Saving Criminal Law from Determinism

March 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Problem

Assume for the sake of argument that a certain kind of determinism is true. The elements of folk psychology (e.g., intention, knowledge) are real and explain our actions. We are, however, not responsible for how we come to form our intentions. We are not the causal source of the intentions we form in our minds, but our intentions are the correct explanations of our actions. Something else explains the intentions we form, such as things that happened to us in our childhood that we are not responsible for. We are therefore not morally responsible for our actions.

This is usually thought to be a problem for criminal law. The idea is that the point of mens rea, specifically the mens rea of intention, is supposed to be moral responsibility. We only punish those who are morally responsible for their actions. If people are never morally responsible for their actions, we shouldn’t be punishing them. The whole criminal law loses its justification for punishment.

The Solution

The point of mens rea is not moral responsibility.

The point of the law generally and the criminal law more specifically is to prevent domination. A dominates B by some action (e.g., trespassing on B’s property) only if A does the action intentionally. It does not amount to domination if A does it by an excusable mistake thinking it is his own property. Thus the point of mens rea is not to only punish those who are morally responsible for their actions but to only punish those who do actions that dominate. It doesn’t matter then if determinism turns out to be true and A is not morally responsible for his intentional actions because his intentional actions will still dominate B and should therefore still be prohibited by the criminal law.


There is another kind of determinism that says that our folk psychology is wrong. That our intentions do not explain our actions. That our intentions are mere epiphenomena atop the actual causal explanations of our actions. The actual explanations are at the level of physics, or chemistry, or biology and our folk psychology is completely mistaken.

If this is the case there is no difference between an intentional action and a non-intentional one. In both cases the explanations those actions are the same (e.g., atoms striking atoms). So one couldn’t be domination while the other one isn’t.

If this kind of determinism is true, then this argument doesn’t save the criminal law.


Jaron Lanier on Antifragile Software

March 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Aren’t bugs just a limitation of human minds?

No, no, they’re not. What’s the difference between a bug and a variation or an imperfection? If you think about it, if you make a small change to a program, it can result in an enormous change in what the program does. If nature worked that way, the universe would crash all the time. Certainly there wouldn’t be any evolution or life. There’s something about the way complexity builds up in nature so that if you have a small change, it results in sufficiently small results; it’s possible to have incremental evolution. Right now, we have a little bit — not total — but a little bit of linearity in the connection between genotype and phenotype, if you want to speak in those terms. But in software, there’s a chaotic relationship between the source code (the “genotype”) and the observed effects of programs — what you might call the “phenotype” of a program.

Right. And it results in a type of error that doesn’t teach you anything. You have chaotic errors where all you can say is, “Boy, this was really screwed up, and I guess I need to go in and go through the whole thing and fix it.” You don’t have errors that are proportionate to the source of the error. And that means you can never have any sense of gradual evolution or approximate systems. So, the real difference between the current idea of software, which is protocol adherence, and the idea I’m discussing, pattern recognition, has to do with the kinds of errors we’re creating. We need a system in which errors are more often proportional to the source of the error (emphasis added).

So pattern recognition is really starting to come into its own. Sadly, a lot of that’s driven by security and defense requirements, but for whatever reason, it’s becoming viable. And we’re at the point where computers can recognize similarities instead of perfect identities, which is essentially what pattern recognition is about. If we can move from perfection to similarity, then we can start to reexamine the way we build software. So instead of requiring protocol adherence in which each component has to be perfectly matched to other components down to the bit, we can begin to have similarity. Then a form of very graceful error tolerance, with a predictable overhead, becomes possible. The big bet I want to make as a computer scientist is that that’s the secret missing ingredient that we need to create a new kind of software.

Research project: Make software robust or antifragile so that small changes do not blow up.

There Is No Such Thing as Bar School

March 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

Bar school is the mandatory four or eight month professional legal training program organized by the Quebec bar. Students attend bar school after graduating from law school and before doing their articles. It consists of, among other things, four hours of class five days a week, two midterm exams, and a two-day final exam. As there are a number of requirements (e.g., assignments, conferences, and training sessions) that are not tested on any of the exams, bar school is not only about exam prep but about developing a set of core competencies required for the practice of law. As far as I know, this kind of practical training program is unique to Quebec, at least in North America. Bars in common law jurisdictions, both in Canada and the United States, do not provide any practical training, relying on the law schools to perform that function. To get a licence to practice law, you merely need to prove your competence by passing the bar exam. There are of course prep courses, but these are not the same thing as bar school because unlike bar school their sole purpose is to prepare students for writing the exam.

Surprisingly, there is no such thing as bar school.

The meaning of a noun is the thing it refers to, as determined by its sense. The sense of a noun is a description or concept, that is a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that picks out one or more things in the world. For instance, the sense of “Glenn Gould” might be “the greatest Canadian pianist”. This sense would pick out a particular person, namely Glenn Gould, which is the meaning of the words “Glenn Gould”. The meaning of a noun is the meaning attributed to it by a community of competent speakers. Just because one person assigns some other meaning to a noun does not mean that that is the meaning of the noun. For example, if one person thinks that the sense of “Glenn Gould” is “the greatest Prime Minister of Canada”, that does not mean that “Glenn Gould” refers to the greatest Prime Minister of Canada, whoever that might be.

There is no such thing as “x” could mean that the sense of “x” does not pick out anything in the world. There is no particular thing that “x” refers to. Or, in other words, “x” refers to the empty set. Examples of this would be “the king of France” or “Montreal’s rugby team”. These compound nouns make sense but they do not refer to anything. This is what you would mean if you were to say “there is no such thing as ‘the king of France’.”

There is no such thing as “x” could also mean that although “x” refers to something, we (i.e., the community of competent speakers) do not use “x” to refer to it. For example, someone could say, “There is no such thing as mortgages in Quebec. We call them hypothecs.” The sense of “mortgage” might be “a loan secured by your house”. And since we do have loans secured by houses in Quebec, “mortgage” does have a referent. It is just that we do not use “mortgage” to refer to that legal practice. We use the word “hypothec” instead. If someone in Quebec were to say “I just got a mortgage on my house”, it would be legitimate, although maybe a little pedantic, to say “No you didn’t, there is no such thing as mortgages in Quebec. You must mean that you got a hypothec.”

There is no such thing as “bar school”. Having spoken with a number of members of the community of competent English speakers, this community does not know what bar school is. If anything, they tend to associate it with the prep schools of common law jurisdictions. This means that for the typical competent English speaker, the sense of “bar school” is “a prep school for taking bar exams.” Since there is no prep school in Quebec for taking bar exams, “bar school” refers to nothing. To be sure, “bar school” does refer to the correct institution in the legal community. There is nonetheless no such thing as “bar school”, in the first sense described above, among the broader community of competent English speakers.

Yes, I hear you say, but there are prep schools for bar exams out there in the common law jurisdictions. Wouldn’t “bar school” then refer to these? It certainly does, but as far as I know, common law jurisdictions do not use the words “bar school” to refer to their prep schools. I can therefore legitimately say that there is no such thing as “bar school” in the second sense described above.

If there is going to be a problem with this argument, I suspect it will be at the empirical level. I have not done an extensive study of the community of competent English speakers. Perhaps “bar school” really does refer to the mandatory professional training program put on by the bar of Quebec. Or, perhaps there is some common law jurisdiction out there that uses the words “bar school” to refer to its prep courses. In either of these cases I will be wrong that there is no such thing as bar school. It would still nonetheless be interesting that starting from pretty orthodox assumptions about the philosophy of language and certain empirical facts, it is possible to reach the implausible conclusion that there is no such thing as an institution that clearly does exist.

The Effect of Technology on Attention

March 11, 2013 § Leave a comment


  • Technology (especially gadgets like smart phones) makes us less able to focus our attention on a single task and leads to ineffective multitasking.
  • Make use of gaps in the day by allowing your mind to wander. Don’t immediately check your phone or email.
  • We should take gadget holidays (e.g., one day without gadgets per week)
  • We should practice focusing our attention daily (e.g., by taking a 15 minute walk, meditating, religious practice).
  • I would add the following as ways of practicing attention: working on or solving a difficult math, computer science, or philosophy problem.

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