Philosophy Weekend: Occam's Razor

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A few days ago, an African-American teenager was killed by a policeman for no apparent reason in a town called Ferguson on the outer edge of St. Louis, Missouri. As outraged citizens began protesting in the streets, the police made a bad situation worse by confronting the protestors in terrifying battle-line formation with quasi-military equipment and tear gas grenades, denying the right to assemble, arresting journalists and photographers.

Now the protest has become a global concern, and the anger that many of us in the USA have been expressing contains some pent-up rage, since we’ve all been watching video footage from Gaza, and Ukraine, and Syria and Iraq. We’ve been seeped in images of foreign violence all year, so the images of violence in the middle of our own country can feel like the revelation of a hidden universal truth: we are part of this war-torn world.

Universal truths often emerge rapidly in times of public crisis, but we need to carefully choose which universal truths we want to nurture. It is indeed a discouraging truth that our own benevolent authorities can commit murder, that our own peaceful towns can erupt in bitter conflict, all on a pleasant summer day.

But there are also other more encouraging and instructive universal truths that emerge in difficult moments like these, though the positive lessons often shine only weakly through the ugliness and noise. Because so many people in Ferguson, Missouri are sharing photos and videos and instant reports, and because the local police chiefs and politicians have been issuing regular press conferences, the mechanics of this crisis have been relatively transparent. We haven’t yet learned why an African-American teenager was shot by a cop, but we definitely have learned how the reaction to the shooting devolved into a riot.

The whole story went like this: first, a cop shot a teenager for no reason. Then an angry crowd expressed its outrage, and the police snapped into brutal military mode to quell the protest. Why was the police response so brutal? Because the cops felt threatened. They felt threatened because one of them had made a terrible mistake, and retributions were sure to follow. The violence of the police response was a reflection of the police department's internal sense of guilt about the original shooting.

Of course, the overreaction by the police only made the protestors more determined to stand their ground, and unfortunately the scene on the street also began to devolve into some amount of mindless destruction and looting, thus creating a demand for more police. The cycle was complete.

The object in the image at the top of this page looks like a weapon, but it is in fact just an antique razor, found among other ruins of medieval England centuries after it had probably been used by at least one man to shave his face. I choose this image (which I superimposed on a scene of a World War One military parade) to represent the philosophical principle known as Occam’s Razor.

William of Ockham was a 14th century theologian and philosopher known for a declaration that is widely loved among philosophers even today. “Occam’s Razor” is an appeal to empirical simplicity, to common sense, to the power of rationality and the importance of avoiding bias. The statement is this: given a difficult problem to solve, the simplest answer is probably the one to keep.

Wikipedia’s introduction to the concept explains it well:

Occam's razor … is a principle of parsimony, economy, or succinctness used in problem-solving. It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but -- in the absence of certainty -- the fewer assumptions that are made, the better.

Occam's Razor is a famous philosophical statement, but it’s not a cliche, because a thoughtful consideration of this principle can still provide surprising and provocative results in many applications. I thought of Occam’s Razor as I followed events in Ferguson this week.

I also thought of Occam’s Razor when I wrote last weekend’s Philosophy Weekend blog post arguing that the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency 40 years ago was not actually the product of Nixon’s personal psychological problems but rather of a reasonable fear of espionage and military weakness shared by many Americans during the Vietnam War era. I also thought of the Razor several months before when I wrote a series of blog posts suggesting that every major incident of genocide during the last couple of hundred years has been primarily motivated not by hatred or prejudice or racism or religious bigotry but, again, simply by fear.

This emphasis on fear as a root cause of conflict is indeed the major truth that Occam’s Razor can deliver to us as we analyze any crisis, whether in Ferguson, Missouri or in Israel and Palestine or Russia and Ukraine or Syria and Iraq. The answer always fits, and it always explains everything. Always.

Occam’s Razor is intended not only to emphasize simple answers that work but also to cut out complicated and tortuous answers that don’t work. When we accept the simple answer that violence and conflict and war are always the product of fear, we are successfully cutting out several other bad answers that are often cited as the root cause of violence and conflict and war.

Here are some of the bad answers that Occam's Razor can help us shave away, when we try to think intelligently about the violent conflicts of our time:

  • These terrible things happen because some people are just evil and hateful.
  • These terrible things happen because some sectors of society are not capable of civilized behavior.
  • These terrible things happen because of our innate enjoyment of violence.

It's sad to realize how popular these three general beliefs are, and how widely they are held. If a poll was taken, I bet all three of these statements would rank higher in public acceptance than the one I am proposing, which is:

  • These terrible things happen because both sides feel threatened.

But that's just because people aren't thinking very hard, and aren't using Occam's Razor.

Indeed, the hypothesis that fear is the root cause of most civil and global conflict survives Occam's Razor in a way that the other three statements do not. To posit a mental state or motivational force called "evil" or "hate" is to introduce murky and quasi-demonic concepts where they are not needed. We do not know for sure what "evil" is or where "hate" originates. But we do all instinctively know what "fear" means. If all the historic and current conflicts of the world can be explained simply as products of fear, than this is a better answer than any answer involving intangibles such as "evil" and "hate". Fear is the more primal and direct phenomenon, and thus better passes William of Ockham's test for reasonable belief.

Since it is indeed possible to find strong expressions of fear as motivating factors for most conflicts or mass atrocities, the statement that posits evil or hate as more influential than fear does not pass Occam's Razor. That takes care of the first statement.

As for the second, which posits deeply embedded societal difference between, say, street protestors and cops in Missouri, or between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East, we will quickly bog down in contradiction once we try to characterize exactly what these differences are. On what scale is a society's moral sophistical supposed to be measured, and how do we know that our cultural biases are not reflected in these scales? The closer we look, the less clarity we will find regarding these societal differences, and therefore this explanation is more of a conceptual stretch than the simple explanation that conflict between societies is a product of fear.

As for the third statement above, the Dostoevskian observation that humans often enjoy violence, we must admit that this is in itself true. However, it does not appear evident that our natural enjoyment of violence plays a strong role in our politics. While we should not deny the twisted aspects of human nature, we can at least take comfort in the fact that our violent instincts generally provide only weak and sporadic signals to our rational minds, and that most people will choose to behave decently to each other when they can. Most importantly, we can observe that psychological urges towards violence are a private individual phenomenon, and that these secret individual urges are not likely to occur to large numbers of people at the same time. This means that the collective behaviors that become dominant in times of a public conflict -- protests, fights, police riots, foreign invasions, wars -- are not likely to be expressions of private urges to violence overcoming many people at the same time. That would require a practical mechanism to exist for the transference of private urges to public policy, and this mechanism itself is too murky and mysterious to survive Occam's Razor.

To sum up: sure, we could believe that the ongoing disaster in Ferguson, Missouri is a manifestation of spiritual evil, or a result of societal deficiency, or the product of dark psychological urges towards violence. But, again, William of Ockham has advised us to always select the simplest answer that successfully addresses all particulars of the question. In Ferguson, Missouri, the simplest possible answer is "fear".

In Israel and Palestine, the simplest possible answer is also "fear", and it is too in Ukraine and Russia, and Iraq and Syria. In all cases, we can trace the influence of fear on both sides of the conflicts, and we can sadly watch everything unfold from the fear instinct alone. It's an answer to a difficult question that holds up pretty well. William of Ockham showed us the method 700 years ago, but we're still struggling to wield this razor correctly.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Occam's Razor in Iraq. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Nixon and Watergate and Vietnam and Our Capacity For Shared Delusion.
43 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Occam's Razor"

by ortermagic on

Hi Levi

I read your blog fairly regularly and appreciate your insights, they kinda help me maintain sanity, wish I had a little of your literary dexterity.

This is my introduction as a first time poster.

I'm an old man now but in my youth (from age 15 in 1959) I followed the beatwords and philosophy of the great American 'Beatniks' with religious fervour, and I practiced what they preached from the heart (thanks Bob).

I am breaking my silence in order to humbly suggest that perhaps you (intentionally) missed out greed and avarice from the mix.

Keep up the good work, I think it's valuable.

by Mark Pajaro on

I think you're forgetting one thing in explaining why tension between countries arise.

Narcissism seems to be an ongoing trait among many sadistic oppressive dictators.

This human trait in a clinical degree found in a political leader, can easily translate into political initiatives about feeding ones ego or obtaining the feeling of having great power. I think Putin falls into this category. Fear cant explain why Russia annexed Chrimea, nor is there any logical reason why Russia would assume the United States to be a threat to its existence.

Putin wants to restore the good old Russia where he is the king, in order to satisfy his ego. Its not an imaginative stretch to say that Putin has narcissistic impulses; look at the way he portrays himself to the media. He wants to look macho and strong and in control.

His goal isnt to protect Russia, because nobody was threatening Russia to begin with. His geopolitical agenda is to gain land and stay in power. In order to do this you need high energy prices, since that will benefit Russia's huge energy sector. So how do you keep energy prices high? By 'Disturbing the supply and you do this by keeping tension in the Middle East, which sheds light on the reason behind Russias protective hand over Syria, and why they deliver weapon to Iran and Hizbollah. Putin doesnt care about Russia, he cares about him self and his oligarch friends who are his only supporters in Russia. Why else would he be throwing innocent people in jail who arent violent, if he cared about his citizens.

Qaddafi was also a narcissist, and that trait and the spectrum is covers, if you ask me, explains much better than fear, why he committed the things he did.

by Lisa Perez on

Oh my God, Levi! This post is EXCELLENT. I have to formidably agree because the fight or flight response is inherent in our nature and has been attributed to new medical phenomenons such as anxiety disorder. Fear is often the root cause and I would also conjecture that fear prevents, stifles and suppresses education which would encourage diplomacy, understanding, modicums of civil solutions to every conflict (to "see" from both sides and resolve issues peacefully).
To add to your post I think it is also important to note that positions of power, the media, and politicians need to keep things "complex" to justify their varying positions and coverage of acts of violence. If people got along or tolerated one another, there would be no need for "extensive news coverage", journalism, civil rights leadership, talking head politicians, or the police and military. Keeping these issues as they are allows all of these things to exist and thus will not accept a "simple" solution.
I'm posting this to my FB page. Bravo on your well-presented post. Friggin' genius...

by Craig Royce on

What you haven't taken into account is that William of Ockham was an idiot.

by Subject Sigma on

How can you justify the current situation in Iraq just with "fear from both sides"? Of course there are traces of fear, but explaining war with fear looks really close to a tautology - as war brings always fear.

by BILL HARRISON on

I find it interesting that you invoke occams razor but don't apply it to the events at hand. Again basically 2 events happened

1: A proven criminal who just strong armed a shop keeper minutes ago is confronted by police and no doubt assuming they were after them assaulted an officer forcing him to react out of self defense and preservation

Or

2: A decorated officer of the law decided this was the day he would pull up to a random black man and execute him unprovoked in broad daylight.

Occam's razor clearly points to the first as reality. Yet you state that the officer had made a terrible mistake? Seemingly implicating it was the officers fault. I'm curious why you choose to apply occam's razor in one place but not both?

by mtmynd on

Micheal: "This human trait in a clinical degree found in a political leader, can easily translate in to political initiatives that's about feeding ones ego or obtaining the feeling of having great power. I think Putin falls into this category."

Putin may seek this great power but the underlying reason is "fear based". Any world leaders or people of tremendous wealth or any other powerful positions are fulfilling an emptiness they never had in their early development. Due to this seeming "lack" of power, money or control encourages them to attain those inadequacies due primarily to "fear". What if they remain poor or do without those things that make them what they feel they need to overcome those fears? That is the impetus that drives them and I think Putin falls into that category... having served in the KGB for 16 years would only instill more fear of losing that position and that of Presidency and Prime Minister. Having that degree of power enforces one's belief of their self-importance and the idea of losing that power connects with the fear factor.

This same connection is found within the extremely wealthy (Putin wealth is said to be between $40 and 70 BILLION... far more than any rational person would ever need in their lifetime and that of their progeny) who are insistent on continuing to amass as much money as possible and in any way possible - wealth at any cost. This is an addiction which again has it's basis in fear of poverty or neglect.

I think what you are overlooking in your otherwise clear assessments is the root cause of Putin's behavior and Qaddafi's narcissism both of which has it's early beginnings in fear that they seek to alleviate. Why else would Putin "want to look macho and strong and in control" as you put so well?

And again: "Putin wants to restore the good old Russia where he is the king, in order to satisfy his ego. Its not an imaginative stretch to say that Putin has narcissistic impulses..." He's already been Lt Col. in the KGB, President of Russia since 2012, previously served as President 2000 to 2008, and "as Prime Minister of Russia from 1999 to 2000 and again from 2008 to 2012. During his last term as Prime Minister, he was also the Chairman of the United Russia, the ruling party."

How much praise and/or reinforcement does an average person require to overcome any shortcomings in their own lives? How much has fear been the driving force behind Putin's drive to where he is today? How much more does he need..? It is "fear" and I don't mean these people hide in corners shivering with fear that they will be caught or found out but rather they convince themselves they will overcome those emotions bypassing the fears reasons for being and covering them up with power, wealth or early emptiness that they demand keep hidden.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for these great comments. There have been so many good points brought up that I'm only going to try to respond to a few per comment. First, to Lisa Perez -- thank you! And thank you for sharing the link.

To Ortermagic, it is very nice to meet you, and to hear that you have been lurking here for a long time. Nice to finally hear your voice! And as for whether or not greed and avarice do cause war and conflict and atrocity -- well, yes, they certainly do. The exploitation of slaves and serfs has been the source of many atrocities, and so has the modern world's extreme dependence on fossil fuels, which often leads to bad politics in pursuit of oil wealth.

Likewise, I will simply agree with Mark Pajaro that narcissism and egotism causes political leaders to pursue irrational and harmful policies.

BUT -- please consider this important point. Greed and gluttony and narcissism and egotism are characteristics of individual persons. But even though we like to symbolize our nations with the faces of our leaders, it is an important fact that individual leaders do not make policy alone. Even within the most dictatorial governments -- say, Hitler's or Stalin's -- or organized societies, a large bureaucracy existed to make decisions and carry them out. So, emotional weaknesses like greed and narcissism have to pass through a filter of group acceptance. Putin really *doesn't* make decisions all by himself, and neither did Nixon, and neither did Hitler. So hopefully this mitigates the impact of greed and gluttony and egotism and narcissism. I do agree, though, that these factors play a strong role in the course of history and modern events.

by Levi Asher on

Subject Sigma, thanks for asking me to clarify my point about this. When I use the word "fear", I am referring to the perception of a threat. I am not talking about an emotional or irrational fear.

When the police chief orders an aggressive riot-control response to the protests in Ferguson, he is showing fear. This fear, in this case, is entirely rational. The police department *is* indeed threatened by the incident that just occurred, and by the protestors and journalists who are gathering in town.

When the USA was attacked on 9/11/2001, our national leadership felt threatened. Again, this was a rational perception of an actual threat. President Bush then made an irrational decision to invade Iraq in 2003 (thus effectively *increasing* the threat instead of decreasing it). Osama bin Laden's original 9/11 attack had also been an expression of fear: the fear that a major wave of USA/Saudi/Egyptian/Palestine partnership was making his brand of Islamic fundamentalism obsolete. And fear is certainly active on both sides of the current ISIL/Shiite battle in Iraq. My point is, whether or not fear is justified, whether or not fear is rational, whether or not fear reflects an actual or imaginary threat, fear *is* the major ingredient in every recipe for war. Do you disagree?

by Levi Asher on

BILL HARRISON, thanks for your feedback. I think you make a valid point, and I agree with you that we don't have a conclusive understanding at this point of what happened on the street between the police officer and Mike Brown that began this crisis in Ferguson, Missouri. Occam's Razor should be used by detectives and journalists who investigate the teenager's death, and I hope it will be. I did not mean to prejudge the police officer -- but I will say that the weakness of the official police story and explanation does not make it look good for the police here. I also think, as I wrote above, that the police acted guilty when they overreacted so strongly to the protestors, and when they arrested journalists. Do you disagree with this observation?

by Ron Carpenter on

Mr. Royce is right about the folly of William of Ockham. In his day both Mary of Kent and Taylor of Meade called him William the Oxhead.

by Levi Asher on

Mr. Royce and Mr. Carpenter -- I have not found any information to corroborate what you're talking about. Can you explain what you're referring to? Ockham was accused of heresy at various times, but of course that is par for the course for any original-minded theologian.

by Ron Carpenter on

Regarding the obtuseness of William of Ockham, please see Professor John Alsworthy's 1938 biography "William of Ockham: The Sage of Surrey" in which he discusses his mental deterioration in the years 1311-1315 (ISBN 0-671-32971-3, published by Elyxer, now out of print). Alsworthy refers to the Surrey Annals of 1319 which mention this fact (uttered by Taylor of Meade in characterizing William of Ockham as "the simpleton of simplicity.").

A significant article in the now defunct scholarly journal "Logic and Illogic" (1958) discusses the epistemological shortcomings of Occam's razor. It is entitled "The Razor's Thin Logic" (author Georges Blenheim, August 1958 issue); the essay argues that William never defines adequately the notion of simplicity. Albert Einstein, in a personal note to Satyendra Nath Bose, when discussing condensed matter physics, mentioned in passing that the principle of Occam's razor is contradictory because it would be at cross purposes in different frames of reference.

To end on a note of humor, Kerouac in an unpublished short story (yet to be published) writes about going to the corner store looking for Occam's Razors as he had run out of shaving equipment the day before...

by Subject Sigma on

If I understand well, linking back to "Genocide and Drunk Driving and Causality", for you fear is like "the opposite of the final cause". You do something because you want to achieve the final cause; or you do something because you want to prevent the achievement of an outcome (by someone else) - you make war because you are afraid that someone else will reduce your power (Bin Laden example).

Am I correct about that (we can define this "final fear" instead of "final cause")?

by Levi Asher on

Ron Carpenter, that's some pretty inspired nonsense -- thank you. I like the Kerouac mention, though it's hard to believe it's real since as we know every word ever written by Jack Kerouac has now been published in one over-hyped edition or another. Anyway, I'm interested in learning more about "Taylor of Meade".

Subject Sigma, I think the word "fear" can cause confusion here, since it can reflect both a direct final cause (a person kills a spider because he is afraid of spiders) and an indirect underlying motivation (a person stops smoking cigarettes because he is afraid of lung cancer). Maybe it will make this clearer to explain that I am using the word "fear" to mean nearly the same thing as "blood alienation". When I talk about one group of people fearing another group, I mean that they recognize the other group as their mortal enemy, and they believe that they must defeat the other group in order to ensure their own security. Does that make more sense?

by Subject Sigma on

So it is not "final fear" (final cause). In that way, this does not explain wars of conquest. I don't think Iraq was this kind of "afraid" of Kuwait, for example, or ancient Romans of... all the world they conquered, just to do two examples, one ancient and one recent. That is speaking about people, as you already rejected the idea of responsibility by individual leaders, presented also by Mark Pajaro and Mtmynd, that I still support.

by Levi Asher on

Sigma, your point is well made, and I'm very glad you brought it up. You are raising a serious and reasonable objection to my statement that a shared sense of fear, also characterized as "blood alienation", is the root cause of every war, because wars of conquest are motivated more by greed than by fear. I was anticipating that somebody would bring up this specific objection, and I'm glad to have a chance to answer it.

Indeed, many greedy politicians, financiers and powerful individuals have started wars for greedy and acquisitive reasons. A few examples that come to mind: Napoleon in Egypt, King Leopold in the Belgian Congo, Dick Cheney in Iraq. However, when these misadventures have been sold to the public, they are often presented in terms of defensive motivations. For instance, while it was clear that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld urged a war in Iraq partly to provide gifts to the defense contract industry that they were both so close to, it is *not* clear that the American people were willing to support this war on those greedy grounds. So, the war had to be sold as a war on terrorism, and it was.

There can be no doubt that Hitler's motivations leading up to World War II were greedy and voracious -- but it's an important point that, as above, the Nazi invasions of Poland and France were sold to the German people as vital wars of defense. The German people were inundated with propaganda about the world's intent to destroy German culture and oppress the German people. So even the most vile and greedy war of all time was not perceived as a war of greed by the nation that began it.

Taking this further back into past history, I'm honestly not sure how to explain Belgian atrocities in the Congo or Napoleon's pillaging of Egyptian treasures in the same terms. It is possible that I will have to concede that greed has been a primary motive for war in past history. But can a war be conducted today on this basis? Maybe Vladimir Putin proves that it could? Or maybe Vladimir Putin is sincerely afraid of Ukranian independence? To sum up, Subject Sigma, I think you have raised a serious question and I hope I have begun to answer it. I think I will have to think about it further before I can come up with a more complete answer. Happy to hear what anybody else thinks about this too!

by Subject Sigma on

Levi, I think we are getting to an agreement, and that also closes the circle with the Ashley Wilkes Principle: as the war is sold to the nation as a defensive war, common people believe to stand on high moral ground. The issue now is the relationship between leaders and common people - and, to further explore this mechanism, maybe we could investigate if the Ashley Wilkes Principle can be extended also to individuals.

by mtmynd on

Today the President spoke seriously and with great authority regarding the beheading of an American journalist. I heard the gauntlet dropping on ISIS.

Is this because of fear or should ISIS be the one that fells fear? The President has the great responsibility to protect the people of the U.S.. The people have a growing fear of what they see in ISIS, cold blooded killing machine who have publicly threatened our country.

ISIS claims they welcome war with the U.S. despite our superior military advantage on all fronts - from ground, air and sea we have enough power to literally erase this plague from the earth. Whether we will ever have to resort to that amount of death and destruction is a long ways off today, but apparently ISIS is either ignorant of the fact or have a death wish. Add to this our allies who will join in the battles that we may be up against in due time.

We mustn't forget War itself is a fearful act for both sides, but yet we hu'mans continue warring with those we oppose... and the world is full of opposition and the fear that accompanies it.

by Subject Sigma on

Is really war a fearful act? For sure it is for Palestinian and Israeli civilians under rockets and bombs, like it was for English and German civilians in the same conditions. But is war with Isis fearful for the american bomber pilots, flying at 20 thousand feets in their stealth bomber, little gods in their technological marvels of destruction? Is war with Isis fearful for the american civilians, thousands miles distant? Is war of Isis fearful, for the volounteers Isis soldiers, believing to gain eternal life - not to speak of the seven virgin girls for each one - if they die killing infidel scum? Everyone, in his depths, sure to be on the right side, sure to stand on the moral high ground.

by Levi Asher on

This is good feedback ... to respond to some of these will take another blog post, and I am working on it now! For instance, Subject Sigma asks the very good question whether or not the Ashley Wilkes Principle (which states that every society will always believe itself to be highly moral) applies to individuals as well as to societies. I believe the answer must be that it does not, or at least that we cannot reasonably prove that the principle applies. We can prove that a society always believes itself to be moral because every society uses words in public (text, speech) to communicate among its citizens, so we can now what a society believes simply by reading its texts. No such transparency exists for an individual.

As to the bigger questions -- is war fearful? How should the world respond to the violence of the new political force that calls itself ISIS or ISIL? -- I would like to address these in the upcoming Philosophy Weekend.

And, Sigma asks, is war a fearful act for, say, bomber pilots or drone pilots who will never see the destruction they cause on the ground? I think this is an important question and the answer is probably that it's a lot less fearful to the guy dropping the bomb than it is to the people who will be hurt by the bomb. But, even so, the big question we should ask isn't whether war causes fear -- it's whether war is caused by fear. The bomber pilot has probably convinced himself that he is helping the world become a safer place by dropping bombs. That's the fallacy that needs to be addressed.

by mtmynd on

Good questions, Sigma. When I state that war is a fearful act, don't you think whoever is warring, both sides have a sense of fear as to which side will win? Especially the leadership of either Nation or side involved... leadership requires making the right choices, whether that is a Captain of his aircraft carrier making the right choices that will hopefully bring back his pilots safely... the Lt in charge of a small group of men in battlefield mode, will his decisions keep the group safe or will they all be slaughtered?

You suggested that the fighters in ISIS may not feel any fear because of the promise of a paradise on the other side. I say the lowly fighter is as hu'man as any of us here in that regardless of what is on the other side, this side will bring fear which the fighter may or may not use to his advantage to fight his perceived enemy with that same fear running his emotions.

Perhaps this subject of fear requires an understanding of the obvious - the various *levels of fear* we have within. Not all fear reeks of terror within but is our signal to get the hell out of the situation we find ourselves in to keep us alive!

Looking forward to more dialog on this, Levi... it's getting more interesting.

by Subject Sigma on

I really like this discussion.
Trying to reply to mtnmynd about fear, I am not sure the pilot, the politic or the fanatic are under the pressure of fear.
Of course, if something goes wrong, then the "fight of flee" self-preservation instinct kicks in and triggers a rush of fear; but I really am not sure if a bomber pilot, or even the fanatic soldier feel fear when they decide to start fighting.
I think this argument about fear can be consistent on a "classical" war, like the invasion of France by Germany in WWII, but in the current "unstructured" wars I am not so sure. I do not think that US bomber pilots can be afraid of being "on the losing side" - maybe they will not win the war, but for sure they will not lose it, I mean they are not afraid of US being conquered by Isis / Isil / Is...; on the same way the religious-fanatic soldier can believe his god will win ultimately, so neither he is afraid to be "on the losing side".
I do not understand well the argument about the fear of ISIS fighter; for sure he is as human as any other, this is the real issue! Human nature will never end to surprise us; I am convinced that, with a distorted perception of reality in our mind, we can do the most terrible crimes and still pretend to stand on "high moral grounds" - about this, a fighter pilot that spent his whole life to train, prepare, simulate, get ready, to deploy warheads, and is waiting only for a war to explode to be able to "do his real work", can be as inhumane as the most fanatic integralist foot soldier.

by mtmynd on

Sigma... I'm afraid I've confused you.

"The pilot, the politic or the fanatic are under the pressure of fear" *when* danger becomes a reality that threatens their lives.

However I feel I'm trying to over-intellectualize this subject which is not intellectual at all but rather fear is an emotion we deal with... emotionally. Without this fear we may not have the impetus to save ourselves or others from imminent danger. We become emotionally involved due to our *concern* (the initial emotion of fear) for our well-being and/or that of our family or friends.

I don't think there is too much of a stretch to say a President has *concern* over the people he governs or a pilot is initially *concerned* in accomplishing the mission at hand to keep himself and his side safe. How that concern would increase to full-blown fear is wholly dependent upon the importance of the situation.

After our press informed the public today of Hagel's comment that ISIS "clearly poses a long-term threat," will *concern* the public if not scare the bewaddle out of many folks. As I said in an earlier reply, war is a fearful act. Should this *concern* over ISIS increase to a full-blown war, there will obviously be many on both sides fearful of the outcome if not the incidents leading up to that outcome. It's a hu'man emotion we all have but not all express that fear in the same way.

by Subject Sigma on

If now I understand correctly:

-you define the "fight or flee" response, dictated by fear; agreed, but only "*when* danger becomes a reality that threatens their lives.", and this may NEVER happen in the life of a bomber pilot, or can happen to a foot soldier only after he already killed from a safe distance many enemies; so "too late" to influence the start of the war.

- you say that the concern about ISIS may upscale the war to a "full blown war". From my point of view (the other side of the ocean, many miles closer to the theater of war) a full blown war is already happening. US have not yet committed ground troops to it, but still soldiers of different states / organizations are fighting something bigger than "guerrilla", conquering entire cities and deporting thousands of civilians.

I mean, I am still a bit confused but from my point of view the "baseline" is that fear is not the only cause / "prime mover" for this war, at leadership level as well as a military unit level (foot soldier - aircraft pilot - name it).

Bill Harrison, you are leaving out the most probable scenario. I don't believe officer Darren Wilson "decided this was the day he would pull up to a random black man and execute him unprovoked," nor do I believe exactly your other scenario, either. I belive the decorated police officer was feeling cocky, like he could do anything he wanted, drove up to the two young men, and grabbed one of them. The one who was grabbed, Michael Brown, reacted by trying to jerk away, which is a natural reaction, especially for an 18 year old. Officer Brown was angered by the resistence, even though (at that time) he had no cause for arrest, so he fought even harder to make the teenager submit to his will. The officer decided he would pull out his gun (which, after all, is what gave him the "courage" to grab someone on the street). The teen saw the gun and got scared and possibly tried to grab it, which gave the officer the excuse the "he was trying to take my weapon. This resulted in the officer shooting the 18 year old SIX times until dead. Now, was the teen partly responsible? Maybe, but young people make immature decisions. It would not have happened if the officer had approached the teens in a more civil manner to begin with. Just as in the Trayvon Martin case, it's easy for a man with a gun to provoke a young person to violence and when they react to the provocation, pull out the gun.

by mtmynd on

Sigma... if I'm reading you correctly, you seriously disagree that fear is the/a prime motivator for war and soldiers, aircraft pilots and even Presidents are fearless and have not an ounce of fear in them one of these scenarios play out..? Is this a fair assessment of what you are either saying or are confused about?

Your beginning to sound as though you fear accepting fear resides in the hearts and minds of warriors and their leadership. Fear is not to be feared but accepted as an emotion that is very real within all people at various times of their lives, something I'd think you would believe.

Do you agree that fear has different levels of response? A person selected to give a speech to an auditorium of 5,000 people experiences a level of fear, no matter how many times s/he has spoken to large crowds. Once the flow begins, the comfort level of the speaker takes hold and before s/he realizes it, the fear has either dissipated or has taken second place in importance.

War... anyone who believes war is a cakewalk, a fearless experience that should not bother anyone regardless of how well armed they are or how powerful their aircraft is... those people know fear. If they didn't they wouldn't feel alive but rather half dead and morose, unable to function within the conditions of war.

Both sides of battle incur these fears through different conditions - one soldier may be scared out of his mind with the bombs seemingly getting closer and close to where he his worried about where that last gun shot came from. What is the shooter is behind him? What if he is right behind the wall in front of this soldier? Perspiration is running down his forehead and his palms begin sweating making it difficult to hold on to the only weapon left - an M9 Beretta for close range. Fear? What do you think?

ISIS fighter riding on a confiscated U.S. Army tank holding his flag high when suddenly out of nowhere he sees and hears a deafening explosion in front of him as another tank is buried in smoke so thick and the stench so powerful that this fighter begins gagging and fights for his next breath... he has long dropped the flag and the tank he was on has come to a halt and he hears more aircraft ascending from the skies.... will he be the next target he asks himself, as he scrambles around seeking a safe haven hoping he'll live long enough to kill an American. Beads of sweat running profusely down his forehead and getting into his eyes irritating them to the point that his vision becomes more and more blurred. He screams out the name "Allah!" hoping his god will give save his ass from dying.

Those scenarios do happen one hundred and perhaps 1,000 fold with the amount of both troops and civilians that are praying for their lives to be saved. Fear? Damn right there's fear. And I am sure you'd be one those examples trying in vain to wipe away the sweat and dust from the reality of battle first hand.

Fear, again, is both our saving grace and our enemy that wears us down until we cannot fight any more, whether the enemy is ourself or some unknown stranger around us facing the same fears and holding the same firearms hoping they kill you before you can kill them.

Let's scale this down, Sigma... you're in your Honda Accord driving thru an unfamiliar area of a small town 538 miles north of your own home. You're trying to find a place to eat dinner before the sun finishes going behind the hills over there west of where you are. You make a decision to turn left hoping you'll find a greasy spoon at best to fill that emptiness in your stomach when all of a sudden - clank! and then another clank!

Shit, car troubles. Maybe the drive shaft or some other mechanical problem and you don't know anyone in this little town to call on. You're not even sure their is a mechanic available somewhere as the sun continues setting, minute be minute. You get out of your Honda and look around, up and down the street, hoping to find someone to help you out. Just then you hear some voices, lightly at first... they must be somewhere in the distance so you wait a bit hoping they'll come your way. Three minutes or so goes by and the voices become louder... a good sign. Good until they turn the corner and see you. There stand (3) men in the shadowy dusk of the approaching night and you hear them laughing and pointing. They are pointing at you! You get uncomfortable... maybe even a bit concerned but what choice do you have? You can't sleep in your car. The three continue approaching you, their laugher subsided and their footsteps get louder and more purposeful and you begin wondering what will happen on the lonely street with no body around. You then hear what sounds like a click as if one them was cocking a pistol. Your hands begin sweating and your legs feel frozen. Fear begins eating you alive as you begin silently praying to your creator... "someone has to hear me", you keep repeating to yourself over and over until they are standing not 2 feet away from you staring at you and at your car. You catch a glimpse of the pistol held in one the men's right hand which he begins swinging lightly at first and they a bit faster and faster until he quickly raises his gun and points it directly into your face which is covered in perspiration.

No, Sigma, fear is real and war is a fearful act whether it is an all-out war between nations or a gang-related war within your city... fear finds itself in the placid and beautiful countryside when some drunken, belligerent hillbillies decide to mess around with you because they have nothing better to do up here in the woods.

How much fear is in the hearts of the guilty who know damn good and well they are guilty? How many men of the cloth are filled with fear and are unable to sleep at night because of their pedophilia... robbing those young of their innocence using lies and deception? How much fear did you have a young teen when you came home at 3:48am drunk as you've ever been hoping your Dad wouldn't wake up and see you like that? Fearful of his belt beating your young ass for doing such a screwed up thing and staying out this late..?

You're getting a bit picky when you say "US have not yet committed ground troops to it, but still soldiers of different states / organizations are fighting something bigger than 'guerrilla', conquering entire cities and deporting thousands of civilians." You don't think there is fear within these scenarios when they see they starved and sick bodies that have been ravaged by ISIS? You don't believe the fear will rise up within *until* the U.S. is in a face-to-face fight with these people..?

There is logic and reasoning and there is emotional responses. More often than not the emotional response takes over logic when survival is at stake. Emotion expresses fear whereas logic and reasoning are unresponsive to fear. But reasoning easily becomes discarded during the times when our lives and /or the lives of family, loved ones and even close friends are at stake. Emotion takes control under those circumstances. Logic and reasoning will find great difficulty in taming emotions fueled by fear. That emotion is the 'final straw" that forces fear to defend life at any cost. The greatest of battles were ignited by that principle.

by Subject Sigma on

Mtmydn, my point is completely different.

You are saying "during the war there is fear".
I am saying "I dont think fear is the only cause of war".
The two propositions are not in opposition.
In your examples fear is not a cause, is a consequence of the situation. I was speaking instead of causes - of course during the war there is fear, but I am interested to understand what is before the war. If fear develops during the war situation, that does not means fear is the reason for war - I am trying to distinguish cause and consequence.

About the current situation my reply was unclear. I am just stating that situation, as seen from here, is already of a "full blown war", also if US infantry troops are not yet involved - that statement has nothing to do in regard to the fear argument.

Again, I agree with you with the "fight or flee" dynamic, as stated in your last paragraph, where emotions take over reason. Again, the "fight or flee" dynamic is triggered by a situation of perceived threat; if no threat is perceived, there should be no such response. So we can shift the question to another point:

- Did every single conflict started as reaction to a perceived threat? If this is true, so we can identify fear as the only cause of war; if this is false, then fear cannot be the only cause of war. From previous comments looks like some wars could have been started because of lust for power or greed, so in my opinion fear is not the only cause for war; once the conflict is started with different causes, then the developing situation will generate even more fear, degenerating even more the conflict.

by mtmynd on

Sigma, you write: "From previous comments looks like some wars could have been started because of lust for power or greed..." but do not reference the other side, those who have more to lose than this example of yours that has lust for power or greed. This certainly *may* strike fear within the object of that lust. Isn't that enough cause for the war imagined or real..? The threat perceived of real on the defensive side understandably becomes fearful of how the outcome of this scenario will end. Will the defense side lose their own power or perhaps their riches lost over to the aggressor's greed. The kindling for war has been ignited and only the outcome has the final answer to whether it will be a skirmish or an all-out battle, IMHO. So using this, I can visualize war starting from the initial interest the aggressor has "in his eyes" sparking that lust or greed you speak of. The initial fear experienced by the defense should be understandable given the scenario. In this example, I clearly visualize fear as the primary instigator behind war... a lopsided one, granted, as the aggressor attacks with lust or greed versus the defense reacting with fear of possible loss of that which is being protected.

Does this help clarify a wee bit more what I have been trying to explain to you, amigo? I glad to be hear conversing with you and not out partying on a Saturday night... something my wife and I no longer are interested in. :)

by Subject Sigma on

Mntmynd, again I agree with you about fear in the defending side, but in my opinion this is a consequence of the attack, not a cause of war. You write "I clearly visualize fear as the primary instigator behind war... a lopsided one, granted, as the aggressor attacks with lust or greed versus the defense reacting with fear of possible loss of that which is being protected."
I, personally, consider "reacting with fear" a consequence of the first attack. Remove the attack, and you dont have the war. Remove the reaction caused by fear (impossible, but do it just as theoretical example), you still have a genocide or a war where the defender would act for self defense or for many other reasons.
It is just a matter of where you put the division from causes to consequences in a long chain of facts.

by Jay Mejia on

Occam's razor was declared in a much simpler time. Not sure I agree that the officer was out to shoot a kid. The kid is 6'3 and 300 lbs. If someone came bullrushing to you, and you had a gun...I lived in the hood with teenage bullies like these.

Let's not rush to judgment.

Three sides to the story, yours, mine and the truth.

by mtmynd on

Sigma, how about meeting up and having a few beers and a good plate of Mexican food? It'd be a great way to know each other. ;)

Anyhoo..why would this aggressor even spend any time assessing the opponent if he wasn't concerned (initial fear response)? Do unto others before they do unto you? That saying is said *NOT* because it's b.s..

Re: "Remove the attack, and you don't have the war." Of course but is it that simple? We're dealing with hu'man emotions and fears here when we are speaking of war and it's reasons for occurring. It's important to accept the fact "all wars begin between the ears." The attack you speak of is already in play far after the mind has conceived and rationed the war.

It is very probable, given hu'man play at work here, that the worry (another level of the fear factor) of what an opposition *might* do becomes a defensive reaction even though there is no immediate threat personally. (re: Obama and ISIS 3 months ago?) The illusive "what if', (another level of the 'fear factor"), can easily come into play in hopes of thwarting any violent action being taken against this presumption of a threat.

Conversely, it is very likely ISIS leadership (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), views U.S. power as threatening to that His ultimate goal, a Muslim Caliphate. U.S. bombs our own military machinery stolen by ISIS which is being used by the same leader to create a caliphate according to the strict laws of this choosing. That leadership feels powerful, powerful enough to literally walk over Iraqi soldiers and thru action by fear scare the innocents into submission and if not simply eliminate them. That success the leadership had gave him a sense of bravado that he feels can conquer the U.S. and western world. He is responding to his own inner fear with an exaggerated sense of self-importance which is the primary cause of this entire situation. Akin to the Nazi Third Reich, he continues marching forward overtaking small towns and villages with Baghdad as one of his trophy wins. With that he would (hopefully in his mind) be honored and revered by the Muslim world. But inside there is without question a fear knowing this action will have an adverse reaction and that mean it will come tumbling down. I call it karma.. what goes around comes around...? There is an instinctive signal within us, hu'manity, that either 'listens' to this instinct or ignores it.

(Note: The Muslim fundamentalists who recruit suicide bombers are using the 'multi-virgin reward in heaven' as a lure to hook these young and mostly virgin Muslim believers into performing what has to be an extraordinary fearful act which is masked by this belief. It's a powerful enough enticement for a young horny person to walk into these dangerous situations and kill so many. What better way to a young innocent virgin mind but to give validity to an otherwise heinous act with such a wondrous and imaginative promise?)

Yes, Sigma, I do digress from time to time but I do so because I see all things connected in one way or another... and when we connect the dots, we connect ourselves with the apparent facts of our reality.

by Subject Sigma on

Mtmynd, I really would like to share with you some nice beers, there is just a little detail, that little big ocean dividing Europe from US... sooner or later I should decide myself and make some holidays on your side of the sea!

Stil I cannot understand your point. Maybe I am missing something obvious that my not-so-good non-native-speaker english skill is hiding from me. I am with you about ISIS and Muslim fundamentalists analysis; still I believe, in SOME wars (examle in conquest wars) things can start for the attacker without the fear as "prime mover", as greed and lust for power can be strong enough to provocate the attack. Then fear kicks in for the defender, but war is already started. This is not the case of current crISIS, I am speaking broadly trying to get an "universal" conclusion.

If you include the "what if" into the "fear factor", then you can attribute to fear everything you want - I did ask what Levi intended with "fear" just to avoid this point, as his definition of fear is not consistent with your. Why I did eat this evening? Because I was afraid to feel hunger. Why I did wrote that email? Because I was afraid not to get a reply to my question. Why I did drive so fast? Because I was afraid to be late... Why Julius Caesar attacked the Egypt? Because he was afraid not to get enough glory... and so on, you can always find a "fear" that will justificate every human action - that is not the real cause, that is just a pretext you can find - or maybe that is the extension of Ashley Wilkins Principle to individuals.

by Levi Asher on

Sigma, that's a really important point and I hope I've addressed it fully. You are right that "fear" could be misused in an argument to obscure a point. But I am determined to establish one particular point, which is that wars and genocides and atrocities are preventable. My emphasis on fear is designed to support this conjecture.

by mtmynd on

Sigma - re: "... as greed and lust for power can be strong enough to provocate the attack."

Question this greed or lust for power and you might find one who fears his present state and wishes to have this "greed or power" to mask an inadequacy in hopes of alleviating that fear. The greater that inadequacy the more forceful the counter-reaction.

by Subject Sigma on

Mtmynd, this way you can justify everything with "fear". Levi is using another definition of fear, and I agree with him:
<< the word "fear" can cause confusion here, since it can reflect both a direct final cause (a person kills a spider because he is afraid of spiders) and an indirect underlying motivation (a person stops smoking cigarettes because he is afraid of lung cancer). Maybe it will make this clearer to explain that I am using the word "fear" to mean nearly the same thing as "blood alienation". When I talk about one group of people fearing another group, I mean that they recognize the other group as their mortal enemy, and they believe that they must defeat the other group in order to ensure their own security. >>

by mtmynd on

Sigma- re: "... this way you can justify everything with 'fear.' "

I don't see it as a justification but rather exactly what this original thread is all about, i.e. Occam's razor -

"Occam's razor … is a principle of parsimony, economy, or succinctness used in problem-solving. It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but -- in the absence of certainty -- the fewer assumptions that are made, the better." Wikipedia (from Levi's post of 8.17.14.

I believe I have boiled down the problem in our continuing dialog and find it's essence is 'fear' in all its definitions. I certainly understand why there is a resistance to that word... none of us likes admitting to our fears. It's bred within us, especially as males, to overcome fear... to never admit to it. Fear alone strikes a fear within us in varying degrees, of course, We're not shaking and quaking in our proverbial boots hiding under our beds because of fear. No, it's not that extreme. "Concern" is a benign form of fear... placid as the waters of a mountain lake. But when the winds begin blowing and the dark clouds move in over that lake, the placidity cannot be found. It has been superseded by a more defensiveness due to that fear factor that kicks in for our very survival. But no matter the levels of fear, all the other definitions we find for that word are to placate the word itself with other less frightening words that console us.

Fear strikes when we are caught off guard in a situation with which we are unfamiliar. It strikes when we know we need to become defensive or aggressive depending upon the situation. We also have a concern which is a benign fear that concerns us our future from an hour from now to a week later... it's a concern about something we feel *may" happen and would not like it to happen. And there's the fear that strikes when we know we are in the wrong... as a child doing something that we know our parents would never approve of... and this we carry with us. When the police cars flashing red lights signal for us to pull over often ignites a level of fear within either because we don't know why this is happening *or* when we know we're in the wrong and are not looking forward to having been caught.

As I've said it's all within the pages of one book, "Fear," that concerns all people from every walk of life to varying degrees in various levels of fearful situations we might find ourselves in, or may have found ourselves in or might find ourselves in.

by Levi Asher on

Mtmynd and Sigma, what do you think of this point, though? The kind of fear that starts wars or carries out genocidal policies is not personal or individual fear. It takes a large group of empowered people to fight a war or carry out a genocide, and the fear (or fear plus greed, however we characterize it) that drives them is a shared collective fear. It's not really relevant what individual personsi n the empowered group are feeling at any time. The relevant factor is that the group feels collective fear for its collective safety.

by mtmynd on

Re: "The kind of fear that starts wars or carries out genocidal policies is not personal or individual fear."

The current situations going on in the Mid East and in particular the ISIS concern which is growing, from the outside certainly appears to be a loud scream demanding attention that Islam will not become weakened by the powerful influence of the "Western World" whose power has somehow brought corruption to a religion that once was extraordinarily the single most uniter of the Mid East.

I've given a lot of thought to the leadership of this threat, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and his educational background which is deeply involved in Islam studies including a PhD. Does he consider himself a savior of sorts for the Sunni ?

How can this ISIL condone mass killings and even genocide of Muslims remains one of the curiosities of this group and given the support of them by youths from countries outside of the ME, is equally curious. Fear mixed with frustration may certainly have a large influence.

by Levi Asher on

But Mtmynd, the answer to this question is always the same: "Our enemies are doing it to us, So we will do it back to them." Same justification, always.

by mtmynd on

Perhaps that is the inevitability of war. Like the violence of a volcano erupting without warning to release it's pent-up energy, is not our hu'manity the same?

That's the simplest answer I can understand.

by Subject Sigma on

Levi, you already know what I think about the "collective" fear - we will go back to Pickett's Charge...; anyway I agree with you about this point: that "The kind of fear that starts wars or carries out genocidal policies is not personal or individual fear. It takes a large group of empowered people to fight a war or carry out a genocide".

"The current situations going on in the Mid East and in particular the ISIS concern which is growing, from the outside certainly appears to be a loud scream demanding attention that Islam will not become weakened by the powerful influence of the "Western World" whose power has somehow brought corruption to a religion that once was extraordinarily the single most uniter of the Mid East."

From my knowledge of Mid East, I am really missing "a religion that once was extraordinarily the single most uniter of the Mid East". My informations about the rise of Muslims are quite different and almost always comprises wars, conquests, and killing of infidels. Maybe my informations are too much biased.

"I've given a lot of thought to the leadership of this threat, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and his educational background which is deeply involved in Islam studies including a PhD. Does he consider himself a savior of sorts for the Sunni ?"

What if he got the PhD in Islam studies just to be more effective in exploiting the Islam religion to attract people to his cause?

"How can this ISIL condone mass killings and even genocide of Muslims remains one of the curiosities of this group and given the support of them by youths from countries outside of the ME, is equally curious. "
For me is not curious, is perfectly rational and is perfectly explained by Levi with Blood Alienation and Ashley Wilkes Principle.

"Perhaps that is the inevitability of war. Like the violence of a volcano erupting without warning to release it's pent-up energy, is not our hu'manity the same?"

Didn't we excluded this possibility with the Philosophy Weekend post "Genocide is Not a Force of Nature"? If it is inevitable, we are just losing time discussing here. Personally I believe the istinct to fight and a degree of aggressiveness is present in every human being because of our animal origin; if we want to improve our condition as social beings, we need to be able to get better to control those pulsions every day, every year, every generation - as we do with other pulsions, for example the sexual pulsion.

"That's the simplest answer I can understand."

That is the proof, in my opinion, that Occam's Razor is not well understood, and that the simplest model possible to explain a problem is not always true (again, back to Pickett's...). To quote H.L. Mencken (journalist and essayist):

"There is always an easy solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong."

by Paul Levins on

You Sir are the reason That I own guns. You are naïve and ignorant. ISIS OPERATORS are not like law abiding citizens. Yes they are human but of the worst kind. I have pictures of little children that have been beheaded. This is not what a good human does. Your thinking is upside down. You do not know the difference between good and bad. You are obviously educated far beyond your comprehension level. Wake your dumb ass up Liberal!

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