Why Discrimination Is Reasonable According to Karl Popper

A while ago, I had a discussion with a friend of mine: we were talking about how people from different cultures interacted with each other. My friend claimed – and he was quite serious about it – that ‘All Moroccans are aggressive’. ‘How do you know?”‘ I asked him, ‘Have you met all Moroccans?’. ‘No’, he said, ‘but the ones I’ve met, were all aggressive’. And while he said this, an idea popped into my mind: Karl Popper and his falsification theory. And I came to a rather unexpected conclusion…

You might have heard of Karl Popper. He is a big name in (the history of) philosophy of science. Popper was a proponent of a tenet called ‘critical rationalism‘, and he is best known for the notion of ‘falsifiability‘ he came up with, in which falsifiability refers to ‘the inherent testability of a scientific hypothesis’. Popper used the notion of falsifiability as a criterium to distinguish science from what he called ‘pseudo-science’, in which a pseudo-science would be any possible ‘science’ that makes unfalsifiable claims. An example of an unfalsifiable claim would be: God exists. It is impossible – by means of empirical investigation – to falsify this claim. Therefore, according to Popper, religion, or at least this religious claim, is non-scientific.

Given that there are unfalsifiable claims, there must also be falsifiable claims: an example of the latter which is often used is: All swans are white. You can see why this claim is falsifiable: if you’d come to see one swan that is non-white, this claim has proven to be wrong. And even though you’re unable to prove the claim that ‘All swans are white’ is true, you can prove that it’s not-true – thus falsify it. The presumption underlying the notion of falsifiability is that, as long as a falsifiable claim is not falsified, it should for the time being accepted to be true. There is after all no reason to suppose it is not.

Now, let’s go back to my friend and his seemingly discriminatory beliefs. Because if you take a closer look, it appears that discrimination and falsifiability are two sides of the same coin. Why is that? Well, let’s assume that we would pose the hypothesis that ‘All Moroccans are aggressive’ – like my friend seemed to do. This claim is clearly falsifiable: one non-aggressive Moroccan is sufficient to prove the claim wrong. Now, let’s say we’d go to a bar and meet a few Moroccans. And, as my friend expected, these people are indeed aggressive. Thus far, Popper couldn’t blame my friend for holding on to the claim ‘All Moroccans are aggressive’. After all, the claim hasn’t been falsified yet.

The point being: doesn’t my friend apply the same method as is used in the sciences? Making bold conjectures and, based on data, either refute them or not? We don’t seem to have much of a problem with claiming that all ‘Swans are white, until it has been proven wrong. So why would a different claim applying the same ‘scientific’ methods, when applied to members of our own species, suddenly be discriminating? Isn’t it utterly reasonable to hold on to your claims until they’ve proven to be wrong? Or in the case of my friend: to hold on to his ‘discriminatory belief’?

Note that I am not claiming that discrimination is reasonable in itself. What I am claiming is that we cannot accuse people of holding seemingly unreasonable beliefs if they (these people) haven’t been proven wrong in holding this belief. In other words: although we might have had good experiences with Moroccans, they - my friend, for example – might not. And, given Popper’s theory, this makes their beliefs no less reasonable to hold than ours.

What do you think?

Come On People: Let’s Cut the Crap!

This is a plea against humanity and its deeply ingrained narrow-mindedness.

For as long as we can remember it has been the same old story: people have different beliefs –> people believe that only their beliefs are true –> people feel endangered by other people’s beliefs –> people find it okay to attack those who have different beliefs. This is the ever repeating cycle of human ignorance: a cycle we – apparently – cannot escape. Just when we think we’ve figured it all out, just when we believe peace is within reach, a new group of people takes over control and yells: ‘Listen guys: this is what we’re going to do.’ This is how far we have come as a species, and it pretty much seems like we have reached the limits of our capabilities: we simply cannot do better than this.

Instead of focusing ourselves on the real issues we earthlings could be dealing with, we are too busy feeling insecure and in need of protecting ourselves against other insecure and vulnerable people. While we could be treating each other as part of the same big earthly family, which could help us in protecting ourselves against the vast and unknown universe out there, our perspectives are so limited that we cannot even come to peace with the only ‘intelligent’ creatures we know: ourselves.

When will the time arrive that we will come to comprehend our ignorance and, which is one step further, accept it? Because only by accepting our ignorance will we be able to move on. Only by admitting that we are all the same in our journey through the absurd situation we call ‘life’, can we can shed of our cloaks of pretentiousness and appropriated authority, and come to treat the earth as our own little cosmic garden.

On a cosmic scale, we are nothing more than a group of particle-sized monkeys, fighting each other over whose banana tastes better. And although none of us has any idea of what ‘the best’ banana would taste like, we keep on acting as if we do. I am not going to beg you to throw away your banana, or to acknowledge that ‘taste is just in the tongue of the taster,’ but it would be so much better for all of us if we could just cut the crap and start making some progress. Let’s go people.

Economics Should Return to its Roots

Economics explains how people interact within markets to accomplish certain goals. People; not robots. And people are creatures with desires, animalistic urges that guide them into making conscious – but also unconscious – decisions. That sets them apart from robots, which act solely upon formal rules (If A, then B, etc.). But this difference between humans and robots shouldn’t have to be a problem, right? Not if economics takes into account the fact that humans are biological creatures who (might) have got a free will, an observation which makes their actions undetermined and therefore unable to captured in terms of laws.

It seems fair to say that we all want to increase our utility – in the broadest sense of the word. But do we always know why we want to increase our utility? Don’t we never ‘just want’ to go out, ‘just want’ to buy a new television, ‘just want’ to go on holiday? Yes we do: it seems that – sometimes – we just happen to want things: we don’t know why, we don’t have explicit motives for our desires. And if we – the people having the desires – don’t even know why it is that we do things, how on earth could economists know – let alone capture these actions in laws? That’s only possible if you make assumptions: very limiting assumptions.

Rational choice theory is a framework used within economics to better understand social and economic behavior by means formal modeling. But if this sense of understanding – that is possible only through formalizing humans’ behavior – is only possible by treating humans like robots, what then is, on a conceptual level, the difference between economics and artificial intelligence? Besides that the latter really works with robots and the former seems to assume to work with robots? Robots whose actions are fully predictable and explainable by a set of parameters: speed, vision, greediness etc. Or its formal economic counterpart: humans whose actions are manipulable by changing interest rates, government expenditures, taxes and other parameters that are part of the economic machine. Assuming a mindless creature, following formal rules, makes it possible to capture his intentions in a formal corset. Everything should be dealt with in a formal manner: even uncertainty should be put in mathematical terms. Anything to make sure that we don’t miss out on any of the creature’s shenanigans. Even the ones that are grounded in deep domains of irrationality.

But maybe it’s time to wake up and ask ourselves the question: have we come to forget what that we’re dealing with humans here? That the economy is not a steam engine, robot or any other mindless entity whose actions are fully predictable – let alone explainable. Have we forgotten that economics is a ‘social’ science, a science dealing with products of the human mind, related more to psychology than to mathematics?

It’s understandable that economics wants to position itself as being a ‘genuine’ science, a science that is able to objectively describe the way the world works. A science that wants to show that it is capable of capturing its findings in laws. But why would economics be dependent upon these kind of formalities in order for it to be a science? Isn’t it time for economics to stop being insecure? To realize that it’s beautiful the way it is. Why does it behave like an 18-year old girl, whining and crying about the girls who she thinks are prettier than her? Stop it economics! You’re pretty: be happy with what you are.

But this leads us to the real question: what is economics? Economics is – much like politics – a system created by the interaction between us human beings. A system that – although less explicitly than politics – is founded on the notion of morality: our ideas about what’s right and wrong. It’s no surprise that figures is such as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek have been so influential in economics. They understood what economics was really about: economics is – in the basis – a philosophy of what it means to be a human being, and the fundamental rights that each one of these creatures should have. This ethics is the starting point of their economic systems. And that’s a tradition current economists should try to continue: interweaving morality and money. Keeping an eye on the moral fundamentals underlying markets and coming up with original ideas about how to improve these markets on a moral level. So there’s plenty of work left to do for the genuine economist; not the fake economist.

But what do you think?

Commercials: Not All Publicity is Good Publicity

Commercials: you’re likely to absorb hundreds of them per day via media such as the TV, radio and internet. As I have written about in a previous article, the average person spends 1/24 of his life watching commercials on television. That’s a quite a lot, isn’t it? But I don’t want to focus on the act of wasting our lives by consuming useless material such as commercials. I want to take a look at the effect of commercials, and of marketing in general, on the perception of a company’s brand. Most companies seem to believe that any publicity is good publicity. They seem to think that – no matter how bad a commercial is – it’s always better to have a commercial than to have no commercial at all. But the question is: is this true?

When you’re watching television, and you see a commercial of a brand you’ve never heard of before, what will be the effect of this commercial on your perception of the brand? Marketers seem to think that they’ve increased your ‘awareness‘ of their brand, in the sense that – consciously or not – you now know about the brand‘s existence. And this might very well be true. But then the question would be: is all awareness good awareness? Or can awareness – as created by commercials – lead to a (more) negative (instead of positive) perception of the brand by the customer?

I believe it does. I believe that whenever people see terribly non-funny commercials (as there are plenty of) on television, they associate the brand promoted in the commercial with negative values like neediness, trying hard, pretentiousness, pity and lameness. I believe that the next time these people are in front of a supermarket they’ve just seen in an utterly non-funny (but intended to be funny) commercial, they will think to themselves: ‘Come on, I’m not going to support such a quasi-funny and quasi-happy company’, and they’ll decide to skip the store. Even though these people might have entered the store if they hadn’t watched the commercial, or if the company wouldn’t have produced the commercial in the first place. But now they’ve got all kinds of negative associations with the brand, they decide to skip the store and go to another store – which might have less awareness but still more positive awareness than the supermarket of the commercial. And this goes not only for the supermarket-market, but for any other kind of market as well.

Customers usually don’t care about whether a brand is well-known – note that this doesn’t hold for clothing brands and other products that depend for their value to a large extent on marketing. We just want to buy a particular good or a particular service. And the only thing guiding us to a particular store is our perception of this brand/store. And if this perception is negative – which it very likely might be as a result of a bad commercial – you’d consciously avoid this store, and move to a next one. Even though the particular brand might have put a lot of money into its marketing efforts, they’re worse off than they would have been if they hadn’t launched the commercial.

Of course, marketing – including commercials on television and radio – can have a positive effect on a company’s brand and consequently on the sales of the company’s goods/services. But only if the company markets the relevant aspects of its brand, and not just launches a commercial for the sake of showing how ‘funny’ it is as a supermarket. Most people won’t appreciate that: the intelligent people might feel like they’re being treated like babies, and will therefore consciously avoid the brand, and the less intelligent people might not respond at all to this irrelevant kind of commercials.

If want to get people to your store (or make use of your service), you have to stay close to the product your selling, because that’s where customers are coming for or not coming for. Emphasize your low prices, your current actions/sales or your great service, and skip the bullshit. Then, and only then, can marketing attract – instead of scare away – customers.

But what do you think?

Milton Friedman’s Voucher Plan

More than 30 years ago – in 1979 – Milton Friedman and his wise Rose Friedman published the book Free to Choose, in which they made a (compelling) claim in favor of handing over authority to the free market, and taking it away from the government. The arguments they come up are profoundly grounded in empirical evidence, pointing at the inefficient and unequal spending of tax payers’ money on the ‘big issues’ of society (healthcare, Social Security, public assistance etc.). I want to focus at the expenditures on public education, about which the Friedmans say a lot, and in particular on the immoral and degrading effect this can have on citizens.

We humans are intelligent creatures. Some are – without a doubt – better equipped (mentally) for dealing with the whims of the free market than others, but still almost all of us are reasonably capable of fulfilling our needs in life. We can go the supermarket by ourselves, decide for ourselves what we want to eat for breakfast and dinner, and much more. The government doesn’t have to do this for us. We can decide for ourselves how we want to spend our leisure time: whether we want to go the movies or not. We don’t need the government to decide this for us. Not only because the government cannot know what each one of us wants – therefore inevitably being inefficient in the spending of its – or our – resources – but also because we know that we are intelligent beings, very much capable of making our own decisions in life.

And this intelligence of ours doesn’t have to confine itself to mundane decisions like how to spend our free time. We are equally competent in deciding for ourselves how we want to spend our money on more pressing issues in life: what hospital we want to attend, whether to assist our loved ones financially whenever the need might arise, and what school our children should attend. These issues are of such importance to our well-being – and our children’s – that, instead of putting the government in charge of these decisions, we should be the ones choosing what we consider to be best for our, and our children’s, future.

In 1979, the Friedmans noticed an upward trend in the government taking control of many of these decisions – decisions that, by the way, have a relatively big impact upon our financial resources. The most striking example of this might be the public financing of (elementary, secondary and higher) education. In 1979, the average US citizen paid 2.000 dollars per child that attended public education, even though not everyone’s child – assuming that you even have children – made use of public educational resources. The Friedmans found this state of affairs harming to the right of each individual to decide where to spend his money at, including the option to put one’s child at a privately financed educational institution.

Therefore they came up with a ‘voucher plan': a plan in which every US citizen would – per child they have – get a voucher exchangeable for a certain amount of money – let’s say 2.000 dollars. They could cash in this voucher only if their child would attend an appropriate educational institution. This voucher plan would come in the place of the tax each US citizen is obliged to pay, irrespective of them having children and irrespective of their children attending a public educational institution. This plan would make sure that only the ones making use of pubic educational services would be charged, thereby excluding the non-using part of society.

The Friedmans made – primarily – financial arguments in favor of their voucher plan, saying that – on the whole – public educational costs would remain the same, and that parents would use their increase in autonomy to find the school that best suited the needs of their children. The relatively free market that would be created on the basis of the voucher plan, would improve the quality of both public and private education. I believe, however, that one argument in favor of the voucher plan, and the free market in general, has not received the attention it deserved – at least not in the Friedmans’ Free to Choose. And that argument has to do with human intelligence.

As pointed at above, humans are – for the biggest part – perfectly capable of deciding for themselves where to spend their money at. We wouldn’t want anyone else to do our groceries or schedule our leisure time for us – at least not for (our) money. But that is exactly what the government does when it comes down to public education. The government proclaims that – as the Friedmans explain – it is the only actor possessing the professional knowledge required for deciding what is best for our children – thereby implying that they are indispensable in order for our children to receive a qualitatively good education.

What this claim comes down to is the government saying – or not saying – that we (‘the crowd’) don’t understand what is important and what is not in regard to our children’s education, and that – because of that – they should step in and release us of this impossible duty of ours. We don’t understand what to do, but luckily they do. They are the father looking out for us, protecting us from doing harm to our children and to the rest of society.

I find this an insult to the basic level of intelligence the majority of the people has. We very well believe to know what is important in our children’s education – probably much better than the government, since, in contrast to the government, we know our children. Thus besides all the financial benefits of the voucher plan, by returning autonomy to the Average Joe, a voucher plan is required for respecting people’s intelligence. After all, we are no fools, are we?

What do you think?

Should State Media Stop Sharing Jihadi Propaganda-messages?

On the 23th of September 2014, the Dutch state television broadcasted a video-message of a jihadist in Syria. In this message he calls for his ‘Dutch brothers’ to support him in the war Islamic State fights against – among others – the United States. ‘If you cannot support us by coming to Syria,’ he says, ‘then at least do a severe deed in the Netherlands or Belgium.’

The full message takes 2 minutes and 43 seconds. The Dutch state television’s news-program – which is the most viewed TV-program in the Netherlands – broadcasted around 20 seconds of the message. So there he was: the jihadist in Syria, asking for Dutch people to support IS, and 1 in 8 Dutch people listened to his message. This raises the question: should the state television broadcast such a message? Doesn’t it, by giving a platform to these people, indirectly support these people? And if so, isn’t that weird, given that – at the same time – the Dutch military is fighting these same people in Iraq and Syria? Let’s take a look at these questions.

One could say that the state television shouldn’t do such a thing, because – by doing so – it gives a stage to a group of people that the state opposes. If a government is sending jets to fight a group of people in Syria, then this same government should not allow this same group of people to share its propaganda via the state’s own media. Furthermore, showing such messages – which are often violent in nature – might cause ‘the enemy’ to apply such violent measures again. After all: it worked the first time – in the sense that international media gave them free publicity. So why don’t do it again? This leads to the question: should the government want to support such violence? The obvious answer is: no.

Also, one could say, broadcasting such propaganda might cause messages most of us find wrong to be spread. The reason that a book like Mein Kampf is prohibited from being sold (in the Netherlands at least), is especially for this reason: because these ideas should – according to most of us – be banned from society. And so – one could say – it should be with jihadi messages. Therefore it is wrong for the state television to actively spread these messages.

So it seems clear, right? The state television should not broadcast such messages. But it might not be as clear-cut as it seems. For one could say that every person can think for himself, and that the government – or any news-agency for that matter – does not have to decide what is good or bad for us to hear. We can very well decide this for ourselves, after having heard the message. We are reasonable people, and seeing such a jihadi video-message does not compel us to support the messenger. And even it would compel us, what gives? Aren’t we free to decide who we want to support and who not?

Also, even though the content of the message might be ‘wrong’, it might still be newsworthy, and should therefore be distributed by the media. After all: people might find it interesting to know what is going on in the world around them, and seeing such a message provides them with a better informed perspective on the world. This cannot be wrong, can it?

I find this a difficult matter. What do you think?

Violence against Public Servants: Should It be Punished Harder?

ambulance

Should ambulance personnel receive extra protection from the state?

Ambulance personnel, police officers and firemen: people that, day in and day out, prevent our society from turning into a complete chaos. They support us so that we can live our lives without having to worry about our human rights being infringed upon. But what if these servants themselves become infringed upon their basic human rights? What if they are violated, both mentally and physically? There are governments, including the Dutch one, that have made explicit their intention to punish violence against public servants harder than violence against ‘regular’ (non-public servant) citizens. But, is this decision justified? And, more importantly, why would that be so?

Let’s think about it. You could claim that abusing a public servant is more severe than abusing a regular citizen because, by abusing a public servant, the perpetrator not only violates the rights of the servant but also the rights of the other members of society who are entitled to the services of the servant. After all, attacking the staff of an ambulance not only harms the ambulance workers, but indirectly also the patient that is (supposed to be) treated by these men and women. The same goes for police officers: abusing these men and women not only harms them, but also the citizens waiting to be helped by the police officers. Thus the physical or mental abuse of a public servant not only hurts the servants themselves, but also the citizens who are supposed to be served by the servants. And therefore, you could say, should the abuse of a public servant be punished harder than the abuse of a regular citizen.

Also, by abusing a public servant you are infringing upon what might be the controlling or correcting power of the state, which might be a violation in itself. That is, public servants are appointed to guard the laws we have set as a society, including the law condemning violence against other persons. Therefore, by abusing a pubic servant, you are not only attacking a member of our society, but you also resist the authority (ambulance personnel, police etc.) a (democratic) society has decided should safeguard our rights. Hence, abusing public servants is more wrong than abusing a regular citizen, and thus should be punished harder.

One the other hand, a public servant is just as much human as a regular citizen. Therefore, you could say, should the abuse of a public servant be punished equally hard as the abuse of a regular citizen. There is no reason why the live of a public servant would be worth more than the life of a regular citizen, right? Just because he or she fulfils a certain position within our society? Isn’t someone’s profession totally irrelevant when it comes down to our most fundamental rights, including the right not the abused by others? If that would indeed be the case, then there would be no justification for punishing the abuse of a public servant any differently from the abuse of a regular citizen.

Also, you could say, the abuse of a public servant is in no way a more severe violation against the state and its controlling power than is the abuse of a regular citizen. That is to say that the violation of another person’s well-being is just as much a violation of a fundamental right as would be the violation of the state’s controlling power, and thus should be punished equally hard. After all: the state’s integrity is no more important than any citizen’s integrity. Hence, attacking the former should be punished equally as attacking the latter.

Personally, I believe that both positions are well defensible. However, I consider the first position to be more reasonable. By taking away another person’s right to be saved or defended by a public servant, more parties seem to be hurt in abusing a public servant than in the abuse of what is ‘only’ a regular citizen. And surely, it might not only be a servants’ duty to assist other people when they are in need; you and I might be just as capable in doing that. This might cast doubt on the idea of granting them an extra form of protection. But that doesn’t change the fact that a public servant is explicitly appointed to fulfil this duty within our society; and that might have to be taken into account.

But what do you think?

What Is the Value of a Human Life?

People are getting older and older and demand better and better (medical) care. Also, advancements in technology and medical knowledge allow what once seemed to be incurable illnesses to be cured – or at least treated. These trends result in an ever increasing rise in the medical expenditures of countries. This begs the question: how far should we go in saving a patient’s life? What is the value of a human life? Should we be prepared to save someone at all costs? Or should we think about the financial consequences of our decisions? And if so, what is the (financial) limit?

There are several ways in which this question can be answered. One response would be that we should go as far as possible in trying to save a person’s life. That is, as far as possible given the boundaries set by our medical and technological knowledge. And although this might cost us (as a society) a lot of money, the money spent on saving a person’s life is nothing compared to the value gained by prolonging their stay on our planet; the emotional gain experienced by the person – and not to forget his family – is of an extraordinary value: a value that can impossibly be expressed in terms of money. Therefore any means available should be employed in order to let people experience (an extension of) life.

However, given that the value of a human life would be ‘impossible to express in terms of money’, why then should we come to the conclusion that – because of that – we should be prepared to save a person’s life at all costs? Wouldn’t that be a rather arbitrary decision? After all, given that (human) life is of a such value that it is inexpressible in terms of money, why then even bother to make the transition to talk about costs? If a human life would truly be invaluable, it would be just as nonsensical to talk about trying to save a person’s life at all cost as it would be to say that we shouldn’t be prepared to pay any money in order to do so, right? The value of life is after all of an entirely different dimension; irreducible to monetary terms in any sense – no matter whether this value is in millions or pennies.

Well, that seems a little radical, doesn’t it? Another option would be to say that we should go as far as could be considered economically reasonable. In welfare countries where civilians have to pay relatively high taxes, that for a huge part are gobbled by the nation’s medical expenses, it seems fair to not only think in the interests of the patient and his family but to also consider the economic prospects of the relevant patient. After all: would it be reasonable for society to pay a huge sum of money to save someone’s life, while the person being saved might be unable to ‘repay’ (in terms of making an economic contribution to society) the medical expenses in any sense? From a purely utilitarian viewpoint, this seems to be an unwise (and even a wrong) decision. Surely, it might be ‘fair’ to save the person’s life, in the sense that the person probably has paid taxes all his life (taxes that were used for paying the medical treatments of others). But that doesn’t change the fact that, at this point in time, it would be unprofitable/utility-degrading to pay for the patient’s treatment.

A solution to cover this seemingly unfair attitude – although it might sound counter-intuitive – would be to make people decide for themselves how much they are prepared to pay for saving a patient’s life. Subsequently, it would be this amount of money that the person would contribute (in the form of taxes) for covering the country’s medical expenses. However, the other side of this plan would be that, whenever the tax payer himself would have to be treated in hospital, this person’s treatment costs will be compared with the amount of money he contributed to society for covering its medical expenditures/saving a person’s life. Based upon this comparison will be decided whether or not the person should be treated. When the contribution-fee is decided upfront – before the person ‘officially’ enters society (let’s say at the age of 18) – no conflict of interests can occur, and everyone’s wishes are taken into account.

A totally different option would be to shove the full responsibility for covering one’s medical expenditures down to someone’s own wallet: to make people pay for their own medical costs. After all: who would mind a person spending thousands of dollars coming from his own pocket? No-one I suppose. Unless, of course, this person is you. Because what to do if you don’t have the money required to cover your medical expenses? It doesn’t seem fair to let you die just because you haven’t earned as much money as the richest ten percent of the population, right? However, even if you would be the person becoming sick and having to pay for your own medical costs, you might still consider this libertarian attitude towards ‘paying my own costs’ to be the true righteous manner to live your life.

It is in no way an easy question. It is about much more than medical costs/finance: it’s about values/ethics, which implies that there is likely to be no definite answer to this question.

But what do you think?

Religion and The Absurd

There are times at which I envy religious people. Their sense of determination, of knowing where all of this is about and what to do with it, can seem very alluring at times. Like it can really put your mind at ease. And why wouldn’t it? After all, religious people always know that, no matter what they are faced with in life, they will always be able to come up with an explanation that is 100 percent bulletproof. An explanation that always points to the one single source of everything. Down to God himself. That truly must be a peaceful mindset, right?

Wrong. Reality contradicts this assumption. For it seems fair to say that religions, or differences in religion, are an important – if not the most important – cause of war in this world of ours. And since war is – by definition – not peaceful, it is fair to say that not all theists experience peaceful consequences through adhering to their religion.

But this article is not an attempt to criticize religion. This article zooms in at the different positions regarding religion, and the reasonableness – or unreasonableness – of each.

Teapot
First of all atheism. I have established that I am not an atheist. For to be an atheist, one must reject to believe in the existence of deities. And I most certainly do not reject believing in deities. At least: not as long as it is someone else who does the believing; not me, for I don’t believe in any deity.

Neither do I consider myself to be an agnostic. An agnostic claims that one will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of deities. Therefore one should postpone judgement (possibly indefinitely) about the existence of any deity. Agnosticism as thus defined doesn’t seem to be unreasonable. However, it leaves one with an unwanted consequence, being: one can reflect only on those entities that definitely do or definitely do not exist.

Let me clarify this. Suppose I say that – somewhere in space – there is a teapot floating around. The existence of this teapot can neither be proved nor disproved. Should we hence be agnostic about its existence? This seems unreasonable, for we might have reasons to suppose that the existence of such a teapot is extremely improbable. But notions such as probability do not make any sense from an agnostic point of view. For how can something be more or less probable, given the fundamental assumption that one cannot make any reasonable judgement about the existence of entities that cannot be proved or disproved? If the latter would be true, one cannot talk about probability; for probability – or at least everything between 0 and 100 percent – is not absolute like a proof or disproof. If one cannot accept this consequence, one should not be an agnostic.

But then the unavoidable question pops up: what then am I? Is there a group of like-minded people I belong to? Is there a religion or a philosophy that suits my particular ideas and intuitions? Or am I forever doomed to wander around lonely on this earth of ours, searching for my very own, not yet formulated, views on life?

Baby Jesus
The answer is no. Because recently something special happened: my very own baby Jesus was born. My lord and saviour. While surfing on the internet, I stumbled upon the philosophical position called ‘absurdism’, and I was hooked right away. What is absurdism? The best way to explain it, is to zoom in at its fundamental notion: the Absurd. The ‘Absurd’ refers to ‘the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any’. Note that absurdism does not consider it to be ‘logically impossible’ to find meaning in life; it just considers it ‘humanly impossible’ to do so. That is a subtle but very important distinction. It is this distinction that implies that, even though there might be an absolute meaning of life floating around somewhere in this universe of ours, we – simple human beings of flesh and blood – will never be able to find it.

And that’s it, right? We simply cannot come to know how things ‘truly’ are, including the ‘true meaning’ of life. We are doomed to live within the boundaries of our own little worlds. We are unable to trade our points of view for any other humanly conceivable point of view. The latter implies that we can never come to an absolute grasp of ‘the truth'; supposing that such a thing would exist. Surely: if everyone would develop the same beliefs about what is true and what is not, about what is right and what is not, seemingly universal ideas tend to emerge. But the question we must then ask ourselves is: were these ideas universal before people considered them to be so? Or did they become universal because everyone believed them?

Meaning
A note of caution is in place. For an absurdist does not always lead a happy life. There is always one major danger hiding in the corner. Absurdism implies the absolute freedom of humanity, the non-existence of any shackles besides the ones we have created ourselves. But sometimes this destined freedom of ours conflicts with what is the human longing for certainty. A longing to know how things truly are; a need to know who or what is behind all this craziness we call life. Absurdism claims that we cannot come to know these certainties. And when this observation strikes, it strikes hard: a feeling of powerlessness tends to take control over our minds and bodies. That’s an inevitable consequence of appreciating the Absurd.

But then, a little later, when you get yourself together, and taste again of the juices of total meaninglessness, of total freedom, you realize that you have found true love after all. You will realize that it is the only path leading to something that at times comes close to meaning. For even though the absurdist knows that he will not find any absolute meaning of life, it is in the very act of trying to find it, that he finds fulfilment. The fulfilment he is longing for. The fulfilment he proudly calls life.

Have you ever thought about what your most fundamental beliefs are? Upon what beliefs you have built your life? And have you ever asked yourself why those are the beliefs that have the authority to determine the remainder of your framework of beliefs?

But what do you think?

Why You Should Always Respect the Dustman

I have been a dustman for a while. And even though my stay in the ‘dustman-community”’ was short, I was long enough to become overwhelmed by the disrespect these people receive from their fellow species members. People are yelling things at them. People are telling them how shitty their job is. People treat them like the true pieces of garbage. I was wondering what the dustmen themselves were thinking about their profession. Were they also disgusted about what they were doing? I decided to ask them.

And this is what they told me: they absolutely loved what they were doing. They were proud of being the dustman of district x or district y. They took care of the streets that fell under their supervision. These were after all their streets, and their streets should not be dirty. One of the dustmen told me very proudly about his dustmen-crew. He said that, within the dustmen-community, his crew could be compared to FC Barcelona; that’s how well they anticipated each other’s actions. Dustman A knew exactly that, when Dustman B grabbed on to a new dustbin, he should be in the process of taking away his bin.

So it seems that people differ, to say the least, in what they like and what they don’t like to do for a living. And that’s a good thing, right? Of course it is. Because the fact that each one of us wants to do something different for a living makes that all the jobs that are required to keep our society functioning are filled. If everyone wanted to become a big time actor, no-one would be cleaning the streets of Hollywood. At least, not for a while. Because the demand for dustmen, and therefore the wages, would increase sooner or later thanks to the ‘beautiful’ mechanisms of the free market.

Also, the fact that people appreciate different ways to make their money provides you and me with the opportunity to make a unique contribution to this world of ours. And – I believe – it is only if you do what you like to do that you are likely to put the most effort in doing it. And, subsequently, it is only when you put serious effort into doing something that you are likely to make a difference. And it the ambition to ‘make a difference’, whether it is by cleaning the streets or by writing an article, that gives that feeling of happiness and fulfilment we are all so desperately longing for.

The moral of this story should be clear: never disrespect anyone or feel pity for anyone because of what they do for a living. Remember that (hopefully) most of us are doing something that we like to do. Be thankful for whatever their contribution to society might be, since it is because of their contribution that you and I can do the job that we like to do. Whatever that might be.

But what do you think?

How to Justify Consequentialism Without Pointing at the Consequences?

What makes an action good or bad? People adhering to deontological ethics judge the morality of their actions based on whether their actions follow certain rules. ‘You should not kill’, ‘You should not steal’ and ‘You should not lie’ are examples of such rules. On the other end there are people who say that ‘ the ends justify the means’, and that the rightness or wrongness of an action is ultimately based on the outcomes of the action. ‘You may lie if the damage caused to the person you lie to is negligible in comparison to the utility you gain/the dis-utility you prevent from happening’ could be an example. The latter position is an instance of a the broader position of consequentialism

So: what position to choose? Should you base your conduct on absolute rules, or should you weigh the expected outcomes of actions in order to decide what action is the right one to take? One could say that it is reasonable to judge each case on its own merits. That it does not make sense to hold on to the rule ‘You should not lie’, because in some cases lying might be ‘better’ – in whatever sense defined – for both you and the person you lie too. For example: suppose your father is lying on his deathbed. You have just heard that your sister – the apple of your dad’s eye – got cancer. Given that you know that your dad cares an awful lot about your sister, and that telling about your sister’s situation is likely to worsen his health, it might in fact be bad – in terms outcomes – to tell him about your sister’s situation. Furthermore, given your own happiness, it might be better not to say anything (saving you the painful outcome of seeing your dad suffer from the news). Hence one could reasonably say that there are instances, such as this example, that falsify an absolute rule of conduct – ‘You should not lie,’ in this case. That implies that deontological ethics is not necessarily – or not always – the best stance to adopt.

That brings us to consequentialism: might this be a more reasonable position to adopt? In order to reasonably claim so, one should at least come up with a reasonable answer to the following question: how can you base your conduct on the outcomes of your actions if you don’t know what the consequences of your actions will be? We can – after all – not look into the future, hence we cannot know what the consequences of our actions will be. You could – for example – think that your girlfriend would not mind it if you’d post a photo of you and another girl on your social media (‘because she is so reasonable’), but it might turn out that, contrary to your expectation, she does. You can of course have expectations, but are expectations sufficient to ground moral conduct? After all, each case is unique – each case has innumerable factors that influence the outcome of one’s action. Hence even coming up with a reasonable expectation might – a priori – be impossible.

A more fundamental problem with consequentialism might be the premise on which the doctrine is based: something along the lines of ‘An action is good if its outcomes are good’. It seems that this rule – which forms the foundation of the consequentialist position – is, by definition, deontological in nature. But what then justifies this rule? If the reason would be that adopting this rule is good because it leads to the best outcomes, then we are justifying consequentialism with consequentialism, which seems intolerable. On the other hand, if we take this rule to be applied without looking at its expected outcomes, then we are deriving consequentialism – at least in part – from deontological ethics, which could cast doubt on whether one is actually applying consequentialism instead of deontological ethics.

I find this a difficult issue. What do you think?

P.S. For the sake of the length of this article, I left out pragmatic ethics. This seems to be a middle ground between deontological ethics and consequentialism that could be reasonable.

Why Economics is No Less Scientific than Physics

‘Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting.’ Spoken by Ernest Rutherford, Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry. This is a rather extreme view, but it is not uncommon among (primarily) natural scientists. It grabs on to an intuition many have, even in the academic philosophy of science community, that physics is the science, and that other disciplines – especially social sciences – are not. But let’s ask ourselves the question: is this true? Does physics have any special access to the truth that – let’s say – economics does not?

Let’s try to answer these questions. First of all, one has to separate the theoretical parts of physics and economics, from their empirical counterparts. Just like there is theoretical physics, there is ‘theoretical economics’ – although the latter is usually denoted by the more encompassing (and therefore misleading) term ‘economics’. Both theoretical fields try to construct logical or mathematical frameworks – possibly modelling the external world – and derive logical implications from accepting certain principles (the ‘laws’ of the framework). The prime difference is that economics takes individuals as its domain of analysis, while physics takes nature.

Now, let’s look at the empirical counterparts of physics and economics. Both experimental physicists and behavioural economists (a subset of the set ‘experimental economists’) do one thing and one thing only: set up hypotheses, gather data, compare the implications of the hypotheses with the data, and either confirm or refute the hypotheses based on their accordance with these implications. Hence the method applied in both experimental fields is the same. So now we have that the methods applied in both the theoretical and the experimental parts of physics and economics – and hence the whole of the two disciplines- are the same.

Now, given that the method applied is the same, how then could economics be any less scientific than physics? It might be true that physics has a longer history, and is – in that sense – more ‘mature’ than economics. But being more mature does not imply being more scientific. After all: many religions are more mature than physics: does that imply that many religions are more scientific than religion? Of course not.

It is then because there are laws in physics but not in economics? Well, it is true that physics has laws, such as the Law of Universal Gravitation, stating the acceleration of an object caused by the force of gravitation. But economics has laws too; the most well-known being the Law of Supply and Demand. One could say that the latter is not really a law, because it is only true ceteris paribus; that is, if all other conditions – besides the supply and demand of a particular good – remain constant. But isn’t this true for physics as well? In order for the Law of Universal Gravitation to hold, one should neglect such frictions as air resistance. So it appears that, whether it is in economics or physics, there are certain conditions one puts forward in order for laws to be experimentally accurate: neglecting air resistance in the case of physics, neglecting other factors – changes in cost of production, technological innovation etc. – in the case of economics. So the two fields do not seem to differ in that respect either.

Hence it is seems that the only difference between physics and economics, is its domain of study. But can the object of study really determine whether some field is more scientific than another? And if so, why would that be? It cannot be because physics’s object is more natural, because there is nothing unnatural about individuals; individuals are part of the world we live in, just like atomic particles, gravity and radioactivity.

Hence, given all of the above, there is does not seem to be any compelling argument for the claim that economics is less scientific than physics. Sorry mister Rutherford.

But what do you think?