Video: Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

Mar 062012

In Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Webcast, I discussed giving the benefit of the doubt. The question was:

When should we give another person the benefit of the doubt? Often, people say that public figures facing some scandal should be given the benefit of the doubt? What does that mean in theory and in practice? When ought people give the benefit of the doubt? Is doing so a matter of generosity or justice?

My answer, in brief:

To give someone the benefit of the doubt means that you’re not leaping to conclusions about wrongdoing, but considering their past actions and character, and hence, only condemning when the proof of wrongdoing is definitive. It’s proper to give someone the benefit of doubt when it’s likely that the person didn’t act wrongly, when you’re waiting for definitive evidence, or when your judgments are based on knowledge of character.

Here’s the video of my full answer:

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Video: What’s Wrong with Being Pragmatic?

Feb 022012

In Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Webcast, I discussed being pragmatic. The question was:

What’s wrong with being pragmatic? My dictionary defines being pragmatic as “dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.” What’s wrong with that, if anything? Is that the same as “pragmatism”?

My answer, in brief:

Pragmatism is a philosophic view that rejects thinking long-range and on-principle in favor of short-term expediency. However, many people just use the term to mean “practical,” and others are honestly confused by all the bad theories and principles rampant in the culture.

Here’s the video of my full answer:

If you enjoy the video, please “like” it on YouTube and share it with friends via social media, forums, and e-mail! You can also throw a bit of extra love in our tip jar.

Join the next Philosophy in Action Webcast on Sunday at 8 am PT / 9 am MT / 10 am CT / 11 am ET at

In the meantime, Connect with Us via social media, e-mail, RSS feeds, and more. Check out the Webcast Archives, where you can listen to the full webcast or just selected questions from any past episode, and our my YouTube channel. And go to the Question Queue to submit and vote on questions for upcoming webcast episodes.

Feb 022012

A few weeks ago, an unknown Ron Paul’s supporter (or supporters) created a stir with a video attacking John Huntsman. Reuters reports:

Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman and members of his family expressed outrage on Friday at an advertisement targeted at his adopted daughters by a group supporting rival Ron Paul.

An online ad authored by “NHLiberty4Paul” shows footage of Huntsman with daughters Gracie, who was adopted from China, and Asha, adopted from India, when they were infants.

“American values. Or Chinese,” the ad asks to a soundtrack of Chinese music. It calls Huntsman “the Manchurian Candidate” and ends with an image of Huntsman dressed as China’s former communist leader Mao Zedong, and the words “Vote Ron Paul.”

Here’s the video, and I definitely recommend watching it:

So what is Ron Paul’s response?

Paul, a Texas congressman, disavowed the ad during an interview on Friday on CNN, but said he could not control the actions of all his supporters.

“I couldn’t even hear it, haven’t looked at it, but people do that, and they do it in all campaigns,” Paul said.

(Update: Apparently, Ron Paul’s campaign did attempt to sue to discover the author of the video, but they were rebuffed by the courts.)

Unfortunately, Ron Paul has a long history of tolerating these and other varieties of racist, homophobic, and otherwise disreputable supporters. He distances himself in tepid terms, and refuses to condemn them in anything remotely like the strong language that they deserve. That’s why he’s got problem after problem with downright frightening supporters.

Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign had such problems in spades, particularly for refusing reject donations from neo-Nazis. In this 2010 campaign, Ron Paul’s campaign welcomed the endorsement of a Christian dominionist pastor in Iowa who — consistent with his overall theology — advocates the death penalty (!!!) for homosexuality. (Please go read the whole story, because it’s quite remarkable.) The announcement on Ron Paul’s web site welcoming this fothermucker’s endorsement was deleted, but as far as I can tell, Ron Paul never repudiated the endorsement.

Moreover, Ron Paul has never adequately explained or repudiated the viciously racist and homophobic comments in his newsletters.

How should the lunatic fringe be handled in a campaign? Consider the reaction of Bob Barr’s campaign to a racist endorsement when he ran for president in 2008 on the Libertarian Party ticket:

The Barr campaign is not going to be a vehicle for every fringe and hate group to promote itself. We do not want and will not accept the support of haters. Anyone with love in their heart for our country and for every resident of our country regardless of race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation is welcome with open arms.

Tell the haters I said don’t let the door hit you on the backside on your way out!

I’m not a fan of Bob Barr, but *pow* *pow* *pow* — that’s how it’s done!

Instead of doing that — or anything like it — Ron Paul tolerates dangerous idiots, only setting them at arm’s length when exposed by the media. This pattern of actions reveals something amiss with Ron Paul’s character and judgment, I fear. He’s not a racist, I don’t think: he’s said and done too much too clearly against that. So is he just willing to tolerate and pander to dangerous nonsense in the hope of a few more votes? I don’t think that explains the pattern, not when he sticks to his guns on economics.

I suspect that a major cause of these problems is that he’s got a serious but mostly hidden penchant for conspiracy theories. This fascinating NY Times article explores that in some detail. For example:

In a 1990 C-Span appearance, taped between Congressional stints, Paul was asked by a caller to comment on the “treasonous, Marxist, alcoholic dictators that pull the strings in our country.” Rather than roll his eyes, Paul responded, “there’s pretty good evidence that those who are involved in the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations usually end up in positions of power. And I believe this is true.”

Paul then went on to stress the negligible differences between various “Rockefeller Trilateralists.” The notion that these three specific groups — the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Rockefeller family — run the world has been at the center of far-right conspiracy theorizing for a long time, promoted especially by the extremist John Birch Society, whose 50th anniversary gala dinner Paul keynoted in 2008.

Wow, just wow. By all means, go watch the video for yourself. He just smooth talks right in and out of the conspiracies.

Judged by the standards of a rational epistemology, conspiracy-theorism is nearly at the bottom of the barrel. The mind of the conspiracy theorist is in complete disarray, utterly unable to evaluate evidence or stick to facts. It’s engaging in a constant process of invention, and then confusing those inventions with facts.

For that to be the basic psycho-epistemology of the US President… well, that would be frightening.

Video: Reasoning by Facts Rather than Emotions

Nov 232011

In Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Webcast, I discussed reasoning by facts rather than emotions. The question was:

How do I know that I’m reasoning based on facts, rather than just being driven by my emotions? Often, I feel strong emotions on some personal or political issue. How do I know that I’m not rationalizing what I want to be true?

My answer, in brief:

By monitoring his thinking, a person can notice the many signs of rationalizing feelings rather than reasoning based on facts. Introspection is the key to noticing and solving this problem.

Here’s the video of my full answer:

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My Brain Versus Particulars

Oct 142011

This Oatmeal comic segment — part of the brilliant “if my brain was an imaginary friend” strip — perfectly captures how my brain works. (Click here or on the image to view it.)

I have the same problem with all particulars, such as dates and places. When taking notes on a history lecture by Eric Daniels, I’ve had to replay what he said in my head, to get down the notes properly. I can hear it perfectly word-for-word — almost. Inevitably, it sound something like, “The soldiers were despondent after General BUUZZZZZ moved his troops to BUUZZZZZ in the year BUUZZZZZ.”

Apparently, after seven years of graduate school in philosophy, my brain decided that particulars were unimportant. Or maybe the causation runs in the other direction. Either way: DOH!

Be Grateful for the Hard Questions in Police Investigations

Aug 192011

In the course of preparing for my recent webcast question on the morality of police lying to suspects, I realized that something is deeply wrong with the standard portrayals in crime dramas of the victim’s loved ones.

In those crime dramas, the friends and family of a murder victim are often deeply offended by any suspicion by the police that they might have committed the crime, often to the point of refusing to cooperate after being questioned in a vigorous way. Perhaps that rarely happens in real life: perhaps that’s just a device that television writers like to use to heighten conflict. However, if it does happen, then I think that’s a serious mistake on the part of those people. It’s a failure to understand the epistemic context of the police (and prosecutors) in a criminal investigation.

As I mentioned in the webcast, police officers face a daunting task in any investigation, particularly a murder investigation. Without any ability to speak to the murder victim, they must insert themselves into his life, then extract relevant information from a slew of strangers, many of whom will be unreliable, if not flatly dishonest.

People truly mourning for the murder victim — as opposed to any criminals in their midst — should want justice to be done. They should want the police to catch the killer. As a result, they should want the police to conduct a vigorous and thorough investigation, including of the people close to the victim. Simply based on the natural trajectory of an investigation, plus the statistics on who kills who, the police ought to begin their investigation with the person’s intimate family and friends. And for the police, no one should be above suspicion.

Hence, the people closest to the victim should expect — and even want — to be questioned. They shouldn’t want the police to assume that “no mother would kill her son” and “the wife cried, so she wouldn’t have killed her husband.” Instead, these people should want the police to suspicious of them until provided with some fact-based reasons not to be suspicious. They should want the police to dig — and sometimes, that will require asking uncomfortable, difficult, or pointed questions. Sometimes, that will require lying to test the statement of a witness too.

Undoubtedly, that would be terribly difficult to endure, particularly in the wake of a tragic death. Still, true friends and family should be grateful for a vigorous investigation, so long as the police are ultimately concerned with doing justice. To do otherwise is to ignore the police’s context of knowledge. The police can only learn about the nature and quality of the victim’s relationships by prying into them, and they know that the murderer (if among them) will resist that by feigning grief and lying about crucial facts. Sometimes, the police must press hard to separate the innocent from the guilty — and that’s right and proper! Even people in mourning should recognize that.

Of course, if the police are dishonest or unjust in their investigation — if they make assumptions of guilt or ignore facts, if they’re just seeking an easy conviction rather than justice — then that’s a whole different matter. And I still think that a person shouldn’t talk to the police without a lawyer present.

But overall, a person should be glad to be questioned vigorously about the murder of a loved one, because then he can have some measure of confidence that if justice can be done, it will be done.

The Active Mind

May 262010

[This post was originally written for Modern Paleo.]

In our modern culture, many people adopt a rigid, rule-bound approach to their lives: whatever they learned from their parents, their preacher, and their peers must be the right way, and that’s the end of the story. They’re unwilling to question their assumptions; they often can’t even see that alternatives to those assumptions exist. On the other hand, many people reject that kind of stagnation in favor of acting on the range-of-the-moment. They act based on their gut feelings, i.e. their raw emotions.

These two approaches to life are wrong, often disastrously so. Yet they’re not as different as you might think. Both approaches reject reason: they deny paramount importance to human life of rational identification and evaluation of the facts. The people who adopt them seek to coast through life without the effort of understanding the world in which they live. Those often pay a very steep price for that in the form of abandoned dreams, wrecked relationships, and emotional turmoil.

Two years ago, when I began peeking my nose into the uncharted waters of the paleosphere, I was impressed to find that a better approach was pretty common. By and large, people were willing to check their assumptions. They did not submit their judgment to the government and its lackeys, nor blindly follow the advice of their doctors. They were willing to test their theories against the facts of biochemistry, quality medical studies, and their own n=1 experiments. They wanted to know the truth, even if that meant rejecting seemingly universal beliefs about hearthealthywholegrains and arterycloggingsaturatedfat. They wanted to identify general principles, and then practice them, so as to live better.

Basically — although not universally, of course — I’ve been impressed with the “active minds” that I’ve found in the paleosphere. An active mind isn’t an “open mind,” nor a “closed mind,” as Ayn Rand explains:

[There is a] dangerous little catch phrase which advises you to keep an “open mind.” This is a very ambiguous term–as demonstrated by a man who once accused a famous politician of having “a wide open mind.” That term is an anti-concept: it is usually taken to mean an objective, unbiased approach to ideas, but it is used as a call for perpetual skepticism, for holding no firm convictions and granting plausibility to anything. A “closed mind” is usually taken to mean the attitude of a man impervious to ideas, arguments, facts and logic, who clings stubbornly to some mixture of unwarranted assumptions, fashionable catch phrases, tribal prejudices–and emotions. But this is not a “closed” mind, it is a passive one. It is a mind that has dispensed with (or never acquired) the practice of thinking or judging, and feels threatened by any request to consider anything.

What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an “open mind,” but an active mind–a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically. An active mind does not grant equal status to truth and falsehood; it does not remain floating forever in a stagnant vacuum of neutrality and uncertainty; by assuming the responsibility of judgment, it reaches firm convictions and holds to them. Since it is able to prove its convictions, an active mind achieves an unassailable certainty in confrontations with assailants–a certainty untainted by spots of blind faith, approximation, evasion and fear. (Philosophy: Who Needs It)

Personally, I’m always on the lookout for ways in which I might have a closed mind or an open mind rather than an active mind. I try to ask myself why I think and act as I do, particularly as concerns cultural norms. Is some practice just tradition — or does it make rational sense? I know that when I’ve been able to do that, I’ve reaped huge rewards. For example:

  • If I’d not been willing to question my assumptions about diet, I’d still be eating wheat, sugar, and other forms of junk food. I’d be bouncing between blood sugar highs and lows. I’d be obsessively thinking about the cookies in the pantry. I’d be slowly packing on the pounds, year after year. My liver would be getting ever-fattier, and I’d slowly ease my way into type 2 diabetes.
  • If I’d not been willing to question my assumptions about shampoo, I’d still be frustrated with my limp, dull hair. Instead, my hair is soft, well-bodied, and easy to manage. I’m unhappy with my haircut right now, but I’ve finally got my no-poo system working well. (I’ll post more on that later.)
  • If I’d not been willing to question the quasi-socialist political views of my youth, I’d be cheering on the government takeover of the economy initiated by Bush and hastened by Obama. (EEEK!)
  • If I’d not been willing to question my assumption that my friend Paul was just too old for me due to our 13-ear age gap, I’d not had the best eleven years of my life as his wife! (He looks the same age as me now; that’s a blessing and a curse!)

Life — in the fullest sense of that term — requires an active mind. There’s no way around it.

Leonard Peikoff Interview With Magician Steve Cohen

May 202010

Leonard Peikoff recently gave a fascinating interview with professional magician Steve Cohen.

Among the many topics they discussed were magic, knowledge, belief, deception, art, and entertainment.

Here’s an excerpt:

SC: We often hear the axiom “seeing is believing.” However on p. 319 of Atlas Shrugged, there is a quote from Dr. Ferris’ book “Why Do You Think You Think” that states: “Only the crassest ignoramus can still hold to the old-fashioned notion that seeing is believing. That which you can see is the first thing to disbelieve.”

My question is: what can we trust if not our eyes? What is the nature of belief, and how can someone like me (who is forever trying to convince people of something that is not necessarily true) create conviction in others?

LP: I say that, absolutely, seeing is believing. You can trust your eyes, and all your senses. In fact, they are necessarily valid because the only way to establish any truth is by reference to the sensory data. That’s the basis on which we form concepts and conclusions. If your senses aren’t valid, you can’t even have such a word as valid.

Now people get confused on this, because they don’t distinguish what the senses tell us from the interpretation that we place on that data. If I see a man in a red suit and a white beard and a big stomach, and I say, “I see Santa Claus,” my senses do not deceive me, but my interpretation does.

That’s true of all alleged cases where you perceive something, and then blame the senses.

So for any issue, you must distinguish: what do you see? And what do you make of it? Now a lot of people will see something that they can’t explain, and then come up with mystical interpretations. Whether that’s the occurrence of the seasons, or the tides, the attraction of magnets, or whatever it happens to be. They will resort to inner spirits, God, and so on. Their senses — what they see — is valid. However, their interpretation, their mysticism, is not relevant.

A proper attitude would be, if you can’t explain something that you do perceive, you just say the truth: “I do perceive it, and I can’t explain it.” Half of the things that were not explicable in the past, later became so. And many of the things that are not explicable yet, will be in due course. That would be a rational attitude…

…No rational person would ever think that what a magician performs is more than a trick. You have to go by facts and the conclusions of logic and science. Over the centuries, a tremendous number of incredulous, unthinking people who go by matters of desire rather than fact… Hundreds of thousands who quote seeing “miracles,” and it’s all nonsense. It’s all motivated by emotion. And I wouldn’t even say that these people have a conviction. They just have the mood of the moment.

You have to ask, is that the kind of audience you want?

Being a magician, you are a rare commodity as a mystery-monger. But if you’re claiming supernatural powers, you have to put yourself up against Buddha and Moses and all the rest of them. To me, that would be a desecration for you, with your talent.

SC: Then why would people search out a magic show?

LP: To me, it’s the same category as watching a great hockey player or baseball player, or a pianist, for that matter. When you see a skill that someone has mastered, and are able to experience complete enjoyment of that skill, it’s a pleasure to anyone who values human life and human achievement. I mean, how many people in any field acquire that kind of skill?

I don’t have any metaphysical need to come see a magic show. If I thought that you were going to take me into a supernatural world, I would not enjoy it at all. First of all, I would feel fear. If this guy can suspend the laws of nature, then they are not reliable. They’re not absolute. Who knows what’s coming next? I could fall through the floor, or disappear, maybe disintegrate. Plus, I would lose any admiration of you, the magician. Because if you are a vehicle of the supernatural, why should we give you any credit? Why would we admire you?

There is an absolute, legitimate state called the “suspension of disbelief.” This is not at all the same as wanting to be deceived. If you watch a movie, and you see one person stalk another, you won’t call the police. You know it’s not really happening. On the other hand, it has a reality to you. It’s not just shadows on the screen. You’re pulled into it. You feel fear, apprehension. It’s a state in which you know what you believe, but you are suspending that within limits. That’s exactly what you do when you watch a magician. You know that he is not turning a rabbit into a hippopotamus. But you suspend your disbelief by saying, I watched it happen, isn’t that fantastic. While not considering that somewhere there’s an explanation. As soon as you reach the end of the performance, the audience’s disbelief is no longer suspended. It’s a way of enjoying one aspect of a total. But there is no element of escaping from reality.

(Read the full interview.)

For a nice example of close-up magic with a jaw-dropping finale, take a look at this performance. (Although the dialogue is in Chinese, you don’t need to understand the language to follow the action.):

The Value of a Trained Intuition

Apr 092010

It was a busy Friday night in the ER. A 34-year old woman came in with chest pain, and I saw her chest x-ray. I was just about to call it “normal” and move onto the next case, when a nagging little voice in the back of my head told me to look one more time. Can you see the abnormality? (Click on image to see it full sized):

I decided that I didn’t like a very subtle shadow in her right upper lung. It was just a little too asymmetrically dense compared to the opposite left side:

Hence, I told the ER doctor that there was a possible but not definite abnormality in that area (such as an early pneumonia). I recommended that he order a CT scan to see if it was real or not. He ordered the CT scan, and we saw this:

Based on the irregular contour (and other features), this is almost certainly a 2-cm lung cancer rather than pneumonia. The patient is now “in the system”, and we expect biopsy proof soon.

If I had decided to ignore that nagging doubt and instead called her x-ray normal, then 6 months later when the cancer had grown and become obvious, some sharp lawyer could easily have gone back through the records, reviewed the film, and argued that I should detected it back then.

Hence, I probably avoided a lawsuit by taking a second careful look at her x-ray, even though it was a crazy busy night in the ER with x-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds, and MRI images piling up.

Lesson: If a little nagging voice in your head tells you to look at or think about something one more time, then listen to it!

This is, of course, the thesis of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. And I believe Gladwell is fundamentally correct.

If one has trained one’s subconscious to make good “lightning” evaluations over the years through a process of reason (in adherence to the facts of reality), then one’s resultant “intuitions” can be quite valuable. At the very least, one should take those intuitions seriously — in the sense of using them as a red flag indicating that one should reconsider the issue at hand and apply some more careful conscious reasoning.

Of course, if one’s “intuitions” are just a hodgepodge of emotional reactions shaped by chance and whim, then they will almost certainly lead one astray. And Gladwell also emphasizes this point in his book.

Dr. Leonard Peikoff also covers this topic nicely in his Podcast #103 (timestamp 6:55), answering the question on intuition.

How Do You Know What You Know?

Jan 222010

How do you know what you know? And why should you care?

Objectivism isn’t just a bunch of conclusions to collect and apply — there’s a distinctive methodology that emanates from the very core of the epistemology which shapes the entire philosophy and its ultimate effects in every realm. At the center of it all is the Objectivist account of just what concepts are, and how we properly acquire and use them. This is central because it goes to the essence of how we humans navigate reality: we’re the rational animal, i.e., the conceptual animal. Leonard Peikoff explains it nicely:

For man, sensory material is only the first step of knowledge, the basic source of information. Until he has conceptualized this information, man cannot do anything with it cognitively, nor can he act on it. Human knowledge and human action are conceptual phenomena.

Although concepts are built on percepts, they represent a profound development, a new scale of consciousness. An animal knows only a handful of concretes: the relatively few trees, ponds, men, and the like it observes in its lifetime. It has no power to go beyond its observations — to generalize, to identify natural laws, to hypothesize causal factors, or, therefore, to understand what it observes. A man, by contrast, may observe no more (or even less) than an animal, but he can come to know and understand facts that far outstrip his limited observations. He can know facts pertaining to all trees, every pond and drop of water, the universal nature of man. To man, as a result, the object of knowledge is not a narrow corner of a single planet, but the universe in all its immensity, from the remote past to the distant future, and from the most minuscule (unperceivable) particles of physics to the farthest (unperceivable) galaxies of astronomy.

A similar contrast applies in the realm of action. An animal acts automatically on its perceptual data; it has no power to project alternative courses of behavior or long-range consequences. Man chooses his values and actions by a process of thought, based ultimately on a philosophical view of existence; he needs the guidance of abstract principles both to select his goals and to achieve them. Because of its form of knowledge, an animal can do nothing but adapt itself to nature. Man (if he adheres to the metaphysically given) adapts nature to his own requirements.

A conceptual faculty, therefore, is a powerful attribute. It is an attribute that goes to the essence of a species, determining its method of cognition, of action, of survival. To understand man — and any human concern — one must understand concepts. One must discover what they are, how they are formed, and how they are used, and often misused, in the quest for knowledge. This requires that we analyze in slow motion the inmost essence of the processes which make us human, the ones which, in daily life, we perform with lightninglike rapidity and take for granted as unproblematic. [OPAR p.74]

Rand offers just such an analysis in her monograph, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. In doing so she better equips us to do business in reality while repelling deadly threats that can sometimes be quite subtle. For, “What is at stake here is the cognitive efficacy of man’s mind.”

As I [Rand] wrote in For the New Intellectual: “To negate man’s mind, it is the conceptual level of his consciousness that has to be invalidated. Under all the tortuous complexities, contradictions, equivocations, rationalizations of the post-Renaissance philosophy — the one consistent line, the fundamental that explains the rest, is: a concerted attack on man’s conceptual faculty. Most philosophers did not intend to invalidate conceptual knowledge, but its defenders did more to destroy it than did its enemies. They were unable to offer a solution to the ‘problem of universals,’ that is: to define the nature and source of abstractions, to determine the relationship of concepts to perceptual data — and to prove the validity of scientific induction …. The philosophers were unable to refute the Witch Doctor’s claim that their concepts were as arbitrary as his whims and that their scientific knowledge had no greater metaphysical validity than his revelations.” [ITOE Forward]

The Objectivism Seminar is about to start its journey through Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (Expanded Second Edition). We hope to thoroughly digest the main work as well as all of the supplementary material. The meetings will feature several fairly seasoned Objectivists trading off on moderation, and we especially encourage those who are newer to the ideas or maybe a little fuzzy on them to bring their most challenging questions and puzzles! (And for those who are more acquainted with the material, this offers the challenge of grappling with helping others find their way through those questions and puzzles — as well as the surprisingly common bonus of finding unexpected fuzziness of their own. :^)

We’ll be meeting weekly, in a one-hour conference call hosted at You can participate online with just your computer, or via a regular phone (or you can listen in later via the podcast recordings). The series begins on Monday, February 1, 8:00 pm Mountain time.

Please visit to learn more and join in!

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