Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Some thoughts on Effective Altruism

I discovered Effective Altruism through Give Well, a web site which embodies at least the essential part of what effective altruism means: giving charitably in such a way as to maximize the benefit to society. (And I discovered Give Well through Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution, which gives you an idea of some of the information I peruse on the Internet.)

Here's Give Well on effective altruism, and why it is not detached from emotion. If I had read only this much, I probably would have unreservedly endorsed the idea. (I do, in fact, give to charity in part through Give Well's recommendations.) But a few google searches led to some more food for thought.

David Brooks had an important response to effective altruism, particularly to this piece by Dylan Matthews about how bright young people are taking high paying jobs in order to donate their salaries (the bulk of it) to ending third world poverty. Brooks makes a couple of arguments, here. One is that taking such a job may transform who you are. You start out an idealist, then slowly the culture of the career you've chosen changes you. That may or may not be true. The more crucial and convincing part to me was Brooks's claim that human beings are ends in themselves. That includes you, the would be altruist. You are not just a machine for turning your capacities into world betterment. You are a person of infinite worth.

Now we're starting to get at the problem with effective altruism. If it is just an approach to philanthropy in which we try to focus on those causes which make the most difference, then that's something everyone can learn from. If, on the other hand, it is embedded in a strictly utilitarian system of ethics, then that calls the whole thing into question.

From a Christian perspective, I think both the universalist and radical nature of effective altruism are praiseworthy. Jesus asked his followers to give up all of their riches, taught that what would count on the last day was what we had done to the "least of these," and showed that our neighbor includes those outside our tribe. He blessed those who were poor and called woe on those who are rich. Christian mission has always pursued the poor in other parts of the world, seeking to alleviate suffering and seeing no difference between human beings.

Yet there is a dearth of Christian response to the effective altruism movement. That is either because the movement was founded by people who have little time for Christianity, or because Christians have little time for new ways to think about charitable giving, or both. This blog post challenges Christians in particular to prioritize global poverty using the approach of effective altruism, and makes a point to remind us how much of our Christian "charitable" giving goes to institutions which largely serve ourselves (paying to maintain and run churches, in large part). And if you look at even the parts of the country with the highest per capita giving, we Americans (one of the most generous nations in the world) still only give away up to 7% of our income. Given how many people around the world still live in extreme poverty, can't we do more? And shouldn't we want to do it effectively?

One blog post I found criticizes effective altruism from a Christian perspective. I found it surprising that a Christian could be critical of a universalist ethic, yet there is a compelling point to be made about the embodied mission of Jesus on earth. Jesus himself was critical of those who gave charitably but neglected the true spirit of the law. In one episode he explicitly rebukes a pure utilitarian calculus concerning the poor. And I suppose one shouldn't forget what the Apostle Paul wrote, "If I give all I possess to the poor...but do not have love, I gain nothing."

Another criticism I found was in the form of a lengthy article defending "philanthrolocalism." This criticism was more directly political. It appealed to Alexis de Tocqueville's theory of the thick institutional structure of American democracy in order to claim that localized philanthropy is not only more natural to human beings (and this is a postive, not a negative) but also necessary to the thriving of a free people. There's something to this, but I'm far from convinced. After all, shouldn't an aspiration to altruism be radical rather than conservative? Humans strive to be altruistic precisely because they wish to reach some transcendent ideal rather than be content to follow an established social order.

Actually the most crushing blow I found was not from a theological or philosophical perspective, but from an artist. Art for art's sake has no place in the minds of most "effective altruists." Unless you know you are on your way to writing the best screenplay ever, there is no reason wasting your time.

I find this view intolerable. There is such a thing as life not worth living, and life without art--not only some art, but a plethora of diverse attempts at art--is just that. We humans have always had the inescapable desire to create and enjoy, not merely to witness but participate in the beauty of the world. From a Christian perspective, we are made to worship. If we all suddenly decided to calculate our every move so as to eradicate poverty, would the poor wake up to a middle class lifestyle in which nothing had any meaning? Would that be any sort of liberation?

I will conclude this little run through of effective altruism with an ironic dictum: use effective altruism only insofar as it is useful. I absolutely agree that we should all be far more concerned than we are with eradicating global poverty, and one of the simplest yet effective ways we can do that is to give money to well-chosen charitable organizations. So go to Give Well and see where you can put your donations to best use. But for all that, I still won't buy into utilitarianism, and you probably shouldn't, either.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The "objective" view of the world

I want to expand on what I started writing yesterday, concerning the "literal," or here let me say "objective," view of the world. Yesterday I said this is true solipsism, and it involves not a turning inward toward myself, but rather a destruction of any concept of I. Well, that's not quite true, I suppose, but it does at least involve a total objectification of such concepts. It would go something like this:

Something exists. There exist multiple objects. There exist conceptual categories for differentiating objects. There exists language to describe those objects. There exist theories to understand those objects. There exist sensory experiences. The categories of "real" and "imagined" exist. Time exists. Distance and proximity exist.

There exist thoughts, feelings, and intentions. There exists the concept of "I, me, myself." Those thoughts, feelings and intentions are described as belonging to me. Thoughts occur in time, they change over time. Conceptual categories change over time. Theories change over time.

Everything associated with "my mind," including the very concept of me, can be taken not as distinction between one mind and other minds but rather as things which exist. There will then be a stark contrast between the "mind" of others and the mind (that is, the "mental phenomena" of thought, intentions, and so on) which I know to exist. The narrative might continue:

I exist. I am human. Other humans exist. They speak, describing thoughts, feelings, and intentions. But these thoughts, feelings, and intentions--where are they?

Would "in the brain" be an acceptable answer? No. If one examines the brain, one finds lots of things, but not thoughts, feelings, or intentions. One merely finds it possible to imagine a connection between the brain and the production of such thoughts, feelings, and intentions. But if you ask me to find a thought out there, I will only be able to find my own. Or, from the objective/literal point of view, why even bother saying they are my own? They are simply the thoughts which exist.

One thing I'm trying to do here is show how difficult it is to judge which point of view is more skeptical. Is it really more skeptical than the average point of view to take at face value my direct experience of the world? If it seems useful to talk about thoughts that exist in other minds somewhere, then I might as well do it, but I don't have to actually believe they exist, do I?

And I really don't think this is an obscure reflection with no bearing on real lived experience. When I was eating my lunch yesterday and pondering these very questions, I saw many people around me, and I noticed how easy it really was to view them as objects, not as minds. Yes, there were words coming out of their mouths. Yes, I could guess what sort of feelings they had. But for all my inherent capacity as a human being to connect with other human beings, I also find it quite easy not to seriously believe that any other human being is a person.

That is because, as I mentioned yesterday, to truly believe there exists another person is not merely to listen to someone attentively, to laugh with them in times of joy and cry with them in times of sorrow. It is not merely the ability to help them with problems, or invite them into your home. Believing that another person exists is not a matter of being a good friend. No, these are all just skills that can be developed by relying on the machinery already built into my body (though I admit they must be developed, and this is not trivial). To believe another person exists, again, is to believe there is another universe. It is to believe that the objective/literal view that I have described is possible from an entirely different starting point, one which I can never reach.

More tomorrow, I'm not finished on this point.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I'm alive

The title of this post has a double meaning.

On the one hand, it's simply been far too long since I wrote here. I feel terribly guilty about this, but the guilt only pushes me further away from writing again. Starting a new job, moving to a new place, worrying about finding a next job (I am still just a lowly post-doc)--all of this has kept me away from my personal blog. There is another factor involved, on the level of ideas: I have needed the time to think about things differently. At times I have wondered whether I wouldn't simply take this whole blog down and start over (or never blog again). My ideas have shifted quite a bit over time, and my reasons for blogging today have very little to do with why I started.

On the other hand, the title of this post shows what I've been thinking about most recently (outside of my professional life, that is). Consciousness, or mind, was the philosophical problem that fascinated me most when I was in college, and as I continue to sift through the intellectual debate that manages to make it to such channels as Ted Talks and Youtube videos, I am led to think that we as a species have made little to no progress on this question.

Modern thinkers would love to have a complete theoretical account of experience, including consciousness. I am inclined to think this is fundamentally impossible. Consciousness is paradoxically reducible and irreducible. By reducible, I mean we seem to be able to explain it in terms of smaller pieces--namely, the neurons which make up the brain. By irreducible, I mean simply that consciousness is the point of access to the whole world. Imagining that my consciousness didn't exist is not simply like imagining that the computer in front of me didn't exist; it's really to imagine that nothing exists.

If the concept of consciousness necessarily contains the idea of self-awareness, then mind need not. The point really isn't whether I'm aware of me, the individual, but whether I'm aware of anything at all. Mind is not that thing which allows me to say, "I exist," but rather that which allows me to confront the fact that something exists. In fact, being self-aware is in some sense a way of diminishing the significance of mind. I realize that the world could go on existing without me, and so it does not seem so dramatic to think that one day all the lights could go out. I am led to believe that when I contemplate mortality, it is only my own mortality, and not the end of the world. Yet that belief, ironically the result of self-awareness, requires a leap of faith in the external world. It is a leap everyone seems to make without thinking, which, I suppose, is to our advantage.

Solipsism, after all, is really not the belief that I am the only conscious being. It is, rather, the annihilation of the concept of I, and indeed of consciousness. It is the most literal possible reading of the external world. Things exist, they have colors and shapes and smells and tastes, they make sounds, they cause feelings. There are also thoughts, images that don't always correspond to light, sounds that don't always correspond to vibrations, feelings that don't always correspond to motion. If ever all the lights go out, and all these smells and tastes and sounds and feelings go away--then nothing will exist. There is no person "out there" to carry on "experiencing" anything.

No one seems to think this. They think of themselves as part of a larger whole. Each of us differentiates "I" from all the rest. It is the most natural act of faith. It allows genuine relationship, the encounter of the other. No amount of bizarre speculation should ever make us want to shrink from that.

Yet if we reflect for a moment on the true nature of solipsism, and then again on the leap of faith we make to avoid it, we might see what an overwhelming and miraculous thing it is for two persons to interact. It is not simply the meeting of two objects in space. It is the meeting of two universes. For if I erase the concept of I, then there really is only one world; yet if I become aware of another who might also do the same, erasing their own concept of I, I see that there are actually two worlds, which then intersect through the exchange of thoughts and feelings. In which case I then must recover my concept of I, because I realize that the "world" as I experience it is only my own, and there are others which may change it or be changed by it.

This is the nature of mind. I still haven't explained why I think we will never have a comprehensive view of mind together with the rest of the world, but I think this is a start.