Breaking Bad and Doxastic Voluntarism

As I work my way through the acclaimed television series Breaking Bad, an episode from Season 3 struck me.

I have been a devotee to The Wire ever since I plowed through all five seasons back in 2008...and then again in 2010.  The Wire is a masterpiece.  I think it is best summarized as being about "the effect of institutions on individuals."

But what is Breaking Bad "about"?  I had enjoyed the first two seasons, but this was no Wire.  In this particular episode of season 3, it struck me: BB is about belief.  Of course, BB is about many things. But I think its overarching metaphor of "breaking bad" qua transformation or rebirth can be analyzed in terms of what we choose to believe, or rather whether we can choose to believe things in a non-self-deluding way.  To use fancy philosopher terms, BB is about doxastic voluntarism.

In this particular episode, Walt's wife Skylar finally abandons a crucial strand in her web of beliefs to acknowledge what she knew to be true all along.  Skylar has always known that Walt had two cell phones.  Walt's abduction and subsequent (epically) elaborate alibi–that he was in a "fugue state"–give Skylar two doxastic options: (a) Remain skeptical of Walt's alibi in favor of her hard perceptual evidence that Walt is indeed "up to something", or (b) Assent to (adopt the belief that?) Walt's alibi is honest testimony.  Skylar acts as if she believes Walt for several episodes, which is perhaps sufficient for (b). When Skylar finally confronts Walt, her words echo Tolstoy's when Karenin lets himself go on believing that there is nothing going on between Anna and Vronsky:
"What he knew was so dreadful that now he was ready to believe anything"
Here I simply rehearse Ermanno Bencivenga's argument in his (1999) "Knowledge Versus Belief."  Belief is a more sophisticated achievement than knowledge.  Knowledge is basic and belief is "a way of countering knowledge, of disturbing it and possibly deactivating it, not of subsuming it in a comprehensive embrace."  Belief is deontic to the core: it involves a choice, a taking responsibility for a certain manner of representing the world and one's place within it.  Skylar had too much at stake to not adopt the veracity of Walt's alibi.  The lie was too big, too major of a strand in a coherent web far preferable to that other coherent, but incomplete, web.

Just as Karenin tells himself an improbable story about the meaning of Anna's mannerisms and gestures, Skylar projects improbable scenarios regarding Walt's strange disappearances, his second cell phone, his "fugue state."  Perhaps most interesting is the social nature of Skylar's delusion.  Not only is she wrapped up in a commitment to representing reality a certain way, she is wrapped up in Walt's commitment to representing reality a certain way.  From a third-person standpoint this is not surprising; of course we are more likely to adopt commitments that mirror and support the commitments of those closest to us.  Our stability depends on it.


Thinking Together (con't)

[excerpts from an interview with Rolf-Dieter Heuer, head of CERN]
(my emphases)

The European: Should scientists be more vocal in the public sphere?
Heuer: If they have right things to say, yes. When we make important decisions, we should be able to rely on sound premises and statements. Just babbling isn’t so good. I also believe that science can really provide an example for cooperation that works. “Diversity” is such a nice word, such a nice mix of different ideas and characters. We can show that diversity enriches us.

The European: In the middle of the Eurozone crisis, you head a European institution that has worked rather seamlessly for almost 60 years. Is basic research possible on a strictly national level?
Heuer: Our research would be impossible without a collaborative element. The infrastructure necessary for basic research has gotten so big – at CERN but also e.g. in the case of electron lasers. You need many brains and hands to build it – that’s impossible on a national level. CERN was founded in 1954, when a bunch of scientists and politicians got together right after World War II and said: “we will only be successful together.” The decades since then have confirmed that approach. I think that we will even have to go further in the future and cooperate globally.

The European: The re-nationalization of Europe is the wrong way?
Heuer: I think it goes in the wrong direction. We need something that we can work on collaboratively. And we also need projects that we can pursue individually – often, those are smaller projects. Take food as an example: it’s good to introduce certain standards, but we should not give up regional cuisines. We need to strike a balance between international large-scale projects and smaller, national or bilateral projects. You won’t get very far if you only pursue lighthouse projects.

I emphasized 4 claims from this except:

1.  Science can really provide an example for cooperation that works.
  •  This seems obviously true.  
2.   Our research would be impossible without a collaborative element.
  • This also seems obviously true, so long as "our" is indexed to a group of scientists working on a large scale project, requiring large scale equipment/infrastructure/man-hours, etc.
3&4.   (i)We need something that we can work on collaboratively.  And (ii)we also need projects that we can pursue individually – often, those are smaller projects.
  • I put three and four together because I wish to evaluate them in tandem.  (i) is a normative claim typical of the idea that the pursuit of scientific understanding of the world will naturally promote harmony and understanding.  (ii) also seems trivially true so long as "individual project" just means finding some purpose for your life through a collection of goal-oriented activities.  I currently have a watch-all-the-Breaking-Bad-episodes project, in addition to my get-a-phd-in-philosophy project.  The interesting thing to do here is see the four possible permutations of (i) and (ii).  Heuer claims both are true, and this sounds like a reasonable balanced position, Aristotilian virtuous and all that–the mean between extremes.  If one claimed (i) as true and (ii) as false, one would have a radically communal view of human life.  On this view, belief is collective all the way down.  One could claim that (i) is false and (ii) is true and have a sort of radical individualism–perhaps a sort of romantic-Nietzschean–existentialist view whereby we only find meaning in life through overcoming the herd and grasping one's ownmost finitude and making a Kierkegaardian leap of faith.  Rejecting both (i) and (ii) seems almost like Pyrrhonian skepticism–a cautious abstention from putting too much stock in any one surefire view of human value or teleology.  
I agree with Heuer's position, but with stronger leaning toward the importance of the communal aspect of life.  My position would be more like: We need things that we can work on collaboratively, and we probably aren't doing enough of these.  We also need projects that we can pursue individually, and we are probably too caught up in most of these.


On the nature of sport: climbing in focus

When I claim that climbing is not a "pure sport," one would be greatly mistaken to think that I mean this in any diminutive sense, i.e. as saying something like "climbing is merely an activity not a true sport."  I say this because climbing is more than a sport.  If anything, it's more like war.  I'm not trying to say that climbing is war, either.  I just mean you could die doing both.  Both necessarily involve the risk of death and/or grave injury.  No matter how cautious you are being as either a climber or a soldier, you can always just die for some reason beyond your control.  I grant that one can die playing a sport, but hey, let's face it, it doesn't happen that often.  It's a difference in kind, not degree.  Both climbing and war evoke primal survival instinct.  Perhaps some athletes can conjure this kind of adrenaline in intense situations, but it sure is easier when your life actually is on the line.  This makes climbing into a somewhat paradoxical activity: the more you put yourself at risk, the better you will perform.  You simply must.  You'll die otherwise.  Hard to feel like that on a tennis court.  But of course the more you put yourself at risk the higher the chance you'll die, so it kinda turns off the appeal of climbing harder.  People who improve as climbers–who "climb harder"–have the strange ability to be dumb enough to try riskier and riskier moves, but smart enough to know deep down their bodily capabilities.

Thinking Together

Why care about cognitive empathy?  It is not intrinsically truth directed.  The state I am talking about as "occurrent grasping," elicited when thinking together, is non-factive apparent knowing.  The end of thinking together is "cognitive alignment," evidenced by agents coming to share a language, to function within the same discourse.  Cognitive alignment is not intrinsically truth directed.  However, it is a desirable goal because it does entail the conservation of cognitive resources.  Conserving cognitive resources is obviously desirable.  Were we to question ourselves at every turn, show concern for the paradigm we are operating within, questioning our methods, our terms thrown in to doubt at every opportunity, always questioning the validity of the research program rather than simply pursuing the research program, in short, we wouldn't get anywhere.  However, we must be mindful that preservation of cognitive resources is not the ultimate value, truth is.  Thus, the virtue of cognitive alignment and preservation of cognitive resources is tempered by the virtue of critique.

The more ambitious claim: cognitive alignment gets us something more than just preservation of cognitive resources.  Thinking together is valuable for reasons besides efficiency.  Still working on this...