Sunday, January 24, 2016

Graphing the English-speaking university curriculum

Here is a fascinating and ambitious "big data" project that aims at probing and mapping the structure of the disaggregated university curriculum in the United States and other English-speaking countries. The project is called the Open Syllabus Project and is hosted at Columbia University with a team including Joe Kraganis (project director), David McClure (Stanford University Library), Dnnis Tenen, Jonathan Stray, Alex Gil, and Ted Byfield, along with others.  The project has collected over a million syllabi that are openly accessible on university websites; it has then created a database of the books and articles included in these syllabi. There are currently 934K items in the database of texts.

The project provides two basic tools. First, it allows users to search the database by title and see its frequency and co-references. It is also possible to filter by field, institution, state, and country; for each title it is possible to find the other titles most commonly associated with it in the filtered field of syllabi.

One immediate interest in this project is to see the top 10 or twenty titles overall and in various fields. Overall The Elements of Style, the Republic, the Communist Manifesto, Biology, and Frankenstein are the top five titles. In sociology the top five include Aristotle's Ethics, JS Mill's Utilitarianism, Plato's Republic, Descartes' Meditations, and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. In politics the top five include Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, Hobbes' Leviathan, Tocqueville's Democracy in America, Aristotle's Politics, and Machiavelli's Prince.

These listings give a somewhat musty feel to the collective curriculum -- the most common titles are "classics" at least 150 years old. (Sam Huntington's Civilizations book and Ken Waltz's Theory of International Politics are the only 20th century works of political science in the politics field top ten. Ranks 11-20 are more contemporary.) This might give the impression that the typical syllabus is dominated by the classics -- not very encouraging for anyone who thinks that new ideas are needed to solve contemporary problems. But that impression is probably a statistical illusion. If the canon is relatively small (perhaps 100 titles) and the more contemporary and topical literature is very large (10,000 titles) then it is likely enough that items in the canon will show up more frequently, if only because there are lots of introductory courses in which those titles are used. There will be a broad spread of the more contemporary titles over the large number of syllabi, with the result that only a few will break through into the top rank.

Here is an example -- my own Varieties of Social Explanation.

VSE appears in 62 syllabi in the database, and it is most commonly paired with Kuhn, Elster, Taylor, Lijphart, Fearon, and Winch. The syllabi including VSE break down by discipline like this: sociology (23), politics (5), economics (5), psychology (4), philosophy (1), other (28). There are 200 titles with which it is paired in at least four syllabi. Some of these would fit handily into a philosophy of social science course; others are more distant.

It is also interesting to use the search tool to gauge the prevalence of various topics within the curriculum. Here is the search for titles that include the word "Power"; quite evidently the topic of power is highly important in the university curriculum. Foucault heads the list, with 1,774 citations. 8th on the list is Steven Lukes' Power: A Radical View. (The high rank for Lukes' book doesn't surprise me; the second-most trafficked post on Understanding Society is an entry on Lukes' theories of power; link.)

Intriguing as the search function is, the most interesting tool currently available through the project is an interactive network graph of the 10,000 most frequently cited titles.

The methodology is not fully explained on the website, but it appears that items are assigned a metric to other titles based on the frequency of cross-reference between them. It results in an intriguing map of knowledge across the galaxy of disciplines. It is possible to zoom in on any region; below is a snapshot within the social science cluster.

It is possible to pick out the classics in the field -- Durkheim, Weber, Mead, Dewey, Goffman, Bourdieu, Freire -- in this cluster of titles. But this should not be equated with importance or influence. One's eye may be drawn to the large central references in this graph -- Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, for example, and these may appear as stars around which other items revolve. But equally interesting are the titles on the periphery  and in the interstices -- titles which occur with a measurable frequency within the corpus of syllabi but which have relatively fewer affinities with other titles. And in fact many specialists in the various fields would probably find the most innovative works in their discipline on the periphery rather than in the core of these clusters.

This project is a great example of a big-data problem in the sociology of knowledge. The very hard question now is what to make of it; what light does it shed on the structure of university instruction and knowledge conveyance? What analytical questions need to be posed to this data set?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Social Science History Association 2016 CFP

Macrohistorical Dynamics Network

41st Annual Meeting of the Social Science History Association
Chicago IL 17-20 November 2016
Submission Deadline: 20 February 2016

"Knowledge in an Interdisciplinary World"

We invite you to take part in Macrohistorical Dynamics (MHD) panels of the 41th annual meeting of the Social Science History Association, November 17-20, 2016 in Chicago.  For more information on the meeting as well as the call for proposals, please refer to the SSHA website:

Here is the call for proposals:

The deadline for paper and/or panel submissions is February 20, 2016.

The members of the Social Science History Association share a common interest in interdisciplinary and systematic approaches to historical research, and many of us find the SSHA one of the most stimulating conferences that we attend.

The thematic topic of the 2016 annual meeting is “Knowledge in an Interdisciplinary World” – a theme that works very well with the research interests of many of the scholars involved in the Macrohistorical Dynamics network.

Macrohistorical Dynamics (MHD) is an interdisciplinary social science research field that focuses on problems of large-scale, comparative historical inquiry. Contributors to the field have brought perspective on a wide variety of problem areas, including macro- and historical sociology; comparative histories; world history; world-system analysis; comparative study of civilizations; philosophy of history; and studies of long-term socio-ecological, technological, demographic, cultural, and political trends and transformations.  The Macrohistorical Dynamics network brings a rigorous perspective to bear on questions having to do with “large” history.

Possible topics that illustrate some of the general themes of Macrohistorical Dynamics include …

  • Comparative Methods in Macrohistory
  • Large-scale historical causes: climate, population, geography
  • Cultural and National Identities in Large-scale Historical Change
  • Theory in Macro-history: Are There Successful Macrosociological Theories?
  • Macro-, Meso-, Micro- in Historical Explanations
  • Empires and Peoples
  • Globalization and World Cities
  • Social Evolution and Systemic Transformations in World History
The list of MHD panel themes for 2016 is open, and we encourage you to submit proposals for paper topics or panel themes.

The MHD network will be able to host at least six panels in 2016 and will also be able to place additional papers through co-sponsorship with other networks (for example, with History/Methods, Politics, Culture, State-Society, Historical Geography, etc.).

SSHA requests that submissions be made by means of its web conference management system. Paper title, brief abstract, and contact information should be submitted on the site, where the general SSHA 2016 call for papers is also available.  (If you haven’t used the system previously you will need to create an account, which is a very simple process.)  The direct link for submissions is now open for submissions: 

SSHA has set up a mechanism for networks to share papers, so even if you have a solo paper, send the idea along.  It is possible and useful to identify a paper not only by the MHD network, but also by some other co-sponsoring networks--for example, Theory/Methods, Historical Geography, Politics, Culture, Economics, etc.  Co-sponsored panels and papers are encouraged by the SSHA Program Committee as a means of broadening the visibility of the various networks.

NOTE: There is an SSHA rule concerning book sessions.  For a book session to proceed, the author (or at least one of multiple authors) MUST be present.  Proposals for book sessions should only be submitted if there is high confidence that the author will be able to travel to Chicago November 17-20, 2016.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

What parts of the social world admit of explanation?

image: John Dos Passos

When Galileo, Newton, or Lavoisier confronted the natural world as “scientists,” they had in mind reasonably clear bodies of empirical phenomena that required explanation: the movements of material objects, the motions of the planets, the facts about combustion. They worked on the hope that nature conformed to a relatively small number of “fundamental” laws which could be discovered through careful observation and analysis. The success of classical physics and chemistry is the result. In a series of areas of research throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries  it turned out that there were strong governing laws of nature — mechanics, gravitational attraction, conservation of matter and energy, electromagnetic propagation — which served to explain a vast range of empirically given natural phenomena. The “blooming, buzzing confusion” of the natural world could be reduced to the operation of a small number of forces and entities.

This finding was not metaphysically or logically inevitable. Nature might have been less regular and less unified than it turned out to be. Natural causes could have fluctuated in their effects and could have had more complex interactions with other causes than has turned out to be the case. Laws of nature might have varied over time and space in unpredictable ways. So the success of the project of the natural sciences is both contingent and breathtakingly powerful. There are virtually no bodies of empirical phenomena for which we lack even a good guess about the underlying structure and explanation of these phenomena; and these areas of ignorance seem to fall at the sub-atomic and the super-galactic levels. 

The situation in the social world is radically different, much as positivistically minded social scientists have wanted to think otherwise. There are virtually no social processes that have the features of predictability and smoothness that are displayed by natural phenomena. Rather, we can observe social processes of unlimited granularity unfolding over time and space, intermingling with other processes; leading sometimes to crashes and exponential accelerations; and sometimes morphing into something completely different.

Imagine that we think of putting together a slow-motion data graphic representing the creation, growth, and articulation of a great city — Chicago, Mexico City, or Cairo, for example. We will need to represent many processes within this graphic: spatial configuration, population size, ethnic and racial composition, patterns of local cooperation and conflict, the emergence and evolution of political authority, the configuration of a transportation and logistics system, the effects of war and natural disaster, the induced transformation of the surrounding hinterland, and the changing nature of relationships with external political powers, to name a few. And within the population itself we will want to track various characteristics of interest: literacy levels, school attendance, nutrition and health, political and social affiliation, gender and racial attitudes and practices, cultural and religious practices, taste and entertainment, and processes of migration and movement. We might think of this effort as a massive empirical project, to provide a highly detailed observational history of the city over a very long period of time. (Cronon’s Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is a treatment of the city of Chicago over the period of about a century with some of these aspirations.) 

But now what? How can we treat this massive volume of data “scientifically”? And can we aspire to the ambition of showing how these various processes derive from a small number of more basic forces? Does the phenomenon of the particular city admit of a scientific treatment along the lines of Galileo, Newton, or Lavoisier?

The answer is resoundingly no. Such a goal displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the social world. Social things and processes at every level are the contingent and interactive result of the activities of individual actors. Individuals are influenced by the social environment in which they live; so there is no reductionist strategy available here, reducing social properties to purely individual properties. But the key words here are “contingent” and “interactive”. There is no God’s-eye answer to the question, why did Chicago become the metropolis of the central North American continent rather than St. Louis? Instead, there is history — the choices made by early railroad investors and route designers, the availability of timber in Michigan but not Missouri, a particularly effective group of early city politicians in Chicago compared to St. Louis, the comparative influence on the national scene of Illinois and Missouri. These are all contingent and path-dependent factors deriving from the situated choices of actors at various levels of decision making throughout the century. And when we push down into lower levels of the filigree of social activity, we find equally contingent processes. Why did Motown come to dominate musical culture for a few decades in Detroit and beyond? Why did professional football take off but professional soccer did not? Why are dating patterns different in Silicon Valley than Iowa City? None of these questions have law-driven answers. Instead, in every case the answer will be a matter of pathway-tracing, examining the contingent turning points that brought us to the situation in question.

What this argument is meant to make clear is that the social world is not like the natural world. It is fundamentally “historical” (meaning that the present is unavoidably influenced by the past); contingent (meaning that events could have turned out differently); and causally plural (meaning that there is no core set of “social forces” that jointly serve to drive all social change). 

It also means that there is no “canonical” description of the social world. With classical physics we had the idea that nature could be described as a set of objects with mass and momentum; electromagnetic radiation with properties of frequency and velocity; atoms and molecules with fixed properties and forces; etc. But this is not the case with the social world. New kinds of processes come and go, and it is always open to a social researcher to identify a new trend or process and to attempt to make sense of this process in its context. 

I don’t mean to suggest that social phenomena do not admit of explanation at all. We can provide mid-level explanations of a vast range of social patterns and events, from the denuding of Michigan forests in the 1900s to the incidence of first names over time. What we cannot do is to provide a general theory that suffices as an explanatory basis for identifying and explaining all social phenomena. The social sciences are at their best when they succeed in identifying mechanisms that underlie familiar social patterns. And these mechanisms are most credible when they are actor-centered, in the sense that they illuminate the ways that individual actors’ behavior is influenced or generated so as to produce the outcome in question. 

In short: the social realm is radically different from the natural realm, and it is crucial for social scientists to have this in mind as they formulate their research and theoretical ideas.

(I used the portrait of Dos Passos above for this post because of the fragmented and plural way in which he seeks to represent a small slice of social reality in U.S.A. This works better than a single orderly narrative of events framed by the author's own view of the period.)

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Deliberation, rationality, and reasoning

Recent posts have raised questions about formulating a rational plan of life. This way of putting the question highlights "rationality," which has the connotation of short-term, one-off decision making. And this implication plainly does not fit the problem of life planning very well -- as noted in the two prior posts on this topic. Living a life is more like the making of a great sculpture than it is planning a Napoleonic military campaign. But what if we shifted the terms of the question and asked instead, what is involved in being deliberative and reflective about the direction of one's life? Does this give more room for bringing the idea of rationality into the idea of a life plan?

Being deliberative invokes the idea of considering one's goals reflectively and in comparison, considering strategies and actions that might serve to bring about the realization of these goals, and an ongoing consideration of the continuing validity of one's goals and strategies. Instrumental rationality takes a set of goals as being fixed; deliberative rationality works on the assumption that it is possible to reason reflectively about one’s goals themselves. This is the thrust of Socrates’ “unexamined life” — the good life requires reflection and deliberation about the things one seeks to achieve in life. Here is how Aristotle describes deliberation in the Nicomachean Ethics, book 3:
We deliberate about things that are in our power and can be done; and these are in fact what is left. For nature, necessity, and chance are thought to be causes, and also reason and everything that depends on man. Now every class of men deliberates about the things that can be done by their own efforts. And in the case of exact and self-contained sciences there is no deliberation, e.g. about the letters of the alphabet (for we have no doubt how they should be written); but the things that are brought about by our own efforts, but not always in the same way, are the things about which we deliberate, e.g. questions of medical treatment or of money-making. And we do so more in the case of the art of navigation than in that of gymnastics, inasmuch as it has been less exactly worked out, and again about other things in the same ratio, and more also in the case of the arts than in that of the sciences; for we have more doubt about the former. Deliberation is concerned with things that happen in a certain way for the most part, but in which the event is obscure, and with things in which it is indeterminate. We call in others to aid us in deliberation on important questions, distrusting ourselves as not being equal to deciding. (Nicomachean Ethics, book 3)
What Aristotle focuses on here is choice under conditions of uncertainty and complexity. Deliberation is relevant when algorithms fail -- when there is no mechanical way of calculating the absolutely best way of doing something. And this seems to fit the circumstance of planning for a life or career.

How does “deliberation” come into the question of life plans? It is essential.

(1) The goals a person pursues in life cannot be specified exogenously; rather, the individual needs to consider and reflect on his or her goals in an ongoing way. Aristotle was one of the first to reveal that often the goals and goods we pursue are, upon reflection, derivative from some more fundamental good. But Kant too had a position here, favoring autonomy over heteronomy. Reflection allows us to gain clarity about those more fundamental goods that we value.

(2) The strategies and means that we choose may have only a superficial correspondence to our goods and values which is undercut by more rigorous examination. We may find that a given mode of action, a strategy, may indeed lead to good X, but may also defeat the achievement of Y, which we also value. So deliberative reflection about the strategies and actions we choose can allow us to more fully reconcile our short-term strategies with our long-term goals and goods.

Economists and philosophers have sometimes maintained that values and goals do not admit of rational consideration. But this is plainly untrue. At the very least it is possible to discover positive and negative interactions among our goals and desires — the desire to remain healthy and the desire to eat ice cream at every meal are plainly in conflict. Less trivially, the goal of living life in a way that is respectful of the dignity of others is inconsistent with the goal of rising to power within a patriarchal or racist organization. It is possible that there are values that are both fundamental and incommensurable — so that rational deliberation and reflection cannot choose between them. But it is hard to think of examples in which this kind of incommensurability arises as a practical problem.

Consider Bruce, Jorge, and Filippo. Bruce believes that being wealthy by the age of 60 is the most important thing in his life. Jorge believes that attaining a state of spiritual fulfillment by the age of 60 is most important. And Filippo believes that having circumstances of life by age 60 in which he is involved in satisfying work, has successful family relationships and friendships, and has enough income and wealth to support a decent middle-class life is most important. Are there reasonable considerations that any one of these individuals could bring to bear against another to suggest that the other’s goals are incomplete or defective?

Aristotle addresses Bruce directly by asking how wealth could possible be a fundamental good. What does Bruce want to gain by achieving great wealth? Aren’t these activities and goods more fundamental than the wealth itself? This line of argument perhaps succeeds in persuading Bruce to give more thought to what he wants out of life — not wealth, but the things that wealth permits him to do.

Jorge may seem to be just like Bruce except he values spiritual fulfillment rather than money. Indeed, they are similar in that there is only one dimension to their life goals. But Jorge can at least maintain against Bruce that his goal is good in itself, not because of its ability to bring about some other desirable thing.

Finally, Filippo. Filippo has a more complex set of life goals, none of which reduces to a combination of the others. It is true that these goals require tradeoffs in behavior and effort; strategies that enhance friendships may depress the attainment of wealth, for example. But I think it is Filippo that we think of when we imagine a person with a reflective and deliberative life plan: a person who has identified a small but plural set of longterm goals, and who recognizes that it is necessary in the moment to find ways of balancing the attainment of one with what it takes to attain more of the other.

We might think of life planning as being less like a blueprint for action and more like a navigational guide. We might think of the problem of making intermediate life choices as being guided by a compass rather than a detailed plan — the idea that we do good work on living if we guide our actions by a set of directional signals rather than a detailed map. Life outcomes result from following a compass, not moving towards a specific GPS point on a map.

There is an analogy with business planning here. Consider the actions and plans of a CEO of a company. His or her choices in concrete decision moments are guided by several important considerations: remain profitable; prepare the ground today for viable business activity tomorrow; create an environment of trust and respect among the employees of the company; make sure that company choices also take the wellbeing of the community into account; treat employees fairly; anticipate changes in the marketplace that might dictate change in process or product within the company. But there is no certainty, no fixed prescription for success, and no algorithm for balancing the goods that the firm's leadership pursues. The successful firm will have built its success over a long series of decisions oriented towards the fundamental values of the business.

(The reference to Napoleon in Jena in the graphics above is pertinent because of the implications that Hegel drew from his experience of Napoleon as a "world historical figure". Hegel was clear that, even with a brilliant commander and a great general staff, Napoleon's ambitions in Europe were based on an unavoidably incomplete knowledge of the terrain of history. "The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the falling of the dusk.")

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A fresh approach to life plans

There isn't a clear philosophy of life-planning in the literature. So let's start from scratch. What do we need in order to make a plan for any temporally extended project?
  • An assessment of the outcomes we want to bring about
  • An assessment of the likely workings of the natural and social environment in which action will occur
  • A theory about how to achieve those outcomes -- strategy and tactics
  • An assessment of the likelihood of negative interactions among various aspects of the plan
  • An assessment of the riskiness of the environment
  • A backup plan if things go off the rails -- plan B!
We would like to arrive at a plan that has a high probability of success, and one for which there are soft landings available when future expectations are not fulfilled. If my goal is to become a symphony conductor but I also know that the qualifications needed would equally qualify me to be a performer, and if performing itself is an agreeable outcome, then aiming at conductor is less risky.

We know what it is to be rational about limited choices like choosing a new car, picking a vacation destination, or investing retirement savings. Each of these decisions falls within a broad degree of certainty of assumptions for us: we know that we enjoy the beach more than the opera, that we want a fair degree of security in our retirement accounts, or that we need a car that is good in wet weather. That is to say, we know a lot about our tastes, our future needs, and our current circumstances. So small-gauge choices like these depend fairly simply on locating a solution that serves our tastes and preferences in our current and near-future circumstances. With these conditions fixed, we can then go about the information gathering that allows us to assess how well the available sets of alternatives serve our tastes, needs, and circumstances.

Sometimes we can even reduce our choice situations to a simple set of cost-benefit tradeoffs: I'll get a 20% improvement in crash-worthiness by paying an additional $10,000 for the car I choose; I'll have a chance on a 10% annual return on an investment if I accept a greater degree of risk; etc. And I might find that I like the tradeoff for one set of costs but not for another -- more safety is worth $10,000 to me but not $50,000. Or I will accept the greater investment risk when it means moving from 1% chance of losing everything to a 3% chance, but not to a 10% chance.

A life plan isn't like this, however. Consider the space of choices that confronts the 20-year old college student Miguel: what kind of work will satisfy me over the long term? How much importance will I attribute to higher income in twenty years? Do I want to have a spouse and children? How much time do I want to devote to family? Do I want to live in a city or the countryside? How important to me is integrity and consistency with my own values over time? These kinds of questions are difficult to answer in part because they don't yet have answers. Miguel will become a person with a set of important values and commitments; but right now he is somewhat plastic. It is possible for him to change his preferences, tastes, values, and concerns over time. So perhaps his plan needs to take these kinds of interventions into account.

Another source of uncertainty has to do with the future of the world itself. Will the economy continue to provide decent opportunities for young people, or will income stratification continue to increase? Will climate change make some parts of the world much more difficult for survival? Will religious strife worsen so that safety is very difficult to achieve? Is Mary Poppins or William Gibson the better prognosticator of what the world will look like in thirty years? A plan that looks good in a Mary Poppins world may look much worse in the Sprawl (Gibson's anti-utopian city of the future).

And then there is the difficult question of akrasia -- weakness of the will. Can I successfully carry out my long term plans? Or will short term temptations make it impossible for me to sustain the discipline required to achieve my long term goals? (Somewhere Jon Elster looks at this problem as a collective action problem across stages of the self. Is this a reasonable approach?) For that matter, how much should future goods matter to me in the present?

It is worth asking whether life plans actually exist for anyone. Perhaps most people's lives take shape in a more contingent and event-driven way. Perhaps guided opportunism is the best we are likely to do: look at available opportunities at a given moment, pursue the opportunity that seems best or most pleasing at that point, and enjoy the journey. Or perhaps there are some higher-level directional rules of thumb -- "choose current options that will contribute in the long run to a higher level of X". In this scenario there is no overriding plan, just a series of local choices. This alternative is pretty convincing as a way of thinking about the full duration of a person's life, as any biographer is likely to attest.

Consider an analogy with the life of a city or state: decisions and policies are established at various points in time. These decisions contribute to the life course of the city; monuments established in 200 BCE continued to inform Roman life in 300 AD. But Rome was indeed not built in a day, and its eventual course was not envisaged or planned by any of its founders and leaders. A city's "life" is the complex resultant of deliberation at many points in time, struggle, and contingency. And perhaps this describes a person's life as well.

This point of view has a lot in common with Herbert Simon's 1957 concept of bounded rationality and satisficing rather than maximizing as a rule of rational decision-making (Models of Man). Instead of heroically attempting to plan for all contingencies over the full of one's life, a bounded approach would be to consider short periods and make choices over the opportunity sets available during those periods. And if we superimpose on these choices a higher-level set of goals to be achieved -- having time with family, living in conformity to one's moral or religious values, gaining a set of desired character traits -- then we might argue that this decision-making process will be biased towards outcomes that favor one's deeper values as well as one's short-term needs and interests.

This approach will not optimize choices over the full lifetime; but it may be the only approach that is feasible given the costs of information gathering and scenario assessment.

So what about a rational life plan? At this point the phrase seems inapropos to the situation of a person's relationship to his or her longterm "life". A life is more of a concatenation of a series of experiences, projects, accidents, contingencies -- not a planned artifact or painting or building. A life is not a novel, a television series, or a mural with an underlying storyboard in which each element has its place. And therefore it seems inapt to ask for a rational plan of life. Individuals make situated and bounded deliberative decisions about specific issues. But they don't plot out their lives in detail. 

What seems more credible is to ask for a framework of navigation, a set of compass points, and a general set of values and purposes which get invested through projects and activities. The idea of the bildungsroman seems more illuminating -- the idea of a young person taking shape through a series of challenging undertakings over time. Development, formation, values clarification, and the formation of character seem more true to what we might like to see in a good life than achieving a particular set of outcomes.

Where, then, do thinking and reasoning come into the picture? This is where Socrates and Montaigne seem to be relevant. They look at living as an opportunity for deepening self-knowledge and articulation of values and character. "To philosophize is to learn how to die" (Montaigne) and "The unexamined life is not worth living" (Socrates). The upshot of these aphorisms seems to be this: reasoning and philosophizing allow us to probe, question, and extend our values and the things we strive for. And having examined and probed, we are also in a position to assess and judge the actions and goals that are presented to us at various stages of life. How does a college major, a first job, a marriage, or a parenting challenge frame the future into which the young person develops? And how can practical reflection about one's current values help to give direction to the future choices he or she makes later in life? 

Practical rationality perhaps amounts to little more than this when it comes to constructing a life: to consider one's best understanding of the goods he or she cares most about, and acting in the present in ways that shape the journey towards a future that better embodies those goods for the person and his or her concerns.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Rational life plans

Aristotle, Kant, and Rawls agree: people ought to have rational plans of life to guide their everyday efforts and activities. But what is involved in being rational about one's plan of life? And really, what is a plan of life? Is it a sketch of a lifetime goal, along with some indications of the efforts that are currently thought to lead to this goal? Is it a blueprint for organizing one's thinking, actions, investments, time, resources, and character over time in order to bring about the intended goal? Or is it something more flexible that this? Did Walter White in Breaking Bad have a plan of life, either before and after his cancer diagnosis? Did Dostoevsky have a plan of life? How about Wagner or Whitman? Is it possible to be rational in making partial or full life plans? How have philosophers thought about this topic?

Planning means orchestrating one's activities over time in such a way as to bring about good outcomes over the full period. When a person plans for a renovation of his/her home, he or she considers the reasons for considering the renovation; the results to be achieved; the enhancements that would contribute to those results; the resources that are necessary to fund those enhancements; the amount of time that will be required for each of the sub-tasks; and so forth. With a good plan and a good execution, it is likely that a good outcome will be achieved: an improved residence that was accomplished within the budgeted time and resources available.

A plan of life is something larger than a plan for a house renovation, though it has some aspects in common. John Rawls was the philosopher in recent times who brought this idea into serious attention. The concept plays a crucial role within his theory of justice in A Theory of Justice. (Perhaps Aristotle is the ancient philosopher who had the greatest interest in this idea.) Rawls introduces the idea in the context of his discussion of primary goods.
The main idea is that a person's good is determined by what is for him the most rational long-term plan of life given reasonably favorable circumstances. A man is happy when he is more or less successfully [sic] in the way of carrying out this plan. To put it briefly, the good is the satisfaction of rational desire. We are to suppose, then, that each individual has a rational plan of life drawn up subject to the conditions that confront him. This plan is designed to permit the harmonious satisfaction of his interests. It schedules activities so that various desires can be fulfilled without interferences. It is arrived at by rejecting other plans that are either less likely to succeed or do not provide for such an inclusive attainment of aims. Given the alternatives available, a rational plan is one which cannot be improved upon; there is no other plan which, taking everything into account, would be preferable. (TJ 92-93)
Several things are noteworthy about this description. First, it involves scheduling activities so as to "harmoniously satisfy interests", which is paraphrased as "fulfilling desires without interferences". In other words, Rawls's account of a plan of life is a fairly shallow one in terms of the assumptions it makes about the person. It takes desires as fixed and then "plans" around them to ensure their optimal satisfaction. But there are other things that we might want to include in a plan of life: choices about one's enduring character, for example. And second, Rawls makes very heroic assumptions here by requiring that a rational plan of life is a uniquely best plan, an optimal plan, one which cannot be improved upon.

There is a very direct connection between planning and rationality. But, surprisingly, this connection has not been a strong topic of interest within philosophy. The most important exception is in the work of Michael Bratman, including his 1987 book, Intention, Plans and Practical Reason. Here are a few key ideas from Bratman's book:
Our need for plans concerning the future is rooted in two very general needs. We are rational agents, to some extent. For us this means in part that deliberation and, more generally, rational reflection help shape what we do. If, however, our actions were influenced only by deliberation at the time of action, the influence of such deliberation would be rather minimal. This is so because deliberation requires time and other limited resources, and there is an obvious limit to the extent to which one may successfully deliberate at the time of action. 2 So we need ways to allow deliberation and rational reflection to influence action beyond the present.

Second, we have pressing needs for coordination. To achieve complex goals I must coordinate my present and future activities. And I need also to coordinate my activities with yours. Anyone who has managed to write a lecture, pick up a book at the library, attend a committee meeting, and then pick up a child at school will be familiar with the former type of intra personal coordination. And anyone who has managed to arrange and participate in a committee meeting with several colleagues will be familiar with the latter sort of inter personal coordination. Of course, as the examples make clear, we are typically in need of both sorts of coordination; for we are both temporally extended and social agents. And as we all learn to our chagrin, neither sort of coordination happens effortlessly.
We do not, of course, promote coordination and extend the influence of deliberation by means of plans that specify, once and for all, everything we are to do in the future. Such total plans are obviously beyond our limits. Rather, we typically settle on plans that are partial and then fill them in as need be and as time goes by. This characteristic incompleteness of our plans is of the first importance. It creates the need for a kind of reasoning characteristic of planning agents: reasoning that takes initial, partial plans as given and aims at filling them in with specifications of appropriate means, preliminary steps, or just relatively more specific courses of action. (section 1.1)
Here Bratman makes the connection between deliberation, intentions, and planning explicit: planning permits the coordination of one's intentions over time. And in the final paragraph he correctly observes that there is no such thing as a complete plan for a topic; plans are created in order to be updated. (Notice, however, that this runs contrary to Rawls's assumption quoted above.)

Jonathan Baron also gives some attention to the role of planning in deliberative reasoning in Rationality and Intelligence. Here is a statement from Baron:
A good definition of happiness ... is the achievement of just these consequences, or, more precisely, the successful pursuit of a plan that is expected to lead to them .... If the world is at all predictable, rational plans and decisions will, on average, lead to better outcomes in this sense than will irrational ones. Luck, of course, may still intervene; a person might make the best decisions possible, but still be unhappy because things turned out badly. (RI 206)
There are several features of life that make it difficult to formulate a satisfactory theory of the formulation and assessment of rational life plans.
  • The extended timeframe of the planning problem: formulating a plan in one's twenties that is intended to guide through the end of one's life in his or her nineties. 
  • The fact of a person's plasticity. Features of character, personality, habit, taste, and preference are all subject to a degree of purposive change. So it would seem that these should be the object of rational deliberative planning as well. But it is hard to see how to do this. 
  • The fact of the unpredictability of the external environment, both natural and social. 
  • The difficulty of designing a plan that is robust through dramatic change within the person.
  • The difficulty of incorporating possible future capabilities of changing the self and the body directly through genetic engineering.
These challenges make traditional rational-choice theory unpromising as a foundation for arriving at a theory of life planning. Traditional rational choice theory is designed around the assumption of exogenous and fixed preferences, the ability to assign utility to outcomes, and quantifiable knowledge of the likelihood of various outcomes. But the five factors mentioned here invalidate all these assumptions.

(Several earlier posts are relevant to this set of issues: link, link, link.)

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Is the mind/body problem relevant to social science?

Is solving the mind-body problem crucial to providing a satisfactory sociological theory?

No, it isn't, in my opinion. But Alex Wendt thinks otherwise in Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology. In fact, he thinks a solution to the mind-body problem is crucial to a coherent social science. Which is to say, in Wendt's words:
Some of the deepest philosophical controversies in the social sciences are just local manifestations of the mind–body problem. So if the theory of quantum consciousness can solve that problem then it may solve fundamental problems of social science as well. (5)
Why so? There are two core problems in the philosophy of mind that Wendt thinks are unavoidable and must be confronted by the social sciences. The first is the problem of consciousness and intentionality; the second is the problem of freedom of the will. How is it possible for a physical, material system (a computer, a brain, a vacuum cleaner) to possess any of these mental properties?

Experts refer to the "hard problem" in the philosophy of mind. We might also call this the discontinuity problem: the unavoidable necessity of a radical break between a non conscious substrate and a conscious super-strate. How is it possible for an amalgamation of inherently non-conscious things (neurons, transistors, routines in an AI software package) to create an ensemble that possesses consciousness? Isn't this as mysterious as imagining a world in which matter is composed of photons, where the constituents lack mass and the ensemble possesses mass? In such a case we would get mass out of non-mass; in the case of consciousness we get consciousness out of non-consciousness. "Pan-massism" would be a solution: all things, from stars to boulders to tables and chairs to subatomic components, possess mass.

But physicalist philosophers of mind are not persuaded by the discontinuity argument. As we have noted many times in this place, there are abundant examples of properties that are emergent in a non-spooky way. It simply is not the case that the sciences need to proceed in a Cartesian, foundationalist fashion. We do not need to reduce each level of the world to the workings of a lower level of things and processes.

Consider a parallel problem: is solving the question of the fundamental mechanisms of quantum mechanics crucial for understanding chemistry and the material properties of medium-scale objects? Here it seems evident that we can't require this level of ontological continuity from micro to macro -- in fact, there may reasons for believing the task cannot be carried out in principle. (See the earlier post on the question of whether chemistry supervenes upon quantum theory; link.)

Here is the solution to the mind-body problem that Wendt favors: panpsychism. Panpsychism is the notion that consciousness is a characteristic of the world all the way down -- from human beings to sub-atomic particles.
Panpsychism takes a known effect at the macroscopic level–that we are conscious–and scales it downward to the sub-atomic level, meaning that matter is intrinsically minded. (30) 
Exploiting this possibility, quantum consciousness theorists have identified mechanisms in the brain that might allow this sub-atomic proto-consciousness to be amplified to the macroscopic level. (5)
Quantum consciousness theory builds on these intuitions by combining two propositions: (1) the physical claim of quantum brain theory that the brain is capable of sustaining coherent quantum states ( Chapter 5 ), and (2) the metaphysical claim of panpsychism that consciousness inheres in the very structure of matter ( Chapter 6 ). (92)
Panpsychism strikes me as an extravagant and unhelpful theoretical approach, however. Why should we attempt to analyze "Robert is planning to embarrass the prime minister" into a vast ensemble of psychic bits associated with the sub-atomic particles of his body? How does it even make sense to imagine a "sub-atomic bit of consciousness"? And how does the postulation of sub-atomic characteristics of consciousness give us any advantage in understanding ordinary human consciousness, deliberation, and intentionality?

Another supposedly important issue in the domain of the mind-body problem is the problem of freedom of the will. As ordinary human beings in the world we work on the assumption that individuals make intentional choices among feasible alternatives; their behavior is not causally determined by any set of background conditions. But if individuals are composed of physically deterministic parts (classical physics) then how is it possible for the organism to be "free"? And equally, if individuals are composed of physically indeterministic parts (probabilistic sub-particles) then how is it possible for the organism to be intentional (since chance doesn't produce intentionality)? So neither classical physics nor quantum physics seems to leave room for intentional free choice among alternatives.

Consider the route of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner through the cluttered living room (link): its course may appear either random or strategic, but in fact it is neither. Instead, the Roomba's algorithms dictate the turns and trajectories that the device takes in either an unobstructed run or an obstructed run. The behavior of the Roomba is determined by its algorithms and the inputs of its sensors; there is no room for freedom of choice in the Roomba. How can it be different for a dog or a human being, given that we too are composed of algorithmic computing systems?

Social theory presupposes intentional actors; but our current theories of neuroscience don't permit us to reproduce how intentionality, consciousness, and freedom are possible. So don't we need to solve the problem of freedom of the will before we can construct valid sociological theories that depend upon conscious, intentional and free actors?

Again, my answer is negative. It is an interesting question, to be sure, how freedom, consciousness, and intentionality can emerge from the wetware of the brain. But it is not necessary to solve this problem before we proceed with social science. Instead, we can begin with phenomenological truisms: we are conscious, we are intentional, and we are (in a variety of conditioned senses) free. How the organism achieves these higher-level capabilities is intriguing to study; but we don't have to premise our sociological theories on any particular answer to this question.

So the position I want to take here is that we don't have to solve the mysteries of quantum mechanics in order to understand social processes and social causation. We can bracket the metaphysics of the quantum world -- much as the Copenhagen interpretation sought to do -- without abandoning the goal of providing a good explanation of aspects of the social world and social actors. Wendt doesn't like this approach:
Notwithstanding its attractions to some, this refusal to deal with ontological issues also underlies the main objection to the Copenhagen approach: that it is essentially incomplete. (75)
But why is incompleteness a problem for the higher-level science (psychology or sociology, for example)? Why are we not better served by a kind of middle-level theory of human action and the social world, a special science, that refrains altogether from the impulse of reductionism? This middle-level approach would certainly leave open the research question of how various capabilities of the conscious, intentional organism are embodied in neurophysiology. But it would not require providing such an account in order to validate the human-level or social-level theory.