Errare humanum est

After so many years distant from my university Philosophy courses, I have to admit that I’d come to believe that rationality is a process designed for avoiding mistakes. That to err is to have made a miscalculation in its undertaking. And given that we humans are prone to frequent miscalculations -or, to adopt the aphorism of our time, fall prey to unintended consequences- what does that say about our acumen, let alone our wisdom? Does our seemingly inherent ability to take the wrong path or deviate from the planned course of action, mean that we are too easily distracted? Too readily deceived? Or that we weren’t designed to act rationally?

These failures suggest that, far from being rational, we are at best, credulous about our abilities… or does it? To be able to be deceived, it is necessary to have arrived at some sort of  expectation of what is correct or appropriate in the first place. One cannot be fooled, if one doesn’t understand anything about what is happening. In a way, then, the ability to err, suggests that one has already developed a theory about how it should be -that the failure was not meaningless, in other words. Reasoning that comes to a different conclusion than one that has been widely accepted may still be reasoning.

In a democracy, there are usually several options from which to choose, but the outcome of a vote does not mean the other choices were wrong. It does not invalidate them, nor imply that they were irrational -it merely postpones their serious consideration to another time. That things change over the years does not negate the past; it does not suggest that those living in those benighted years were unable to think properly.

Many of these thoughts were highlighted in a somewhat obtuse essay I came across in Aeon written by Daniel Ward, a lawyer and PhD candidate in Cambridge University: https://aeon.co/essays/i-think-therefore-i-make-mistakes-and-change-my-mind

He writes of a dog watching a card trick being performed. ‘It will just ignore what it perceives as meaningless markings on bits of cardboard. Hence it is immune to deception.’ It has no idea what to expect, because it has no idea what is going on. There is no error in the dog’s mind, presumably, because ‘Susceptibility to error validates rather than detracts from rationality.’

For example, ‘Those who study the human visual system also draw a link between the capacity for error and the capacity for thought.’ But, the ability to be fooled by an optical illusion ‘demonstrates the success rather than the failure of the visual system. That your brain occasionally makes this kind of mistake is testament to the fact that it is doing complex, intelligent things that go beyond merely absorbing incoming sensory data. The antithesis of the view that normal, intelligent people are susceptible to error is a view that treats people as infallible.’ And we certainly aren’t that: ‘incapable of error in a wide range of matters, ranging from day-to-day decisions about how we spend our money to ideological commitments… Treating an individual’s attitudes and preferences as givens – as matters beyond debate or criticism – might seem to promote human dignity by forcing us to treat all views as equally worthy of respect. But such an outlook is likely, if anything, to have the opposite effect. This is because taking seriously a person’s capacity to make mistakes is critical to taking seriously their capacity for rationality. Only by recognising that people are capable of error can we properly value anyone’s goals or engage in rational debate.’

After all, if we had to assume that a rational person with whom we disagreed could not have made a mistake in their reasoning, then we could not depend on an intelligent debate to resolve the issue -only force. No, rationality does not preclude error in and of itself… And that’s okay.

“You do realize that I’ve put my shopping bag on there, don’t you…?” The elderly lady glared at me, and made no effort to move the bag from what I could see was the only empty seat on the bus.

Her statement was obviously correct and I had neither desire nor rhetorical skills, to contradict her assertion. I did, however, want to sit down. It had been a long day, and an even longer wait for the already crowded bus.

I decided to meet her challenging expression with a smile and a shrug, but to show her I hadn’t really given up, I continued to stand beside the almost-empty seat and waited for guilt to wreak its havoc on her conscience. Unfortunately she retrieved her eyes and sent them to scout the scenery outside her window. I was just another tree in a forest she did not deign to enter.

I sighed and was about to resign myself to a journey spent swaying on my feet, when I suddenly remembered something, and decided to try my luck again. “I imagine your bag is quite heavy,” I started, pretending I just wanted to engage her in idle conversation. Actually, I was hoping to cash in on a program about logical argumentation in a podcast I’d downloaded from the BBC.

She dragged her eyes back from the window and plonked them on one of my ears. Her lips said nothing, but her face told me to mind my own business.

“My backpack is also heavy,” I continued, hoping I could build on the premise. “And,” I added, trying to twinkle my eyes, “there’s a bit of room left on the seat…” I cleverly added the ellipsis to show there was a conclusion inherent in my prologue.

Her eyes continued to grill me, but her forehead was beginning to wrinkle -so were her lips, for that matter. “And you think that I will be convinced by a faulty syllogism?”

“Which premise was faulty?” I suddenly realized that my memory of the podcast was sketchy at best, so I hoped I had understood the thrust of her rebuttal.

A tiny smile appeared on her face. “It was more the assumption that my bag was heavy, than that because there was room left on the seat, your also-heavy backpack deserved a place beside it.”

I thought about that for a moment. Did I flaw the first chance I’d had for engaging in a public rhetorical challenge? Did I waste the podcast?

I must have looked perplexed because her smile suddenly blossomed and she feathered her shopping bag onto her lap as if it were almost empty. “You passed the test,” she said and chuckled.

“Test…?”

Her eyes tapped briefly on my face and then flew off to other perches on the outside of the window. I wondered if she’d read the same article in Aeon.

Fairness Which Strikes the Eye

Sometimes it seems we cannot help ourselves –the pull of the tide is just too strong to resist. And sometimes an argument, when considered too quickly, too uncritically, captures us with its ostensibly intuitive wisdom. We have no need to question it. No need to probe the basis of its logic.

The rhetoricians of old were well versed in this form of argument –the art of persuasion and how to best achieve it. Aristotle, for example, suggested three essential features of a convincing argument: ethos –the credibility of the contention; pathos –understanding the needs and emotions of the audience; and logos –the patterns of reasoning and the words chosen. His wisdom, although modified and woven into the contemporary tapestry, has not been lost in modern times.

What could provoke a greater sense of outrage in a population than the 1% contention? That is to say, in at least one of the iterations fostered by the Occupy Movement, that in the United States, 1% of the population controls 40% of the wealth. And to many, that unequal distribution of wealth, is symptomatic of what is wrong with Capitalism. It certainly resonates with those of us in the 99% who hear it. It begs for remonstrance; it demands rectification.

And yet there are usually many sides to a story –or at least this one, at any rate. There are times  when we need to move back a step or two in order to appreciate the different perspectives. Even so, I have to admit that an article in the BBC Future series came as an intriguing surprise: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170706-theres-a-problem-with-the-way-we-define-inequality It allowed me to entertain an alternative that I had not even considered.

As they tease at the beginning, ‘Some researchers argue that income disparity itself may not be the main problem. The issue, they say, is not the existence of a gap between rich and poor, but the existence of unfairness. Some people are treated preferentially and others unjustly – and acknowledging that both poverty and unfairness are related may be the challenge that matters more […] While many people may already view inequality as unfairness, making the distinction much clearer is important.’

They go on to say that ‘In a paper published in April in the journal Nature Human Behaviour called ‘Why people prefer unequal societies’, a team of researchers from Yale University argue that humans – even as young children and babies – actually prefer living in a world in which inequality exists. […] Because if people find themselves in a situation where everyone is equal, studies suggest that many become angry or bitter if people who work hard aren’t rewarded, or if slackers are over-rewarded.

‘“We argue that the public perception of wealth inequality itself being aversive to most people is incorrect, and that instead, what people are truly concerned about is unfairness,” says Christina Starmans, a psychology post-doc at Yale who worked on the paper.

“In the present-day US, and much of the world, these two issues are confounded, because there is so much inequality that the assumption is that it must be unfair. But this has led to an incorrect focus on wealth inequality itself as the problem that needs addressing, rather than the more central issue of fairness.” And as Mark Sheskin, one of the co-authors remarks, ‘“People typically prefer fair inequality to unfair equality”’.

In a way, a lot of the argument hinges on definitions. There are, after all, several ways to look at inequality: equality of opportunity, equality of distribution of benefits, and of course, equality of outcome. Must all of them be addressed, or is there a priority? Is the existence of a super-rich 1% the problem, or would it be more helpful ‘ to concentrate more on helping those less fortunate, who via a lack of fairness, are unable to improve their situation’?

‘Harry G Frankfurt is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University. In his book On Inequality, he argues that the moral obligation should be on eliminating poverty, not achieving equality, and striving to make sure everyone has the means to lead a good life.’ Poverty, in other words, is the problem; it is unfair…

I suppose, when considered practically, it would be unrealistic and unduly Utopian, to think that we could ever dispense with at least some degree of income disparity. People ‘don’t typically work, create or strive without the motivation to do so’. It seems to me that the unfairness does not lie in the money fairly accumulated for work done, so much as in the fact that ‘not everyone is afforded the same opportunities to succeed, even if they put in that hard work.’

But, on the other hand, it’s not all simply a matter of the equality of opportunity, nor even of equality, per se. Fairness is something different. The issue of fairness is in a different Magisterium altogether. I’m Canadian, and I believe that no one should have to live in poverty. Not everyone has the skills, or indeed, the capacity to hold a job, even if an opportunity presents itself. Some are disadvantaged by appearance, or gender; some are discriminated against by virtue of their origins, or life-style; some, even, have succumbed to past failures and have given up trying… It is unfair to give up on them –any of them- simply because of the lotteries of birth or circumstance.

Fairness, it seems to me, is universally available and accessible health care. It is a living wage that allows even the poorest to feed their family. It is safe and obtainable shelter. It is the respect afforded even to those we do not understand. It is toleration of difference, even when the rest of us may not understand, or agree with it.

It seems to me that inequality, by itself, is not what drives revolutions. Inequality is not what causes societies to weaken and their moral fabric to unweave. Inequality is just the chipped and discoloured veneer most easily visible on the surface. What festers directly underneath, sometimes only detectable when the surface weakens or is pulled asunder, is inequity. Injustice. Unfairness… Poverty, unlike wealth, offers little protection. And that is the iniquitous thing.

For some reason, I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s King Lear: Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks. Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.

Prove me wrong…

 

Critical Thinking and Bullying

A few weeks ago, a young woman came in to see me to have her first Pap smear. While I was taking a routine sexual history, she admitted she had recently been bullied online. I’m not even sure how the topic came up, but she didn’t seem very upset, so I asked her about it.

“The guy was a real dick,” she said. And when I asked her how she reacted, she merely shrugged. “Everything he said was false and all my friends should know that… So I ignored him.”

“And did he try it again?” I admired her reaction, but I have to admit I was curious.

She liberated a beautiful smile and shrugged mischievously. “Yeah, once… But then I guess he gave up.” She allowed her eyes to roll upwards comically. “My mother always told me to ignore stuff that wasn’t true.”

It got me thinking about why some people are able to withstand that kind of thing, while others succumb. I don’t pretend to know what motivates bullying, but I do suspect my patient was taught an effective remedy from an early age.

Critical thinking is a way of examining a statement or assertion in order to understand the background and motivating factors for its existence. Its credentials, in other words. It is a way of distancing oneself from the message and analysing everything that went into making it before either accepting or rejecting its content. Also, it is a way of avoiding confirmation bias –reading or assessing only those issues with which one already agrees, rather than sampling a variety of views and thinking of them as interesting, but as yet unproven assertions.

In important ways, this is what Science does: everything is open to checking and possible refutation. Nothing is spared re-examination. Carl Popper, the philosopher of science, suggested that an assertion, a theory, must be worded in such a way that it is testable, otherwise it can not be generalized -or as he would put it, it can only be considered scientifically valid if it is falsifiable- ie checkable. Anything else is merely an opinion -as, for example, the statement ‘Red is the most beautiful colour’. It is not testable, and therefore certainly neither provable nor undeniably valid. This is the first simple rule of thumb we can teach: we must help children to parse input.

Young children tend to question everything- it is how they learn. But in the very young –under, say, six or seven years of age- they often use magical thinking: cause and effect are not necessarily demonstrable either by reason, or even observation. Past that age, however, they begin to understand agency. Causal chains. It is a good time to introduce the concept of validity: was something really a result of an action, or was the action merely associated in time or location so as to seem to have influenced it? And although this is a good first start it is nonetheless one that is not necessarily intuitive. For example it would be tempting to assume that a boy running past a crying girl had done something to her -it might fit with a previous experience. But maybe he was running to catch a bus and it was a coincidence that the two were in the same area at the time she was crying… It requires more proof. More examination.

The habit of questioning things before accepting them can be taught. It can be made into a reflex before reacting. But it needs to be developed early, before the temptation to interpret hastily, or even reciprocate mindlessly, has become entrenched.

The basic elements of simple logic can be taught. For example with inductive reasoning, one attempts to generalize from observations. So if all the crows you have ever seen were black, then you might conclude that all crows are black… Until somebody sees a white crow that is… It is falsifiable, in other words. Most taunts are of that variety -and with practice, easily refuted.

Or even with deductive reasoning which works the other way -from the general to the particular: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal -the classical example. But it only works if the premise is valid (ie. that all men are mortal). And it may only be somebody’s opinion that it is valid…Once again, is it like that example of red being the most beautiful colour? We can all be taught to analyse things like this. We can all be taught to be wary of unsubstantiated statements. Rumours. Gossip. Taunts…

And the critical thinking approach can even apply to actions as well as assertions. A simple example: a young girl is hit by a snowball and another child, a boy, is standing nearby in a group of boys and staring at her. Was he to blame? Did he throw it? Maybe, but without further analysis, further investigation, there’s no proof. No reason to jump to a conclusion. Why did she think it was him? Is her reason based on anger, or is it justified..? This is the basis for the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty… It is an important concept to inculcate in the growing mind. It is a way of distancing oneself from the action, no matter how provocative, and setting it aside until it has been analysed further. We all judge input, we all react to issues we encounter. And some things do require an immediate response. But it’s how we come to the judgement, how we analyse the data –how we react- that is critical.

You can see where this is leading I suspect: bullying. Bullying -whether on the playground or online, whether by deed or word- has the advantage of unfair leverage only if the process is unexamined. Only if the person being assailed is not used to subjecting taunts to the same questioning. Stepping back, if only momentarily, and processing the information. Checking it. Falsifying it. Refuting it -like my patient was able to do.

A difficult thing to do in the moment, for sure. But without any experience in dissecting assertions –deconstructing them, as PhD candidates are fond of saying- there are only reactive emotions. Victimization. Loss of self esteem that could and should withstand the storm. Self esteem, after all, is partly based on one’s ability to see oneself as in control.

As in mathematics and science, critical thinking is a valuable tool for assessing what we experience in the world. It helps us to parse what we read, what we’re told, what we think… It brings perspective to the unexpected, the hostile and the just plain annoying. It can and should be taught from grade school onwards, building on the simpler examples from year to year –class to class. Younger children may not understand the complexities of the Scientific Method, nor what Popper was on about, but with patience and persistence they will.

They deserve the chance…