Category Archives: philosophy

Martin Luther King’s philosophy of time

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. set himself against two false conceptions of time and offered a profoundly original alternative.

One false idea was what he called in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail the “tragic misconception” that time flows inevitably toward justice. This is a linear, progressive theory. It has always been popular in the United States, where the white majority has tilted toward optimism and self-satisfaction. We tell ourselves that although we have faults, “the current has set steadily in one direction: toward democratic forms” (John Dewey). This kind of optimism has also been influential in liberal Protestantism and can even have a metaphysical underpinning: since God is omnipotent and good, things will work out, both in this life and the next.

It can imply that people should calm down and wait for justice. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is King’s response to messages like this one, which he says he received “from a white brother in Texas”: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.”

Rev. King answers, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never. We must come to see … that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”

King was equally opposed to the idea that time is static, that a society cannot fundamentally change. One version of this idea says that White supremacy is evil but also foundational and highly unlikely ever to yield. A different version is held by white supremacists. George Wallace, for instance, emphasized that history was, and must remain, static. When he cried, “Segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever,” Wallace was denying the passage of time. And he presented this stance as nothing new: “we sound the drum … as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history.”

King’s alternative view had three features.

First, the flow of time is up to us. History is neither a tragedy–with a foreordained evil conclusion–nor a comedy, inevitably moving toward a happen end. Nor are we stuck in a changeless present. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

Second, the past is always present. It infuses our own time. In the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King says, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. . … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check.”

The founding of the republic was almost two centuries in the past, yet the promissory note was still on the books. (And still is today.) That was not quite a metaphor, because King was quite literal about the need for repayment, for reparations. But the idea that the debts of the past are still carried on the nation’s books was one of many tropes he used to convey the continued existence of the past.

Third, we can make the future present. We can envision a better conclusion and pull that vision into our own time. For instance, we can imagine a future when the government founded by Jefferson and Madison pays its debts to the descendants of the people they had enslaved, thus changing the relationship between the past and the present. Once we imagine that moment, we can work to accomplish it.

King’s “Dream” that Black and white Georgians will “sit down together at the table of brotherhood”–while Mississippi is “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice”–is not a prediction or a forecast. It is an invention whose purpose is to motivate the quarter of a million people who gathered on the National Mall on August 28, 1963.

And it was remarkable that they had gathered there. Popular movements–and especially nonviolent popular movements with idealistic causes–defy realistic predictions. Individuals usually calculate the costs and risks for themselves against the benefits for themselves. To join a social movement, especially in the face of vicious opposition, is costly and dangerous. Any benefits are speculative. It is rational to stand aside and see if other people struggle for justice. If they do, the problem may be solved without an individual’s having to take the risk. And if they don’t, the individual’s sacrifice would have been pointless anyway.

Yet people occasionally defy this logic and rise up together in large numbers in the same time and place. Montgomery in 1955, Birmingham in 1963, the Washington Mall later in 1963, and Selma in 1965 were moments when the future suddenly broke into the present. To delay them would have destroyed them.

In his last speech, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” King diagnoses the challenge (oppressed people calculate their individual interests and fail to congeal as a movement) and reminds his audience of the power of acting in concert:

Now what does all this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. (Yeah) We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula of doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. [Applause] But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. [Applause] Now let us maintain unity.

Note again the analysis of time. Pharoah wants to keep things static, to “prolong the period of slavery.” As soon as the slaves “get together,” the future comes into view.

People sometimes quote King’s line that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” to suggest that progress is inevitable–perhaps because of divine providence. He said those words at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march, which had been fraught, controversial even within the movement, and very nearly a failure. That day, a tragic conclusion was all too easy to imagine. After envisioning a future when “society [is] at peace with itself” and “can live with its conscience,” King says, “I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?'” He gives a series of calls and responses, each beginning “How long? Not long, because …” This is the context in which he mentions the arc of the universe. He does not mean that it will surely carry us to justice and that we can confidently wait for that day. No one who had marched with him to Montgomery would have imagined that. He is telling his audience that they can bend the arc, that they can move the future closer.

In short, the past is always still present, the future can break into today, we can move our vision across time, and we can determine how things end.

Wallace had imagined waves of white supremacists standing in the way of justice, one generation after another. King instead invoked a series of prophets, “extremists for justice,” who were able to envision history’s conclusion and thus speak to us from their own times. In the “Letter,” King names five religious prophets–Amos, Jesus, Paul, Martin Luther, and John Bunyan–and two secular democratic ones, Jefferson and Lincoln. He also credits six contemporary white men and women (most of whose names I do not recognize) for writing “about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms.”

Prophesy means transcending the present to affect the future. In Stride to Freedom, King had written, “Any discussion of the Christian minister today must ultimately emphasize the need for prophecy. … May the problem of race in America soon make hearts burn so that prophets will rise up, saying, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ and cry out as Amos did, ‘. . . let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.'” As his career progressed, he constantly returned to the nineteen biblical books traditionally called Nevi’im, prophecies. For instance, in the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King again quoted Amos 5:24 along with Isaiah 40:4 (“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain”).

This genre of prophecy typically begins with a moral condemnation of the present, often directed explicitly at the most powerful people: the kings, priests, and rich men:

Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them.

For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right.

(Amos 5:11-12)

The prophecy may forecast the punishment and fall of these wicked men. “Woe unto you,” says the Lord, through Amos, six verses later. The prophet then envisions a better time, a time of justice. This is not a forecast based on continuing the current trends into the future. Rather, it is moral and hortatory. If the people begin to act righteously, then God will help them make the world better. “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:15).

King’s last–and arguably greatest–speech was also his most explicitly prophetic. He had come to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. A mass march had gone badly from his perspective. It had turned violent, at least around the edges. Film of the event strongly suggests that police instigated the violence. King blamed the press for focusing on some “window breaking” instead of the structural violence against Black workers. Yet he was shaken by his own inability to preserve nonviolent discipline. This was the first time he had joined or led a march in which the protesters had failed to turn the other cheek. He was also exhausted and ill, unwilling to speak or even to travel to the venue in the midst of a thunderstorm. He forced himself to go anyway.

We know that he had one less than day left to live, and we must read the speech with that hindsight.

He starts with the now. He says, “something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world.” From there, he moves immediately out of the linear flow of time. He asks us to imagine him “standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now” and conversing with the immortal Almighty. He traverses history, mentioning some of the high points, and concludes that the time when he would most like to live is the present. Things certainly seem bad, “but I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

Once again, he sees the future in the present, taking the form of a voluntary popular movement. “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up.” At the beginning of his career, he would have emphasized the protesters in his immediate surroundings, but now he sees that the uprising is global. People are “assembled today” in Johannesburg, Nairobi, Accra, New York City, Atlanta, Jackson, and where he stands, Memphis. “The cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.'”

He rehearses the glorious moments of the movement so far, emphasizing the mightiness of a unified nonviolent struggle. He commends the preachers in attendance for their prophetic voices and quotes Amos as the exemplary prophet. He makes the case for economic pressure. He acknowledges people’s fear and exhorts them not to stop when the time is so critical. He recalls when he was nearly assassinated and gives thanks that he survived, because then he could witness the moments when unified people overcame oppression: sit-ins, freedom rides, Albany, Birmingham, Selma. Interestingly, he includes tactical failures, like Albany, and moments when he was not personally involved.

And then he turns to the future, which we know and which he seems uncannily to foresee with less than 24 hours left to live:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [Applause] And I don’t mind. [Applause continues] Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. (Yeah) And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I’ve looked over (Yes sir), and I’ve seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. [Applause] (Go ahead, Go ahead) And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [Applause]

I am influenced here by David Luban, “Difference Made Legal: The Court and Dr. King.” Michigan Law Review 87, no. 8 (1989): 2152-2224. Luban insightfully compares King to Walter Benjamin. See also:  the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theologynotes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; Martin Luther and Martin Luther King; no justice, no peace? (on the relationship between these concepts); Martin Luther King as a philosopher; learning from Memphis, 1968; against inevitability; “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era,” etc.

individuals’ ideologies as networks

Hypothesis: People not only hold opinions about parties and specific issues; they also explicitly connect their various beliefs together to create more-or-less coherent logical structures. Understanding these structures yields insights about individuals that we would miss if we only knew a list of their opinions.

This thesis challenges a common assumption in political and moral psychology. Although scholars meticulously analyze the structure of the arguments in books, essays, and speeches, several streams of research suggest that ordinary people have no such structures–their political preferences are random, or chosen by elites, or driven by latent variables of which they are unconscious. I think that we won’t find the conscious structure in average people’s thinking unless we develop tools that can detect it.

Looking at some individuals

To that end, last summer I collected data from 100 Amazon Turk participants. I restricted the sample to liberal residents of the USA, in order to control the range of issues that would appeal to them so that I could analyze the small dataset effectively.

I showed each person a list of 30 ideas they might favor, about half of which leaned left. I simply asked, “Which of these would you like to see happen?” and encouraged them to be selective. Consistent with my effort to recruit liberals, they chose almost exclusively liberal items. For instance, 80% chose “health insurance for all” and zero chose “a return to traditional values.”*

After subjecting respondents to a bit of explanation and training, I showed them their own chosen items in pairs (in random order). For each pair, I asked, “Are you in favor of X because you are in favor of Y?” Each time they said yes, that created a link between two nodes (or an edge between two vertices, if you prefer the technical language). From these responses, I was able to generate network maps for each person and for groups.

Here is one such map. This person is a white man, age 32. He places himself as far as possible to the left on a unidimensional ideology scale and he says that he agrees with AOC most often, followed by Bernie, then Warren, then Obama, and finally, Biden. He believes that eight things that he would like to see happen (e.g., health insurance for all) provide reasons to reduce corporate influence on government. He also sees an indirect link between reducing corporate influence and racial justice (by way of reducing incarceration) and an indirect link to the environment (by way of enabling a tax on carbon). However, he doesn’t connect political reform to free college or LGBTQ+ issues, although he cares about those issues and connects them.

In short, his network is highly centralized around reducing corporate influence. This seems like an important fact about how he thinks.

Below is another map, this time for a white woman, age 30, who ranks the Democratic politicians in precisely the opposite order as the man did (Biden first; OAC last). However, she ranks herself as a one on a 0-10 ideology scale, i.e., very liberal.

Her graph is more complex than the man’s. She is 3.6 times more likely than he was to see any given pair of ideas as a connection. Two-thirds of her arrows are double-headed. (She favors less crime because she favors more trust in government, and vice-versa.) You can move around her graph from one item to the next, and then onward. It is not centralized around any single node.

As noted, I first asked respondents whether each of their goals provided a reason for another goal. It was up to them what counted as a “reason.” I believe, however, that we can put ideas together in numerous ways, with a range of logical connectors. A justification is one link; a cause is another.

Therefore, I next showed respondents pairs of outcomes and asked whether each one would cause the other one. I included outcomes that they had not selected in the first place, because you might not select something as a high value even though it causes an outcome that you do value highly.

Here is the first respondent’s map with the causal connections added in:

It becomes complicated–perhaps too complicated to understand visually. But it’s clear that he believes higher voter turnout and a more responsible electorate are “upstream” factors–they cause many desirable outcomes–even though he did not initially choose them as his priorities. It makes sense to me that they are means to the ends he favors.

Finally, I showed respondents random pairs of items and asked, “Imagine x happened. Would that change your opinion by making you more supportive of y?” This produced another kind of connection (hypotheticals), which I can add to the first respondent’s map along with the causes and reasons:

Metrics suggest that this addition doesn’t actually change this person’s map very much, although it adds a few ideas at the end of arrows.

An example: the role of reparations in the mentality of the left

Months ago, I hypothesized that reparations for slavery play an important role in the thinking of left-liberal Americans. Progressives oscillate between hostility to the US government and desire to expand federal economic action. If the government paid reparations, progressives would trust it more and would therefore tilt to democratic socialism.

I can identify some individuals who may exhibit this logic. For instance, here is a 40-year-old white woman who favors a set of progressive outcomes and sees all of them as reasons to reduce corporate power over government (rather like the first man discussed earlier):

She did not select reparations as one of her original priorities, but she was asked whether actually seeing reparations happen in the world would make her more favorable toward other outcomes. She said it would make her more supportive of 10 things, including trust in government and civility. One can imagine that she thinks: if the government paid reparations, I would want people to trust it and would want citizens to be civil to each other, because the regime would be more legitimate. However, this is largely my inference about her responses, and it’s not a common pattern in the data.

These are three examples from the 100 cases that I collected. I have many more to look at, and I have IRB permission to interview selected respondents about their reasoning.

Aggregate results

I am also interested in examining the aggregate data. One evident finding is that people’s top priorities for how they would like to see the world change are not the same as the factors they see as most influential.

In my sample, the most frequently chosen goals are:

  1. health insurance for all
  2. a solution to climate change
  3. a higher minimum wage
  4. racial justice
  5. more school choice

The items that are seen as having the most direct effects on other items are:

  1. health insurance for all
  2. a less corrupt government
  3. less corporate influence on government
  4. a more responsible electorate
  5. more equitable education

And the items that have the most links of any kind to other items are:

  1. health insurance for all
  2. a less corrupt government
  3. racial justice
  4. more trust in government
  5. economic growth

Healthcare hangs in there as the top priority however you slice it. However, better government and economic growth–which are not chosen as high priorities from a simple list–emerge when people think about various kinds of premises or causes for the things they do value.

Another method would be to measure the relationships between people’s networks of ideas and a different variable of interest. I was planning to look at self-placement on an ideological scale, but my sample clusters together too closely. Seventy-four percent rate themselves between 0 and 2 on a 0-10 scale.

Instead, I am using as the dependent variable how people rank AOC compared to other Democratic politicians. I chose that outcome because her ranking correlates most strongly with ideological placement, and also because the biggest negative correlation in the whole matrix is between her rankings and Joe Biden’s (-0.67). Plus, her rankings have a nice distribution: the median is 3 on a 1-5 scale. So I take her strong supporters and opponents to mark the ends of a meaningful spectrum within the US left.

If we simply correlate the priorities that people choose (or don’t choose) with their rankings of AOC, then the correlations that are significant are:

  • more school choice and racial justice (which were chosen by identical people*)
  • equity for LGBTQ+ people
  • (not choosing) economic growth
  • (not choosing) less crime
  • (not choosing) a reduction in government debt

These correlations make intuitive sense to me. Among liberals, those who care less about crime, deficits, and growth would like OAC best.

If you put all the choices together with the demographics and ideology in one linear regression model to predict support for OAC, it does a decent job (r-squared = 0.488).** However, none of the individual items (including ideology) are statistically significant. One could conclude that knowing which items people pick helps you to predict their opinion of AOC, but you need to know most of the items.

If, instead, you look at which items people thought were reasons for other items, the model is more predictive (r-squared = .608 with the same number of variables) and ten items become stat. sig. on their own (p <.05). Knowing that an individual sees one of these items as a reason for other items gives a basis to predict that this same individual likes (or dislikes) AOC.

That seems like confirmation of my original hypothesis. The structure of people’s beliefs–more than the things they support–predicts a consequential opinion. However, I am still working on the regression and other aggregate methods; suggestions are welcome.

*Increasing school choice was also popular. I am not surprised to see support for that idea among liberals. One thing that may be surprising is a perfect correlation between racial justice and school choice: the same 49 people chose both of those items. **For this model, I omitted the people who placed themselves in the right half of the ideology scale, who looked to me like outliers. See also: ideologies and complex systems;  it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedthe pivotal significance of reparations for the American left; etc.

freedom of the will or freedom from the will? (comparing Harry Frankfurt and Buddhism)

In a famous paper,* Harry Frankfurt argued that we have freedom of action if our desires match our behavior. I want a chocolate chip cookie; I eat the cookie; thus I demonstrate free action.

But we have freedom of the will insofar as we can control the desires we have. I want the chocolate chip cookie, but I wish that I did not. If I can influence my own desire for cookies, I demonstrate freedom of the will.

Thus the ability to have second-order volitions (desires about desires) is the trait that we value as moral freedom–it is what people have tried to express by describing human beings as metaphysically free. “A person enjoys freedom of the will [if] he is free to want what he wants to want.”

For Frankfurt, the difference between free, morally responsible agents (“persons”) and all other actors (“wantons”) is not that persons can control their desires; it is that they can form desires about those desires. In contrast, “The essential characteristic of a wanton is that he does not care about his will.”

Although Frankfurt does not use the language of identity in this paper, he offers an implicit theory of it. We are the coherent structure of our own desires, and if our desires fail to cohere, our identity is at risk. He imagines a person who has conflicting second-order desires that prevent him from preferring some of his first-order desires over others. Frankfurt doesn’t offer a concrete example, but perhaps this person wishes that he were more conservative and also wishes that he were more radical, and he cannot resolve that difference. In that case, the person would be torn every time he saw a tweet by AOC. “This condition, if it is so severe that it prevents him from identifying himself in a sufficiently decisive way with any of his conflicting first-order desires, destroys him as a person.” He becomes a “helpless bystander to the forces that move him.”

This is strong language, and I’m inclined to interpret Frankfurt’s theory as a matter of degree. We are more or less free to the degree that our first-, second- (and even third- and fourth-) degree volitions cohere and are consistent with our actions. Nobody has 100% freedom of the will.

Frankfurt says his position is compatible with determinism. That is, even if our minds are caused in the same way that other complex objects (computers, forests, stock market prices) are caused, we have free will to the extent that we form effective second-order desires. He even entertains the possibility that whether we have free will or not is determined. For instance, some kinds of parenting develop a capacity for second-order volitions and some don’t, but we don’t chose our parents. (This is my illustration, not his).

Now consider a certain tradition in Buddhism, which I derive mainly from US academics like Owen Flanagan, Mark Siderits, Bryan Van Norden, and Emily McRae and the classical Asian texts they quote.

Buddhism is a deterministic philosophy: all of our thoughts result from ordinary causes, just like the causes of the weather. (That is the doctrine of Dependent Origination.) We have desires without wanting them. Some of these desires are undesirable, and we can use mental techniques to marginalize or neutralize them.

So far, the view seems similar to Frankfurt’s. But in Buddhism, all desire is problematic. It has an intrinsic connection to suffering. That means that even if some desires are worse than others, we are wise to reduce desire per se.

Furthermore, we have no identity. (That is the doctrine of No Self). We are only a stream of specific feelings and beliefs. Wisdom comes from recognizing that there is no stable entity beneath that stream, and certainly nothing there that should concern us.

Frankfurt does not spell out practical or spiritual implications. To apply a distinction from Pierre Hadot, he is an academic or a scholastic philosopher, not a practitioner of Philosophy as a Way of Life. But his theory could imply that we should reflect as self-consciously as we can about our own desires. When we experience a bad desire, we should acknowledge that it partly defines our identity, so we had better get rid of it. A good way to counter bad desires is to give oneself reasons against them. Reasoning is also our way of knowing which desires are bad in the first place. For instance, if you feel a sexual desire, that partly defines you unless you decide that it is immoral and renounce it. A moral exemplar is someone who looks deeply and uncompromisingly into herself for the purpose of self-improvement.

In contrast, the advice from Buddhism is not to dwell on the desires that arise for us. Do not embrace them or cling to them, but also do invest emotion in denouncing or shunning them. Name them, acknowledge them, and try to set them aside, recognizing that their origins are natural (for everything that happens = nature), and we are not responsible for them (because we don’t cause anything), but we are better off without them.

Compassion functions differently from other first-order volitions in Buddhism. Because compassion is the desire for others to suffer less, it is not strictly a form of will. Spending more time and affect on compassion thus reduces our will, overall.

You could say that Buddhism recommends a second-order volition to be a more compassionate person. But Buddhism does not see us as persons. Therefore, an alternative interpretation is that Buddhism simply recommends compassion. Buddhism encourages you to practice or habituate yourself to compassion rather than reflecting abstractly on whether your identity is compassionate.

As long as we consider examples like wanting to eat chocolate chip cookies, this issue feels harmless or even amusing. But once we start thinking about serious personal vices, like envy and lust–or real social injustices, like sexism or racism–the stakes rise. Then it becomes a compelling question whether we should exercise freedom of the will by relentlessly critiquing our own desires or else freedom from the will by putting all our desires (apart from compassion) to the side.

*Frankfurt H.G. (1971). Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan. 14, 1971), pp. 5-20. See also Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); Foucault’s spiritual exercises; how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; the grammar of the four Noble Truths; Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized; how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives), how do we perceive an identity?, etc.

What kind of a claim is “Biden has an 87% chance of winning”? (on the metaphysics of probability)

If you’re spending all your time nervously checking the election forecast on FiveThirtyEight.com, your mental health may suffer. You can stop checking and do something productive to improve the world. Or you can become intrigued about what a forecast means, read Alan Hájek’s “Interpretations of Probability” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), and write some rambling reflections. That is the Path I have chosen.

Four years ago, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight gave Hilary Clinton about a 75% chance of winning the 2016 election. The fact that she lost did not invalidate this prediction–outcomes with probabilities of 25% happen often. Looking retrospectively, it seems right that Trump’s chances were small. He had to win narrowly in just the right combination of states.

Of course, we now know that he did win. In October 2016, an omniscient deity would have known that already. The deity could have known it in either of two ways: by looking into the future, or by understanding the complete present situation with one week still left to go in the election. Presumably, if you could know exactly what every American was thinking about politics, the precise distance to their nearest polling place, whose contact lists everyone was on, what Putin was up to, how heat and humidity were distributed on the face of the globe, and everything else about the situation with one week to go in the election, you would know what would happen with the vote. (I leave aside the possibility that that the universe incorporates physical randomness at the quantum level that affects things like the outcome of an election a week away.)

Applying that theory to our present circumstances, we would say that either Biden has a 100% chance of winning the 2020 election or Trump has a 100% chance. These are falsifiable claims, and a maximum of one of them will turn out to be true. Every other probability estimate will turn out to be false, because either Biden or Trump will actually win.

Yet is seems rational to say that Biden has almost a 90% chance of winning right now, and wrong to say that he has a 100% chance–and even more wrong to say that Trump has a 90% chance. A lot of data and experience go into a plausible prediction. Even if Trump will win in 2020, he doesn’t have a 90% chance right now. Another Trump victory would be a second improbable event. But again, the actual vote won’t invalidate either a 10% or a 90% estimate of Trump’s chances, because either one is compatible with him winning or losing.

A different way to make sense of this is to say: If the election were held 100 times, Biden would win almost 90% of them. But that is weird in several ways. The election cannot be held 100 times in a row, and if we repeated it at all, the repetition would affect the outcomes. If we imagine 100 identical universes that all unfold separately from now until next week, perhaps Biden would win in 90 of them. Or perhaps the future is determined by the current situation, which must the same in all of the 100 identical universes. Then they must all turn out the same way. We just don’t know which way.

Forecasters like Nate Silver use simulations with random (or pseudo-random) numbers built in. Those are meant to model the actual world. But they are not replicas of the real world, which–leaving aside quantum physics–seems to have just one future that is determined by the state of things now.

Another interpretation is that giving Biden a 90% chance today is simply an assessment of our knowledge level. It’s as much about us as it’s about the world. Biden actually has a 100% or a 0% chance, but we (unlike an omniscient deity) don’t know which of those is right. However, the tools of forecasting allow us to estimate how much knowledge we have–with precision. In fact, Nate Silver’s estimate rises and falls by the hour.

According to this subjective interpretation of probability, when Silver’s estimate moves from 85%-86%, he has not invalidated his previous prediction but has updated his assessment of the best possible level of knowledge at the present time. Once the election is over, our knowledge will become complete, and we will rightly say that the odds are 100% in favor of what actually happened.

Two problems occur to me about this interpretation. First, a prediction is not falsifiable in the usual way (and falsifiability is a hallmark of science).

Second, how much knowledge is “possible” is relative to circumstances. Anyone who could see all the current, private, survey data at the congressional-district level would have more knowledge than Nate Silver has. But he knows a whole lot more than I do. His estimates seem to be measures of how much certainty he is entitled to, based on the work he has done and money he has spent. If I say that Biden has an 87% chance because that’s what I read on FiveThirtyEight, I am really saying that I believe Nate Silver’s claim that he has an 87% level of confidence. But how could I test whether that estimate is correct? How can we know that he is right to raise or lower the estimate by a point? Certainly not by waiting to find out what happens next week.

six types of claim: descriptive, causal, conceptual, classificatory, interpretive, and normative

Any serious (non-fiction) thinker makes claims, supports them with warrants, expects each claim to be challenged, and will withdraw a claim if the challenge proves valid.

However, people make many types of claims, with many kinds of warrant.

Here is a chart that suggests six different kinds of claim (descriptive, causal, conceptual, classificatory, interpretive, and normative) with examples of how a humanist, a social or behavioral scientist, and a natural scientist might make each of them.

humanitiesSocial/Behavioral SciencesNatural Sciences
descriptive claimKing Lear was written soon after Oct. 12, 1605. (Warrant: it refers to “these late eclipses in the sun and moon.”)44% fewer people dined in a restaurant this year than last year.2019 was the second-warmest year on record.
causal claim(s)Shakespeare wrote King Lear. Machiavelli influenced Shakespeare (which may mean: Shakespeare chose Machiavelli as an influence).Mass concern about COVID-19 has reduced demand for restaurants.Increased burning of carbon causes the climate to warm.
classificatory claimKing Lear is a renaissance tragedy.Restaurant meals are a form of consumer purchasing.Carbon dioxide is an example of a greenhouse gas.
conceptual claimThe renaissance was the rebirth of classical culture, which included such classical ideas as Stoicism. The price of a commodity is a function of supply and demand.The carbon cycle includes photosynthesis, respiration, burial, extraction, exchange, and combustion.
interpretive claimKing Lear reflects a fundamental pessimism that is incompatible with Christianity. A restaurant meal can be a status symbol or else a mere convenience. n/a (?)
normative claim(s)King Lear is a great play. King Lear displays the moral perils of avoiding love.People should stay out of restaurants to combat COVID-19.We should cut carbon consumption.

Every one of these claims (including the normative ones) is testable and falsifiable. Each one requires some kind of reason–but not the same kind of reason.

Each kind of researcher or scholar makes more than one kind of claim. It is not true that natural scientists rely exclusively on experiments and are only interested in causal claims. They also describe, classify, and build conceptual models.

It is not clear, however, that natural scientists truly make interpretive claims. They certainly interpret data, but I think their interpretations are actually descriptive, causal, conceptual, or classificatory claims. In the humanities, “interpretation” means understanding the subjective meaning of an action for the actors, and that is not possible for most of the natural world–excepting people and perhaps some other animals. In a phrase like “the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics,” I don’t think that the word “interpretation” means what it does for a scholar of human beings. It’s more like a model.

It is also not clear that science–natural or social–provides reasons for normative claims. It is true that we should cut carbon consumption, but not directly because of what science finds. Science describes and explains the situation; to decide that we should do something requires a different kind of reason.

People can provide good normative reasons (or bad ones, which can be rejected), but these reasons do not arise from science. That is why scientists often claim to be value-neutral. In contrast, humanists’ claims often have strong normative implications. To explain, classify, describe, conceptualize, or interpret a human action often provides the grounds for judging it.

See also: navigating the disciplines; what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects; what are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists); what does a Balinese cockfight have to do with public policy analysis?; notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds.