Friday, September 28, 2007

Open access series: The status quo.

Today, I'm finally continuing my open-access series. Here is the introductory post, for those who want to refresh their memories as to what the hell I'm talking about. In today's post, I'm going to be talking about arguments for and against the status quo. Or, at least, that was my original intention. As it turns out, though, it's incredibly hard to find positive arguments in favour of the status quo.

Let me explain what I mean. There's basically two ways to make an argument for some claim or proposition, p. First, I can advance a positive argument. That is, I can tell you some reasons to think that p is true. Second, I can advance a negative argument. That is, I can tell you some reasons to think that not-p is false. In introductory formal logic textbooks, the distinction is really irrelevant, as the "reasons" in question are usually premises in deductively valid or invalid arguments. That is, the reasons either guarantee the truth of the conclusion, or don't. From this, it follows that the two ways are equivalent.

In more complex arguments, though, the second way of arguing usually turns out to be the weaker one. This is because it only indirectly gives reasons to think that p is true, i.e., if not-p is false, then you should think p is true. The first way directly gives you reasons to think that p is true. And because the second way is indirect, there's two possible sources of weakness in the reasoning, as compared to only one for the first way. The first way will produce a weak argument if the reasons give little or no support to the truth of p. The second way shares this weakness, in the indirect form: if the reasons give little or no support to the falsity of not-p. The second way also, though, has a weakness in the connection between p and not-p. Again, in strict formal logics, not-p is the contradictory of p; and, outside of these systems, when the second way goes right, this is true as well. But it need not be. What fills the place of not-p can amount to "what I (the person making the argument) believe to be the alternatives to p". And, obviously, these are not always co-extensive.

So, whenever possible, it's better to give a positive argument for your view as well as (or instead of) a negative argument against opposing views. Unless you're dealing with a strict formal system, you can never be sure that you've got all the possible alternatives covered by not-p, which opens up the unique flaw of the negative argument.

What's this got to do with open access? Well, simply that the arguments I've managed to find in favour of the status quo are -- surprise! -- negative. That is, they tell you why it's bad to move away from the status quo, not why the status quo is any good. Now, given that the status quo is the status quo, this is not an incomprehensible move. After all, institutional inertia being what it is, as long as change is not clearly beneficial, the status quo will prevail. But institutional inertia is a really weak reason to maintain some practice; it only works if every possible reason for change is a failure. And it's extremely unlikely that this is the case.

Still, let me look at some of the major negative arguments I've managed to pull together and see how well they do (or don't) work. They fall into three broad classes. The first is the increased or initial costs of changing the current model. Most arguments I can find fall into this category. A few, however, fall into a different category, that of the threat to something fundamental to the academy. And a few fall into a third category, that of the irrelevance of changing the system. That is, it simply isn't an important or necessary change. For the sake of having easy labels, I'll refer to both categories as the "cost" argument, the "academic" argument, and the "relevance" argument, respectively.

The cost argument goes like this.
  1. If the status quo is altered, it will consume certain kinds of resources and/or deprive certain groups or persons of gain.
  2. This is bad.
  3. Therefore, the status quo should not be altered.
To make the argument work, we first have to fill in details of the resources lost or the gain deprived. So, we could say that publishers will be deprived of profits. Or we could say that an open access system would require money (and other resources) to be instituted and maintained. Or we could say that professionals (e.g., health care practitioners) would feel obligated to understand even more research than they currently do, which would consume more of their time and energy. Or we could adopt a sort of combo platter approach and take a little of each of these, and others.

As far as that goes, I have no problem with the argument. It states something that I'm willing to grant as true or, at least, not obviously false. So, (1)'s okay. And, given (1) and (2), (3) really does follow. The problem is the evaluative premise (2). We're supposed to be shown be the argument that something important is being lost by moving from the status quo to either TOA or IA. But the argument just assumes this. If there were a positive argument for the status quo, then (2) might work. There might actually be something important to the status quo. But, there is no such argument; hence, there is no support for (2).

Therefore, the cost argument fails.

Moving on to the academic argument. Publishers and other supporters of the status quo sometimes argue they have an important gatekeeping role to play in the research community. And a move away from the status quo would eliminate that. Putting it in a schematic form:
  1. The status quo serves an important function.
  2. Changing the status quo would eliminate this.
  3. Therefore, the status quo should not be altered.
Like the cost argument, the logic here is fine. Unlike the cost argument, I think both premises are false.

(2) is false because the important function does not (or at least does not obviously -- it needs argument) require the status quo in order to be served. Peer review is a usual candidate for the "important function", as is a more generic, keeping the hoi polloi away, sort of function (call this the "elitist" function). Peer review has no necessary connection to the status quo, though. You don't need to have a system of limited access, subscriber-only journals in order to encourage academics to review each other's work. (Really, what you need is paid review, but let's put that aside for now....) There's no evident connection between the barriers against accessing material and the process of peer review.

There is a connection between barriers and the elitist function. And I'm not opposed to the elitist function. I'm too much of an elitist myself to take seriously the idea that everyone, no matter their education, ability, or interests, should be allowed to access any information they like. Information can be incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands. (How do we tell which are the wrong hands? Topic for another time, perhaps.) The problem is the barriers are a very ham-fisted way of fulfilling the elitist function. If you really want to stop people who don't have certain qualifications from accessing particular material, doing so on the basis of ability to pay or access to a library is indirect at best, irrelevant at worst. Even a "need to know" basis works better, for at least then access to information is indexed to a relevant quality (i.e., need for the information).

(1) is also false, because the status quo actually fails to effectively serve either peer review or the elitist function. As said above, the elitist function could be better served by directly addressing the question of who should have access to information, not by cost or level of library service as a (poor) proxy. And, as also said (although parenthetically), peer review is not obviously best served by the status quo. Paying peer reviewers might be a better way to encourage peer review. But certainly access barriers to research don't seem to do anything to make peer review easier or more common. Indeed, it's hard to see how these could be connected.

So, the academic argument is no good, either.

Finally, then, we come to the relevance argument. This argument goes something like this:
  1. There is no need to change from the status quo.
  2. Therefore, the status quo should not be altered.
Now, this is, of course, enthymic: we have to add the claim that we shouldn't do things we don't need to. This makes the argument:
  1. There is no need to change from the status quo.
  2. If there is no need to change, then there should not be change.
  3. Therefore, the status quo should not be altered.
I'm noticing that these arguments are actually getting worse; this is actually quite pathetic. The most obvious problem with this argument is that it begs the question in (1). One way of phrasing the dispute between supporters and opponents of the status quo is that the latter assert, while the former deny, that there is a need to change the status quo. Since this is the very bone of contention, it is fundamentally fallacious to claim there is no such need in the premise of an argument in support of the status quo.

To make matters worse, (2) is not necessarily true. There is no necessary connection between need and obligation. Let me start by considering whether obligation is exhausted by need. (In an unrelated, but relevant, note, this unreflective invocation of need is what tends to drive me crazy about environmental and anti-poverty groups.) Most of what I do in my day is not done out of need. Most of what I have I don't need. But I like what I do (usually), and what I have, and they add some kind of value to my life. The idea that obligation gives out when need ends is thus incredibly radical. It implies that I'm never obligated to do more than I need to (as said in (2)), and I'm never entitled to what I don't need (as environmental and anti-poverty groups sometimes say). And I take this as a reductio of the position. My obligations go beyond what I need to do: they extend, at least partly, into what it is good that I do. Similarly, what I am entitled to goes beyond need, at least partly into what's good for me (or, perhaps, what I take to be good for me?).

To proceed in the other direction, need does not entail obligation. I'm not obligated to do for you everything that you need, nor are you so obligated towards me. Some people have these sorts of obligations to each other, because of close relationship, explicit agreement, or other such mechanisms. But not everyone does. So, the fact that there is some need doesn't necessarily create a specific obligation.

For (2) to be true, it's the first that's really problematic. (2) asserts the contrapositive of the claim that obligation entails need: it asserts that a lack of need entails a lack of obligation. (Given a sentence, "if A, then B", its contrapositive is "if not-B, then not-A".) To shore this up would require showing that any time there is an obligation, there must be need. As I've argued, though, many genuine obligations I have are in no way related to need. They're instead related to things like explicit agreement or personal relationship; and, more generally, to value.

(Edit Sept. 30 4:08pm EST:: undergroundman suggests in the comments that while the inverse of (2) may be true -- necessity implies obligation -- it doesn't follow from that that (2) is true -- lack of necessity implies lack of obligation. So, rather than failing to prove the contrapositive (obligation entails need), it may be an erroneous use of inversion (which can generate falsity from truth) instead of contraposition, which is a valid rule of inference.)

Thus, in conclusion, there are no good arguments in favour of the status quo. None of the cost argument, the academic argument, nor the relevance argument really works. So, the only thing speaking in favour of the status quo -- the only thing that can -- would be the failure of a case supporting all the other alternatives, including the two I will consider over the next few weeks, TOA and IA. So, I need to consider the case in favour of each; and, next week, I will start with TOA.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Slight delay.

Had some issues with the university bureaucracy this morning which have forced a postponement of open access blogging until tomorrow morning.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

ProgBlogs Code of Conduct.

For some reason, I can't login to the ProgBlogs mainpage and comment here. I've already made my thoughts about "codes of civility" known here, and I stand by them. But, some specific remarks.

The first and third provisions deal with legal issues and are not within the moderators' scope. If someone's violating the law, let the law handle it. I'm disturbed by the moderators' willingness to assume policing authority for themselves.

The second provision is extremely broad and quite vague. What constitutes a threat? What constitutes sexism? And what on earth does "ethically offensive" mean? Commentator "Berlynn" suggests that the code would eliminate at least half the men off the blogroll -- I think she's underestimating how many people (and not just men) could be considered to violate this code. (She also comments that this may not be a bad thing... the less said about that, the better, I suppose.) So, I honestly think the moderators would be better to just not define what's acceptable or unacceptable. In other words, it's the moderators' decision, and theirs alone. That's what this boils down to, at the end of the day, and at least saying so would be honest.

The "punishments" are relatively minor, though. I note that the list given -- private warnings, removal of a post from the main website, and discontinuation of membership for 3 months -- is given as a non-exclusive list. That is, these are just examples. Again, there's a whiff of dishonesty here. If the moderators want to assume the power all the way up to throw people off the ProgBlogs blogroll permanently, I wish they'd just say so, rather than being so circumspect and vague. Furthermore, is the list supposed to be scaled? Warning for a first offense, etc.? It doesn't say so.

I like the privacy provision, in principle, but I'm troubled by the details. What counts as violating privacy? What counts as doing it against their wishes? What's a "legitimate reasons" to violate privacy against someone's wishes? Why is there no scaled list of punishments for this?

Overall, if the ProgBlogs mods feel "something must be done" (although why is obscure to me), then it would be better, I think, to create two areas of ProgBlogs: the "civil" area, and the "free-for-all". By default, people going to the ProgBlogs mainpage would see just the former (bloggers who agree to be bound by this, or some other, code of conduct), but could opt to choose the latter. That way those of us who aren't interested in parental controls on our blogs don't have to obey them, and those who think they matter can accept them.

So, my $0.03. 3 because my thoughts are more important than yours. :P

Edit: Sept 24, 6:33pm EST: Robert's comments in the PB thread (which I still can't comment on -- WTF? Logging in doesn't seem to be working for me at all...) seem right to me. I'm reproducing them here:
Progressive reserves the right to take action against any member for conduct that may lead to legal ramifications against the organization and/or its officers or is deemed harmful by the moderators to the integrity of the organization.

Then handle each problem on a case by case basis.

Second. Create a written policy on how such cases will be handled. For example, here's a quick version of such a policy.

1) After a complaint is received, the moderators will determine if action is warranted. (This gives the mods the chance to weed out the politically motivated and frivolous complaints)

2) If action is deemed necessary, the member will be notified of the complaint (by the moderators and not through the fucking grapevine) and given the opportunity to remedy the situation on their own.

3) If the situation is not dealt with by the member, the member will be temporarily suspended pending a formal hearing that allows the member the opportunity to defend themselves against the charges directly to the mods. (None of that fucking bullshit where the defendant finds out halfway through the process that their super secret trial in the comments of the ProgBlogs is already underway like I did.)

4) The moderators render a verdict and action is taken.

Agents and reasoning.

Continued from here.

Central to my account of reasons-explanations of action are the values and rules of practical reasoning. Reasons (goals) are connected to actions (means) because the latter are appropriate to the former. This is cashed out in terms of those actions for those reasons either conforming to a rule of practical reasoning or realizing/exemplifying/etc. some value of practical reasoning. Furthermore, though, reasons must be objectively valuable in order to be genuinely reasons, and in order for an agent to begin trying to reason a way to achieve the goals. So, it follows that I need an account of practical reasoning and of agency such that actions follow from goals as reasons, and such that agents can engage in this sort of reasoning as well as be able to recognize and take action towards certain goals. Let me start with agency.

I should note that empirical results from cogsci and the like will probably require altering this account. A priori reasoing is a fine place to start, but it needs to be sensitive to the a posteriori. So, this is just an initial sketch. That said, I have thought for a while that the intuitionists of the early 20th century (from HA Prichard and GE Moore in the early part of the century, all the way up to WD Ross in the middle part) were on to something with the claim that moral value is perceived. We can, after all, just see that some things are right or wrong. But I don't think the intuitionists took this quite far enough. There really is no hard line between mind and world: the world is the way it seems to us, and the way things seem to us is constantly affected by the way they are. So, in part, our perceptions are shaped by things, but things are also shaped by our perceptions. I don't have a choice whether I feel the floor under my feet, but that what I feel is a floor comes from me. Similar points can be made for other sensory modalities. Given that, while it is true that some things -- shape or size -- seem imposed on us from outside, perceived because of the way things are, others -- colour and value -- must be perceived in things around us because of the way we are. Of course, these are not complete categorizations; and any line we draw between these categories is tentative, porous, and subject to revision.

But, from the above it follows that perception of value is not mysterious or unanalyzable. It is, instead, fundamental to the way we make the world (and the world makes us): perception of value is as fundamental as any other peception. The world to us is value-laden; and, since this is the only world we can ever know, the world itself is value-laden. How we do this is, of course, a fully empirical question.

It must follow that agents are constituted as value-perceivers. But, what is the value they perceive? If explicit reasoning has any relevance to what we do -- and surely it does -- it must be the case that the values we perceive are the values we use in reasoning. That is, what I am calling goals -- perceived values -- must be able to serve as premises in practical reasoning. Practical reasoning must have values in its premises because of the standard is-ought problem. Practical reasoning's conclusions are oughts -- what I should do, in order to achieve certain goals. If its premises are not normative in any way, then this sort of conclusion will never follow. But this means that practical reasoning never has relevance for our actions: it is not the source of the oughts that bind us. Since this is absurd, by reductio at least one of practical reasoning's premises must have normative content.

Now, reasoning itself is a normative activity. There are rules we must follow to proceed from premises to conclusions correctly. So, there must be rules to practical reasoning, and we agents must be such that we can follow these rules. As said, we must be constituted to perceive value; it would be parsimonious, then, if the values we perceive were one and the same as the rules we follow. For then rather than two processes, there is only one: perception is rule-recognition. (I'm eliding a little here, I know, but I think the basic point sound.)

There are two possible objections to this move. First, recognizing and following rules are different processes, and it is rule-following I should be concerned with. Second, values and rules are different in other normative areas, such as morality and aesthetics, and thus should be different in the basic practical realm.

I am not convinced by the latter. It strikes me as a fairly dogmatic assertion of a claim, and not an actual argument. For there to be an argument, there would have to first be some important difference bewteen following rules and realizing value. But is there? Take some rule: you should never lie to people. This can correlate, though, to a negative value: lying is bad. Or take another rule: you should be charitable. The value is obvious: charity is good. Generally speking, I think we can capture any rule, one should (or should not) φ, with a value, φ-ing is good (or bad). While I realize this is simplistic, it is at least suggestive that the distinction between rule and value is not a hard one.

The former objection is an instance of a more general problem for me. While I have said both that value is perceived and thus used in practical reasoning, and that pratical reasoning yields conclusions about what one shoudl do, there is yet a gap in both. One can fail to reason practically, and one can fail to follow through on the conclusion of a piece of practical reasoning. I suspect that causation will bridge these gaps. That is, I reason practically if I am caused to, somehow: probably something to do with the connections between the perceptual and higher-level cognitive systems. So a full -- not simply reasons -- explanation of action has a causal element. Similarly, I act on the conclusion of a piece of practical reasoning if (essentially) I cause myself to -- or, in older language, I will myself to. (Not language I use because I don't agree with the implied faculty of will, any more than the implied faculty of reson that does reasoning. Reasoning and willing, in my view, are activities of complex physical systems like us; there is no one independent and unique centre that is responsible for any particular activity.) Since this goes into action more generally, not just actions as they are done for reasons, it is beyond my scope here. But it is clearly an interesting and improtant question in its own right, and I do not mean to deny that.

Back to the main point. We know something about what agents must be like -- as perceivers and reasoners -- but how do they reason? What rules do they follow and what values do they realize? This is a difficult and general problem. Some rules are obvious: the rules of logic. Some values are also obvious: the aforementioned propriety, as well as basic pratical values (e.g., what is achievable). Beyond that, the answers are probably quite complex and difficult and, again, beyond the scope of my project. However, as long as there are rules and values of practical reasoning, then my project is basically well-founded. I may be wrong on particulars -- any given φ may not be done for the ψ I cite, bcause I don't have a full theory of practical reasoning -- but the general shape -- the dependence on practical reasoning -- seems supported.

Next week, I'm going to finish up this series and talk about the distinction between the practical and the moral; motivation; and some ontology and epistemology, just for fun.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Venting about the Ontario election.

I'm going to put off continuing the open access series until next week, in favour of this about the upcoming Ontario general election. The punchline is that, while I see reasons for voting in the referendum, I see no reason whatsoever to vote in the election. (FWIW, I didn't vote in the Toronto municipal elections, either, for approximately the same reasons as given below.)

As far as the referendum goes, I'm convinced that those who oppose the MMP proposal are either (1) deluded or (2) anti-democractic. The deluded are those who think that, if MMP fails, there will be another opportunity to revise the electoral system in favour of their preferred alternative to FPTP. Won't happen. The government clearly doesn't even want MMP to succeed (given the arbitrarily high threshold that's been set on the referendum's success). If it fails, is there really any reasonable chance that the process will be repeated for some other possibility? It's hard to see how there could be.

The anti-democratic are those who dishonestly oppose MMP on other grounds. The case is fairly clear in favour of MMP's democratic credentials. However you think people should vote -- Millian consequentialism, Lockean self-interest, Rousseauian general will, etc. -- it's not in dispute that the resulting parliament should reflect the votes of the people. And FPTP ensures that this does not happen. No one has won a genuine majority of the popular vote in Ontario since, I believe, sometime in the '50's. And yet we've had successive majority governments for as long as I remember -- and not marginal majorities, either. Remember the Rae and Harris governments?

I should point out that, in principle, I think democracy is a stupid system. It only makes sense if we have people of a certain quality (with particular powers, i.e., positive liberties), and I'm not a big fan of the demos we have these days. But, if we are going to have a democracy, then let's actually have one, instead of this only nominally democratic system of elections.

So, I see clear reasons to vote in favour of MMP. It's a more democratic alternative; this is supposed to be a democracy; so, let's actually have a democracy. However, I see only reasons against voting in the election, none for.

I know of two particularly prominent defenses of voting. Either it is a form of tacit or implied consent to the authority of the state (social contract tradition) or it is a way of being recognized as a person with autonomy and dignity (more broadly deontological, but consistent with utilitarianism; Mill's defense rests on such a notion). There are other defenses -- Plato, in Laws, defends a form of pluralistic democracy as a way of selecting the best rulers; Popper, in The Open Society, defends democracy negatively, as a way of warding off tyranny -- but these are the two I find most compelling. But, see here.

The first is simply bad, and its problems are well-known. First, tacit consent is barely genuine consent. It's just odd to say that some other action, besides overt agreement, can "count" as agreement. Second, even if this does make sense, voting doesn't signal consent to the government, because of a simple dilemma. Either voting signals consent only to be governed by whoever you voted for, or voting signals consent to be governed by anyone, regardless of your vote. If the former, a reductio ad absurdum appears: no one who votes for the losing side would ever be under the authority of the state (and, indeed, that would suggest a sure-fire way to get out of being obligated to the state: vote for some no-hope party). If the latter, a reductio also results, for then the preference you signal by casting your ballot could in principle be ignored without in any way violating the consent you have given. That is, your choice could be ignored without violating your choice.

So, the best hope is the second defense. But to be consistent with your dignity and autonomy, voting must allow for the possibility of not voting. After all, not voting is an act I can engage in autonomously, just as voting is. This follows from the fact that compelling me to vote would violate my autonomy. Thus, allowing me to not vote is required in order to respect my autonomy.

There's a number of complaints people tend to lodge against those who don't vote. The first is that doing so requires that you not care, but this is simply stupid. I do care; it's because I care that I'm not voting. The candidates in my riding are simply pathetic. David Zimmer (incumbent Lib) is running on his record but, off-hand, I can't recall a single thing he's done to actually help Willowdale. Should I vote for him because he's a good party man? But we vote for representatives, not parties (at least, under FPTP we do); he is supposed to be representing the interests of his riding in the Ontario parliament. So, what he's done for the party is irrelevant. Moreover, what the party will do for Ontario is irrelevant. What matters is what he will do -- and has done -- for me, and I've seen nothing, on his website or his election materials, to suggest that he'll do anything. So, he's out.

David Shiner (PC) seems to be running on a platform of magic and puppies and sunlight meadows of wonder and delight. At least, that's the best sense I can make of his boss' promises to improve funding to various things while simultaneously reducing taxes across the board. Do we really need to piss off public sector workers again? It wasn't a barrel of laughs the last time around. Again, note that he has no policies of his own.

Similarly, Rini Ghosh (NDP) has no policies of his own. I can't even see that he's got his own website. Pathetic. Exactly the same applies to Torbjorn Zetterlund (Green), although I sincerely doubt I would ever vote Green. Their libertarian economic fantasies strike me as obviously dangerous and founded on wishful thinking. And the less said about the fringe nuts running in this riding -- Heath Thomas (Libertarian), Kristin Monster (Family Coalition -- although, awesome name), and Charles Sutherland (Independent) -- the better. Although, don't take my shots at them as fringey the wrong way: I've voted federally for Canadian Action in the past.

So, I do care. And I won't vote for any of these people because of it.

Furthermore, not voting doesn't mean relinquishing my right to complain about politicians. I keep hearing this as a justification for voting and it simply doesn't wash. First, I can complain about anything I damn well please. Second, if I don't vote because no one is worth voting for -- and not because I just don't give a shit -- then, far from giving up the right to complain, not voting actually expresses a complaint.

There is some justification for strategic voting, in some cases. I've done that before. However, because the candidates haven't bothered to express what they actually stand for, there's no strategy possible. I can't pick out who's bad and who's good, so I can't vote for the lesser of the evils.

Finally, some may suggest that I refuse my ballot. I would; in fact, I think there should be a "none of the above" space on all ballots, with a little write-in space for you to explain why. But last time I tried that -- federal election after Chrétien quit -- and was told it was no longer an option. I have done it before (federal election but one before that).

So, I won't be voting in the election. As said, I see absolutely no reason for, and many reasons against.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The nature of reasons, as implied by the teleological model.

Edit (9/15/07, 11am): Forgot the hash mark for some of the Greek characters. Fixed now.

For those interested, the current draft of my diss. proposal is here (.pdf). Over the next few weeks, I want to tease out the last remaining threads of argument that I haven't quite developed, namely those that draw out implications from my model for reasons-explanations of action. Today I'll be talking about reasons.

As discussed previously here, here, and here, and, of course, in more depth in the proposal, a successful reasons-explanation of action has to accomplish three things:
  1. It must account for the connection between reasons and action in the agent;
  2. It must give reasons that the agent genuinely finds objectively worthy; and
  3. It must fit the action within the pattern implied by (1) and (2).
The teleological model (hereafter "T-model") I want to defend deals with (1) by invoking the connection between means and ends. A means, φ-ing, is connected to an end, ψ, if φ-ing is appropriate to ψ, which means that either φ-ing for ψ conforms with some relevant rule of practical reasoning or φ-ing for ψ is valuable, for some relevant value of practical reasoning. I also want to add in the (somewhat) radical claim that there's no relevant difference between rules of practical reasoning and values of practical reasoning. That is, to draw a parallel to ethics, there is no analogue to distinction between the right and the good at the basic level of practical reasoning.

An analysis of (2) thus comes for free as the means (action) is connected to the ends (reasons) by the former being an way of achieving the value of the latter. Thus, reasons are, always, valuable. For them to be objectively valuable, though, it has to be true that the ends are not purposes (which are subjective, in my view) but goals: that is, things in the world, such as states of affairs, which one aims one's action towards as a means.

Finally, the pattern is what I've characterized as a pseudopattern -- that is, a class of patterns -- called efficacious attainment of value (EAV). As long as the means is appropriate to the end, and the end is objectively valuable, then the pattern of the action (means) and reasons (end) counts as EAV.

The implications I want to be able to draw out of this model relate to a number of longstanding problems in various areas of philosophy. The first is the idea that reasons for action can't be psychological and must instead be real (i.e., goals, not purposes). The reason for this turns on the requirement of objective value. Approximately, some ψ is subjectively valuable if it seems objectively valuable to me; some ψ is objectively valuable if it actually is valuable. (These can, of course, coincide; I can correctly take the world to be as it seems to be.) Since a successful reasons-explanation of action has to show us that the reasons were objectively valuable, it has to be impossible that the reasons fail to exhibit objective value. (This sounds a little trite, I know. But I'm going somewhere with it.) But, psychological states can fail to exhibit objective value. This leaves us with two possibilities: either (a) the psychological states that fail to exhibit objective value are not really reasons, or (b) no psychological states are reasons. If (a), then the psychological states that are reasons are either (i) those that correctly track objective value or (ii) those that actually instantiate objective value. (ii) is a non-starter, I think, for it presumes a distinction within our psychological states that needlessly clutters the ontology, i.e., there would have to be a whole set of psychological states that actually instantive objective value, and a whole other set, just as complete, that did not. If (i), however, then there doesn't seem to be any need for the psychological states. That is, they seem to be playing a practical role analogous to the epistemological role played by good ol' sense-data, of wonderfully convenient intermediaries between the entirely separate spheres of mind and world. Since there's no good grounds to maintain this harsh separation, it follows that there's no need for these intermediaries. So, we may as well abandon (a) and go, instead, to (b).

I also want to claim that reasons are complex, not simple, and plural, i.e., that when I φ, I do so for a constellation of reasons (complex, not simple) and that any given reason can favour multiple actions, and any action can be favoured by multiple reasons (plural). I think this follows pretty straightforwardly. A given means can be appropriate to multiple ends; hence, one action can be favoured by many different reasons. Similarly, it's entirely possible that a given end can be attained efficaciously by multiple means; hence, one reason can favour multiple actions. Finally, there's no grounds to suspect that when I φ, I must do so for exactly one goal. Consider that any goal I achieve could, in principle, be part of a long series of goals (call this a "project"); thus, to achieve the first goal is to, at least in part, achieve the super-goal of the project.

Next week, I'll discuss arguments regarding the implications for agency and reasoning. (Which will be really fun, as I know almost nothing about the relevant literature. Woo-hoo!)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Open access series: Introduction.

(Short one today, as it's the first week of classes and (1) WebCT for my course is not yet working and (2) Trent's email server is no longer accepting my password. Sigh....)

As the title suggests, my newest "policy" series begins today. Including this shortish post, I envision four parts. In this installment, I'll lay out the topic, the various positions I will be considering, and my critical approach.

The topic is, as I suggested some weeks ago, open access to published research. Keeping in mind that I actually do have .pdfs of my dissertation proposal draft, MA thesis, and various grad papers available at my own website, I still find troubling the idea that anyone would be compelled to publish their research in a form that could be accessible to anyone. While it certainly may be a good thing that people do so, those sorts of consequentialist justifications have always left me a little cold.

But I get ahead of myself. There are two related issues that are important when it comes to open access, which I'll call cost and ease. That is, if you're in favour of "open access" to published research, you could be in favour of one of two distinct claims, i.e., that there be no charge for accessing published research, or that it be easy to access published research (e.g., through a central repository of some kind). If you're against open access, you could be against either or both of these claims, and you could be against them to varying degrees. I think there are three distinct and interesting positions that fall out of this division, which should be considered in turn.

The first is the status quo, with fairly high charges for access and fairly low ease of access. That is, currently, in order to read most published research, one is required to either subscribe directly or piggy-back on some sort of institutional access (e.g., university library); and then one has to laboriously search through a number of different databases to find the material that one is looking for. To make matters worse, these databases can be... shall we say, sporadic? ... in their coverage of whatever discipline is their subject; and there is also no guarantee that even a large institution, such as a university library, has access to the items listed in the database. So, even assuming you have paid for access to these databases, and can find something that looks useful for your interests, you may not have found everything you were looking for, and what you have found may have to be ordered from elsewhere. Which implies more charges, in most cases.

The second is what I'll call "total open access" or TOA. TOA would have no or exceedingly minimal charges for access and extremely high ease of access. In order to read most published research, one would go to a freely-accessible database that would contain all relevant research publications. This database would be easy to use and complete; and would also allow one to directly access the materials found, in either electronic or dead-tree form. All researchers would be required to have their publications available through this database. (Or else what? Good question.)

The third is what I'll call "improved access" or IA. IA would have modest charges for access and high ease of access. That is, the actual process of searching for published research would be highly similar to that of TOA, with one exception, namely that no one would be required to have their publications available through this database. To incentivize the process, researchers would be rewarded for participating, but not punished for failing to. After all, at the end of the day, the published work is their own and, if copyright means anything, it means that one can decide how to release what one has created. (Or even not to do so at all.) There would be more significant access fees than under TOA, but far less than under the status quo; and this would follow simply from the fact that, instead of subscribing to multiple databases and publishers in order to access all relevant research, individuals and institutions would only have to subscribe to one.

In the next three weeks, I'll be considering each of the status quo, TOA and IA in turn, by first critiquing the positive arguments for them, and then considering the negative arguments against them.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Once more...

...I suspend philosophical content. But next week, there will be something. This I guarantee.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Energy-generation: Conclusions.


Today I'm concluding my six-part energy generation series. (Links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) I'll start with an overview of the structure for the final evaluation, then summarize my results thus far. Then will come the evaluation, plus a quick consideration of the recently-proposed Ontario government plan for energy development.

I had three categories of costs I was considering. First, input costs, which included such things as fuel, risk, and construction costs. Second, operating costs, including particularly repair and maintenance. Third, output costs, including particularly emissions. In terms of benefits, I had two categories, electricity (obviously) and indirect benefits.


All fossil fuel technologies have essentially the same constructions costs and the same risk. Extracting the fuels is done is basically the same way, and they are used in basically the same way. Fuel costs, however, vary. Coal is cheapest, and natural gas most expensive. This is because natural gas is harder to transport, and must be processed before it can be used. (Which processing, incidentally, produces waste that can be potentially environmentally-damaging.) They also all have basically the same operating costs. In particular, they all consume some elctricity, in order to return the water back to the boiler; and the water in the boiler must be regularly replenished, due to steam leaks. Their output costs are not identical, although all do produce high levels of emissions. Coal is by far the worst as, in addition to greenhouse gases, it releases toxic gases and radioactive material. Clean coal can, theoretically, solve these worries, but it hasn't yet been put into practice. In terms of benefits, all fossil fuels are low-efficiency, losing energy in the form of heat to the environment. Natural gas is the most efficient, however.

Hydro has no fuel costs at all. Dams can be low-cost, if they are placed to serve other, revenue-generating functions. There's no obvious risk associated with dam-building, except the risks that are always attendant on large-scale construction. Certainly, there's nothing like the extra risk that comes along with mining. Operating costs can be quite low, because dams last quite a while and don't require a lot of on-site supervision. There are strict limits on how many sites can be used to generate hydro power, though. They can also have serious effects on aquatic ecosystems. There's also a greenhouse gas output, at least potentially, if plant matter decays in the reservoirs. Output of power is hard to estimate, as it's highly contingent on the size of the dam. In principle, though, there's a fair bit of hydroelectric power that could be generated beyond what we already have.

Nuclear reactors require a significant amount of money and time for construction. However, fuel costs are far beyond fossil fuels, but my understanding is that far less fuel is required for a nuclear reactor than a fossil fuel plant producing comparable levels of power. The risk of obtaining the uranium is comparable to other mining endeavours; although, the mining process will release radiation into the surrounding environment. By law, mining companies must contain this radiation. Maintenance and repair costs of nuclear reactors are lower than fossil fuel plants, but security costs are higher. Fhe fission reaction also produces nuclear waste that has to be disposed of. It can, however, be reprocessed for re-use in reactors and as weapons material. There's also less radioactive waste produced from a nuclear plant than a coal plant, and far less than is produced by industry. Radiation from a nuclear plant, in itself, has never been shown to have any significant health effect. Nuclear plants are also emissions-free, if you don't count water vapour.

Wind has only capital costs as far as input costs. As with hydro, there's a limit to the number of good sites available. However, given that wind is just starting to make itself a viable power source, there's many sites to still exploit. Operating costs are minimal, unless the turbines are operating in areas that exceed their operating tolerances, thus requiring additional technologies to keep them running (e.g., heaters and low-temperature lubricants for turbines operating in low-temp conditions). Wind outputs no emissions. Turbines may be considered unsightly, however. Noise pollution is a bit of a non-issue, given that it is quieter and less frequent than, say, a nearby highway. However, the efficiency of a wind turbine isn't much better than fossil fuels, due to the reduction in wind energy created by the wind passing through the turbine (and thus slowing down). Wind turbines will also output variable levels of power, due to variations in wind speed.

Biogas is, basically, a substitute for natural gas created by the bacterial breakdown of plant material and other organic matter. All the products of this production process must be treated before being removed from the digester, but this is no different than treating natural gas. Feedstock supply is an issue, so it's not clear whether this is much better than fossil fuel or nuclear power, in terms of its reliance on something as fuel. However, what biogas is generated from is, in principle, renewable. Furthermore, although biogas produces greenhouse gases, they are comprised of the carbon that was originally absorbed by the feedstock material in the first place. So, technically, biogas is carbon-neutral. Replanting the feedstock will keep the cycle closed by reabsorbing the carbon dioxide to fuel new feedstock growth.

When it comes to solar, photovoltaic technology has no fuel, and its construction costs are going down. (As far as I can tell, the current higher prices are a supply and demand problem, nothing more.) There's no obvious risk associated with it. It requires some maintenance (no way yet of estimating the cost of this), as panels can become damaged, particularly in large banks, such as in photovoltaic plants in Europe and Australia. Solar thermal plants also use no fuel, and their constructions costs are going down. There's also no obvious associated risk. These do also require, though, water from the environment, as does any thermal power plant; and electricity is consumed in pumping the water back through the system. Output is hard to estimate. Thermal systems have the worst conversion efficiencies, which are comparable to coal. There are no emissions, though, which has to be considered a big plus. Like wind, though, solar energy is variable.

Geothermal uses no fuel. Extra construction costs are mostly related to the boring of holes -- the remainder of the system is no more costly than a thermal fossil fuel plant. Operating costs are no different than any thermal power plant. Output costs should be minimal as no fuel consumed, no waste produced, and water/steam can be recycled and reused. The risk is that underground heat sources might be able to be depleted temporarily. However, with experience and management, there doesn't seem to be any reason why this fuel source couldn't be continuous and stable.

Tidal barrages are basically hydroelectric dams which use the tide to fill higher pools of water, and then create a fast-flowing stream to generate electricity. Thus, input and operating costs are identical to hydro. Output is not quite identical because, unlike hydroelectric, barrages will not be able to continuously generate power. They can only operate with the tides. However, the tides are at least reliable and predictable. Tidal stream generators are basically wind turbines underwater. All the same comments as with wind apply; except, as noted above, tides can be predicted. So, although the power supply isn't constant, it is at least regular. Wave energy is in very early development, but it, too, could be an emissions-free, predictable, reliable source of power. All these sources are, in principle, inexhaustible. There's vastly more energy in the tides than we could use in the predictable future.

Fuel cells are really a small-scale power source. I'm more interested in large-scale power generation, but I want it noted that small-scale is probably an idea whose time has come. We can, in principle, install fuel cell, wind, and solar technologies on our homes (and, if we're lucky, hydroelectric as well) to generate a not-insignificant amount of electricity for our own use. Personally, I look forward to the day when these technologies are as much a part of new home construction as central air.

Nuclear fusion is still really in early development. It does hold out the hope of extremely large quantities of energy generated from relatively small amounts of fuel. It remains to be seen whether the technological barries can be overcome, though.


Overall, several of these technologies use no fuel (solar, geothermal, wind, tidal, hydro). Biogas uses a renewable fuel. Nuclear uses a fuel that we haven't yet reached the point of exhausting. Fossil fuels use a fuel that is currently cheap, but is looking to drastically increase in price as extraction becomes more difficult and world reserves start to run dry.

In terms of risk, several are no-risk (except the usual risks associated with building big things): solar, wind, tidal, hydro, biogas. Fossil fuels and nuclear both require mining, which can be very dangerous. Nuclear mining has the special problem of controlling radiation from leaking from the mine. Geothermal has a small potential risk of increased seismic activity from drilling.

In terms of construction, some of these are very big-ticket items, and those costs aren't going down any time soon: hydro, tidal (barrage), nuclear. I don't have any idea how much biogas costs, capital-wise. Fossil fuels don't require a lot of construction expense in order to be used, nor do solar, wind and tidal (wave or stream generator).

Repair, maintenance and other operating costs are very difficult to evaluate. Some technologies can run with very little supervision: tidal, wind, hydro. Others need to be monitored and periodically repaired: solar, geothermal, nuclear, fossil fuel, biogas. But it's hard to see exactly what the costs are in this area. I suspect a general lack of transparency on the part of energy generating companies. It's possible the data is available out there, I suppose, but it's deucedly hard to find.

In terms of waste, hydro, solar, geothermal, wind, tidal, nuclear are free of troubling emissions. Biogas emits greenhouse gases, but is carbon-neutral, as long as feedstock is replanted. Fossil fuels, as we know, emit all kinds of crap. Nuclear produces waste which can be reprocessed. Moreover, the radiation levels have not been demonstrated to be associated with any health risk, and are less than both coal plants and industrial pollution generally. Hydro and wind installations can disturb existing ecosystems; given the structural similarities, it's probable that tidal will face the same problem.

It's hard to see what will produce more electricity. Certainly there's more tidal and wind and solar power than we will ever use, but we may not be able to tap all of it. This category looks like a draw, really. Depending on how big we want the installation to be, we could build anything to serve any amount of power. (This will get into whether there's enough resources to build the plants, but that's another issue completely.) This isn't necessarily a bad result, though, because it means that energy output doesn't affect the resolution of the issue. That is, whatever amount of energy we get from a given technology isn't what decides whether or not we use it. It's important to note, though, that some of the renewable technologies will not output reliable power, namely solar, wind, and tidal.

Due to lack of available information, it's impossible to calculate the indirect benefits of any of these technologies.


So, in conclusion, it seems that fossil fuel plants have had their day. Their fuel costs are going up, they're not efficient, and their fuel supplies are becoming ever more limited. Nuclear I don't think has had its day yet. The fears of radioactive waste seem unfounded, and we aren't yet at the point of using up potential fuel. However, nuclear will, eventually, have had its day as it, too, relies on a limited fuel supply. The advantage to nuclear over all the other technologies is that we know how to make it work, it's reliable, and we can, in principle, put nuclear plants just about anywhere (as compared to solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and tidal, which are limited to locations that (a) don't destroy the surrounding environment and (b) are capable of producing reasonable amounts of electricity). So, short-term, we pretty much have to build nuclear to deal with our power needs. But, beyond that, there's no clear winner among the various technologies. Which suggests to me an obvious solution: let the market decide.

No, seriously. Let the market figure it out. Intervening to force a solution one way or the other when there's no clear reason to do so is central planning of the very worst sort. The better way to deal with our energy problems is for government to invest in nuclear (which we know works) while providing non-targetted subsidies for anyone who wants to try another technology out. That is, instead of funding one replacement for nukes in particular -- say, solar -- it is the role of government, representing our interests, to give everyone who wants the shot a chance to make their technology work. I envision these as investments, rather than loans, with the public retaining a share of the profits of successful companies, and losing their money if the company doesn't work. This would have two beneficial effects over a credit scheme: (1) failed start-ups don't have to deal with a debt burden on top of their failure and (2) government will be less willing to spend public money without a reasonable expectation of a return on the investment. Thus, we create a situation which encourages reasonable experimentation, fulfills our current and projected power needs, and will, eventually, give us a viable replacement for nuclear. Of course, if a clear winner does emerge from the market competition, then government should immediately target investment in that area in order to encourage its development as such a replacement.

With that in mind, i think it's worth taking a quick look at the Ontario plan for future power development. (See here.) The Liberal plan is to spend about $27 billion on nuclear, which I agree with, obviously. There's about $10 billion to spend on conservation, energy efficiency, and other ways to reduce demand. I cautiously endorse this, while noting that conservation is pretty much a pipe-dream. If we move seriously to paperless work, libraries, etc., keep expanding our use of electronic devices, and so on and so forth -- heck, if we introduce electric cars (which would, after all, be entirely emissions-free, and potentially very efficient) -- then conservation won't really happen on a wide-scale. Efficiency is a laudable goal, though, as would targetted subsidies for people who want to install small-scale green energy generation technologies on their own property (e.g., photovoltaic cells). The "other ways" aren't spelled out in the article, so I can't know if they include such subsidies.

There's $15 billion for new wind and hydroelectric projects, which I don't agree with. As said, I think this money should be distributed to any technology that wants to take a shot at proving itself, not just hydro and wind. Furthermore, building hydro requires, as is noted, $4 billion in new transmission infrastructure just to get the electricity from the dams (in the north of the province) to where it's needed. It's also worth noting that hydro power is, in principle, limited. There's not that many locations where a dam would produce a reasonable amount of power and not destroy the surrounding environment. There's also $3 billion for gas plants, which is a head-scratcher, unless the idea is to provide a stopgap power source until the nuclear plants are up and running. If that's the point, then it makes some sense, but it's not clear from the article.

Next Week

I'm currently plotting a series on open access to research. I need to do some preliminary work to figure out how to structure the series. But, the point I'm hoping to be able to endorse is neither the current system, with very controlled access, nor the pie-in-the-sky system of total open access. Instead, I'm hoping to be able to endorse a system of improved access, with minimal entrance barriers. But, we'll see if that works out for me or not....

Sunday, September 02, 2007

No philosophy this week, kids.

Sorry to disappoint. I'm working up the 2nd draft of my dissertation proposal, though. I'll happily post the full text as a blog post, just as soon as I can figure out how to convert the formatting into a readable version (including footnotes and special characters). Is there any nice Word-to-HTML convertor available? Word's built-in function sucks hugely.