the difference between human and artificial intelligence: relationships

A large-language model (LLM) like ChatGPT works by identifying trends and patterns in huge bodies of text previously generated by human beings.

For instance, we are currently staying in Cornwall. If I ask ChatGPT what I should see around here, it suggests St Ives, Land’s End, St Michael’s Mount, and seven other highlights. It derives these ideas from frequent mentions in relevant texts. The phrases “Cornwall,” “recommended” (or synonyms thereof), “St Ives,” “charming,” “art scene,” and “cobbled streets” probably occur frequently in close proximity, because ChatGPT uses them to construct a sentence for my edification.

We human beings behave in a somewhat similar way. We also listen to or read a lot of human-generated text, look for trends and patterns in it, and repeat what we glean. But if that is what it means to think, then LLM has clear advantages over us. A computer can scan much more language than we can and uses statistics rigorously. Our generalizations suffer from notorious biases. We are more likely to recall ideas we have seen most recently, those that are most upsetting, those that confirm our prior assumptions, etc. Therefore, we have been using artificial means to improve our statistical inferences ever since we started recording possessions and tallying them by category thousands of years ago.

But we also think in other ways. Specifically, as intensely social and judgmental primates, we frequently scan our environments for fellow human beings whom we can trust in specific domains. A lot of what we believe comes from what a relatively small number of trusted sources have simply told us.

In fact, to choose what to see in Cornwall, I looked at the recommendations in The Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. I have come to trust those sources over the years–not for every kind of guidance (they are not deeply scholarly), but for suggestions about what to see and how to get to those places. Indeed, both publications offer lists of Cornwall’s highlights that resemble ChatGPT’s.

How did these publishers obtain their knowledge? First, they hired individuals whom they trusted to write about specific places. These authors had relevant bodily experience. They knew what it feels like to walk along a cliff in Cornwall. That kind of knowledge is impossible for a computer. But these authors didn’t randomly walk around the county, recording their level of enjoyment and reporting the places with the highest scores. Even if they had done that, the sites they would have enjoyed most would have been the ones that they had previously learned to understand and value. They were qualified as authors because they had learned from other people: artists, writers, and local informants on the ground. Thus, by reading their lists of recommendations, I gain the benefit of a chain of interpersonal relationships: trusted individuals who have shared specific advice with other individuals, ending with the guidebook authors whom I have chosen to consult.

In our first two decades of life, we manage to learn enough that we can go from not being able to speak at all to writing books about Cornwall or helping to build LLMs. Notably, we do not accomplish all this learning by storing billions of words in our memories so that we can analyze the corpus for patterns. Rather, we have specific teachers, living or dead.

This method for learning and thinking has drawbacks. For instance, consider the world’s five biggest religions. You probably think that either four or five of them are wrong about some of their core beliefs, which means that you see many billions of human beings as misguided about some ideas that they would call very important. Explaining why they are wrong, from an outsider’s perspective, you might cite their mistaken faith in a few deeply trusted sources. In your opinion, they would be better off not trusting their scriptures, clergy, or people like parents who told them what to believe.

(Or perhaps you think that everyone sees the same truth in their own way. That’s a benign attitude and perhaps the best one to hold, but it’s incompatible with what billions of people think about the status of their own beliefs.)

Our tendency to believe select people may be an excellent characteristic, since the meaning of life is more about caring for specific other humans than obtaining accurate information. But we do benefit from knowing truths, and our reliance on fallible human sources is a source of error. However, LLMs can’t fully avoid that problem because they use text generated by people who have interests and commitments.

If I ask ChatGPT “Who is Jesus Christ?” I get a response that draws exclusively from normative Christianity but hedges it with this opening language: “Jesus Christ is a central figure in Christianity. He is believed to be … According to Christian belief. …” I suspect that ChatGPT’s answers about religious topics have been hard-coded to include this kind of disclaimer and to exclude skeptical views. Otherwise, a statistical analysis of text about Jesus might present the Christian view as true or else incorporate frequent critiques of Christianity, either of which would offend some readers.

In contrast, my query about Cornwall yields confident and unchallenged assessments, starting with this: “Cornwall is a beautiful region located in southwestern England, known for its stunning coastline, picturesque villages, and rich cultural heritage.” This result could be prefaced with a disclaimer, e.g., “According to many English people and Anglophiles who choose to write about the region, Cornwall is …:” A ChatGPT result is always a summary of what a biased sample of people have thought, because choosing to write about something makes you unusual.

For human beings who want to learn the truth, having new tools that are especially good at scanning large bodies of text for statistical patterns should prove useful. (Those who benefit will probably include people who have selfish or even downright malicious goals.) But we have already learned a fantastic amount without LLMs. The secret of our success is that our brains have always been networked, even when we have lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers. We intentionally pass ideas to other people and are often pretty good at deciding whom to believe about what.

Moreover, we have invented incredibly complex and powerful techniques for improving how many brains are connected. Posing a question to someone you know is helpful, but attending a school, reading an assigned book, finding other books in the library, reading books translated from other languages, reading books that summarize previous books, reading those summaries on your phone–these and many other techniques dramatically extend our reach. Prices send signals about supply and demand; peer-review favors more reliable findings; judicial decisions allow precedents to accumulate; scientific instruments extend our senses. These are not natural phenomena; we have invented them.

Seen in that context, LLMs are the latest in a long line of inventions that help human beings share what they know with each other, both for better and for worse.

See also: the design choice to make ChatGPT sound like a human; artificial intelligence and problems of collective action; how intuitions relate to reasons: a social approach; the progress of science.

analytical moral philosophy as a way of life

(These thoughts are prompted by Stephen Mulhall’s review of David Edmonds’ book, Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality, but I have not read that biography or ever made a serious study of Derek Parfit.)

The word “philosophy” is ancient and contested and has labeled many activities and ways of life. Socrates practiced philosophy when he went around asking critical questions about the basis of people’s beliefs. Marcus Aurelius practiced philosophy when he meditated daily on well-worn Stoic doctrines of which he had made a personal collection. The Analects of Confucius may be “a record of how a group of men gathered around a teacher with the power to elevate [and] created a culture in which goals of self-transformation were treated as collaborative projects. These people not only discussed the nature of self-cultivation but enacted it as a relational process in which they supported one another, reinforced their common goals, and served as checks on each other in case they went off the path, the dao” (David Wong).

To practice philosophy, you don’t need a degree (Parfit didn’t complete his), and you needn’t be hired and paid to be a philosopher. However, it’s a waste of the word to use it for activities that aren’t hard and serious.

Today, most actual moral philosophers are basically humanities educators. We teach undergraduates how to read, write, and discuss texts at a relatively high level. Most of us also become involved in administration, seeking and allocating resources for our programs, advocating for our discipline and institutions, and serving as mentors.

Those are not, however, the activities implied by the ideal of analytic moral philosophy. In that context, being a “philosopher” means making arguments in print or oral presentations. A philosophical argument is credited to a specific individual (or, rarely, a small team of co-authors). It must be original: no points for restating what has already been said. It should be general. Philosophy does not encompass exercises of practical reasoning (deciding what to do about a thorny problem). Instead, it requires justifying claims about abstract nouns, like “justice,” “happiness,” or “freedom.” And an argument should take into consideration all the relevant previous points published by philosophers in peer-reviewed venues. The resulting text or lecture is primarily meant for philosophers and students of philosophy, although it may reach other audiences as well.

Derek Parfit held a perfect job for this purpose. As a fellow of All Souls College, he had hardly any responsibilities other than to write philosophical arguments and was entitled to his position until his mandatory retirement. He did not have to obtain support or resources for his work. He did not have to deliberate with other people and then decide what to say collectively. Nor did he have to listen to undergraduates and laypeople express their opinions about philosophical issues. (Maybe he did listen to them–I would have to read the biography to find out–but I know that he was not obliged to do so. He could choose to interact only with highly prestigious peers.)

Very few other people hold similar roles: the permanent faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study, the professors of the Collège de France, and a few others. Such opportunities could be expanded. In fact, in a robust social welfare state, anyone can opt not to hold a job and can instead read and write philosophy, although whether others will publish or read their work is a different story. But whether this form of life is worthy of admiration and social support is a good question–and one that Parfit was not obliged to address. He certainly did not have to defend his role in a way that was effective, persuading a real audience. His fellowship was endowed.

Mulhall argues that Parfit’s way of living a philosophical life biased him toward certain views of moral problems. Parfit’s thought experiments “strongly suggest that morality is solely or essentially a matter of evaluating the outcomes of individual actions–as opposed to, say, critiquing the social structures that deeply shape the options between which individuals find themselves having to choose. … In other words, although Parfit’s favoured method for pursuing and refining ethical thinking presents itself as open to all whatever their ethical stance, it actually incorporates a subtle but pervasive bias against approaches to ethics that don’t focus exclusively or primarily on the outcomes of individual actions.”

Another way to put this point is that power, persuasion, compromise, and strategy are absent in Parfit’s thought, which is instead a record of what one free individual believed about what other free individuals should do.

I am quite pluralistic and inclined to be glad that Parfit lived the life he did, even as most other people–including most other moral philosophers–live and think in other ways. Even if Parfit was biased (due to his circumstances, his chosen methods and influences, and his personal proclivities) in favor of certain kinds of questions, we can learn from his work.

But I would mention other ways of deeply thinking about moral matters that are also worthy and that may yield different kinds of insights.

You can think on your own about concrete problems rather than highly abstract ones. Typically the main difficulty is not defining the relevant categories, such as freedom or happiness, but rather determining what is going on, what various people want, and what will happen if they do various things.

You can introduce ethical and conceptual considerations to elaborate empirical discussions of important issues.

You can deliberate with other people about real decisions, trying to persuade your peers, hearing what they say, and deciding whether to remain loyal to the group or to exit from it if you disagree with its main direction.

You can help to build communities and institutions of various kinds that enable their members to think and decide together over time.

You can identify a general and relatively vague goal and then develop arguments that might persuade people to move in that direction.

You can strive to practice the wisdom contained in clichés: ideas that are unoriginal yet often repeated because they are valid. You can try to build better habits alone or in a group of people who hold each other accountable.

You can tentatively derive generalizations from each of these activities, whether or not you choose to publish them.

Again, as a pluralist, I do not want to suppress or marginalize the style that Parfit exemplified. I would prefer to learn from his work. But my judgment is that we have much more to learn from the other approaches if our goal is to improve the world. That is because the hard question is usually not “How should things be?” but rather “What should we do?”

See also: Cuttings: A book about happiness; the sociology of the analytic/continental divide in philosophy; does doubting the existence of the self tame the will?

whom to engage: stakeholders, citizens, activists or the community?

Here are four common ways of talking about who should be engaged in decision-making or collective work. Each approach has significant drawbacks.

DefinitionWho decides who they are?Drawbacks
Stakeholders People with specific, identifiable, relevant knowledge, power, commitment or vulnerability. The organizers of a process identify the stakeholders.The organizers retain power and discretion. The process favors people with special “stakes,” who may not represent everyone.
CitizensAll adults who are recognized by the authorities as full members of the jurisdiction, e.g., a country. Normatively, all adult residents have claims to be citizens. In practice, the definition reflects power.One person/one vote does not reflect the real distribution of influence and interests. Realistically, specific stakeholders will set the agenda. Also, people who are not citizens may have valid stakes.
ActivistsMembers of social movements who have obtained visibility and influence through their struggles.Activists identify themselves. However, an individual may not be accepted by a given group and may not then be heard.Since a movement is usually defined by its stance, it cannot represent people with alternative views or those who are neutral or agnostic.
The communityMembers of an affected group who are outside of the system that organizes the process. For instance, the police consider civilians to be the community. Professors consider non-academics to be the community. For the state, the police and the university might be parts of the community.Usually, someone with authority defines the community as an “other.”The abstract idea of a community often devolves to leaders and staff of NGOs or social-movement activists. People who have formal titles may define themselves out of the community, which is a mistake.
The oppressed or marginalized, sometimes named “The People” in left-wing discourse.Members of social groups who are and have been subject to violence, discrimination, dispossession, etc.People with influence over the discourse–perhaps including those who are themselves oppressed. (But usually, powerful people do most of the talking.)A negative definition can be patronizing. Defining someone else as oppressed does not empower them.

See also: citizens, stakeholders, publics, interest groups?; problems with “stakeholders”; and Levine P. (2022), Social Movements and Stakeholder Engagement. In: Lerner D., Palm M.E., Concannon T.W. (eds) Broadly Engaged Team Science in Clinical and Translational Research. Springer

defining state, nation, regime, government

As a political philosopher by training, and now political scientist by appointment, I have long been privately embarrassed that I am not sure how to define “state,” “government,” “regime,” and “nation.” On reflection, these words are used differently in various academic contexts. To make things more complicated, the discussion is international, and we are often dealing with translations of words that don’t quite match up across languages.

For instance, probably the most famous definition of “the state” is from Max Weber’s Politics as Vocation (1919). He writes:

Staat ist diejenige menschliche Gemeinschaft, welche innerhalb eines bestimmten Gebietes – dies: das „Gebiet“, gehört zum Merkmal – das Monopol legitimer physischer Gewaltsamkeit für sich (mit Erfolg) beansprucht.

[The] state is the sole human community that, within a certain territory–thus: territory is intrinsic to the concept–claims a monopoly of legitimate physical violence for itself (successfully).

Everyone translates the keyword here as “state,” not “government.” But this is a good example of how words do not precisely match across languages. The English word “government” typically means the apparatus that governs a society. The German word commonly translated as “government” (“der Regierung“) means an administration, such as “Die Regierung von Joe Biden” or a Tory Government in the UK. (In fact, later in the same essay, Weber uses the word Regierung that way while discussing the “typical figure of the ‘grand vizier'” in the Middle East.) Since “government” has a wider range of meanings in English, it wouldn’t be wrong to use it to translate Weber’s Staat.

Another complication is Weber’s use of the word Gemeinschaft inside his definition of “the State.” This is a word with such specific associations that it is occasionally used in English in place of our vaguer word “community.” A population is not a Gemeinschaft, but a tight association can be. Thus to translate Weber’s phrase as “A state is a community …” is misleading.

For Americans, a “state” naturally means one of our fifty subnational units, but in Germany those are Länder (cognate with “lands”). The word “state” derives from the Latin status, which is as “vague a word as ratio, res, causa” (Paul Shorey, 1910) but can sometimes mean a constitution or system of government. Cognates of that Latin word end up as L’État, el Estado and similar terms that have a range of meanings, including the subnational units of Mexico and Brazil. In 1927, Mussolini said, “Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato (“Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”). I think he basically meant that he was in charge of everything he could get his hands on. Louis XIV is supposed to have said “L’État c’est moi,” implying that he was the government (or the nation?), but that phrase may be apocryphal; an early documented use of L’État to mean the national government dates to 1799. In both cases, the word’s ambiguity is probably one reason it was chosen.

“Regime” can have a negative connotation in English, but political theorists typically use it to mean any government plus such closely related entities as the press and parties and prevailing political norms and traditions. Regimes can be legitimate, even excellent.

If these words are used inconsistently in different contexts, then we can define them for ourselves, as long as we are clear about our usage. I would tend to use the words as follows:

  • A government: either the legislative, executive, and judicial authority of any entity that wields significant autonomous political power (whether it’s territorial or not), or else a specific group that controls that authority for a time. By this definition, a municipality, the European Union, and maybe even the World Bank may be a government.

(A definitional challenge is deciding what counts as “political” power. A company, a church, a college, an insurgent army, or a criminal syndicate can wield power and can use some combination of legislative, executive, and/or judicial processes to make its own decisions. Think of canon law in the Catholic Church or an HR appeals processes inside a corporation. Weber would say that the fundamental question is whether an entity’s power depends on its own monopolistic use of legitimate violence. For instance, kidnapping is a violent way to extract money, but it does not pretend to be legitimate and it does not monopolize violence. Taxation is a political power because not paying your taxes can ultimately land you, against your will, in a prison that presents itself as an instrument of justice. Not paying a private bill can also land you in jail, but that’s because the government chooses to enforce contracts. Your creditor is not a political entity; the police force is. However, when relationships between a government and private entities are close, or when legitimacy is controversial, or when–as is typical–governments overlap, these distinctions can be hard to maintain and defend.)

  • A state: a government plus the entities that it directly controls, such as the military, police, or public schools. For example, it seems most natural to say that a US government controls the public schools, but not that a given school is part of the government. Instead, it is part of the state. Likewise, an army can be in tension with the government, yet both are components of the state.
  • A regime: the state plus all non-state entities that are closely related to it, e.g., political parties, the political media, and sometimes the national clergy, powerful industries, etc. We can also talk about abstract characteristics, such as political culture and values, as components of a regime. A single state may change its regime, abruptly or gradually.
  • A country: a territory (not necessarily contiguous) that has one sovereign state. It may have smaller components that also count as governments but not as countries.
  • A nation: a category of people who are claimed (by the person who is using this word) to deserve a single state that reflects their common identity and interests. Individuals can be assigned to different nations by different speakers.
  • A nation-state: a country with a single functioning and autonomous state whose citizens widely see themselves as constituting a single nation. Some countries are not nations, and vice-versa. People may disagree about whether a given country is a nation-state, depending on which people they perceive to form a nation.

See also: defining capitalism; avoiding a sharp distinction between the state and the private sphere; the regime that may be crumbling; what republic means, revisited etc.

reflections on modern Granada (Spain)

We’re leaving Granada tomorrow after living here for three months. My limited Spanish and a certain shyness have prevented me from learning a lot about contemporary life here. I feel better informed about the distant past than the present. Nevertheless, I’ll venture a few observations and hypotheses.

For those who have not seen it, the most salient feature of Granada is its beauty. The castle-palace of the Alhambra caps one hill, but around that romantic building are bigger summits, and the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas form the backdrop. Whitewashed houses with flowering gardens and little squares cascade down the hill of the Albaizin, where we lived. On the plain below are fine boulevards, marble-paved squares, and baroque domes.

Granada is not a big city. The population of the municipality is only 230,000. Although some legally protected green space has been lost, farmland and wooded hills remain in view. The university enrolls about 60,000 students, not concentrated on one campus but distributed through several neighborhoods. Numerous foreign students either visit the university or study Spanish in private schools. As a result, the population is quite youthful and informal. Hardly a business suit is seen.

Since three million people visit the Alhambra each year, the city is full of tourists. A substantial portion are Spanish, but Granada also draws people from the rest of the world, ranging from backpackers to bourgeois families to big tour groups. And there are many expats and some refugees. No particular foreign language dominates.

Andalusia is still fairly poor and dominated by agriculture. The region’s per capita GDP is $18,500, similar to Sicily’s and much lower than $42,000 for the EU as a whole. Many rural people moved to Granada in the postwar period and settled in neighborhoods like El Zaidin, where, apparently, conditions were at first pretty rough. I have walked through every part of the city proper and found all the streets pleasant: bustling, clean, safe, and well served by public transportation (including a brand-new subway line) and other facilities. Perhaps some of the apartments are small.

Rural life usually feels far away, but not always. We could regularly hear a burro bray from our house, and once we watched a man herd his goats up a nearby street.

Granada retains a small-town feel under the surface. On the bus that I often used to take home, the older clientele would frequently greet each other by name. People walk their dogs off-leash and leave them to wait outside of stores. Many enjoy a paseo in the late afternoon.

For me, a rough indicator of globalization is the variety of food. In Granada’s supermarkets, virtually all of the ingredients are meant for Andalusian dishes or Italian-style pizza and pasta. Except in the biggest “Ipermercado” and one little shop owned by a South Asian man, stores typically offer a single shelf with a few bottles of soy sauce and some “Old El Paso”-brand seasoning as their only foreign ingredients. Likewise, 98 percent of the city’s many restaurants offer Andalusian menus with very similar dishes. The situation is completely different in Madrid, where one can buy ingredients or cooked meals from anywhere in the world.

The previous paragraph is not a complaint. For one thing, Spanish food is good! Besides, we enjoyed being immersed in a place with a distinct culture. I do think Granada might be behind the curve (for better and worse) on globalization. That doesn’t mean it is unsophisticated, although some Castilians and Catalans may think so. For instance, the city boasts at least 14 independent bookstores, presumably serving the university community. It seems characteristic of Granada that these stores stock many new books for serious readers, yet almost every volume is in Spanish, and most are by Spanish authors. The same was true at the extensive annual book fair. One gets a sense of mild insularity–and pride.

There is a long and rich literary tradition of describing Granada as melancholy. As I wrote recently, Richard Wright observed Granada and all of Andalusia as fanatically Catholic, haunted by history, and static. I am reminded of how writers use the Turkish word hüzün (meaning something like “communal sadness”) to describe Istanbul. In both cases, outsiders are inspired by the tragic remains of past grandeur. In both cases, some local people adopt the visitors’ melancholy as their own. And both descriptions mislead.

In fact, Granada can give an impression of frivolity and subversiveness. Spanish people from other regions like to visit the city for pre-wedding parties. They dress in crazy matching costumes and tease the blindfolded fiancés. Although they are generally segregated into “hen” and “stag” groups, you see individuals expressing various gender identities. For every nun in a habit, there must be a hundred young people with tattoos and piercings. The graffiti art by El Niño de las Pinturas and others is well-known.

The first thing that Castilians say about Granada is that the Arab-Islamic heritage is strong there. They are not wrong. In our neighborhood, the layout, the surrounding walls, and the water system all date to the Emirate of Granada; and at the bottom of our hill, the Guadalquivir is simply the Wadi al-Kabir: the Big River.* More subtly, the streets are still repaved with black and white stones, a continuous practice since the Arab period; and even modern doors often have rows of iron studs that, in medieval times, would have been painted to indicate that the owner had accomplished the Hajj. Under our living room is a cistern, an aljibe, that is part of the irrigation system of Arab origin.

But I want to complicate this impression. First, the influence of Arab Islamic culture is far deeper in other places than many people realize. In English, there are about 900 words of Arabic origin, including “sugar” and “alcohol,” and there are about 4,000 in Spanish. Not only in Granada, but also in Chile and Texas, people use a lot of Arabic words. Americans eat meals in courses, wear lighter colors during the summer, and do many other things as a result of the customs of Arab al-Andalus.

Also, some of the explicitly Arabic influences in Andalusia are probably “invented traditions,” in Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase.

For instance, it’s worth experiencing an “Andalusian hammam” or Arab bath. That tradition dates all the way back to 1988. The Alcaicería is the city’s “bazaar” neighborhood, a warren of quaint shops. It burned to the ground in 1843, and the architecture you see there today is a Victorian fantasy of the Middle East. The Alhambra is one of the world’s greatest expressions of classical Arab culture, yet it probably consists of a selection of medieval buildings that had various owners and functions. Ferdinand and Isabella seized, heavily renovated and modified, and connected these buildings to form one renaissance-style palace, and then the rest of the neighborhood gradually vanished. The Alhambra has never stopped being transformed by ambitious architects who are responsible for things like the incongruous Victorian roofs and everything about its lovely gardens.

Arab and Romani/Gitano influences were as important for Granada’s modernists, Lorca and Manuel de Falla, as they have been for its folk arts, like flamenco. But this is not simply a case of the past influencing the present. For one thing, Arabs and Romani constitute living communities in Granada. In 2003, the Moroccan immigrant community of almost 5,000 people opened a beautiful new mosque across from the Alhambra, and Romani still dominate the Sacromonte district.

When audiences cry ¡Olé! to appreciate a flamenco dancer, they may be saying wa Ilâh (“by God”) in Arabic. Or that may be a false etymology that persisted as a myth because it sounded so romantic. In short, there is a long and complex history here of assimilation, appropriation, “othering,” ambivalence, celebration, nostalgia, and sheer invention. Andalusians have been hybrid and have been choosing to present themselves as hybrid ever since the Emirate.

Sad to leave Granada, I think of the last sultan, “Boabdil” (actually, Muhammad XII), and his famous “Moor’s Sigh” as he turned to face the Alhambra for the last time. Or of Carlos Cano’s lyrics:

Deep in the cistern, what should appear
But the sadness that killed Boabdil the emir.
And I left it under the shadow of an almond tree
On my way to the mountains of Guajar-Faragüit.

To see whether, during the time of honey,
There was a flowering of the light of thought,
And whether the town will recover its color,
That old-time Berber green-and-white.

Oh, country children,
Tender spikelets,
Go and run to tell the earth

That the poor wait for her at dawn.
At dawn, old earth, at dawn…

[my translation]
En el fondo de un aljibe me encontré
la tristeza que matara al rey Boabdil.
Y a la sombra de un almendro la dejé
por los montes de Guajar-Faragüit.

Por ver si cuando el tiempo de la miel
la luz del pensamiento diera flor
y el pueblo recobrara su color
verdiblanco de origen bereber.

Ay niños del campo,
espiguitas tiernas,
echad a correr.

Decidle a la tierra
que el pobre la espera
al amanecer.

Al amanecer la tierra,
al amanecer…

Then again, maybe nothing could be more typical of Granada than an American tourist (think: Washington Irving) recalling a mythologized medieval Andalusian Arab to taste some melancholic sublime on a cheerful day in a thriving city of tourists and students.

*Correction: the river at the bottom of our hill is the Darro, a tributary. See also: Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain; challenging the Reconquista; Lorca’s rivers; sabbatical update (from when we first arrived.)

Analyzing Political Opinions and Discussions as Networks of Ideas

This is a talk that I have prepared for the Universidad Carlo III in Madrid tomorrow. It is a summary of recent work that I have been conducting with colleagues at Northeastern, Wisconsin, and Oxford and that I’m beginning to develop into a book manuscript.

In the model that I present, an individual holds potentially connected beliefs about political or moral issues, which we can represent with nodes and links (an “idiodictuon”). Whether and how the various ideas are linked in the person’s network influences that individual’s actions and opinions. When people discuss political or ethical issues, they share portions of their respective networks of which they are conscious at the time and may bring ideas from their interlocutors into their own idiodictuons.

Some network structures are better than others for discussion: overly centralized or scattered networks are problematic. Individuals tend to demonstrate similar network structures on different issues, so that having a proclivity for a certain form of network is a character trait.

People, with their respective networks of ideas, are also embedded in social networks. An idea is more likely to spread depending on features of both the social network and the idea networks of the people who interact. Specifically, the odds that an idea will spread from a given person depend on how many people receive communications from that person and how much they trust the communicator. It is reasonable to take into account the trustworthiness of a source when assessing an idea.

As a whole, a population may develop a shared network structure. An idea that is widely shared and frequently central in individuals’ networks becomes a norm. Such norms play important roles in institutions. A community or a culture is a single network or phylodictuon that encompasses disagreement. Ultimately, all such networks interconnect to form a network of human ideas.

whether to make the election a referendum on MAGA

In an interesting conversation between Ryan Grimm and Dimitri Melhorn (who represent two very different strands in today’s Democratic Party), Melhorn says:

So, imagine you’re the average voter, and you’re saying, OK, there are three things you can choose to believe about politics, and adjust your behavior accordingly. One, politics can do nothing for you. Two, politics can make your life better. Three, politics can make your life worse. People will believe the third. They normally default to the first, but they will believe the third. Within a rounding error, for electorally viable purposes, nobody believed the second, other than Bernie [Sanders] and his staffers and, you know, some other folks. It doesn’t work that way. I wish it did. It doesn’t.

I won’t dispute that Dmitri is right about the USA right now, and perhaps his theory would apply in Britain and much of the EU. It’s hard to persuade undecided voters that new or different leaders or policies will improve their lives. They are ready to believe that some current proposals would hurt them, and this fear can persuade them that voting matters. In turn, many of the current proposals that frighten the most Americans come from the hard right. Thus, Melhorn argues, the path to a Democratic victory is to make the election a referendum on right-wing ideas while downplaying ambitious progressive ones.

Although Dmitri may be correct about the present, this can’t be a law of nature. Surely FDR persuaded Americans that “politics can make your life better.” Maybe Roosevelt didn’t need a positive case to win against Herbert Hoover in 1932, but he and his party did argue for a New Deal, and the result was a whole new social contract, not only some electoral victories. Likewise for Clement Atlee in Britain (1945-51) and many other cases. Skepticism about the positive potential of elections and policy is a particular feature of our time.

Nor is skepticism universal now. In the 2020 American National Election Study, when presented with a forced choice, 42% of adults said “the less government, the better,” but 58% said there are “more things government should be doing.”

I would acknowledge that general pro-government sentiment doesn’t always translate into support for actual candidates who propose to do specific things. For one thing, almost a quarter of those who voted for Trump wanted government to do more, and they may not have the same kinds of interventions in mind that I do. Worse for progressives, the level of openness to more government was weakest where government might do the most good. In 2020, people without any college experience were split 50%/50% on the value of more government, whereas those with bachelor’s degrees favored more government by a 36-point margin (68%-32%). Black people were nine points less likely to support increasing government than white people (60% vs. 68%).

This class inversion has profoundly bad implications for our politics (and not just for progressives), but it is not historically typical. It’s a trap we must get out of.

During the Biden Administration, Democrats are actually making dramatic policy changes that might–if they succeed–make people’s lives better. When the Inflation Reduction Act passed last August, it was predicted to provide $270 billion in tax credits for green energy and manufacturing. Now the CBO is projecting the law’s cost at $553 billion. Goldman Sachs predicts that the “law will cost roughly $1.2 trillion — three times more than the official government forecast — and spur trillions more in private-sector investments.”

These estimates are being circulated as evidence of a budgetary problem, but for me, they are hugely hopeful (if true). Several trillion dollars in green investments could save the planet and improve people’s lives. Arguably, Congress recently enacted those policies.

It would therefore be ironic if Democrats’ best path to reelection was to make voters fear Republican ideas while offering largely symbolic proposals of their own, such as background checks for guns. That is like smuggling a new social contract past the voters.

Again, I would not be surprised if “Stop Republican craziness” polls better than “We are the midst of transforming the economy.” But that is a symptom of deeper troubles. The situation was different during the Clinton Administration, when Democrats actually did little except to block some GOP proposals. But during the Biden years, when the party is beginning to transform the economy, not to be able to run on that record is very odd.

See also: class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis; social class inversion in the 2022 US elections; using federal spending to strengthen democracy

does doubting the existence of the self tame the will?

I like the following argument, versions of which can be found in many traditions from different parts of the world:

  1. A cause of many kinds of suffering is the will (when it is somehow excessive or misplaced).
  2. Gaining something that you desire does not reduce your suffering; you simply will something else.
  3. However, one’s will can be tamed.
  4. Generally, the best way to manage the will is to focus one’s mind on other people instead of oneself. Thus,
  5. Being ethical reduces one’s suffering.

In some traditions, notably in major strands of Buddhism and in Pyrrhonism, two additional points are made:

  1. The self does not actually exist. Therefore,
  2. It is irrational to will things for oneself.

Point #7 is supposed to provide both a logical and a psychological basis for #4. By realizing that I do not really exist, I reduce my attachment to my (illusory) self and make more space to care about others, which, in turn, makes me happier.

Point #6 is perfectly respectable. Plenty of philosophers (and others) who have considered the problem of personal identity have concluded that an ambitious form of the self does not really exist. (For instance, David Hume.)

But if the self doesn’t exist, does it really follow that we should pay more attention to other people? We might just as well reason as follows:

  1. The self does not really exist. Therefore,
  2. a. Other people do not really exist as selves. Therefore,
  3. a. It is irrational to be concerned about them.


  1. The self does not really exist. Therefore,
  2. b. It is impossible for me to change my character in any lasting way. Therefore,
  3. b. There is no point in trying to make myself more ethical.

Striving to be a better or happier person is not a sound reason for doubting the existence of the self. This doubt may do more harm than good. If there actually is no self, that is a good reason not to believe in one. But then we are obliged to incorporate skepticism about personal identity into a healthy overall view. The best way might be some version of this:

  1. The self does not really exist. Nevertheless,
  2. c. I would be wise to treat other people as if they were infinitely precious, durable, unique, and persistent things (selves).

I think it is worth getting metaphysics right, to the best of our ability. For example, it is worth trying to reason about what kind of a thing (if anything) a self is. However, I don’t believe that metaphysical beliefs entail ways of life in a straightforward way, with monotonic logic.

Any given metaphysical view is usually compatible with many different ways of being. It may even strongly encourage several different forms of life, depending on how a person absorbs the view. Thus I am not surprised that some people (notably, thoughtful Buddhists) have gained compassion and equanimity by adopting the doctrine of no-self, even though the same doctrine could encourage selfishness in others, and some people may become more compassionate by believing in the existence of durable selves. In fact, many have believed in the following argument:

  1. Each person (or sentient being) has a unique, durable, essential being
  2. I am but one out of billions of these beings. Therefore,
  1. It is irrational to will things for myself.

The relationship between an abstract idea and a way of being is mediated by “culture,” meaning all our other relevant beliefs, previous examples, stories, and role-models. We cannot assess the moral implications of an idea without understanding the culture in which it is used. For instance, the doctrine of no-self will have different consequences in a Tibetan monastery versus a Silicon Valley office park.

We cannot simply adopt or join a new culture. That would require shedding all our other experiences and beliefs, which is impossible. Therefore, we are often in the position of having to evaluate a specific idea as if it were a universal or culturally neutral proposition that we could adopt all by itself. For instance, that is what we do when we read Hume and Kant (or Nagarjuna) on the question of personal identity and try to decide what to think about it. This seems a respectable activity; I only doubt that, on its own, it will make us either better or worse people.

See also: notes on religion and cultural appropriation: the case of US Buddhism; Buddhism as philosophy; how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives); individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon. And see “The Philosophic Buddha” by Kieran Setiya, which prompted these thoughts.

a seventeenth-century Englishman inside the Great Pyramid

This is an excerpt from George Sandy’s The Relation of a Journey begun [in] 1610, shared for no reason except that I found the narrative reminiscent of Tolkien or Dungeons & Dragons. (And I can find no reliable digital text online.) I have modernized the spelling and added paragraph-breaks and a few commas. Otherwise, it is verbatim.

The top, at length, we ascended with many pauses and much difficulty, from whence, with delighted eyes, we beheld that Sovereign of Streams [the Nile], and most excellent of Countries [Egypt]. Southward and near [at] hand the Mumm[i]es: afar, of divers huge Pyramides, each of which, were this away, might supply the repute of a wonder. During of a great part of the day, it catcheth no shadow of the earth, but is at once illuminated on all sides.

Descending again, on the East side below, from each corner equally distant, we approached the entrance, seeming heretofore to have been closed up, or so intended, both by the place itself, as appeareth by the following Picture and conveyances within.

“The Entrance to the Great Pyramid”
Into this our Janissaries discharged their arquebuses, lest some should have skulked within to do us mischief, and guarded the mouth whilst we entered, for fear of the wild Arabs.  To take the better footing, we put off our shoes, and most of our apparel, foretold of the heat within not inferior to a Stove. Our guide (a Moor) went foremost: every one of us with our lights in our hands. 

A most dreadful passage, and no less cumbersome; not above a yard in breadth, and four feet in height, each stone containing that measure. So that always stooping, and sometimes creeping, by reason of the rubbish, we descended (not by stairs, but as down the steep of a hill) a hundred feet, where the place for a little circuit enlarged, and the fearful descent continued, which they say none ever durst attempt any farther. Save that a Bassa [a bashaw or person of rank?] of Cairo, curious to search into the secrets thereof, caused divers condemned persons to undertake the performance, well stored with lights, and other provision: and that some of them ascended again well-nigh thirty miles off in the Deserts.  

A Fable deviled only to beget wonder. But others have written, that at the bottom there is a spacious Pit, eighty and fix Cubits deep, filled at the over-flow by concealed Conduits; in the middle little Island, and on that a Tomb containing the body of Cheops, a King of Eypt, and the builder of this Pyramid: which with the truth hath a greater affinity. For since I have been told by one out of his own experience, that in the uppermost depth there is a large square place, (though without water) into which he was led by another entry opening to the South, known but unto few (that now open, being shut by some order) and entered at this place where we feared to descend. 

A turning on the right hand leadeth into a little room: which by reason of the noisome savor and uneasy passage, we refused to enter. Clambering over the mouth of the aforesaid dungeon, we ascended as upon the bow of an arch, the way no larger than the former, about an hundred and twenty feet. Here we passed through a long entry, which led directly forward [illegible] follow, that it took even from us that uneasy benefit of sloping. Which brought us into a little Room with a compact Roof, more long than broad, of polished Marble in whose Grave-like smell, half full of Rubbish, forced our quick return. Climbing also over this entrance, we ascended as before, about 'an hundred and twenty feet higher. 

This entry was of an exceeding height, yet no broader from side to side than a man may fathom [illegible], benched on each side, and closed above with admirable Architecture: the Marble so great, and so cunningly joined, as it had been hewn through the living Rock. At the top we entered into a goodly Chamber, twenty foot wide, and forty in length; the Roof of a marvelous height, and the Stones so great, that eighty floors it, eight roofs it, eight flag the ends, and sixteen the sides, all of well-wrought [?] Marble. 

Athwart the Room at the upper end there standeth a Tomb, uncovered, empty, and all of [?] high, seven feet in length, not four in breadth, and sounding like a Bell. In this no doubt; lay the body of the builder. They erecting such costly Monuments, not only out of a vain ostentation, but being of the opinion, that after the dissolution of the [body?] the soul should survive, and when thirty-six thousand years were expired, again be joined unto the self-same body restored unto his former condition, gathered in their conceits from Astronomical demonstrations.

Against one end of the Tomb, and close to the wall, there openeth a Pit with a long and narrow mouth, which leadeth into an under Chamber. In [the] walls on each side of the upper Room there are two holes, one opposite to another, their ends not discernible, nor big enough to be crept into; sooty within, and made as they say, by a flame of fire which darted through it. ...

the Constitution is crumbling

Juan Linz observed that only one presidential republic–a system in which the president is separately elected from the legislature–has survived over a long period (Linz 1990). That exception was the USA, but a lucky contingency may have prevented the collapse of our constitution, and that factor is now weakening.

In a presidential system, the executive branch and at least one legislative chamber can be controlled by different parties. The public assesses the president on the basis of overall economic performance (and peace). Therefore, the opposition in the legislature will be tempted to threaten to wreck the economy to extract massive concessions. If negotiations fail, the ensuing crisis will defeat the administration, while legislators will be less exposed to electoral damage.

Meanwhile, the president has incentives to use executive power (direct control over the bureaucracy and security services) to accomplish her or his goals despite the legislature. Either or both behaviors can destroy the constitutional system.

The contingent feature of US politics until the mid-1990s was the presence of at least three effective parties (Northern Democrats, Southern Democrats, and one or more flavors of Republicans) in Congress. A president could almost always build a majority coalition from two of these components–for better or worse.

Our fifty states also use presidential systems (with their governors acting like presidents). However, state policy is more constrained; a state legislature cannot directly wreck the economy. Also, 39 states currently have one-party governments, which avoids constitutional brinkmanship, although it leaves the majority unchecked. In any case, there are examples of Linz’s thesis in some states, such as North Carolina right now.

At the federal level, there have been clear signs of unfolding Linzian disaster since Congress split into effectively two national parties in the mid-1990s:

  • Government shutdowns due to failures to pass appropriations. There had been brief shutdowns before 1995, but the ones since then (Nov. 1995, 1995-6, 2013, Jan 2018, and 2018-19) represent 95.4% of all the time that the federal government has ever been closed due to inter-branch conflict. So far, this tactic has backfired on the opposition because the inconvenience and economic cost of a shutdown build gradually over time. Congress almost starts less popular than the president and may face mounting public opposition while the federal government is closed. However, in today’s even more polarized environment, a shutdown might benefit members of the opposition while wrecking the economy.
  • Refusal to raise the debt limit. The damage of a default would be immediate and could be catastrophic and permanent, although no one really knows what would happen. Because a crisis could wreck the administration’s prospects immediately, there would be no gradual increase in public opposition that might constrain Congress. So far, the US has not actually defaulted, in part because Obama conceded a great deal to Republicans to get the debt limit raised in 2011. It is not clear that Biden could do the same, even if he wanted to, because the House and Senate may lack the votes for any compromise bill that raises the debt ceiling. Failure to raise it would be a perfect example of a Linzian crisis, in which either the opposition destroys an administration or the president manages to ignore the law. (I happen to believe that the 14th Amendment provides a justification for ignoring the debt ceiling, but the economic effects of doing so are unknown, and Biden’s success would strengthen the executive in a way that Linz predicted.)
  • Impeachment: Three of the four House impeachment votes in US history have happened since 1995. One can make an argument for most, if not all, of these votes. Nevertheless, the frequent use of impeachment is an unmistakable sign of Linzian crisis.
  • Ignoring impeachment. Richard Nixon resigned to avoid an impeachment vote. But Clinton was impeached and gained popularity. Trump was impeached twice and is running for another term. Neutralizing the disgrace of a House impeachment vote weakens the Constitution.
  • Preventing a president from appointing any justices. When Senate Republicans blocked consideration of Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, we appear to have entered a new period in which a Democratic president can only appoint members of the Supreme Court while there is a Democratic majority in the US Senate. It is hard to see the Democrats allowing the next Republican president to appoint any justice while they hold a Senate majority. Then the rule will be: unified party control is a condition of appointing justices.
  • Executive unilateralism: All presidents, including George Washington, have enacted controversial policies by executive order. Some presidents before the 1990s were already notorious for unilateralism. Still, the 21st century offers plenty of examples. For instance, whatever you think of the policy merits or the legality of Biden’s student-loan-forgiveness decision, it is troubling that a president can envision only one path to address the chronically elevated cost of college: waiving existing loans under the authority of a law enacted shortly after 9/11 to deal with national emergencies. I don’t see this move as tyrannical–Biden’s lawyers found an authorizing statute, courts will decide whether he overreached, and the public can vote in 2024. But I do think that using emergency presidential powers to address a chronic issue is a symptom of a broken constitution.

Two alternative to my theory:

  1. It’s not the Constitution; it’s the Republicans. Because the GOP was always more hostile to government programs and has radicalized since 2000, that party has initiated the various steps that are undermining the system.

I can grant this point, although I am not absolutely sure it is correct. (Democratic presidents have acted unilaterally). However, assigning moral responsibility may be moot. We should predict factional behavior, in Madison’s sense (a “common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”). A stable constitution must be able to handle factionalism, much as a stable website must be able to manage spammers and trolls. Even if the Republicans are the sole source of current strain, the weakness is real.

  1. No constitution can survive factional behavior. Political leaders must always exercise forbearance. In that case, the problem is not our constitutional design but the willingness of leaders (again, probably mostly Republicans) to abuse the rules. As Levitsky & Ziblatt (2019) write:

Think of democracy as a game that we want to keep playing indefinitely. To ensure future rounds of the game, players must refrain from either incapacitating the other team or antagonizing them to such a degree, that they refuse to play again tomorrow. If one’s rivals quit, there can be no future games. This means that although individuals play to win, they must do so with a degree of restraint. In a pickup basketball game, we play aggressively, but we know not to foul excessively—and to call a foul only when it is egregious. After all, you show up at the park to play a basketball game, not to fight. In politics, this often means eschewing dirty tricks or hardball tactics in the name of civility and fair play (pp. 113-114).

Refusing to raise the debt limit to pay for borrowing that you voted to authorize is a clear example of a hardball tactic, if not a dirty trick.

My whole career is staked on the importance of political culture. I believe citizens must develop values and skills for making decisions together and then choose representatives who can also govern responsibly. Thus I can agree that our current crisis arises from elites’ poor norms and habits and bad choices by voters. Still, as Levitsky & Ziblatt acknowledge,

Norms of forbearance are especially important in presidential democracies. As Juan Linz argued, divided government can easily bring deadlock, dysfunction, and constitutional crisis. Unrestrained presidents can pack the Supreme Court or circumvent Congress by ruling via decree. And an unrestrained Congress can block the president’s every move, threaten to throw the country into chaos by refusing to fund the government, or vote to remove the president on dubious grounds (p. 108).

In short, all constitutions have vulnerabilities, but they are not all equally fragile. The record of presidential republics is really quite poor, and I am pessimistic about ours. If we are very lucky, the current crisis might force the Biden Administration to ignore the debt ceiling, and doing so might not cause a deep recession. Then, negotiations about the regular budget might yield an acceptable agreement and might position Biden for reelection against Trump. But there are many ways this can go wrong.

Consistent with the text of the Constitution, our electoral system could be changed in several states or nationally. Proportional representation or ranked-choice voting should increase the number of parties represented in Congress (Simmons, Gutierrez & Transue 2022), thereby allowing presidents to build majority coalitions by negotiation and discouraging incumbents from practicing brinkmanship. It’s possible that electoral reform is the only alternative to writing a whole new constitution after we have experienced a sufficiently disastrous period under the current one.

Sources: Linz, Juan J. “The perils of presidentialism.” Journal of democracy 1.1 (1990): 51-69; Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How democracies die. Crown, 2019; Simmons, Alan James, Manuel Gutierrez, and John E. Transue. “Ranked-choice voting and the potential for improved electoral performance of third-party candidates in America.” American Politics Research 50.3 (2022): 366-378. See also: judicial activism when the legislative branch is broken; is our constitutional order doomed?; four perspectives on student debt forgiveness and are we seeing the fatal flaw of a presidential constitution?