28 February 2008

Cell Phone SIM card spy

Click for image source
"Cell Phone Spy Extracts Deleted Texts, Data," Information Week (via Textually)

It should probably come as no surprise that the contents of SMS messages would be the target of espionage. Brickhouse Security developed a product that can scan the SIM card from a cell phone and read deleted messages as well as edit them.
...You may want to use this as a more efficient way to manage your own cell phone contacts, phone numbers and personal information or as a SIM card data recovery backup. If you change your mobile phone or service provider and receive a new empty SIM card, this SIM card solution is the best way to load the new saved data onto it. Editing your SIM card entries has never been easier when doing it on your PC with the computer's keyboard instead of your mobile phone keypad.
SMS utilities that one can use from a personal computer are nothing new; in fact, one can bypass one's cell phone entirely through something called Bigfoot SMS Manager. What caused tech reviewers at CNN to emote seems to really be the ability to read the deleted content on the SIM card

Labels: ,

18 February 2008

Impact of Cell Phones on Grain Markets in Niger

"The Impact of Cell Phones on Grain Markets in Africa's Niger" (via Textually)

When researching the impact of technology on other aspects our lives, it's important to remember that the majority of the human race lives close to the subsistence level. About a fifth the human race lives without regular access to clean water.1 A gigantic portion of mankind still farms with few or no motorized tools: no tractors, no agrichemicals, no pumps, and sometimes not even access to lorries. A lot of UN attention is directed at ways of helping people who live in these areas, where food security is a major concern.

Niger (map) is pretty much ground zero for development headaches.2 It's near the very bottom in development, food insecurity, and quality of life. In 2006, however, cell phones became widespread in Niger. Specifically,
76 percent of grain markets had cell phone coverage by 2006, with 29 percent of traders surveyed using cell phones for their commercial operations. In 2006, 89 percent of grain traders reported that they depended upon their personal and professional contacts to obtain relevant market information, primarily by traveling to markets or using telecommunications systems.
Aker, Does Digital Divide or Provide? (Feb 2008), p.3
During this period Niger experienced a food crisis, and in fact is experiencing one now (more on this below). Jenny C. Aker conducted a study of the impact of cell phones on the range of prices for two primary food staples in Niger, sorghum and millet. The idea was that, as cell phones become widespread, grain traders could take advantage of comparatively high prices in a particular area , and sell high there. This would raise prices somewhat in areas where they were comparatively low. An advantage would be that farmers would enjoy greater price stability (since a larger market would provide relief from gluts and low prices) while consumers could get relief from high prices caused by local crop failures.

A practical limit to the benefits of cell phones would be imposed by the cost of transporting grain long distances. Another limit would be imposed by the nature of grain cultivation in Niger: it's mostly rain-fed, and irrigation is nil (CIA-WFB). So there will naturally be a great abundance during harvest and a dearth at other times. A third potential limitation is that cell phones permit collusion between traders. So far this last problem has not been significant.3

Akers describes a model of estimating the effect of search costs on merchant activity (pp.7-12). A collateral advantage of Aker's paper is that it demonstrates how to use general equilibrium analysis and probability to estimate optimization strategies for actors (in this case, grain merchants). She uses data from market surveys of grain merchants during the study period to estimate price conditions in 35 markets across Niger; and detailed mathematical modeling of the spatial impact of cell phone towers (with its effect, or lack thereof, on transport costs between markets thereby connected by cell phone; pp.22-26).

Some important inferences were that cell phone towers (and therefore ready usage of cell phones) was inversely related to food crisis (p.38), although naturally this could mean towers were installed in areas which already had strongly deepened markets anyway. Merchants experienced an increase in income, but there was no statistically significant evidence that actual volumes of food in the surveyed areas increased as a result of the introduction of cell phones.

Closing Thoughts

The paper visits a number of topics that are fairly "hot" for students of economics: general equilibrium analysis, welfare analysis, information economics, and so on. In the period since the one that the paper studies, food crisis has returned to West Africa, and there is reason to suspect that the current crisis, being driven by warfare in the Sahel, may be even more sensitive to civilian access to information:
Normally in January and February cereal and grain prices in West Africa are driven down as harvests from the year before start hitting the markets. But production of cereals was low across the region in 2007 because of a late start and early end to the rainy season, which affected production of millet, sorghum and maize. Analysts say traders are seeking to maximise profit by hoarding stocks, because they know the low production will yield higher prices.

“Traders are still buying in as much as possible to hold onto it until the price has doubled or more,” said Salif Sow, regional representative of the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) food monitoring group. FEWS NET has recorded rising prices at important markets in northern Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Benin.

The last time FEWS NET compiled regional information, in November 2007, prices compared to the same month in 2006 were 60 percent higher for millet, 51 percent higher for maize, and 43 percent for sorghum.
IRIN: Food prices still climbing, crisis feared (18 Jan 2008)
Generally speaking, when markets are integrated (i.e., goods and data on prices flow freely over larger areas), it's difficult to make money through hoarding. This is because the hoarding merchants face the increased risk of outsiders arriving with cheap food and destroying their profits.

Still, the measured effect was that most of the benefits of cell phone use flowed to the merchants themselves. Akers could not find evidence of increased output, but only reduced price differential. This may be interpreted as an historical fluke, since the time period under measurement was so short and turbulent.
1 "Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis," United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Report 2006 (page links to PDF). See page 33 of PDF report: 1.2 billion people worldwide have no access to an improved water source; 2.6 billion have no access to improved sanitation.
“Not having access to clean water” is a euphemism for profound deprivation. It means that people live more than 1 kilometre from the nearest safe water source and that they collect water from drains, ditches or streams that might be infected with pathogens and bacteria that can cause severe illness and death. In rural Sub-Saharan Africa millions of people share their domestic water sources with animals or rely on unprotected wells that are breeding grounds for pathogens.
Obviously, "water security" is of paramount importance to well-being.

2 Population Reference Bureau, Niger; Human Development Data for Niger (UNDP); see also "Country Programme: Niger" , United Nations World Food Program (Aug 2008):
The Joint Survey on Household Vulnerability to Food Insecurity, conducted in November 2006, found 30 percent of the population (3.5 million people) affected by food insecurity. Around half of children under 5 showed signs of stunting and the rate of acute malnutrition was over 11 percent. The gross school enrollment rate in 2005/06 was 54 percent overall and only 44 percent for girls.
3 Jenny C. Aker, Does Digital Divide or Provide? Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California, Berkeley (Feb 2008). Regarding annual variations in price:
Retailers sell directly to both urban and rural consumers. As there is only one growing season per year (October-November), traders begin importing grains from neighboring countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria) in April, once the local supply is depleted.
See also this 1969 map of economic activity and population distribution in Niger (Perry-Casteneda map library, University of Texas, Austin).

Labels: , ,

05 February 2008

Historical Inevitability-Part 2

(Part 1)

In the previous segment I talked about the philosophical dilemmas associated with free will. Now it is necessary to extend this discussion from that to the matter of historical inevitability. As I mentioned in part 1, one of the major controversies in historiography has to do with the question of determinism.

Inevitability in Conflict with Free Will

Isaiah Berlin is the famous apostle of free will as an ethical necessity.1 His defense of the idea of free will is based on the objection to determinism, that it is impossible to think coherently about human actions without an assumption that actors can chose between good acts and bad ones. The argument seems at first like an appeal to consequences: we must believe something because bad things will occur if we don't (people will feel that they are under no moral compulsion to resist temptation). But Berlin's argument is actually somewhat different. He is aware of what Kant wrote about the issue (RNL&A), so he has no noble lie to propagate; rather, he believes the concept of action degenerates to nonsense unless we assume the actor has some degree of choice over it. The state of being conscious requires a belief in one's ability to control one's own actions, even if this belief is erroneous.

Berlin was mindful of the problem of relating this idea to societies. In his lecture, "Historical Inevitability," he mentions a few cranks of the 19th century who equated nations with persons in some "transcendental sense."2 He suggests that this amounts to the same thing as saying that individuals are helpless manifestations of some social force. We can imagine a historian attempting to explain a civil war between A and B (two distinct sections of a nation). We could say that A (understood to have been the instigator of the conflict, perhaps through an attempted coup d'état) was actually compelled to act because of its interests as a class, and classes have no choice but to act on their interests. The failed coup necessitated a violent riposte by B for the same reason. According to Berlin, this implies that humans have no free will since their choices are subordinate to the inevitable historical forces mentioned by the historian.
In this cosmology the world of men (and in some versions, the entire universe) is a single, all-inclusive hierarchy; so that to explain why each ingredient of it is as, and where, and when it is, and does what it does, is eo ipso to say what its goal is, how far it successfully fulfills it, and what are the relations of co-ordination and subordination between the goals of the various goal-pursuing entities in the harmonious pyramid which they collectively form. If this is a true picture of reality, then historical explanation, like every other form of explanation, must consist above all, in the attribution to individuals, groups, nations, species of their proper place in the universal pattern.
"Historical Inevitability"
That may be so, but not necessarily. A member of A could very well possess free will that causes her to refuse to participate in the movements supporting the putsch. As a result, she is a bystander when it happens. Unless A is an extremely small group, we can predict that someone in it will have a life path that leads to dominance of a particular kind, and then uses that dominance to launch an armed uprising. Any individual a may opt out, but such people tend to sort themselves out by ideology anyway.

This is not, or ought not to be, an exotic idea for Berlin: the concept of a self-regulating market is an integral part of his liberal outlook. Classical economics is entirely compatible with the idea of free will; that's the rationale for incentives. Likewise, economists don't consider their theories refuted by the existence of non-economic motives such as love or nationalism. The free will of millions of private individuals translates to semi-random patterns of large groups.

We can argue, indeed, that free will for individuals contradicts "free will" for nations (as Johann von Herder would have imagined it). Berlin objected to determinism for both, but it seems to me that large groups tend to select for leaders who will behave in certain ways, and the very existence of spontaneity ensures that there will be a broad selection to choose from. My influence on my own behavior is very great, therefore, my influence on that of my neighbor is not so much. This is why most people resent being blamed for the decisions taken by their popularly-elected governments. Setting aside randomized fluctuations of mood or certain prominent people like Nelson Mandela, there are certain broad patterns in history. This allows one to identify patterns that are interesting and even qualify as "causes." Beyond this, it seems trivial to point out that historical actors with destructive effects had free will as individuals. As actors with an impact on history, they probably had very little.

Non-trivial Cases

Most of the canonical examples of moral judgment in history use the Third Reich. Here is an explicit case of an ideologically-designated movement with a plan to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe, which nearly completed its object. The perpetrators included the ideologues of the movement and a bureaucracy that executed it. There is not really any more perfect example of moral turpitude available. But historians have inevitably spilled a lot of octopus ink on this moral clarity. There is some uncertainty that the NSDAP actually chose genocide as its Final Solution to anything before it entered the War, and some have argued that it entered the War under some form or another of duress.

(I apologize for the weasel words "some," but I have compelling reasons to not name names here.)

We may never establish precisely what molded Nazi policies, but it is conceivable that, were we supplied with sufficient information about Nazi decisionmaking, we would find a chain of errors and anticipations that made the events of '33-'45 impossible to avoid for a regime such as the NSDAP. One reason for supposing this is that, were the facts and pseudofacts available to the regime any different, then we could reasonably assume strategy would be different (say, an invasion of Poland before Anschluss with Austria), or even that policy goals would be different. At the very least, something must explain the state of mind of Germans and Austrians who embraced Nazi ideology, and if this explanation were absolutely correct, it would leave no room for free action (by definition).

To illustrate: about the same time that Nazi Germany began full-fledged extermination of the Jewish population in the lands it controlled, the US government rounded up 110,000 residents/citizens and sent them to concentration camps. We might speculate on what would have happened if the suspect population of ethnic Japanese was much greater, say 11 million; if the USA began to lose the war and face its destruction as a unified political entity; if it faced massive aerial bombardment and the destruction of its major cities; and if gigantic numbers of US nationals died on the front. I could add more and more hypothetical circumstances, until it seemed plausible that another such Holocaust would have occurred here also.3 In such a case, insisting that somehow Usonians would never attempt to murder 11 million humans for any reason is not only unconvincing, it smacks of racial chauvinism.4

In other words, we can safely assume that, if Usonians have free will and moral judgment, then so do Germans and Austrians; and while some are comfortable with the idea that Usonians living in 1941-1945 were drastically different from contemporary Germans, this seems to intrude on the principle of free will: large groups of people with free will, under identical circumstances, will tend to behave the same way (on average); if one of the groups is "brainwashed" to accept violence, or to participate in it, then we cannot admit that it has free will; not, that is, in any sense of "free will" that is worth discussing.


At last we directly speak of the question of whether or not historical events are inevitable. There seems to be a notion that inevitability of events, such the aforementioned Holocaust, or the Usonian Civil War, implies the impossibility of resistance and the subordination of individual agency to external forces (which are themselves impersonal). As I have argued, this is not a reasonable surmise; individuals are free, in the sense that they can be conscious of their volition (per Hobbes) and guided by internal reason (per Kant); but they are not free in the sense of possessing absolute spontaneity. Whether blinded by custom, caste, or ignorance; or driven by dire necessity, humans as individuals have some pre-existing force that guides their actions. As agents of historical change, there is an additional layer of constraint on human action, viz., the need to be effectual. A politician in the USA cannot (in 2008) run on a platform of Shari'a and qualify as effectual. Those who are morally bound to the promulgation of Islamic law in the USA retain free will as individuals, but are ineffectual as historical actors; their "free will" as historical actors works only in a few directions, and excludes what they wish to do. This, obviously, is a direct result of other people having free will as individuals (and therefore having no interest in living under Shari'a).

Another point is the uneven distribution of human agency. The ability of the Third Reich to massacre literally millions of civilians without significant opposition has tormented thinkers like Raoul Hilberg, Hannah Arendt, inter alia. Some historians have tried to make the case that (a) German civilians overwhelmingly embraced Hitler's exterminationist aims (Lucy Dawidowicz, Daniel Goldhagen), thereby making resistance almost impossible, or else (b) argued that the targeted communities perversely colluded in their own extermination (Arendt cites the example of Josef Löwenherz, p.63 of Eichman in Jerusalem). A third possible explanation, compatible with the observed fact that genocide is actually an historical commonplace, is that certain institutions can easily suppress resistance. Domestic opposition to the US intervention in the Vietnamese Civil War was widespread and intense, but probably had no impact at all on the conduct of the war.5 Managers in the theater had little difficulty or disruption from opponents; their methods of coercion seem to have been highly effective, even when they were notoriously incompetent at everything else. Domestic opposition to other conflicts has likewise played a minor role.6

The question of whether of not such events were inevitable seems to be provoked by counterfactual history: can we imagine with any clarity what might have happened if Germany c.1933 had followed a different path? One argument has it that, no, if events turned out differently then the things precipitating those events would necessarily have been different, and so on backward to the Big Bang. This is perhaps not a terribly interesting question to historians; there are a large number of events in the history of the Weimar Republic that had a more or less random outcome. Also, there is a lively debate (in Tooze and Dallas, to name two) over the role of foreign powers in the rise of Hitler. Supposing Kurt Schleicher had remained Reichskanzler long after January 1933; would Germany merely imploded ignominiously? Or could it have muddled through, rather like an enormous Finland or Sweden, and emerging in the 1950's as a respectable, economically and politically liberal bridge between East and West? If the answer is "Germany would have imploded," then foreign powers bear the primary responsibility for setting Weimar democracy up to fail, and fail to a racist totalitarian ideology. Or, supposing Naziism had been outflanked in April 1936, with French, Belgian, British, and Usonian forces pouring across the Ardennes into the Third Reich to enforce the Versailles Treaty? Usonian forces were not there, and many French officials have blamed the US for the disaster of May '40 on the grounds that it was somehow reasonable to expect them to have been available as a sort of proto-NATO. This does seem unreasonable to me, but it seemed like an obvious explanation to such figures as Charles de Gaulle.7 Instead of a multilateral invasion of the newly remilitarized Rhineland, the Western alliance of 1914 seemed to crumble further, leading to a final confrontation that was needlessly bloody.

I remain extremely skeptical of the potential use of counterfactual history. Nevertheless, historians do remain intensely interested in the role played by attitudes and ideology, rather than dire necessity, in molding historical events. The argument that "Germany would not have been Germany" if it had bypassed the Hitler years seems excessively metaphysical and trivial. Likewise, there is the matter of historiography in policy analysis: can a nation or can nations respond successfully to challenges such as anthropogenic climate change (ACC)? The full scale of catastrophic ACC has not yet run its course: this history, so to speak, does not exist yet. Is it inevitable that the big industrial nations will behave as they have in the past? Is it futile to discuss green house gas reductions, and should we instead focus on adaptation to the new climate? This is the open question of historical inevitability.


  1. Joshua Cherniss & Henry Hardy, "Isaiah Berlin: Free Will & Determinism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008); Berlin's lecture, "Historical Inevitability," is included in Liberty: Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press (2002).

  2. One was Johann Gottfried von Herder (d.1803); another was Thomas Carlyle (d.1881).

  3. The Holocaust included the murder of many categories of persons; according to the Wannsee Protocol, the SS planned to murder 11 million Jews in Europe. According to the most rigorous study of the subject, Raoul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews, 3nd edition, Yale University Press (2005), a total of 5.1 million Jewish Europeans were killed. Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945, Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1975) estimates a total of 5.9 million using comparative population estimates. Adam Tooze, in The Wages of Destruction (Penguin 2008), mentions a range of estimates of the total deaths from Nazi extermination, massacre, and concentration camps to have been between 11 and 17 million. In addition, military tactics used in various theaters were often genocidal in character.

  4. Ethnographically, European Americans and Germans/Austrians are very closely related; Usonian culture is heavily dominated by German sources. However, "race" is a construct of prior colonial events, viz., invasion, enslavement, and ecological redemption. "White" Americans are ethnic Europeans who occupy a political position of dominance in a racialized society; Germany (as a modern society) is not racialized, or if it is, it is under a different historic regime. (A logical corollary is that a race change is a lot easier than a sex change).

  5. The US intervention in Vietnam is a special case for the following reasons:
    1. The war was long; direct involvement by the USG in the Republic of Vietnam resumed in 1955 and continued through April '75 (>240 months). Conscripted US troops served in the theater from March '65 to March '73 (96 months).
    2. Opposition was stimulated by conscription; after the abolition of the draft, antiwar movements in the USA became very difficult to sustain.
    3. Opposition was stimulated by foreign outrage; the public image of the USA was essentially ruined permanently and decisively by the intervention, with huge lasting consequences. Foreign opinion was almost entirely hostile and this jeopardized other USG objectives (as was well known to US bureaucrats).
    4. Opposition was generally treated gently (opponents were not executed or subject to prolonged prison terms); in many cases, opposition was socially approved and essential to public acceptance. Support for the intervention was typically a lonely and distasteful stand.
    This set of four conditions, just off the top of my head, was largely absent in other conflicts. French public opposition to prosecution of the French-Algerian War was, in contrast, almost nil; foreign outrage was minor and sporadic; the main fighting phase of the war was quite short (about 15 months). In Germany during WWII, opposition was treated with the utmost harshness, and was unpopular anyway; foreign outrage was irrelevant; the war was of medium duration (67 months).

    The contention that US domestic opposition to the war in Vietnam had almost no impact on ending it, is a controversial one. Nevertheless, contemporary literature from US military and diplomatic sources suggests that policymakers were largely indifferent to opposition; it was not even considered to be a petty irritation.

  6. A rare exception is the Portuguese Revolution of 25 April 1974. At the time, Portugal had low-intensity colonial wars in several countries, such as Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and East Timor. Public demonstrations eventually drove the new junta to negotiate a withdrawal from the Lusaphonic colonies. However, it must be noted that the junta had overthrown a conservative regime and had burned its bridges with conservative interest groups in Portugal; if it persisted in its colonial war, it would loose the support of everyone else.

  7. I cannot remember which biography it was of de Gaulle where I read this, but I suspect it was Don Cook's. The argument was made by Free French officials such as de Gaulle's friend Michel Debré, that it was the Usonians who had let down France in May 1940, and not vice versa.

Labels: , , ,

04 February 2008

Historical Inevitability-Part 1

...When we speak freely, it is not the liberty of voice, or pronunciation, but of the man, whom no law hath obliged to speak otherwise than he did. Lastly, from the use of the words 'free will,' no liberty can be inferred of the will, desire, or inclination, but [only of] the liberty of the man; which consisteth in this, that he finds no stop in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to do.
Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, XIX
In recent months I've been startled by the tendency for recent books on history to allude to the "non-inevitability" of certain historical events. One that stands in my memory is Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, Penguin (2004).
Developments that seem inevitable in retrospect were by no means so at the time, and in writing this book I have tried to remind the reader repeatedly that things could easily have turned out very differently to the way they did at a number of points in the history of Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. People make their own history, as Karl Marx once memorably observed, but not under conditions of their own choosing. Those conditions included not only the historical context in which they lived, but also the way in which they thought, the assumptions they acted upon, and the principles and beliefs that informed their behaviour... For all these reasons, it seems to me inappropriate for a work of history to indulge in the luxury of moral judgment. For one thing, it is unhistorical; for another, it is arrogant and presumptuous. I cannot know how I would have behaved if I had lived under the Third Reich, if only because, if I had lived then, I would have been a different person from the one I am now.
Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, p.XX
A quick search turns up two places where Evans did remind the reader of the "non-inevitability" of history; on p.43 ("...the German past was a burdensome one in many respects. But it did not make the rise and triumph of Nazism inevitable. The shadows cast by Bismarck might eventually have been dispelled...") and p.444 ("Nor was everything that subsequently happened in the history of the Third Reich made inevitable by Hitler's appointment as Chancellor. Chance and contingency were to play their part here, too, as they had before.").1

This question of inevitability in history is actually fairly problematic, and in what follows I am going to confine myself to outlining the basic problem.

Free Will

An ancient philosophical problem is that of free will. In some religions, there is a major quandary over the power of mortals to "earn" salvation. In Roman Catholicism, for example, humans possess ultimate control (and therefore, praise or blame) over their actions. Hence, damnation is "fair" because those damned to hell could have chosen to be righteous, but did not. In Calvinism, humans do not possess any control over their actions; damnation is not "fair," since humans lack the ability to chose the righteous path anyway. Since the 19th century, the Calvinist perspective has been somewhat revived by behaviorists, who argue that doctrines of freedom and dignity are illusions, and that all human behavior (including thought) is determined by conditioning.2 Subsequently, neurologists, inter alia, have claimed that mental processes are a random natural event, analogous to meteorological processes.

In fact, Immanuel Kant had addressed this problem in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787), II.ii.2, under the rubric of the "Third Antinomy of Pure Reason. " Kant proposed two alternative conclusions, between which there was no middle ground, and which were equally impossible:
  1. The free will of sentient beings constitutes one of many forces in the universe;
  2. All events are determined by prior causes, including the mental events that we mistakenly characterize as our "free will."
Kant "proves" each of the two propositions by refuting the converse. To paraphrase, (1) is impossible because the transcendental notion of freedom presupposes an initial state of mind capable of selecting a subsequent state of mind.3 Each state of mind is dependent on the state immediately before it, since one's desires and principles cannot change without some rational cause (viz., some sense-event, such as witnessing something surprising). Likewise, the consequence of one's mental state on, say, Tuesday, is one's mental state on Wednesday. This precludes a free choice of mental state on Wednesday.

Conversely, (2) is impossible because it requires an infinite regression of explanatory events. In other words, we insist on describing the conditions that led someone to have a certain mental state in terms of some other physical events, including the mental state an instant earlier (say, a peculiar configuration of the molecules in one's brain). This prior state has come to be after a moment earlier, when it was not. This is a paradox.4 Kant seems to me to be arguing in his follow-up that the power of reason on mental states has to be understood as the essence of "freedom," in so far as it stands apart from strictly phenomenal influences on mental state and physical events. This is not really satisfactory, because "reason" is simply a catch-all for mental processes which undoubtedly conform to some mechanism.

A close reading of Kant is exceptionally difficult, but his predecessor, Thomas Hobbes, made the point that "free will" had no meaning beyond "acting without hindrance." Thinking this through, it seems as though free will can be defined relative to one's consciousness. I am aware of sitting here typing this sentence. I am conscious of a subsequent idea that needs to be expressed in sequence. I elect to type this subsequent idea using the words that you are presently reading. Indeed, I am not aware of any force stopping me from doing so, or forcing me to suddenly start typing about puppy biscuits. True, my sensation of having wanted to type this article may be a delusion caused by some mechanism, but insisting on the absence of any form of mechanism imposes a logically (and transcendentally) impossible demand on the meaning of the phrase, "free will." It means that there is no universe possible in which "free will" means anything. If I want to type an article about free will, and instead my body types words about puppy biscuits, then I am without free will. While I have, at rare moments of my life, suffered involuntary muscle spasms or tics, I have never had the experience of consciously willing my body to do one thing, and it doing something else.

(to be continued)

  1. Richard J. Evans also wrote In Defense of History, W.W. Norton (1999); chapter 5 addresses causation. I have not read this book, although I have skimmed chapter 5.

  2. "Freedom" refers, obviously, to an individual's power to choose an act; "dignity" refers, here, to the honor of having chosen well (or being trusted to choose well). Frequently, when Usonians use the word "freedom" as an abstract concept of liberty, they really mean "dignity": the principle that they are entitled to have their choice honored, on the grounds that their choice has a higher moral worth than choices made for them by others. The principle of dignity as a foundation of political ethics is attacked by B.F. Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Hacket (1971). When I said behaviorists had "revived" Calvinism, I was being facetious; this essay withholds my opinion of Skinner and his prescriptions.

  3. Transcendental: in metaphysics, the relationship among entirely abstract propositions. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy linking abstract propositions to physical ones. State of mind: to put the matter another way, suppose we wish to make a judgment of somebody for being racist. We all agree that racism is bad. Strom Thurmond is an egregious example of a racist person. His contemporary admirers might argue that his racism was merely an unfortunate byproduct of his times, although Thurmond was an exceptionally virulent racist, even for one born in North Carolina in 1902. Suppose we disregard the explanation that his racism was entirely a random byproduct of the peculiar neurochemistry of his brain. We therefore assert that his choice of racism at any given instant reflects the state of his mind in the preceding instant. By the assumption of free will, we are compelled to expect him to evaluate any sense-event using his prior mental state. But his prior mental state is a "slave" to the mental state he had immediately before that. His racism on Thursday is mainly the result of his racism on Wednesday, which is mainly the result of his racism on Tuesday.

  4. The paradox is not exactly clear to me, except that Kant regards infinite regress as unacceptable. Things have to begin somewhere. Another point, though, is that each event (say, my state of mind on Wednesday) has a large set of consequences, of which my state of mind Thursday is only one; and it is the manifold (resulting configuration) of many causes, of which my state of mind Tuesday is only one. Eventually we are obligated to consider the mental state as some form of actor.


Joshua Cherniss & Henry Hardy, "Isaiah Berlin: Free Will & Determinism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008)

James R. MacLean, "Technology and History," Reshaping Narrow Law & Art (Nov 2005); "Change in the Weather," Ibid. (Dec 2005); " On the word 'Tend'," Ibid. (April 2007)

Dr. Alun Munslow, Review of '87 edition of E.H. Carr's What is History?Institute of Historical Research

Labels: , ,