Planning and Homelessness

Planning

Planning requires two things. It requires agency, believing that one can act and influence the future world that one inhabits and an ability to look forward and make predictions about future outcomes. Making predictions about the future has its own requirements – stability and causal reasoning. Luckily for most of us, we have relatively stable lives, impressive causal reasoning abilities, and agency in our lives to influence future outcomes. But that doesn’t mean that planning is easy or that it is something we always do.
We may fail to plan for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons may come from a lack of agency, some may come from uncertainty about the future, and some reasons may be a simple failure to think ahead. When we don’t plan, we don’t think about what our lives may be like in the future, what we would like our lives to be like, and what causal structures exist to help us reach that desired future or avoid an undesirable future. However, sometimes a failure to plan can also be a defense mechanism.
“At the very heart of planning,” writes Elliot Liebow in Tell Them Who I Am, “is the assumption that one has the power to control or influence the future. If one is truly powerless to influence events, planning makes little sense.” Without agency, planning leads to disappointment. If you make plans, even simple plans, but you cannot possibly take the actions necessary to execute those plans, then you will necessarily be let down. The imagined future you tried to plan for will not occur. Your desired states will not materialize. Liebow continues, “in the extreme case planning [is] to be actively avoided, for down that road lay failure and disappointment and still further confirmation of one’s own impotence.”
When plans fail it reflects either a lack of agency or an inability to predict the future. The failure of our plans means that we don’t control our surroundings, or that we do not have good causal reasoning skills, or that we do not have stable lives. None of these realities is comforting. The first reflects a lack of personal ability, the second a lack of mental capacity, and the third reflects a dangerous and tumultuous life. Improving our lives requires an ability to plan and execute. Failing to do so reflects inward failures or inadequacies. Rather than risk failure, the defense mechanism is to not plan at all. Not planning means we can deny that we have a lack of agency, that we lack causal reasoning skills, or that we have ended up in a place where our lives are unpredictable beyond our control. If people want to be able to plan their lives, they need control, need to be able to see into the future to predict desired outcomes, and need some level of stability in their lives.
Talking About Causation - Judea Pearl - The Book of Why - Joe Abittan

Talking About Causation

In The Book of Why Judea Pearl argues that humans are better at modeling, predicting, and identifying causation than we like to acknowledge. For Pearl, the idea that we can see direct causation and study it scientifically is not a radical and naïve belief, but a common sense and defensible observation about human pattern recognition and intuition of causal structures in the world. He argues that we are overly reliant on statistical methods and randomized controlled trials that suggest relationships, but never tell us exactly what causal mechanisms are at the heart of such relationships.
One of the greatest frustrations for Pearl is the limitations he feels have been placed around ideas and concepts for causality. For Pearl, there is a sense that certain research, certain ways of talking about causality, and certain approaches to solving problems are taboo, and that he and other causality pioneers are unable to talk in a way that might lead to new scientific breakthroughs. Regarding a theory of causation and a the history of our study of causality, he writes, “they declared those questions off limits and turned to developing a thriving causality-free enterprise called statistics.”
Statistics doesn’t tell us a lot about causality. Statistical thinking is a difficult way for most people to think, and for non-statistically trained individuals it leads to frustrations. I remember around the time of the 2020 election that Nate Silver, a statistics wonk at Fivethirtyeight.com, posted a cartoon where one person was trying to explain the statistical chance of an outcome to another person. The other person interpreted statistical chances as either 50-50 or all or nothing. They interpreted a low probability event as a certainty that something would not happen and interpreted a high probability event as a certainty that it would happen, while more middle ground probabilities were simply lumped in as 50-50 chances. Statistics helps us understand these probabilities in terms of the outcomes we see, but doesn’t actually tell us anything about the why behind the statistical probabilities. That, I think Pearl would argue, is part of where the confusion for the individual in the cartoon who had trouble with statistics stems from.
Humans think causally, not statistically. However, our statistical studies and the accepted way of doing science pushes against our natural causal mindsets. This has helped us better understand the world in many ways, but Pearl argues that we have lost something along the way. He argues that we needed to be building better ways of thinking about causality and building models and theories of causality at the same time that we were building and improving our studies of statistics. Instead, statistics took over as the only responsible way to discuss relationships between events, with causality becoming taboo.
“When you prohibit speech,” Pearl writes, “you prohibit thought and stifle principles, methods, and tools.” Pearl argues that this is what is happening in terms of causal thinking relative to statistical thinking. I think he, and other academics who make similar speech prohibition arguments, are hyperbolic, but I think it is important to consider whether we are limiting speech and knowledge in an important way. In many studies, we cannot directly see the causal structure, and statistics does have ways of helping us better understand it, even if it cannot point to a causal element directly. Causal thinking alone can lead to errors in thinking, and can be hijacked by those who deliberately want to do harm by spreading lies and false information. Sometimes regressions and correlations hint at possible causal structures or completely eliminate others from consideration. The point is that statistics is still useful, but that it is something we should lean into as a tool to help us identify causality, not as the endpoint of research beyond which we cannot make any assumptions or conclusions.
Academics, such as Pearl and some genetic researchers, may want to push forward with ways of thinking that others consider taboo, and sometimes fail to adequately understand and address the concerns that individuals have about the fields. Addressing these areas requires tact and an ability to connect research in fields deemed off limits to the fields that are acceptable. Statistics and a turn away from a language of causality may have been a missed opportunity in scientific understanding, but it is important to recognize that human minds have posited impossible causal connections throughout history, and that we needed statistics to help demonstrate how impossible these causal chains were. If causality became taboo, it was at least partly because there were major epistemic problems in the field of causality. The time may have come for addressing causality more directly, but I am not convinced that Pearl is correct in arguing that there is a prohibition on speech around causality, at least not if the opportunity exists to tactfully and responsibly address causality as I think he does in his book.
Thinking Conspiratorially Versus Evidence-Based Thinking - Joe Abittan

Thinking Conspiratorially Versus Evidence-Based Thinking

My last two posts have focused around conspiratorial thinking and whether it is an epistemic vice. Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind argues that we can only consider thinking conspiratorially to be a vice based on context. He means that conspiratorial thinking is a vice dependent on whether there is reliable and accurate evidence to support a conspiratorial claim. Thinking conspiratorially is not an epistemic vice when we are correct and have solid evidence and rational justifications for thinking conspiratorially. Anti-conspiratorial thinking can be an epistemic vice if we ignore good evidence of a conspiracy to continue believing that everything is in order.
Many conspiracies are not based on reliable facts and information. They create causal links between disconnected events and fail to explain reality. Anti-conspiratorial thinking also creates a false picture of reality, but does so by ignoring causal links that actually do exist. As epistemic vices, both ways of thinking can be described consequentially and by examining the patterns of thought that contribute to the conspiratorial or anti-conspiratorial thinking.
However, that is not to say that conspiratorial thinking is a vice in non-conspiracy environments and that anti-conspiratorial thinking is a vice in high-conspiracy environments. Regarding this line of thought, Cassam writes, “Seductive as this line of thinking might seem, it isn’t correct. The obvious point to make is that conspiracy thinking can be vicious in a conspiracy-rich environment, just as anti-conspiracy thinking can be vicious in contexts in which conspiracies are rare.” The key, according to Cassam, is evidence-based thinking and whether we have justified beliefs and opinions, even if they turn out to be wrong in the end.
Cassam generally supports the principle of parsimony, the idea that the simplest explanation for a scenario is often the best and the one that you should assume to be correct. Based on the evidence available, we should look for the simplest and most direct path to explain reality. However, as Cassam continues, “the principle of parsimony is a blunt instrument when it comes to assessing the merits of a hypothesis in complex cases.” This means that we will still end up with epistemic vices related to conspiratorial thinking if we only look for the simplest explanation.
What Cassam’s quotes about conspiratorial thinking and parsimony get at is the importance of good evidence-based thinking. When we are trying to understand reality, we should be thinking about what evidence should exist for our claims, what evidence would be needed to support our claims, and what kinds of evidence would refute our claims. Evidence-based thinking helps us avoid pitfalls of conspiratorial or anti-conspiratorial thinking, regardless as to whether we live in conspiracy rich or poor environments. Accurately identifying or denying a conspiracy based on thinking without any evidence, based on assuming simple relationships, is ultimately not much better than simply making up beliefs based on magic. What we need to do is learn to adopt evidence-based thinking and to better understand the causal structures that exist in the world. That is the only true way to avoid the epistemic vices related to conspiratorial thinking.
We Bet on Technology

We Bet On Technology

I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now and he makes a good case for being optimistic about human progress. In an age when it is popular to write about human failures, whether it is wealthy but unhappy athletes wrecking their cars, the perilous state of democracy, or impending climate doom, the responsible message always see ms to be warning about how bad things are. But Pinker argues that things are not that bad and that they are getting better. Pinker’s writing directly contradicts some earlier reading that I have done, including the writing of Gerd Gigerenzer who argues that we unwisely bet on technology to save us when we should be focused on improving statistical thinking and living with risk rather than hoping for a savior technology.
In Risk Savvy, Gigerenzer writes about the importance of statistical thinking and how we need it in order to successfully navigate an increasingly complex world. He argues that betting on technology will in some ways be a waste of money, and while I think he is correct in many ways, I think that some parts of his message are wrong. He argues that instead of betting on technology, we need to develop improved statistical understandings of risk to help us better adapt to our world and make smarter decisions with how we use and prioritize resources and attention. He writes, “In the twenty-first century Western world, we can expect to live longer than ever, meaning that cancer will become more prevalent as well. We deal with cancer like we deal with other crises: We bet on technology. … As we have seen … early detection of cancer is also of very limited benefit: It saves none or few lives while harming many.”
Gigerenzer is correct to state that to this point broad cancer screening has been of questionable use. We identify a lot of cancers that people would likely live with and that are unlikely to cause serious metastatic or life threatening disease. Treating cancers that won’t become problematic during the natural course of an individual’s life causes a lot of pain and suffering for no discernable benefit, but does this mean we shouldn’t bet on technology? I would argue that it does not, and that we can see the current mistakes we make with cancer screening and early detection as lessons to help us get to a better technological cancer detection and treatment landscape. Much of our resources directed toward cancer may be misplaced right now, but wise people like Gigerenzer can help the technology be redirected to where it can be the most beneficial. We can learn from poor decisions around treatment and diagnosis, call out the actors who profit from misinformation, uncertainty, and fear, and build a new regime that harnesses technological progress in the most efficient and effective ways. As Pinker would argue, we bet on technology because it offers real promises of an improved world. It won’t be an immediate success, and it will have red herrings and loose ends, but incrementalism is a good way to move forward, even if it is slow and feels like it is inadequate to meet the challenges we really face.
Ultimately, we should bet on technology and pursue progress to eliminate more suffering, improve knowledge and understanding, and better diagnose, treat, and understand cancer. Arguing that we haven’t done a good job so far, and that current technology and uses of technology haven’t had the life saving impact we wish they had is not a reason to abandon the pursuit. Improving our statistical thinking is critical, but betting on technology and improving statistical thinking go hand in hand and need to be developed together without prioritizing one over the other.
Familiarity vs Truth

Familiarity vs Truth

People who wish to spread disinformation don’t have to try very hard to get people to believe that what they are saying is true, or that their BS at least has some element of truth to it. All it takes, is frequent repetition. “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

 

Having accurate and correct representations of the world feels important to me. I really love science. I listen to lots of science based podcasts, love sciency discussions with family members and friends, and enjoy reading science books. By accurately understanding how the world operates, by seeking to better understand the truth of the universe, and by developing better models and systems to represent the way nature works, I believe we can find a better future. I try not to fall unthinkingly into techno-utopianism thinking, but I do think that having accurate beliefs and understandings are important for improving the lives of people across the planet.

 

Unfortunately, for many people, I don’t think that accurate and correct understandings of the worlds have such high priority in their lives. I fear that religion and science may be incompatible or at odds with each other, and there may be a willingness to accept inaccurate science or beliefs to support religious doctrine. I also fear that people in extractive industries may discount science, preferring to hold an inaccurate belief that supports their ability to profit through their extractive practices. Additionally, the findings, conclusions, and recommendations from science may just be scary for many ordinary people, and accepting what science says might be inconvenient or might require changes in lifestyles that people don’t want to make. When we are in this situations, it isn’t hard to imagine why we might turn away from scientific consensus in favor of something comfortable but wrong.

 

And this is where accurate representations of the universe face and uphill battle. Inaccuracies don’t need to be convincing, don’t really need to sound plausible, and don’t need to to come from credible authorities. They just need to be repeated on a regular basis. When we hear something over and over, we start to become familiar with the argument, and we start to have trouble telling the truth and falsehood apart. This happened in 2016 when the number one word associated with Hillary Clinton was Emails. It happened with global warming when enough people suggested that human related CO2 emissions were not related to the climate change we see. And it happens every day in trite sayings and ideas from trickle down economics to popping your knuckles causes arthritis.

 

I don’t think that disproving inaccuracies is the best route to solving the problem of familiarity vs truth. I think the only thing we can hope to do is amplify those ideas, conclusions, experiments, and findings which accurately reflect the true nature of reality. We have to focus on what is true, not on all the misleading nonsense that gets repeated. We must repeat accurate statements about the universe so that they are what become familiar, rather than the mistaken ideas that become hard to distinguish from the truth.

Immigration and City Rebuilding

I find myself in an interesting position when I think about immigration in the United States. I don’t have incredibly strong or fully informed views on immigration, and I find myself ending up at intersections where competing values push in opposing directions. From an economic perspective I agree with researchers who say that immigration is crucial for our national, and even global economy. From a human rights perspective, it feels imperative that we allow people languishing in terrible situations in foreign countries to have the opportunity to move to the US where their living standards will automatically increase substantially. However, I understand people’s hesitation to change and their fear of outsiders. I don’t want to accept these hesitations and fears, but I know they are real and I see how forcing change and immigration upon reluctant people can have disastrous consequences for society as a whole. I’m not sure how much we should restrict immigration to avoid this backlash, or whether we should just push forward with the immigration our economy needs.

 

What is clear to me is that the United States is not prepared to have this discussion in a reasonable and rational manner at the Federal level. It is my sense that there are more people aligned with the Democrats who are willing to be moderate (as I am) and are willing to compromise on important values such as human fairness, flourishing, and lifting the global poor for what feels like the psychological well being of xenophobic members of the Republican party. I don’t feel the same mindset from people within the Republican party, although this could just be a bias due to my media bubble. My sense is that a feeling of fear has taken root within the Republican party and derailed any reasonable national level discussion around immigration.

 

However, on smaller scales, I think the parties have more parity. In The New Localism authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write, “American cities could not have revived as they have in the absence of large-scale immigration. Moreover, dramatic levels of immigrant entrepreneurship in cities as diverse as Houston, Miami, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis are powerful reminders of how cities were built and rebuilt over generations.”

 

On the local level, the individuals who form the parties and drive government, part committees, local businesses, non-profits, and foundations can align on topics such as immigration even though on a national level the same individuals cannot agree. Within the city rebuilding is a continuous process, and compromises don’t have to be absolute and binding forever. At this level, immigration is personal and not abstract, and those who immigrate from outside can bring new ideas, exciting energy, and in some ways a fearless attitude that can help stakeholders align and connect, regardless of their political beliefs. Cities are not static, and this evolving nature allows for a moderate and reasonable discussion around immigration which is helping to fuel the revival of cities and metropolitan areas across the nation. My hope is that  this local level action can percolate upward and help us to have more informed and reasonable discussions on immigration at the highest levels of government in the United States. Sound local governance surrounding immigration with cities and metropolitan regions leading the way can hopefully be a federalist spark to tackle the thorny issue of immigration nationally.

Reviewing Good and Bad

Marcus Aurelius has a great way of thinking about the events which occur throughout our lifetime and the way in which we react to those events. Part of the stoic philosophy involves rational thought before emotional action, and through reflection Aurelius explains what he thinks of the way we often look at good and bad events in the world. He writes, “…good and evil should happen indiscriminately to the good and the bad. But death certainly, and life, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil.” What is great about the way that Aurelius looks at the events that happen in our life is that he does not dwell on whether they are overall positive or negative, and he does not fret about why good things happen for bad people or why bad things happen to good people.  His thoughts are filled with a level of realism and pragmatism that we don’t often build into our own lives.  He takes the world as it is, and  tries to identify how to best move forward given the situation and experiences that we all face and share.

 

What I like about Aurelius’ quote, which is an idea he brings up throughout Meditations, is the focus on the perspective that we bring to all of our experiences and the idea that we are constantly trying to judge and keep track of our life.  We can spend time and mental focus worrying about why good or bad things happen to us, and we can continually judge our experiences as good or bad, but ultimately, this thought does not get us where we want to go. What we see as either positive, neutral, or negative can be interpreted in widely different ways by people with different social economic status, racial backgrounds, and experiences.  What we may perceive as a positive event in our life could be a tragically negative event in the life of another person.  Rather than spending time ascribing a positive or negative qualifier to anything that happens in our life, Marcus Aurelius would argue that we should think of how an event impacts our lives and the lives of others, and we should move forward from that event in way that is guided by reason so that we can better grow and participate in society.

 

I think that Aurelius’ ideas parallel nicely with Bob Berg’s ideas about relationships from his book The Go Giver. Berg wrote about how we view what happens in relationships and what we expect to get our of relationships. When we enter a relationship, be it personal, sexual, business, or any other form, our expectations and desires will influence how well we connect with another.  If we can approach a relationship without worrying about whether something was good or bad for us, and without judging everything in terms of how it relates just to us, then we can grow and connect better with others. Berg writes about being selfless in relationships and avoiding the mental accounting of keeping track of the good that you receive verses the good that the other receives.  He writes that a focus on making sure each event is equally matched for both partners by another event of reciprocal value will eventually pull you apart.  When you can understand that good and bad things happen to you both equally, you can focus your relationship on the other person and what your goal is together.

Building Steady Thought

Marcus Aurelius focused on mindfulness in every action and every decision that he made as Emperor of Rome, and his writings in Meditations reflect his approach toward mindfulness.  He stresses the importance of doing every action with meaningful intent so that no time is wasted, and so that no effort is half-hearted.  By becoming more focused and making sure that every action is undertaken with focus and intent we are able to build more awareness into our lives, and we can focus on not just what we do, but how we think about what we do throughout the day. Aurelius writes (emphasis mine),

 

“Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what though hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts.  And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee.”

 

What he is explaining is that a greater state of mindfulness can guide a person to be more diligent and effective in the work they do, in the efforts they make outside of work, and in the activities in which they participate throughout their life.  In his passage he is advocating for an abandonment of desires and passions which distract people from living peacefully with the things they have.  He is not telling us to abandon our comforts or live with injustice, but he is urging us to channel our feelings into meaningful actions to move forward.  By failing to control our passions we spin about and are pulled in multiple directions with our time and effort.

 

Aurelius at the end of his quote says that we cannot be discontented with our difficult lives, nor compare our lives to those who seem to have more than us.  When we do, we fail to channel our energies in the right direction, and instead sit without direction as we complain about the poor hand that life has dealt us.  His advice is that we take an honest look at our life and find ways to move forward by accepting the challenges ahead of us, and using reason to open a new path.  Mindfulness will guide us on this journey by helping us recognize the advantages and disadvantages that we have, and by giving us the ability to persevere without complaint.

Character

Fred Kiel’s book Return on Character focuses on the importance of strong moral character traits in the leaders of today. Kiel’s book is about business, but many of the ideas he expresses go well beyond business and can manifest in our every day life.  The central idea to Kiel’s book is that those who are truly successful in life are individuals with high moral character. He continues with a business focus to say that those companies who are the most successful and provide the most value to their customers, employees, communities, and societies are lead by truly virtuous leaders with strong moral characters.

In looking at character and what it means to have a strong character Kiel quotes E. O. Wilson from his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge:

“True character rises from a deeper well than religion.  It is the internalization of the moral principles of a society, augmented by those tenets personally chosen by the individual, strong enough to endure through trials of solitude and diversity.  The principles are fitted together into what we call … the integrated self, wherein personal decisions feel good and true.  Character is in turn the enduring source of virtue.  It stands by itself and excites admiration in others.  It is not obedience to authority, and while it is often consistent with and reinforced by religious belief, it is not piety.”

Kiel explains this quote by examining the way that an individual with high character is able to recognize the behaviors expected and accepted as morally correct in a society. The quote also shows that the individual has a choice to accept these behaviors, and then choose how to incorporate those behaviors into their life.  Kiel shows that those with the strongest moral character are able to do this in a way that will best amplify those positive traits beyond what is simply expected.

I like this quote because it shows the dynamic nature of morals and character, and it reflects on the ways in which we can use self awareness and reflection to boost our character. Through our power of reason we are able to recognize the behaviors and characteristics we find to be helpful or harmful to ourselves, those around us, or those in society who are affected by our decisions. Through reason, we are able to consider our actions and reactions, and develop a practice that allows us to move toward developing a better character.

Reason, Action, Passion

While describing effective altruists, author and philosopher Peter Singer makes a distinction in the philosophy of reason and how we can look at effective altruists.  Singer establishes that effective altruists, or those who seek to do the most good that they can possibly do out of a sense of value for all people as opposed to seeking to do the most good they can do out of religious convictions or warm glow sentiments, empathize with all individuals across the globe because they are able to recognize the shared value in all humanity.  An effective altruist is drawn to help those who are in the most need and those who can be helped the most efficiently. Singer argues that their actions result from a strong sense of moral reasoning derived from the individual faculties of mind of effective altruists.  Moving in a very philosophical direction to examine the views of effective altruists Singer writes,

 

“The strongest objection to the claim that reason plays a crucial role in the motivation of effective altruists comes from Hume’s influential view that reason can never initiate an action because all action starts with a passion or desire … This is, in modern parlance, an instrumentalist view of reason.  Reason helps us to get what we want: it cannot tell us what to want or at least not what to want for its own sake.  To argue that reason plays a crucial role in the motivation of effective altruists, we have to reject this instrumentalist view of practical reason.”

 

At the end of the quote above Singer states that we need a different view of rationalization to be able to understand the actions of effective altruists.  The view reflected by Hume would suggest that effective altruists are truly only motivated by the warm glow we receive from helping others. He would argue that we receive an incentive to live altruistically because of the rewards generated by our actions. Singer on the other hand would argue that we would recognize these incentives only as byproducts of a positive lifestyle, and not the underlying goal for our actions.

 

Ultimately Singer is trying to place reason and rationality above emotions such as passion and desire.  For me this has always been a tricky area to disentangle.  We are very skilled at rationalizing our behavior to fit the reason we want our actions to be centered around. While Hume is arguing that our passions are what truly drive us at all times, singer is arguing that our passions grow from our reason.