Thursday, January 26, 2017

HB 11

10. Perceptions and Hope

            If hope is a syndrome, a positive causal network comprised of multiple elements, it may be possible to grow into hope in different ways.  In this and subsequent chapters, I will suggest ways that a person might move into hope.  Adrienne Martin includes “modes of perception” alongside motivations, feelings, and thoughts in the syndrome of hope.  I will begin by reflecting on the place of perceptions in hope.
            The first thing to notice is that different persons, or the same person at different times, can perceive a single reality in different ways.  A loud sound wakes up everyone in a motel; guests rush out of their rooms late at night.  Someone excitedly says he heard a gunshot.  The motel clerk calms everyone, returning them to their rooms: “The steam press in the factory across the street breaks a rod at least once a month.  My brother works there, and he says management is just too cheap to buy a new press.”
Suppose someone in fifth grade exclaims, “It’s snowing!”  The whole class looks out the window.  What do they see?  Some of them remember last week’s snowstorm, when school was canceled for two days.  Perhaps one of them will say, with hope, “It’s really coming down!”  Someone else, perhaps the teacher, who listened to the weather forecast on her drive to work, will say, “I don’t think so.  Look.  See how small the flakes are?”
Everybody is familiar with such examples.  Different people, seeing or hearing the same thing, do not perceive it in the same way.  Witnesses to a crime often give conflicting reports about what happened.  We know our perceptions are influenced by our beliefs, moods, and expectations.
Consider the way we perceive something as common as morning shadows. 
Long shadows stretch over the landscape at dawn and shorten as the morning progresses.  For millennia people said, “The sun is rising.”  That’s what it looks like.  The sun climbs into the sky, and the morning shadows flee.  But since Copernicus we know better.  We still use words like “sunrise” and “sunset,” but we know the sun only appears to rise or fall; in reality the earth is turning. 
Our perceptions are a way of construing the world.  Two people see evening shadows lengthening; one construes/sees the sun going down, and the other sees the world turning beneath a stationary sun.  Here’s the thing.  We can learn to perceive in according to knowledge.  With a little practice, we don’t see the sun “rising”; instead we see it standing still as the earth turns. 
            How does this apply to hope?  In The Shawshank Redemption, most of the prisoners at Shawshank prison regarded escape as impossible.  Andy Dufresne would readily admit that escape was unlikely, but he believed it possible.  Since he believed escape was possible, he noticed—perceived—something the other prisoners didn’t see: the thick masonry walls of Shawshank prison could be tunneled.  He noticed/perceived that his tunnel could reach the big sewer line and the sewer could serve as an escape route.
            Adrienne Martin’s example of the cancer patients, Alan and Bess, demonstrates the importance of perception in a slightly different way.  The doctors have told both patients the experimental drug has only a tiny chance of curing their cancer.  Objectively speaking, each knows the drug will almost certainly not help.  But they perceive the drug trial differently.  Alan does not hope.  Perhaps he joins the experiment thinking that at least this way his death can contribute to science.  He perceives the drug as an experiment only.  But for Bess, a one-in-ten-thousand chance is still a chance.  It’s possible the drug will cure her.  So she hopes.  She perceives each injection as a lever wedging open the door to life.
            One way to move into hope is to perceive the world the right way.  Some philosophers will immediately object that the only “right” way to see the world is in accord with evidence and reason.  We should never deceive ourselves into thinking our desired outcomes are more likely than they are.  It is important to remember that Martin’s “incorporation” thesis has already accepted this point.  Bess does not deceive herself that the drug has better odds.  She accepts the unlikelihood of success.  But she goes further than a probability judgment; she judges also that the hoped for outcome is practically important.  So she licenses herself to perceive the drug hopefully. 
It is rationally permissible and practically useful to train oneself to see features of the world in a hopeful way.  Andy Dufresne sees massive walls as possible escape routes.  Bess sees an experimental drug as a possible cure.  By perceiving the world in these ways, they strengthen other parts of the homeostatic property cluster known as hope. 
Hope works.  My research friend at the Oregon Health Sciences University, Kent Thornburg, reports that hopeful patients do better, on average, than those without hope.  C.R. Snyder hypothesized that psychotherapies based on very different theories of psychology all work (and there is evidence they do) because each therapy increases hope in patients.
            My point is not that one can create hope or cure depression by some simple mental trick.  I say again: a person’s perceptions are only a part of the syndrome of hope.  Nevertheless, because the way we perceive the world is at least partly a matter of training—we can learn to perceive the earth as turning rather than the sun as rising—we have some degree of agential control over perception.  We can learn to perceive the world in accord with hope.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

HB 10

9 Hope:
Instantiating a Positive Causal Network

Most people like to think, with Aristotle or Epicurus, that goodness and happiness go together.  Or, like Kant, they think that goodness and happiness ought to go together.  Bishop’s 2015 book, The Good Life, challenges this predilection.  Well-being can be empirically studied, he argues.  We ought to accept what the research shows us.  If it shows us—and it does—that well-being can be achieved without goodness, we need to get used to that fact.
Bishop is not proposing a moral revolution.  He says that well-being is real, that it is objectively valuable, and that it can be studied empirically.  He says that individuals and organizations (including governments) should consider information supplied by positive psychology when deciding what to do.  But he does not say that well-being is the only factor decision makers should take in mind.  Bishop says that individuals or organizations may rightly decide that other factors outweigh well-being in some particular case; e.g. it may be morally right for a person to sacrifice some of his well-being to care for his mother, and a government may rightly decide not to adopt some policy that would increase overall well-being if that policy infringed the rights of some minority. Well-being is one factor among others when making moral decisions.  
            Now I think that makes good sense.  In science, we try to explain phenomena by reference to the fewest possible basic concepts.  A characteristic of a good theory is that it will be simple.  Very often, moral philosophers have tried to mimic theories in natural science by reducing morality to a single principle, such as Bentham’s notion of utility or Kant’s notion of the categorical imperative.  I think such attempts are mistakes.  Long ago, Aristotle wrote that we should not expect more precision in any given field of inquiry than is appropriate for that field.  In geometry and logic we can be very precise, but in inquiries like ethics we have to be content with a lower standard of exactitude.  It seems unlikely to me that a good theory of morality will be simple in the way theories in natural science are simple.
            Some years ago, the city planning commission, of which I was a member, agreed that we wanted to recommend a certain policy to the city council.  Writing a formal recommendation to the city council required that we include proper “recitals.”  Recitals include routine references to the history of the proposal—e.g. that duly noticed open public meetings were held for the discussion of the matter, —and, just as important, reasons for the policy proposal.  Various members of the commission tried to create justifications for the proposal by appealing to justice or fairness or equality.  But they became frustrated.  They thought the proposed policy was a good idea, but they could not figure out how equality or fairness supported it.  They felt stuck.  The proposal they wished to recommend did not promote injustice, but in honesty they could not say that it aided fairness or equality.  It was just a good idea.  Their difficulty was not caused by a defect in the policy but by their too narrow conception of the goals of city policy.  Once we admitted that the proposed policy promoted well-being (without infringing fairness), we had a ready “recital.”
            The point of the illustration is this.  Just as a proper conception of the goals of government cannot be reduced to a single principle (e.g. justice), the “goods” of a good life cannot be reduced to a single principle (e.g. utility or rights).  Bishop’s contention that well-being is only one of multiple goods reminds us of this point.  And he makes the point emphatically: it is possible for a wicked person to have well-being.  Well-being is an objectively good thing to pursue, but not at all costs.
I want to ask now how hope figures in Bishop’s theory.  Bishop doesn’t talk about hope very much, but when he does he uses it as an example of an “attitude.” For Bishop, attitudes are one of four elements of positive causal networks.  The others are feelings (aka “moods” and “emotions”), traits, and accomplishments.  Bishop intends, I think, that we understand these categories something like this.  Feelings happen to us.  Attitudes are something we take up toward the world and people.  And we live out our traits through dependable habits.  Thus, we experience varying levels of voluntary control over different components of a PCN.
By using hope as an example of an “attitude,” Bishop treats hope far too simplistically.  It is true that sometimes we willfully adopt a hopeful attitude; in this sense hope reflects our agency.  But hope is also very frequently a positive feeling, something that happens to us whether we will it or not.  And in the Christian tradition hope is a virtue.
Bishop’s “positive traits” are what we normally call virtues.  He gives friendliness, curiosity, and perseverance as examples of positive traits.  But he gives no attention to the traditional idea that hope is a virtue.  He seems to think of hope exclusively as hopefulness.  If so, then he’s wrong.
Most likely, Bishop mentioned hope only to illustrate the category “positive attitudes.”  His attention is on positive causal networks and the elements that contribute to them.  He’s not trying to give a thorough analysis of hope. This is both understandable and unfortunate, because I think hope serves as a pretty good illustration of the network theory.
What is hope?  As I explained in earlier chapters, modern philosophers define hope as a combination of desire and a certain kind of belief.  To hope is to desire some outcome while believing that it is possible (neither impossible or certain).  Since hope = desire + probability judgment, many moderns advise that we should restrict our hopes to highly probable outcomes.  Adrienne Martin, in her 2014 book, How We Hope, subjects this idea to devastating objections.  Borrowing language from Margaret Walker, Martin suggests that hope is a “syndrome.” Hope is marked not just by desires and perceptions (probability judgments can be understood as a kind of perception), but also by certain forms of attention, expression, feeling, and activity.  Hope is complicated.
That fits Bishop’s network theory beautifully.  Rather than use hope as an example of an “attitude,” Bishop would have done better to think of hope as a PCN, a complicated homeostatic property cluster.
Imagine Yakub.  Yakub has significant ambitions; he wants to begin a new career that will enable him to better provide for his family.  Because of religious discrimination in his country, even though Yakub is university educated, most occupations are closed to him in that country.  Yakub has a daughter who suffers from renal disease.  Medical care for his daughter is expensive and very hard to obtain.
Yakub is unique, but he is not unusual.  Many people face harsh obstacles in life.
Suppose that in spite of the difficulties in his life Yakub is hopeful.  We can think of this as an attitude that Yakub adopts as an act of will.  This seems to be the way Bishop thinks of hope.  But how does Yakub’s hopeful attitude play out in his life?
One result of Yakub’s hope is that he imagines ways he could move toward his goals.  C.R. Snyder called this “pathways thinking,” a crucial element in his hope theory.  In addition to imagining pathways, Yakub makes plans on the basis of his ideas and acts on them.  Sometimes, perhaps infrequently, his actions succeed; they move him toward his goals of better employment or healthcare for his daughter.
Now we have three elements: hope as an attitude, hope as imagination, and hope as behaviors.  We may well imagine that Yakub also experiences hope as a feeling, especially when his actions net some success.
Yakub may judge correctly that it is unlikely that he will get the employment he wants or the healthcare his daughter needs.  But he also judges, rightly, that these outcomes are possible.  So: hope also involves belief; Yakub believes certain outcomes are possible.  And further, as a practical matter, he judges that these outcomes are very important to him, and that therefore it is permissible and proper for him to hope.  In Adrienne Martin’s terms, Yakub licenses himself to hope.
Some people in Yakub’s situation would despair.  Yakub could despair.  But he doesn’t have to.  He can hope.
I contend that Yakub’s hope fits Bishop’s description of a positive causal network.  The various elements of Yakub’s hope reinforce each other.  They cohere in a “homeostatic property cluster” which can endure, in the face of many discouragements, for a lifetime. 
Many people have observed that hope can sustain people in harsh circumstances.  Bishop’s network theory may help explain why this is.  More precisely, his theory gives a framework for psychological research, and that research may explain how we may learn to hope.
In 1 Thessalonians, perhaps the first New Testament document written, Paul thanks God for his readers’ “…work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and endurance inspired by hope.”  This is a familiar idea, that hope helps us endure hard times.  Later on, however, Paul wrote to the Romans that Christians should “rejoice in sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”  The idea here seems to be that hard times lead to hope.  The Bible reader might be led to object, which is it?  Does hope sustain us in hard times, or do hard times help us develop hope?
Both.  Practical experience teaches that a right response to hard times encourages hope and that hope helps us keep going in hard times.  Bishop’s network theory of positive psychology helps us conceptualize the matter.  Hope is not only an attitude we adopt toward life; it is a “syndrome” of perceptions, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors that reinforce each other.  Hope is, in Bishop’s terms, a positive causal network.  If that is true, we should expect multiple answers to the question: How do we hope?
Some aspects of hope may be involuntary, feelings that happen to us.  But other parts of the Syndrome/PCN of hope are voluntary.  We can “take up” attitudes.  We can examine evidence to judge whether a good outcome is possible.  We can imagine ways to accomplish our goals, and we can judge that we are motivated to act.  We can act in accord with those plans.  If hope is complicated, the things we do to hope will vary.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


8. Positive Psychology and Morality

A fundamental idea in Michael A. Bishop’s 2015 book, The Good Life, is that positive psychologists study “causal networks” composed of attitudes, emotions, traits, and accomplishments.  Because the various parts of a causal network reinforce each other, such networks tend to persist over time; they are “homeostatic property clusters.”  According to Bishop, empirical research conducted by positive psychologists demonstrates that causal networks are a real feature of human psychology; causal networks would exist whether psychologists study them or not.  Positive psychology is the study of positive causal networks (PCNs).
            What makes a positive causal network positive?  At one point in his book (96-98), Bishop says “negative causal networks” may also exist, and that a complete theory of psychology ought to teach us how to recognize and escape negative networks (e.g. cycles of depression or obsessive compulsions) just as the complete theory would teach us how to recognize and promote positive networks.  Bishop says little about negative psychology—the “theory of ill-being”—because his task is to propose a theory of well-being.  He does, however, recognize that it is crucial to his theory to distinguish positive causal networks from negative ones.  Bishop says:

...among all the causal networks (i.e. homeostatic property clusters of emotions, attitudes, traits, and accomplishments) in the world, the positive ones are those that feel good, that bring about states that feel good, and that are valued by the person or her culture. (41, emphases added)

Bishop knows full well that philosophers will take him to task here.  That a person or culture values a state does not mean that state is valuable, they will way.  That a state feels good and leads to states that feel good does not imply well-being, they will say.  Bishop faces this criticism head-on.  He imagines “Josef,” a

… wicked, sadistic man with a robust PCN.  He instantiates a causal network involving feelings, attitudes, traits, and interventions in the world that are ‘successful’ in the sense that they consist of positive experiences for Josef and are valued by Josef and his culture.  This seems to be a real possibility, particularly in sick societies (think Mengele). (187-188)

A moralized view of human well-being, Bishop says, would deny that Josef leads a good life.  This is a feature of what Bishop calls “consilience” views of well-being; on any consilience view, virtue and well-being converge.  Bishop points to Aristotle’s ethics as a prime example of a consilience theory, but there are many other important philosophers who held such a view.  For example, Epicurus asserted that virtuous living had to be pleasant and that without virtue one could not have pleasure.  Disagreeing with Epicurus, Kant recognized that goodness and happiness do not always converge in this life, and for that reason he proposed that rational persons might believe in an afterlife and a moral God who could guarantee that goodness and happiness would coalesce in the next life.  Kant was as convinced as Epicurus that goodness and happiness should converge.
But there are problems with moralized views of well-being, Bishop says.  First, there are a great many notions of the good life on offer, and they disagree significantly about components of the good life.  More importantly for his project, Bishop says that moralized views of the good life will systematically exclude empirical evidence from positive psychology.  We should seek theories of human well-being that are scientifically adequate, and one feature of scientific adequacy is that a theory accommodates empirical evidence.
An illustration will help.  Consider the debate between vegetarians and carnivores.  For many people, deciding whether to eat meat is a purely instrumental matter: will a diet containing meat help them reach their life goals (e.g. health, weight control) as well as a vegetarian diet?  However, for other people the decision about eating meat is an important moral decision.  Some vegetarians argue that it is morally blameworthy for any person (or for most persons) to eat animal flesh, while carnivores reject that conclusion.  It seems that a moralized view of well-being has to take some position on this question.  Either eating animal flesh is immoral, or it is permissible (or permissible in some circumstances, in the past or in certain cultures).  Bishop’s first objection to moralized views of the good life is that such views require that we resolve such debates before we can study well-being.  Bishop’s second, and more important, objection is that whichever side we take in regard to eating animal flesh, we will end up ignoring empirical evidence.  After all, there could be (in this case, there actually is) (1) empirical evidence that vegetarianism can be an important part of a positive causal network, such that vegetarian practice leads to a variety of states that feel good and lead to other states that feel good, and (2) empirical evidence that eating meat can be an important part of a positive causal network, such that meat-eating leads to a variety of states that feel good and lead to other states that feel good.  Vegetarians sometimes point with glee to empirical evidence suggesting that vegetarianism is “good for you” in one way or another; just as often meat-eaters emphasize evidence that moderate meat consumption is also “good for you” and pleasurable.  Both sides like to use evidence (readily available) to show that their view promotes well-being.  Bishop’s point is that both are right.  Therefore we should conclude that well-being is multiply-realizable.  A scientific approach to positive psychology will be inclusive, Bishop says.  Therefore, Bishop rejects moralized views of human well-being. 
This does not mean that Bishop proposes a revolution in our moral thinking.  After all, “Josef” really is a wicked human being.  “It’s just a sobering fact about our world that bad people can have well-being.” (188) 
Bishop says that well-being, studied inclusively according to the network theory, is an objective feature of human lives, and it is objectively valuable. (211) Individuals, organizations, and governments can legitimately weigh factors of well-being when making decisions.  Well-being is not the only factor in making decisions, Bishop says.  An individual may sacrifice some of his well-being in order to keep a promise or promote the well-being of others.  An organization or government might spurn a policy that promised to promote the well-being of many if it were unjust or violated the rights of a few.  (211)
Most people like to think, with Aristotle or Epicurus, that goodness and happiness go together.  Or, like Kant, they think that goodness and happiness ought to go together.  Bishop challenges this predilection.  Well-being can be empirically studied, he argues.  We ought to accept what the research shows us.  If it shows us—and it does—that well-being can be achieved without goodness, we need to get used to that fact.
To this point, I have merely explained Bishop’s claims.  The next step is to ask: So what?  What are the implications if Bishop’s theory if it is right?  I will turn to that question in my next chapter.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


Part Two: How to Hope

Chapter 7:  Positive Causal Networks

Michael A. Bishop’s 2015 book, The Good Life, introduces a philosophically informed theory of positive psychology.[1]  Bishop’s theory may also offer insights into the virtue of hope, though Bishop did not intend that result.  In this and the succeeding chapters, I will pursue insights into hope based on Bishop’s theory.
“Positive psychology” has been a growth industry for at least forty years, reflecting the desire on the part of many mental health professionals to move from treating illness to facilitating health.  Rather than concentrating on the dark side—neuroses, psychoses, debilitating syndromes, etc.—positive psychologists want to understand the “light” side of human mental functioning.  Are there ways for ordinary people to get better?  Can we be happier?  More content?  More productive?  How can professional therapists help people achieve their deepest aspirations?
The idea is intuitively appealing, at least to some.  So psychologists have produced thousands of empirical studies that investigate one or more aspects of “well-being.”  And they have discovered correlations, some of which must represent causal connections, between behaviors, patterns of thought, accomplishments, attitudes, perceptions, and emotions.  Having discovered causal connections, therapists are sometimes able to say, “Research shows that people who do x fairly reliably experience y as a result.  Since you want more y in your life, I recommend you do x.”
A concrete example: C.R. Snyder’s “hope theory” begins with an operational definition of hope and then, having conducted a great deal of empirical research on the basis of that definition, suggests practical interventions by which therapists can help patients increase their hope.  Snyder’s research colleagues have collected plenty of evidence that these interventions work, in the sense that patients report improved life outcomes on a number of measures.[2]
It should be stressed that Snyder’s hope theory is only one example among many.  Positive psychologists have researched organizational leadership, creativity, marital success, physical exercise, happiness, video game playing, generosity, workplace satisfaction, and lots of other particulars.
According to Bishop, the problem is that until now no one has proposed a good theory to say what positive psychology is.  What is it that all these empirical researches actually study?  His answer: “positive causal networks” or PCNs.  Here is an illustration.
Many runners report that running improves their mood, their creativity, and their overall mental state.  After much experience running, runners have a well-founded belief that goes something like this: “Even though the weather is nasty today and I’m tempted to skip my run, I know I’ll feel better if I do it.”  This belief, or pattern of thought, obviously tends to keep the runner participating in her running regimen.  So there is a feedback loop: running leads to feeling better; feeling better leads to a pattern of thought; the pattern of thought leads to more running.  As Bishop says, persons get “stuck” in a causal network that improves their lives.
Positive causal networks are usually much more complex than my example of running.  Bishop lists four components to causal networks: emotions, attitudes, traits, and accomplishments.  Notice that my example, running, refers to a “pattern of thought,” which may seem hard to fit into one of Bishop’s components.  Bishop might try to squeeze “patterns of thought” into his structure (maybe such patterns contribute to “attitudes”); more likely, he would admit that the components he names may not be all there are.  At several points in his book, he stresses that he is offering an initial theory and would welcome corrections.  The key idea is that the parts of a positive causal network (he calls these “PCN fragments”) reinforce each other.
There is plenty of evidence that positive causal networks are real, Bishop says.  That is, they exist in the world whether or not we understand them or pay attention to them.  To a limited degree, people have long been aware of positive causal networks, before modern science began exploring them in detail.  Consider the time-honored advice of parents: You say you want to do well in school?  Very well, make friends with the good students.  Enjoy the activities they enjoy.  Copy their attitudes toward books and schoolwork.  Build more friendships based on shared academic interests.  And so on.  Your friendships will help you develop the right attitudes and habits, the right attitudes and habits will help you do well in school, and doing well in school will attract the right kind of friends.
Bishop says we should see a parallel here between positive causal networks and other natural kinds, such as “water.”  Obviously, water was an important real thing in the world, though people referred to it for thousands of years without knowing its chemical composition.  When chemists discovered that water is H2O they improved our understanding of water and enabled us to do things with water that we were previously unable to do.  Bishop says that as psychologists gain better understanding of positive causal networks they will enable us to improve our lives in various ways.
One more example: people who are kind, generous, and considerate of others’ feelings tend to make friends.  Having friends tends to create pleasurable experiences.  Having friends is a kind of personal relationship that is highly valued in our society.  Having pleasurable experiences that are at the same time highly valued by society tends to make persons kind, generous, and considerate of others’ feelings—and the cycle renews itself.  Bishop says that much empirical research by positive psychologists supports the conclusion that PCNs are “homeostatic property clusters.”  The emotions, traits, attitudes, and accomplishments in such a property cluster tend to reinforce each other, so the cluster tends to endure.  Bishop points to empirical research that indicates that people displaying a high degree of a positive trait, attitude, emotion or accomplishment at time t1 will have (compared to those who have a lower degree of that trait, attitude, emotion, or accomplishment) a statistically significant greater chance of having a high degree of that trait, attitude, emotion or accomplishment at time t2even when t2 is years or decades after t1.  Further, persons who have a higher degree of one component of a PCN at time t1, say component c1, will have a greater chance of having some other component of the PCN, component c2, at time t2.  Positive causal networks are real and, as homeostatic property clusters, they tend to endure.  Positive psychology research can teach us how to build and strengthen PCNs.  According to Bishop, that’s what positive psychologists are doing, and that’s how they should conceptualize their work.
            In succeeding chapters, I will use Bishop’s PCN theory to explore hope.  First, in chapter 8, I will discuss the most controversial aspect of PCN theory.

[1] Michael Bishop, The Good Life: Unifying the Philosophy and Psychology of Well-Being.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
[2] See C.R. Snyder (ed.), Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications.  London: Academic Press, 2000.