Specter of Reason

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Thought, Speech and Interpretation

I was thinking about how we sometimes speak without editing ourselves, and we can have the experience of hearing ourselves as if we didn't know what we were going to say.  This kind of immediacy of speaking can be discomfiting.  Perhaps it is because some of us (and I count myself here) are so used to thinking about what we are saying while we are saying it that we confuse the thinking about what we are saying with the actual act of saying something.  And it occurred to me that we could make this mistake about other mental processes, too.


So I asked the question:  Is thinking about what you are saying while you are saying it the same as thinking about what you are interpreting while you are interpreting it?

Can we imagine a situation where a person says one thing but thinks they are saying something else? I think it is possible.

And I suppose we can imagine a case where a person interprets a text one way, but thinks they are interpreting it differently, too.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

TOK: Reason and Emotion

The following is a post I put together for my TOK class this year:

 We're often told to listen to reason and not our emotions.  Emotions might help us in the moment, but they won't help us in the long run.  Emotions are about immediate gratification (getting what you want right away, living for the moment), not long-term planning.  Emotions are wild and unpredictable.  Reason is domesticated, calm and respectable.

But is that really so?

Or is the truth more like this:  People who try to change your mind about something by telling you not to follow your emotions are actually being hypocrites.  When they tell you not to follow your emotions, they are actually appealing to your emotions.  They are appealing to your sense of responsibility, and where does responsibility come from, if not emotions?

Emotions give us love, empathy, compassion, joy and excitement.  Emotions may just be the glue that holds society together.

Consider this scenario:  You don't want to do your homework--you'd rather go out with some friends.  A voice in your head says, "Aw, the homework isn't so important.  You can get it done during a break tomorrow.  It won't be great, but it'll be fine.  Just go out and have some fun!"

Then another voice says, "Wait a minute, now.  Let's be responsible.  You know that if you don't do the homework tonight, it's not going to get done properly.  You might get a bad grade, and you won't learn the material."

The first voice returns:  "Aw, you're no fun.  Come on, let's have some fun for once!"

The second voice answers:  "Fun?  Is that all you care about?  What about your education?  What about your future?"

I'm sure you've had similar arguments in your head about all sorts of things.  Is this a fight between reason and emotion?

We might say that reason is the voice that is concerned about the future, about education and responsibility.  We might say that emotion is the voice that wants to have fun with friends, and which is trying to justify not doing the homework.  Emotion is the voice of rationalization.  So reason seems smarter, perhaps, but also totally boring and a real downer.

But we don't have to look at it that way.  Actually, I don't think we should look at it that way at all.

First of all, there are reasons to go out and have fun.  Not every homework assignment is going to make that much of a difference.   That argument about your education and your future all hinging on this one homework assignment?  That's a very bad argument.  Why should you think that your entire future is going to be destroyed because of one homework assignment?  It's not like the first voice was saying that all homework is a waste of time, and that you shouldn't do your school work at all.  The first voice was just talking about one homework assignment and one night.  So the so-called "voice of reason" here wasn't being very reasonable.

We can easily be misled into thinking that we are listening to the voice of reason, when all we are actually hearing is a very bad argument.

This is not a fight between reason and emotions.  It is a fight between two different points of view:  One view is that you need a break and going out with friends is more important than doing your homework.  The other view is that doing your homework is more important than going out with friends.  Both views rely on reason and emotion.

QUESTION 1:  Can you think of any real situations where you had a conflict between reason and emotion?  How do you know it was not just a conflict between two different points of view, each with their own emotions and reason?

Emotion keeps us interested in the world and our role in it.  If we had no desires or feelings, we would have no motivation to act.  Without emotion, our reason would be a cold, heartless tool.  In fact, we might not be able to reason at all if we didn't have emotions.  What motivates us to formulate arguments in the first place?  What motivates us to accept premises?  Remember: no matter how well-reasoned your argument is, your conclusion is only as good as your premises, and those can't all be based on reason.  If we had no emotions, we would have no reason to use reason.

Yet, there is a common belief that reason and emotion are against each other.  It's a very, very old idea, going back many centuries.  In fact, the idea that reason and emotion are enemies is such a well-established part of Western culture that it was used in the 20th century for propaganda. And so we have the 1943 Disney cartoon, "Reason And Emotion."

(The actual cartoon starts about 30 seconds into the video.)




This unfortunately very sexist cartoon was one of numerous wartime propaganda films that Disney made for the US Government in the early 1940s.  On the surface, the cartoon appears to be about the dangers of being led by our emotions.  That is not what the film is really about, though.  The purpose of the film is not to educate Americans about human psychology or theory of knowledge.  It is to increase support for the American war effort.

The propaganda really begins in the middle of the cartoon, when we see John Doe, an everyman, sitting at home trying to "keep up with current events."  He does not know who to believe or what to think:  On the radio, in the newspapers, in the streets, everywhere he looks he hears people talking about the war, about how America is doomed, about how it is a waste of money.  His emotions are driving him crazy.  Then the friendly narrator's voice comes in to guide him away from his emotions and towards reason.  And, of course, reason tells him that America should be in the war and everything is going to be okay, so stop worrying and just be happy.

The irony is that the narrator does not really lead us away from emotions at all.  Instead, we are given exaggerated representations of Hitler which appeal heavily to our emotions.  Apparently reason and emotion have a common enemy:  Nazi Germany.  At the end, we are told that reason and emotion should be patriotic--notice that patriotism is an emotion--and they should fly together.  If our emotions are good and healthy (in other words, if they are patriotic), then they will let reason drive.

The conclusion of the movie is very clear:  It tells us that any Americans who oppose the war are unpatriotic and led by emotions.  Of course, the cartoon does not appeal to reason--we are not given factual reasons to support the war--but only to emotion.  But it creates the illusion that we are following reason, and that is the key.

Again, it seems that when we are told that we must choose between reason and emotion, we are being misled.

QUESTION 2:  Why do we distrust emotions?  Perhaps because we think that emotion and reason are at war.  Where does this idea come from?

QUESTION 3:  What if reason and emotion don't compete for the driver's seat?  What if we need a totally different metaphor to understand the relationship between reason and emotion?  Can you think of any other possibilities?

Perhaps reason is the navigational tools on a sailboat, and emotion is the water and wind that keeps it afloat and moves it forward.

Or maybe reason is a flashlight, and emotion is the bulb that glows.  Or is emotion the flashlight and reason the bulb?

QUESTION 4:  The ultimate question is, in our quest for knowledge, how do we know when we can trust our emotions and the emotions of others?

TOK: Language, Identity and Community

The following is a post I put together for my Theory of Knowledge class this year:

How important is your language for your sense of identity--your identity as an individual, but also as a member of a nation?  It's common nowadays to associate a nation with a language, even though many nations have more than one national language.  Should a nation be defined by a single language?

Consider what political factors have shaped the language that you speak.  Why do you speak Polish, Flemish, Danish, Czech, German, Russian or English?  Why did you grow up learning your native tongue, and why are you learning new languages today?  Are you learning new languages so that you can join new knowledge communities?  Bigger knowledge communities?  Better knowledge communities?

Communities rely on communication.  Community, communicate:  Both words come from the latin root, communia, meaning a large gathering of people sharing a way of life. Communication is not simply about sharing information.  Some say language is primarily for persuasion:  for getting people to think and act the way you want them to.  We communicate, ultimately, to arrange a shared way of life.  Language helps us work together; it shapes our expectations, allowing us to create very sophisticated maps of ourselves and the world around us.  But it also gives us a shared identity, and keeps foreigners out.  It brings people together, but it also builds walls.  It controls and limits, perhaps as much as it guides and enables.

The people who control language have control over the community.  Who controls the language in your knowledge communities?  (Think of the languages of science, of art, of culture, of politics, of education.)  What gives them that power?

Have you noticed how language can shape your political views?  Have you ever criticized a nation or a political faction for the way they talk?  Are there political conflicts in your home country that involve language?

In America, there are some cities with large Spanish-speaking populations.  Should those cities have Spanish street signs?  Should there be government agents in those cities which are fluent in Spanish?  Or should the residents in those cities have to become fluent in English?  Some Americans say that all Americans should speak English, but this is a controversial topic in America.  Are there similar issues in your home country?

There can be benefits to having a shared language, of course.  One benefit is that language helps us share information, and this is necessary to create a knowledge community.  Do we need a shared language to have shared knowledge, though?

Imagine you and a friend visit a beautiful landscape and watch the sunset together.  You do not speak about it--and maybe you don't even speak the same language.  But you have shared an experience, and that gives you shared knowledge.

Imagine you want to teach a friend how to tie their shoes, but you don't speak the same language.  You can still instruct them with gestures.  You can show them how to do it, and so you can share your knowledge, even without a shared language.

When it comes to more abstract ideas, however, you need a shared language if you want to share knowledge.  The problem is, which language should be shared?

This is a political issue that has an influential history.  Some people believe that their language is just better than all the others.  A couple of centuries ago, people in Germany started to take this idea very seriously.  They believed that their language was pure, original and natural, and that other European languages were corrupt and weak.  The modern German language was still being formed in the 18th century and German nationalism was growing rapidly, with dreams of unification.  As you can imagine, some people felt a very strong connection between the need for a shared language and the swelling tides of nationalism.  People started to believe that the very identity of a nation was reflected in its language.  German intellectuals believed that the power of the German mind and spirit was determined by its language.  This idea became known as linguistic determinism, which says that language determines what you can think.  (These days, experts are more likely to believe in a weaker view, called linguistic relativity, which says that your language only influences what you think.)

The belief in linguistic determinism was very racist.  For example, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) wrote: "the German speaks a language that has been alive ever since it first issued from the force of nature, whereas the other Teutonic races speak a language which has movement on the surface but which is dead at the root."  In other words, languages like English, French, Dutch, Flemish, and so on--these languages were all inferior to the pure, original German language.

Another German, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), was one of the first to promote the idea that a nation was defined by its language. He wrote the following lines of poetry in 1772, which are rather offensive to the French (and other non-Germans):

Look at other nationalities.  Do they wander about
So that nowhere in the whole world they are strangers
Except to themselves?
They regard foreign countries with proud disdain.
And you German alone, returning from abroad,
Wouldst greet your mother in French?
O spew it out, before your door
Spew out the ugly slime of the Seine.
Speak German, O You German!
While Herder wrote poetry, Fichte believed that simpler language was necessary to unite the German folk.  The Brothers Grimm agreed.  They believed their beloved book of fairy tales, published in 1812, was authentically German and could unite the nation with a common language and cultural heritage.  Around the same time, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 - 1835), a German philosopher, linguist, Minister of Education, diplomat and founder of the University of Berlin, also promoted the idea that a people is defined by their language.  He wrote:
Language is deeply entwined in the intellectual development of humanity itself . . . Language is . . . the external manifestation of the minds of peoples. Their language is their soul, and their soul is their language. . . . The creation of language is an innate necessity of humanity. It is not a mere external vehicle, designed to sustain social intercourse, but an indispensable factor for the development of human intellectual powers . . . .
In other words, language is not just a tool for communication; it is a fundamental property of humanity.  We would not be human--we would not have our advanced intellectual powers at all--if it were not for language.

On the one hand, the belief in linguistic determinism helped develop Germany into a remarkably strong nation which would come to lead the world in the arts and sciences.  However, the same belief fostered racism and helped pave the way to war and genocide in the 20th century.  Ideas like "linguistic purity" and "linguistic determinism" can be dangerous; however, that does not mean they are wrong.  They are powerful ideas and should be treated with caution.

Consider other ways language can alienate or oppress people.  When you learn a new area of knowledge, like a science or art, you learn a new language.  The more advanced the field, the more alien the language.  Expert languages can be alienating and can even be used to oppress people.

Even common language can be used to oppress people.  For example, poor people tend not to finish secondary school or go to university.  Their language skills are often noticeably weak.  They tend to speak in ways which are usually not accepted in professional or formal situations.  This can make it very difficult for them to move up in society and improve their economic situation.

Another interesting case is so-called "Black English," which I encourage you to read about.  Basically, the idea is that many black Americans have not been able to get a proper education because their unique language has not been respected, or even recognized, by schools.  Imagine being a child at a school that did not recognize that your language was significantly different.  You were told that your speech was simply wrong, even though it was how you were raised and how your family talked.  You were basically taught that your community was inferior.  What kind of psychological effects might that have on a child?

Can one language be inferior to another, or are all languages equal?  This is often a political question, as history has shown us.  To avoid war and oppression, should we just say that all languages are equal?  What if some languages really are better than others?  What if we can improve lives and our communities by improving our language?

Well, how do you improve a language?

One belief, which was popular in the early 20th century, was that a perfect language can be created: the language of logic.  It was believed that all the ambiguity and confusion that arises with natural languages could be avoided.  All we needed was a system of logical symbols and we would be set.

Another belief, which actually goes all the way back to Galileo, if not older, is that mathematics is the ultimate language, the only pure language with which we can understand the world.  Many modern physicists agree.  When you try to put physics in common language, you end up with nonsense.  You can only understand the world with mathematics.

On the other hand, there is the point of view of Nobel prize-winning Danish physicist Neils Bohr (1885-1962).  Bohr was one of the pioneers of Quantum Mechanics; yet, he famously said that anybody who claimed to understand it didn't really understand it at all!  One of the key ideas in Quantum Mechanics is complementarity.  Two properties are complementary if they cannot both be known at the same time.  For example, position and velocity are complementary:  The more you know of an electron's position, the less you can know its velocity; the more you know its velocity, the less you can know its position.  Bohr once claimed that for every measurable quantity, there was another which was complementary to it.  He was then asked, "What quantity is complementary to truth?"  He replied, "clarity."  In other words, the more you have truth, the less you have clarity; and the more you have clarity, the less you have truth.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian-British philosopher, made a related observation in the middle of the 20th century.  While some philosophers were trying to find perfect clarity through logical analysis, Wittgenstein realized that ordinary language is clear enough.  And when we try to "fix" it with logical analysis, we actually make it worse.  He wrote:
When I say: "My broom is in the corner",—is this really a statement about the broomstick and the brush? Well, it could at any rate be replaced by a statement giving the position of the stick and the position of the brush. And this statement is surely a further analysed form of the first one.—But why do I call it "further analysed"?—Well, if the broom is there, that surely means that the stick and brush must be there, and in a particular relation to one another; and this was as it were hidden in the sense of the first sentence, and is expressed in the analysed sentence. Then does someone who says that the broom is in the corner really mean: the broomstick is there, and so is the brush, and the broomstick is fixed in the brush?—If we were to ask anyone if he meant this he would probably say that he had not thought specially of the broomstick or specially of the brush at all. And that would be the right answer, for he meant to speak neither of the stick nor of the brush in particular. Suppose that, instead of saying "Bring me the broom", you said "Bring me the broomstick and the brush which is fitted on to it."!—Isn't the answer: "Do you want the broom? Why do you put it so oddly?"
What is clear to you might just depend on what you are expecting; it depends on your map.  Would a perfect language give us a perfect map?  What would the perfect language be like?

TOK: Sense Perception and Illusions

What follows is a collection of illusions I put together for my Theory of Knowledge class this year: 

Everybody's familiar with optical illusions, but there are other kinds as well.  We experimented with tactile illusions in class and I mentioned that there are also aural illusions.  Have you experienced any other kinds of illusions?  Illusions of taste or smell?

Here are some optical and auditory illusions to enjoy.  What do they reveal about the limits of sense perception?

First, an image.  When you look at it for the first time, you might not see a pattern at all.  It just looks like random black spots on a white background.  But eventually, all of a sudden, you can see a picture. Once you see it, you cannot unsee it.




Here's another one with the same effect:            




These examples raise the question:  How much of what we see depends on what we have learned to see?

The same phenomenon can occur with sounds. Here's an audio track with a stunning demonstration. You will hear a sentence which has been digitally altered to sound like gibberish.  You won't be able to figure out what the voice is saying.  Then you will hear the original sentence. When you then hear the digitally-altered recording again, it suddenly won't sound like gibberish anymore.  You will now be able to recognize the sentence.  Try it!



You may have experienced a similar effect--though not quite so dramatically, I'm sure--when you started learning a new language.  When we learn a language, we have to learn how to hear the speech patterns.  When you hear a new language for the first time, it's not just that you don't understand the words; you cannot even hear them as words at all.  It just sounds like gibberish.  Then, eventually, you can hear specific words, even if you don't know what they mean yet.  You have learned how to perceive the speech patterns.

Do we also learn how to perceive smells or tastes?  Is it possible that we learn how to perceive by touch as well?  Perhaps all sense perception relies on prior knowledge.  We perceive because we know how to perceive.

Is this a kind of map knowledge?  Remember, map knowledge is all about expectations.  If we know how to perceive, that could mean that we have expectations which guide the way we perceive.  This raises the question:  How much does sense perception rely on our expectations?

Here's a visual test.  Are you aware of what you see?  (This one's better big, so expand to full screen if you can.)





Sometimes our expectations for one sensory organ can be altered by another, and this affects what we perceive.  For example, as you probably know already, what you smell affects what you taste.  Did you also know that what you see can affect what you hear?  Welcome to the McGurk Effect!





Sometimes a 'b' sounds like a 'b', and sometimes like an 'f', depending on what you see.  But here's a tricky question:  Do you actually hear the 'f', or do you just think you do?

In other words, should we say that your perception has changed, or should we say that you are wrong about what you are perceiving?  What's the difference?

Now here's another audio illusion--an illusion of music.  This link will take you to a new page where you will hear a woman talk in a normal speaking voice.  She says, "The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible."  She is not singing.  However, the part where she says "sometimes behave so strangely" will repeat over and over again, and eventually it will sound like music.  You will hear melody in her words and you will hear her singing.  Her normal speech becomes (or seems to become) music through repetition!

When the recording is over, start the recording again from the beginning.  It will sound like she is talking in a normal voice again, but when she gets to "sometimes behave so strangely," it will sound like she suddenly begins to sing!

The same recorded words can sometimes sound like speech and sometimes like song.  In this case, the change is not because of what you see, but because of what you have heard in the past.  Our past experiences can change the way we perceive the world.  Again, however, we have a difficult question:  Do you actually hear music in this case, or do you just think you do?  What is the difference?

Finally, another auditory illusion.  Listen to this short musical recording, and then play it again, and again.  It's like it changes every time, getting higher and higher in pitch.




Do we actually hear the recording at a higher pitch each time we play it, or do we just think we do?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Deductive Model of Inductive Reasoning

There is a widespread belief that inductive reasoning has the following two characteristics:

  1. It entails making a general or predictive claim based on past observations.
  2. The conclusion does not follow as a matter of logical necessity from the premises.

It is also commonly supposed that the second of these characteristics follows necessarily from the first.  It is believed that any time we make general and/or predictive claims based on past experiences, we are drawing a conclusion which does not follow as a matter of necessity from our premises.

I think this is incorrect.  I will take the first characteristic as a defining feature of inductive reasoning and show that the second characteristic does not obtain.  In other words, I will provide a deductive model of inductive reasoning such that (1) a general or predictive claim is based on past observations, and (~2) the conclusion follows as a matter of logical necessity from the premises.

I will take as a starting point an example from Hume:

Premise:  The sun has risen in the east every morning until now.
Conclusion: The sun will rise in the east tomorrow.

As stated, this argument is incomplete--or, rather, the full set of premises are hidden.  They can be explicitly formulated in deductive form as follows:

Premise 1:  The sun has risen in the east every morning until now.
Premise 2:  Some X causes the sun to rise in the east in the morning.
Premise 3: Unless some Y prevents X from causing the sun to rise in the east in the morning, the sun will continue to rise in the east in the morning.
Premise 4: If the sun continues to rise in the east in the morning, the sun will rise in the east tomorrow.
Premise 5: There is no Y preventing X from causing the sun to rise in the east in the morning.
CONCLUSION: The sun will rise in the east tomorrow.

This is a deductively valid argument.  Furthermore, I believe it adequately represents how inductive reasoning (of the sort indicated in Hume's example) actually occurs.

Of course, we can question the truth of any or all of the premises.  That, however, is not the point.  The point is that (1) and (~2) obtain.

The model can be generalized as follows:

P1: A has been observed to occur in condition B.
P2: Some X causes A to occur in condition B.
P3: Unless some Y prevents X from causing A to occur in B, A will continue to occur in B.
P4: There is no Y preventing X from causing A to occur in B.
CONCLUSION: A will occur in B.

It may be observed that P2 and P3 imply determinism.  P2 says that the repeat occurence of A in B is the result of a cause--it is determined by X.  P3 states that the same effects will follow from the same causes in the same conditions unless a new condition is introduced which negates the cause.  (This new condition may simply be the absence of the cause, or it may be a counter-cause.)  These premises may be questioned.  We may ask what justifies our acceptance of them.  However, such openness to questioning  does not negate the formal validity of the argument.  To say that an argument is formally valid is only to say that it is coherent and that the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises.  Inductive reasoning is, on my account, formally valid.  It is a case of deductive reasoning.  So we can accept (1) whilst rejecting (2).

The two weaknesses of inductive reasoning seem to be these:  First, we cannot be sure that the same effects will always follow the same causes in the same conditions; second, we cannot be sure that the same causes are working in the same conditions--i.e., we can never be sure that P4 holds.  We might simply be ignorant of some future Y which will prevent X from causing A to occur in B.  Again, however, these weaknesses do not affect the formal validity of the reasoning.  They only affect the soundness of particular instances of inductive reasoning.  Furthermore, one can be justified in believing that which is not certain; so the fact that we cannot be sure does not mean we cannot be justified in accepting the premises.

Update:  In response to a helpful commenter, I have more directly addressed the well-known Humean "problem of induction."  I wrote in the comments section below: "Empiricists like Hume hold that [some of the premises my deductive schema relies on] cannot be justified except inductively, which makes inductive reasoning circular. However, if we take a Quinean perspective and reject Humean empiricism--if we say that all premises, even simple observational statements, are theory-laden--then there is no simple distinction to be drawn between observational statements and the premises required for induction. So the epistemological problem is no longer a problem of induction per se; it is rather a problem of how we justify premises in general. At least, that is the sort of direction I'm leaning in."

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sexism, Gender and Neuroscience

A recent Guardian article by Robin McKie attempts to undermine an allegedly sexist tendency plaguing the field of neuroscience.  I have no idea how widely or deeply sexism flows through the annals of neuroscientific research, but I'm willing to assume it's pretty wide and pretty deep.  That's not a jab at neuroscience per se.  There's compelling evidence that sexism is virtually everywhere, so why not neuroscience?

The alleged manifestation of sexism in McKie's sights is the idea that there is such a thing as a genetically determined male or female brain.  McKie's thesis is this:  Men and women think and act differently because they have been raised to think and act differently, and not because they are genetically predisposed to think and act differently.  She accuses the field of neuroscience of engaging in a cover-up: Intentionally or not, neuroscientists have been misleading us about the real causes of gender difference:  The culprit is cultural bias, not biological determinism.

Most biologists will tell you that nature and nurture go hand in hand.  All behaviours and cognitive capacities should be considered the result of both environmental factors and genetic predispositions. You would be very hard-pressed to find a neuroscientist who denied that cultural factors played any role at all in neurological development.  The question is, how much of a role does culture play?  Are there some behaviours or capacities which women or men are genetically more likely to express?

McKie's answer is clear:  There are no cognitive capacities or behaviors which men or women are genetically more likely to express.  (Obviously she's not including things like ovulation or breast-feeding.  She's talking about behaviors which are not forced or limited by our reproductive organs.)

McKie's thesis is politically attractive:  It can seem like a useful weapon to wage in the war against sexism.  However, it is not supported by the science and it runs counter to common sense.  Common sense tells us that men and women have all sorts of genetically determined differences, so why shouldn't we think there are important neurological differences as well?  It would be more than a little surprising if it turned out that of all the genetically gendered parts of our bodies, our brains were not one of them.

McKie makes two mistakes which are worth highlighting.  The first is that she falls for the line-drawing fallacy. She approvingly quotes Professor Dorothy Bishop, of Oxford University:

"They talk as if there is a typical male and a typical female brain – they even provide a diagram – but they ignore the fact that there is a great deal of variation within the sexes in terms of brain structure. You simply cannot say there is a male brain and a female brain."
Consider an analogy:  There is no such thing as a typical hurricane or a typical tropical storm.  There is a great deal of variation within hurricanes and tropical storms, in terms of wind speed, precipitation and threats to various ecosystems.  Therefore, you simply cannot say there is a hurricane and a tropical storm.

The fact that there is variation within groups, or even that there is not always a clear, dividing line between them, does not mean that there is no sense in recognizing the groups at all.  Vagueness is not always hopeless.  While Professor Bishop is surely right about the variety within male and female brains, we should not jump to the conclusion that these categories are useless--especially since there is scientific research which indicates significant differences between them.

Perhaps McKie has a point, however:  Perhaps neuroscientists are jumping to conclusions about male and female brains.  What scientific evidence is McKie discussing?  This takes us to her second error.  She is discussing a new study by a team led by Professor Ragini Verma:
Verma's results showed that the neuronal connectivity differences between the sexes increased with the age of her subjects. Such a finding is entirely consistent with the idea that cultural factors are driving changes in the brain's wiring. The longer we live, the more our intellectual biases are exaggerated and intensified by our culture, with cumulative effects on our neurons. In other words, the intellectual differences we observe between the sexes are not the result of different genetic birthrights but are a consequence of what we expect a boy or a girl to be.
There are three points to consider here.  First, the fact that a finding is consistent with McKie's view does not mean it entails her view.  There may be an entirely genetic reason why neuronal connectivity differences between the sexes increase during development.  In fact, developmental differences between genders is very often the result of delayed gene-expression.  Just as puberty is genetically determined to occur at a particular time in life, so too may neuronal differences be genetically determined to kick in at various stages of development.

Second, McKie has given a somewhat misleading presentation of the results of Verma's study.  Verma's conclusion is about key stages in neurological development, not about how the brain changes "the longer we live."  Unsurprisingly, most of the differences that Verma's team have observed appear during puberty. Verma's conclusion is that this research suggests a biologically optimized gender difference in neuroanatomical development.  That appears to be a valid conclusion.

The third point to consider is that McKie is promoting a false dilemma.  Even if we say that cultural factors lead to a greater divergence between male and female brains, there may be a genetic explanation for that.  It's not necessarily EITHER genes OR culture.  It could be genes AND culture.  It may be that men and women are genetically disposed to have brains which are different, and these differences are statistically likely to produce cultural institutions which reinforce those differences, leading to an even greater divergence between male and female neuroanatomy.  Alternately, it may be that genes are not ultimately responsible for many of the observed differences between male and female brains, but they still may be responsible for some, or even most, of them.

McKie ends by giving us a scientific basis for questioning Professor Verma's findings.  That is in the spirit of good science, but what conclusions should we draw?

The lesson I take from this situation is not that men will be men and women will be women.  Rather, it is that we don't yet know what men will be, or why, or what women will be, or why.  Not knowing is liberating.  It means nobody can tell women what they will be, and nobody can tell men what they will be.  We can enjoy not knowing, and we can stop pretending like we have more answers than we really do.

Update:  It's also worth pointing out that we should look out for the naturalistic fallacy here.  The fact that we are genetically determined to be a certain way doesn't mean we should be that way.  We can (and often do) resist genetically determined differences if we don't like them.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Leiter on Rape and Sexual Assault in Illinois Law

Professor Peter Ludlow's anti-defamation case was dismissed recently, and Professor Brian Leiter is upset about it.  He says the case should have been a "slam dunk," and argues that the dismissal is most likely the result of bias on the part of the judge.  However, Professor Leiter's argument is not sound.  He hasn't even gotten the facts straight.  In response to an argument by Professor Heidi Lockwood, he says:

"Illinois defines rape as "criminal sexual assault" involving "sexual penetration"  . . . There was never an allegation of sexual penetration against Ludlow by the undergraduate student, so there was never an allegation of criminal sexual assault, i.e., rape."
If you follow the link, you will see that Illinois does not define "rape" as "criminal sexual assault."  The word "rape" does not appear anywhere on that page.  In fact, Illinois law does not define "rape" at all.

Professor Leiter says there is a basis for claiming Professor Ludlow was accused of sexual assault, but not rape. His reasoning is that "sexual assault" is not the same as "criminal sexual assault."  He defines "rape" as "criminal sexual assault" and he says this is not the same as "sexual assault."  However, Illinois law does not distinguish between any of these categories, so Leiter's claim is questionable.  He appeals to the fact that the defendants changed the wording in their news articles as support for his contention that there is a significant difference in meaning between "rape" and "sexual assault."  However, it is reasonable to think that the articles were changed upon request in order to avoid legal problems.  The changes are not an admission of wrong-doing and cannot be used to prove any difference between "sexual assault" and "rape."

Judge Flanagan observes that the terms "rape" and "sexual assault" are sometimes used synonymously in common language, and so the word "rape" helped give a reasonably accurate summary of the charges against Professor Ludlow. As she says, Merriam-Webster, which happens to be the dictionary Professor Ludlow brought to the table, lists these terms as synonyms.  Furthermore, I've also discovered that Illinois State University claims "rape" and "sexual assault" are synonymous.   Professor Leiter disagrees, but he seems to be relying exclusively on his intuitions.

Professor Leiter does have a point:  The term "rape" can have a stricter definition which can, in some people's minds, suggest a harsher crime.   (Update:  In her reply to Professor Leiter, Professor Lockwood claims that the stricter definition shouldn't have a harsher connotation.)  However, I cannot see how this is an easy or straight-forward point to adjudicate. It does not seem like a slam dunk case.  Perhaps Judge Flanagan was erring on the side of caution in the interests of protecting the freedom of the press.  If a person who is accused of X can successfully sue a media outlet because they think the wrong word was used to describe the accusation, even though the law does not distinguish between the terms and even though there is substantial evidence that people and institutions use the words interchangeably, then the power of the press will be severely limited.

Perhaps Judge Flanagan made some mistake in her reasoning, but that is not obvious to me.  What is obvious, I think, is that the accusation of bias is unfounded.

Update:  A couple points to add.  First, The Women's Center's page on Illinois law makes it hard to distinguish between "rape" and "sexual assault" at all.  Second, after looking at the Illinois criminal code of 2012, I have to wonder if Professor Ludlow might have been more properly accused of sexual abuse, and not sexual assault.

Second Update:  Professor Lockwood has replied to Professor Leiter, offering some socio-historical explanation for why we cannot and should not presume there is a relevant distinction between "sexual assault" and "rape."  Unfortunately, Professor Leiter's latest reply to Professor Lockwood (in an update to his original post) seems to have missed the point.  Professor Lockwood also makes the same point I do about the newspaper's correction not being an admission of wrongdoing, but Professor Leiter did not respond to that point.