ALECS Blog

Two coding projects

There are two coding projects that I’ve had on my mind for the last little while, bothering me like a loose tooth. Here they are:

  1. New strategies for the iterated prisoner’s dilemma in Netlogo. NetLogo allows you to model agent based interactions following the incentives set up in the PD scenario. The publicly available scenario has a limited number of strategies: defector, tit-for-tat, and so on. The strategies have limited memory capacity, so, e.g., you can have a tit-for-tat strategy, who responds to anyone who defected on them in the past by defecting. I’ve added a few more strategies.
    • What I need now is to add in two new strategies that are responsive to incentives: the ‘desperado’ and the ‘turncoat’. The idea is that the desperado cooperates unless they achieved a below-average payoff on the previous round, in which case they defect; and the turncoat does the opposite, defecting if they achieved an above-average payoff the previous round.
  2. Revisions to explanatory coherence. Thagard has created a model of explanatory coherence called ECHO, which is part of a set called COHERE and coded in LISP. The model is meant to capture the process of coherentist inference in scientific reasoning, with a unique accent on outputting theories that fit a certain threshold (approximating a particular vision of inference to the best explanation). There are several axioms that the model is meant to operationalize, among them the principles of symmetry, explanation, and analogy. They are as follows: (1) Symmetry: for any two propositions, the coherence of P1 with P2 implies the coherence of P2 with P1 – there is no such thing as a one-way coherence relationship. (2) Explanation: if a set of premises purportedly explain some conclusion, then the premises must cohere with the conclusion, and with each other. However (assuming these premises are co-hypotheses), as the number of premises goes up, the degree of coherence goes down – simplicity is better than complexity. (3) Analogy: for any two separate premise-conclusion pairs (P1-C1 and P2-C2), if the premises are alike (P1&P2), and the conclusions are alike (C1&C2), then they cohere.
    • The first problem I have with it is that it doesn’t run on modern Mac OS. I would like to have a version that can work.
    • More importantly, I’d like to have a version of ECHO that allows you to dial down the weight of these three principles. In other words, I want to see what theories pass the threshold for best explanation for reasoners who deny one or more of the three factors mentioned above (symmetry, explanation, and analogy).

On disaffiliation

Sometimes, I’m asked why I choose to list myself as an ‘independent scholar’ (associated only with the National Association for Independent Scholars). There’s good reason to be curious. Academically, there is a stigma around the label of ‘independent scholar’. (e.g., if you dig around a bit in philosophy, you find that some of the most famous of those who operate under the label make for some pretty odious company.) And it hardly helps out on the academic job market. So why would I disaffiliate? What’s the gossip?

I’m afraid the answer is rather mundane. Overall, I am pleased with my degree hosting institutions. And yet, I need access to a library or community to do my work. My affiliation just is whatever institution or community provides those scholarly resources. That access lapses when you are an alumni — understandably, since journals and databases are far from cheap. So the honest thing to fess up: I get by through Google, eBooks, Academia.edu, SSRN, and JStor’s free monthly articles.

I do not necessarily recommend this course of action to anybody who thinks they have a reasonable shot at securing academic employment. The stigma is real. But I do recommend honesty. For the job of the intellectual is to discover the truth and expose lies, and that project starts at home.

On Lord Sankey’s (apparent) living tree originalism

This is a reply to an interesting post by Léonid Sirota, found here.

Figuring out the contours of living tree jurisprudence can be a little tricky, and Sirota’s “whole systems” conception of living tree jurisprudence is essentially correct. However, it would be strange if the living tree thesis did not have any effects on the norms of interpretation in judicial review. I think the consequences are roughly as follows. In deliberation over cases in constitutional law with entrenched and reasonably settled rules, the text itself only imposes soft constraints on interpretation, in the sense that it can be (and often is) counterweighted by context. Deliberation of this sort acknowledges that all legal interpretation involves paying heed to two masters, the requirement of flexibility and the need for protected expectations. Sometimes the text helps in negotiating that process, but sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, you have to appeal to context to establish legal meaning.

Whether or not you think the contextualist mode of interpretation is wrongheaded will depend on what you mean by “the text”. Some scholars think that textual meaning is an objective context-invariant method — a semantics. So, textual meaning is associated with the methodical application of deductive rules for the sake of following entailments. To appeal to contextual meaning (i.e., the living tree) would be to say that deduction plays only a partial and inchoate role in inference during judicial review, and that the text is one useful interpretive tool among others, that is rarely sufficient to decide any but the clearest of cases.

It is true that Lord Sankey’s counterfactual treatment of the question — where ‘person’ was explicitly encoded in statute to mean ‘men’ — would provide no support to a living tree concept. In that counterfactual world, the issue of the ‘living tree’ would not have arisen. But that is not to say that, in that world, the living tree conception would have been false. It just means that, in Sankey’s estimation, the case (in that world) would not have triggered a need to talk about it. But in our world, once it is talked about, the genie is out of the bottle, the principle can be applied in ways that were not anticipated by its creator. That’s just how it is with the common-law, and how it is especially with this particular precedent as a matter of its content.

Of course, it is true that other living tree theorists might disagree with Sankey in placing the emphasis he does on original meaning in the counterfactual case. For some would like to explicitly recognize the right of a judiciary to overturn explicit statute and precedent that has run its course. But that doesn’t mean they’re not both captured by the metaphor. Nor does recognition of these differences feed into the myth that there can be no overlap between living tree theorists and certain varieties of originalism, including Sirota’s favored public meaning variety. (I am not saying Sirota subscribes to that myth.)

In one of the passages in Sankey’s decision, quoted above, he showed that there is a distinction between presupposition and definition. He reasons that it was presupposed that women were not people, but not defined; hence, the Court was free to exercise its discretion. He is mostly interested in the contents of judicial and legislative decisions, where uptake is essentially constrained in ways that would make the distinction plausible. Meanwhile, a public originalist faces the question of whether they have the conceptual resources to make this distinction themselves in a way that would preserve expectations. However, both presuppositions and explicit definitions are public, with potentially equal normative force. A study of a corpus of testimonies regarding the uptake of law might in some sense recover a sense of at-issue content, but (absent further theory) it will be wider in its connotations than the sort of meaning that is processed by individual brains during the course of conversational exchange. This method does not sound like it will be much good at preserving stable expectations; indeed, it may be a source of considerable surprise.

A clearer example of judicial revision would be a case of overturning legislative intent: i.e., the American courts overturning centuries of intentionally legislated bigotry in Brown v Board. The living tree theorist has the power to say that these revisions were appropriate, given the purposes of Charters which guide interpretation — protection of minority rights in a democracy against the inauthentic wishes of the majority, to borrow a suggestion from Wil Waluchow. The arborist has that power because they think legal meaning is essentially connected to the context of use and utility, and especially in relation to historical conventions related to right and duty that bear on the operations of a representative democracy. Sadly, even on this basis, it is not entirely clear that even a legal arborist of this stripe is able to save the principles and priorities of the American system of law. But at least they have a shot. Meanwhile, a living tree originalist (Sankey, perhaps) is left out to dry.

In fairness, an anti-original textualist could come to the same conclusion in Brown, albeit on different grounds. The textualist can say of Brown that the framers did not understand the meaning of equality, that they had the wrong conception of that concept. And that now we know better, we can acknowledge the blunder, replacing the old conception with a new one. But the anti-original textualist lacks the sensitivity needed to articulate the features of our deliberative circumstances which would give rise to the problem in the first place. They can explain what the law says and can explain why the framers were confused in their thinking about it. But they cannot explain what makes the new understanding better than the old one, because they think that would involve changing the subject away from questions of meaning and into questions of design as if the two questions were unrelated. Many of us find that strict separation quite peculiar.

Bayes and law

I have not been posting very much lately, since I’ve been mostly concentrating my energy on writing a manuscript on the philosophy of the social sciences and with training for a paralegal license. However, I recently had the opportunity to share a few thoughts on subjective probabilities that I had been working on during the course of writing the book. https://www.linkedin.com/posts/activity-6704104726893510656-Xzxq

I have never tried doing a green screen presentation before, so it is a bit awkward in the “Tim and Eric” style. But the surreal aesthetic is now a familiar experience to all of us who have been using Zoom for the past 10 months, so hopefully it won’t distract from the main points of the presentation.

Innate games and constitutive norms

It’s absurd to say that the game of soccer is innate. Why? Because it’s silly to think that the information encoded in our genes gives expression to phylogenetic traits on minimal triggering and which track the complex set of rules that make up ‘soccer’. Similarly, it is absurd to talk about most games as innate — chess, badminton, Uno, and so on.

Indeed, you’d expect this point to apply to all games. But maybe it doesn’t. For, here’s a proposal: a game isn’t much more than a set of playable tricks. And some tricks are, plausibly, innate under some general description. Example. When my dog plays catch, the ‘catch-and-return’ instinct seems like an innate trick, because it comes too quickly and too easily to too many dogs with a similar genetic makeup. Furthermore, the trick itself is pretty much all there is to say about the rules of game.

I’m cheating a little. Granted, the particular manifestation of the game that my dog (Sammy) plays cannot be reduced to its natural components. Typically, the game he plays is best done under a richer description — “Catch the Monkeyman”, owing to the fact that his chew toy was (in better days) vaguely monkey-man-shaped. And of course it would be weird to attribute to him a monkey-man-toy-responsive trait, given that I’ve seen other dogs play a similar game of catch without the need for monkeymen. Still, if you fudge the edges of the example, it looks like catch-and-return is a case of a game that is innate for the species.

That doesn’t mean that all games are innate. Presumably, few are. What is interesting to me is that there is a predictable structure to games, as many of our games correspond to assemblages of these favorite natural tricks. Moreover, the rich description of a game probably far exceeds what you would get if you cobbled together all the natural tricks it takes to play it, in the same way that the “Monkeyman” description exceeds the catch-and-return game.

That said, if you could describe the essential or enduring structure of a game in terms of its natural tricks, you might have a stronger basis for talking about which norms are truly constitutive of the game. So, e.g., despite its name, “Catch the Monkeyman” is not really about the Monkeyman. Similarly — shifting examples to one that is more philosophically interesting — if we want to talk about truth as the constitutive norm of the game of assertion, we should be ready to talk about a truth-directed representational trick in our minds, and which provides structure to the activity.

One summer day

This was the headline, one summer day last month. Do you remember? Where were you when you read it?

I was listening to some Canadians who came back from vacation in Dominican Republic talk about immigration and the need for countries to manage themselves appropriately. Factories used to store sugar cane, now they’re empty. Now it’s imported. Why’s that? Mystery.

Now also thinking about the last moments of life of a little Salvadoran girl clutching her father as they washed along a Texas riverbank and what that was like. Maybe she was crying? Did she die first, or was it her dad? How much of what they swallowed was dirt? She must have loved him judging by the way her arm is around his shirt.

Put that out of mind. Think of responses to debate team at the other table. Tell them about structural adjustment programs? Export economies? Neomercantilism? It’s not called “corruption” if we benefit, just progress. And so on.

No; not in the mood. Could, but not in the mood for it. Don’t want to talk reasons. No hot takes and no I-statements and no performative gestures and curated consciousness raising. No realistic assessments of plans and trade-offs and no ironic comparisons to historical facts and no optimism about human rights or grim hope for eking out a future free from calamity. No analogies or metaphors and no using a dead girl and her dad on a riverbank as a metonym for climate crisis and effect on diasporas. Not right now. Right now just want to interrupt and vomit blood over the table, or break open a black hole in the floor or turn the sky into razor blades. Anything to bring you back to the reality that this is a horror, and any attempt to make sense of it is an attempt to look away. Anything other than horror is a lie.

Don’t look away from it. Don’t feel better. Don’t act and justify and rationalize and debate and worry and resolve to do better or assign blame. Don’t think about the reputational effects of a maudlin blog post. Just think about trying to scream because your dad is dead in your arms and you can’t breathe because your lungs are full of dirt.

On public assertion

Since 2006 or so, I have thought that the idea of a knowledge as constitutive norm of assertion is a mistake, and have at various points offered various reasons for saying so. Some depend on my views about the nature of ‘truth’, on ‘belief’ and ‘intuition’, philosophical pedagogy, and other things. The upshot, I guess, is that Moore’s paradox — “P, but I don’t know that P” — is indeed permissible to assert when the contents of P are apt without being truth-apt (e.g., indefinite predicates and other forms of factually defective discourse). Since critiques of the knowledge norm have been explored capably by others, there is no point in my continuing to grind that axe here.

Recently, though, part of me has worried that our current epistemic crisis in politics is a real-world consequence of denying that knowledge is constitutive of assertion. It would be an awful shame if any of these points somehow blessed the hearts of populist liars and career-long bullshitters. A similar worry need not extend to the sphere of politics, though, as some have wondered whether published works in philosophy should obey something like a knowledge or sincere belief norm.

So, it might help to make a crucial distinction. Indeed, I do think knowledge constitutes something: namely, it constitutes the context of *public assertion* — i.e., following Arendt, the context where people are treated as provisional equals, where interlocutors have presumptive reasons to take each other seriously as givers and takers of reasons (e.g., during peer disagreement). That gives rise to our deep conviction that Moore’s paradox is intolerable in Orwellian spaces.

The diagnosis, then, isn’t that our epistemic crisis can’t be properly seen as coming out of a disagreement about a rarefied paradox. It comes out of the fact that public discourse has collapsed, and there are no institutions that incentivize us to look at each other as if we share a common cause. And that seems not only far more plausible than a worry about philosophy of language, it connects much directly and obviously with the facts about material class inequalities which are so obviously central to our current slide into fascism.

Potted summary: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Now seems to be a good time to write about Hannah Arendt on the public-private distinction, as far as she puts it in ‘The Human Condition‘ (1958, 2e., University of Chicago Press). These are meant as reading notes, and meant to be faithful to the aims of the text. That said, I include a few comments in parentheses and italics where I think a little color commentary might help.

Continue reading “Potted summary: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition”

A note on blog scholarship

Sometimes on this blog I post reading notes, and other times I post original research that draws on existing scholarship.

When I first started this blog, I thought that the right way of proceeding would be to cite sources in an impeccable and academic way, to prove I’ve done the work, and to let interested readers know how to pursue the research on their own. It is always possible that some readers are in need of a study guide for existing texts, and for them I am very pleased to provide whatever reasonable support I can. Presumably, many other academic bloggers feel the same way.

But as an online tutor, I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that there is a very real threat that students will plagiarize online materials without giving proper credit. This is a serious enough problem in academia itself, as even appropriately credentialed scholars will behave badly, but made all the worse in a neo-liberal context.

So, I am not in the habit of providing precise page citations in my original research. I will provide them only when I provide reading notes, just in case readers would benefit from a literary sherpa. But if you want precise citations for original research, you will have to ask, or offer a little push back in comments. That, anyway, is my policy going forward.

Legal arborism

One of the blawgers at Double Aspect, Leonid Sirota, asks if “living tree” constitutional theories can explain the grounds and consequences of their views in the context of jurisprudence in Canada. (Sirota and his co-bloggers seem to occupy an interesting intellectual space, being McGill educated, working abroad, but whose philosophical jurisprudence seems mainly influenced by the American tradition.) Laid against that background, he asks a bevy of questions, and invites some answers. I’ll give it a shot.

(Style note: because I’m tired of writing “living tree doctrine advocates” and its long-winded cognates, I’ll call this position legal arborism. And, full disclosure: my sense of the views of legal arborism in Canada are deeply influenced by a course I audited with Wil Waluchow at McMaster, and so are tilted in favor of his own living tree constitutionalism. His kindness, patience, and scholarly acumen have influenced me a great deal.)

To give you an idea of my own perspective, allow me to say a few words about my intellectual background. My research focus is on informal promulgation, or the publicity of law (understood as a phenomenon deserving of explanation by collective social epistemology). On the one hand, my views on the written/unwritten distinction, at least at the level of discernment or court interpretation, are something of a mixed bag; I don’t know if I would consider myself a legal arborist, if only because I am wary of having my intellectual life bewitched by the power of a metaphor. So, because I am a philosophical eccentric in this and other ways, I do not think I am a thoroughly disciplined advocate of the “living tree” doctrine, and my answers will likely be inadequate. That said, I see an awful lot of merit in the arborist’s point of view of common-law — so much so that I would be far more sympathetic to the legal arborist’s general conception of law than the depiction of law provided by originalists. So, I’m with the Ents.

“1) Do you think that the linguistic meaning of the constitutional text changes over time after its entrenchment?”

This is a complex question. The question presumes that there is a distinction between linguistic and application meaning, or sentence vs. use meaning — usually captured by the distinction between semantics and pragmatics. But, as a commenter on that thread notes, many of us would dispute the application/linguistic meaning distinction, insofar as it is supposed to help us sort between two piles of content ascriptions that lawyers and judges would care about (i.e., concerning different kinds of legal effects, the constructive and the merely interpretive). And by ‘us’, I do not just mean legal arborists. I mean, ‘us’, as in virtually everyone who works in philosophy of language who was educated in the last half-century. Indeed, in my view, the best originalists don’t even follow through with the pragmatics/semantics distinction in their considered accounts. So, e.g., I’ve noted before that — aspirations to the contrary — Lawrence Solum’s “semantic” originalism is nothing of the kind, since it asks us to enrich communicative content (meaning, strict entailments) with cooperative implicatures when such are required by the method of triangulation. Solum calls it a semantic theory, but he is mis-stating (indeed, understating!) the powers of the actual theory that he advocates.

But this is easily fixed; a better presentation of the originalist argument is possible. Such an argument would either have to admit the pointlessness of appeals to textual purity, and confess that it invites relatively obvious widenings of the scope of the “semantic” theory (to include near-side pragmatics); or, it would have to advocate a Copernican revolution in semantic theory, forcing it to include extra-semantic elements; or, it would have to articulate the aims and motives behind the triangulationist method in extra-semantic terms, e.g., in terms of the political value of publicity. (FWIW, I think that in the long run the third option is the smarter move, though it would take an essay to state why.)

“2) Do you think that governing bodies should have a power to modify or override the communicative content of the constitutional text in response to changing circumstances and values?”

I think, to this question, the answer is an incorrigible ‘yes’, provided that we identify the right linguistic context that is responsible for the change in content. So, notice that there’s a difference between communicative content that changes because of a corresponding change in background conditions which affect the interpretation of statute or caselaw (i.e., related to global changes in perspective and fact), and a change in content that is merely determined by the intentions of the Court with respect to the proper aims of statute or caselaw.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the latter is faulty on broadly conservative grounds — because “activist judges”, etc, etc. Fine. It is nevertheless true to say that in the former context, an apparent change in linguistic meaning is both legitimate and hard to deny, even when we go about mere interpretation of what is said in the text. So, e.g., to take Waluchow’s example — in the infamous Persons case, the meaning of “person” is radically different in 1945 as opposed to 1845 because many substantial background assumptions have changed (e.g., about property ownership, theories of sexual psychology, etc.). Our global background conditions make it absurd to read “persons” as meaning “men” alone and pretend to be doing it in good faith. So, it is not just that the Privy Council found the caselaw disagreeable or unjust according to their personal moral convictions. It is that there has been a change in stable meaning, owing a change in the background of interpretation.

The best version of the originalist intuition rests on the idea that true expressions are stable, or built to last. So, there is at least one important difference between “2+2=4” and “The duck-rabbit illusion depicts a rabbit”: you can count on being able to get away with asserting (and assenting to) ‘two and two make four’ tomorrow, but you can’t count on being able to even assert or assent to “The duck-rabbit illusion depicts a rabbit” in the next breath, since a Gestalt shift can take it all away. The presumption of future ‘stickiness’, the idea that legal rules are going to be a going concern, is a truth-maker in law. Which is to say that legal truth implies stability, at both the level of meaning and the level of politics, and this stability across contexts helps to satisfy the need for presumptive guidance to private actors.

There are two kinds of things you have to say about the originalist’s attempt at assuring stability in this way. First, it must be noted, and emphasized, that cross-contextual meaning is itself deeply and richly dependent upon an array of assumptions or givens which give it content. This is true for both partial expressions and sentences. The very idea of a “quark” is unintelligible in the context of an epistemic community that lacks a rich set of judgments about the behavior of particle physics. The sentence, “I want to cut the sun” (John Searle’s example) is sufficiently strange as to be almost unintelligible, given that there are no feasible means (open to our current imagination) that would make that sentence true. Cross-contextual content depends on a network of beliefs, judgments, and capabilities, and any change in these implicit background conditions can lead to explicit changes in meaning. That just seems to be a fact about how meaning works. Significance wanders.

Second, where they get off track, at the level of politics, is the sense that the only factor which provides that stability is strict fidelity to fixed intentions of original speakers. But what they are actually seeking is equilibrium, and a sufficiently large change in context very well might demand a new equilibrium.

To see why the originalist approach to stability is misguided, let’s consider a parable. Suppose someone were to say: “I must build my home on solid ground.” That seems like a reasonable thing to say. Now suppose they encounter a man who has built a boat, and lives their life at sea. “That’s silly, you get knocked around a lot,” says the man who built their home on solid ground. Then a hurricane comes and washes the house away, while the boat (though battered) survives. Question: whose home was more stable? Answer: it depends on your context and background assumptions. The house on land was stable in one context, but the house on the sea was stable in another. With the predicted rise of the sea, the rule, ‘build your home on solid ground’, is not going to provide anything like the need for presumptive guidance to private actors.