Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

Follow Decision Theory!

Back in January, I wrote that there's no such thing as "following the science" -- that scientists and medical experts "aren't experts in ethical or rational decision-making. Their expertise merely concerns the descriptive facts, providing the essential inputs to rational decision-making, but not what to do with those inputs."It's worth additionally emphasizing that this question of how to convert information into rational decisions is not something about which academic experts are entirely at sea. On the contrary, there's a well-developed academic subfield of decision theory which tells us how to balance considerations of risk and reward in a rational manner.  The key concept here is expected value, which involves multiplying (the value of) each possible outcome by its probability.  For example, we know that (all else equal) we should not accept a 50% chance of causing 10 extra deaths for the sake of a 1% chance of averting 100 deaths, for the latter's expected value (one death averted) does not outweigh the former's expected cost (5 extra deaths).Now, my central complaint throughout the pandemic has been that policy-makers and institutions like the FDA (and their European equivalents) have evidently not been guided by any sort of cost-benefit analysis or the most basic principles of decision theory.  As Govind Persad put it, withholding vaccines during a pandemic is like withdrawing the service ladder from a subway tunnel for a safety [More]

Packing the Court?

In April, President Biden created a commission to study expanding the Supreme Court. Expanding the court would allow Biden to appoint new judges, presumably to offset the conservative judges with liberal judges. This tactic is commonly known as “court packing” and the best known attempt to do this was by FDR. On the face of [More]

The Self as Narrative: Is it good to tell stories about ourselves?

Is the self divided? Since the time of Freud the notion of a fragmented self has taken deep root in how we think of ourselves. Freud thought we were subject to competing forces, some conscious and some unconscious. It was from the conflict of these forces that the self emerged. Enduring conflicts between different elements of the self could lead to mental breakdown and illness. Many other psychologists and psychotherapists have proposed similar theories, suggesting that we split ourselves into different roles and identities and sometimes struggle to integrate the competing elements into a coherent picture. In his book, The Act of Living, the psychotherapist Frank Tallis argues that achieving integration between the elements of the self is one of the primary therapeutic goals of psychotherapy. Why? Because personal fragmentation is thought to lie at the root of human unhappiness: The idea that fragmentation or division of the self is a major determinant of human unhappiness, anxiety and discomfort appears in the writings of many of the key figures in the history of psychotherapy. Our sense of self accompanies all our perceptions, so when the self begins to crack and splinter everything else begins to crack and splinter too. The world around us (and our place in it) becomes unreliable, uncertain, frightening, and in some instances untenable. We experience ourselves as a unity and threats to cohesion are deeply distressing. (Tallis 2021, 150)  You may have felt [More]