Politics and the Limitations of Reality

The purpose of this post is to explain how political goals are limited by reality. Reality Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined. When we talk of reality, we are talking of a real world that exists independently of anyone's thoughts and experiences. We call certain propositions "facts" if they corresponds to reality.

Categorizing Reality Although there is only one reality, there are broadly speaking 2 ways to categorize reality. The first category relates to facts that are observer-independent such as the existence of particles, forces, mountains, and galaxies. I will refer to these phenomenon as Brute Facts. Brute facts exist regardless of what anyone thinks or believes. The second category is often more interesting and more complex. It relates to facts that are observer-dependent such as the existence of money, marriages, elections, and cocktail parties. I will refer to these facts as institutional facts. Institutional facts only exist insofar as they are represented as existing by human beings. (I briefly began to explain how institutional facts are created here). The fact that Barack Obama is president of the United States is an objective fact even though there is nothing intrinsic about Obama that makes it the case that he is president. Obama is simply president because everyone believes that he is the president. If someone were to say that Obama was not the president, he/she would simply be mistaken. The following chart visualizes various types of brute facts and institutional facts.

The Limitations of Reality Political goals are limited by reality. For instance, one cannot create something out of nothing. One must work with the materials available. If Howard Roark plans to build a skyscraper, he is limited by the brute facts of reality. He must understand the structural limitations of load-bearing beams, the effects of temperature on the contraction and expansion of the building, and various geological limitations, etc. Understanding how Roark is limited by institutional facts is a bit more complicated. He limited by whether he can find investors, he is limited by environmental laws, by zoning restrictions, by various city ordinances and other building codes, by the aesthetic tastes of the investors and by others in the immediate community. For example, the city of Charleston, South Carolina has extremely strict building codes that are meant to preserve the historical appearance of the city. Howard Roark could not build a skyscraper in Charleston, not because of any brute fact of reality, but because he is limited by what is institutionally "given". How do the limitations of reality apply to political goals?

Politics Politics, roughly defined, is the art of running government and state affairs. Politics deals with decisions made within a social context. When one desires to achieve a political goal such improving education, or increasing prosperity and human well-being, they essentially desire to change reality. This does not mean that they are trying to change the brute facts such as the existence of forces and particles. It means that they are trying to change social reality—or in other words the observer-dependent aspects of reality. The chances of success in achieving a political goal are increased when reality—both physical (observer-independent) and social (observer-dependent)—are understood.

Political goals are limited by brute facts It is a brute fact of reality that some social goals are impossible. The most basic brute limitations are resources and time. For example, a social goal to give everyone everything they want is impossible because resources are limited. This is called scarcity. Another basic brute fact is the limitation of time. Time is not free. The value of time is whatever alternative opportunities must be foregone in order to use it for a particular purpose. Spending 3 hours watching television costs the couch potato 3 hours that he could have worked and earned money. This is called opportunity cost. Everything has a resource cost and a time cost. Those 2 costs combined equals the total cost of every human activity.

Another vitally important brute fact to understand is human nature. The existence of consciousness itself is a brute fact and conscious beings have a "brute" nature. Human nature is a product of biological evolution. As such human beings are born with innate tendencies. We tend to be mostly self-interested but we can sometimes be cooperative as well. We have strong responses to honor and shame. Men and women vary in their respective natures. Men are more aggressive and women are more nurturing and social. We have free will to choose, but we do not have the power to choose the consequences of our actions. All of these aspects of human nature are observer-independent.

Political goals are limited by institutional facts Institutional facts are dependent on human agreement for their existence. They also ultimately rest upon or bottom out in the brute facts. For example, the institutional fact of money exists only because everyone agrees that it exists, but the status of money is always assigned to some physical brute fact such as a piece of gold, or a piece of paper or a magnetic trace on a computer disc. Once we have institutional facts we can examine how they limit political goals.  Since they are dependent on human agreement and recognition for their existence, political goals are limited by whether or not people agree to recognize a given institutional fact. if you are trying to change social reality and you do not have enough people in agreement, you will fail in your political goals. Institutional facts are like habits. The older the institutional fact, the more difficult it is to change it.

Brute facts about political institutional facts It so happens that there are brute facts about social reality. Institutional facts exist because people agree that they exist. But there are observer-independent results and consequence that do not arise from forces and particles or anything like that, but they arise from human transactions alone. Recessions fit this description.

Recessions are a social phenomenon and they would not exist unless people existed. But recessions do not exist simply because people believe that they exist. They are separate from things like marriages and money which only exist because they are represented as existing. If no one believed it was a recession, it would still be a recession. Whereas in the case of the existence of presidents and cocktail parties, if no one ever believed that they existed, they would never exist. The existence of recessions are brute facts that are discovered even though they are consequences of institutional facts such as buying and selling goods and services. Business cycles are brute limitations on political goals. We cannot create a good economy just by believing and agreeing to have a good economy. We have to recognize that there are some consequences that are independent of anyone's beliefs and intentions that occur because of human transactions.

Inflation is also a brute fact about social reality. The book The Ascent of Money by financial economist Niall Ferguson describes the inflation of 16th century Spain. "They dug up so much silver [in the new world]...that the metal itself dramatically declined in value—that is to say, in its purchasing power with respect to other goods." This inflation was not intended,  but it led to Spain's economic and imperial decline.

Summary I have tried to broadly describe the concepts of reality as it applies to a specific type of institutional change—namely political change. There are 2 categories of reality—brute facts and institutional facts. Political goals are best achieved when one understands and accepts the limitations of reality.

Is it rational to vote for third-party candidates?

The purpose of this post is to answer the question: "Is it rational to vote for third party candidates?" Let me first define the words I am using. By "rational" I simply mean choosing the wisely among alternatives. A rational person weighs the various options (calculates ratios) and chooses the option the he/she thinks will do the most good. A rational person aligns their actions with their goals. By "third-party candidate" I am simply referring to a candidate that is not one of the major two parties in the United States—namely Democrat and Republican.

I want to go through a series of thought experiments to try to answer the question of this post.

Scenario 1
 
Let's say that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are the only 2 candidates on the ballot. Let's say that between the two candidates, a Romney presidency is 100% aligned with my goals and an Obama presidency is 0% aligned with my goals. (Saying that Romney is 100% aligned with my goals is the same thing as saying that I agree with everything that he says.) In this scenario, it is rational to vote for Romney.

rational-choice-is-romney

rational-choice-is-romney

Scenario 2
Now let's say that Romney is 1% aligned with my goals and Obama is 2% aligned. Since Obama is more aligned with my goals, it would now be rational to vote for Obama.

rational-choice-is-obama

rational-choice-is-obama

Scenario 3
 
Now let's add a third-party candidate. The candidates are Romney, Obama, and Jesus (insert perfect candidate of your choice here). Let's say Jesus is 100% aligned with my goals, Romney-50, Obama 49. Let's also stipulate that they all have an equal chance of winning. In this case it is rational to vote for Jesus.

rational-choice-is-jesus

rational-choice-is-jesus

Scenario 4
 
Now lets take the same example—Jesus-100, Romney-50, Obama-49. But Jesus happens to have no reasonable chance of winning an election. But, Romney and Obama have fairly equal chances of winning. What is the rational thing to do? As I defined in the beginning "rational" means choosing the best option among alternatives. Because Jesus has no chance of winning, I believe that it is rational to vote for Romney over Jesus. Why? Because although Jesus would do the most good, the good that Jesus would do if he were elected doesn't matter. It is simply not part of reality. A vote for Romney in this case would do more good in the world than a vote for Jesus.

rational-choice-is-romney-2

rational-choice-is-romney-2

Conclusion If scenario 3 was representative of the situations that we find ourselves in, then it would be rational to vote for a third party candidate. However, in my lifetime there has never been a third party candidate that has had a chance of winning. Every election that I can remember resembles scenario 4 and there is no evidence that we will depart from scenario 4 anytime soon. Therefore, under normal circumstance, I believe it is irrational to vote for third-party candidates, because that decision will not be aligned with the goals of the voter. Voting for the most electable candidate that you agree with is the best way to influence politics in a direction that you one think is best.

ANTICIPATING OBJECTIONS

The "Vote on Principle" Objection
 
Some object by saying that one should vote "on principle" or similarly people should vote "their conscience". I am not really sure what this means, but I think it means that everyone should vote for the person with whom they agree the most whether or not they have a chance for winning. If we apply this principle consistently, then it means that since everyone agrees with themselves the most, they should write in their own names and vote for themselves. This is absurd so perhaps the "vote on principle" advocates mean something like vote for whoever you agree with the most that is a running candidate. But this approach assumes that one can do more good if they vote for someone that is a running candidate even if they agree with that candidate less than they agree with themselves. If that really is the assumption, then it only seems logical to apply it more broadly as I have to vote for someone that will do more good by being elected.

In my opinion, I am voting on principle. The principle I am using is rationality. I want to do the most good among the alternatives available. My conscience leads me to try to do the most good possible.

The "Lesser of 2 Evils" Objection
Some object that I am just settling for the "lesser evil". I might agree with this argument if we were voting between Hitler and Pol Pot, but I don't think that picture matches reality. I think that framing the issue this way is categorical. Anyone judging the candidates to be evil presumes the omniscience of God. The decision making process is not categorical, but incremental—meaning that there are costs and benefits that need to be examined and weighed for each candidate. In other words, the choice between candidates is a choice between 'more good or less good' given the trade-offs inherent in the voting process. In other words, it is pointless to argue what should happen in a perfect world. Instead, we should focus on what can be done in the world that we find ourselves in. If we compare our current situation with the perfect world, then everything will seem evil to us. To get a clear picture, we must compare where we are now, with where we have been.

The "Send a message" objection
 
Some say that you should vote for the candidate you agree with most to send a message. I admit that in some rare circumstances this may be a rational strategy. For instance, let's say that there are only 2 candidates, Romney and Obama. I agree more with Romney, but he has no chance of winning. In that case I would still vote for Romney because sending a message is the best I can do in that situation.

rational-to-send-a-message

rational-to-send-a-message

But most of the time when people say they are sending a message, I think they are really just treating elections as an occasion to vent their emotions, rather than as a process to pick someone into whose hands to place the fate of the nation.

The "They are all the same anyway" objection
 
Some claim that the major party candidates are all the same and therefore they should vote for some third-party. This claim strikes me as very ignorant. Anyone who is aware of the voting patterns between Democrats and Republicans know that they very rarely vote similarly on any piece of legislation. Perhaps more important, the president has the power to select supreme court justices that can serve for several decades. With very few exceptions, the type of judge that a democrat will select is much different than the type of judge that a republican will select. Saying that one does not like either candidate is not equivalent to saying that they are all the same. We must do our homework and select which electable candidate will do the most good.

The "people will wake up" objection
Some argue that we should let the worst candidate win so that "people will wake up". The problem with this argument is that people don't "wake up". The worst candidate ends up electing judges that sit on the bench for decades that make matters even worse over the long run.

Why don't Americans save more?

In my last post I showed that most Americans wish they had saved more before they had to retired. Despite that fact, savings rates have been dropping in the United States. The graph below shows the U.S. savings rates in black. The savings rates of Japan and Germany are shown for comparison.

Savings-rates-20-years

Savings-rates-20-years

Europeans tend to save much more than Americans, and some reports claim that the Chinese save close to 25% of their income. The sources of this data come from the OECD 2011 Factbook. It can be found in a cool interactive graph here. The data isn't perfect because it sometimes counts automatic 401K contributions as expenses instead of savings. But, most economists believe that the general trend is correct.

Here are a few possible reasons why the U.S. savings rate is so low.

(1.) Median household income has been stagnant in the past 10 years and new and attractive goods and services such as iPads and fun vacations entice people to spend more and save less. I guess this is what is often referred to as consumerism.

(2.) Americans sometimes "save" in the form of human capital. They spend their money on education and earnings ability because they can "always earn more later" with higher skills.

(3.) The American tax system discourages savings by taxing investment income and capital gains. According to the economist Steven Landsburg, "The death tax sends a powerful message to rich people: "You can't leave everything to your heirs, so spend now, before it's too late. Burn more fuel. Demand more timber for your mansions, more steel for your private planes, and more fiberglass for your yachts."

(4.) It is relatively easy for the poor in America to get a loan if needed. So why save for a rainy day when one can just borrow easily instead?

(5.) American's also save in the form of home equity hoping that a future home sale will provide some retirement funds.

(6.) And then there is the standard explanation that it seems difficult for people in general to subordinate what they want now for what they want later. Hence, many people tend not to plan for the future and instead live for the present. This is the 'eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die' explanation.

Whatever the reason, everyone would benefit from some serious introspection into why they are not saving more. If everyone did this, we would likely have more savings and less regret in retirement years.

Language and Reality

The relationship between language and reality can be expressed by the phrase "direction of fit". There are 2 directions of fit. The first direction is more intuitive to grasp—language can reflect reality. This is has been called the word-to-world direction of fit meaning that the words match the world. For example, when we say, "there is a cat on the mat," or, "Socrates is bald," we are using words to match a certain state of affairs in the world. This use of language creates propositions which can be true if they correspond to reality or false if they do not correspond to reality.

The second direction of fit is more interesting. And that is when we use language to change reality. This has been called the world-to-word direction of fit because the world is made to match the words. For example, when I am in a meeting and say, this meeting is adjourned, I am making it the fact that meeting is really adjourned in reality by representing the meeting as being so adjourned. Similarly, when an authorized religious official says, "I now pronounce you husband and wife," he is changing reality by representing reality as being so changed.

It is important to keep in mind the distinction between observer-independent facts and observer-dependent facts. When I say that language can change reality, I do not mean that words can change the observer-independent facts of reality. Words can only change reality insofar as they relates to observer-dependent facts such as cocktail parties and marriage.

In my next post I will introduce the categories of different uses of language and give many different examples.

Social reality

One living philosopher that I can recommend is a professor from UC Berkeley named John Searle. He is an analytic philosopher that has done a lot of work on the issues of philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and philosophy of society. I am currently listening to his recent lectures at Berkeley via iTunes U. I own one of his books and I ordered another one which I expect to arrive today. The new book I ordered is The Construction of Social Reality. He has some insights that I find both convincing and fascinating. I will briefly summarize one of his insights here using my own visual interpretation of his views and add some of my own insights as well. One important distinction of reality is the difference between objectivity and subjectivity. Objectivity describes that which is the same for everyone. Subjectivity describes that which is different for everyone.

In one of Searle's latest books Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization, Searle poses a fascinating question:

"We make statements about social facts that are completely objective—for example, Barack Obama is president of the United States, the piece of paper in my hand is a twenty-dollar bill, and so on. And yet, though these are objective statements, the facts corresponding to them are all created by human subjective attitudes. ...How is it possible that we can have factual objective knowledge of a reality that is created by subjective opinions?"

One of Searle's favorite examples is money. Money only exists(objectively) because we believe it exists(subjectively). To rephrase his question, how can observer-relative objective facts arise from observer-independent facts of reality? Below is one real world application of the question:

 

Searle unravels this paradox by identifying a distinction between epistemic and ontological modes of existence. Don't be intimidated by the fancy words. Epistemic simply means pertaining to knowledge. Ontological means pertaining to existence. The question of social facts seems paradoxical because the objective/subjective distinction doesn't account for ontological and epistemic dimension. For example, The belief that Rembrandt was born in 1606 is an epistemically objective fact while the belief that Rembrandt is better than Rubens is an epistemically subjective belief. Here is a visual example of the distinction:

The epistemic objectivity of the statement that Rembrandt was born in 1606 arises from facts about the ontological existence of Rembrandt. The epistemic statement corresponds to reality. The statement of Rembrandt's birth is justified because of observer-independent fact of reality. The diagram below shows the correspondence theory of truth.

But when it comes to social facts such as money, the connection is different. The ontologically subjective belief in money leads to the epistemically objective fact that a particular piece of paper is worth $1.

 

The important thing to emphasize is that such social institutional facts can be epistemically objective even though human attitudes are part of their mode of existence.  That is, observer relativity implies ontological subjectivity but ontological subjectivity does not preclude epistemic objectivity.

Searle attempts to explain how observer-relative objective facts arise from observer-independent features of reality. I will just briefly mention some of the conditions that Searle thinks are necessary to create observer-relative objective facts. These conditions include Languagecollective intentionality, and status functions. A common language allows us to exchange ideas and thoughts about reality and make decisions together. Collective intentionality roughly means that multiple people agree on something at the same time (Its actually much more complicated than that. A status function means that we assign a purpose to an object. We don't discover functions in reality, we assign functions to objects. Status functions are the glue that holds human society/civilization together. So in the case of money, we use language and intentionality to collectively assign the function of money to pieces of paper.

Searle also develops the logical form of social facts. He argues that all social facts have the logical form X counts as Y in context C. I will list a few applications that show the logical form. This piece of paper (X) counts as $1(Y) in the United States (context C). Barack Obama counts as the president of the United States. Such and such a move in chess counts as a legal knight move. The fascinating part of this logical structure is that it can iterate upward indefinitely. For example, such and such a sentence in English can count as making a promise, and uttering such and such a promise counts as undertaking a contract. Or, Professional chess players can play blind chess where they don't even need an object in reality to assign a function. They can assign functions to mere thoughts about things that have functions. Wow!

I find this line of thought very interesting and I will continue to explore in writing how observer-relative facts relate to the observer-independent facts.

An LDS view on the nature of God's laws (part 2)

This is a continuation of my last post. I started the recent string of posts with a distinction between observer-independent (OI) facts and observer-relative (OR) facts.These words probably cause more confusion than clarity. Unfortunately I have not yet thought of better terms to describe my thoughts. I will try to use them very carefully. Reviewing my post on these terms is recommended.

After the last post I received this thoughtful comment from my friend:

“If God’s laws are observer-relative, then He is not subject to them, but rather created them. If He created them, He should be able to determine the consequences of breaking those laws.”

To respond to this comment let me clarify again the way I am using the terms observer-independent and observer-relative. The fact that conscious agents exist is an observer-independent fact. Also, the fact that social norms can cause an increase or decrease in happiness among conscious agents is an observer-independent fact. For instance, conscious agents do not actually decide what makes them happy in reality. (This is a whole other conversation that I would rather address in a later post.)

I will come around to tying this back into the comment above. Please bear with me. Let me use another example. Money is created by conscious agents. It is an observer-relative (OR) creation. However, the fact that money decreases transaction costs among conscious agents is an observer-independent (OI) fact. Conscious agents cannot decide whether or not money decreases transaction costs.

Let us imagine that (within an LDS context) that God’s laws did not exist. According to the LDS view, consequences for our actions would still exist. Those consequences are (OI). God cannot choose those consequences. He has no power over them. But he institutes (OR) laws to help us avoid (OI) consequences.

Let me invoke 2 metaphors that I hope will clarify this point.

The Hot Stove Metaphor—In reality, my daughter would burn her hand if she touched a hot stove. I institute the household law—“Thou shalt not touch hot stoves.” I cannot choose the consequences, but my (OR) law is instituted within the framework of the laws of reality(OI).

The Dangerous Street Metaphor— Children who play in the street are likely to get hit by moving vehicles. Therefore I institute the household law—“Thou shalt not play in the street lest I execute punishment by grounding.” In this case, I did choose the (OR) punishment, but it was only to protect my daughter from (OI) consequences of which I have no control.

In the Hot Stove metaphor, I did not set a punishment for breaking the law. The blessing for obeying my law was not getting burned by the hot stove. I could have changed my law because it was (OR). But, I had no control over the (OI) consequences. I believe that the majority of God's laws reflect the principles in the Hot Stove metaphor. God does not actively set the punishment, he lets us learn from reality ourselves if we choose to disobey.

In the Dangerous Street metaphor, I did set an (OR) punishment for breaking my law because I wanted to give my daughter extra disincentive against playing in the street. I could have chosen a different punishment such as removing all of the marshmallow shapes from her Lucky Charms cereal. Some of God's laws are instituted as such. According to LDS theology, every spirit willingly agreed to these laws and conditions in a pre-mortal existence.

Another quick point before I conclude. The purpose of God's laws are to help us learn and progress to become like Him. Human beings learn differently based on different social contexts. If adjusting or changing a law would help us learn better based on a certain social context, then it would make sense to adjust the law to fulfill a higher purpose. For example, the Law of Moses was customized for the ancient Israelites to help them learn in their own way, but eventually the Law of Moses was replaced with a higher law. Likewise a law against drinking was not necessary at the time of Jesus. This law was "given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints" (D&C 89:3)  So in within social contexts laws must change and evolve to fulfill their purpose. God will not give us a law that we are not ready for because it would condemn us more than it would help us.

In conclusion, yes, God could change the consequences of His laws, but his laws are just because they conform to observer-independent law.

Early LDS views of God and Law

Today's post is one of my infrequent LDS-centric posts. Just 3 months before his death, when his theology and beliefs were most mature, Joseph Smith gave a sermon to 20,000 early Latter-day Saints. The sermon took place shortly after the funeral service of a man named King Follett. That sermon is commonly known as King Follett's Discourse. In this sermon Joseph Smith said,

"God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with Himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence, which is requisite in order to save them in the world of spirits."

What is the nature of these laws that God instituted?

To answer this question I will try to answer what we mean by the word "law". To clarify the word law, I will invoke a distinction made in my last post—the distinction between observer-independent facts and observer-relative facts. Laws can refer to both distinctions. An observer-independent law is a universal principle that is independent of consciousness. I use the word consciousnesses similar to the word intelligences. Consciousnesses refers to all beings that have consciousness include human beings and Gods. Examples of observer-independent laws include the laws of thermodynamics, the law of non-contradiction, the Pythagorean Theorem, Boyle's law, etc. An observer-relative law refers to rules of conduct and behavior to be enforced by social institutions. Examples include traffic laws, contract law, the law of Moses, etc.

These two uses of the word "law" are very different. But, using these 2 senses of the word interchangeably is the source of much confusion.

Are the laws instituted by God observer-independent, observer-relative, or both?

Let me reference some of the laws of God. In this context, I think "law" and "commandment" are the same. Here is a partial list:

  • “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  • “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. …
  • “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. …
  • “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. …
  • “Honour thy father and thy mother. …
  • “Thou shalt not kill.
  • “Thou shalt not commit adultery. (The law of chastity)
  • “Thou shalt not steal.
  • “Thou shalt not bear false witness. …
  • “Thou shalt not covet.”
  • The law of tithing
  • The law of consecration
  • The word of wisdom
  • Love God. ...
  • Love thy neighbor. ...
  • Care for the poor

All of these laws are observer-relative because they only exist as a result of a conscious agent. Observer-relative laws can be adjusted for different social contexts. For example, the law of Moses was done away through Christ. Likewise the law of polygamy served a temporary purpose in different periods of history.

But, did God institute any observer-independent laws such as the law of thermodynamics, or the pythagorean theorem? Since God is an observer himself, it would be contradictory to say that God instituted laws that were independent of him. But some might argue that those laws of nature are independent to everyone but God.

All the laws that God has shared with us have been observer-relative laws. There is no reason to believe that God created any laws that appear to humans to be observer-independent.

Furthermore, Joseph Smith taught that God himself cannot transcend any law that is independent of Him. (I have posted here and here on this topic.) The apostle John A. Widsoe in his book Joseph Smith as a Scientist: A Contribution to Mormon Philosophy wrote:

"The interesting fact about this matter is, naturally, that in this conception of God, Joseph Smith was strictly scientific. He departed from the notion that God is a Being foreign to nature and wholly superior to it. Instead, he taught that God is part of nature, and superior to it only in the sense that the electrician is superior to the current that is transmitted along the wire. The great laws of nature are immutable, and even God cannot transcend them."

These immutable laws are not the laws that God instituted. His laws are observer-relative laws are instituted within the framework of the immutable laws of reality. That means that observer-relative laws are based on observer-independent laws. For instance, the fact that God's observer-relative laws help us grow in knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence is an observer-indepdendent fact. This is a more complex subject which I will address in a later post.

In conclusion, God's laws are observer-relative and they are not observer-independent. Mormons can be confident that their beliefs will not conflict with any of the observer-indepedent laws so far discovered by science.

Reality and Consciousness

Reality is that which exists. Everything that exists in reality has an identity. Consciousness is the means by which we can identify everything that exists. Existence is identity, consciousness is identification. The process of identification involves conceptualization. We categorize and group things based on their similarities and differences.

There are 2 broad categorizations of things that exist in reality:

(1) The first category is that which is exists independent of consciousness. This includes things like matter, time, forces, and particles. These are observer-independent features of reality. They would still exist even if conscious agents did not. Also, the fact that consciousness exists is an observer-independent fact.

(2) The second category describes everything that is dependent on consciousness for existence. This includes things like the United States of America, money, language, and marriage. These are observer-relative features of reality. They could never exist without conscious agents.

Natural science deals with observer-independent facts. The social sciences deal with observer-relative facts.

This distinction is foundational. I will use this concept to support 2 arguments in upcoming posts. I will explain some things that God can do and cannot do. And, I will explain the difference between eternal laws and temporary laws.

 

The law of attraction and self-fulfilling prophecy

Those who believe in the law of attraction often point to their own experience as evidence for their beliefs. They say things such as, "I thought about "X" and all these experiences happened that lead me to obtain "X"."

I have had this experience in my life as well. When I bought my Chevy Malibu and was thinking about my Malibu, all I noticed on the freeway was Malibus. I had never noticed them before and they weren't new. It also seems that I have obtained things that I wanted when I started to think about them and focus on them. Sometimes these experiences are referred to as "self-fulfilling prophecies".

Those who think that these experiences support a belief in the law of attraction are mistaken for the following reasons:

Premise 1: We remember the successful experiences and we tend to forget the unsuccessful experiences. I think that gamblers have this same psychological problem.

Premise 2: Humans naturally try to attach explanations to random events. For example, ancient peoples explained the movement of leaves on trees as the result of some type of spirit or diety. Likewise believers in the law of attraction attribute their successful experiences to the law of attraction.

Conclusion: Therefore, believers in the law of attraction are confusing correlation and causation. This is the post hoc ergo prompter hoc fallacy. They think that they and the law of attraction are the causes in their life. They don't take into account circumstances beyond their control, random events, and the fact that their own life refutes the law of attraction, but they just don't remember why.

Thinking about "X" never guarantees that we actually obtain "X". Self-fulfilling prophecies are only identified ex post (after the fact). Humans are terrible at predicting self-fulfilling prophecies ex ante(before the fact).

Don't believe in the law of attraction.

Reason and Emotion

Which has primacy between emotion and reason? What is reason? Reason is the faculty that organizes and integrates facts. What are facts? Facts are propositions that correspond with reality. How do we obtain facts? Through the senses. Therefore reason is the ability to comprehend reality directly through the senses.

What is emotion? An emotion is a response to an object (such as a person, place, or thing) or a proposition as evaluated by the perceiver of the object/proposition. How are emotions created? First, the perceiver, perceives and identifies an object or proposition, and then, he/she evaluates the object/proposition and concludes that the object is good or bad according to his/her values.

Therefore emotion is not a faculty of comprehending reality. Emotions cannot tell us anything about reality. Emotions only reflect what we think—implicitly or explicitly—about reality. If our ideas are true and aligned with our emotions, then emotions can be said to indirectly give us feedback about reality.

Emotional Processes

Example: Some people have a positive response to Barack Obama, and some people have a negative response toward Obama. A child who has never heard of Obama will have no emotional response to him. The difference in responses is due to different ideas and values in the perceiver's minds. The response itself does not give us any direct knowledge of President Obama in reality. It only reflects our cognitive evaluations of him.

Example of the process of emotion

Concepts by themselves may or may not be integrated through the faculty of reason. Concepts and values may be unidentified (subconscious). One can hold an identified, integrated concept and an unidentified inconsistent concept at the same time. Therefore, people can accept contradictions without knowing it.

We often identify "mind" with the process of reason and "heart" with the process of emotion. Conflicts between the mind and heart are conflicts between identified concepts and unidentified concepts that cause automatic emotional responses. Therefore conflicts between the heart and mind are ultimately conflicts between thoughts in mind. Such conflicts cannot be resolved by ignoring reason, they are only resolved by using reason to identify subconscious thoughts and integrating them with concepts as derived from reality.

Therefore, reason (the mind) ultimately has primacy over emotion (the heart).

Reason and Faith

Is there any conflict between reason and faith? According to one epistemological position known as fideism faith is independent of and hostile toward reason. How does fideism define faith? It defines faith as belief without evidence. According to some philosophers such as Kierkegaard, reason cannot fully comprehend God and so one must take a "leap of faith". Martin Luther said, "Reason receives life from faith." Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates concepts as derived from man's senses. The thinkers mentioned above did not categorically reject reason, but they clearly believed that faith has primacy over reason. That means that faith is primary and reason is secondary. There are 2 problems with this way of thinking:

The first problem comes from their definition of faith—"belief without evidence". As I wrote in my last post, this definition is incorrect. I will argue here that it is also dangerous. It is dangerous because any belief without evidence will insulate the believer from feedback from reality. If one holds the view that faith has primacy over reason, then if they must choose between reality and religion, they will choose religion over reality. They will not be able to identify truth when it contradicts with their beliefs. They will be blind and their spiritual and physical growth will be stunted. Islamic theocratic fascism is an extreme demonstration of the consequences of this view. Terrorists commit violent acts that reason would otherwise prevent them from doing.

The second problem is revealed by asking a simple question: How did they come to the conclusion that faith has primacy over reason? The answer is that they used reason. Therefore, they primarily rely on a concept that they regard as secondary. Therefore to say that faith has primacy over reason is self-refuting because they used reason to come to that conclusion.

Evidence and Faith

Some religious adherents believe that faith is "belief without evidence". The religious philosopher Kierkegaard said, "Without risk there is no faith, and the greater the risk the greater the faith … [to understand faith] is to understand that faith cannot be understood ... must not be understood … and this absurdity, held fast in the passion of inwardness, is faith, the earnestness of facing the absurd." His picture of faith was as follows:

false-evidence-and-faith
false-evidence-and-faith

This picture argues that faith has primacy over evidence. I believe this interpretation is incorrect. I think this misinterpretation partly comes from scriptures that suggest faith is believing withoutseeing. Seeing is one type of evidence. Hearing, smelling, touching, feeling may be other types of evidence. I think that any scripture referring to "belief without seeing" really implies "belief without directly seeing."

Faith is belief with evidence. It simply excludes evidence that comes from direct observation. Why does it exclude direct observation? Because if we have direct observation, then we have no need for faith. Direct observation leads to a perfect knowledge.

We have evidence for many things that we cannot directly observe. We have never seen an atom but we infer that they exist based on evidence. According to my definition of faith, it is appropriate to say that we have faith that atoms exist.

Orson Pratt, one of the original leaders of my religion, said, "Faith or belief is the result of evidence presented to the mind. Without evidence, the mind cannot have faith in anything …Faith in every fact, statement, truth, or proposition which we have confidence in, is, in all cases whatsoever, derived from evidence. Therefore, without evidence, faith can have no existence."

This picture of faith is as follows:

evidence-and-faith
evidence-and-faith

This picture shows that evidence has primacy over faith. Only this type of faith can lead us toward a correct picture of reality.

What is knowledge?

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. There are 3 types of knowledge.(1) Knowledge how—Example: Legolas knows how to shoot an arrow. (2) Knowledge by acquaintance—Example: Frodo knows Gandalf (3) Knowledge that—Example: Sauron knows that Frodo has the ring.

Most epistemology is the study of "knowledge that". In this context, the traditional definition of knowledge is justified, true, belief. I think that this definition is a good start in analyzing knowledge. I will define each of these aspects of knowledge.

Justification The state of being validated by proper means.

Truth The state that applies to propositions that accurately correspond to reality.

Belief A proposition that one accepts as being true.

If a belief is true and it is justified, then we say that a person has knowledge.

Example of not having knowledge: If the time is actually 12:00am and Ronald looks at a broken clock that is stuck on 12:00am and then Ronald believes that it is 12:00am, then Ronald has a belief that is true but is not justified. Therefore, we say that Ronald does not have knowledge because he did not gain his true belief by proper means. At least all 3 conditions must be met to consider whether or not someone has knowledge.

Example of having knowledge: If Lula witnesses a murder then she has knowledge that the murder happened because (1) Perceptions are a justified means, (2) the murder actually happened in reality and is therefore true, and (3) Lula believes that it happened.

Stereotypes

A stereotype is a conceptual categorization often in reference to a group of people. Examples of stereotypes are: Jews are wealthier than white anglo-saxton protestants, blacks are more likely to be on welfare than whites, students in business are more conservative than students in the arts, men are stronger than women, homosexuals are effeminate etc.

The most important question regarding stereotypes is this: Is it more often the case that stereotypes reflect reality or more often the case that they affect reality?

Those who assume that reality is mostly socially constructed tend to reject the idea that stereotypes reflect reality. Those who believe in an objective reality that exists independently of beliefs and opinions are more likely to be suspicious of the effect of stereotypes on reality. I find myself in this latter group for the following reasons:

First, the human mind forms concepts based on differences and similarities between objects, events, and people. Our ancestors in our evolutionary past had a stake in forming correct concepts about their world. Those ancestors who took the time to see if every large feline they met was dangerous would not have survived long enough to pass on their genes while those who were able to make quick judgements in order to react would have more likely survived. In other words, concept formation is useful because it helps us understand the world our around us without having to engage in the impossible task of treating every experience as completely new and wholly uncertain. I suspect that most people would find this uncontroversial except when it comes to concept formation (i.e., stereotyping) about people. 

The second and more convincing reason is this: the claim that human concept formation is merely socially constructed is self-refuting. An argument is self-refuting when it must assume the thing it is arguing against. The act of stating that something is true or false, or valid or invalid necessarily assumes the validity of concept creation. Therefore, rejecting the idea that stereotypes (in the sense of conceptual categorizations) in general reflect reality is also self-refuting. I qualify the previous sense with "in general" because I am not saying that all stereotypes are accurate. (That would be a false stereotype).

People don't hold stereotypes forever. As people live and engage with reality, people are often quite willing to change adjust their stereotypes. For example, my grandfather was a LA Firefighter during the Watts riots of 1965. Because of his harrowing experiences, my grandfather had formed some discriminatory feelings against blacks. However he also had many close associations with black co-workers for whom he had no negative feelings at all.

According to the cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker in his Pulitzer finalist book The Blank Slate,

"People's stereotypes are consistent with the statistics, and in many cases their bias is to underestimate the real differences between sexes or ethnic groups. This does not mean that stereotyped traits are unchangeable, of course, or that people think they are unchangeable, only that people perceive the traits fairly accurately at the time. Moreover, even when people believe that ethnic groups have characteristic traits, they are never mindless stereotypers who literally believe that each and every member of the group possesses those traits. People may think that Germans are, on average, more efficient than non-Germans, but no one believes that every last German is more efficient than every non-German. And people have no trouble overriding a stereotype when they have good information about an individual. Contrary to a common accusation, teachers’ impressions of their individual pupils are not contaminated by their stereotypes of race, gender, or socioeconomic status. The teachers’ impressions accurately reflect the pupil's performance as measured by objective tests."

As stated previously, accepting the general validity of stereotypes does not mean that all stereotypes are accurate. False stereotypes are likely to persist if there is no consequence for them persisting. And of course, stereotypes do not justify racism or sexism, though it does justify discrimination which is not a categorical evil. Stereotypes are not "simply human inventions that have done more harm than good." In fact it would be harmful to deny the realities reflected by stereotypes if our goal is to elevate cultures that disproportionately tend toward socially harmful behavior.

Check the comments for a good treatment of stereotypes in Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature .

Opposing theories of truth

To contrast with the only objective theory of truth—the correspondence theory—here are few examples of non-objective theories of truth. The Constructivist theory: Truth is merely socially constructed. According to this theory what is true in one culture, race, or gender can be false in another culture, race, or gender. This theory assumes idealism and is therefore self-refutting.

The Consensus theory: Whatever is agreed upon is true. According to its own standards, this theory is false since I do not agree with it. This too assumes a form of idealism and is therefore self-refutting.

The Pragmatic theory: Truth is whatever works. This theory confuses an indication of truth (what works) with truth itself. Pragmatic theory of truth can lead to relativism. If what "works" for you is different from what "works" for me, then what is true for you may be different from what is true for me. Therefore, the pragmatic theory of truth also rests on a form of idealism and is self-refutting.

Do unicorns exist?: The limits of thinking

One can conceptualize based on what he/she can sense (see, hear, touch, etc.) in reality. Our minds have the capacity to create concepts that do not refer to anything in reality. We can do this by grouping objects based on similarities and differences. We can also combine concepts. Concept-combinations are the beginning of creativity. For example we can take the concept of horn based on our experiences with horns in the past. We can take the concept of horse based on our experiences with horses in the past. Then we can then combine them and create the concept unicorn.

We can do the same with the concept of horse and human.

Or with women and fish...

Mermaids don't exist in reality.

One might say, "but that is not a "real" mermaid." It is in the correction that they are making a mistake. There are no "real" mermaids or centaurs or unicorns in reality. They only exist as concepts derived from a certain combination of other concepts in the human mind. Science fiction writers like George Lucas who imagine aliens on other planets cannot really create a truly original alien. Imagined aliens are always combinations of what is seen on earth. They have human bodies with squid-heads or octopus tentacles with huge eyes etc.

Star Wars Aliens

Absolute "creativity" would consist of creating something out of nothing. This is impossible. The only meaningful way of talking about creativity is recognizing that creativity is only a process of combining what already exists in reality in new ways. We can create conceptual combinations of combinations of combinations.

This has an interesting implication. It means that the creativity of a generation is limited by the combinations of concepts developed by previous generations. Stories, technologies, and ideas in general are determined by which concepts were developed or not developed in the past. More on this in future posts.

Conclusion Premise 1: Thinking depends on concept-formation. Premise 2: Human concept-formation is limited by (1) the objects that we have access to in reality, and (2) by the higher lever concepts that we are aware of. Conclusion 1: Therefore thinking is limited by our awareness of objects in reality and higher level concepts. Conclusion 2: Therefore, you are only as creative as your conceptual resources. Conclusion 3: Therefore if you want to be more creative you must (1) consume large amounts of concepts (become an infovore), and (2) Exercise your mind by combining concepts into new ways.

Concepts and Reality

Sensations lead to perception. We simply perceive too many objects to remember every individual thing. We mitigate this problem through conceptualizing our perceptions. What is a concept? A concept is cognitive unit of meaning—a symbol that refers to objects in reality. Humans can form concepts because we can recognize similarities and differences among objects in reality. We summarize these similarities or differences through a process of abstraction. Let me give a few examples of concepts and concept-formation.

The color green: Green is a concept. Green does not exist by itself just floating somewhere in reality. There is no "green" that one can point to. But we can see a green mango, a green car, and a green turtle. These each have the property green. Green does not exist apart from green objects.

Colors: We can also create concepts of concepts. Once we understand the concept green and the concept yellow, orange, red, purple, and blue. We conceptualize these concepts into a higher concept called "color."

Properties: A property is an even higher concept. It is a concept that can group color, shape, mass etc.

Humans: When we see a particular human that we have never seen before, we don't think, "Whoa, I have never seen this before; I have no idea how to interact with it." Instead we automatically create the concept "human" through our past experiences with other humans and we then know how to interact with new "humans" that we have never seen before. Now the word "human" does not refer to any one thing in reality. There is no one "human" that we can point to. Instead "human" is a concept that refers to any object that shares certain similarities among other concepts such as arms, language, body odor, etc.

From these examples, we see that the human mind can create more concepts than objects in reality. Concepts can refer to reality. But the farther the concepts move away from reality, the more likely people will be confused. We must be vigilant in making sure that (1) concepts accurately reflect reality and that (2) our concepts are properly integrated with all other concepts to avoid contradictions.

An axiom is a foundational proposition that cannot be proved but can be validated. Propositions are axioms when one must assume the proposition when trying to deny it. Conceptualization is an axiom because one must use it in order to try and deny it. Likewise the validity of the senses are axiomatic because (1) the senses lead to concepts and (2) one must use concepts to attempt to reject the senses.

Nonsense about the senses

In my

last post

 I wrote about the philosophical error of subjectivism—the belief that we only have access to our own ideas and not to any objective reality. In this post I will address that error by arguing that our ideas can be objective.

The senses are faculties that we use to obtain information about the world. The eyes probably provide the most influential information about the world. The eyes are not a sensation. The eyes are an organ that we use to get sensations which lead to perceptions. According to the philosopher John Locke and subsequent philosophers, sensation and perception are both forms of ideas.

that-by-which
that-by-which

The grand mistake is to believe that ideas are that which we perceive. The truth is that ideas are that by which we perceive. The difference is one word “by”. What difference does this one word make? Think of the meaning of the sentence, “A brush is that which I am painting” and the sentence “A brush is that by which I am painting.” In the first sentence I am painting an image of the brush on the canvas. In the second sentence I am using the brush to do the painting. 

We are not aware of our ideas that are the result of our sensation and perception. We are only aware of the cause of our ideas. For example, when we use our eyes to look at bananas, we are not aware of the light that hits our retina. Nor are we aware of the physiochemical process by which our brains interpret that light. We are only aware of the cause of the perception— the bananas. We have direct access to the bananas which is the object of awareness.

In the picture below subjectivist philosophers would say that we do not have direct access to banana (A) we only have access to a "representation" of (A) expressed in figure (B). This is the major error.

perceiving-bananas
perceiving-bananas

Let me review the difference between objective and subjective. Objective is that which is the same for everyone. Subjective is that which is different for everyone. Everyone with senses has direct awareness of objects in reality. This means that everyone has access to objective reality. We experience actual reality. We do not experience anything through the senses unless it actually exists in reality.