The Expectation Problem of Human-like Interfaces

For more than six decades, many researchers and designers of computer programs have been inclined to make their computer interfaces appear intelligent and human-like. One of the assumptions behind this temptation is that since people already know how to interact with other people, then making a computer program act more like a person will improve the user experience. However, the experience of creating human-like computer programs together with research from the fields of design and computer science have presented challenges to this assumption.

Designing computer programs to look, sound, or behave more like humans is often talked about in terms of personification, humanization, or anthropomorphization. There are many pitfalls associated with such approaches, but one of the most well-documented affects is that it causes users to expect that the computer program is “smarter” than it really is.

Here are a few quotes and references from experts in the field and in academia about this effect:

The Reprentation of Agents, Anthropomorphism, Agency, and Intelligence by William King and Jun Ohya presents data from one of their experiments which suggests:

Anthropomorphic [Human-like] …forms may be problematic since they may be inherently interpretted as having a high degree of agency and intelligence.

In the book Make It So, authors Chris Noessel and Nathan Shedroff write:

Anthropomorphism can mislead users and create unattainable expectations. Elements of anthropomorphism aren’t necessarily more efficient or necessarily easier to use. Social behavior may suit the way we think and feel, but such interfaces require more cognitive, social, and emotional overhead of their users. They’re much, much harder to build, as well. Finally, designers are social creatures themselves and must take care to avoid introducing their own cultural bias into their creations. These warnings lead us to the main lesson of this chapter.

Lesson: The more human the representation, the higher the expectations of human behavior.

In the MIT Press bestselling book Software Agents by Jeffrey Bradshaw, Don Norman wrote the following:

If the one aspect of people's attitudes about agents is fear over their capabilities and actions, the other is over-exaggerated expectations, triggered to a large extent because much more has promised than can be delivered. Why? Part of this is the natural enthusiasm of the researcher who sees far into the future and imagines a world of perfect and complete actions. Part of this is in the nature of people's tendency to false anthropomorphizing, seeing human attributes in any action that appears in the least intelligent. Speech recognition has this problem: develop a system that recognizes words of speech and people assume that the system has full language understanding, which is not at all the same thing. Have a system act as if it has its own goals and intelligence, and there is an expectation of full knowledge and understanding of human goals.

The problem is amplified by the natural tendency of researchers and manufacturers to show their agents in human form. You can imagine the advertisements: "Want to schedule a trip, the new MacroAgent System offers you Helena, your friendly agent, ready to do your bidding." As soon as we put a human face into the model, perhaps with reasonably appropriate dynamic facial expressions, carefully tuned speech characteristics, and human-like language interactions, we build upon natural expectations for human-like intelligence, understanding, and actions.

There are some who believe that it is wrong — immoral even — to offer artificial systems in the guise of human appearance, for to do so makes false promises. Some believe that the more human-like the appearance and interaction style of the agent, the more deceptive and misleading it becomes: personification suggests promises of performance that cannot be met. I believe that as long as there is no deception, there is no moral problem. Be warned that this is a controversial area. As a result, it would not be wise to present an agent in human-like structures without also offering a choice to those who would rather not have them. People will be more accepting of intelligent agents if their expectations are consistent with reality. This is achieved by presenting an appropriate conceptual model — a "system image" — that accurately depicts the capabilities and actions.

In section 12.7 of the popular HCI textbook, Designing the User Interface, the authors write:

The words and graphics in user interfaces can make important differences in people’s perceptions, emotional reactions, and motivations. Attributions of intelligence autonomy, free will, or knowledge to computers are appealing to some people, but to others such characterizations may be seen as deceptive, confusing, and misleading. The suggestion that computers can think, know, or understand may give users an erroneous model of how computers work and what the machines’ capacities are. Ultimately, the deception becomes apparent, and users may feel poorly treated.

Because users naturally expect that human-like program are “smarter” than they really are, designers and marketers should be cautious when creating human-like interfaces. Some interfaces such as chatbots or voice interfaces make it impossible to avoid personification. In these instances, designers and marketers should set clear expectations to avoid user dissatisfaction. For example, one popular communication program "Slack" comes with a chat program called "Slackbot". Before users use Slackbot they are told "Slackbot is pretty dumb, but it tries to be helpful." Similarly, it may be in the best interest of tech companies to refrain from marketing their products as "smart" or "intelligent" to avoid making the problem worse.

As a designer, I personally gravitate toward the principle 4 of calm technology as a means of avoiding some of the problems stated above. Principle 4 states that machines shouldn't act like humans, and humans shouldn't act like machines.

Work from my students Fall 2014

This semester I taught Intro to Graphic Design at Brigham Young University. Here is some of the work from the students. Click the images for higher resolution.

Temari: A Japanese Restaurant
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Plates and Palates: A Restaurant/Caterer in SLC
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Skagen: A Danish Watch Company
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Topo: A Sportswear Company
Designed by a Advertising major

Oriflame: A Cosmetics Company
Designed by a Finance major

Eno: A Hammock Company
Designed by a Advertising major

NASA: A Space Organization
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Wildflower: A Triathlon Event Company
Designed by a Advertising major

Sam Hawk: A Korean Restaurant
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Craft: A Gourmet Food Truck and Caterer
Designed by an Art History major

Apple Watch Dimensions Diagrammed

The new Apple Watch was announced last Tuesday and so far Apple has not released any materials identifying its dimensions, so I spent the afternoon today analyzing Apple videos and Apple's PR photos to try to derive it's dimensions.

The only front facing photo of the watch on Apple's site is the watch next to an iPhone 6. It was clear that it was a 6 and not the six plus because of the app icon to phone ratio. Knowing the dimensions of the iPhone. I was able to estimate the size and dimensions of the new watch as shown below:

Apple Watch Dimensions MM and IN

If you exclude the crown, the dimensions end up being about 36 x 42 mm (1.4 x 1.6 inches). The inner screen appears to be about 40 mm (1.5 inches). 

Apple Watch Dimensions Side

From the side, the dimensions are 9 x 42 mm (.37 x 1.6 inches) without the sensor ring at the bottom. Counting the sensor ring, the total height is about 11.5 mm (.45 inches). That means that the Apple Watch is approximately 67% wider than the new iPhone 6. I suspect that the rounded corners should make the watch seem much thinner than it actually is.

In order to better understand the size of the watch, I have compared it to a credit card, an iPhone 6, and an iPhone 3g. 

Apple Watch compared to credit card
Apple Watch compared to iPhone 6 and iPhone 3g

What makes a great designer?

Tomorrow, I start teaching an intro to graphic design class at my Alma Mater — Brigham Young University. I was thinking about the class outcomes and the lasting influence I want the class to have on the students. The ultimate outcome of the class is to help the students become great designers. A great designer is not only good at their craft, but he or she is also a good person. All of the stated class outcomes ought to create a path to become a great designer. 

But what makes a great designer?
I am sure there are many ways to answer this question, but I just thought about a few fundamental attributes that all designers must develop to become great.

A designer is only as good as his or her resources. Good designers constantly collect physical and mental resources. Physical resources include the tools of the trade as well as collections of inspiring things. Access to quality paper and drawing instruments, and high performing computers and software, and printers are the basic tools of the trade. Great tools don't make good designers, but great designers need great tools. A great designer will constantly seek after the most inspiring and uplifting designs in order to learn from them and to be inspired by them. Sites like Pinterest can be a great resource for filling the mental and spiritual well.

Mental resources include pure talent, inspiring ideas, or a natural intuitive eye for beauty. Some people are born with more innate talent than others, but as long as one has some innate talent, he or she can nurture that talent through hard work.

Hard Work
One will not be great without a lot of hard work and a willingness to stay up late and work on weekends. The designer Bradley Munkowitz, whose work I admire, finished every work week by working Friday night until sunrise on Saturday morning for a year. 

The great inventor Thomas Edison is reported to have said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. This is a great quote that can help procrastinators gain perspective. But, for those who have mastered the habit of being proactive, they may gain more inspiration from Edison's rival, Nikola Tesla, who said,

If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.

So even though hard work is a necessary habit of a great designer, one will progress faster if they combine good practice with good theory. Both are necessary. One's resources are worthless unless one works hard to put them together in new and inspiring ways.

I don't think a designer will ever learn to work hard unless he or she is passionately motivated to constantly improve themselves and their communities. A satisfied person is an unmotivated person. Only unsatisfied needs and desires can truly motivate a person to do whatever is necessary to progress.

In the book Built to Last, Jim Collins analyzed visionary companies and found that they did not focus primarily on beating their competition. According to Collins,

Visionary companies focus primarily on beating themselves. Success and beating competitors comes to the visionary companies not so much as the end goal, but as a residual result of relentlessly asking the question "How can we improve ourselves to do better tomorrow than we did today?" And they have asked this question day in and day out - as a disciplined way of life - in some cases for over 150 years. No matter how much they achieve - no matter how far in front of their competitors they pull - they never think they've done "good enough".  

Just like the visionary companies in Jim Collins study, designers must always have a bit of dissatisfaction with the results of their work. If a designer wants life satisfaction from their craft, then they should not focus too much on the results of their work, but they should focus on the process of design. Paradoxically, the calm of constant improvement comes with a bit of dissatisfaction that fuels personal progress.

What is Design?

Being a designer is both a profession and a way of life. Design intersects with philosophy, religion, and science. The word "design" has been defined in the following ways:

  1. Design is that it is the art of planning.
  2. "Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works." —Steve Jobs
  3. "Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones." —Economist Herbert Simon
  4. "Design is the art of considered creation." —Google Design Guidelines

My own definition of design is the following: 

“Design is the intentional creation of order and meaning.”

Human activity can be divided into two categories. Intentional and non-intentional. Intention implies purpose and deliberation. Design is distinguished by being more purposeful and deliberative than most other human activities.

Everything is created twice; first mentally; then physically. Designing something well involves deep spiritual and mental activity combined with turning that activity into a physical or digital reality. One's capacity to create something physically is limited by one's capacity to create something mentally. 

The activity of intentionally creating things mentally is not wholly separate from the activity of creating things physically. One's capacity to understand their own goals and purposes is enhanced during the process of creating things physically. In other words, design requires that one begin with an end in mind, but as one works toward those ends, a sense of possibility helps those ends more clearly take shape. For example, when I sit down to write my thoughts, I have an idea of what I want to write, but during the process of writing, I gain greater clarity about what I was writing.

Order and meaning only exist relative to conscious beings. In other words, order and meaning do not exist independently of consciousness. Good designers create well-designed objects and experiences by understanding consciousness and human nature. For example, when designing a knife, a good designer will deeply consider the function and purposes of a knife. She will ask, "What is the essence of a knife?" and, "How will people use this knife?" A well-designed knife will not only perform its function well, it will feel good to hold in a person's hand. Its form will be pleasing to look at. It will have meaning because of some story about the knife and how it was produced, or it will have meaning because of the special activities where the knife will be used, such as a family dinner.


Introduction to some philosophical principles

Dear (Friend),

Based on our philosophical discussion today, I wanted to share the ideas I mentioned to you in writing because writing allows for greater articulation and clarity. 

The philosophical study of reality is called metaphysics. The philosophical study of knowledge is called epistemology. One cannot have an epistemology—or systematic view of knowledge—without a metaphysics—or systematic view of what reality is like. Epistemology and metaphysics therefore cannot be separated. It is important to understand both areas of knowledge because they form the foundation for every other belief in our lives. Metaphysics and epistemology form a foundation for ethics—(how people should act). Ethics in turn forms a foundation for politics (how people should act with the context of society) and aesthetics (the study of art and what constitutes good or bad art). A complete philosophical system will integrate all of these branches of philosophy. 

Philosophical System

Aristotle said, "The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold.” Since metaphysics and epistemology are the foundation of any philosophical system, if one makes a metaphysical or epistemological mistake, it will be much more likely that he/she will also make mistakes in the areas of ethics, politics, and aesthetics. 

A premise is an proposition that supports a conclusion. A conclusion is a proposition that is derived from premises. To validate a conclusion we must identify and validate the premises. How do we validate a premise? By identifying the premises that support that premise. Here we can see a potential problem. Either,

  1. each premise will have its own premise going down a chain of premises forever (ad infinitum), or
  2. eventually we will find a stopping point—a foundation. That stopping point would be an irreducible premise that can stand alone. 

If option (1) is true, then knowledge would not be possible because we would not be able to justify our beliefs or know if they are true. If option (2) is true then knowledge is possible.

I believe that knowledge is possible because irreducible premises do exist. I am going to call these premises "Axioms". An axiom is a foundational premise that is self evident. A belief is self evident when in the process of arguing against a belief one must assume that belief while in the process of reject it. For example, if I try to argue against X, and while I am arguing against X, I am forced to assume X, then I will know that X is an axiom.

Knowledge and the ability to think rationally are dependent on the following axioms:

Axiom 1

Reality exists. This is a self-evident truth because if a person tries to deny it through argumentation, he/she must first appeal to reality in order to defend their position that there is no reality to appeal to. It is clearly a self-contradictory statement. Reality (or the world, or the universe) is the widest of all concepts. It includes all that is known and unknown.

Axiom 2
Consciousness exists. It is the awareness of reality. It could have been the case that a universe could have existed without consciousness, but we know that it exists because anyone that tries to deny consciousness through argumentation must appeal to reality to defend their position. And the very process of "appealing to reality" assumes that one is aware of reality. Axiom 1 and 2 combined show us that reality exists independently of our representations of it.

Axioms cannot be proven. The concept of proof is not irreducible. It relies on axioms. For example, the concept of "proof" assumes that there is an existence or reality that exists independently of consciousness. The concept of proof is meaningless without the concept of reality/existence by which beliefs can be compared. If we compare a given belief to reality and the belief does not match reality, then that belief is false. A belief can be proven when it is shown to match reality. This is why the existence of reality itself cannot be proven, because the concept of proof requires a belief in reality. In other words trying to prove that reality exists would result in a circular argument. Even though Axioms cannot be proven, they can be validated. Validation is a larger concept than proof. Axioms are validated because they are self-evident.

If one rejects these axioms, one necessarily undermines their own ability to think. That is why the axioms are so important. If you come across any idea that tries to argue against these axioms, then you know it is false, because that idea must necessarily be self-refuting. The axioms are sentries that guard our mind against confusion and ignorance.



The Politics of Map-making?

Recently a designer wrote about how maps can "mold your understanding of the world around you." He used this clip from the show the West Wing to illustrate his point:


This view represents the confusion of those who believe in social constructivism and political correctness. Thomas Sowell addressed this issue in his book "The Vision of the Annointed". Here is a delightful passage:

"Perhaps nothing so captures the mind-set of the anointed as a tempest in a teapot created over a common map of the world used for centuries and called the Mercator Projection. This map has been objected to, not by professional map-makers or for scientific reasons, but by liberal-left organizations and individuals for ideological reasons...

"In our society," a critic claimed, "we unconsciously equate size with importance and even with power, and if the Third World coun-tries are misrepresented, they are likely to be valued less." The source of this revelation about other people's unconscious was of course not revealed. However, a maverick map-maker in Germany named Arno Peters has denounced the Mercator Projection as an example of "European arrogance," since it makes Europe look relatively larger than Third World countries and this has been taken to imply intentional efforts to foster Eurocentric and even imperialist attitudes. In the United States, the National Council of Churches has endorsed and published Peters' alternative map of the world and some United Nations agencies have likewise switched to the Peters map. Textbook publishers have been forced by the Texas Education Agency to include in their books sold in that state a disclaimer concerning the accuracy of the Mercator Projection and to include comparisons of other maps. The fact that most professional map-makers have been highly critical of the Peters alternative map carries no weight with the anointed. 

"The political implication of this map are true, whereas the political implications of the Mercator map are false," according to a spokesman for the National Council of Churches' publishing organization.' "The question for the church is not primarily one of scientific reliability," he said in defense of the Peters map. We see this map as being very central to establishment of a correct world view." In short, the integrity of yet another profession is to be violated for the sake of "political correctness." 

As with so many other issues involving the vision of the anointed. this ideological uproar turns on a failure to understand the nature of trade-offs and a willingness—or even eagerness—to read malign intentions into others. All maps necessarily distort the globe for the simple reason that there is no way to accurately represent a three-dimensional planet on a two-dimensional piece of paper. Something has to give. Some maps have the areas correct hut the directions wrong, while others have just the reverse, and still others have other problems. 

Choices of map projections, like all other choices, can only be made among the alternatives actually available--and an accurate map of the world has never been one of those alternatives. In map-making, as in other decision-making processes, there are no "solutions" but only trade-offs, which in this case permit one kind of accuracy to be achieved only at the expense of other kinds of accuracy. Finally, to complete the parallel with so many other kinds of misunderstandings by the anointed, maps do not exist for symbolic or ideological purposes but to meet some concrete practical need. One of the most enduring and most important needs met by maps is for finding places, particularly for navigation by ships and later by planes. Given this imperative, which was a matter of life and death to sailors for centuries. the Mercator Projection became a commonly used map because its directions were made accurate—at the expense of distorting the relative size of areas. Given that the users of these maps were far more concerned with arriving alive at their destinations than with comparing real estate, the Mercator Projection reigned supreme as a world map. Enter the anointed. For them, all this history and the scientific principles of map-making have been blithely ignored and yet another opportunity for moral preening created instead." 


Is Economics a Science?

Many people debate the question about whether economics is more like science or philosophy. In my own opinion, science and philosophy deal with different types of questions. Science deals with questions in which there is a systematic method of answering those questions. Philosophy on the other hand deals with questions in which there is not a systemic method for answering those questions. On this view, much of economics is a science because it provides a systematic way of answering many questions about the world. But, there are also parts of economics that are perhaps closer to being philosophy. 

Recently, a Harvard economics professor, Raj Chetty wrote the article, "Yes economics is a science"  in the New York Times. Chetty argues that economics is a science even though many economists disagree with each other. Chetty writes, 

It is true that the answers to many “big picture” macroeconomic questions — like the causes of recessions or the determinants of growth — remain elusive. But in this respect, the challenges faced by economists are no different from those encountered in medicine and public health. Health researchers have worked for more than a century to understand the “big picture” questions of how diet and lifestyle affect health and aging, yet they still do not have a full scientific understanding of these connections. Some studies tell us to consume more coffee, wine and chocolate; others recommend the opposite. But few people would argue that medicine should not be approached as a science or that doctors should not make decisions based on the best available evidence.
Chetty gave several examples of how economics provides a scientific picture of reality. But he also jumped to policy recommendations as if the economic studies naturally lead to those policy recommendations. When Chetty was explaining the scientific observations from economics, I was in agreement with him, but when Chetty jumped to making policy suggestions, I became more skeptical. The economics was science, but the policy suggestions based on the economics was more like philosophy.
As I was thinking about this article and randomly surfing the internet, I found this excellent criticism of Chetty's NY Times article by the "Anonymous Commentator".
The Anonymous Commentator basically agreed that economics is a science and agreed with the scientific conclusions of the economic studies referenced in Chetty's article. But he showed how one can easily arrive at opposite policy recommendations from Chetty. According to the Anonymous Commentator,
Economics certainly can be seen as a science when it comes to making observations about the world, but when it comes to recommending certain policies, economics is only as scientific as the biases of the economists allow it to be.

One who makes policy recommendations based on economic conclusions are often— though not always—engaging in philosophy. Philosophy is not inferior to science. It just focuses on different questions—questions like "What is the good society?" or "How should we conduct ourselves in society?" for example. We need to make more room for honest debate about those questions even though there may be less room for debating the facts of economics.


True Individualism vs. False Individualism

Every fourth friday, I meet with a philosophy group. In our August philosophy discussion, we discussed the essay Individualism: True and False by the social theorist and economist Friedrich Hayek. According to Hayek, there are two opposing ideas about how to understand individuals and the society in which they live.  Hayek calls these ideas true individualism and false individualism. These ideas permeate all social and political thought. They apply to beliefs about reason and knowledge, economics, justice, equality, power, tradition, marriage and family, and government. In this post, I will briefly introduce the concepts of true and false individualism and discuss how they relate to ideas about reason and knowledge.

True Individualism and False individualism
True individualism is a social theory that says that individuals cannot be properly understood without understanding the social processes that surround him. As people make individual decisions they contribute to a social order that is not the result of human design. According to Hayek, “if left free, men will often achieve more than individual human reason could design or foresee.” (individualism: True and False pg 11) Hayek associates true individualism with Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Lord Acton, and John Locke.

False individualism on the other hand asserts that individuals are best understood as existing independently of social processes. And, it seeks to understand society as existing independently of the individuals that compose that society. False individualism assumes that reason "is always fully and equally available to all humans and that everything which man achieves is the direct result of, and therefore subject to, the control of individual reason.” False individualism seeks to free individuals from social constraints in order to promote liberated self-expression. This view has been expressed by John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, René Descartes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and, William Godwin.

Reason and Knowledge
According to true individualism, any individual's own knowledge alone is grossly inadequate for social decision making. Knowledge comes primarily from experience which is “transmitted socially in largely inarticulate forms from prices which indicate costs, scarcities, and preferences, to traditions which evolve from the day to day experiences of millions in each generation, winnowing out in Darwinian competition what works from what does not work.” (Conflict of Visions pg 36)

In another work, Hayek wrote that, “man has certainly more often learnt to do the right thing without comprehending why it was the right thing, and he still is better served by custom than understanding.” There is thus, “more ‘intelligence’ incorporated in rules of conduct than in man’s thoughts about his surroundings.” (Law, Legislation, and Liberty pg 157)

In his essay on individualism Hayek argues that since man’s reason is inadequate to intelligently design society, individuals are justified in following, and ought to follow, social conventions that have evolved over time.

...the individual, in participating in the social processes, must be ready and willing to adjust himself to changes and to submit to conventions which are not the result of intelligent design, whose justification in the particular instance may not be recognizable, and which to him will often appear unintelligible and irrational.

Thus according to true individualism, knowledge comes from experience, is  systemic and dispersed in the many, and is expressed through social norms and customs.

False individualism rejects these ideas in favor of what Hayek calls “Rationalism” which accepts only what can “justify” itself to “reason”. One proponent of rationalism—the philosopher William Godwin—expressed this view when he said that “Reason is the proper instrument, and the sufficient instrument for regulating the actions of mankind.” Traditions and social norms are looked upon with skepticism and disdain unless they are validated via specifically articulated rationality. This is because knowledge is viewed as, “conscious, explicit knowledge of individuals, the knowledge which enables us to state that this or that is so-and-so.”

Implicit in Hayek’s view of rationalism is that it can lead to both socialism and forms of libertarianism such as anarchism. Rationalism can lead to socialism because according to Godwin, “persons with narrow views and observation,” readily accept whatever happens to prevail in their society. (Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol II, pg 206) It is only the “cultivated minds” who can deliberately see past the social norms and traditions of the masses and deliberately design a society that will benefit all. Rationalism thus sees knowledge and reason as concentrated in the few who see themselves as surrogate decision-makers on behalf of the masses. This is why Hayek believes that rationalism often leads “directly to socialism” which assumes that society can only improve if it is deliberately designed by the wisest most cultivated minds. Taken to another extreme, rationalism can also lead to forms of libertarianism such as anarchism which seeks to reduce all social interactions to deliberate contract making between individuals as if they could deliberately design their lives from scratch apart from society or government.

According to Thomas Sowell who wrote extensively about Hayek, “Rationalism at the individual level is a plea for more personal autonomy from cultural norms, at the social level it is often a claim—or arrogation—of power to stifle the autonomy of others,” on the basis of assumed superior wisdom and articulated rationality. (Knowledge and Decisions pg 103)

Another way to understand true and false individualism with respect to knowledge and reason is to contrast how each side answers the questions, “what is the locus of discretion?” and, “what is the mode of discretion?” 


According to true individualism, individuals should be left free to make their own decisions within a framework of systemic rationality. By systemic rationality, I am referring to the experience of the many as expressed in social norms, customs, traditions, and even price signals within an economy. According to false individualism, individuals should be free from the constraints of social norms and traditions. They can only be free if they are liberated by experts who exempt themselves from social norms and make social decisions on behalf of “society”. False individualism thus assumes that man can comprehend society enough to design it.

  1. Friedrich Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order 
  2. Thomas Sowell, Conflict of Visions
  3. Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty
  4. William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol II
  5. Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions


What does holiness mean?

The purpose of this post is to answer the question: 

What is the meaning of holiness? 

Recently, I have been studying John Searle's philosophy of institutional facts. I find that his philosophy answers many interesting questions in a clear and precise way and relates to many different fields of study including religion and theology.

Searle's philosophy shows how new facts can be created by collectively recognizing the assignment of functions to objects that cannot perform those functions by themselves alone. A useful mnemonic device for logically analyzing these social facts is the formula: X counts as Y in context C as in the example "This piece of paper (X) counts as money (Y) in the United States (C). I introduce these concepts in more detail here. I find this philosophy very useful in understanding the concept of "Holiness".

The word holy is synonymous with the word sacred. Holy is an english word that has Germanic roots. Sacred is an english word that has Latin roots. In the scriptures there are several different things that are described as "holy" such as the following:

  • Spoken Words and Texts such as scriptures
  • Rituals and Ordinances such as the activities performed in the temple.
  • Objects such as the Menorah or the Arc of the Covenant
  • Art and Architecture such as temples
  • Time such as the sabbath day
  • People such as priests
  • Institutions or communities such as Zion or the Church
Generally speaking, Holy means that which belongs to God or associated with God. Using the language of Searle's philosophy of institutional facts, something is holy if God recognizes it to have a certain status and by virtue of that status, the object can perform a specific function. Here are a few applications of this concept:

A person counts as a prophet when they are recognized by God as being a prophet. The person alone is not sufficient to constitute being a prophet. You need the person plus God's recognition. Someone claiming to be a prophet that is not recognized by God is a false prophet. The status of "prophet" gives certain authorizations and obligations to the rightful bearer of that title. Such authorizations include the right to act in God's name and receive revelation on behalf of other people. Since they are recognized by God, prophets are holy. The Holy Prophets are still prophets even if no one but God recognizes their status.

Emblems of the Sacrament
The Sacrament is blessed (is made holy) if God recognizes it as being blessed. The bread and water count as a symbols of Christ and the act of eating those symbols and remembering Christ count as performing a covenant with God. The bread and water alone are not sufficient to be symbols of Christ by themselves. You need the bread and water plus God's recognition and the recognition of those engaging in the sacrament ritual. The covenants renewed during the sacrament are holy because they are recognized by God.

The priesthood is the authority to act in God's name and use His power. A person counts as having the status of priesthood holder when they are authorized to perform specific functions such as blessing the Sacrament or healing the sick. A person only has the priesthood when they are recognized by God as having that priesthood. God recognizes a person's priesthood when they are righteous and have been given the priesthood by someone else who has the priesthood who has been authorized by a church official such as the Bishop.

The temple is holy because it is God's house. Temples are centers for creating, preserving, and transmitting other Holy symbols. By itself, the physical building that constitutes a temple is not Holy. You need the building plus God's recognition that it is a temple for it to be holy.

I could describe many more religious concepts using these terms. There is a general formula that comes out of these examples:

X counts as something holy if it has a status that is recognized by God in order to perform a specific function that it cannot perform without God's recognition of that status. That status always comes with deontic powers such as rights, authorizations, and permissions, or obligations, duties, and requirements.

Nothing is holy in this context unless God recognizes it as being holy and sacred. And, nothing is holy unless it is assigned a certain status in order to perform a specific function. These concepts should be thought about with an attitude of reverence and we should treat these concepts as God treats them. That which is unholy is that which has a status such that we are obligated to avoid it. God does not dwell in unholy temples. We should likewise not enter unholy places or situations.

Holy objects are different from other social objects (like money) in that an object can be holy even if God is the only person that recognizes them as being holy. Whereas all other social objects exist only if there is a large amount of people that recognize them as existing.

Sources: The Construction of Social Reality by John Searle


Human Rights

In this post I will make three points. 1. I will describe the ontology (mode of existence) of human rights and try to define the concept of rights clearly. 2. I will argue that universal human rights imply universal human obligations. 3. I will argue that human rights exist independently from rights that are granted by an institution like the state.

Defining Human Rights
Human Rights are rights that a person has in virtue of being human. As such they exist independently from any system of laws enacted by any institution such as a state or government. Some argue that universal human rights do not exist. Jeremy Bentham called the idea of human rights, "rhetorical nonsense". Bentham thought that because we do not discover human rights in the same way that people have noses, then there must not be any rights "out there" to be found. While it is true that we do not discover human rights in the same way that we discover that water is H2O, it does not follow that human rights do not exist. The reason is because human rights are not observer-independent facts; they are observer-relative facts. The difference between these two types of facts is that observer-relative facts depend on the beliefs and attitudes of human beings while observer-independent facts exist regardless of what human beings think or believe. 

An example of an observer-relative fact is money. When one has a $5 bill, he/she is entitled to buy $5 worth of goods. On a $5 note, we read the words, "This note is legal tender for all debts public and private." If one only believed that observer-independent facts existed, they would naturally want to ask, "How do they know that it is legal tender?...Did they perform some chemical test to see if the $5 bill really was money?" Of course these questions miss the point. We do not discover that a certain piece of paper is money. We declare it to be money. The piece of paper and the ink stains that constitute the $5 bill are NOT sufficient to make it money. We need the actual piece of paper PLUS something else to make it money. That something else is the collective recognition that those pieces of paper count as money. 

Human rights are the same way. When one is a human being, he or she has the right to perform certain actions, but the mere existence of a certain biological organism that we call a human being is not sufficient to ensure that person has rights. You need a certain biological organism (a human being) PLUS collective recognition that they have those rights.

I think that the concept of human rights will be clearer when one understands how institutional facts are created in general. I describe how they are created in more detail in my post about Social Ontology which is influenced by the philosophy of John Searle. Here I will summarize some of those ideas:

Summary of Social Ontology
There are at least three things that are needed to create institutional facts. You need status functions, collective recognition, and constitutive rules.

Humans are different from all other forms of animal life because humans can impose functions on objects where the objects cannot perform the function solely in virtue of their physical structure. To continue using the example of money, we can assign the function of money to little green pieces of paper. These pieces of paper have the status of money in virtue of the function that we collectively assign to them. There is nothing about the intrinsic physical structure of money that makes it money. It is only money because people collectively recognize it to be money. When we create a function by collective recognition of an assigned status, we are creating a "Status Function". Status functions are everywhere. Examples of status functions include money, marriages, touchdowns, sacraments, driver's licenses, presidents, private property, holidays, etc.

Status functions exist as part of a system of "constitutive rules" that are created by language. Constitutive rules create the behavior that they regulate. For example, the rules of chess create the possibility of playing the game of chess. Similarly, status functions are constitutive rules that create observer-relative facts. Constitutive rules of status functions have the logical form "X counts as Y" in context "C". Here are a few examples:

  • A certain area of the field (X) counts as an end zone (Y) in the game of football (C)
  • Such and such a sound wave (X) counts as a sentence (Y) in the english language (C)
  • This piece of paper (X) counts as money (Y) in the United States (C)

The "X counts as Y in context C" formula is not intended to show how people explicitly think about institutional facts. In most cases institutional facts are not explicitly stated. The formula is just a useful way to think about how people are prepared to regard things or treat them as having a certain status.

Status functions are always associated with social power. This power is simply the ability to get people to behave in a certain way. There are positive social powers such as rights, permissions, authorizations, certifications, and entitlements. There are also negative powers such as obligations, duties, and requirements. These powers provide us with reasons for acting that are independent of our inclinations and desires. For example, if I recognize something as your property, then I am obligated not to take it or use it without your permission. Likewise, if I have the status the president of the United States, then I am authorized to command the military.

Status functions are always associated with social powers that lock into human rationality by creating "desire-independent reasons for action". In the game of American football, the end zone creates a conditional power, such that when a player makes it to the end zone with the ball, his team is entitled to 6 points while the opposite team is required to recognize that they have 6 points even though the opposite team would rather not recognize those points.

With this brief foundation in place, I can now more precisely describe universal human rights. A universal human right is described by an observer-relative constitutive rule such that:

  • A certain biological organism (X) counts as a human being (Y) in the context of the whole universe (C) or, it can also be said more religiously:
  • A certain creation that is made in the image of God (X) counts as a human being (Y) in the context of the whole universe (C).

The power associated with this constitutive rule is that any organism that satisfies the conditions of the Y term has certain powers (rights and entitlements) such as the right to life or the right to free speech.

Universal Human Rights imply Universal Human Obligations
This analysis reveals some very interesting implications. It shows that all universal human rights imply universal human obligations. Rights are always rights against somebody. If I have a right to walk in a park, then everyone else has an obligation not to interfere with that activity. If A has a right against B, then B has an obligation to A. For example, the bill of rights are rights against Congress, they place congress under an obligation not to interfere with the rights articulated in the Bill of Rights such as the right to free speech.

Put more precisely:

  • if a human being (H) has a right to perform action (A), then other people (P) have an obligation (O) not to interfere with (H) performing action (A)

Positive & Negative Rights
There are two main classifications of human rights—positive and negative. The formulation of rights above is an example of a negative right. The type of rights found in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are negative rights. The rights laid out in the founding documents of America impose an obligation on everyone not to interfere with certain human activities such as the establishment or exercise of religion, or free speech, etc. In other words negative rights are rights that people have to be left alone.

Positive rights require more than just non-interference. They require positive action in ensuring that everyone receives those rights. The logical form of a positive right would look something like this:

  • If a human being (H) has a right to (B), then other people (P) have an obligation (O) to ensure that (H) obtains (B)

A formulation of human rights that can apply to both positive and negative rights can go something like this:

  • A Human Being (H) has a human right (R) which generates an obligation (O) for other people (P)

In some situations, the distinction between positive and negative rights is blurred. Nevertheless, I think these concepts can help us to avoid confusion in many cases. For example, if I have the right to life and that right is a negative right, then it is implied that other people are obligated not to harm my life, but it does not imply that people are obligated to provide me with food or expensive healthcare so as to prolong my life as long as possible. Similarly, people in remote parts of the world have a right to life, but since it is a negative right, I have no obligation to provide them with food and healthcare. I think that the right to life can only be properly understood as a negative right in this context. (I will write more on this later.)

Universal Human Rights are Institution-independent
But what happens when other people (P) do not want to fulfill their obligations(O)?  
When other people do not want to fulfill their obligations to other human beings, and those human beings are not in a position to guarantee that their own rights are not infringed, then it becomes necessary for some third party to protect human rights by ensuring that other people fulfill their obligations. That third party could be the government which has the obligation to protect human rights by enacting civil laws that are enforceable because the government can use brute force. Therefore our logical formula that describes human rights can be expanded as follows:

  • A Human Being (H) has a human right (R) which generates an obligation (O) for other people (P) which right creates a different obligation (O2) for a third party (G) to protect (H) and his/her rights.

An application of this formula would be something like this:

  • A human being (Gavin Jensen) has a human right (right to life) which generates and obligation (do not murder Gavin) for other people (everyone in the world) which right creates a different obligation (protect Gavin's right to life) for a third party (the United States government) to protect (Gavin Jensen's) right to life.

When the government creates laws, they are obligated to ensure that those laws respect human rights. If human rights are really universal then that means that governments that protect those rights cannot have a system of pure democracy. If they want to protect human rights, then they must enforce certain laws that cannot be changed by popular vote.

What happens when government (G) does not fulfill their Obligation (O2)?
This is the primary problem with government. You cannot have a G2 with an O3 that ensures that G1 fulfills its O2 because that would create an infinite regress. The framers of the United States Constitution understood this problem and solved it by creating a government that had different branches that each had different interlocking sets of powers that would keep each branch in check.

For human rights to be universal, they must exist outside of the scope of any government. They do not come from a constitution or any other legal document. Constitutions and laws are attempts to protect pre-existing human rights. The purpose of civil law is to implement human rights. Thomas Paine wrote in The Rights of Man that

"Every civil right has for its foundation some natural right pre-existing in the individual, but to the enjoyment of which his individual power is not in all cases, sufficiently competent. Of this kind are all those which relate to security and protection."

Citizens can sometimes create state recognized rights that do not depend on universal human rights. In these cases the obligations created by those rights should only apply to the citizens of that institution. For instance, if same-sex marriage is not a universal human right and a state wants to grant the right of marriage to same-sex couples, then they can do that but that right would only create an obligation for the citizens of that state. But people outside of that institution would not be obligated to recognize that institution-relative right.

Human rights must be justified 
There is one last crucial point about human rights that I want to mention here and address more thoroughly in subsequent posts. Even though status functions exist because of collective recognition of those status functions, it does not mean that anything goes. Some claims to human rights are valid if they can be justified, while other claims are invalid because they cannot be justified. In this post, I have not tried to justify any specific human right. I have only tried to outline what human rights are and explain the nature of their existence. In subsequent posts, I intend to offer justifications for specific human rights. It is my opinion that it is much easier to justify human rights that are negative rights than it is to justify positive human rights. In fact, I will argue that almost all claims of positive human rights are unjustified. Also, I will argue that human rights could not exist if moral relativism were true, nor could they exist if there was no such thing as human nature.

Summary of main points

  1. Human rights exist just as money exists. Both are observer-relative phenomenon meaning that we do not discover human rights (or money) in the same way that we discover that water is made of H2O.
  2. Because human beings have a recognized status function, they have social powers that include rights to perform certain actions.
  3. Analyzing human rights in this way makes it very clear that human rights imply human obligations.
  4. There are two types rights—positive and negative.
  5. Human rights exist independently of laws created within any institution and apply universally.

God, Language, and Reality

In the beginning of the Old Testament, we read "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." It appears in this verse that God caused light to appear through the use of language. How can language cause the world to change? What would reality have to be like for the language to change reality?

Direction of fit
To explore these questions, I want to introduce the concept of direction of fit. Direction of fit refers to the relationship between words and reality. In many cases, words can be used to fit the way the world is. These cases have a " word-to-world direction of fit". In other cases, the world changes in order to fit the words that we use. These cases have a "world-to-word direction of fit". These distinctions will be clearer as I describe the possible uses of language.

5 types of speech acts
There are 5 and only 5 things that can be done with language. There are assertives, expressives, directives, commissives, and declarations. These uses of language are called speech acts. Assertives state the way the world is and thus have the word-to-world direction of fit. Assertives refer to statements, descriptions, classifications, explanations, and clarifications. Eg: "The earth rotates around the sun". Expressives do not have a direction of fit but they rely on presuppositions that do have a direction of fit. Eg: "Thank you for passing the guacamole" (which presupposes that the hearer did in fact pass the guacamole).

Directives, commissives, and declarations all have a world-to-word direction of fit. Directives change the world by causing the hearer to do something. Directives include orders, commands, requests and refer to pleading, begging, praying, insisting, and suggesting. Eg: "Go to your room." Commissives change the world by committing the speaker to do something. Commissives refer to vows, threats, pledges, guarantees, contracts, promises, covenants, and oaths. Eg: "I promise to uphold the constitution." Declaratives actually have a dual direction of fit. They change the world by representing the world as being so changed. Eg: "This meeting is adjourned," or, "I now pronounce you husband and wife." A declaration can fail if no one recognizes the declaration. For instance, if I declare that a meeting is adjourned, and the meeting just keeps going on because no one recognizes my speech act, then I have failed to change reality. Therefore declarations are dependent on collective recognition if they are to actually change the world. For a more slightly more thorough introduction to speech acts, check out this post.

Let there be light
So what type of speech act is the utterance, "Let there be light"? It doesn't have a word-to-world direction of fit so it cannot be an assertive. It does not seem to be expressing an emotion that assumes another fact so it cannot be an expressive. It doesn't commit the speaker to a specific action so it is not a commissive. The only possibilities left are directives and declarations, or it might not be a speech act at all. I will examine each of these remaining possibilities.

Is it a declaration?
If the speech act, "let there be light" is a declaration, then God is changing the world by representing it as being so changed. However, when human beings make a declaration they can only change social reality. For example, the declaration, "This note is legal tender for all debts public and private" only applies to the status function of money which is a social fact that requires collective recognition. Human beings cannot change the brute facts of reality through declarations alone. For example, we cannot change reality by saying, "I hereby declare that I am a billionaire." Nor can we change reality by declaring something like, "Let there be good weather." No amount of collective recognition is going to change those brute facts because beliefs alone cannot cause anything to happen without physical action. If the utterance "let there be light" is a declaration, then I cannot make sense it for the reasons just stated. It would presuppose a type of metaphysical idealism which I believe is self-contradictory.

Is it a directive?
Directives are supposed to change the world by causing the hearer to perform some action. The utterance "Let there be light" could be a command to the light itself or it could be a command to an unspecified hearer who is being commanded to create the light through the use of some sort of light-generating technology. If light could be commanded, then that would imply that light has some sort of conscious awareness such that it could understand the meaning of the words and volitionally respond to the directive. In Helaman 12: 8-22, it seems as though Nephi is suggesting that matter obeys God's word which seems to imply that it is conscious. Orson Pratt is said to have more explicitly supported this hylozoistic view. However, I think there is enough room for interpretation to question this interpretation of the scriptures. If light does not have conscious awareness, then some unspecified hearer such as an angel turned on the light after being commanded by God.

Maybe it isn't a speech act at all
The last possibility is that the phrase, "Let there be light" is not a speech act at all but just a soundwave that triggers a preprogrammed event that causes the lights to turn on. For example, when I ask Siri (on my iPhone) to launch an app, I say something like "launch Angry Birds." But the meaning of my words did not cause Siri to open the app. It was merely the soundwave that caused Siri to open the app. Siri could have been programmed to launch the app when it heard the soundwave, "Do NOT launch Angry Birds". Or it could have been programmed to launch the app when it heard the sound wave, "Boom Shakalaka!" Likewise some light generating technology could have been preprogrammed to respond to God's words. It could have been programmed to respond to a particular vibration of his vocal cords, or some bodily movement, or perhaps the technology could have responded to some form of thought detection.

In this post, I have not been as interested in what God caused to be with His words. I am more interested in how God uses words to cause things to be. Understanding how words can change reality can give us insights into the metaphysical nature of reality. Using the example of light, God's words could have been a declaration, a directive, or they could have been a soundwave that triggers a non-volitional technology. In my opinion, it doesn't make sense that the words could be a declaration for the reasons stated above. I am also skeptical of the speech-as-a technology-trigger explanation because I am not aware of any example where God's words are used this way. Intuitively, it does not seem Godlike for God's words to not have any meaning in this way. Therefore, I believe that the utterance, "Let there be light" was a directive. Either matter volitionally obeyed God's words or God was commanding another volitional being (or beings) to cause a series of events to take place in order for earth to have light.


Scriptures about the power of God's words: Jacob 4:9 Helaman 12:7-21 1 Ne. 17:46

Philosophy, Science, and Scientism

As a kid, I loved learning science. One of the best learning experiences I ever had was performing science experiments in 7th and 8th grade. One experiment showed that mice that listened to classical music could remember their way through a maze much better than mice who listened to rock music. These experiments gave me great excitement and confidence that I had discovered something about the universe that I could prove to others through observation. Because of that experience, I can see why many people have a great optimism about science and what it can do. Some people think that science can solve all problems and answer every question. Some people think that science is simply synonymous with truth. At times, I have even been tempted to use the word "science" in this way. The view that science can provide answers to every question is called scientism. A weaker form of scientism is the view that science provides a superior method for gaining knowledge about the universe. I will try to show why scientism is mistaken by explaining the relationship between science and philosophy.

Science is an ambiguous term
The first point of clarification about science is that the word "science" has been used in so many ways that it's meaning is rather ambiguous. Science has become an honorific term and every discipline wants to call itself a science. Because of this conception of science, everyone has an incentive to call what they believe "science" in order to give the impression of unquestionable authority.

Science and philosophy address different types of questions
Philosophy and science are similar because they are both universal in subject matter and they are both tools that can be used to gain knowledge and understanding. Philosophy and science are different in the following way: science deals with questions that can be answered in a systematic way, while philosophy generally deals with questions that we do not yet know how to answer in a systematic way. According to the Philosopher John Searle, "When knowledge becomes systematic, and especially when systematic knowledge becomes secure to the point that we are confident that it is knowledge as opposed to mere opinion, we are more inclined to call it "science" and less inclined to call it "philosophy". One of the goals of philosophy is to think rigorously and clearly about questions in a conceptual way so that they can become scientific questions. Within this context one can see why all scientific questions were once philosophical questions. Philosophy provides the necessary conceptual analysis that makes science possible in the first place. The scientific method itself was conceived by philosophers.

This relationship between science and philosophy shows why science is always appears right and philosophy is always appears wrong. "As soon as we think we really know something, we stop calling it philosophy and start calling it science" says Searle. Anthony Gottlieb, the author of The Dream of Reason, has similarly argued that the philosophical methods of thinking are often co-opted by other disciplines creating the illusion that philosophy is never making progress. It is a mistake to think that science is superior to philosophy. The christening of a new scientific discipline is really just the success of philosophical inquiry. The fact that philosophy  deals with questions for which we do not yet have a systemic way of answering also shows why there can be no such thing as an expert philosopher in the same way that there can be an expert on molecular biology. Philosophers will rarely share the luxury that scientists have of general agreement and conformity on a given subject. However, this does mean that anything goes in philosophy. In many ways, the nature of philosophy demands an even greater degrees of clarity, rigor, and precision in thinking about conceptual issues.

Example of philosophy and neuroscience
Recent developments in neuroscience provide a clear example of the picture I am trying to illustrate about the relationship between philosophy and science. Until recently, neuroscientists said that they could not study consciousness, nor could they get funding even if they wanted to. A few decades ago, John Searle asked a famous neurobiologist at UCSF why neuroscientists didn't get to work on consciousness and he said, "Look, in my discipline it's okay to be interested in consciousness, but get tenure first." 

The standard objection from scientists went something like this: "Science is objective, consciousness is subjective, therefore science can never study consciousness." Philosophers working in the field of the philosophy of mind were able to show that the scientists were making a conceptual error. The subjective/objective distinction has two senses. There is an ontological sense and an epistemic sense of each word. Ontology refers to modes of existence while epistemology refers to ways of knowing. When scientists said, "Science is objective" they were referring to the epistemic sense of the word "objective". When they said "consciousness is subjective" they were referring to the ontological sense of the word "subjective". Philosophers were able to convince neuroscientists to study consciousness by showing that there could be an epistemically objective science about an ontologically subjective domain. Now neuroscience has the funding to search for the illusive NCC (neural correlates of consciousness) in large part thanks to philosophers who clarified the conceptual issues.

Despite some apparent progress in neuroscience, the oxford philosopher Peter Hacker and neuroscientist Maxwell Bennett have co-authored the recent book, "The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience" that shows why neuroscientists are still plagued with many serious conceptual errors that are hindering the progress of knowledge and understanding in neuroscience. This could be one explanation for why progress in neuroscience is moving so slowly.

Scientism implies a false conception of philosophy
It is ironic for those who tend toward scientism to be so quick to dismiss philosophy. Stephen Hawking provides a good example of the irony of scientism. In The Grand Design, he wrote, "...philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly in physics. As a result scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge...” This view is frankly absurd once one understands the relationship between philosophy and science. It assumes that science and philosophy are independent of each other and competing to answer the same questions. Not only does Stephen Hawking fail to see the relationship between science and philosophy, he fails to see how often he engages in philosophy when he says things like "philosophy is dead" or when he advocates philosophical approaches to science such as "model-dependent realism". Adherents of scientism just can't resist making the same sorts of philosophical claims that they argue against. 

Philosophy and science form a symbiotic relationship. Both are aimed at knowledge and understanding, but each addresses different types of questions. Science addresses things like "What causes the tides to rise?" Philosophy addresses questions such as "What is the nature of causation?" "Philosophy" is in large part the name for all the questions that we do not know how to answer in the systematic way that is characteristic of science. Although I love science, the questions that interest me most currently cannot be fully addressed by science. These questions include, "What is the nature of the mind?", "Do human beings have free will?", "What is society and what are its functions?", "Where do human rights come from?", and "How can I be a better person?"

Strong scientism is the belief that all questions can be answered by science. Weak scientism is the belief that science is a categorically superior way of knowing. Strong scientism is self-contradictory since it is circular to try to use science to validate science. Weak scientism is mistaken because it assumes a false conception of the relationship between philosophy and science. Science and philosophy answer different types of questions and they are both important. However, without the conceptual analysis of philosophy, science could not be possible. According to Albert Einstein,

So many people today, and even professional scientists, seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is, in my opinion, the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.


Sicko and the liberal narrative



My wife had an assignment to watch the Michael Moore documentary Sicko for her writing class. I watched it with her so that we could discuss it and generate writing ideas. Sicko's message is very simple: The healthcare system in America is bad. The healthcare systems in Canada, England, and Cuba are good. America should be more like them.

As a liberal, Michael Moore looks at the world through the lens of an oppressed vs. oppressor narrative. In other words, outcomes in an economy are the result of someone's insincere intentions. It is because of this narrative that Moore believes that the American Healthcare system is worse than other countries. Moore finds stories and statistics that fit this narrative. I will argue that Moore's way of looking at the world causes him (and liberals in general) to misinterpret the facts. Once these facts are interpreted correctly, I believe they will show (1) that the healthcare system in America is not as bad as Moore claims, (2) that government-run healthcare systems are not as good as Moore claims, and (3) that the negative aspects of the American healthcare system are caused by the well-meaning government policies that Moore recommends.

The first way that Moore's movie tries to make America's healthcare system look bad is by showing personal stories of Americans who had a negative experiences with the healthcare system. These stories were truly touching. I felt bad for the people who had to make difficult choices when it came to paying for healthcare. One couple had to move in with their grown up children. Another 79-year old man had to go back to work to pay for his medications. Anyone could sympathize with these stories. Concerning the content of the stories, there was nothing to disagree with.

Disagreement does arise however when Moore tries to use these stories as evidence of his oppressor vs. oppressed narrative. According to Moore's narrative, the people in these stories are oppressed by health insurance companies and politicians who support free markets. The only way to help these oppressed people is to provide a government-run healthcare system.

This narrative is confused for two reasons. First, oppression usually involves the use of force and coercion. Free markets by definition are free from coercion. For example, businesses cannot force people to buy their services. They can only attract customers by offering some mutually beneficial product or service. Government coercion is only justified when contracts are broken or misrepresented. Second, real oppression is often caused by government-run healthcare. Since government-run healthcare systems must ration care, they often deny care to elderly patients or make patients wait. For example, Sally Pipes' mother (a Canadian) died prematurely because she was denied a colonoscopy for being too old. A 31-year old man in Sault St. Marie, Canada was told he had to wait five years for an appointment to get a physical. In America, young people are oppressed when state laws in New Jersey and Massachusetts price young people out of the market by forcing insurance companies to cover more than young people reasonably need or want. These laws raise prices by forcing insurance companies to treat every customer roughly the same.

Personal stories do a better job of heightening emotions than justifying claims on either side. Without a correct context and perspective, emotional stories can hinder one's ability to think clearly about complex issues. In my opinion, these emotions would be more productively channeled against the ill-conceived government policies that Moore recommends. Until one looks at the big picture, it is difficult to come to an informed conclusion about whether or not any healthcare system is bad or good by looking at stories alone. Statistics might be a better light as long as they are interpreted correctly.

Statistics Michael Moore uses several statistics to tell his "America...bad, government-run healthcare...good" narrative. For instance, Moore cites the Census Bureau statistic that 50 million Americans do not have health insurance. I want to address this statistic because I heard Obama repeatedly use this statistic when he was promoting the Obamacare. This statistic comes from the U.S. Census Bureau that reported in 2007 that 45.7 million (not 50) Americans do not have health insurance.  Who are these uninsured people and why don't they have health insurance?  Do these people fit into Moore's oppressed vs. oppressor narrative?

According to the Harvard economist, Greg Mankiw, this statistic is very misleading:

To start with, the 47 million includes about 10 million residents who are not American citizens. Many are illegal immigrants. Even if we had national health insurance, they would probably not be covered.

The number also fails to take full account of Medicaid, the government’s health program for the poor. For instance, it counts millions of the poor who are eligible for Medicaid but have not yet applied. These individuals, who are healthier, on average, than those who are enrolled, could always apply if they ever needed significant medical care. They are uninsured in name only.

The 47 million also includes many who could buy insurance but haven’t. The Census Bureau reports that 18 million of the uninsured have annual household income of more than $50,000, which puts them in the top half of the income distribution. About a quarter of the uninsured have been offered employer-provided insurance but declined coverage.

Of course, millions of Americans have trouble getting health insurance. But they number far less than 47 million, and they make up only a few percent of the population of 300 million.

Any reform should carefully focus on this group to avoid disrupting the vast majority for whom the system is working. We do not nationalize an industry simply because a small percentage of the work force is unemployed. Similarly, we should be wary of sweeping reforms of our health system if they are motivated by the fact that a small percentage of the population is uninsured.

While it is convenient for liberals like Moore and Obama to cite this statistic to tell their story of a bad American system, further analysis of this statistic tell a different story—that the American healthcare system is not as bad as they claimed. This statistic was used over and over to advertise Obamacare. If false advertising is a form of oppression, then those who marketed Obamacare are guilty.

Another statistic that Michael Moore uses to support his narrative is that America's life expectancy is lower than countries that have government-run healthcare systems. While it appears to be true that Americans have a lower life expectancy than several developed countries, it would be an error to use this statistic as evidence of a poor healthcare system. For example, a country could have the best medical system in the world, but its citizens could have a lower life expectancy because they might make poor health choices, or they might have a high homicide rate, or unusually high automobile accident rates.

If you want to accurately compare the healthcare systems of countries, you can't use homicide rates, and automobile accidents, or even obesity statistics as evidence against the healthcare system. Unfortunately, it turns out that America does have unusually high homicide rates, automobile accident rates, and high obesity. According to ABC news correspondent John Stossel, “our homicide rate is 10 times higher than in the U.K., eight times higher than in France, and five times greater than in Canada.” In the book, The Business of Healthcare, American's live longer than people in every other western country once you factor out people who die from car accidents and homicides. As Harvard economist Greg Mankiw has noted, “Maybe these differences have lessons for traffic laws and gun control, but they teach us nothing about our system of health care.” On his blog Greg Mankiw also suggests, "Given how overweight we Americans are compared with citizens of other countries, it is amazing that we live as long as we do. If we further standardized life expectancy by body-mass index, the U.S. lead in health outcomes would likely grow even larger." Again, the American healthcare system is not as bad as Moore makes it seem in his Documentary.

Although Moore might be more extreme than most liberals, I believe that his way of looking at the world is representative of how those who lean toward liberal policies in general interpret stories and statistics. They tend to believe that economic outcomes are caused by some oppressive agent and that government can make things better by stopping oppressive forces within an economy.

On a side note, it is interesting to contemplate why liberals such as Michael Moore and Obama see the world through this narrative. I believe that it is very natural and intuitive to explain various phenomena by appealing to some purposeful activity. Cavemen made the error of believing that some volitional spirit caused the movement of leaves fluttering in the wind. I think that creationists likewise make the mistake of assuming that the biological order that we observe must come from a purposeful being. According to evolutionary psychology, these intuitions may have provided some evolutionary advantage by making organisms more alert when they heard noises in the bushes at night. I believe that the liberal narrative is in error because it depends somewhat on these intuitions. Sicko is a good example of these intuitions.

So what is the right way of interpreting stories and statistics regarding economic issues such as healthcare? Instead of assuming that outcomes in an economy are the result of volitional activity, one could view outcomes as the result of non-volitional market forces. These non-random forces transmit information in the form of prices which provide feedback to businesses and consumers who change their behavior according to changing circumstances. This way of looking at the world is less intuitive and more difficult to understand than the oppressed vs. oppressor narrative. The purpose of this paragraph was not to justify this way of thinking, but simply to provide a contrasting narrative by which to interpret stories and statistics.

Although, there are many other errors in Moore's films that I could have addressed. I have tried to show that the liberal narrative leads supporters of government-run healthcare to take away the wrong lessons from stories and to misinterpret statistics.

Why I believe in God

In this post I want to give reasons for believing in God. This post is prompted by comments from my friend Bennion in a previous post. I will first provide reasons for believing in God that I do not accept. Then I will give some reasons why I do believe in God.

Reasons for believing in God that I do not accept
1. I do not believe in God as a matter of some scientific hypothesis. Some atheists ask for evidence for the "God Hypothesis". I don't like that phrase because it implies that the believer is supposed to make some scientific claim about why there is a God. I don't believe that one comes to know God by looking around and finding gaps in our scientific knowledge, and then invoking God as an explanation for those gaps. That is not the right way to think about reasons for believing in God. I think the right way to think about knowing God is to think about how one knows that they love their spouse. I don't have a "Wife Hypothesis" to explain why I experience my wife's existence.

2. I do not believe in intelligent design arguments for the existence of God. Although I believe that there is probably some intelligent influence in the process of evolution, I do not think that influence can be proven scientifically. There are some well thought out philosophical arguments that involve intelligent design, and I do not think they are all as bad as naturalists claim they are. However, I still do not find them convincing enough to count them as evidence for believing in God.

3. I do not believe in any of the traditional theistic philosophical arguments for God. For instance, I do not believe in the ontological argument or any cosmological argument for the existence of God. Concerning these arguments, one famous LDS philosopher, Truman Madsen, once said,

Many of you will encounter, if you haven't, traditional rational arguments for the existence of God. They are all of them afflicted with fallacies. They presuppose in the premises what they claim to demonstrate in the conclusion. And, further, they presuppose in their premises something about the very nature of God.

4. I do not believe that belief without evidence is an appropriate reason for believing in God. Atheists often claim that faith is just belief without evidence, or it is just a way to protect a weak hypothesis. I do not accept these mischaracterizations of faith. Faith is belief with evidence. As Orson Pratt, an early apostle of the LDS church said,

"Faith or belief is the result of evidence presented to the mind. Without evidence, the mind cannot have faith in anything...As evidence precedes faith, the latter should be weak or strong in proportion to the weakness or strength of the evidence … The weakness or strength of faith will, therefore, in all cases, be in proportion to the weakness or strength of the impressions, produced upon the mind by evidence."

Reasons for believing in God that I accept
I believe that there are several reasons for believing in God. I could tell many personal stories, but I will just give one story or example per reason.

1. I believe in God because of personal experiences There are several simple experiences that give me reason to believe that there is loving Heavenly Father looking out for me. One time my mother and I were driving home from Lake Tahoe and our van was stuck in the mud. I don't know exactly where we were, but I remember there were a lot of trees around. We were far away from help at a time when people did not have cell phones. We tried for a long time to get out of the mud by driving back and forth. Finally, we prayed for help, tried again, and immediately got out of the mud and travelled home safely.

2. I believe in God based on answers to prayer When I was around 18, I read the book of Mormon and prayed to know if it was true. I had an overwhelming powerful experience that confirmed to me that it was a true. I have had similar experiences, but that time it was particularly powerful and it has stayed with me throughout my life.

3. I believe in God because of revelation.There have been times in my life when I have received powerful insights similar to my experience when I prayed about the book of Mormon. What was unique about these experiences is that I wasn't praying or asking for the insights that I received. Due to the personal nature of some of these experiences (there are at least 2 that I remember clearly), I would rather not share the specific stories that relate to this reason. I will simply convey that I arrived at some conclusions about secular issues through spiritual means. Only after those experiences did I learn of secular evidence for those conclusions.

4. I believe in the testimony of witnesses I believe Joseph Smith's testimony that he did in fact see God and Jesus Christ. In Joseph's own words, 

I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me...I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it."I believe in the testimony of the living apostles and prophets that have a special witness of the living Christ.

5. I believe that the Book of Mormon provides evidence for Joseph Smith's story.The Book of Mormon is an incredible book. It is evidence that anyone can read and examine. It is available for anyone to scrutinize and many have tried. If one is sincere and open to truth, I believe they will be truly moved by its contents. I think that it is impossible that Joseph Smith could have made it all up.

6. Many other reasonsThere are dozens of other reasons for my belief in God including intuition, pragmatic considerations, logical consistency, and other personal experiences.

Concluding remarks
In most cases, people cannot choose their convictions. For example, if I offered to give you $1000 if you could believe that you were 20 feet tall, you would not be able to do it. When I examine my beliefs and convictions, I find that I do believe in God. The fact that we do not choose our convictions does not mean we can never change our beliefs over time. Nor does certainty imply incorrigibility. For example, I changed my mind about the theory of evolution after sincerely considering the evidence. I have documented that experience here.

In writing these reasons for believing in God, I know that I am opening myself up to scrutiny. I often consider the possibility that God does not exist and I am open to the possibility that I could be mistaken about my beliefs. Many skeptics will think that many of these arguments are easy targets and perhaps not even worth addressing. Since most of the books I read are written by atheists (that is just the nature of philosophy), I encounter many arguments against my belief in God. I consider those arguments carefully and sincerely. After examining and scrutinizing those arguments, I find intellectually and spiritually satisfying responses and I find that I still believe in a loving, personal Heavenly Father and the truthfulness of His gospel.

I want to end this post by recommending reading the testimony of one of my philosophy professors at BYU. You can find a link to her testimony here.

Theism, Atheism, and Mormonism


In the 1990s cartoon show Animaniacs, there was a carefree toddler character named Mindy. She would often annoy other characters by repeatedly asking "Why?" until the characters became flustered and gave up trying to answer. She was annoying because she wasn't asking "why?" to gain understanding, but because she enjoyed pushing people's buttons. Unlike Mindy, genuinely curious people ask "why?" to arrive at an explanation. To explain something is to show why certain effects follow from certain causes. If we ask why enough, we will eventually arrive at an explanation that does not have any explanation itself. It seems all explanations bottom out in some cause that itself did not have a cause. Some have referred to this final explanation as the uncaused causer. "Who or what is the uncaused causer?" is the same question as "Where do all explanations end?" Atheism gives one answer, Traditional theism gives another. Mormonism seems to give an answer that is a hybrid of both atheism and traditional theism.

Volitional vs. Non-volitional explanations
There are two ways to answer the question, "Where do explanations end?" Traditional theists such as Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe that all explanations end in a volitional explanation. I am using the word "volition" to refer to that which is caused by some being or agent.

Atheists, on the other hand, believe in a non-volitional explanation. Explanations end in something like the laws of physics, or nature in general, (or even just gravity according to Stephen Hawking). Some atheists say that they simply don't know how to explain existence in general, but still hold that no volitional being could be the uncaused cause of the universe.

For example, if we ask the question "why is the sky blue?". We will come to some explanation that describes the behavior of lightwaves when they interact with particles in the atmosphere. After we come to that explanation we can ask, "Why do lightwaves behave that way?" Describing the laws of quantum electrodynamics might constitute an explanation for that question, but then we could just ask, "why are the laws of quantum electrodynamics like that?" An atheist will answer that nature is just that way and that is where explanations end. A traditional theist would answer that God created the laws that way and that is where explanations end.

Where do explanations end for Mormon theology?
According to Mormon theology, some explanations end in non-volitional causes and some explanations end in volitional causes. How can this be? Mormon theology agrees with both Aristotle and Plato who argued that the world always existed and that God organized the world out of pre-existing unorganized matter. That pre-existing matter was not created out of nothing. It has no cause. It has always existed and therefore has no explanation. On this point, Mormon theology agrees with the belief of most atheists.

The first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, taught that God did not and in fact could not create the universe:

God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning and can have no end. (King Follett Discourse)

According to the LDS scholar Sterling McMurrin who wrote Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion:

“It is a basic article of Mormon theology that God is related to a world environment for the being of which he is not the ultimate ground and by which he therefore is in some sense conditioned. This means that God is a being among beings rather than being as such or the ground of being, and that he is therefore finite rather than absolute.” (Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion)

Orson Pratt who was an early Mormon church leader wrote:

“God [in LDS thought] is described in non-absolutistic terms as a being who is conditioned by and related to the world of which he is a part and which, because it is not ultimately his creation, is not absolutely under his dominion … God’s environment is the physical universe, the minds and selves which exist but are not identified with him, the principles under which reality is structured, and perhaps even the value absolutes which govern the divine will,”

“There are some things that cannot be performed, although we had the power of working great and mighty miracles; indeed, the great God Himself who has power to control the heavens over our heads, and the earth upon which we stand has NOT the power to do that which would be naturally impossible, or in opposition to the great, necessary, and fundamental truths of nature, which are eternally unalterable, and cannot be otherwise than they are,” (JD 3:300).

There are many other quotes that confirm the Mormon belief that these explanations do not end in God, but instead end in the elements and principles of nature. No volitional being did or could have created them.

However, according to most accounts of Mormon theology, volitional beings (spirits or intelligences) also were not created. All volitional beings are coeternal with the elements that have always existed. According to Joseph Smith:

I might with boldness proclaim from the house-tops that God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself. Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it. All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement. (King Follett Discourse)

If volitional beings are also uncreated, then their actions cannot themselves be reduced to non-volitional causes. Volition is simply part of uncreated nature. Therefore, some explanations end in the choices of volitional beings. For example, when we ask why a painting of the sky is blue, it is not satisfactory to appeal to the laws of  quantum electrodynamics. Any explanation for why a painting is blue must account for the intentions of the painter who organized the paints on the canvas. The painting is blue because of the laws of nature AND because of the intentions of the painter. In Mormon theology, the answer to the question "where did matter come from?" ends in a non-volitional explanation. And, the answer to the question "why was matter organized in a certain way" can end in a volitional explanation. Concerning the latter question, God organized the pre-existing matter that we experience on this earth to fulfill His eternal purposes. On this point, Mormon theology sides more with theism than atheism.

Traditional theists believe that all explanations end with a volitional being such as God. Atheists believe that all explanations end in non-volitional causes. Mormon theology is a hybrid belief system that asserts that some explanations end in God and some do not. Because of these beliefs, members of the Mormon church are in a good position to resolve many contentions between atheism and traditional theism.

Stephen Hawking, Gravity, and God

When people claim there is a conflict between science and religion, they are often referring to some alleged conflict between the theory of evolution and a belief in a designer God. Sometimes an argument is put forward that is supposed to show a conflict between the laws of physics and a belief in God. Stephen Hawking puts forth such an argument in his 2010 book The Grand Design. His arguments makes several philosophical mistakes that ought be addressed.

Part 1: Hawking, Gravity, and God
In The Grand Design Stephen Hawking along with his co-author Leonard Mlodinow put forth a controversial candidate for a theory of everything called M-theory. The bulk of the book is spent explaining this theory which is really just a collection of various theories that try to explain the universe. In the book, Hawking and Mlodinow conclude “because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing” (pg 180). Anyone with a little training in philosophy can immediately identify the self-contradictory nature of this claim. If we say that X creates Y, then we are already presupposing the existence of X in order to account for the existence of Y. In the first part of the above quote, Hawkings is presupposing the existence of gravity (X) to explain the existence of the universe (Y). Therefore the universe is not created from nothing, it is created from gravity.

Hawking then piles another contradiction on top of his first. In the second part of the above quote, he asserts that, "the universe can and will create itself from nothing." If we say that X creates X we already pressupose the existence of X in order to account for the existence of X. This also is logically incoherent. If any scientific theory makes such as obvious error, then that theory ought to be revised or abandoned. 

Throughout his book, Hawking suggests that there is no God because the laws of physics explain the existence of the universe. He writes, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” (pg 180). But how then does Hawking explain the existence of his metaphorical "blue touch paper" that set the universe going? How does Hawking explain the existence of gravity in the first place? He doesn't! He simply presupposes that it exists. Hawking does not know how to explain gravity. To him that is simply where explanations come to an end.

Then why is he so confident in suggesting that God does not exist? Perhaps he has this argument in mind:

Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is a God who chose to create the universe that way. It is reasonable to ask who or what created the universe, but if the answer is God, then the question has merely been deflected to that of who created God. (pg 172)

This is the same argument that Richard Dawkins put forward in The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. I offered a rebuttal to that argument in my previous post. Hawking and Dawkins seem to suggest that using God as an explanation for the universe is somehow invalid because it cannot explain the existence of God himself. But if that is true then Hawking's argument is also invalid. One can equally use Hawking's argument against him. Below is Hawking's same quote but I replaced the word God with Gravity:

Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is Gravity which created the universe that way. It is reasonable to ask who or what created the universe, but if the answer is Gravity, then the question has merely been deflected to that of who or what created Gravity.

Believing that all explanations end in gravity is not logically incoherent nor is it intellectually unacceptable. But, believing that all explanations end in God is likewise NOT logically incoherent nor intellectual unacceptable. Certain beliefs about gravity (like the one mentioned above) or certain beliefs about God may be shown to be fallacious, but the general belief that all explanations end somewhere is not. What is intellectually unacceptable is pretending that one's scientific conclusions show that God does not exist.

Part 2: Hawking, Scientists, and Philosophy
Hawking's logical errors can be explained by his ignorance of philosophy. In the beginning of The Grand Design Hawking lays out some questions about reality including the question, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Referring to these questions, Hawking writes, “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly in physics. As a result scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” (pg 5)

The irony of this statement is not only that Hawking uses philosophical arguments throughout his whole book, but that the statement "philosophy is dead" is itself a philosophical proposition. Hawking cannot be making a scientific claim here. He is making a metaphysical claim about science. Therefore even when Hawking is trying to dismiss philosophy, he is contradicting himself. I agree with the philosopher Daniel Dennett who said, "There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” (Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea)

Scientists like Dawkins and Hawking hurt scientific progress when they mingle their own philosophical assumptions with science. Their philosophical pronouncements cause confusion because it gives lay people the false impression that they must choose between God or science when the clash really exists between the scientist's philosophical assumptions and God.