Monday, December 6, 2010

Time Horizons

nadezhda writes in the comments:
The light bulb just came on with those Hume quotes. You need a two-dimensional (at least) typology. Hume's talking about probability.

"Epistemology" emerged as a central topic of 17th-18thC philosophy in the debates over scepticism. There wasn't just one question -- "how do we know." There was also "what is knowable." If scepticism was profound enough, fideism was as or more likely an outcome as atheism (see e.g. Montaigne and Bayle).

And those questions are still with us today, though obviously focusing on a host of new areas of knowledge. Still, faced with the same evidence and proposal for action, two empiricists will use very different discount rates about the future, depending on the degree and source of scepticism. So as a rough cut, you need four ideal types that combine two dichotomies: empiricist/rationalist-idealist with sceptic/believer.

The reason you may need a third dimension is that the degree and source of scepticism itself is related to how one views causality. Rather than lose myself in contemporary epistemological debates, to simplify our ideal types I'm going to go back to the period Hume was writing in.

The freedom vs necessity stuff could be mapped on a two-dimensional typology of:
(1) causes, as either materialist (physical or human) or non-materialist (whether divine Providence or something like Fate) and
(2) processes, as either contingent or reflecting an eternal order. (There are undoubtedly better labels, but you'll get my drift).

So to use our super-simplifying pairs of ideal types:
- one pair has Epicurean random swerving atoms or a bunch of individual free wills that produce historical contingency, so contingency is baked in to a material universe and we can only talk about probability.
- In a second pair, the source of contingency is a non-materialist divine Will (debates over voluntarism, miracles, Jehovah intervening in history, etc) or fickle Fate, which doesn't conform to predictable laws, so all we can do is conform our behavior to what we have reason to believe (through observation or deduction or revelation etc) might attract the benevolent attention of Providence/Fate (or for a Calvinist, serve as evidence of election by an arbitrary deity). Though poor Job always stands a cautionary tale.
- In a third pair, divine Providence operates in conformity with God's eternal laws, so we have non-materialist causality that operates according to fixed (that is, predictable) laws -- the big debate re that pair returns to the "how do we know" issue -- observation vs revelation vs revelation-combined-with-right-reason etc.
- And in the fourth pair, where empiricism can turn into "scientism" (in both physical and social sciences) we have material (physical and human) causes operating entirely according to fixed laws that have necessary effects -- the challenge there again is how do we go about discovering and applying those laws, not whether the laws "exist".


To take an example of two rather different people who shared a sense of "the fierce urgency of now" within "the long arc of history" (though focused on quite different historical forces and processes). I think you could just as easily look at Martin Luther King as more of a Providential idealist and Maggie Thatcher more a material (in the sense defined above) empiricist. But neither was what I'd call an extreme sceptic when it came to "knowledge" of an imperative for immediate, major action.

FLG isn't quite sure the additional dimension is needed at least insofar as this theory has a good amount of explanatory power, but he's nevertheless thinking about it. What is more interesting, and perhaps problematic for his theory, is the idea that both King and Thatcher shared a sense of "the fierce urgency of now" within "the long arc of history."

Obviously, my theory has never stated that those on the left have no conception of the long arc of history, but rather that they place relatively less importance on it than conservatives. Clearly, King had a conception of the long arc of history. He'd been to the mountain top and all that. Although, FLG thinks that comes directly from being a preacher and his faith. Therefore, there's definitely something to be said for the various dichotomies listed above. The question then, for FLG, is does it matter what contributes to the person's discount rate? He's not entirely sure it does.

Let's imagine a continuum of discount rates, or alternatively weight given to the present and short-term, and at the two extremes you have somebody who doesn't care about anything even one minute away and another who values the future so much that present circumstances have little to no impact on their decision making process.

Well, perhaps King, if you took his only his political predisposition, was short-term focused, but that his faith, which provides that sense of long arc of history, shifted him more toward long-term on the continuum.

Since nadezhda hasn't been around here from much of this discussion, FLG will repeat something that FLG discussed a couple of times, including recently with William Brafford, and that's the consequential versus deontological argument. William was concerned that this mode of analysis would classify conservatives who argue from deontological positions with being short-term, thus undermining FLG's theory. FLG maintains that deontological positions, that something is forever and always right or wrong, is inherently a long-term position. However, most people today use consequentialist arguments.

Getting back to the King issue, it's a question of how much his stances were influenced by his observations of the specific problems and negative consequences of the situation (consequentualist) versus the more abstract principles of justice and truth (deontological). And that sort of parallels what nadezhda proposed.

Ultimately, however, what's important, at least in most political/policy discussions is where their discount rate lies along the continuum. That's something FLG thinks we can observe, or at least get a good approximation of, given a person's reasoning, arguments, the evidence they marshal, and the relative importance they place on specific facts. Why they do those things is more obscure. So, why they are on at some place on the spectrum is probably difficult if not impossible to ascertain.

FLG does believe, however, that most people who are empirical (and FLG guesses you could also include those who make largely consequentialist arguments) are oriented somewhere closer toward the short-term, and conversely that rationalist, deontological people are more toward the long-term. But having just written that FLG isn't so sure that he isn't simply repeating himself. Can one be empirical without being consequentialist? Can one be rationalist without being largely deonotogical?

Oh, and FLG is ashamed to admit this, but he doesn't really know enough about Thatcher to comment about her, which is why he was largely silent on that example.


FLG just reread this and sorry it's so stream of consciousness. He just woke, went to the keyboard, and popped this out.

To clarify, or perhaps to equivocate, depending on your view, because FLG has gotten a couple of emails pointing out that left-wing ontologists exist, the consquentialist versus deonotological portion of the argument is as it applies to politics and policy. So, a person who is a consequentialist, who is most focused on the short-term and direct consequences, will be on the left. While the person focused more on the long-term consequences will most likely be on the right. To the extent that somebody makes deontological ethical and political arguments, to say that something is always good or bad, and present consequences are entirely irrelevant, is more likely a conservative position.

It's confusing because there are ontologists who are on the left, as the emails attest, but that's not quite the point. It's whether they bring consequentialist arguments to bear to politics, which FLG is willing to say those academic ontologists do.


william randolph brafford said...

For the record, I had the left wing in mind when I raised the point about deontological ethics.

Someday, by the way, I'm going to make a savage attack on this time horizons stuff. You're not going to know what hit you.

FLG said...

Try your best, but it's an irrefutable theory. Plus, I'm rubber; you're glue.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.