Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Natural Law

What is typically described as natural law has had a long history in  philosophical thought. It gained particular prominence during the Age of Reason and Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries and was linked with development of democracy, individual rights, and political freedom. It is a notion that was advocated  by the religiously-minded Thomas Aquinas several centuries earlier as by other, more secular philosophers and nation builders later, like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.  It had a  tremendous impact upon the revolutions and upheavals  during the period and this can be seen in its influence on British politics and law, French Bill Of Rights, and the United States Constitution.  The natural law  holds, in one form or another,  that all men have an inherent right to be free and pursue life and liberty.

The key point to note here is that, the natural law is understood as something fundamentally distinct from any particular human-created jurisprudence. Its origins are meant to lie in human nature itself, and it is believed to be true regardless of the period of human history or the location of the people to whom it is applicable.  In other words, it is considered on the same footing as laws of physics.  The doctrine claims that, being a part of nature, human beings behave and act according to a certain set of laws.  Just as copper has certain properties owing to its nature, so do human beings. This, we must believe, is self-evident and no further explanation is required to justify it. It is often held that natural law prescibes actions that maximize happiness as Sir William Blackstone explains," .. demonstrating that this or that action tends to man's real happiness, and therefore very justly concluding that the performance of it is a part of the law of nature ".No mention is ever made of the fact that one man's happiness could potentially cause harm to another. Furthermore, the advocates of this theory posit that the rights that follow from them are just as inviolable (according to the decree of nature).  Quite clearly,  all this is a steaming pile of nonsense.

First off, the comparison of human beings to copper is egregious: we are fundamentally different from inanimate objects for the simple reason that properties of copper are well-defined and constant. Human beings, on the other hand, are very complex products of nature, who behave radically different from each other under similar circumstances and appear to demonstrate choice in actions. Comparing us to copper or lead is baseless. More importantly, given how complex we are, there is absolutely no physical law that applies to our actions even at an qualitative, approximate and coarse-grained level. That is a scientific fact and not merely my opinion.  Thus everything all these philosophers have said under the guise of naturalness is not based on any scientific methodology but involves either some form of divine prescription(the religious ones) or vague speculations(for those who have no such excuses). 

However to see the utter foolishness of this idea, such established scientific truths are an overkill. The most basic question that comes to mind when faced with such a sweeping declaration is how to account for those innumerable cases where these are not true.  How do we explain the oppression of people, murder of innocents and discrimination against certain groups if nature encoded every individual to just pursue life and liberty. Why would colonies have to fight a revolutionary war and declare independence from a supposedly oppressive empire? What empirical evidence do we have that nature has granted anything resembling such rights? The fact that some privileged folks had the time and leisure to babble such nonsense?  What does nature care if you are poor and your life is nasty, short and brutish? Or, you were dead a few minutes after birth owing to several medical complications? Does nature prevent you from being condemned to enslavement for eternity, not having experienced even a whiff of free "life" so grandly stated in the U.S Declaration Of Independence? Aren't these the realities of the world inhabited by those who made such grandiose proclamations. Perhaps, a certain clause that beneficiaries of nature were meant to be  rich white men was implied (after all, who else matters?).

Its intellectual absurdity becomes even more apparent when you consider the fact that proponents of the concept of natural laws further insist  that we must defend these rights? What is the need for defending something if  natural state of affairs conforms to the desirable situation (by definition of natural law)?  Why does the question of defending such liberties arise when human nature never would transgress it?  It is incredible that such cognitive dissonance that is immediately apparent has never registered in the proponents of this Utopian doctrine.  Why set up a government, a system of politics with laws and regulations, and bodies to enforce them, and punish the violators when human nature is naturally good and favors liberty and freedom.

Perhaps I am being overly critical. Maybe a more limited interpretation of the natural law can be regarded as being closer to the truth.  What if the natural law is to be understood as human tendencies, rather than rights, to want to be free and enjoy life and pursue happiness?  Initially, this re-characterization sounds a lot more reasonable. Until of course, you realize there are other less benign human tendencies as well.  In all cases of tyranny, exploitation and massacres  the inclinations of man -greed, egocentric-ism, callousness,vengefulness, domination and power - emerges to destroy such hypothesis.  Evidence does not support the likely defence that we should ignore the latter as mere aberration to the deep inherent goodness of man.  If anything,the record of human history is mixed: indications of good behavior often being side to side with examples of cruelty, destruction and horror being as much a human story as love and kindness are.  Considering these facts, natural law looks like a really uneven fit with the data.

And yet, the law itself - and the rights derived from it  - is anything but nonsensical. In fact, they are some of the most basic foundations on which much of the progress of civilizations has occurred over centuries.  And they do sound like good principles to start building a society and government upon. Except they are not natural, not even close. Acknowledging this would fundamentally alter the very significance of them. Framing it in its original language gave it a veneer of universalism. That was sufficient justification to not question its supreme status in the theory of ethics.  After all, if these laws are not natural, then what is ethics based upon?   The religious have a simple, direct answer to this question but it is wholly unsatisfactory to those who do not share their faith.  Most secular people don't ever  get this far to question the basis of their ethical framework. Most  likely, the response will be some platitudes and appeals to nature, abusing whatever little they know of evolutionary psychology and anthropology along the way.

 I should stress that I see this as an extremely crucial dilemma as this represents my starting point for the argument for expanding our circle of consideration to include sentient animals. The way I understand this is to first admit that, yes, from the strict point of view of nature, these "natural laws" are as arbitrary as any other.  Nonetheless,I contend that these laws seem the most reasonable and fair for everyone concerned. A fair compromise is implicitly involved in the trade-off between enjoying certain liberties while being prohibited from encroaching on those of others.   The same record of human history will show that all societies and cultures have always placed significant importance on being fair (even if that applies to a very narrow group) and human bonding and a concern for the welfare of others(again, narrowly applied to a subgroup) is also a common trait.  The philosophy of ethics, under which the "natural" laws are stated, argue that these considerations should be  expanded to all human beings.  And indeed, the sphere of consideration has shown enormous progress is different societies, starting from kith and kin, to tribe,moving to the village, the state and kingdom and sometimes even cutting across ethnic, cultural and geographic boundaries. At the same time, these liberties cannot be taken for granted, something that is again obvious glancing at the darker portion of human history and examples where even members of your family can turn against you.  Hence, there has to be an external mechanism to protect these liberties and the means to enjoy a good life. 

It is in this context that one has to understand animal rights. Lots of people demonstrate an inherent aversion to wanton cruelty to animals. And yet they suffer from cognitive dissonance and continue to be full participants in the industry that is responsible for unfathomable amounts of the same. The reasonable thing to do here is to recognize the interests of animals and duly accord them proportional rights. At the very least, they cannot be used as products for our benefits.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The appetite for American dollars

Amidst all the discussion, analysis, forecasts and alarm surrounding the credit downgrade of the United States,the soaring national debt  and potential default, an  obvious question is never being asked by anyone in the mainstream media establishment.  Why would any government want to hold onto US debt in the first place? This question is almost never addressed directly although issues surrounding it such as concern over foreigners funding America's consumption, debt-fueled spending and dangers of the possible run on the dollar are reported and discussed (even then, either incorrectly or hysterically or both). The explanation for this has to do with the fact that exploring that question and reaching to its logical conclusion would reveal the full extent of American economic imperialism for over 60 years and the rigging of the entire global reserve system around the dollar.

The question is so plainly obvious that it is conspicuous by its absence in any public debate. Why would any foreign nation want to stack up on Treasury securities when their yield is so low? All the more baffling when you consider that several under-developed and developing nations that are otherwise strapped for money have considerable dollar-denominated reserves piled up. Imagine if these nations could invest the same amount of money into a lucrative business, they could use the profit earned to fund domestic social services like healthcare and education. Why would a government not choose that more profitable option or alternately, use that same reserve for important developmental projects at home?  During those really rare occasions that this issue is considered in the mainstream American media, the usual explanation that is provided points to the fact that the US government debt is a safe haven for all investors. To bolster this position, we will be informed that at times of severe crisis and market shocks,such as, for example the collapse of Lehman Brothers and other large financial firms in August of 2008, investors were rushing to hoard Treasury notes because of their perceived low risk. The same pattern was observed, most oddly, immediately after Standard and Poor announced the downgrade of US debt recently.  There is, undeniably, a grain of truth to this claim but like so many other simple-minded blanket  explanations this still does not account for how willing governments to pay for America's extravagant ways (with so little ostensible benefit).

Bretton Woods System

The real answer goes back all the way to 1944 and to a small town in New Hampshire where the major Allied powers set out to lay the foundation of the future global economic system.   With the country clearly emerging as far and beyond the most powerful economic power whose future domination was obvious, the United States was able to structure the international financial system to its immense benefit.  The scheme that was developed, called the Bretton Woods system, had the United States dollar as the the primary currency with respect to which the exchange rate of the other countries were fixed.  The dollar itself was pegged to the gold standard and in return for this agreement the US promised to exchange dollars held by any nation  within the system to an equivalent amount of gold. To coordinate and maintain this global economic system, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was established which was stated to provide assistance to distressed nations in the form of debt relief or to offset balance of payment and provide counsel wherever required. Every country had a quota in the IMF and with the United States having more than one-third of the total, it had to ability to veto any decision taken by the institution. In little or no real position to negotiate a better settlement, most countries accepted this proposal and although Britain was reluctant to let its position of pre-eminence slip away, the reality of its financial dependence on Washington for several decades into the postwar period made it acquiesce to the demands of the new imperial hegemon. Moreover, the sheer economic power of the United States was able to override any voice of concern that might have been raised amongst the 40 odd nations gathered there. That pact guaranteed American economic hegemony throughout the world. The dollar, which, at this point, was the only currency still convertible to gold, was stipulated to be the global currency; it was the most "liquid" asset with the highest demand, and consequently, the safest bet.  As part of the agreement all the nations were expected to open up their markets for trade which gave the US the full coverage of regions that had previously adopted a more protectionist stand. However, capital controls were not only allowed but were recommended. 

Consolidation and Stability (1945-1972)

In the few years following the Bretton Woods agreement, with Europe devastated by the war and its foreign reserves exhausted, it became an unfavorable situation where the US had plenty of surplus and instead of the dollars entering the international arena (as was desired under the system), it stayed at home predominantly. While the reason why Washington benefits from having the dollar as the global currency today is because it allows deficit-spending, in late 1940s when nearly half of the world's production was within its borders, it was the reverse: the US wanted to get rid of the surplus. This  Atlantic divide was known as the "dollar gap" and in order to reverse this trend, and also to improve Europe's industry and welfare and prevent it from succumbing to anything that scented of left-wing sympathy,   the Marshall Plan was proposed under which Washington would assist European countries with several billion dollars in aid.  In the next few years, partly because of the Marshall Plan, partly due the reversal of the policy to dismantle the German industrial capacity(again, delusions of Soviet influence), and partly because of many other internal factors, Western Europe recovered, its industries restored, its economy revitalized and its currencies strengthened. By the middle of 1955, dollars were copiously flowing out of the United States, and European exports (particularly German) were doing very well.  In fact, much to the consternation of American financial leaders, an independent Euro-dollar market was established which basically traded the dollars and dollar-denominated assets outside of American regulatory authority. This was a period marked by tremendous prosperity in the West with low inflation, low unemployment, increased economic stability and high standards of living. However,by 1959, the opposite problem was becoming the main concern, with lot more dollars circulating outside the US than what America could support with whatever gold reserves it held.  The situation became increasingly untenable and culminated in 1972, when President Nixon announced that the US would no longer back the dollar with gold. That marked the collapse of the original monetary arrangement and from that time onwards, the only "backing" for the dollar was the trust of the United States government and the size and stability of its economy. This ushered in an era of fiat currency and floating exchange rates which led to greater instability and fluctuations. Nonetheless, the dollar still remained, by inertia alone, as the global reserve currency and its demand strong as ever.

Global Economic Order 1972-

When a particular currency has established itself as the primary exchange for international trade, commodity pricing and adjusting exchange rates, it becomes imperative for every nation to maintain a sufficient reserve of that currency. Why would that be so? Imagine a situation where a small country is struck by a famine and needs to import food for its starving population. The reserve currency is required to make such purchases without jeopardizing the domestic economy. Likewise if a nation's currency  is falling, the standard move is for the central bank to sell the reserve currency and purchase the domestic currency thereby increasing demand for the latter. Conversely, if the value of the domestic currency is appreciating, the central bank would have to sell the domestic currency and the reserve currency is typically purchased in return.  Settling debt with the reserve currency would prevent any unforeseeable negative consequences to the domestic economy. Such concerns underlie the desire to hoard reserve currency even by the poorest of nations despite the fact that the interest rates are so low.  The natural question one may ask is why the euro or the yen is unable to take up that role. This is because although a significant amount of reserves are held in euros, the dollar still dominates the international markets and most commodities(especially oil) are priced in dollars and most currencies are pegged to the dollar. My answer sounds like question-begging but the real point to note here is that once something acquires the market share in the world that the dollar has done it is very difficult to displace it from that position.  Also, EU has never been very happy with letting the euro reach the hands of investors far from the eurozone (this was true ever before Irish, Portuguese, Spanish and Greek problems brewed). The Bretton Woods system was so formulated with this intent precisely in mind- securing the global hegemonic role of the dollar and thereby the United States.  With the US running deficits for the last 15 years or so, cheap credit has always been the order of the day because foreign governments are more than willing to buy Treasury paper. Even with the debt growing stupendously, having to fund imperial wars of aggression and invasion and making up for the refusal of both the corporate parties  to tax the rich, countries are willing to lend money for next to nothing. This situation clearly exposes the unfairness and ridiculousness of the global reserve system. Even on the face of it, it should be odd that that a single country's domestic currency  also functions as the global currency. Having rigged it this way, such problems are of course, inevitable.

Much like the Euro-dollar market in the 1960s, this form of economic dominance can unexpectedly be a double-edged sword for Washington. The case in point here is China. The latter holds more than a trillion dollars in US debt, and unlike several other nations, it is not for any specific emergency. The primary motivation for buying up the dollars is to prevent the yuan from appreciating. That way China can ensure its exports remains competitive and under free market trade agreements, the US domestic market is flooded with Chinese goods (a case of defeating you at your own game). With this mutually dependent(and simultaneously unfair)relationship between the superpowers at the background, the accusations that they level at each other is a complete farce. Despite all the bickering about Chinese manipulating currency, the last thing America wants is for China to call in its debt, which will surely shake the very foundations of the global economic order. Likewise,China will not stop buying US debt because the the US is the greatest consumer for its products. During the start of financial crisis in 2008, the decrease in exports led to unemployment problems for China and the last thing Beijing wants is a restive population demanding for political reforms and freedoms.  Hence the stalemate and the status quo and the downgrade is going to do nothing to change it, just as the Beijing and Washington annually sending critical reports of human rights condition to each other does little to change the multitude of abuses in either.

Where does the world go from here? Nobody really knows. Any reasonable analysis of the prevailing situation taking into account how such entrenched global standards -like eating meat and abusing animals, to quote another example - refuse to go away despite uncovering all the irrationality and destruction associated with it. It is of course, incredibly surprising how little all this gets mentioned in the media. The amount of loss accrued from accumulating Treasury papers more than outweighs any benefits from the US aid including those that come with the political conditions duly attached. The ethnocentricism and conservatism of mainstream American media prevents any honest discussion and debate on this topic.  Much like  other crucial issues, the problem is never fully addressed and instead what the public hears is a completely narrow and limited perspective of it.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Capitalism vs Communism

Capitalism vs Communism

The above comparison stands alongside other dichotomies such as good vs evil,God vs Devil, victory vs defeat, with us vs against us, as a notorious example of framing a debate in terms of a silly binary choice. Needless to mention, this approach is incredibly wrongheaded not merely because it does not consider a third alternative, but more importantly, confines you to think about the issue in very narrow terms. It already establishes a narrative for confronting the original issue that led to this false choice being presented as a genuine option. Of all these misleading binary divisions, this one is amongst the most dangerous of all in the modern political milieu.

Why must it this be so? To begin with, it is really asking you to make a choice between two economic systems (strictly speaking, one is also a political system) without addressing what the basic motivations are? Imagine if you knew nothing about the history of the world, or the economic paradigms that have existed, but you have some basic sense of what is right and wrong (yet another dichotomy!), and if faced with a choice as this, how would you react? Most certainly with confusion and bewilderment. What must be even difficult to understand is how people are able to declare their allegiance to one over another without much thought to how it actually relates to the basic questions of right and wrong. What are the reasons behind their ideological inclinations. Either they find one or the other appealing as an economic system, or they use history as evidence to choose between the two. It is very important to observe here is that these two approaches are almost completely unrelated to one another i.e the theoretical foundations of the politics and economics that are espoused by these systems is very different from what their actual realizations were. That is not taking into consideration the various strains of thought and varying ideas - sometimes leading to contradiction- that exists even at the theoretical level. Thus, if historical examples are compared to determine political orientations, then the debate is about the realizations of these ideological systems and not their original formulations. Then we have already stepped away from thinking through from basic principles about what is the best system to adopt and merely used the historical precedents to arrive at a decision. I consider this an intellectually lazy attitude that fails to question the basic mechanisms behind the structure that built on (ostensibly) these ideological systems. But, as some defenders of such thinking will will argue, the principles, ideas, and guidelines laid out by their respective political philosophies will, inevitably, naturally lead to the kind of monsters that we normally associate with them. This is untrue.

Capitalism, as an economic system in theory(and whatever liberal-democratic political philosophy it accompanies) , does not require or accept sweatshop labor as a fair system just as communism as a theory does not call for forced labor camps to send dissidents. Neither does capitalism - as a political philosophy, again- ignore environmental destruction regarding it as a burden for future generations to be worried about nor does communism suggest ignoring victims of famine and callously allowing millions to perish. Capitalism does not call for integrating the economic system with military imperialism or any other asymmetrical relationship enabling domination and oppression of the weak. In much the way communism does not require every singly political party in the world to abandon independent policy and follow the line of some megalomianiacal leader. Capitalism does not imply state corporatism and communism does not imply bureaucratic nightmare. Capitalism does not demand violently crushing labor movements and communism does not demand complete censorship. Capitalism does not require state terrorism to impose its system elsewhere and communism does not need agent provocateurs and propaganda to sustain it. Inequality does not follow from capitalism much like economic stagnation does not follow from communism. Capitalism does not need right wing dictators maintain order and likewise communism does not require their - equally brutal - "left wing" counterparts. The principle of "invisible hand" does not imply (according to Adam Smith, mind you) leave-everything-to-the-market-and-we'll-all-be-happy-ever-after and "dictatorship of the proletariat" was never meant to be understood as we do so today. Capitalism does not promote individualism anymore so than communism. The list goes on...

It is simply unquestionable in the light of these facts that we have to separate the theoretical underpinning of these philosophies from the real-world materialization of political and economic systems either devised by individuals or organizations at their inception and/or metastasized into the complex forms they have assumed. If of course we refuse to be confused and dismiss these false associations, then the only other rational way to choose one system over another is for us to consider their basic premises, their various assumptions,the arguments and reasoning that are employed to construct a social, economic and political theory based on those premises. All of this comparison is meaningful only if, at the end, it complies with some core principles. What would those core principles be? Would it be the "liberty" to drive a gas-guzzling vehicle when it is responsible for speedy destruction of the environment and depletion of limited natural resources? Would it be that education and basic health services must be available only to those who can afford them? Would it be the principle that the market should always determine the wages even if those wages are criminally low and creates enormous disparity in wealth? Or, on the other hand, do you want a giant bureaucracy that involves inefficiency and waste? Do you want the state to adopt a completely protectionist policy and ban all imported goods ? Do you want hard-earned money to be simply given away to maintain that same bureaucracy? Do you want to navigate through tons of regulation before you get an innovative idea to translate to a successful enterprise? The answer, I hope to ALL, is no. What do we want then? Although there will always be disagreements, we can spell out a few of what these core principles are. These include upholding fairness and justice for all and protection of fundamental liberties. Just to be clear, what I have stated in one line as some unambiguous fact, has been extensively debated by philosophers, political scientists, legal theorists and economists for ages. I am not going to pretend that they all just missed some basic point. I can acknowledge that and at the same time claim that there are several cases where the reasonable and fair position is more-or-less clear. As an example is the assertion that everyone born into this world has equal opportunities (or, more accurately, equal consideration). This is an ideal that has found universal acceptance and you will hear lip service to that even from the worst tyrants on this planet. Now consider a situation - a fairly common one - where we have evidence that children born into families with lower socio-economic status have much fewer opportunities in their life, thereby not only violating our principle but also creating generations trapped in the same status. It would of course lead to a heated debate on what exactly the approach must be but it must be obvious that the existing situation cannot be acceptable. Consider another case - also very prevalent- where your income is taxed significantly but there is extreme secrecy about how that revenue is allocated, its accountability, oversight, and audit. The ostensible reason for taxing is the greater common good and that includes at the minimum, ensuring safety from crime and vandalism, protection of basic liberties, fending off external threats to the society, arbitrate cases of alleged violations of law. If these are the stated aims, then it is again obvious that much of the dealings of the authorities and agencies handling the public money must be open to review and answerable to the taxpayers. This would be a legitimate case where the "fairness and justice" requirement demands greater transparency. The same arguments can be furnished for secularism, civil liberties – no discrimination of racial or religious minorities, reproductive rights, consensual sexual relations with any adult and even treatment of such cases under law, freedom from arbitrary arrests and detention, assumption of innocence before proven guilty, protection of privacy, defence of free speech-, independent and free media, proper procedures for copyright, protection of environment and natural resources, long-term sustainability of projects etc. There are many more but the general idea must be clear. We need to ensure that individuals are treated as such -as entities in and of themselves,and when sacrifices are necessary for the common good, the burden must be fairly distributed. A government requiring the poor to bear the brunt of savage cuts to heal the financial health that was brought into disarray by the wealthy cannot be considered a fair society, whether it proudly calls itself capitalistic or communist. The point then is what kind of broad economic and political system must be adopted by the political entity -which can be safely assumed to be a nation-state (idealistic visions of anarchy,aside) - in order that these ends are met?And this ought to be the question you should ask and whatever narrative is constructed must be based upon these ideals, and those narratives must never assume greater importance than the ideals themselves leading to absurd abstract binary choices like "Communism or Capitalism?"

Still, it worthwhile to to consider in some more detail what the precepts of each economic system would entail in different scenarios. This would highlight even further how ridiculous it is to talk in terms of such misleading choices. A typical example of ideological posturing is taking sides on the question of free trade vs protectionism. We consider two situations: in case A, we have two nations X and Y, and X is most efficient in production of electronic goods and Y manufactures automobiles at the lower price. If we allowed free trade, then X can focus on electronics and export them while simultaneously importing automobiles from Y. Doing so would benefit both economies and we have a fine example of Adam Smith's principle. If you stubbornly reject free trade, then nobody stands to gain from it - productivity is reduced in both nations and inefficiency is being promoted. In case B, we introduce a third nation Z, which is largely an agricultural society and is able to produce food crops at the most competitive price. Now, consider free trade between Z and Y. Proceeding along the same lines as in the previous instance, we are tempted to declare that a free-trade arrangement would be best choice for both nations. However, there are other factors we have to consider that were not as important in the previous case. The amount of food crop traded for a single automobile would clearly be quite considerable. Now, depending on the size and output of the two countries, there is a good chance that this kind of agreement would lead to annual trade imbalances in favor of Y -the total value of food traded exported would be less than the value of the automobiles imported. This situation would mean that the national debt of Z would grow steadily and that make its position less powerful and vulnerable to unfair policies and practices against it. More significantly, this would imply that Z would be never develop the technology to manufacture automobiles and as a consequence not only become dependent on Y for it, but also possibly never cultivate industries that are connected with automobiles – iron and steel, material sciences, assembly line standards, research in mechanical or chemical engineering. If this status were to be maintained Z would permanently remain an agricultural country without any industrial capacity or production facility or high-tech research. Its people will have little option other than having to do the same farm work forever. Obviously, I have simplified things here to focus on an important issue - the necessity for the state to intervene and impose certain protectionist measures to develop indigenous industries. Thus, it may be necessary for its citizens to pay more for a product produced locally but it is a required sacrifice if in the long run the country needs to remain competitive in global marketplace. In other words, in this case, insisting on free trade without paying attention to the specific details of the economic structure would be impose unfair conditions between nations. These two cases illustrate that one cannot take a simple-minded universal approach and apply that unconditionally in all situations.

Another example is the debate surrounding minimum wages: is it required? Again consider two cases, one where a company can employ N workers. If the total number of people who are seeking this job is of the same order of N, say 1.5N or 2N, then it would be reasonable to assume that the wages can be fixed by the market. If in case a job-seeker is greedy and  demands more money than what is fair, then a more reasonable person will be prepared the same work for less, and that person is eventually employed. This would be a fair system for both the company and the workers. However, considers a variation where many people are out of jobs- and this can happen for any number of reasons, and so several more (say 10N) are applying for the limited number of openings available.If then the wages were to be still determined by the market, then the company can easily exploit the people's desperation and make them work for a lot less than what is fair. This situation calls for some kind of minimum wage because otherwise these market-equilibrium low wages can easily become standardized and the exploitation will continue. So we have to evaluate the conditions of the economy before we can arrive at a decision. In other words, taking an a priori position on it, without reference to empirical facts of the situations would be wrong-headed.

A third example would be regulations on businesses. Do we require them ? Like in the previous two examples, we can think of the first case where the government imposes several rules on running the business. For definiteness consider the business here is to be a  restaurant. The constraint can include entry into the market,  quality control of the food, commercial building laws, complicated liquor licenses, heavy taxes, various consumer protection laws, labor laws to protect employees, employment mandates and holding the business liable for a number of different scenarios. If that happens, there is strong disincentive to even start such a business, not least because of the paperwork, government interference and the possible bureaucracy and corruption accompanying it. This would raise the price of the food served, decrease competition, create inefficiency and generally slow down the economy. So it would be in the best interest of everyone to minimize the restrictions and even provide additional incentives for such businesses to thrive. In the second case, instead of a small family owned restaurant imagine you have a giant corporation that uses assembly line methods to produce cheap, unhealthy - possibly dangerous -fast food while polluting the environment, exploiting cheap labor, using predatory pricing to drive out competition, using economy of scale for the same purpose and effectively transforms entire eating patterns of the region -possibly entire nation and beyond- to create obesity and cholesterol problems, which increases treatment costs of the people (possibly government). What needs to be done here is obvious. But, oh wait! The smart ass free-marketer will step in, and tell me there is simple solution :you always have the obvious option of eating better food. This 'simple solution' ignores several things – possibility of said corporation outlets driving out other high-quality businesses serving better food, its cheap products obscuring quality of ingredients without full disclosure of the health risks involved, misleading promotions and advertisements and consumer's unwillingness to be worried about environmental costs or labor issues. Nothing can rein in such cancerous growth other than some control by the state. Again here, we see that we cannot employ a one-size fits all policy to regulate the economy. Empirical evaluation is key.

The same is true when it comes to globalizationas well. People are usually split between two reactionary camps: (1)globalization is an utopia that can reach the remotest parts of the world and expose them to a plethora of new possibilities or (2) globalization destroys economies, people's livelihoods, promotes neo-imperialism/colonialism. First of all, much like capitalism or communism or even a giant energy conglomerate, globalization in theory– as an idea, in and of itself – is not predisposed towards (1) or (2). It is merely a description of an global economic framework where economies of nations are integrated with each other. Just like everything else, this integration can be mutually beneficial or it can be asymmetrical or it is just more bureaucracy  or – as it mostly the case in practice – it benefits the financial elite in each of these nations at the expense of the majority. To those taking position (1), we need to point out the tremendous risks that arise from economic arrangements between small, poor underdeveloped nations and large industrialized counterparts. Large international corporations can easily bribe corrupt government officials in the third world and take complete control of a certain field where oil reserves are discovered and make immense profit out of it, without giving a penny back to the people on whose land it was extracted from (this happens regularly, by the way). On the other hand, shunning the global marketplace can be equally dangerous as globalization can enable export driven sectors to expand and can also provide a measure of economic stability by increasing valuable foreign exchange reserves.
It can also create the right environment for growth in certain sectors, which can in turn stimulate the economy and sustain it. Yet again, everything depends from case to case and holding to some rigid ideology would prove counterproductive.

The same simplified binary thinking accompanies debates on such abstractions as: privatization vs nationalization, regulation vs deregulation, supply side economics vs demand side economics,
market economy vs command economy, welfare vs no welfare, monetary vs fiscal policy etc. This way of framing questions is deeply flawed because it does not address the primary principles of fairness, justice and liberty that I have talked about. Choosing a command economy or a market economy should not be an ideological battleground and the debate should focus on reforms that can make the system more fair while curbing waste and inefficiency. Of course, there are no clear mathematical theorems  that can maximize some fairness-based utility in all situations but one thing is certain. Empirical evidence is infinitely more important than mere ideology. Macroeconomics is very complex for no reason other than the fact that there are so many factors involved, and on top of that, we have human irrationality – that makes people eat in those cheap, shitty, dirty fast food chains -that makes it all the more difficult to be prescribe correct policy. Still, if we stick to an empirical methodology and then constantly make changes to existing policy based on periodic evaluations we'll do much better than sticking to some misguided abstract thinking.

End Notes:
a. I have conflated economic system with political philosophy and that is not correct, but the context should make it clear.

b. It would be more accurate to discuss this as “capitalism vs socialism” but I just wanted to point out how ridiculously battle lines are drawn in politics and the general associations that are made.

c.China of course combines market economy with a single-party authoritarian regime and it has achieved a lot. No wonder many people who indulge in such ideological posturing don't refer to it.

d. Not everyone thinks this way but it is really pervasive.Couple of economists who I consider as being above this are Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why Animal Rights

Since I have made the decision to eliminate from my diet dairy components that I have enjoyed thus far into my life, it is only natural that I describe my reasons for this rather difficult choice. Stated differently, I feel the need to explicate in some detail my stand on the issue of vegetarianism/veganism as it relates to animal rights.  What is it and why is it so important? Is it a reasonable position that has  logical/rational basis or is it just a matter of personal morality? I had stated a long while ago in my column that I will write about this topic and now I think is an appropriate time to lay out my views on this subject. 


I should make it clear at the outset that neither the  arguments I shall construct here are novel nor the analogies I draw original. There are plenty of websites (that will show up in a quick search)where one can find detailed information on just about every point that appears here. Moreover, there have been some very important books published on this topic in the last four decades and some of these have had considerable impact in changing peoples' opinions on the matter.  And yet, I am writing this because I want to be very clear and definite about why I choose to believe in it. After all, the subject is hardly short of any controversy and this fact can be quickly inferred by an equal number of websites and books that challenge the basis of the entire animal rights movement. The quality of the discussion can vary- many are truly awful and infantile but few others offer a more serious critique that have made me think more carefully. I have thus heard and analyzed the views from many sides, and all the subtle shades contained therein before I arrived at my own opinion on the matter.  It is partly due to this that I shall frame some of my arguments as a virtual debate where my statements are countered by another rhetorical opponent whose arguments are based on the objections I have heard from several people. 

It is also important that I describe the scope of this discussion. First, the case I am making here is that meat-eating in contemporary society is unacceptable because it is cruel to the animals. There are many other valid reasons for avoiding meat  - improved health, less harm to the environment and eco-system, protest against horrible labor conditions in the meat industry, decrease in overall starvation in poorer countries etc. While each of these has a solid empirical and philosophical basis to it, I am not going to be discussing any of them here. Second, although I say 'meat-eating', I use the term as a general reference to how animals are abused by humans for food which includes eggs and dairy products. There are also other, equally unacceptable, ways in which animals are used in entertainments and pet industry but that shall not be the focus here in this article.  Third, I use the term "animal-rights" loosely and what I mean will become clearer as we go further but nonetheless it can become a point of some confusion because those involved in the movement take the notion to different degrees. It would be useful to remember this fact.


Before I launch into the actual arguments, I believe it would be very useful to first state what my views on vegetarianism/veganism are NOT about:
(a) Religious/Cultural: This is obvious because religions or cultural norms don't have consistency. Muslims avoid pork, Hindus avoid beef, and Jews have a specific dietary constraints encoded in kosher laws.  While all these religions have paid some attention to animal rights (most notably Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism) the question of acceptability can and should be addressed independent of any religious ideology.  
(b)You should be an animal lover: There is a very common notion- popular amongst advocates and critics- that you need to adore animals and admire them for their uniqueness in order to sympathize with the cause of animal rights. This view is dangerous because it assumes that the concern for animal welfare is based upon OUR feelings for them. That it is our patronizing mercy based upon how we relate to them that makes a case for valuing their life.  Many advocates of animal rights somehow subtly imply this themselves thereby undermining the more universal idea that inflicting pain on animals is unacceptable independent of whether these  are endearing pets or wild, hideous and repellent creatures.
(c) Humans are designed to eat only plants and eating meat is basically unhealthy:  As it stands, this statement is not scientifically accurate. While it is true that there is a strong correlation between vegan diet and good health this does NOT imply that eating moderate quantities of meat is necessarily going to clog arteries, lead to overweight, or cause other disorders. [1] Likewise, it is true that meat has a greater chance of being contaminated with infectious germs or chemicals that undermine the immunity defence of our body,  but majority of meat available in supermarkets and such is likely to be safe.
(d)Inherent value in life OR it is unethical to kill a life form: This is very problematic because it is quite an arbitrary principle that is not based on any clear foundations. More importantly, from a biological standpoint, plants have life and so do algae, bacteria, yeast and,- depending on which biologist you speak to- even viruses.  If the property of being alive, that is demonstrating the characteristics of life -growth, repair, reproduction, nutrition etc -, were given a special value one would have to extend this to all the biological life forms and clearly that is not necessary. Thus terminating life -in and of itself- is not a significant issue.
(e) Animals and humans are the same OR animals deserve the same rights as man:  Few facts can be more obvious than broad areas of differences between humans and non-human mammals, let alone other categories of species that inhabit our planet.  It would be silly to argue that animals must be given the opportunity to participate in our dysfunctional democracies or be given the promise of progressive taxation. Or provide them exact status and identification in society as the rest of us. Clearly neither is this practical nor would the animals desire it, even if they had a choice of some sort.  So when I say use the term "rights" I mean in a more restrictive sense.


This naturally leads us to the question of what is the basis of animal rights? The strongest -and arguably the only -concern that underlies this case is the question of whether our actions inflict physical pain on sentient organisms.  That forms the basis for all the arguments in favor of animal rights. Having stated it this way, the debate then reduces to an argument over the morality of such actions - those that result in suffering of living beings endowed with pain perception.


1) Nature is blind to right and wrong.:

An immediate question that may pop in your mind at this point would be my tacit assumption of some pre-ordained moral code in a "mechanical" universe that behaves according to value-neutral natural laws.  You may wonder, while pain is clearly an avoidable feeling, there is no basic principle which states that we should not be responsible for causing more of it. This line of reasoning is perfectly rational -albeit quite perverse - and yes, there is nothing in nature that informs us that this is an unethical behavior. However, at the same time,  there is nothing in nature that forbids torturing innocent human beings either. Or anything that argues in favor of human rights  or promotes individual liberty. And yet, these are the foundational aspects of modern civilization that most reasonable people are willing to agree upon.  Despite this, you may be persistent -and more cynically perverse - and claim that these human-related "values" were created in order to advance the human race and it is a rational choice rather than a moral one in that it helps to strengthen the community end ensures safety and security of the majority. To respond, I first claim that this interpretation is evidently false because the primary reaction of people  to murders or mutilation of human beings is not based on cold reasoning and assessment that such actions are damaging to the society but rather as "immoral" in a more basic sense. Naturally, this begs the question of what is meant by "basic sense" especially when I have discarded any nature-derived rules and dismissed religious arguments. I'll admit that it is fairly difficult to pin down this 'basic moral sense' in any unambiguous and objective way but instead, I will provide some counter-examples to this line of argument.[2]  If protecting one's own community/society is the most important goal, then there would no objection to exploiting other societies and benefiting from it. Retail goods being available cheaply in the US cannot be valid reason to promote sweatshops in developing countries even if- as is unfortunately the case sometimes - such practices are unregulated in those countries.  Slavery benefited the slave-owners and the  ruling elite but that is not a reason for insisting on its continuance.  Autocracy and authoritarian regimes always favor the wealthy and the powerful at the expense of the masses but would you regard the actions of dictator and his cohorts as "moral" because it is done to promote the self-interest of their class?   No, it is fairly clear that the basic principles of civil liberties and human rights are based upon a sense of morality - however hard it may be to define that - and not on a rational consideration of the impact of such decisions on variables as the GDP.  

2) Animals are distinct from humans:

If we accept that respect for basic human rights is a fundamental ethical principle that must be universally enforced,  then what are the reasons for eliminating other sentient organisms from such considerations? Is it because humans can talk? Is it because we are more intelligent? Is it because we are capable of showing moral consideration that a lion in a jungle would not?  What is the special property of humans that animals lack which gives us authority to abuse them as much as we do? As can be noted, my central thesis here is not so much about changing value system of society but demanding consistency in the application of the most basic ones we cherish. 

Let me take up each distinction that is noted between humans and animals and dismiss them as valid justifications for our abusive behavior by providing appropriate counter-examples.

(i) Humans are a higher level species with abilities that are unique to them: This is unquestionably true as we can see that no other species is known to communicate as we do or have complex reasoning faculties that has led humans to discover science and develop technology that we enjoy today.  It is also true that we have a very sophisticated social setup that is uncommon amongst other species.  However, it is far from obvious that such progress gives us special privilege to treat animals in a way that would be unthinkable if the victims were fellow human beings.  If we regard intelligence as the primary trait that sets us apart from our lower species, what about those humans whose intellectual prowess are so abysmally low that they cannot carry out simple tasks.  Does it become acceptable, given their severe retardation, that we treat them violently, confine them in narrow spaces, deprive them of basic care and turn them into slave laborers for benefit of other, more advanced people?  Quite obviously, this conclusion is ridiculous.  I can use a similar argument when it comes to our capacity to talk by pointing to deaf and dumb people. Do we then turn them over to a laboratory and perform the most dastardly experiments on their bodies in order to improve the rest of human race?  Worse, there are individuals in an extremely vegetative state while remaining conscious and the extent of incapacitation makes them less able, broadly speaking, than the more advanced non-human mammals. Should we permit mutilating parts of their bodies for reasons of convenience as we do to pigs and chicken?  Again, these rhetorical questions have an unequivocal answer.

(ii) Humans are moral but animals are not:  Detractors point to the fact that the moral code we have in society is something mutual, or contractual. If I am armed but I choose not to kill someone, it is generally true that my restraint would be reciprocated by others in society. However, if I were to spare the life of a tiger in the woods while carrying a rifle, it is unlikely that this generous consideration would be reciprocated were I the one to be defenceless. The argument goes on to state that the moral framework is closed within the human society.  To address this, first observe that majority of livestock animals are not predatory. Pigs or cows are unlikely to attack humans let alone the possibility of chicken and turkey hunting us down. So, even if one were going to justify eating meat of based on this reasoning, one would have to brace oneself for more dangerous hunting trips.  Second - as I stated earlier -it is not so much the killing itself as the conditions in which animals are kept that is most objectionable as far as modern day livestock industry is concerned. Thus the more apt comparison is not a tiger mauling a person but keeping one in captivity for several years while tearing muscle by muscle and limb by limb, dismembering slowly, all done while the person is conscious. Third,at any rate,  this point is fundamentally disingenuous. We have the capacity for moral reflection and so we can take a broader view of things.  Animals are simply incapable of doing that and in that way they are like children.  It is not uncommon for toddlers to inadvertently act in a way that acutely affects someone, but those are not regarded as a violation in the same manner as that of deliberate action by a normal adult.  Animals have an instinct to protect themselves from threats and carnivores have an instinct to hunt and feed.  They have little choice over such instincts.

3) The naturalness fallacy
If our superior average intellect or our special talents as social beings does not give us the right to treat non-human animals in an abusive way, what else does?  Well, our ancestors have all eaten meat. It is likely to have been the primary source of food for a long period of time in our evolution.  Meat-eating is still the norm in most cultures in the world. So, even though we may cause undue trauma to animals in captivity, it is only reasonable that we do what we have been doing for ages.   To address this point, it may be first useful to make an important distinction in the nature of assertions, something that is usually identified in most philosophical discussions. Any claim concerning the world falls into one of two broad categories, descriptive and normative.

(a) A descriptive statement is an empirical claim about the world. It can verified by  observation, examination or simple experimentation. Canada lies  to the north of the US is a trivial example of such a statement. Stating that euthanasia is a contentious issue is most societies is a descriptive fact -it can be verified. Noting that possession and sale of marijuana is outlawed in some developed countries is a third example. Recognizing that financial recessions are known to occur from time to time in all economies is an observation about the world.

(b) Normative statement is one that claims what should be or ought to be in the world. It expresses a certain value. For example, saying that government should promote scientific literacy and eliminate superstition is a normative statement. Euthanasia should be tolerated in society is another example.  Arguing that marijuana, and most drugs, must be legalized also falls within this category. We should try to prevent or at least minimize recessions by developing policy framework that keeps the economy more stable (and not be swept away by the illusion of market self-correction) is a normative claim.

As you can see, in many of these instances, the normative stand on an issue is not identical to the descriptive details. While some of the examples I have provided may be more controversial, consider the relatively uncomplicated case of global poverty. Starvation has been a scourge of mankind throughout its  history (a descriptive fact). However, despite this strong evidence,  we have a collective responsibility to minimize it by trying to reform the production, distribution and pricing of food and other basic resources (normative statement). In a similar manner, there are several other issues where we choose to act against or prevent something that has known to occur in nature or societies over long periods of time (natural disasters, wars, infant mortality, pandemic and even extinction of species) .  It would then be a poor excuse - and very hypocritical one - to defend a specific practice on the sole basis of the observation that it has been this way all along, i.e it is "natural".  It follows then, that merely stating that homo sapien have eaten meat for most part of their history cannot be regarded as a valid justification for continuing to do so.

4) Yet another appeal to nature :
If our "natural" behavior does not constitute sufficient justification for our actions, what else can there be? How about the observation that non-human carnivores would anyway continue to hunt and kill other animals? Even if we all stop eating meat, what happens to the millions of other animals that are attacked and have their flesh ripped apart in the wild? How does our position square against fact? In response, in the first place, recall that the worst aspects of the meat industry are the appalling conditions of housing, transportation and feeding of animals rather than the slaughter itself. Carnivores pouncing on lower level organisms in the food chain and killing them is, on an average, a lot quicker than the near endless amount of intense trauma we cause to chicken and pigs kept in tiny cages covered in bruises, filth and noxious gases. If our meat-eating involved just slaughtering alone (after the animals live a life in a normal environment) , it would be an immensely more acceptable practice. Second, and I don't have exact data here,  consider the number of birds and mammals that are killed every year in the livestock industry with the total number of their deaths in the wild.  The former is a staggering 40 billion - for each year! - and it is so massive that the UN estimates that 30% of land area is devoted in one form or the other to the industry.  On the other hand, the total number of wild birds on the planet is estimated to be about 100-200 million and I imagine the number of mammals to be about the same. Of these the numbers that are attacked and killed during the lifetime would be about a quarter or less. Put together, one can be fairly certain that less than 1 billion mammals/birds are falling prey to carnivores/omnivores in the wild. (What about insects...?)  Third, it is unreasonable to point to other instances of suffering in Nature to justify us torturing and causing more of the same (the descriptive-normative distinction again). It is like saying that yes, there is extreme malnutrition and hunger all over the world - it is only "natural" - and so I won't do anything to help someone I see starving. Finally,  it is absurd to compare ourselves with animals in this context.  We don't take all our hints for a good life from animals do we?  Despite the contrivance of evolutionary psychologists, and to a lesser degree, anthropologists, in explaining our behavior based on our more bestial ancestors, or the glib and wholly unscientific talk of "unnatural" suppression of animal instincts that appears in popular culture and the grotesquely misinterpreted catchphrase "survival of the fittest" - or its sophomoric variant "greed is good" or other ludicrous Randian-esque doctrines -  we obviously don't follow  rules of the jungle. 

5) Challenging the pain hypothesis :

Critics often wonder how animal rights activists are so dogmatic in their insistence that pigs feel pain while wheat crops don't. Certainly plants are living organisms, and consequently the state of being alive and dead applies equally well to them, but how do we know they don't feel pain? The most accurate answer to this is yes, there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY of PROVING that cows and turkeys are undergoing enormous physical stress if you shear off their legs whereas pulling a twig from a tree does not affect it in any way. But, at the same time, there is NO WAY of PROVING that prisoners held under indefinite detention in American military bases overseas are capable of feeling pain. Equivalently, there is no way to prove that Muslims feel pain in much the same way that Jews do.  I am being completely serious here. The sensation  of pain - as opposed to the origin, symptoms and effects of pain - is a mental state and mental states cannot be detected in any way.  If you were to be bleeding, I can only INFER that you are experiencing pain -the bleeding itself or the  cut vessels or the damaged tissue and other observable features does NOT represent pain- and this inference comes from imagining my own reaction in a similar situation.  In other words, knowledge of pain to anyone other than oneself is a purely inferential thing and it cannot be rigorously proved. And I recognize that you have a similar nervous system as I do - the brain, spinal chord, nerve endings, nociceptors etc - and I put things together and conclude that you ought to feel pain. In much the same way, mammals and birds not only exhibit similar external behavioral symptoms when trapped in adverse conditions, but also have anatomically similar structure which enables us to infer - with as much (or as little) accuracy as I did when you bled - that they feel pain. On the other hand, plants don't have a nervous system and hence incapable of sensory perception whatsoever. Is it possible there are other mechanisms by which they feel pain, mechanisms that have different system? Highly unlikely. We have a tremendous level of understanding about the structure, functioning, survival and development of plants  -photosynthesis, transportation of nutrients, reproduction, evolution - and had there been an additional component which enabled plants to experience pain, we would almost certainly have discovered it by now.  Another reason to assume plants don't feel pain comes from observing that plants are stationary. Pain developed, along the evolutionary road in advanced organisms, as a survival tactic -to instinctively run away from adverse conditions. However since plants are immobilized, pain as such would not confer any such evolutionary advantage and so it is unlikely to have taken root in them. Still, even if we accept that we cannot determine whether plants can or cant feel pain, that does not give us reason to be cruel to organisms that we know for sure feel pain.   Also even if rice and corn crops were to experience pain, it would still be more humane to eat them directly because of the inefficiency associated with feeding that to livestock and eating the animals. [3]

6) More Perversion
A meaningful question that may arise at this juncture is the nature of classification of living organisms in terms of their ability to experience pain. This is a very pertinent point because the entire thesis here rests on the premise that animals are sentient and hence ought to be treated in a more humane way. The common refrain from opponents is the rhetorical barrage of mock-questions: Is mosquito sentient? Can bacteria and amoeba feel pain? How about E coli?  These questions are intended, quite obviously, to challenge the entire presumption(s) on which the animal welfare claims rest. It is essential to emphasize that the case for animal welfare of those organisms whose sentience is substantiated with solid evidence -mammals and birds, for example- is independent of the precise boundary -if there is one at all - between the sentience and lack of it in the spectrum of animals ranked accordingly. The justification for this, yet again, is that the the possibility that certain mid-level organisms - insects -may feel pain and our corresponding inability to adequately prevent harm done to them gives us no reason to brutalize creatures that certainly feel pain. Addressing the question more directly though, the current scientific consensus holds that fish feel pain and lobsters and shrimps most likely do too. Insects are believed to be insensitive primarily because of the nature of their nervous system and the behavioral responses to negative stimulus. Protozoans, amoeba and fungi are as likely to be as sentient as pine trees.

I have thus far stated, and eventually discarded, most of the direct objections raised against the cause of animal welfare with respect to meat-eating. While I am sure there a few I have not considered, there are other, somewhat unrelated issues, misconceptions chiefly, concerning vegetarianism. Almost invariably, any discussion on this is going to elicit a refrain "But our body needs protein" or "Vegetarian diet cannot provide all the required nutrition"  or with more certainty "I was a vegan for a few years but that made me tired and sick during most of time. My doctor seriously advised me to go back to eating meat".  These and other such observations  - and flawed inferences- will not be dealt with here. There is an enormous volume of scientific evidence to back up the sufficiency and healthfulness of a vegan/vegetarian diet (no need to remind me of Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D). I don't need to mention celebrity athletes to prove my point, but those inclined to believe in such "evidences" can look it up elsewhere.  Of course, other compelling arguments like "Hitler was a vegetarian and so what does that say about vegetarians?!!!" are beyond me to comprehend and straighten out.

It may not be out of the line here to post some videos exposing the cruelty to animals in factory farms.  After all, aside from all the arguments I have mentioned, the visceral experience of watching such horrendous acts has its own power. Many have seen this at some point or the other but it does not hurt to remind what precisely happens to animals in feedlots, crates, during transportation and slaughter.

On the disconnect between kosher laws and reality:

The situation in pig farms:

Look for more here.

[1] Here is an interesting essay on this issue where the author argues that humans are more similar to herbivores anatomically and physiologically than to omnivores, i.e we are behavioral rather than structural omnivores.
[2]This is a basic assumption, and if one is unwilling to accept it, then, consistent with the rejection of such a foundational premise,one must not object to child molestation, torture and other abuses.
[3] http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Aug97/livestock.hrs.html

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Scientific Method

In my last year in college, I took a course on Scientific Method in the Philosophy department. It was to be the fourth and final of my philosophy courses - all my earlier ones were on basic problems in contemporary Analytic Philosophy like philosophy of mind, nature of reality, free will and determinism, and theory of knowledge. Judging from the title of the course, I imagined that it would have a lot of resonance with my understanding and perspectives on the development of theories in physics and standard methods and procedures of performing experiments and drawing conclusions from them. I expected the field to define and explain, in a more rigorous, detailed and general way the foundational premises of the science - from the importance of reproducibility of experiments to limitations of physical theories. However, the class turned out to be quite different from what I had anticipated. Yes, the question of what constitutes a valid method of investigation in sciences was discussed but the entire course was focused more on the Philosophy of Science and the evolution of scientific theories. I was made aware of the existence of such a branch of inquiry within the domain of philosophy only after I took this course. As the early morning lectures(8 AM) moved from one topic to another, I did recognize that some of the issues dealt with were not only important for understanding the foundations of science properly but also provided some insight into the nature of progress in science and emergence of radically different viewpoints. Nonetheless I was disappointed.

Maybe I was bored because I have limited patience and attention to things that I do not find any immediate excitement in. But in part, it could also be due to the fact that I was not able to relate most of what I gathered from these lectures to whatever I had come to understand as the basic philosophical framework for constructing theories and expressing physical laws within. During this entire period when I learnt about the formal theory of scientific method, I was scarcely ever able to make any connection to a real advancement in the field of physics. The entire language was so general, and in some cases quite simplifying, that it was unable to describe say, the insight that led to a specific approach in attacking some topic (BCS theory of superconductivity), or an ingenious way to design an experiment (Michelson interferometer) , or to create extensions of existing laws to account for unexplained phenomena (maxwell's displacement current). Science, at the stage where there is no clear explanation for some problem, is messy and it can be so in rather unpredictable ways: many candidate theories of varying merits (Extensions of Standard Model) , insufficient experimental data to draw any solid conclusions or support any specific theory(Dark Matter) , some intractable mathematical monster that needs to be cracked (energy conditions in General Relativity) , or a whole bunch of different ad-hod ideas that need to be tied together to form a coherent theory (development of Quantum Mechanics as well as Quantum Electrodynamics). Progress in these cases can come in completely unexpected ways, and I don't think there is any unambiguous way in which we can classify the different possible attempts at resolving open questions. No philosophical school describing the methodology of science can account for all the bizarre and crazy ways in which physics evolves at any given stage. For example, it is not always true that experiments precede theoretical developments. The top quark was predicted based on the observed pattern of arrangement of quark families and this inference was vindicated by experiments later on. Our near certainty about the existence of Higgs particle and its properties comes from the enormous success of the Standard model in explaining most of the interactions of elementary particles. Ideas sometimes pop out of nowhere and can lead to creation of a new branch of science. Chaos was first discovered by Poincare when he was investigating the three body problem and the this opened up the study of a whole of class of similar problems under dynamical systems. Explanations provided can be outlandish and they often appear to be completely contrived. De Broglie's explanation for the relation between energy and wavelength sounds pretty bizarre and vague when one encounters it for the first time. Indeed, the postulate that the speed of light is a constant in all inertial frames, the axiom at the foundation of Special Relativity, is unconvincing when you make a sharp transition from classical Newtonian mechanics to this revolutionary new framework. And how on earth did Faraday strike upon the notion of fields? Does any of the scientific method theories advanced by Popper or Kuhn explain the ridiculous brilliance of this 19th century English experimenter who, despite no formal training in physics, was able to put forth a description of electrodynamics in terms of these invisible oscillating lines of flux? I honestly doubt it. The idea that one can systematically describe development in physics according to some general outline is either impossible or the outline is so broad as to render its useless. The history of science is very complex (at least it is so for physics) and there is reason to doubt if anyone working in the Philosophy of Science is aware of all the subtleties involved. Below I shall consider some of the important problems in scientific methodology tackled by philosophers and the various theories advanced to characterize it.


The problem of induction is something that comes up often while discussing this subject. Without getting into finer details, let me state that the problem addresses the fact that no empirical law in nature can be completely correct because we have not tested, or it is impossible to do so, for all the possible cases in the universe. Newton's second law (ignore relativistic/quantum mechanical effects) is not exact because it has not been verified in every situation and in every location where it is expected to be valid. A lot of discussion has gone into this and it is a question that has preoccupied philosophers from the period of Hume but there is no satisfactory resolution of this. That it is an important philosophical question is beyond any reasonable doubt but whether a working physicist gains anything from it is something worth considering in more detail. Even before I learnt about this formal paradoxical problem, I intuitively understood the relevance of this question in the context of empirical relations in physics. We know in mathematics that a single counterexample was all that is required to disprove a general assertion. Extrapolating, it is reasonable to expect the same must be true with physical laws as well - if one can demonstrate some experiment anywhere in the universe where the principles do not apply, then it ceases to be a real principle. (Of course, all this must be taken with a grain of salt since even Newton's third law is not valid in quantum field theory but few would dispute that it is a valid empirical relation for a wide class of phenomena). In fact, today we are considering far-reaching possibilities that admit precisely such limitations in the applicability of our theories. We know that quantum field descriptions are constructed only up to a certain scale (expressed in energy or length), and these are independent of the structure of the underlying "fundamental" formulations. In the same way, we expect classical general relativity to break down at energies comparable to the Planck scale since effects of quantum mechanical fluctuations in gravitational fields would make significant contributions to the calculations. There is ongoing speculation regarding the mutability of fine structure constant with the evolution of the universe. Ever since Heisenberg firmly disregarded any speculations on basic theory and confined himself to merely describing the observations, physics has moved in a direction where it acknowledges that the main thrust is to explain empirical observations and not be too distracted by our preconceptions and prejudices regarding underlying theories. In fact, such a stance was taken by none less than Newton himself. He vowed never to make abstract speculations and discarded any metaphysical notions of space, time and physical laws. This was a bold decision at the time, and it required an extraordinary genius like Newton to proclaim such a radical outlook towards understanding nature. The one occasion where he did not put this philosophy into practice was in his description of time, being the ephemeral concept to be pinned down accurately, he resorted a metaphysical position that absolute time exists and it flows evenly, as can be corroborated by observers in any reference frame. Therefore careful understanding and formal analysis of the induction problem is something that is unlikely to provide new insights for physicists as far as research in physics is concerned.


While studying the theories of Karl Popper, one encounters the concept of verisimilitude. This is a term that is used to index the "turthlikness" of a specific scientific theory and to compare it with other competing theories. Popper assigned verisimilitude in a quantitative manner based on the number of truth and false propositions of a theory. A theory X is considered better than Y, if the true propositions of Y are included in X and the false propositions of X are included in Y. This is a prime example of how simplistic much of the studies in the philosophy of science is. Anyone with some background in undergraduate physics would immediately realize that this is not how theories are compared and we don't count the truth propositions (or the false ones). In fact, we don't think of it and judge it using such a formal system and doing so would lead to all kinds of odd conclusions. And how does it accommodate for the fact that much of what we consider as theories today, are in fact, approximations that are valid only in a specific regime. By this criterion, all statements in Newtonian physics are false, and the same goes for thermodynamics and even classical statistical physics.

Another criterion for judging scientific theories that was put forward by Popper was falsifiability. A theory was to be considered as scientific only if it provided a hypothetical event or phenomena that would prove the theory as false. For example, the SU(5)theory of grand unification predicted proton decay but since none has been observed in nature this model was quickly abandoned. The absence of a certain event provided a method of inferring the falsity of the hypothesis. That was a nice example which works well to explain Popperian notion of falsifiability but that is definitely not how all physical theories are rejected. In fact, I doubt if a single experimental result has ever been used to immediately decide that a theory is useless and must be discarded thoroughly. It always happens that physicists would try modifying the assumptions in the theory or alter the basic laws in such a way that it accommodates the new observations. The fact that the ether hypothesis was around for such a long time despite several paradoxes would illuminate this point quite well. The ether hypothesis could not explain the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment which attempted to measure the speed of earth relative to the stationary ether, but since the concept of a medium through which light moved had been used to understand electromagnetic propagation for so long, there was a strong tendency to retain such a picture. To account for the unexpected results, various new models were proposed for interaction of ether with objects in the universe, most specifically with Earth. One way of approaching this was to assume that the ether was dragged along by massive objects like our planet and this could account for a null result. This was the first patch applied to a hypothesis that was, from Popperian classification, falsified. This method of rescuing the ether hypothesis opened a new set of complications. In a different attempt, Fresnel proposed that ether is partially dragged by a medium which resulted in a lower velocity for light traveling through this medium. The Michelson-Morley experiment in fact could not rule out this possibility. Meanwhile, Lorentz had considered contraction of all objects traveling through the ether and this included the arms of the interferometer used in the experiment. With a specific contraction law (which not surprisingly is the same as the one that can be derived from special relativity) one can still successfully defend ether's omnipresence. Note that in all these cases explanations and laws were worked out such that it would fit the experimental results. It was not until Einstein's formulation of special relativity and his unambiguous rejection of the ether concept that the idea was dropped. There were plenty of reasons to do so before but history shows that such a cherished belief would not be thrown away by a single, or for that matter a few experiments. A slightly different example would be the role of renormalization in modern quantum field theories. When cross-section calculations in QED using standard correlation functions that involved contributions from loop diagrams were carried out, it appeared as if the number obtained from theory was approaching infinity. Since that is an absurd result, going by strict Popperian criterion, the theory should have been dumped right away for its unfeasible implications. Indeed, many physicists believed that this conclusion sounded the death knell for the framework. Yet there were others who sought to modify it in a manner such that the divergences can be eliminated by some new ad-hoc rules, rules that was certainly unconvincing to many physicists and almost all mathematicians interested. While skeptics of this approach ( renormalization) were critical of the way quick-fix method that was devised by "sweeping the real problem under the rug", it eventually turned out that the formalism of quantum field theory required such a treatment of the quantities that appear in it. As time progressed and many of the predictions arising from working with such renormalization techniques gave correct results, the approach won over many skeptics and ultimately it became universally accepted as a legitimate theory. Such a unique development depended so crucially on the details of the specific theory to be interpreted accurately by the general criterion laid out by Popper.


A person of towering influence in this area of study is the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn's work in the 1950's and 60's can be rightly considered as representing a departure from the basic modes by which the subject had been analyzed by all his predecessors. His view of the history of science immediately strikes one as being altogether independent of the traditional and orthodox ways of understanding progress in scientific endeavor. Particularly, he strongly disagreed with the notion that scientific progress was a cumulative process, something that had been assumed in all the standard picture of the history of science. However, Kuhn argued that scientific activity can be broadly divided between two distinct phases, one "normal science" and the other characterized as scientific revolution. Normal science is the period when there is an existing framework within which all the discoveries and solutions to conventional problems were carried out. In his conception, this was a puzzle-solving time-frame where the scientist applies the rules, techniques and the underlying theoretical axioms to determine a solution to these relatively minor puzzles. This sort of activity is even compared to 'mopping the floor' and 'clearing the mess '-referring to the unresolved issues of the particular framework. In contrast, a scientific revolution basically involved a complete overthrow of the existing framework and replacing it with a paradigm that may be completely different from the earlier one. The revolution is a dramatic shift in the development of science because it involves a drastically different understanding of the basic concepts and ideas along with new tools and techniques for investigation, a different outlook of natural phenomena, and a shift in priorities between different aspects of the theory and the experimentation. As one would imagine immediately, the most striking examples of this comes from the revolution that took place in the early part of the last century, namely the development of quantum mechanics and relativity. There is absolutely no question that there is hardly a single field in modern physics that has remained untouched by these new frameworks, and in many areas, both these theories are incorporated compatibly. In addition to this, Kuhn also uses as examples the paradigms set and shifts that occurred around the works of Aristotle (on analyzing motion), Ptolemy (planetary positions),Maxwell ( expressing the electromagnetic equations in their mathematical form).

Yes, all these may be some good examples but how seriously do we take the claim that there is a reasonably clear division between a revolution and normal phase in progress of science. Let us focus on the period since those groundbreaking ideas of quantum mechanics and relativity came to be accepted as valid scientific theories by the physics community. It would be very hard to argue that there has been any other development(s) that can be considered as revolutionary since then. The most fundamental theoretical milestones during these periods would certainly include establishment of Quantum Electrodynamics, the Salam-Weinberg electroweak unification and the eventual setting up and success of the so-called Standard Model of particle physics.
Of course, none of this can be regarded as a paradigm shift in any way because they still retain the same underlying structure of quantum field theory -indeed that structure was just extended to all the basic interactions. However,let us consider all the important developments that have taken place during this period within this framework and ask ourselves whether these are something to just be casually treated in the somewhat demeaning manner of "puzzle-solving". Looking at the wikipedia page on physics time-line, one notices a whole of exciting new discoveries that took place in the last 90 years or so. The ascendancy of the Big Bang Cosmology, BCS theory of superconductivity, development of transistor, solution of 2D Ising Model, Fractional Quantum Hall Effect and Bose Einstein Condensation are some of the most striking examples . None of this and the associated research it spawned can be looked upon as a revolution because neither did it undermine the validity of relativity and quantum mechanics nor did it completely alter the progress of all fields in physics. Yet, taken together one can say that our view of the entirety of physics has been highly influenced by most of these "puzzle-solutions" and "floor-mopping". In fact, no one in the 1930's could have conceived the current status of physics, its achievements over the years, the formulation of ingenious principles and all the various new areas of research it has opened up. In other words, one can consider all the developments in physics together cumulatively as a 'revolution' without having any of the characteristics of scientific revolution as postulated by Kuhn.

If this argument is not convincing, let us look into the future and ponder how some of the unsolved problems of our era are going to be tackled. Certainly, one of the greatest unresolved questions in physics is that of unification of the fundamental interactions and all the associated problems and loopholes in the Standard Model -ranging from the lightness of Higgs mass, to origin of neutrino mass, to QCD vacuua. If ultimately we find a way to unify these interactions together successfully it would truly be one of the greatest breakthroughs in modern science. It may even represent the pinnacle of our achievements in understanding the most fundamental aspects of natural phenomena. However, would that be a scientific revolution in the sense described by Kuhn? How many areas of physics would such a development have any perceptible impact on, let alone completely turning it upside down. The answer is a few, if any at all. The unification is expected to occur at the Planck Scale and that energy is almost unattainable even in any accelerator that may be constructed in the foreseeable future. That being the case, there is no reason to expect that it will have any consequence for almost all of physics except in cosmology. At least until the time that we can explore such energy scales inside the condensed matter laboratory! Hence studies in atomic and molecular physics, theoretical nuclear physics, surface and material sciences, high Tc superconductivity and non-equilibrium statistical mechanics will continue as if nothing ever happened. And when it comes to understanding the origin of the universe and addressing some of the unresolved questions in that field such as the constituents of dark matter or the cosmological constant problem, although we may find solutions to these with the construction of 'theory of everything' it would not invalidate the progress we have made so far. Thus, cosmologists will not have disputes amongst themselves and will universally adapt their work to this paradigm once it is established. So, there is no room for such things as incommensurability(methodological or epistemological) or Kuhn-loss or new vocabulary as was laid down by this very influential philosopher. Hence, it is safe to conclude that however great an accomplishment the unification may be, it certainly will not be a scientific revolution.


Although I have been disappointed with most of philosophy of science, there is one special exception amongst the various doctrines of the discipline that I find very pertinent and useful: Logical Positivism. The exact positions and principles of this school have been debated upon extensively and some of the more radical positions have now been abandoned. I shall however not concern myself with these issues in this discussion(such as the analytic/synthetic distinction , the controversial rejection of synthetic a priori statements or regarding mathematics as a tautology). Instead, I am going to focus on that one important aspect of the doctrine that is key to distinguishing science from metaphysics and this revolves around the principle of verifiability. It is held that a statement has "meaningful content" only if it makes a claim that can be supported by empirical justification. Or more broadly, the only statements that express factual knowledge are those that have the potential to being empirically verified sometime in the future. Hence, a statement like "God exists in ways unknown to man" is devoid of any meaningful content because there can be no observations or events that can establish its truth or falsity. Extending this principle the founders and adherents of the Vienna Circle in the 1930's made devastating critiques of areas in philosophy, metaphysics and theology. They argued that many of the propositions contained in these disciplines do not express any cognitively sensible fact about the world. I find myself agreement with this viewpoint and think there really is no meaning in asking questions like "Are there parallel universes out that is outside our space-time continuum?"*

It would be improper for me to conclude this discussion without putting philosophy of science in some fair perspective. I have raised several objections to the basic postulates put forward by some of the most important practitioners of this school of inquiry. I will always have a skeptical outlook towards how successful any theory describing the evolution of science can be and will suspect the accuracy of any characterization of the history of science based on certain simplistic rules. Applying Kuhn's own standard, I would say that philosophy of science is still in a pre-paradigm state! Yet, I strongly believe that every field of scholarship is of value and contributes to human knowledge. While the ultimate scope of philosophy of science may be too ambitious for its own good, there is no denying that the various theories shed some light on certain essential elements that characterize the practice of science. It may be incorrect to declare universal rules that govern all innovations in science but more modest statements about the development and progress of sciences would certainly prove to be useful to anyone-expert or not - curious about the evolution of what is unarguably the greatest collective human accomplishment.

*I have to admit that part of my inclination towards this philosophical position is my annoyance at the invariable propensity of individuals to make statements that have no empirical content whatsoever while imagining them to be something really profound! I have had the misfortune of having to sit with such loud-mouthed, gibberish-spewing "revolutionary thinkers" in the philosophy classes I have taken.