Monday, January 30, 2006

Bush's Best Case Scenario Thinking Goes Wrong Again

The Bush Administration has again been caught engaging in what I call "best case scenario thinking." My morning paper carried a NY Times article on Secretary of State Rice's admission that no one in the administration saw the Hamas victory in the election in Palestine coming. As was noted in the article :
LONDON, Jan. 29 — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged Sunday that the United States had failed to understand the depth of hostility among Palestinians toward their longtime leaders. The hostility led to an election victory by the militant group Hamas that has reduced to tatters crucial assumptions underlying American policies and hopes in the Middle East.
As in the case of Iraq, the administration completely misjudged the likelihood that the people would respond in a positive way (i. e., in a way that would please George W. Bush) to the opportunity to have a democratic state and elect the "right" people. As Rice put it:
"I've asked why nobody saw it coming," Ms. Rice said, speaking of her own staff. "It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse."
The article went on to say:
Immediately after the election, Bush administration officials said the results reflected a Palestinian desire for change and not necessarily an embrace of Hamas, which the United States, Israel and the European Union consider a terrorist organization sworn to Israel's destruction. But Ms. Rice's comments seemed to reflect a certain second-guessing over how the administration had failed to foresee, or factor into its thinking, the possibility of a Hamas victory.
In Iraq, we had the same failure to see that our actions, however nobly conceived, could go badly wrong. Bush and his administration did not foresee the looting of museums and other government buildings, did not appreciate the difficulties in rebuilding the infrastructure of Iraq, and did notforesee the strong negative reaction to the overthrow of Saddam and, especially, to our continued presence in Iraq, to name just a few things that they didn't anticipate and plan for. This latter failure of foresight is especially telling -- what did Bush think the suddenly disenfranchised Sunnis would do? Why did he think that these Muslim people would not find the continued presence of Infidels to be offensive given the long history of such hostility.

It is pretty clear that the Bush administration does not worry overmuch about what might go wrong when we take action in the world -- keep the lid on Afghanistan, where, it seems, the Taliban continue to operate, overthrow Saddam and try to create a democratice state in Iraq, and aid and abet the free election of the leaders of the new (more or less) Palestinian State. These continuing failures to recognize and plan for what could go wrong in the Bush administration may simply reflect Bush's sunny disposition. Does he start every day singing "Oh what a beautiful morning, ...."? Or is it that he dismisses out of hand, information from our various agencies that suggest that actions he favors could have very bad outcomes. By now, I suppose the CIA doesn't bother to send over intelligence that conflicts with what Bush and his administration wants to do.

I cannot believe that the Israelis did not see a Hamas victory coming. If they did and they are our friends, they would surely have told someone in the Bush administration that there was a good chance this would happen. But, the Bush administration does not like to hear bad news. Too some degree, this failure and the Iraqi failure seems to reflect Bush's faith in the allure of democracy to people who have never experienced it. As Martin Indyk, a top Middle East negotiator in the Clinton administration, said:
"But on the American side, the conceptual failure that contributed to disaster was the president's belief that democracy and elections solve everything."
This belief by Bush does not make him a bad person by any means -- it is a noble, and very idealistic, point of view. It just makes him a bad President.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Saying You "Know" Something to be True.-- II

As I said in my last blog, the hallmark of someone who can think at a high level is an ability to distinguish assertions that express testable claims and knowing what evidence is and is not relevant to testing such claims. If the person can also conjure up from his or her imagination some novel thesis that is testable, all the better. The fact is that the percentage of people who can distinguish testable claims from nontestable ones and who know what evidence is relevent to determining the truth of such claims is not very large if my experience in academia is any guide. This is the toughest thing college students are asked to master and not a lot of them do.

By now your local newspaper will have printed a story about a priest in Italy being sued by someone for claiming that Jesus Christ lived. The specific charges were made because of two Italian laws: “abuse of popular belief” in which someone fraudulently deceives people; and “impersonation” in which someone gains by attributing a false name to someone." Of course the suit will go nowhere. But it is interesting to look a bit at claims of the form, "I know that X lived."

In this article the atheist plaintiff argues that the evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ does not stand up to scholarly analysis. One Professor Appleby puts his finger on a key issue.

R. Scott Appleby, a professor of church history at the University of Notre Dame, concurs. There's “no real doubt” that Jesus existed, he said.

“But what Jesus of Nazareth did and what he means is a different question,” Mr. Appleby said. “But on the question of the existence, there is more evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth than there would be for many other historical people who actually existed. Not only did Jesus actually exist, but he actually had some kind of prominence to be mentioned in two or three chronicles.”

Prof. Appleby is quite right in saying that the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth existed is easier to prove than that most other people living at the time existed. And, Prof. Appleby is also right in saying that the assertion hat Jesus of Nazareth existed is not the same thing as asserting that Jesus Christ existed. As he notes, reference to this man in various texts provides evidence supporting the claim that Jesus of Nazareth existed. The claim that Jesus Christ lived would also be an empirical claim if we specified the properties this person had and these properties were empirical in nature.

When we talk about Jesus Christ existing we are talking about someone who was seen walking on water and turning water into wine and who was crucified and a few days later rose from the dead, among many other things. To prove that all of these claims about the historical Jesus of Nazareth are true, we have to have evidence independent of that provided by the Bible. Many of us learned to sing “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Who knows how much damage that verse did to the ability of Christians to think clearly about their faith.

Over and over throughout my life, I have run into people who happily assert that they know that there is a God (Jesus's God Father). My response has always been that they can't know this; at best they can simply think that there is a God. The proposition "God exists" isn't an empirical claim, which is to say, isn't a testable claim until we specify the properties God is supposed to have. Moreover, these properties must themselves be empirically determinable. It is interesting how few such properties are empirically determinable.

Propositions like "God is the entity that created the universe" cannot be determined to be true without saying exactly what this means. Someone might say that prior to the existence of the visible universe there was nothing but energy and God was an extraordinarily powerful, isolated bundle of energy that was sentient in nature and further that this bundle of energy turned much of the rest of the energy that existed at the time into matter and in the process caused a great explosion (the Big Bang). I hope you are getting the point by now. The claim that God exists isn't an empircal claim though it looks like one because it is simply too imprecise to be tested. Ditto with the claim that Jesus Christ (as opposed to the historical Jesus) existed.

Perhaps knowing that they can't prove that God exists using respectable methods, we find people saying things like "I know in my heart that there is a God." This sort of claim seems to be encouraged by the Bible. I found a web site citing Jeremiah 29:13-14 as saying "You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you." This "knowing in my heart" seems to be a very popular epistemological method. Consider Ronald Reagon's very stupid claim "I know in my heart that man is good" and check out this Google search result for more instances of people knowing things in their hearts. Of course, the phrase "know in one's heart" is a totally nonsensical concept. The heart, which has some very nice properties, is not involved in thinking except through supplying oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Ditto with "I know intuitively that there is a God." If my Google searchis reliable evidence, the phrase "know intuitively" is very commonly used, probably by people who probably wouldn't have a clue how to prove something empirically. Claims of the form, "I know there is a God," usually come down to knowing this in one's heart or knowing it intuitively. I would be delighted if readers came up with some other nonsensical "ways of knowing things." Gut knowledge is one. There will be more. The web site that provided the Jeremiah quotation uses the "hard to believe that" mode of argument. This is the mode of argument behind the nonempirical nontheory of Intelligent Design.

We all marvel at the universe. If this universe really was created by a God, whatever that means, I would be pretty pissed at him/her/it. Given that faster than the speed of light travel is out of the question, we will never be able to visit another habitable planet, much less one with sentient life. In fact, communication with life on another planet is nigh on to impossible. Suppose there were a planet 20,000 light years away from Earth who are exactly as intelligent as us and we determine this because our SETI program has found an interpretable message from such "people" fully describing them and the planet they live on that includes a request that we do the same. Sadly, our reply might never be heard since, being no more intelligent than us, they will very probably have destroyed their planet, something we are hell-bent on doing. I am pissed that we can't travel to other habitable planets. So, to compensate for this, I watch Stargate SG-1 each week for a fix. It, along with the two shows after it, should help to relax people who do hard empircal thinking during the preceeding week and need relief.

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Monday, January 23, 2006

Saying You "Know" Something to be True.-- I

One of the benchmarks for measuring someone's ability to think is their ability to recognize what is and what is not a testable empirical hypothesis and an ability to recognize what evidence is relevant to evaluating such hypotheses (i. e., determining whether the hypothesis is true.) Two very general types of claims that pour out of the minds who do not understand these things are wild-ass counterfactual claims, that is claims of the form "If X hadn't happened, then Y wouldn't have happened" and conspiracy theories. These provide uncountably many instances of very wrong-headed assertions of the form, "I know that `P' is true."

A typical "wild-ass" counterfactual would be "The Sept. 11 attacks would not have happened if the State Department had followed its own guidelines and denied visas to the hijackers, two top Republican senators said in a report issued Wednesday." Most people seem to think that all one must do to evaluate a counterfactual like this is imagine a different world from the real world in which the proposition comprising the "if"-clause is true, that is, that the State Department had followed its own guidelines and denied the hijackers visas. According to this argument, there would have been no 9/11 attack of the sort we Americans (and citizens of many other countries) suffered because the hijackers would not have been able to get into the country. This is, of course, an absurd conclusion. Visaless people slip into the country all the time across the Mexican and Canadian borders or even by boat along our various coastlines. It would have been easy enough (according the movies I watch) for the hijackers to slip into the country from Mexico, travel to Florida to the location of a high class forger, and get false documents such as driver's licenses and any other documents needed to fly within the country and take flying lessons. Or, they could have slipped in with all of the documents in hand. Or even come through "legally" using forged visas and other forged documents. As David Lewis noted in his important book, "Counterfactuals," when evaluating a counterfactual, you must imagine a different world from ours with many different things holding true that are presently false. Clearly, Sens. Jon Kyl and Pat Roberts are nitwits.

Conspiracy theories abound in this world. The preposterous ones, which is the vast majority of them, arise because of a natural desire or need to understand events and an inability to think clearly. One doesn't even have to be a very good thinker once one learns a few facts about them. The site referenced early in this paragraph cites a number of conspiracy theories, including one of my favorites, that JFK ordered the hit that resulted in the death of Marilyn Monroe. Another which I heard some years ago is that the Black-on-Black violence was the result of law enforcement leaving a box car full of weapons unguarded in the Black community of LA "knowing" that they would steal the weapons and start killing each other. Another involving Blacks is the allegation that the CIA brought in massive amounts of cocaine into the country "knowing" that either Blacks or other people would learn how to make crack out of it and sell it in the Black communities around the country virtually destroying a generation or more of Black people. These conspiracy theories are so transparently ridiculous I won't bother with them.

The first "respectable" conspiracy theory I ever heard was President Eisenhower's claim that we should be concerned with the military-industrial complex. In using the word "complex," Eisenhower invited people to believe that there was a giant conspiracy of military and business leaders though he didn't use the words "conspiracy" or "collusion." He said
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
Naturally the idea arose that there has been an ongoing conspiracy of sets of military leaders and sets of business leaders who meet together to plan how they can get the President and Congress to continually increase the production of newer and better and more costly weapons. This theory suffers from a fundamental mistake, characteristic of virtually all conspiracy theories, namely a failure to recognize that the behavior that is said to be caused by the conspiracy could be the result of the people involved having quite independent (no collusion and therefore no conspiracy) interests that just happen to converge. The military folks want new toys and arms manufacturers want to make money. We don't need a conspiracy theory to explain the phenomenon. All we need is people acting out of their own perceived best interests which just happen to result in increasing production of weapons. The influence of these quite independent organizations on the larger community results from the fact that the arms manufacturers hire gobs of people and pay (one would hope) lots of taxes and military bases hire lots of locals and pour lots of money in local businesses.

Of course, a number of Colonels involved in guiding the development of arms and in urging them to be purchased may collude with a particular company to make sure they get the contracts and get overpaid for them. The result might a job for this Colonel down the line. There are laws forcing a waiting period, I believe, before such jobs can be taken. But it certainly isn't an accident that lots of former military folks end up with cushy jobs in industry. So we may have lots of tiny conspiracies (instances of collusion) as opposed to a giant conspiracy. I am somewhat comforted by that thought.

Conspiracy theories frequently fail because it is possible to explain the behavior as the independent actions of people which just happen to converge in a result both want. In other cases, they survive, however preposterous, because of the absence of critical relevant information. The Kennedy assassination Conspiracies have resulted from the fact that not everything that one needs to know to understand fully how this assasination arose is, in fact, known. Of course, some will deny that certain alleged facts are facts which opens up the conspiracy to include even more people -- the people involved in the coverup. Going through the history of the investigation of the Watergate break-in provides a perfect case of an every widening conspiracy. In that case, the conspiracy seems to be well-established. Ditto the Iran-Contra Affair. Will the ongoing Iraq war prove to be the result of a similar Republican conspiracy between elements of the White House (including especially Dick Cheney), of elements within the Pentagon, of certain members of the State Department, of certain top Halliburton executives, and some others? Watch this space.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Last Bastion of PC Prejudice

Someone quite recently objected to a sports "color guy" pronouncing "Northwestern" as "Norfwestern" and wondered if he would be wrong to object to that in someone broadcasting to the public. Surely someone with a college degree who played basketball against Northwestern should know how to pronounce the name correctly was the thought he had. My problem with this complaint is that the complaint is basically racial in origin -- in Central Ohio, it is Blacks, rather than Whites, who would say "Norfwestern" -- whether the speaker meant it to be or not In fact, I don't think the person writing this is a racist per se. He has simply developed a prejudice against those who speak in an "uneducated" way. In fact the speaker is a college graduate. This sort of expression of prejudice bites my butt so I plan to rant a bit on the subject. First, some necessary background information.

"Norfwestern" arises as the result of a partial assimilation of the voicless fricative "th" sound to the following "w" sound, itself formed by pursing the lips. This "w" sound is a bilabial (two lips) sound and functions somewhat as a consonant in a word like "wed" but as a semi-vowel or a glide in "awake". The assimilation is partial because English does not have a bilabial fricative corresponding to "th," so the speaker used the closest thing to it, namely the voiceless labiodental (lower lip + lower row of teeth) voiceless fricative "f." Spanish has such a bilabial fricative so it is definitely a possible language sound. It just doesn't occur in English.

The "correct" sound in "Northwestern" also has a near total obstruction, but it is produced with the tip of the tongue inserted a short distance between the upper and lower teeth. Normally, we do not like to switch points of articulation between adjacent sounds (in this case, inter-dental "th" and then bilabial "w") if we don't have to and we often cheat. In casual speech, the word "Batman" is pronounced "bapman" with the alveolar (tip of the tongue making contact just behind the upper teeth) stop "t" assimilating the point of articulation of the bilabial "m." Virtually none of you will have been aware you say "Batman" that way. It is an automatic process that kicks in in casual speech.

Casual speech processes greatly affect pronunciation which is one reason it is hard to understand speakers of another language when one's exposure to the language is "academic." We learn words more or less individually but in actual speech they are run together. Pronounce the question, "Did you eat?" quickly the way you might say it to a close friend who has just dropped by your home as you have begun to eat. It could come out something like "ju-eet."

Casual speech processes are a major source of language change and therefore of dialect differences. It is interesting that people can get worked up over the "mispronunciation" of "Northwestern" but no one has ever seen my pronunciation of "get" as "git" as the sign of not having an proper education. Ditto the fact that I pronounce "pen" and "pin" in the same way. In short some "mistakes" are taken as signs that the speaker is of a different race or social class or ethnic group and others are ignored. We can put down others who are members of groups that we like to discriminate against by commenting on their "lousy" English. That way of acting is not politically incorrect (uncivil). Instead of saying, "Joe Blow talks like a Nigger, Spic, Kyke, Hillbilly, etc.," all of which would be major violations of political correctness (i. e., basic civility), Joe Blow can make fun or criticize howthis person talks. It is time for that crap to stop.

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Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Meaning of Meaning in Art

No word in the English language has been abused more than "mean" and its variants. The problem is that "mean" and "meaning" are multiply ambiguous (see my blog, The Meaning of "Meaning" ) and those using these words very commonly don't say what interpretation they have in mind and that includes linguists and philosophers, who ought to know better. Let me illustrate ths with this example
The meaning of the words uttered provides the input to this inference, but what they mean does not determine what the speaker means (even if he means precisely what his words means (sic), they don't determine that he is speaking literally.
In this case, what the writer means by "what the speaker means" is not made clear. I suspect he means to be saying something like this: "what the speaker intends for the hearer to infer" or "what significance the speaker intends the hearer to attach to what he says." As you can see there is a bit of a problem here.

What concerns me here however is talk about the meaning of this or that painting or the meaning of this or that element of a painting. Take Piccaso's great painting "Guernica," which was painted after a German Luftwaffe bombing of the Basque town of Guernica which killed a large number of people. This occured in 1937. Concerning this painting it is said that
Picasso obstinately refused to explain Guernica's imagery. Guernica has been the subject of more books than any other work in modern art and it is often described as..."the most important work of art of the twentieth century", yet its meanings have to this day eluded some of the most renowned scholars.
Or consider this
Gauguin and Van Gogh used color imaginatively and violently for its expressive emotional value. Immediate impressions and flickering light gave way to heavier subjects, solid with “meaning” in the works of the impressionists' successors.
I am not clear why the quote mark surrounds "meaning" here but it would be appropriate as snigger quotes, also called "scare quotes" or "shudder quotes." I am curious why the writer didn't see the need to put "solid" in snigger quotes for this is a very odd use of the word.

Those who write and talk about art clearly presuppose that works of art have meanings in some useful sense of the term and that these meanings are somehow determinable. I wish in this blog to disabuse them of these beliefs.

In my blog on the meaning of "meaning," I note that "mean" can mean "intend," as in an example like "I didn't mean to hurt you." In sentences like "The meaning of 'liebe' is the same as the meaning of 'love'," we mean that the two words have the same literal or conventional meaning. A third use can be found in examples (1) and (2).

These two uses of "mean" (and its variants) involve the signficance of something -- of saying something or of some real world event, where the event might be a natural event (smoke) or an event having political significance (Ariel Sharon's recent stroke).

In a case like (2), we are talking about what is usually referred to as "natural meaning" and the notion of causation is often involved in explicating how the one thing means the other. Fire normally causes smoke and so smoke can sometimes be taken as meaning that there is a nearby fire. In both cases situational factors are at work. What I mean by this is that in some contexts smoke may imply that there is a fire but in others it might signify something else (a volcanic eruption, for example). The sentence, "Can you reach the salt?," is meant sometimes (intended to be interpreted by the speaker) as a request for salt and sometimes it might be meant as a pure information question. Context plays a critical role in our figuring out whether a request for salt or a request for information is involved. While there is no causal relationship between "Can you reach the salt?" and its being interpreted as a request for salt, there is a no less rationally explicatable relationship between the utterance's literal meaning and the context in which it is uttered and the significance the utterance has (is intended by the speaker to have) in that context. It is the business of semanticians and pragmaticians to figure out this relationship.

What is critical here is that there is a rationally explicatable relationship that can be made quite precise from (a) the literal meaning of the sentence, (b) certain elements of the context in which the sentence is uttered, (c) certain principles involved in interpreting language in context, and (d) the significance (meaning) the speaker intends the listener to attach to his utterance.

When someone says that the meanings of Guernica "have to this day eluded some of the most renowned scholars" it is suggested that such meanings actually exist and that they are findable in principle. This implies that the search for the meaning of a work of art is a lot like the search for the meaning of an utterance or even the true nature of dark matter in physics. We are pretty sure dark matter exists but we can't find any. And some people are sure that Guernica has a meaning or meanings, they just can't find them.

The significance ("meaning") of a painting is very different from the significance of an occurence of smoke or someone's saying, "Can you reach the salt?" The reason is that there is no rationaly explicatable relationship between the elements that comprise a painting and its meaning in the way that there is between seeing smoke and infering that there must be or must have been a fire or hearing "Can you reach the salt?" and infering that the speaker means for you to pass him the salt.

The problem is that the elements that comprise a painting, unlike those that comprise sentences, do not have literal or conventional meanings. That alone is sufficient to discredit any claim that this or that painting has this or that meaning. But there are other problems. In interpreting an utterance, context plays a role and what elements of the context are relevant to the interpretation of an utterance are normally specifiable in a quite precise way. Moreover, how the literal meaning and the elements of context of utterance are used by listeners to interpret the significance (meaning) of the utterance can be specified in a reasonably precise way. The work of John Searle, with a boost from Paul Grice, provides one way of "calculating" the contextual significance (meaning) of certain classes of utterances. In my book, Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction, I provide a very different account that was actually at one time made sufficiently precise for a tiny fragment of English to be actually computed (check out a paper I did with Terry Patten and Barbara Becker, then of The Ohio State University's computer science department).

Back in the day, I got into fierce debates with others about the merits of what was called "New Criticism" in the field of literary analysis. According to this approach, in interpreting a piece of literature, one should not make reference to either the context in which it was created or any information one might have about the writer's intentions. No sillier idea has ever been advanced by responsible, otherwise credible scholars. If we language users acted like new critics, we would never understand each other. But for paintings and literature and music and the rest, even if we had access to the context of composition and the creator's stated intentions, we still couldn't defend claims about the meaning of any painting, poem, or sonata. The problem as I noted is that the elements that comprise works of art and literature do not have conventional meanings. If they did, they wouldn't be art.

When I was a grad student in the Boston area, there used to be an art show held on the Boston Commons by various sorts of graphic artists. One sculpture particularly interested me. It was a figure of a baseball player composed of (if my memory serves me accurately) a lamp stand for the lower body and a metal torso with a diamond shaped hole covered by glass or clear plastic containing a cereal bowl cut in half with a small Wheaties box inside as well as a baseball card). The player was holding an actual wood bat cocked for the next pitch and he had what I took to be a sardonic smile on the face of his metal head. It was one of the funniest sculptures I had ever seen (maybe the only one that was funny). I stood away from this work of art and watched people as they approached it. Very commonly I would see them smile and then see that smile turn into a scowl or look of puzzlement. I took the latter to signify that they couldn't figure out the meaning of the thing and I think some may have disapproved of the idea that a sculpture should be funny. These people may have just had their first ever authentic (in Sartre's sense of the term) aesthetic experience and they promptly dismissed it.

So, when it comes to art, don't ask for its meaning. Simply enjoy it or not. If it makes you think of something, that's even better.

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