My Hero!

I watched Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit last night. I was a little disappointed. The actors did a competent job, but the story and the action were pretty generic. It also continues the Hollywood trend of badly written female characters. There’s one scene in particular that sums up this problem. Mild spoilers follow, but since I don’t recommend seeing this one, don’t be dissuaded from reading further.

Jack works for the CIA, which means lying to his girlfriend. She suspects that he’s cheating on her, so she confronts him. He finally tells her that he’s a spy, which makes her very happy since it means (supposedly) that he’s not cheating on her. (This inference doesn’t necessarily follow; he could be a spy and be cheating on her, but leave that aside.) What’s odd about this scene is that she’s so relieved that he hasn’t been cheating on her that she’s not at all upset that he works for the CIA. In other words, she would much rather he work for an organization that practices assassination, rendition, and torture than be having an affair. I don’t know what’s more disconcerting about this scene: that the writers think most women would realistically react that way or that they think working for the CIA absolves one of any wrongdoing.

Is a Philosophy Degree Useful?

I’ve defended an affirmative answer on this blog in the past. Of course, there’s a lot to unpack in the question. What does “useful” mean in this context? Does it mean “Will it help me get a job?” If so, what kind of job? An academic job? A non-academic job? When we ask if a philosophy degree specifically is useful, are we asking if the content of a philosophy degree is useful or if the skills acquired during its completion are useful? We should be clear about the difference.

I would still say that a philosophy degree is useful, but with a few caveats. The content of philosophy, for example, isn’t particularly useful with respect to finding a non-academic job. The fact is, nobody outside academia is going to pay you for knowing a lot about German philosophy (and even within academia, they probably won’t pay you much). However, several sectors outside academia will pay you for thinking critically, synthesizing information, and making abstract ideas concrete. In other words, the skills are useful; the content, not so much.

Of course, one can acquire those same skills majoring in subjects other than philosophy. In fact, depending on the person, other disciplines may be better at inculcating those skills. For example, if you’re bored by the content of philosophy, you’ll probably be less receptive to learning the skills. I learned from my teaching experience that it’s actually quite difficult to teach subject-independent critical thinking. I actually found it easier to teach critical thinking in my intro to philosophy class than I did in the generic critical thinking class. Perhaps this is because the former used specifically philosophical examples whereas the latter tried to be too general. This leads me to question how much any subject fosters generic ‘critical thinking skills’ that will have broad applicability in the workplace. I don’t think philosophy enjoys any unique advantage in this regard.

Yes, philosophy majors do well on tests like the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT. But there’s not much evidence that studying philosophy causes students to do well on those tests as opposed to merely attracting students who are inclined to do well on those tests in the first place. It’s the old treatment effect versus selection effect. The evidence offered simply doesn’t support the causal claim. Also, my anecdotal evidence from teaching, for what it’s worth, indicates that students who do major in philosophy are smart to begin with and probably would be successful with or without a philosophy major.

All of this is to say that philosophy departments tend to overstate the usefulness of a philosophy degree. I understand that they need to sell philosophy to students, but if a student isn’t already smart, studious, and disciplined, then it’s not likely that studying philosophy is going to be very useful. I suspect that professional philosophers know this already — they’re too smart for the ‘correlation = causation’ fallacy — but they’re driven to justify their existence to the university administrators who control the purse strings. So they overstate their case.

These practices raise significant questions about the ethics of advertising philosophy as developing critical thinking skills or leading to higher wages. Marketing the degree in this way may lead to false expectations. At the very least, more empirical research would need to be done and the claims should at least be qualified. I don’t expect philosophy departments to be held responsible for every mistaken inference a student might make (caveat emptor, after all), but since philosophers value clarity they should be especially wary of making claims that could be easily misinterpreted by the general public.

A State of Statelessness

I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on the weekend. It was pretty good. I still prefer its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but the sequel is interesting for different reasons. One thing I noticed, and I’m not sure if it’s intentional, is that the film presents a fairly positive picture of a stateless human society, at least as post-apocalyptic futures go. The usual trope in post-apocalyptic fiction is that once the state collapses due to whatever disaster befalls the planet, humans devolve into animals, with the exception of a few heroic individuals (e.g. The Walking Dead). By contrast, in Dawn: POTA the stateless human society seems to hold together relatively well. There’s a lot of cooperation, what looks like a robust marketplace, and it’s generally peaceful (before the central conflict of the story) despite everybody being well-armed. In other words, it’s precisely the scenario that anarchists predict would happen in a post-state situation. Is there any evidence that this would be the case?

One of the criticisms of anarchy is that there’s little empirical evidence to support its positive predictions. There aren’t very many real world examples for sociologists to study and those stateless regions that do exist, for example pre-2012 Somalia, aren’t exactly tourist destinations. Imagining how a peaceful, prosperous anarchist society would organize itself is often left to science fiction writers. However, the examples we do find, including Somalia, are instructive.

Somalia was without a national government from 1991 — 2012, which is enough time to draw some conclusions about the effects of statelessness. Admittedly, it didn’t become an anarcho-capitalist utopia as predicted by anarchist theory. But neither did Somalia fare worse than it did under its former government; nor was it worse off relative to other sub-Saharan African nations. In fact, Somalia improved in several international development metrics during its experiment with statelessness, despite remaining very poor by Western standards. You can read about that here and here. Of course, none of this proves that Somalia would be better off stateless than it would be under any government whatsoever. That remains to be seen. But it was arguably better off stateless than under the governments typically on offer in the region.

Another much studied stateless society is medieval Iceland (see here and here). When one thinks of Vikings, one usually thinks of people who settled their disputes with swordplay rather than through non-violent arbitration. However, historical records indicate that the latter was more often the case. Indeed, medieval Iceland fared better than its European counterparts in almost every area. As David Friedman writes: “Its citizens were, by medieval standards, free; differences in status based on rank or sex were relatively small; and its literary output, in relation to its size has been compared, with some justice, to that of Athens.” Iceland flourished for three centuries (906 — 1262) without a centralized government in relative peace and prosperity when compared with the feudal kingdoms of medieval Europe.

Medieval Iceland is instructive because it demonstrates the possibility of having a sophisticated legal culture without a robust political culture. Michael Walzer has argued that ancient Israel is instructive for the same reason (HT: Kevin Vallier). According to the biblical text, the ancient Israelites debated about whether to have a king at all — an unprecedented occurrence in the Ancient Near East. Even after ancient Israel became a monarchy, the king was not an absolute authority like the other rulers in the region. In commenting on ancient Israel’s apolitical culture, Walzer notes: “The central concerns of political philosophy as the Greeks understood it—ruling and being ruled, the best regime, the meaning of citizenship, the deliberative process, civic virtue, political obligation—were never central in Israelite thought.” One also finds this apolitical attitude among modern Jews in the Diaspora. As a persecuted minority in Europe especially, they often supplanted state institutions with their own: private schools, private arbitration, and ‘grey markets’ (untaxed, unregulated markets in otherwise legal goods).

What conclusions can we draw from these examples? I would venture two relatively modest conclusions. First, we shouldn’t conflate legal culture with political culture. As the examples of ancient Israel and medieval Iceland show, it’s possible to have the former without the latter. Second, we shouldn’t conflate state with society. Societies can exist, and historically have, without the state. Rather than being the basis for society, the state is but one particular organization a society can take. Society need not collapse because the state does. This is relatively good news for survivors in a post-apocalyptic future.

The Love Letters of Sigmund Freud

freudFreud wrote the following in a letter to his fiancé, Martha Bernays:

I know you are not beautiful in a painter’s or sculptor’s sense; if you insist on strict correctness in the use of words then I must confess that you are not beautiful.

In another letter:

[N]ature shaped your nose and mouth more characteristically than beautifully, with an almost masculine expression, so unmaidenly in its decisiveness …. if there is any vanity left in your little head I will not conceal from you that some people declare you beautiful, even strikingly so. I have no opinion on the matter.

But wait, there’s more:

We surely agree that the management of a house, the care and bringing up of children, demands the whole of a human being and almost excludes any earning, even if a simplified household relieves her of dusting, cleaning, cooking, etc. …. Nature has determined woman’s destiny through beauty, charm and sweetness. Law and custom have given much to women that has been withheld from them, but the position of women will surely be what it is: in youth an adored darling and in mature years a loved wife.

Later, Freud famously said in a letter to Marie Bonaparte, “the great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'” No shit.

Rules and the Specificity Problem

I was reading recently about the inevitable remake/reboot/sequel to Gremlins. There was some discussion in the comments about the coherence of the rules in the movie, especially the prohibition against feeding the gremlins after midnight. This rule doesn’t seem to have a straightforward interpretation. After all, every time of day is ‘after midnight.’ At what point, exactly, is it permissible to feed a gremlin? This particular rule lacks the specificity necessary to give it any real content. I began to think of other examples of rules that have the same feature.

Take, for example, the famous genie-in-the-bottle story. The genie will grant you three wishes. The obvious thing to do — which most of us figure out even as children — is to wish for unlimited wishes. Usually, however, ‘the rules’ state that this move isn’t allowed. But couldn’t one wish that one’s wishes aren’t bound by arbitrary rules? What exactly is the content of the rules governing wishes? It’s never spelled out.

This problem of specifying content could apply to any statement, including the wishes themselves. There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Man in the Bottle” that illustrates this point. A poor couple find a genie’s bottle and are granted wishes. However, their wish for wealth and power has unforeseen and unhappy consequences. For example, much of their newly acquired wealth is taxed by the IRS, leaving them no better off than before. In a trademark Rod Serling twist, the husband’s wish to become a powerful ruler transforms him into Hitler during the fall of Berlin. The genie, of course, warned him to be careful what he wished for. But there’s a problem: Does adding specificity to the wish necessarily guarantee that the wish won’t have further unintended consequences? Another problem: How much qualification can one add to the description of a state of affairs without ‘changing the rules’ such that the state of affairs is no longer attainable?

This latter problem often comes up in theological discussions of the problem of evil. Both the atheist and the believer face a version of it. In the first case, the skeptic’s claim that he could create a better world than God allegedly has, faces the specificity problem. How exactly would one go about it? What would such a world look like, exactly? Would it be a world entirely free of adversity? If so, that would also rule out much human achievement born of adversity. Would it be a world void of human vice? If so, we would have to figure out how such a world is compatible with freedom. Would it be a world without disease and natural disasters? If so, we would have to specify what different physical laws would govern such a world. In short, specifying the content of this hypothetical world with enough nuance to exclude everything we wish to rule out and include only what we wish to retain, is quite difficult in practice.

The theist faces a related problem. The believer claims that God is omnipotent, however, that statement — coupled with the claim that God is good — seems incompatible with the evil in the world. The theist then has to explain how it’s possible for an omnipotent being to fail to prevent evil. It turns out that there are rules governing omnipotence too. Take the famous ‘Stone Paradox’ that’s familiar to many undergraduate philosophy students: Can an omnipotent being create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it? If one says ‘no’ then there’s something an omnipotent being can’t do, namely create the stone. If one says ‘yes’ then there’s something an omnipotent being can’t do, namely lift the stone. Of course, one could argue that one of the things an omnipotent being could do is to cease to be omnipotent. So an omnipotent being could create the stone, cease to be omnipotent, then fail to lift it. This is a cheat though, because the failure would not be the failure of an omnipotent being. Also, laying aside his omnipotence is something that God, given the rules, can’t do, so this option is not open to the theist. Again, my point is that outlining the rules governing omnipotence in sufficient detail to explain God’s failure to prevent evil without qualifying God’s power such that he ceases to be omnipotent, is quite a difficult exercise.

So there are several rules that are tricky to spell out in a satisfying manner. This problem also faces law-makers, which explains why the law becomes so complicated. However, even with all of that specificity there are still loopholes and unintended consequences. As Wittgenstein pointed out, such practical problems are bound up with the limits of language. But that’s little consolation when I’m trying to figure out when to feed my gremlin.