An apropos video for this blog. Stay tuned for my interview with filmmaker Phillip McReynolds.
An apropos video for this blog. Stay tuned for my interview with filmmaker Phillip McReynolds.
Last night, I watched a film (actually a series of short films) called American Philosopher. It's worth checking out.
My interest in this topic comes from an interest in pragmatism. Of course, there are many varieties of pragmatism -- it's a movement, rather than a school of thought -- and perhaps this feature alone makes it more 'American' in character than other philosophies.
You may have noticed it by now, but in case you haven’t, there’s a Facebook ‘Like’ button in the sidebar. It’s part of my effort to build my philosophical counseling practice. As much as I’ve resisted social media in the past — late adopter here, folks — I’ve finally succumbed to the marketing potential of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. There’s not much content on my Facebook page yet, but I’ll be posting some interesting links throughout the week. If you would like to receive updates on my practice in your Facebook news feed, please ‘Like’ my page. Thanks!
This Thanksgiving weekend, millions of Americans will travel by air. For many, airport security will make their travel experience needlessly unpleasant. Apparently, when you buy an airline ticket, you’re signing away your right to privacy and your right be treated like a law-abiding citizen rather than a criminal. You also thereby consent to pat-downs, full body scans, and other invasive security theater. Why does anybody put up with this?
I’m always surprised by the complacency with which people give up their civil liberties. The lockdown in Boston following the Marathon bombing is a case in point. Ironically, a citizen who had left his home, in contravention of the police order, spotted the alleged perpetrator and contacted the police. If he had remained cowering inside, as per the police’s orders, the manhunt and lockdown would have continued for longer than it actually did. The lesson is this: by treating everyone like criminals, the authorities minimize their chances of catching criminals. The same is true of airport security. When you treat all of your passengers like terrorists, and mandate uniform security theater behavior, it makes it more difficult to spot the suspicious behavior that terrorists would exhibit under less ritualized circumstances.
Israel, which faces more credible security threats on a daily basis than North America, has streamlined its airport security in a way that’s more effective in screening potential threats and more convenient for the majority of law-abiding passengers. The security personnel are trained to spot suspicious behavior and act accordingly. They screen suspicious persons in most cases long before they enter the airport; they keep people moving, avoiding bunched up queues of passengers that would make an inviting target for a terrorist who managed to make it that far; they isolate any suspicious person or luggage behind blast-proof glass rather than evacuate the airport. These are simple, non-invasive techniques that should be implemented here.
Since the current regime of airport security is a big, centralized bureaucracy, it is not anti-fragile. In fact, it takes very little deviation from the script to bring the system to a grinding halt. This happened in 2010 at the ironically named Newark Liberty International Airport after a passenger walked the wrong way through an exit. The airport effectively shut down, flights were delayed, and thousands of people were inconvenienced. Because these systems are all interconnected, failure in one area inevitably leads to failure across the board. How exactly would such an inherently fragile system cope with a real emergency?
Herein lies the central problem with security by bureaucracy: terrorist organizations are not clumsy bureaucracies like the TSA. They know the script, just like the rest of us do, and can adapt much faster than security measures. They aren’t likely to employ methods for which countermeasures are already in place; rather, they’re likely to employ novel strategies for which security measures are unprepared. The so-called ‘Shoe Bomber’ and ‘Underwear Bomber’ are two examples. Fortunately, neither plot succeeded, thanks largely to the incompetence of the perpetrators rather than the effectiveness of security. Also, in both cases, attentive passengers were instrumental in thwarting the plot. If passengers are allowed their civil liberties, they can be effective in closing security loopholes. However, the psychological effect of treating them like criminals, I suspect, will result in less cooperation and a net loss of security.
Despite evidence that security theater doesn’t make us any safer, these practices continue. Although there have been some organized protest movements, notably National Opt Out Day and We Won’t Fly, more of us need to put pressure on airlines and governments to safeguard our civil liberties. Here’s hoping that change comes soon. In the meantime, we all suffer the indignity of being presumed guilty until proven innocent.
Fifty years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, conspiracy theories about his death are still popular. There are probably dozens of reasons for this, but I’ll only mention a few. First, Kennedy was a young and much beloved president and his death came as a shock to the nation. Many find it hard to believe that a lone gunman could so drastically alter the course of American and global history. Surely, they reason, something larger, and more sinister, must be responsible for so great a crime. Second, Lee Harvey Oswald was himself killed by Jack Ruby. This had two implications for the proliferation of conspiracy theories: 1) many believed Oswald was killed as part of a larger plot; 2) he never had his day in court and the evidence against him was never presented in a public forum for Americans to fully digest. Third, the facts in the case are numerous and confusing to the average layman. The Warren Commission attempted to lay out the relevant facts, but it made mistakes, as did the various agencies tasked with investigating the various lines of evidence. Of course, these failures are more plausibly taken as evidence that bureaucracies often fail, rather than proof of a massive conspiracy and coverup. Nevertheless, conspiracy theories thrive on recalcitrant facts. Fourth, there seemed to be a long list of factions who wanted, or would have benefited from, Kennedy’s death: pro-Castro Cubans, anti-Castro Cubans, Communists generally, organized crime, etc. In the public’s mind, there were no shortage of suspects who might conceivably be involved in such a conspiracy. Fifth, Oliver Stone’s 1991 film, JFK, despite playing fast and loose with historical fact, was immensely popular and revived conspiracy theories for a new generation.
I’ve always been intrigued by conspiracy theories and why people believe them. Most conspiracy theories are so prima facie implausible that they can be rejected out of hand (e.g. Roswell, 9/11 ‘inside job’ theories). These conspiracies are so grand, contain so many moving parts, and require such uniformity of agenda and commitment to silence from their participants, that such plots would be unlikely to work in the first place, and would surely be uncovered even if they did. Some Kennedy assassination conspiracies are of this kind, for example, the ‘CIA killed Kennedy’ theory. However, in general, I think that the Kennedy case is a different animal than Roswell or 9/11. It’s quantitatively and qualitatively different from other events around which conspiracy theories form. This at least makes some of the skepticism surrounding the official story understandable, if still mistaken. Don’t get me wrong: I believe that Oswald acted alone. At one time, however, I was skeptical of the lone gunman theory. The evidence seemed to me ambiguous enough to warrant a second look. In other words, this was a case in which I felt it would be irresponsible to reject the second shooter theory out of hand. It actually took a fair amount of work on my part before I was satisfied that all of the facts could be accounted for by positing Oswald as the sole perpetrator. At that point, I simply applied Ockham’s Razor. (By the way, it was Gerald Posner, author of Case Closed, who did the most to convince me. Vincent Bugliosi has written a 1600 page tome on the subject which would’ve probably convinced me too, had I read it.)
Since philosophers probably think (rightly) that most conspiracy theorists are kooks and not to be taken seriously, they might be surprised to learn that professional philosophers played a key role in questioning the official story of the JFK assassination from the beginning. For example, Richard Popkin, a philosopher and authority on philosophical skepticism, was one of the first intellectuals to offer a rigorous critique of the Warren Report. Based on his interpretation of the ballistics evidence, particularly the angles of entry and exit wounds, discrepancies between field reports and the autopsy, and the relatively pristine condition of the so-called “magic bullet” (a.k.a. CE 399) that allegedly hit both Kennedy and Gov. Connally, he concluded that there was a second shooter in Dealey Plaza that day. He published his alternative theory in The Second Oswald (1966). Although the subtitle of the book is The Case for a Conspiracy Theory, his conclusions are tame compared to contemporary conspiracy theorists’. In The New York Review of Books (Oct. 6, 1966) he said, “I think there is a real difference between those who are willing to assume the worst—that the Dallas Police, the FBI, and the Commission were either part of the plot, or corrupt—and those who try to explain their failings by incompetence, blunder, and mistake. I still fall in the latter group, and in this I seem to be in agreement with the defenders of the Commission who have commented on my article.”
Another philosopher to investigate the case was Josiah Thompson, a Kierkegaard scholar turned private investigator. Thompson was one of the first civilian researchers to study the Zapruder film. He was working at the time for Life magazine, which bought the original film the day following the assassination. He is notable for constructing a timeline of the shooting from the Zapruder film; even the FBI and Warren Commission made initial mistakes here, thereby adding grist to the conspiracy mill. He published the results of his detailed study of the Zapruder film, among other evidence, in his 1967 book, Six Seconds in Dallas: A Micro-Study of the Kennedy Assassination. Respected even by its critics, the book is now out of print, but he’s written a sequel called Last Second in Dallas. Like Popkin, Thompson concluded that the Warren Report uncritically accepted the single shooter/bullet theory. Although he postulates that there were a total of four shots and three shooters, contradicting the Warren Report, he insists that he’s not interested in ‘conspiracy theories.’ He doesn’t speculate about who was responsible for the crime and, to his credit, has helped debunk many of the loonier conspiracy theories. In a recent short film by Errol Morris, he seems resigned to the possibility that the case will never be solved to his satisfaction. As he notes, belief and knowledge are two very different things.
So what are we to make of Popkin’s and Thompson’s fascination with the Kennedy assassination and their dissent from the authorized account? On a superficial level, it’s interesting, but I’m not sure we can draw any general conclusions. After all, I’m sure that the vast majority of philosophers accept something like the official story, so a self-selecting subset of two isn’t statistically significant. However, their stories tell us something about skepticism. Popkin was an expert on the subject and I’ve read parts of his monumental book, The History of Skepticism; in fact, I even cite it in my dissertation. One feature that stands out is the way he’s able to draw connections between seemingly unrelated people and events. This is a useful skill for the intellectual historian, but also for the conspiracy theorist. It’s also plausible to assume that Popkin’s academic interest in skepticism informed his own skepticism about the official account. In Thompson’s case, he became very dissatisfied with academic life (I can relate) and seems to have wanted to pursue a more romantic career. The Kennedy assassination provided him with a ‘gateway drug’ to the world of criminal investigation and he eventually became a private investigator and worked on other high profile cases, such as the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the Oklahoma City bombing.
If there’s a general lesson to be learned from this case study, it’s that skepticism is a universal solvent for all our beliefs. One of the problems with philosophical skepticism is that it ultimately undermines its own epistemic foundation. This is also often the case with conspiracy theories. If we’re skeptical of the official story, wouldn’t we have to be equally skeptical of any alternative account? The more elaborate the conspiracy, the more distrustful we have to be of our sources until we’re left with something like universal skepticism. If the majority of conspiracy theorists consistently applied their assumptions about knowledge, they would have to suspend judgment rather than dogmatically adhere to their favorite theory. On this issue, at least, I think Popkin and Thompson would agree with me.
There’s finally a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Time Travel. After reading it, I’m quite proud that I don’t have to seriously revise my old post on the subject, except for a caveat about the compatibility of presentism and time travel (and my conflation of presentism and A-Theory for the sake of simplicity). More on that below. The SEP article is a fun read if you’re a science fiction fan. Interestingly, the author sets aside multiple universe scenarios (another geeky interest of mine) and sticks to classic, single universe time travel. Although multiple timelines or parallel universes solve a lot of the paradoxes of time travel, they’re perhaps a little too easy and less philosophically interesting.
Unsurprisingly, the Grandfather Paradox is still the standard argument for the impossibility of time travel, or at least of significantly altering the past. (I always chuckle at comedian Brian Malow’s solution to this paradox: “Your grandmother was a hussy.”) Stephen Hawking proposed the ‘chronology protection conjecture’ which suggests that the laws of physics prevent the past from being changed. Philosophers and science fiction writers alike have proposed that, logically, any attempt to kill one’s ancestor would be destined to fail (i.e. the gun misfires, the bullet misses, etc.). So the past cannot be changed; it is what it is. However, the SEP article makes the point that this doesn’t necessarily preclude time travelers from participating in the past, of making history what it is. For example, there are several time travel stories in which the time travelers inadvertently help bring about the outcome they were trying to prevent.
To return to the compatibility of A-Theory and time travel, it now seems that I was mistaken in my initial post that time travel requires a B-Theory of time. Originally, I said: “A-Theory holds that only the present is real; the past is gone and the future isn’t yet real. On A-Theory, time travel doesn’t make any sense because there’s nowhere to go. B-Theory, by contrast, holds that both the past and future are as real as the present. On B-Theory, time travel at least makes sense.” However, the SEP article notes that “the destination does not have to exist at the time of departure: it only has to exist at the time of arrival.” On A-Theory, observers would see the same pattern of events, i.e. the time traveler disappearing at one point in time and appearing at another point in time. However, it’s trickier, though not impossible, to reconcile A-Theory with the difference between the time traveler’s ‘internal’ time and the observer’s ‘external’ time.
Although there may be no contradiction here, as Alexander Pruss points out, A-Theorists may still be uncomfortable with time travel because the distinction between internal and external time undercuts what they want to say about time and change. A-Theorists say that the passage of time is an objective feature of the world, i.e. time really passes; it doesn’t just seem to pass. In other words, the property of being ‘in the present’ or of being ‘two weeks past’ are real properties of the world. Material objects change insofar as they really pass through time; objects are ‘tensed’ and their time index is an objective fact about the world. Thus, the idea of living one’s entire life at one ‘external’ time — say, having a malfunctioning time machine that is stuck on a loop and returns you to the same external time for every five minutes of internal time you experience — would be metaphysically unpalatable to A-Theorists because it’s difficult to reconcile the time traveler’s experience of change if tense is an objective property. I suppose the A-Theorist could say that the time traveler does not experience ‘real’ change, but that seems question-begging and ad hoc. By the way, if you’re wondering how A-Theorists reconcile ‘objective’ time with the theory of relativity, that’s even more complicated. Some deny relativity, while others deny, for complicated reasons, that it has any untoward consequences for A-Theory. We won’t go into all that; my head hurts enough already.
The first of hopefully many virtual philosophy cafes is happening today! The topic is morality. This one is filled, but contact me to reserve your place for next time. What’s a Philosophy cafe? Click here.