A Philosopher's Blog

Lessons from Gaming #2: Random Universe

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 22, 2014
Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game)

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My experiences as a tabletop and video gamer have taught me numerous lessons that are applicable to the real world (assuming there is such a thing). One key skill in getting about in reality is the ability to model reality. Roughly put, this is the ability to get how things work and thus make reasonably accurate predictions. This ability is rather useful: getting how things work is a big step on the road to success.

Many games, such as Call of Cthulhu, D&D, Pathfinder and Star Fleet Battles make extensive use of dice to model the vagaries of reality. For example, if your Call of Cthulhu character were trying to avoid being spotted by the cultists of Hastur as she spies on them, you would need to roll under your Sneak skill on percentile dice. As another example, if your D-7 battle cruiser were firing phasers and disruptors at a Kzinti strike cruiser, you would roll dice and consult various charts to see what happened. Video games also include the digital equivalent of dice. For example, if you are playing World of Warcraft, the damage done by a spell or a weapon will be random.

Being a gamer, it is natural for me to look at reality as also being random—after all, if a random model (gaming system) nicely fits aspects of reality, then that suggests the model has things right. As such, I tend to think of this as being a random universe in which God (or whatever) plays dice with us.

Naturally, I do not know if the universe is random (contains elements of chance). After all, we tend to attribute chance to the unpredictable, but this unpredictability might be a matter of ignorance rather than chance. After all, the fact that we do not know what will happen does not entail that it is a matter of chance.

People also seem to believe in chance because they think things could have been differently: the die roll might have been a 1 rather than a 20 or I might have won the lottery rather than not. However, even if things could have been different it does not follow that chance is real. After all, chance is not the only thing that could make a difference. Also, there is the rather obvious question of proving that things could have been different. This would seem to be impossible: while it might be believed that conditions could be recreated perfectly, one factor that can never be duplicated – time. Recreating an event will be a recreation. If the die comes up 20 on the first roll and 1 on the second, this does not show that it could have been a 1 the first time. All its shows is that it was 20 the first time and 1 the second.

If someone had a TARDIS and could pop back in time to witness the roll again and if the time traveler saw a different outcome this time, then this might be evidence of chance. Or evidence that the time traveler changed the event.

Even traveling to a possible or parallel world would not be of help. If the TARDIS malfunctions and pops us into a world like our own right before the parallel me rolled the die and we see it come up 1 rather than 20, this just shows that he rolled a 1. It tells us nothing about whether my roll of 20 could have been a 1.

Of course, the flip side of the coin is that I can never know that the world is non-random: aside from some sort of special knowledge about the working of the universe, a random universe and a non-random universe would seem exactly the same. Whether my die roll is random or not, all I get is the result—I do not perceive either chance or determinism. However, I go with a random universe because, to be honest, I am a gamer.

If the universe is deterministic, then I am determined to do what I do. If the universe is random, then chance is a factor. However, a purely random universe would not permit actual decision-making: it would be determined by chance. In games, there is apparently the added element of choice—I chose for my character to try to attack the dragon, and then roll dice to determine the result. As such, I also add choice to my random universe.

Obviously, there is no way to prove that choice occurs—as with chance versus determinism, without simply knowing the brute fact about choice there is no way to know whether the universe allows for choice or not. I go with a choice universe for the following reason: If there is no choice, then I go with choice because I have no choice. So, I am determined (or chanced) to be wrong. I could not choose otherwise. If there is choice, then I am right. So, choosing choice seems the best choice. So, I believe in a random universe with choice—mainly because of gaming. So, what about the lessons from this?

One important lesson is that decisions are made in uncertainty: because of chance, the results of any choice cannot be known with certainty. In a game, I do not know if the sword strike will finish off the dragon. In life, I do not know if the investment will pay off. In general, this uncertainty can be reduced and this shows the importance of knowing the odds and the consequences: such knowledge is critical to making good decisions in a game and in life. So, know as much as you can for a better tomorrow.

Another important lesson is that things can always go wrong. Or well. In a game, there might be a 1 in 100 chance that a character will be spotted by the cultists, overpowered and sacrificed to Hastur. But it could happen. In life, there might be a 1 in a 100 chance of a doctor taking precautions catching Ebola from a patient. But it could happen. Because of this, the possibility of failure must always be considered and it is wise to take steps to minimize the chances of failure and to also minimize the consequences.

Keeping in mind the role of chance also helps a person be more understanding, sympathetic and forgiving. After all, if things can fail or go wrong because of chance, then it makes sense to be more forgiving and understanding of failure—at least when the failure can be attributed in part to chance. It also helps in regards to praising success: knowing that chance plays a role in success is also important. For example, there is often the assumption that success is entirely deserved because it must be the result of hard work, virtue and so on. However, if success involves chance to a significant degree, then that should be taken into account when passing out praise and making decisions. Naturally, the role of chance in success and failure should be considered when planning and creating policies. Unfortunately, people often take the view that both success and failure are mainly a matter of choice—so the rich must deserve their riches and the poor must deserve their poverty. However, an understanding of chance would help our understanding of success and failure and would, hopefully, influence the decisions we make. There is an old saying “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” One could also say “there, but for the luck of the die, go I.”


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Lessons from Gaming #1: Keep Rolling

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 10, 2014
English: Six dice of various colours. 4-sided ...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a young kid I played games like Monopoly, Chutes & ladders and Candy Land. When I was a somewhat older kid, I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons and this proved to be a gateway game to Call of Cthulhu, Battletech, Star Fleet Battles, Gamma World, and video games of all sorts. I am still a gamer today—a big bag of many-sided dice and exotic gaming mice dwell within my house.

Over the years, I have learned many lessons from gaming. One of these is keep rolling. This is, not surprisingly, similar to the classic advice of “keep trying” and the idea is basically the same. However, there is some interesting philosophy behind “keep rolling.”

Most of the games I have played feature actual dice or virtual dice (that is, randomness) that are used to determine how things go in the game. To use a very simple example, the dice rolls in Monopoly determine how far your piece moves. In vastly more complicated games like Pathfinder or Destiny the dice (or random number generators) govern such things as attacks, damage, saving throws, loot, non-player character reactions and, in short, much of what happens in the game. For most of these games, the core mechanics are built around what is supposed to be a random system. For example, in games like Pathfinder when your character attacks the dragon with her great sword, a roll of a 20-sided die determines whether you hit or not. If you do hit, then you roll more dice to determine your damage.

Having played these sorts of games for years, I can think very well in terms of chance and randomness when planning tactics and strategies within such games. On the one hand, a lucky roll can result in victory in the face of overwhelming odds. On the other hand, a bad roll can seize defeat from the jaws of victory. But, in general, success is more likely if one does not give up and keeps on rolling.

This lesson translates very easily and obviously to life. There are, of course, many models and theories of how the real world works. Some theories present the world as deterministic—all that happens occurs as it must and things cannot be otherwise. Others present a pre-determined world (or pre-destined): all that happens occurs as it has been ordained and cannot be otherwise. Still other models present a random universe.

As a gamer, I favor the random universe model: God does play dice with us and He often rolls them hard. The reason for this belief is that the dice/random model of gaming seems to work when applied to the actual world—as such, my belief is mostly pragmatic. Since games are supposed to model parts of reality, it is hardly surprising that there is a match up. Based on my own experience, the world does seem to work rather like a game: success and failure seem to involve chance.

As a philosopher, I recognize this could simply be a matter of epistemology: the apparent chance could be the result of our ignorance rather than an actual randomness. To use the obvious analogy, the game master might not be rolling dice behind her screen at all and what happens might be determined or pre-determined. Unlike in a game, the rule system for reality is not accessible: it is guessed at by what we observe and we learn the game of life solely by playing.

That said, the dice model seems to fit experience best: I try to do something and succeed or fail with a degree of apparent randomness. Because I believe that randomness is a factor, I consider that my failure to reach a goal could be partially due to chance. So, if I want to achieve that goal, I roll again. And again. Until I succeed or decide that the game is not worth the roll. Not being a fool, I do consider that success might be impossible—but I do not infer that from one or even a few bad rolls. This approach to life has served me well and will no doubt do so until it finally kills me.


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Playing with Solipsism II: Ethics

Posted in Epistemology, Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 1, 2013
English: , Prussian philosopher. Português: , ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Very crudely put, solipsism is the philosophical view that only I exist. I played around a bit with it in an earlier post, and I thought I’d do so a bit more before putting it back in the attic.

One interesting way to object to solipsism is on moral grounds. After all, if I believe that only I exist, this belief could result in me behaving badly. Assuming that the world exists, people commonly endeavor to lower the moral status of beings they wish to make the targets of their misdeeds. For example, men who want to mistreat women often work hard to cast them as inferior. As another example, people who want to mistreat animals typically convince themselves that animals are inferior beings and hence can be mistreated. Solipsism would seem to present the ultimate reduction: everything other than me is nothing, which is presumably as “low” as it goes (unless there is some sort of negative or anti-existence). If I were to truly believe that other people and animals merely “exist” in my mind, then my treatment of them would seem to not matter at all. Since no one else exists, I cannot commit murder. Since the world is mine, I cannot commit theft. As might be imagined, such believes could open the door to wicked behavior.

One obvious reply is that if solipsism is true, then this would not be a problem. After all, acting badly towards others is only a problem if there are, in fact, others to act badly towards. If solipsism is true, what I do in the “real” world would seem to have no more moral significance than what I do in dreams or in video games. As such, it can be contended that the moral problem is only a problem if one believes that solipsism is false.

However, it can also be contended that the possibility that solipsism is wrong should be taken into account. That is, while I cannot disprove solipsism, I also cannot prove it. As such, the people I encounter might, in fact, be people. As such, the possibility that they are actually people should be enough to require that I act as if they are people in terms of how I treat them. As such, my skepticism about my solipsism would seem to lead me to act morally, even though it is possible that there is no one else to act morally towards. This, obviously enough, is analogous in some ways to concerns about the treatment of certain animals as well as the ethical matter of abortion. If I accept a principle that entities that might be people should be treated as people, this would seem to have some interesting implications. Of course, it could be argued that the possible people need to show the qualities that actual people would have if they existed as people.

It can also be contended that even if solipsism were true, my actions would still have moral significance. That is, I could still act in right or wrong ways.  One way to consider ethics in the context of solipsism is to consider ethics in the case of video games. Some years back I wrote “Saving Dogmeat” which addresses a similar concern, namely whether or not one can be good or bad in regards to video game characters. One way to look at solipsism is that the world is a video game that has one player, namely me.

One obvious way to develop this would be to develop a variant of Kantian ethics. While there would be no other rational beings, the Kantian view that only the good will is good would seem to allow for ethics in solipsism. While my willing could have no consequences for other beings (since there are none) I could presumably still will the good. Another way to do this is by using a modified version of virtue theory. While there would be no right or wrong targets of my feelings and actions (other than myself), there would still seem to be a way to discuss excess and deficiency. There are, of course, numerous other theories that could be modified for a world that is me. For example, utilitarianism would still work, although the only morally relevant being would be me. However, my actions could make me unhappy or happy even though they are directed “towards” the contents of my own mind. For example, engaging in “kindness” could make me happier than engaging in “cruelty.” Of course, this might be better seen as a form of ethical egoism in the purest possible sense (being the only being, I would seem to be the only being that matters-assuming any being matters).

While this might seem a bit silly, solipsism does seem to provide an interesting context in which to discuss ethics. But, time to put solipsism back in the attic.

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The Republicans’ Epistemic Problem

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 14, 2012
English: Karl Rove Assistant to the President,...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that focuses on knowledge: determining the nature of knowledge, sorting out what we can (and cannot) know and similar concerns. While people often think of epistemology in terms of strange skeptical problems such as the brain–in-the-vat and the Cartesian demon, it actually has rather practical aspects. After all, sorting out what is known from what is merely believed is important for the practical aspects of life. Also a significant portion of critical thinking can be seen in terms of epistemology: determining what justifies believing that a claim as true.

In very rough and ready terms, to know a claim is to believe the claim, for the claim to actually be true and for the belief to be properly justified. As any professional philosopher will tell you, this rough and ready view has been roughly beaten over the years by various clever thinkers. However, for practical purposes this account works fairly well—provided that one takes the proper precautions.

My main purpose is not, however, to do battle over the fine points of an account of knowledge. Rather, my objective is to discuss the Republicans’ epistemic problem to illustrate how politics and epistemology can intersect.

As noted above, a rough account of knowledge involves having a true belief that is properly justified. As might be imagined, the matters of justification and truth can be debated until the cows (if they exist) come home (if it exists). However, a crude view of truth should suffice for my purposes: a claim about the actual world is true when it matches the actual world. As far as justification goes, I will stick with an intuitive notion—that is, that the belief is properly formed and supported. To help give some flesh to this poor definition I will use specific examples where beliefs are not justified.

As I discussed in my essay on politics and alternative reality, political narratives are typically aimed at crafting what amounts to an alternative reality story. This generally involves two types of tales. The first is laying out a negative narrative describing one’s opponents. The second is spinning a positive tale about one’s virtues. While all politicians and pundits play this game, the Republicans seemed to have made the rather serious epistemic error of believing that their fictional narratives expressed justified, true beliefs.

While epistemologists disagree about justification, it seems reasonable to hold that believing a claim because one wants it to be true is not adequate justification. It also seems reasonable to hold that a belief formed by systematically ignoring and misinterpreting available evidence is not justified. That is, it seems reasonable to hold that fallacies do not serve as justification for a claim. Hence, it seems reasonable to hold that beliefs based on such poor reasoning do not meet the standard of knowledge—even if we lack a proper definition of knowledge.

One clear indicator of this was the shock and dismay on the part of conservative pundits such as Laura Ingraham. A bit before the election she said “if you can’t beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party.” Other pundits and spinions expressed incredulity at Obama’s ability to stay ahead of Romney in the polls and they were terribly shocked when Obama won the actual election. This is understandable. On their narrative, Obama is the worst president in history. He has divided the country, brought socialism to America, destroyed jobs, played the race card against all opponents, gone on a worldwide apology tour, weakened America and might be a secret Muslim who was born outside of the United States. Obviously enough, such a terrible person should have been extremely easy to defeat and Americans should have been clamoring if not for Romney, then at least to be rid of Obama. As such, it makes sense why the people who accept the alternative reality in which Obama is all these things (or at least most of them) were so shocked by what actually happened, namely his being re-elected. The Republican epistemic and critical thinking problems in this regard are well presented in Fox’s Megyn Kelly’s question to strategist Karl Rove: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is it real?”

After Obama’s victory, the conservative politicians, pundits and spinions rushed to provide an explanation for this dire turn of events. Some blame was placed on the Republican party, thus continuing an approach that began long before the election.

Given their epistemic failings, it makes sense that they would believe that the Republican Party is to blame for the failure to beat such an easy opponent. To use an analogy, imagine that fans of a team believe that an opposing team is pathetic but as the game is played, the “pathetic” team gets ahead and stays there. Rather than re-assess the other team, the fans are likely to start blaming their team, the coaches and so on for doing so poorly against such a “pathetic” opponent. However, if the opposing team is not as they imagined, then they have the explanation wrong: they are losing because the other team is better.  Put another way, their team is not playing against the team they think they are playing against—the pathetic team is a product of their minds and not an objective assessment of the actual team.

In the case of Obama, the conservatives and Republicans would be rightfully dismayed if they lost to someone as bad as their idea of Obama. However, they did not run against that alternative Obama. They ran against the actual Obama and he is not as bad as they claim. Hence, it makes sense that they did not do as well as they thought they should.  To be fair, the Democrats also had an Obama narrative that is not an unbiased account of the president.

It also makes sense that they would explain the loss by blaming the voters. As Bill O’Reilly explained things, Obama won because there are not enough white male voters and too many non-white and female voters who want “stuff” from the government. This explanation is hardly surprising. After all Fox News, the main epistemic engine of the Republicans, had been presenting a narrative in which America is divided between the virtuous hard working people and those who just want free stuff. There was also a narrative involving race (as exemplified by the obsessive focus on one Black Panther standing near a Philadelphia polling place) and one involving gender. Rush Limbaugh also contributed significantly to these narratives, especially the gender narrative, with his calling Sandra Fluke a slut. On these narratives, the colored people and women are (or have joined forces with) the people who want free stuff and it is their moral failing that robbed Romney of his rightful victory. However, this narrative fails to be true. While there are some people who want “free stuff”, the reality is rather different from the narrative—as analyzed in some detail by the Baltimore Sun. In response to such actual evidence, the usual reply is to make use of anecdotal evidence in the form of YouTube videos or vague references to someone who just wants free stuff. That is, evidence that is justified is “countered” by unwarranted beliefs based on fallacious reasoning. Ironically, the common reply to the claim that their epistemology is flawed is to simply shovel out more examples of the defective epistemology.

As might be imagined, while the Republicans had a good reason to try to get people to accept their alternative reality as the actual world some of them seem to have truly believed that the alternative is the actual. This had a rather practical impact in that to the degree they believed in this alternative world that isn’t, their strategies and tactics were distorted. After all, when one goes into battle accurate intelligence is vital and distorted information is a major liability. It does seem that some folks became victims of their own distortions and this impacted the election.

People generally tend to want to cling to a beloved narrative, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. However, there is a very practical reason for the Republicans to work on their epistemology—if they do not, they keep increasing their odds of losing elections.

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Delusions of Self-Reliance

Posted in Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 27, 2012

When the Tea Party movement was in the upswing, comedic critics of the movement loved to point to the wonderfully inconsistent command to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” While it is easy enough to dismiss this remark as being an aberration, it actually seems to represent a relatively common ignorance regarding government assistance.

Paul Krugman notes that some of the people who are very vocal in their opposition to government assistance and who often support politicians who promise to eliminate such assistance are themselves recipients of that assistance. This is based on the research of Suzanne Mettler:

Percentage of Program Beneficiaries Who Report They “Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
Program “No, Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
529 or Coverdell 64.3
Home Mortgage Interest Deduction 60.0
Hope or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit 59.6
Student Loans 53.3
Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit 51.7
Earned Income Tax Credit 47.1
Social Security—Retirement & Survivors 44.1
Pell Grants 43.1
Unemployment Insurance 43.0
Veterans Benefits (other than G.I. Bill) 41.7
G.I. Bill 40.3
Medicare 39.8
Head Start 37.2
Social Security Disability 28.7
Supplemental Security Income 28.2
Medicaid 27.8
Welfare/Public Assistance 27.4
Government Subsidized Housing 27.4
Food Stamps 25.4

Since all of the above are government social programs, 100% of the people using them have, in fact, used government social programs.

Tea Party

Tea Party (Photo credit: nmfbihop)

In some cases, such as the tax deductions or tax credits, people might believe that these are not government social programs. After all, when most people think of a government social program they think of the government handing out food stamps, cheese, health care or money. However, these programs are government social programs. While people no doubt think that they have earned the credit or deduction, they are actually getting a financial benefit from the government at the expense of the taxpayer. For example, in the case of mortgage deductions this means that the taxpayers are subsidizing the home owner’s mortgage by allowing him or her to pay less taxes because s/he owns a house. While this is not as obviously a social program as getting food stamps, it is essentially the same. Naturally, it can be seen as a negative program (paying less) rather than a positive program (getting something) but the results are the same-either way, the person gains from a government social program.

As noted above, people who are opposed to government social programs seem to often be unaware that they themselves are beneficiaries of such programs and they are, as in the quote above, often inclined to want to keep these programs. As Paul Krugman contends, these folks can hold to inconsistent views because they simply do not realize that the programs they wish to keep benefiting from are the programs that they also think they wish to eliminate. That is, they are operating under a delusion of self-reliance when they are, in fact, benefiting from the very thing they profess to loath. This creates an interesting epistemic and ethical problem. That is, they do not know they are doing wrong by their own principles.

To be fair, there are obviously people who are well aware of that these programs are government social programs and they oppose them. Perhaps some of these people even refuse to avail themselves of such programs and live in a manner consistent with the principle that the state should not provide assistance to people.

Even if there are not such people, the arguments against such programs can still have merit. After all, the mere fact that many (or some) people who are against  government social programs in principle also use such programs does not prove that the arguments against such programs are flawed.  To think otherwise would be to fall into a classic ad homimen fallacy (ad hominem tu quoque). They might, in fact, be excellent arguments.

That said, the fact that people avail themselves of these programs in seeming ignorance of their true nature is rather interesting. It does suggest that at least some of the people who are critical of said programs are critical from ignorance and that perhaps they would modify their views if they were aware  that they benefited from what they have been attacking. At the very least informing these people would allow them to act consistently with their principles by refusing to avail themselves of such programs. They could simply refuse to claim the deductions and credits, mail back any checks they receive from the state, and refuse to use Medicare. After all, while not practicing what one preaches does not show that the preaching is incorrect, one should (morally) follow one’s own sermons or at least have the decency to remain silent and thus avoid compounding one’s sin with hypocrisy.

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Shall it Never End?

Posted in Epistemology, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 26, 2011
LAS VEGAS - OCTOBER 19:  Maricopa County, Ariz...

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Somehow I ended up on the Amato for Liberty list (I infer that one of my friends did this as a joke). The most recent email featured an article about Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio (a fellow famous for making inmates wear pink underwear). While I thought the birth certificate matter was over, apparently it is not. Unless, of course, I am getting hoax emails purporting to be from Amato. Here is the text:

“I got over three hundred complaints about Obama’s birth certificate from the people of Maricopa County. When I get allegations brought to me by the citizens I don’t just dump it into the wastebasket. I look into the allegations just like I am doing here,” he told me.

“So that’s why I’ve assigned five members of what I call my cold-case posse to look into it.  I don’t know what they’re going to find. But what’s the big deal here? I don’t get it?  It isn’t costing the tax payers anything. It’s all volunteer work and what does it hurt to look into it?”

Naturally, people have a right to do this sort of thing on their own time, just as they have the right to look into UFOs, Big Foot and the secret Bush plot behind 9/11. However, it is a bit worrisome that people are apparently filing complaints about Obama to an Arizona sheriff. I do suspect that most of these folks are aware that Obama is legitimate, but that they are doing this as a sort of expression of extremely dislike. What is more worrisome is that the sheriff is apparently taking the matter seriously, despite the fact that Obama’s legitimacy has been established beyond all reasonable doubt. I wonder if he would assign investigators if enough people made allegations of witchcraft or demonic possession.

Fortunately, he is not wasting much in the way of state resources to conduct this investigation. However, it would seem more sensible for him to simply inform such complainers that the matter is settled and that there is, in fact, nothing to investigate.

In terms of what it hurts, it serves to lend unnecessary credence to a claim that has been shown to be false beyond all reasonable doubt. Encouraging this sort of thing encourages irrational belief formation and undermines critical thinking. People should not, from both a moral and critical thinking standpoint, be encouraged to believe things that are obviously not true and certainly should be known by those doing the encouragement to be false.

Also, from a practical standpoint, it risks making Arizona look bad-something the state certainly does not need.

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Online Reviews

Posted in Business, Epistemology, Reasoning/Logic, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 30, 2011
This Content of online shopping taken from htt...

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Like all sensible people, I hate to waste money. So, when I plan on buying something, I like to ensure that I am making a good choice. Looked at philosophically, this is both a value problem (what is best?”)and an epistemic problem (“how do I know?”)  Conveniently many online stores, most famously Amazon, have customer reviews online.  However, as you yourself have probably noticed, these reviews are often not as useful as they might seem.

The first you will see of the typical online review system is stars (or whatever). On the face of it, this might seem to provide a useful assessment of the product. However, it is simply an average (maybe) of all the rankings. As such, it is only as good as the individual rankings. From a critical thinking standpoint, the ranking system is a survey and hence can be assessed by the standards of an inductive generalization.

One obvious problem with the ranking system is that it is based on a biased sample. People who take the time to write a review (or just click stars) will tend to include a disproportionate number of people who have had very good or very bad experiences. This is borne out by the fact that many products have numerous 5 star and 1 star rankings. As such, the stars should be read with due caution.

A second concern is that the rankings are often based on small samples. For example, my own 42 Fallacies on Amazon currently has a 5 star ranking based on one person. While I do agree with the ranking (oh, if only there were six stars), assessing a product on the basis of a small number of reviews would be risky. Of course, even a large sample will still suffer from a bias problem.

A third concern is that people game the system. Since the review processes tend to be rather lacking in regulation and verification, it is very easy for people to load in fake positive or negative reviews. Like plagiarized papers, these are often very easy to spot. If, for example, the “review” reads like company PR, then it is probably a ringer. If, as another example, the review is incredibly negative but praises a competing product at great length, then it is probably someone acting on behalf of that competitor. However, some “hired guns” are probably clever enough to load in reviews while concealing their true nature.

Since the stars are generally not entirely trustworthy, it is natural to turn to the specific reviews.

In some cases, these reviews can be useful. Not surprisingly, assessing reviews is an exercise in critical thinking. As a general rule, I look for reviews that seem to be balanced in assessing the product and note the weaknesses as well as the strengths.  While this does not guarantee that the review is honest, it tends to be a good indicator of a lack of bias. I also look for consistency across the reviews. For example, if reviews for a laptop consistently mention that the screen is not very good, then that serves as some evidence that this is true of the laptop (or that a hired gun has been busy cranking out reviews). Some companies, such as Amazon, link reviewers to their reviews and this can be useful for getting a better picture of the reviewer’s credibility and expertise. For example, if a reviewer has reviewed numerous books in an area and always takes a measured approach in her reviews, then this increases the credibility of her reviews.

Another factor to look for is the time factor. Many reviewers review the product as soon as they get it, which can (in some cases) be a problem. For example, a review of an Android tablet written right after the person opens the box and fires it up will not tell  you much about its actual battery life or ease of use in various tasks. Some reviewers post updates to their reviews, which can be useful.

While five star reviews should be greeted with a critical review, one star reviews often demand special attention. In some cases, of course, the rating is deserved. However, one star reviews are sometimes inflicted unfairly. First, as mentioned above, people try to game the system. Second, the review might be based on an unusual experience with the product that would generally not be a factor for most users. For example, a certain percentage of electronic devices arrive with problems (such as a defective battery) and this should be taken into account when reading a review that gives a product one star for a failed battery. Naturally, if the same problem appears over and over again in reviews, then that makes it a point of concern. Third, one star reviews are sometimes due to a reviewer not using the product properly or not understanding the product. For example, I have seen reviews attacking a product for not doing something that it was never intended to do. Fourth, some one star reviews are criticisms not of the product but of something else, such as the shipping time or the seller. While these can be relevant factors in buying a product from a specific seller, they really are not relevant to assessing the product. A fifth point of concern is that one star ratings are sometimes used in retaliation.

Naturally, you cannot go wrong buying my books. :)





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The Twilight of the Birthers

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 9, 2011
Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

Image via Wikipedia

Shortly before ordering the successful hit on Bin Laden Obama released his long form birth certificate. The Washington Post recently conducted a poll to see the impact of this release.

On the one hand, I thought that it might have little impact. After all, it seemed reasonable to think that if the short form did not convince people, then a long form would have no greater effect. On the other hand, since some of the birthers had been demanding the “real” birth certificate as proof, it seemed possible that they would accept the sanctification of their demand as proof.

Interestingly, the Washington Post’s poll results show that there has been a significant change since April 2010. In 2010 20% of the adults polled claimed that Obama was born outside the United States. This has fallen to 10% in 2011. The largest change was among Republicans. In 2010 31% of Republicans claimed they believed Obama was born outside of the US. In 2011 only 14% held this view. For conservative Republicans, the change has been from 35% to 16%. Interestingly, 7% of Democrats, 12% of Independents, and 3% of liberal Democrats still claim they believe he was born outside of the US.

While other factors might be involved in the decline, it seems reasonable to consider that the release of the long form birth certificate had some impact. It also seems reasonable to take into account the fact that certain notable conservatives, such as Rove, have been critical of the birther approach. It is also worth considering the fact that movements generally tend to lose members over time as people move on to other things.

While the percentage of people who believe that Obama was not born in the US has declined significantly since 2010, it is still rather worrying that 10% of those polled still hold to this belief. After all, the evidence seems to be rather overwhelming.

Interestingly, the people who still claim to believe that Obama was not born in the United States tend to admit that they lack definitive evidence for their claim. Rather, they seem to take the line that they have suspicions about Obama’s place of birth. This could be taken as being more of an expression of dislike for Obama as opposed to a significant epistemic failure.

I suspect that the birthers will never vanish completely. After all, conspiracy theories often have an amazing endurance. There are, for example, still people who claim that the moon landings were faked.

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End of Days in May?

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on March 9, 2011
Armageddon looming

Image by nimboo via Flickr

The end of the world has been predicted numerous times and has yet to come to pass. However, the past failures of the world to end as predicted has not deterred new predictions. The latest prediction is based on an interpretation of the bible and the date set is May 21, 2011. If this is correct, then we do not have that much time left.

Interestingly enough, the bible (Mark & Matthew) seems to clearly state that no one (other than God) can know the hour or the day when the end will come. As such, to use the bible to predict the day of the end would seem to be somewhat problematic. After all, if the bible is accurate, then it would be accurate in regards to the claim that the day cannot be known. If that part is not accurate, then this would cast doubt on the parts that are used to make predictions about the end. Naturally enough, folks who calculate the end of days always have a response to the claim that this day cannot be known and perhaps they are right.

Not surprisingly, I am rather skeptical about May 21 being the end. After all, there have been numerous other attempts to calculate the end from the bible and these have all failed. As such, there seems little reason to believe that this new calculation is correct. Unless, of course, the new calculation is such that its methodology and content are both reliable. I am inclined to suspect that this is not the case. However, we do not have long to wait for an answer.

If the end does not arrive on May 21, the result will probably be the same as what occurred with other failed predictions: a new prediction will be offered based on the claim that the original calculation was off to do some (until then) unknown error in the calculations or in the interpretation of the textual evidence. The group that accepts the prediction will lose some members due to the failure, but others will accept the changed prediction. However, if the new prediction does not come to pass (or is set too far in the future) then the group will gradually lose membership and fade away.

In any case, it is not clear how useful a correct prediction would be. Given that we have no real way to confirm the predictions until the day arrives to confirm or disprove it, it makes little sense to change one’s life on the basis of such predictions. Unless, of course, the change is one that would be a good idea anyway. However, to quit one’s job or abandon one’s family on the basis of such a prediction would seem to be a bad idea. After all, such things would seem to have no impact on what is supposed to occur in the end and would have a negative impact should the prediction turn out to be wrong.

In any case, we’ll have the answer soon enough.

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ESP & Philosophy

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 3, 2011
David Kellogg Lewis
Image via Wikipedia

Daryl Bem became a minor media star recently with his paper on ESP. While his work has been subject to some rather serious criticism (mainly in regards to the methodology) it does raise some interesting matters.

Bem’s paper discusses nine experiments he has conducted over the past ten years.

In one experiment Bem had 100 students take a memory test and then had them practice the words they had used in the test. He claims that “The results show that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, reach back in time to facilitate the recall of those words.”

In his famous porn experiment, the subjects were asked to pick which virtual curtain concealed an image on the computer. Once the choice was made, a program randomly “placed” an image “behind” one curtain or the other. According to Bem, the subjects were able to pick the curtain that “hid” an image 53% of the time when that image was erotic. They were able to pick non-erotic photos only 50% of the time. He claims that “What I showed was that unselected subjects could sense the erotic photos, but my guess is that if you use more talented people, who are better at this, they could find any of the photos.”

While I am rather skeptical of his claims, I will assume (for the sake of the discussion that follows) that his results are statistically significant. On this assumption, some interesting issues in epistemology and metaphysics arise. At the core, the main matter is how information from the future would be “known” (epistemology) and what features reality would need in order for this to occur.

As noted above, Bem seems to take his tests as indicating some sort of backwards causation. Normal causation (if one dares to use such a phrase) involves time’s arrow always flying one way: towards the future and not back from the future. But, if the subjects “know” about the future or, more generally, that their present mental states are affected by future events, then it would seem that time’s arrow can fly both ways.

On the one hand, this seems to be rather implausible. After all, the general consensus among layman and experts would seem to be that time is a one way sort of thing and that causation does not work backwards in time.

On the other hand, time is a rather odd sort of thing and it would be hasty to assume that our assumption about time being one way is correct. After all, time travel certainly has a lot of appeal and it can be argued that it is at least possible. As such, perhaps it is not impossible for events of the future to have an impact on peoples’ mental states in the relative past. This, of course, would require that people have some seemingly unusually epistemic capabilities, but that is what ESP is all about.

Of course, it does seem somewhat extreme to conclude that our concepts of time and causation are fundamentally wrong and to embrace some rather dubious epistemology because some college students appear to be marginally better at picking out the porn. As such, it would seem sensible to consider some alternatives.

Since I recently taught about Hobbes and I am currently teaching about Spinoza, one possibility that occurred to me is that a deterministic universe could be used to explain these results without a need for any change in our concepts of causation, time or epistemology. If the events of the future follow of necessity from the events of the past, then sensing the future would not need to be a matter of the future somehow causing effects in the past. Rather, a person could predict the future based on what they know (or believe) about the present and the past. Since our epistemic abilities are rather limited, then our predictions would tend to be rather limited as well.

Speaking of dead European philosophers, Leibniz seems to provide a metaphysical system that would allow for the sort of ESP that Bem seems to be discussing.

Leibniz claims that the world is composed of monads and that each monad mirrors or represents the entire world. Crudely put, each of us is a monad (or rather the dominant monad in a collection of monads). Leibniz famously claimed that the monads have no windows-nothing comes out of or goes into the monads. This raises the obvious problem about how you, for example, can read this blog. Leibniz’s answer is that each monad mirrors or represents the entire world-though the clarity varies. As he sees it, when God created the universe, he created all the monads and each monad has all its experiences “placed” within it. To use a crude analogy, the movie that is your life is placed on a DVD that is placed within your mind. It plays and thus you have the experiences you do. As such, when you read this blog, your inner DVD is playing that experience for you.
Fortunately God has synced up all our inner DVDs so that they play in pre-established harmony. So, for example, if my inner DVD is playing so that I am “hearing” you speak, your inner DVD is at the point where you are “speaking” to me. Since each of us contains within us all our experiences, it would thus seem possible for people to “skip ahead” a bit and “see” events that have not yet happened. While this would seem like seeing the future, it would simply be like seeing what is on the DVD by skipping around in the scenes rather than playing the movie out normally. Thus, the students who were able to pick out the porn could have “skipped” ahead to see the porn on their inner DVD and thus known what to pick “ahead” of time.

Leibniz also claims that “each body feels all that happens in the universe, so he who sees all, might read in each what happens everywhere.” This would seem to allow for the possibility of the sort of ESP Bem is discussing.

In addition to his monads, Leibniz is also known for his claims about possible worlds, namely this being the best of the lot. Another philosopher who is well known for his work on possible worlds is the American philosopher David Lewis. In his On The Plurality of Worlds Lewis presents the hypothesis that possible worlds are real and that we, in fact, inhabit one. Of course, our world is the actual world to us. He even discusses the epistemological implications of such worlds and considers that they could be epistemically or doxastically accessible to us. Interestingly enough, Lewis’ possible worlds would seem to provide a metaphysical basis for ESP.

In terms of how this would work, one merely needs to assume that there are possible worlds, that we have epistemic access to them (that is, we can know about them or at least have warranted beliefs about their content), and that there are worlds whose timeline is ahead of our own (that is, their present is our future).

This all works out in the following manner. Suppose that Jack is a subject in Bem’s porn experiment. Sitting at the computer, he somehow accesses possible worlds (I’ll just help myself to Lewis’ arguments about how this works). In some of these worlds there are counterparts to Jack who are also involved in experiments being run by Bem’s counterpart. Crudely put, a counterpart to the actual Jack (the Jack in our possible world or Jack@thisworld) is whatever most resembles Jack in another possible world (such a Jack would be Jack@thatworld). In some of these worlds, the Jack counterparts are ahead of Jack@thisworld in the experiment, so that they have seen the results of their picks. In some cases the picks yield porn and in other cases they do not. Since Jack wants to see the porn, he will presumably make his choice based on the results experienced by the other Jacks. Given that Jack presumably has, at best, “fuzzy” access to these possible worlds and that the worlds would not be exactly like this world, the minor increase in correct picks is easily explained. Really.

In this scenario, the future is not causing anything in the past. Rather, Jack is merely accessing a possible world whose present is a counterpart of our future. Nothing could be more sensible.

While this is interesting, it is not without its problems. One obvious problem is that this is rather weird and mysterious. Another problem is that if future possibilities are grounded in the presents of possible worlds, then there would need to be a world for each world’s possible future, thus creating what would seem to be a rather unfortunate infinite regress. But, that seems to be a small price to pay for an account of ESP.

One final thought is maybe we are in an eternally recurring world and a bit sticks from the last time around. So maybe the kids keep getting a bit better at picking out the porn. Who knows, a few million more times around and they will pick porn at 100%.

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