Observing Black Friday

I've heard about Black Friday even before coming to the US. I didn't believe it. Or I would rather not believe it. Think about all those crazy shoppers. They are the voters of the United Stated, and their votes determine the fate of many of the key global issues. Would you trust their good discretion?

So I woke up at 5am and went to the mall on Black Friday 2010. Maybe I was too late, maybe it was the bad economy, the scene was not as crazy as I imagined. A regular shopping mall in China would have that many people at any time. The only remaining symbol of the crazy consumerism was a big blue tent next to the entrance of the mall.

As we walked around the mall, I checked as many labels as possible, trying to see where things are made these days. For example, in a American Eagle dealer, I see a pretty comprehensive representation of the developing world: Made in China, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Haiti, India, Malaysia, Mexico, etc. I was surprised to see that the same model of pants was made in three different countries. Maybe American Eagle wants to diversify its sources so that it is immuned from shock in any single country.

Looking at the shoppers in the luxurious store, I can almost conclude that the consumers here are not any smarter or more hardworking than the young girls in sweatshops in the global South. Why their fates are totally different? Why do the young girls in developing countries have to sacrifice their health and future potential to make stuff for someone else to buy and throw away? How did this happen? When and where did it start? Is there a stop? There you have a good reason for studying economics.


Freewill and Determinism

Eventually, the debate on “freewill and determinism” tries to answer this question: are human free? This question is important and controversial because we have been taught throughout our life that we are free to choose and act. Are we really? It is also important because the existence of freewill is a crucial assumption for moral responsibility and modern legal system.

In the freewill debate, there are two opposite views: determinism and indeterminism (also known as “libertarianism”). Among the determinists, there are “hard determinists” and “soft determinists” (who are also called “compatibilists”).

The determinist argument can be formulated into two syllogisms. First:
(1) Every human choice or action is an event.
(2) Every event has its explanatory cause.
(3) Therefore, every human choice or action has its explanatory cause.
Building upon (3), we have our second syllogism:
(3) Every human choice or action has its explanatory cause.
(4) To have explanatory cause is not to be free.
(5) Therefore, human choice or action is not free.

The determinists believe that all human choices or actions are determined, explainable and even predictable, given enough information. They believe that our decisions are brought about by earlier events or conditions. Whatever we do is the only choice we have, which is the same as not having a choice: we couldn’t have done anything else. Therefore humans are not free. Determinists also argue that we might have the experience of making a choice, but in fact we’ve never made any real choice. The “experience” itself is part of our determined fate.

The core of determinism is the universal causality. If we accept the universal causality, the premises of the first syllogism seem to be beyond doubt: no matter how complicated the cause is (genetic makeup, family background, childhood, education, etc), there is a cause for every human decision.

The indeterminists argue against this exact point. They believe that some events are not determined, like the movement of subatomic particles. Indeterminists claim that some human actions are among the undetermined events. But indeterminists do not answer the question, “why this happens?” It is not good enough to say “it just happens.” Indeterminists also fight against humans’ basic instinct to explain and rationalize the events that occur around us.

Between the determinists and indeterminists, there are the compatibilists, or soft determinists. They hold the view that even if determinism is true, we can still have freewill. Different philosophers have different degrees of “softness”.

I believe that everyone should think seriously about freewill and determinism because this inquiry guides our daily behavior and forms our life attitude. Here I’d like to explain my standpoint in this freewill debate.

(1) Human behaviors are caused.
(2) The definition of “free” complicates the debate on freewill. If we define “free” as “a subjective feeling or belief”, then universal causality does not exclude freewill.
(3) Freewill should not be a precondition for individual responsibility.
(4) What’s harmful about determinism is what (as many people falsely suppose) follows from it.

These beliefs will put me in the “soft determinist” camp. Like most soft determinists, my views differ in one way or another with other soft determinists.

To begin with, I accept that all human behaviors are caused by preceding events, conditions and other stimuli. There’s a reason for everything we do, no matter how complicated the reason is. Either a natural habit or a basic rule, universal causality is the basis of human knowledge and understanding. We could not give this presupposition up even if we want to. At the same time, we know from our personal experiences that there are always motives that precede and prompt our behaviors, consciously or unconsciously. Our failure to explain certain behaviors only shows the limit of our knowledge.

My second point rebuts proposition (4) in the original formulation of determinism: “to have explanatory cause is not to be free.” Proposition (4) contrasts “freedom” with “causality”. Ayer eloquently argued in his article “Freedom and Necessity” that “from the fact that my action is causally determined, it does not follow that I am constrained to do it.” Here Ayer is trying to differentiate between “cause” and “constrain”.

I think the majority of our “freewill frustration” actually comes from the fuzzy definition of what “free” is. In the freewill debate, “free” is often contrasted with many different words: compel, constrain, control, cause, necessitate, etc. Each pair of contrast will give rise to a specific argument. My own belief is that “free” is a subjective term; it is a feeling and a belief.

If we define “free” as “a subjective feeling or belief that one is in control and is acting without constraint”, then it’s easy to see that the universal causality does not exclude freewill: you are free as long as you feel free; the degree of your freewill depends on (and only on) the degree of your belief. For example, I felt one hundred percent free when I was in China. And so I believed. Even if I realized that China was not quite free after arriving in the U.S., I would still say that my days in China was totally free because I felt so and believed so. In a surprising contrast, I am less free in the U.S. because now I can logically (and freely) imagine a place where I would enjoy more freedom than in the U.S. Maybe in the heaven!

I’d also emphasize that freewill is subjective. It’s irrelevant whether other people judge me to be free or not. For example, I deleted a post that criticized Chinese policy toward Tibet on my Facebook page. A friend told me that my “self-censoring” was not based on my freewill because I acted out of fear of the Chinese government. I told my friend that the deletion was totally a free choice of mine because I could have easily done otherwise. I deleted the post out of caution, not fear --- just as I would not drive on a highway with my eyes closed.

For my third point, I argue that freewill should not be a precondition for individual responsibility. It is a common belief that in order to be held morally responsible for their actions, people need to have freewill in the first place. Some people then make the following argument: “determinism entails that we can never do other than what we do, therefore we are not responsible for what we do.” Or they might argue: “indeterminism entails that human actions are random, therefore we are not responsible for what we do.” I think that neither determinism nor indeterminism could be used as an excuse for eluding responsibility because responsibility and punishment should be based on the consequences but not the motives of the action. Otherwise, all murders could be lightly justified and our mental hospitals would be flooded with criminals.

In my last point, I’d like to address why people might feel uneasy with determinism. Many people unconsciously reason that determinism would lead to pessimism, indifference and inaction, which is undesirable. They think, “If my life is already determined, then what can I do? I could only drift along and remain a ‘pawn of fate’. I don’t want this, so I don’t like determinism.”

This unstated resistance toward determinism is not justified. Boiled down to its essence, determinism is simply saying that “what is going to happen is going to happen”. This tautology does not interfere with the freedom of our will. What’s more, determinism is built on a big “if”: if we know all the earlier events and conditions, we can predict with certainty. But in real life, this big “if” is hardly obtainable.

In conclusion, I think it is not important who wins the freewill debate. What’s really important is what we get out of this intellectual inquiry. After thinking about freewill and determinism, our faith in freedom should be stronger then ever before, and we should be more willing to lead a positive and active life.


Productive Relaxation

College can be hard. Sometimes we just feel that we can't work anymore and need a rest. Relaxation is good. But there are productive relaxation and unproductive relaxation. Spending time on Facebook is probably the most prevalent "unproductive relaxation" for college students.

The difference between people is most clear by looking at what people do in their free time. Productive relaxation is a winners' quality. Here I'd like to give myself a reminder of what a productive relaxation should be.

If I am tired, the first thing to do is to close my computer. As long as I am sitting in front of a screen, there's a very strong temptation to engage in unproductive recreation. The internet is indeed a web. Once trapped, hard to get out.

Once I get out the control of the internet, I am in charge again. There are endless good choices. Pick up the guitar, play the flute, or go outside the mod and have some fresh air. Go running, go swimming, even go sleeping. Read a book, write diary, or simply day dream and empty my mind. Go talk to people, socialize, brainstorm, connect. Life is beautiful.


What I have Learned Today

I feel this strong urge to write down what I have learned today, not because I want to propagate any ideas, but because I have learned so much that I need to write them down in order to think about them.

Life at Hampshire is indeed exciting. I have never been bored at this place. Actually, I am taking in too much to properly digest them all. Everyday I am having the most wonderful intellectual massage by ideas and creativity. I am deeply grateful for it.

When we first learn stuff, we don't usually internalize the knowledge. It takes a while to let the new knowledge settle down, ferment, and then turn into my own wisdom. But one problem for me is that I am learning so many new things that I don't have enough time to really think over what I have learned. On one hand, this dilemma is an indication of my progress. But on the other hand, I regret that I can't go deeper in each subject.

OK, now I am going to talk about what exactly I have learned today. In my China Rising class, we looked at three different perspectives on evaluating Chinese foreign policy. All three are valid and valuable. They works perfectly together. We need to look at China from both macro and micro perspective. And we also need to think of China both as a "nation state" and as a "civilization state".

Now, I am also developing my own perspectives: how should I think about China? What kind of framework should I use? Should I think of China as a nation state actor in a Westphalian world? Or should I think about China from internal politics? Or both? This is a big question, and I am very glad that China Rising class is providing us with such a nice variety of different views.

In Economic Development class, we looked at IMF, World Bank, Economic Hitman etc. This is what I love about Hampshire: Hampshire is very critical, but this critical thinking is based on very solid evidence and rigorous study. We are not conspiracy theorists. We are just genuinely concerned with the real world and with the wellbeing of people around us. This is because we believe that our own wellbeing is related and reliant on other people's wellbeing; we believe that we can not achieve real wellbeing if we harm the others during the process.

During lunch, I had the privilege to listen to some brilliant comments on the "social elitism of US academia". The US academia is a very closed circle, filled with people who are interested in self-perpetuation. Again, there's no conspiracy here because no one is actively/aggressively practicing evil. People are just acting rationally to maximize their self interests. But for the outsiders, it does look like a conspiracy.

Talking about "conspiracy theory", this category has become a very convenient label to denounce criticisms. People will say "Oh this is just a conspiracy theory", and then totally reject the real criticism. Why? Because we are living in a world so full of lies that our brain can't even bear the slightest dose of truth. The truth is just too harsh for people to listen to. So let's just totally reject the criticism and go back to our favorite TV show.

In the afternoon, in my Philosophy class we talked about mind-body problem. I love this course not because the course helped me to find the right answer, but because it helped me to ask the right questions.

I always enjoy the after-class discussion with the professors. I love to be destroyed by the intellectual Weapons of Mass Destructions. Then I know what's my blind spot, and I am really to rebuild upon ruins.

What an exciting life! Not only have I been growing, I am also growing at an faster and faster rate. Be a hungry beast!


The Mind-Body Problem

The mind-body problem is one of the biggest and longest debates in philosophy. It threatened to tear apart Descartes’ philosophy. Descartes believed that mind and body were different substances, and was troubled with the question “how the mind and body interact”.

One clear way of formulating the mind-body problem is this:

1. Human body is physical.

2. Human mind is nonphysical.

3. Mind and body interact.

4. Physical and nonphysical things do not interact.

Any three of the above four propositions are consistent, but they imply that the fourth is false.

Existing philosophies of mind can be put into two broad categories: dualist theories and materialist theories. Dualism divides the world into two distinct camps: the mental and the physical. In materialism, the mental is identical with the physical, or the mental simply does not exist. Among the materialist solutions, there are: behaviorism, identity theory, eliminative materialism and so on. All these solutions try to deny the proposition “human mind is nonphysical” in one way or another. The denials can be understood in a wider world view that nothing lies beyond the physical, a belief that was prevalent in the 20th century.

In this paper, I will first analyze some of the popular solutions, and then propose my own version of dualist understanding of the mind-body problem.

Behaviorism holds the view that all talks of “mental events” should be translated into talk about tendencies (or dispositions) to behave in certain ways. Radical behaviorists simply deny the existence of mind and argue that human behaviors are the particular response to certain stimulus. But my question is: clearly, different people react differently even to the same stimulus. While watching the film “Titanic”, some people cry, some people stay silent, and the kids fall asleep. There is not a single stimulus-response pattern that applies to everyone. Logical behaviorism is the belief that all mental terms could be translated into an “if then” statement. The problem is that the “then” statement here is an endless disjunction that can not be fully described. If someone is happy, then she/he can smile, sing, go shopping, jump, wave her/his hand… The list goes on forever. What’s more, “jump, wave her/his hand” could also be the behavior of someone angry.

Identity theory equates mental activities with brain activities. This belief is based on advancement on neurophysiology, proving the correlation between the mental and the brain. However, “correlation” does not mean “connection”. Two things can correlate without any logical connection. For example, when US president goes to bed, the Chinese president gets up. These two events are perfectly correlated, but not connected.

Functionalism is inspired by the more recent work on computer, artificial intelligence, etc. For functionalists, the mind is like the software, and the body (brain, in particular) is the hardware. The psychology of a system does not depend on the material the system is made of but on how the material is organized. In essence, it is saying that mental activity consists of certain function of the brain, which might also be performed by a super computer made by integrated circuit. I think functionalism explained only a part of the human mind, namely the functional part. The computer can beat the world chess champion, but the computer can’t feel happy for its victory. Functionalism does not explain emotion, perception and consciousness.

To summarize these theories above, we can say that behaviorists focus on the behavior patterns and stimulus-response of human mind; the identity theorists focus on certain process in the brain that correlates with mental activities; the functionalists reduce the human mind to the some of its outside functions. Each of these theories focuses on one important aspect of the human mind. Each of them is a necessary but not sufficient description for the human mind. None of them explains the causal relation between mind and body. All of these theories directly or indirectly deny the existence of a conscious, active mind, thereby avoided the original question that troubled Descartes: how exactly is the mind connected to the body?

Since none of the existing solutions seem satisfactory, here I’d like to propose my own dualist belief of the mind-body problem. I can streamline my belief as follow:

1. Human body is physical.

2. Human mind exists (and has not yet been proved to be either physical or nonphysical).

3. Human mind and body can exist independently, but they can not function without each other.

4. The mind and body do interact, but they interact in a way that is not yet proven by science. Still, we can describe some of the qualities of this interaction based on our experiences.

It is easy to understand that human body exists and it is physical. That is the reality we are working with, no matter how overrated the reality is.

My second point argues that human mind exists, even though we don’t know how. We know that the mind exist because we are thinking --- “I think, therefore I am”. Descartes established this fact brilliantly in his “Meditations on First Philosophy”. If there is only one thing that is real and that exists, it is the mind. In addition, we can prove the existence of mind by imagining a pair of identical twins growing up exactly the same way: going to the same school, wearing the same clothes, etc. They have exactly the same stimuli throughout their life, but they are still two very different persons. The difference lies in their unique minds. One of them might be more optimistic and perceive things very differently.

However, we can’t say if the mind is physical or nonphysical because we haven’t found any evidence. With current technology, we simply don’t know in what form the mind exist. Therefore it is too early to conclude whether the mind is physical or nonphysical.

If the mind exists, then what is the mind exactly? A pattern of human behavior? Another name for brain activities? A set of algorithm? I think each of these is an outside manifestation or an integral part of the mind. But they are not the mind itself. I agree with Freud that we don’t know or even have access to much that is in the human minds. Much of the mind is not conscious. That’s why we have dreams and imagination and unexpected thoughts that surprise even the “owner” of the mind.

My third point is that mind and body can exist independently. We can conceive a mind existing without a body; and a dead body does not have a mind. But in order for the mind and body to function, they have to rely on each other. A mind without a body has no influence on the material world. A body without a mind is no different than a lifeless stone. In order to function in the real world, the mind and the body depend on each other. It can be thought of as “a ghost in a machine”.

Up till now we have established that both the mind and the body exist; they can exist independently; but in order to have an influence in the material world, they have to work with each other. And we know that humans do have influences in the material world; therefore it leads to my fourth point: the mind and the body do interact.

We’ve heard a lot of arguments with this form: “P is not proved by science. Therefore P does not exist.” People making such arguments need to notice that modern science is only several hundreds of year old, while our universe has a history of billions of years. Similarly, modern science hasn’t been able to pinpoint how the interaction works, but this does not mean that the mind and body do not interact.

Despite of all these uncertainties, we can still describe some properties of this mind-body interaction based on our own experiences.

First, the mind-body interaction is two-way. The mind influences the body, and the body influences the mind. For example, a beautiful body increases the confidence of the mind. And a confident mind increases the beauty of the body.

Second, there is no clear dominance between the mind and the body. In most situations, the mind is controlling the body: the body is the sensor that collects all the information for the mind to process; and the mind sends back directions to tell the body what to do. However, under severe toothache, the mind can’t think of anything but the pain in the mouth. Here the body dominates the mind.

Third, the mind is not involved in all physical activities. The body can act on its own, like the knee jerk reflex. And in many other situations, human body performs tasks based on conditioned reflex, which means that the cycle of stimulus-response does not go through the mind. For example, if we see a red light while driving, we will hit the brake without thinking about what we’ve learned at the driving school.

Likewise, the body is not involved in all mental activities. When we are meditating or thinking, we can experience intense mental activities without even increasing our heart rates.

Above, we have made some observation about how the mind and body interact, but we still don’t know how the magical leap happens between mind and body. This is the task for some ambitious scientists.

To summarize my view points: I have taken on the dualist belief that mind and body are distinct and separable. But I also claim that when they are separate, they are lifeless and powerless. In order for the mind and the body to function, they need each other. That’s the basis of mind-body interaction. Although modern science isn’t capable of finding evidence for the existence of the mind or for the interaction of mind and body, this does not mean that the mind doesn’t exist or mind and body don’t interact. We can tell clearly that the mind exists, and mind and body do interact. Now we are just waiting for the scientists to make the right kind of discovery.


The Value of Free Time

I don't really remember when is the last time I give myself a break, or simply relax for the sake of relaxation. It seems that I've forgotten to take a rest.

There are several reasons for it. First of all, I've always enjoyed my work. It is even unfair to call it "work" because I enjoy it so much. Second, I do take short breaks from time to time, but the purpose of those breaks is to make sure I can go back to my work refreshed. I've hardly had any chance just to "spend the free time".

So what has been keeping me "not free"? Deadlines of my work. There are always a "next item" on the agenda. It sometimes feels like that my calendar is chasing me. This feeling of "being chased" is depriving me of some pleasure of doing my work. It feels like that I have to finish the work so that I can hand it in, instead of that I am doing the work because I enjoy it.

I don't like this situation. So, it is time for me to remind myself of something.

First, I still love my work. Logic, philosophy, economic, China, energy resources, politics... These works still increase my heart rate. I love the intellectual discovery and conquest. These works have direct impact on my life, on my future, and on the future of something else.

Second, I have to know that deadlines are not my enemies. I am also not their slave. I am the driver, and I make the choice. I should not allow deadlines to dominate my time table and take away my pleasure in working on wonderful things.

Third, I have to relearn the value of free time. Some time ago, I wrote down:

"I have decided that I will always keep at least 10% of my time and energy for "nothing". Only when the cup is empty, you can pour water in it. Good opportunity may arise. If you are fully occupied, you will lose the chance. Give your brain a bit of time to process the information on itself, without you giving it more work. It dramatically increases efficiency.

Otherwise we will be carried away by the world around us. We will become a little satellite that spins around our work. Even if you spend the 10% of time in merely sitting and day dreaming. it is such a pleasure!"

I knew it. And I should know it now. Simply free time. Give your brain a rest. Give your heart some room.


Hillary Clinton Reviving American Leadership

Mrs Clinton talks about "advancing American interests and values" with US civilian power. Excerpts from Mrs Clinton's article in Foreign Affairs:

"And they cannot be solved unless a nation is willing to accept the responsibility of mobilizing action. The United States is that nation.

Congress has already appropriated funds for 1,108 new Foreign Service and Civil Service officers to strengthen the State Department's capacity to pursue American interests and advance American values.

But we must do more. We must not only rebuild – but also rethink, reform, and recalibrate.

The two Ds in the QDDR reflect the world as the State Department sees it today and as it envisions it in the future.

Diplomacy has long been the backbone of U.S. foreign policy. It remains so today.

Although traditional diplomacy will always be critical to advancing the United States’ agenda, it is not enough.

Public diplomacy must start at the top.

We are shifting away from traditional platforms and instead are building connections to foreign publics in regions once considered beyond the United States’ reach. It makes no sense to allocate the greatest amount of resources to parts of the world where the United States’ ties are already strong and secure and to minimize efforts where engaging the public is critical to success.

We can also leverage civilian power by connecting businesses, philanthropists, and citizens’ groups with partner governments to perform tasks that governments alone cannot. Technology, in particular, provides new tools of engagement.

When the diverse elements of U.S. civilian power work cohesively – as in many embassies around the world, and on the best days in Washington – the potential impact of a global civilian service becomes evident.

I am sometimes asked why development matters to U.S. foreign policy and why the United States should spend money on people overseas when it has economic challenges at home. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the answer is that development, when done effectively, is one of the best tools to enhance the United States’ stability and prosperity. It can strengthen fragile or failing states, support the rise of capable partners that can help solve regional and global problems, and advance democracy and human rights.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that although the world’s problems are vast, the United States’ resources are not.

American civilians have long operated in conflict zones and fragile states. But now, U.S. diplomats and development experts are being asked to undertake missions of a scale and a scope never seen before.

On the positive side, civilian power has worked effectively with military forces to impede conflict and to contribute to stability.

With the right balance of civilian and military power, the United States can advance its interests and values, lead and support other nations in solving global problems, and forge strong diplomatic and development partnerships with traditional allies and newly emerging powers. And we can rise to the challenges of the world in the twenty-first century and meet the tests of America’s global leadership."