures, along with whatever biological constraints lay at the foundations of our being. So anything coming out of our heads is going to bear the imprint of those complex systems. When you speak, a culture is speaking through you, with your own distinctive garnish.

Eight heads, M. C. Escher (1922)

This plausible observation, however, exists in tension with one of the guiding principles our culture speaks through us. That guiding principle is methodological individualism, or the basic strategy of understanding the big stuff by understanding the little stuff. Society is just people, we observe, and languages are just how these people say what they say. So if we understand the people, we will understand the larger cultures and languages they compose en masse. Better yet, understand the individual brains of these individual people; for certainly anything they do will be issuing from what is inside their heads. Better yet still, understand neurons and their local neighborhoods, for certainly the brain is not doing anything more than they are doing. Keep at it, and pretty soon you’ll just be paying attention only to what the quantum physicists say. And at that point you’re a goner, for sure.

We live in an epoch of nominalism: a general distrust of any explanation that proceeds from the big stuff downward. All causality is a local exchange between concrete individuals; larger patterns result from these, just as — in not a wholly unrelated way — economies exist through the exchanges of rationally self-interested individuals. Our culture is formed around the crucial notion that all social facts rest on the consent of individuals disposing of their individual liberties as their own reasons see fit. As Nietzsche once recognized, as scientists we generously extend these republican ideals to nature as a whole, interpreting it as a state teeming with wayward individuals governed by stern and inviolable laws. What is done in the large is only as real as what is done in the small.

But we just might be oversimplifying things a tad.

Read more here.

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3QD: Science and the Six Canons of Rationality

Philosophy of science, in its early days, dedicated itself to justifying the ways of Science to Man. One might think this was a strange task to set for itself, for it is not as if in the early and middle 20th century there was widespread doubt about the validity of science. True, science had become deeply weird, with Einstein’s relativity and quantum mechanics. And true, there was irrationalism aplenty, culminating in two world wars and the invention of TV dinners. But societies around the world generally did not hold science in ill repute. If anything, technologically advanced cultures celebrated better imaginary futures through the steady march of scientific progress.

So perhaps the more accurate view is that many philosophers were swept up in the science craze along with so many others, and one way philosophers can demonstrate their excitement for something is by providing book-length justifications for it. Thus did it transpire that philosophers inclined toward logical empiricism tried to show how laws of nature were in fact based on nothing more than sense perceptions and logic — neither of which could anyone dispute. Perceptions P1, P2, … Pn, when conjoined with other perceptions and carefully indexed with respect to time, and then validly generalized into a universal proposition through some logical apparatus, lead indubitably to the conclusion that “undisturbed bodies maintain constant velocities” — you know, that sort of thing.

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Twilight of the idols of good writing

For a long time I have thought of my job as mostly a teacher of writing. I teach philosophy too, but most of what I teach in that domain is soon forgotten. What my students will keep with them (or so I tell myself) are enhanced abilities to read, think, and write. These skills, I hope, will continue to be exercised in whatever walks of life my students discover for themselves, because our society needs and values people who can survey complicated situations and describe them clearly and accurately.

Less so nowadays. The internet broadens the public square, and allows many more people to participate in the exchange of ideas (or, failing that, memes). This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, more participation means a more vibrant and eclectic breeding ground for culture: more diversity, more creativity, more involvement, and more communication, which are all good things. On the other hand, the “moremoremore” tends to drive shorter attention spans and shallower content.

The emblem of both results is Twitter: each day of Twittering would fill up a 10 million page book. Each tweet is limited to only 280 characters, but that has proven to be ample, as the average tweet is only 33 characters (so I learn from a quick Google search). A great many of our social media posts feature a central image, and the verbal component is an accessory or a punchline. Emails are beginning to represent the epic works of popular culture, by contrast – so much text, so few images! – but obviously they are not much to brag about in terms of thoughtfulness, for the most part.

All in all, writing matters less. To my old school way of thinking, this means thinking and reading also matter less. I once heard Jonathan Bennett opine that there are no purely stylistic difficulties; every problem in expression betokens a failure to have thought all the way through what one wants to say. If we are more lax in our expectations for our writing and the writing of others, this means expecting less in thinking and reading. Good writing is mental discipline, and that discipline carries over, or fails to carry over, into all attempts to process content.

Now I am not sure this is a bad thing. Maybe the art of nuanced and disciplined writing has had its day, just as sonnets and lyric poems have had their day. Out with the old. Time moves on, mostly indifferent to tradition, and my grousing about it is purely epiphenomenal. If human culture as a whole is getting by just fine with silly little tweets, what’s the problem? Things change. I don’t intend to be the grumpy old guy in his shed complaining about the demise of the good old days. (And yet, here I am….)

So it may not much matter, but I do think we are at the twilight of the job I have been taking myself to do, namely, teaching writing. I probably have been on the losing side of this issue for some time. I try to coach my students into making a clear plan for what they are going to write, to offer clear signposts along the way, and to write in complete sentences. I ask them to “level up” their prose into a more academic style, mainly because writing more formally forces you to be more precise in what you say. They should use the little words that suggest contrast, or implication, or example. I expect subjects and verbs to agree with each other. It’s pretty standard, orthodox stuff. (Basically, the stuff you see me do here, I try to teach them to do: monkey me, monkey you.) I understand the arguments that there are many ways to write, and that I’m privileging one particular brand of “white establishment” writing. My defense is that students should learn how to write in a great variety of styles, from the homespun to the soaring to the soullessly impersonal; but one such style (one, I have supposed, with bankable career benefits) is the style I’m teaching. My hope has been that the skills I try to impart would help give them advantages in their careers.

But there are signs that I’m falling behind the times. College courses in composition seem to be more about liberating authentic voices than about refraining from comma splices, so I end up encouraging students to use grammarly.com to catch their more obvious mistakes. An increasing number of papers I receive appear to be not typed but dictated into voice recognition software (for that’s the only explanation for some of the bizarre things I read), and presumably someone will soon find a way to integrate that software with grammarly or whatever else so as to mechanically produce decent prose from verbal hash. So, in short, the skills I’m trying to teach can be outsourced to apps. And with regard to the ability to read and think, which are integrally connected to the ability to write (say I), the need for those skills is already waning, as the virality of tweets and the fecundity of meme generation overwhelm the need for insightful explanations. So it goes. More and more, I am training in students the skills needed for hitching up a buggy.

It’s only twilight, so there will still be some utility in teaching good writing for the rest of my working days, most likely. After that, you’re all on your own, which is as it should be and always has been.

Posted in Items of the academy / learning | 18 Comments

3QD: Monkeys in our treehouse

How we are able to talk — the surprisingly effortless channeling of thoughts into words made available for public consumption — is a startling mystery. The next time you find yourself jabbering, see if you can direct some unemployed part of your mind toward observing just how it is you know what word to put next. Within seven seconds you will find yourself tongue-tied and bewildered as to how you do it. Words come to us, and usually we, like everyone else, do not know exactly what’s coming until we hear it from our own mouths. 

One likely theory is that we have a bunch of monkeys in our treehouse whose job it is to come up with stuff for us to say. They’re a creative bunch and not always keen on relevancy, so there must be some other unit — a panel of straight-faced orangutans, perhaps — that rejects the craziest proposals put forth by the monkeys and shapes what isn’t rejected into something that, for the most part, is not an unreasonable thing to say. The monkeys are enthusiastic but clueless, so they propose a wild array of sayable things; the orangutans tend to be more sensitive to local conditions, and take up the proposals that seem likely to accomplish whatever it is we think we might want to accomplish by making our noises. (Lack of sleep, alcohol, and the presence of someone you’d like to impress all skew the orangutans’ judgment, as is well known.)

Read more here

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3QD: Science and magic

I think it is fair to say that we usually see science and magic as opposed to one another. In science we make bold hypotheses, subject them to rigorous testing against experience, and tentatively accept whatever survives the testing as true – pending future revisions and challenges, of course. But in magic we just believe what we want to be true, and then we demonstrate irrational exuberance when our beliefs are borne out by experience, and in other cases we explain away the falsifications in one way or another. Science means letting what nature does shape what we believe, while magic means framing our interpretations of experience so that we can keep on believing what feels groovy.

But this belief – that we can clearly distinguish between magic and science – turns out itself to be an instance of framing our interpretations so as to allow us to keep on believing something that makes us feel good. In other words, the relation between magic and science is far more complicated, and magic is not so easily brushed aside.

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Teaching history (and philosophy) of the knowledge of nature and (history of) “the philosophy of science”

I have been teaching university philosophy classes for something like 78 years. (At some point, when you can’t summon the energy to figure out how old you are, and what year something happened, and then do a bit of subtraction, then the point you were going to make can be made just as well by making up an absurdly large number and putting it in the slot.) An intelligent person would already have prepared every standard course they would ever teach, and when the time for that course came around, they would just pop off the lid, reheat, and serve the course once again. But I have never been able to do that. For whatever reason – I think it has to do with having a very limited attention span – did you know imaginary numbers are actually used by engineers in their calculations? – I constantly seem to reinvent a course every time I teach it.

So this coming academic term I am teaching two courses, Epistemology and Philosophy of Science. Epistemology is always a frustrating puzzle for me to solve, and I’m trying to solve it this go-around by writing my own textbook. I’ll probably discuss that on another occasion. Philosophy of Science is a course I have not usually taught, so I have less experience continually reinventing it, which makes it a fresher puzzle. My initial thought was to grab a standard textbook and use it as a sort of master plan, fitting in extra remarks, questions, and tangents along the way.

But as I read the text I grew increasingly antsy and frustrated. Philosophy of science is a large and important subdiscipline within philosophy, and it has attracted some very bright and clever thinkers like Carl Hempel, Karl Popper, Nelson Goodman, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Bas van Fraassen, and so on and so forth. But, like nearly every subdomain of contemporary academic philosophy, it has been severely blinkered by refusing to look at anything outside a very narrow reading list; in particular, it has not joined in any serious way with history and the broad array of scholarship contained under the heading of “science studies”. Moreover, it usually has been surprisingly silent about any sort of thinking about nature prior to Copernicus (and, post-Copernicus, the world seems to have been populated by about ten or so figures in science, if you base your guess on philosophers’ discussions).

Such a view of science is willfully ignorant, obviously. At the same time, it is the stuff one should sort of expect to see in an undergraduate class surveying the philosophy of science. But it is willfully ignorant! But it is the stuff. But there are so many other interesting things to know! But it’s what everyone else teaches. But!!!

These frustrating concerns have been wrestling in my head for a few weeks until a sleepless episode a few nights ago in which I realized, for about the one hundred millionth time, that I could do things differently.

What I realized was that the course could consist of two big chunks. The first chunk is what I can call “the history (and philosophy) of knowledge of nature”. This chunk is a very long story about how people have understood nature and how that understanding relates to philosophical subjects like metaphysics, religion, morality, and the meaning of life. We read and think about the pre-Socratics, Aristotle, Plato, some neo-Aristotelians, various figures in the early modern period including philosophers and magic enthusiasts, Darwin, Einstein, and quantum mechanics, and we think about the metaphysics of each view, how it connects to their surrounding culture, and what such a view says about our place in the universe: big picture stuff. Obviously, this chunk could be infinite, as there is so much to explore in it. And I wish I had greater competence to explore more of the so-called “non-western” stuff.

The second chunk is a comparatively shorter story. It concerns the history of an academic subdiscipline that calls itself “the philosophy of science”, which got its start early in the 20th century and continues today. There are important concepts and problems and insights in this subdiscipline, but it has to be framed as a relative newcomer to the historical stage, and just as much conditioned by cultural forces as anything else humans come up with.

This seems to be something I can really get behind. (At least until the next time I teach the course.) Students, I think, are extremely interested in thinking through “big picture” metaphysics, which is exactly what we find in the first chunk of the class. And the content of the second chunk will I think become deeper and more insightful, but at the same time more obviously limited and skewed, by having the broad picture offered by the first chunk serving as a frame of reference. Well: we’ll see how it goes.

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3QD: Bigger knowledge, bigger problems

In a slogan: our hard problems require more smarter people than the hard problems of the past. The tightrope we are walking keeps getting steeper and more slippery and higher off the ground – requiring even better tightrope walkers, tightrope walkers “more better” than the rest of us than has been required in the past. Put more simply, there’s some acceleration going on, both with our levels of expertise and our levels of problems.

More here

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For the sake of discussion

People argue

We know all too well how easy it is to write something to someone online that we would never say face to face, and conversely how much more effort it takes to write online with the general kindness we employ in our real life interactions. It is tempting to let fly with that zinger, press “enter”, and make a quick escape; or to grind on and on trading insult with insult, madly googling for easy factoids with which to bludgeon our opponent. But that sort of toxic online activity never makes us feel better – or at least I hope it doesn’t. I hope that in all of us there remains some human decency that steadily disapproves of being a jerk. Once that fails us, we’re sunk.

So it is worth bearing in mind what attitudes we should adopt for the sake of discussion. There is of course the general rule that we should act online as if we were acting face to face, or do unto others online as you would have them do unto you F2F, or other web-directed reformulations of the golden rule (call it “the silicon rule”, I guess). But I don’t find that rule easy to keep in mind, probably because every time it is employed I have to work through an unlikely counterfactual scenario that takes too much effort to process (“If I were standing in line at Walmart, talking to my neighbor about how widespread esoteric beliefs were in the middle ages, would I say this to them?”). I would instead suggest adopting a frame of mind when engaging online, one that you remind yourself to adopt before you type anything to anyone.

So suppose I’m flitting around the internet and some story or article or post grabs my attention and I feel like participating. I need to first take a breath and ask myself, “Is this likely to be a serious engagement of ideas?” If not, it’s better to just move on. If that’s too hard, then type the zinger you really want to express, take a moment to revel in its sting – and then delete it, and move on. You will feel a burst of pride for having acted like an adult.

If it is – if there is a chance for a real conversation – then you need to adopt an “input” attitude governing what you read, and an “output” attitude governing what you type.

As you read others’ comments, the attitude should be that the person you are reading might be right, or half right, or a little bit right. Focus on what’s right. Ask yourself whether you really know that the other parts of what they are saying that seem wrong really are wrong. Don’t reflexively google up refutations. Take a moment to consider what they are saying, and whether it might be true, for all you know. Try to see the main point they are making, and give them a free pass if they make mistakes about tangential points, or if they misspell words or names. As in a real conversation, focus on the real substance of what’s being said. The general attitude is this: put yourself in the frame of learning.

Once you feel you have a solid and fair grip on what another person has written, if you feel you have something to say in return (and if you don’t, move on), your attitude should be one of engaged friendliness. Point out what you think the other person is right about. Then move the conversation further – by raising a difficulty with what they have said, or pointing out a relevant counterexample, or suggesting a different way of looking at things. Or you might simply point out a further complication that you yourself are not sure what to think of. Be clear in what you say, but sprinkle in a few qualifiers like “it seems to me” or “maybe” or “I think” – not in a sarcastic tone as you go on to point out something blazingly obvious, but in a truthful tone, since whatever you are writing is in indeed qualified by it seeming so to you. You in fact might be wrong. You, like the other person, are steering by your best available sense of the world. The general attitude is this: put yourself in the frame of furthering the discussion, not finishing it.

Putting the two together, your frame of mind should be: I am here to learn and to further the discussion.

Now obviously this advice does not guarantee success. Your conversational partner might be affected by the civil tone you have adopted, and adopt a similar one, which is great. But they might not, and they might go on to behave like a jerk. If that happens, move on. Not with a parting shot. Not even with an innocent “I was hoping for a civil discussion, but alas, my friend, you have disappointed me.” Just move on. Let them have their last word. If your partner thinks about the exchange at all, waiting for your response that never comes, they might reflect on the difference in tone between your notes and theirs, and perhaps will recognize that they have been a jerk. Either that, or they will believe that their final zinger really got you, and you’ve gone off to lick your wounds. It doesn’t really matter. You will have done your part to make online conversations better. Sometimes even your best efforts will fail, but it will still be important that you have made them.

Adopting this attitude is a two marshmallow effort. You lose out on an immediate thrill coming from virtual confrontation, but you are rewarded over a longer term by knowing that you have tried to be a decent person.

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Mad-Dog Everettianism, probability, and a little bit of Hume

One of the great upsides of the generally miserable or horrific pandemic is that more recordings of fascinating intellectual discussions are being made available to wider audiences. Recently I watched a set of talks hosted by an outfit called the “Harvard Foundations of Physics Workshop Series”, grouped together under the name “Mini-Workshop on the Many Worlds of Everettian Quantum Theory”. I am interested in this topic, but I have no more than amateurish competency. In what follows I’m going to offer what I think I understand; but if I get stuff wrong, just blame me, of course, and none of the presenters in this workshop.

Sean Carroll was one of the featured speakers, as his recent book Something Deeply Hidden champions the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. The basic idea of the many worlds interpretation (hereafter, MWI) is that when we have some sort of quantum situation in which a system is in a superposition of many different states (think of the Schrödinger’s Cat example), at some point that system “decoheres” in such a way that each of those states becomes a real, actual state of the system in one world or some other world. This world-splitting includes any observers who are entangled with these quantum systems – they too branch into separate selves, living in separate worlds, each as real as the next. This happens many, many times every second, in case you haven’t noticed.

(from Physics4me.com. As Sean Carroll notes, however, human decisions don’t cause worlds to split – quantum events do.)

It is a brave view, and Carroll compellingly argues that it is in some ways the most basic, straight-ahead interpretation of quantum mechanics. Every other “more sensible” interpretation requires adding extra-theoretical elements to the theory, just so that we can feel more comfortable with it. But the simplest, no-frills, most straight-ahead version of quantum mechanics is just MWI (or what Carroll calls “Mad-Dog Everettianism”). This particular mini-workshop was aiming at whether we really can live with the many worlds interpretation – in other words, whether we really can make it square with seemingly obvious parts of our own experience, as well as deeply ingrained presuppositions of science.


A basic objection to raise against MWI is whether it can make sense of probabilities. Here is the problem. In some typical sort of quantum experiment, we can assess the probabilities of the outcomes. Let’s say there is a 90% chance that A will result, and a 10% chance that B will result. But according to the MWI, every outcome happens in some world or other, and all of these worlds are equally real. So what do “90%” and “10%” mean?

Initially we might say that the percentages express the chance that the initial world will evolve into one world or another world. At first we are in world 1, and then we do the experiment, and there is a 90% chance we will end up in world 2, and a 10% chance we will end up in world 3. But here is the problem: who is the “we”? The observers in world 2 are every much as continuously identical with the observers in the original world 1 as the observers in world 3 are. There is no pride of place in the multiverse. “We” end up in both worlds, fully and completely. So, once again: what do “90%” and “10%” mean?

Carroll’s own answer is that the 90% and 10% should be understood as the epistemic probabilities of self-location, after the experiment has taken place. That’s a mouthful, so here is what it means. Let’s say we have done the experiment, but have not yet checked to see whether A or B has been the result. (We haven’t opened the box.) We pause and ask ourselves, “What world are we in?” If we are rational, says Carroll, we ought to be 90% sure we are in world A, and 10% sure we are in world B. The percentages track what our levels of confidence ought to be, not our chances of surviving the splitting of worlds in one world versus another. We might run the experiment a few times to assure ourselves we are assigning the right probabilities to these outcomes, and over time, we will be assured. That’s been our experience over the last century, anyway.

The Easier Objection

It is at this point that philosopher David Albert raises an objection. Suppose we repeat this experiment many times over, with the worlds splitting every time. In the end there will be a large population of observers who have found themselves to be in worlds where A happens 90% of the time and B happens 10% of the time. Good for them (and for us). But these aren’t all the worlds there are. There will also be worlds where A happens all the time; worlds where B happens all the time; worlds where A and B happen with equal frequency; and all the possibilities in between. These observers are not going to come to the conclusion, based on their empirical evidence, that A should happen 90% of the time, and B should happen 10% of the time. They will get quantum mechanics quite wrong – or at the very least they will be quite astonished at how often “improbable” events happen in their world.

Carroll’s response is, basically, that it stinks to be them. They live in bad luck worlds that fail to confirm the true physics of the world. But that’s just the way the quantum cookie crumbles.

At this point Albert complains that this runs afoul of a deeply-entrenched scientific ideal, namely that the laws of nature are the regularities all observers should come to discover with enough time, patience, and rationality. Science represents the truths different observers converge upon, precisely because they are all governed by the same laws of nature. The MWI makes it absolutely certain that some observers, in some worlds, will never converge upon the true laws of nature, and not because they haven’t enough time, patience, or rationality. They just haven’t enough good luck to live in a world in which their experience reflects the true order of things. 

Carroll’s reply to this is that, as science goes along, we should expect to have our minds changed, even about deeply-entrenched ideals of science. Perhaps we once thought that the probabilities in quantum mechanics reflected how likely certain events would take place in the world. But now, with MWI, we are realizing that probabilities measure something else; and perhaps along with that we are also realizing that reality really stinks for some scientists out there in the multiverse (or, as Carroll points out, it stinks even for some scientists in our universe, if it is so big to include a sufficient number of quantum scientists on other planets doing similar experiments). 

The Harder Objection

But David Albert raises a deeper objection as well, which requires more care and effort to explain. According to Carroll, as we have seen, percentages reflect how much confidence observers should have regarding which world they are in. “There is a 90% chance that A will happen” really means “If I were in a world in which this experiment had just taken place, I should be 90% sure that A was the result.” Albert’s objection is, basically, why the universe should care about what percentages human beings would assign to being in this or that situation after doing an experiment.

There are lots of ways for human beings to assign probabilities. They could roll percentile dice. They could throw darts. They could take the temperature of the nearest wombat, divide by 2, and subtract from 100. Or they could follow the Born rule, which is the official quantum mechanics method for assigning probabilities. Experts agree that this is the best way to go.

So why is the Born rule the best way to go? We might initially say that it’s because it’s the rule that nature itself follows as it figures out what should happen next. That is a natural thing to say, but it is precisely not what an MWI theorist can say. Probabilities, remember, do not track genuine chance, since all chances get taken up in some world or other. Instead, probabilities track how much confidence observers should have about which world they are in.

And why should observers have one level of confidence rather than another? Again, why should they follow the Born rule, as opposed to any other rule? We might try this second answer: observers who have done this sort of experiment a whole bunch of times just happen to have found empirically that following the Born rule is more successful than any other known method of assigning probabilities to outcomes. Other observers in other worlds have no doubt come up with other rules that match their experience more closely, and still other observers have been pulling out their hair trying to find some pattern in the mess they are experiencing. But in our world the Born rule has worked extremely well.

In other words, in the unimaginably vast multiverse, there have to be some possible worlds in which the Born rule holds; just as there have to be worlds where the Shmorn rule holds, and the Blorn rule, and the Florn rule, and on and on. Every rule holds in some world or other, and in some worlds there is no rule that can be discerned at all. We just happen to find ourselves in a Born rule world.

But hold on. The Born rule is not supposed to be just one assignment of probabilities running alongside many other possible assignments of probabilities. It is supposed to be the right one, or the one we ought to follow if we want to be rational in making our predictions about what we shall see when we open the box. (Indeed, the Born rule is the right one to follow, or the rational one to follow, for all observers on all branches, even if some unlucky observers on some branches can be forgiven for not thinking so.) But now, in trying to make sense of all this, we are finding that there is an endless variety in rules that rational, empirically-minded observers will end up adopting in their different worlds, and each one of them can loudly brag about itself: “So far, so good.” The fact that the Born rule can brag about this success in our world does not make it the rational rule to follow in other worlds.

It gets worse. For why should we think that the Born rule is a good one to adopt even just within the confines of our world? Maybe our world is one that will suddenly turn anti-Bornian tomorrow at noon (we know, after all, that such worlds exist; and absolutely none of our evidence tells us that we are not in one of those worlds). All sorts of skeptical scenarios threaten to undermine our confidence in our predictions – and these threats should be taken seriously so long as our predictions are based on a principle that is assumed to be only an accidental regularity. To set aside such bothersome scenarios, we need to have some reason to believe that Born is no accident – that it actually does govern how things turn out, in all worlds that share our laws of nature. But this is an assurance that MWI cannot possibly give. (Or at least, so far as my amateur understanding can see!) 

A Humean Observation

Overall, I am struck by the Humean sensibility of MWI. The most austere version of Hume’s account of the human situation is that nature chugs along following its rules (or maybe sometimes following no rules, who knows) in some fashion that is utterly opaque to us. When patterns and regularities emerge, we quickly get used to them, and we expect nature to continue to follow them. But nature is not obligated to follow our expectations; there is nothing in our experience or reason that tells us we are justified in expecting nature to keep doing the same sort of thing. So we plod along and hope for the best.

If MWI is true, then many observers across the many worlds are living Humean nightmares. Their worlds rudely surprise them with violations of the most common regularities. Other observers are quickly getting used to weird regularities never to be seen in our world. In our world – so far, anyway – we are not experiencing those rude surprises, and nature seems to follow the patterns we expect to see followed. That’s nice, if a little boring. And we think we have a theory that both explains our experience and explains the misfortunes of our colleagues in other worlds. What our colleagues believe, and what they think about us, God only knows.

But then again, maybe we are in a slightly nightmarish Humean world after all. There is quantum mechanics, after all. As odd as it may sound, if MWI is true, then some of our counterparts in other worlds never discovered quantum mechanics, and have been able to explain all events in terms of classical mechanics. We would say they were wrong – though it would be harder to say whether their experience has been lucky or unlucky. As it happens, in our world, we see nature do funny things in the quantum arena, and that complicates our science of nature, and gives rise to the complications mentioned in this essay, along with so many others. Maybe, if MWI is true, it might have been nicer for us never to have had to have come up with MWI in the first place?

(Thanks to Richard Harvey for comments on an earlier draft, though any remaining mistakes are entirely my own.)

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3QD: The Monas Hieroglyphica, Feynman Diagrams, And The Voynich Manuscript

One of the strangest books to come out of Europe in the sixteenth century – and that is saying a lot – is John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica (1564). Dee was an English mathematician, court astrologer, diplomat, and spy. He was also a wizard, or at least an aspirant to wizardry. Like many European intellectuals of the 16th century, Dee devoted himself to what we identify today as esoteric studies, which means an interdisciplinary effort to discern a primordial truth through the study of ancient texts, alchemy, astrology, philosophy, theology, and magical practices. Ancient texts such as the Corpus Hermeticum and the Emerald Tablet promised a brand of wisdom that had made the ancient ages more powerful and knowledgeable than any age since, and their introduction into western Europe during the Renaissance gave scholars a hope of recovering ancient wisdom and restoring human nature to the perfection it had once enjoyed in the Garden of Eden, before – well, that part of the story you probably know already.

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3QD: A Dialogue on Politics as Game

Bill: Can you believe these Republicans?! Just four years after swearing up and down that no nominee for the Supreme Court should ever be approved in an election year for the president, and promising on their mothers’ graves that they would never do such a thing, here they are doing exactly that!

Alice: Why are you surprised, Bill? They are doing exactly what they should be doing. And the Democrats are doing what they should be doing – grandstanding about principles, and declaring that they would never go back on their word, and decrying the demise of American politics, and so forth and so on. Everything is going as it should.

Bill: How can you say that? The Republicans – and, okay, I admit it, the Democrats too, to some extent – are being hypocritical, and just saying whatever they think they need to say to score their own political points.

Alice: Well, yes. Isn’t that their job?

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3QD: The Tale of the Eloi and the Morlocks

H. G. Wells’ novella, The Time Machine, traces the evolutionary results of a severely unequal society. The Traveller journeys not just to the year 2000 or 5000, but all the way to the year 802,701, where he witnesses the long-term evolutionary consequences of Victorian inequality.

The human race has evolved into two distinct species. The first one we encounter is the Eloi, a population of large-eyed and fair-haired children who are loving and gentle, but otherwise pretty much useless. They flit from distraction to distraction and feed upon juicy fruits that fall from the trees. “I never met people more indolent or more easily fatigued,” observes the Traveller. “A queer thing I soon discovered about my little hosts, and that was their lack of interest. They would come to me with eager cries of astonishment, like children, but, like children they would soon stop examining me, and wander away after some other toy.”

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