The Ethics of Precrime

Minority ReportI just read the Philip K. Dick short story “The Minority Report.” I’ve seen the film that is based upon it a number of times before. But as with any written story, reading gives you time to think. In this case, I began to think about the metaphysics of precrime. For those of you unaware of the plot, it revolves around the existence of so called “precogs.” They can predict crime—hence “precrime.” As a result, the police arrest assailants before they commit crimes that the precogs have predicted. This creates all kinds of metaphysical problems that I will get to shortly.

Dick wrote the story when he was just 28, and I don’t think he really understood what he had come up with. Both the story and the film have a fundamental paradox. It is a little less troubling in the story, so let me lay it out as it occurs in the film. Anderton is accused of killing a man he has neither met nor heard of. In the process of trying to prove his innocence, he comes into contact with a man who claims to have killed Anterton’s son. Anterton then (more or less) kills the man.

But this begs a very big question: how did the precogs know that Anterton would meet this man when it was only because of their prediction that he did? The answer is that the whole idea of precrime is even more aggravating than time travel! But there’s more, because there is no way that precrime could work in any philosophically justifiable way.

When the precogs predict a crime, there are two possibilities:

  1. They are predicting the crime that would take place given all of the ways that their prediction will alter reality.
  2. They are predicting the crime that would take place without the many and assorted ways that their prediction will alter reality.

If it is case 1, then the prediction itself is altering reality. There is no way to say that the crime would have been committed without the prediction. This is the case in the story and the movie. There is no way to truly see Anderton as culpable given that he would never have committed the crime without the precrime system causing him to do it.

If it is case 2, then the precrime system is arresting people who might well be guilty in another universe, but who are very clearly not guilty in the universe in which they are found guilty. The precrime system does exist. Predictions that depend upon it not existing are not valid for the universe in which it does exist.

I know that all of this metaphysics may strike some as ridiculous. Yet this is exactly what the story is about. There could not be an ethical precrime. It is quite literally a system that punishes thought crimes. There is no way around this. If you think in terms of wave equations: until an event occurs, the future is just probabilities. Now, I am enough of a mystic to believe that multiple (even infinite) strands of time may branch off at each instant. And someone outside of time might be able to map each of branches. But no one inside that time can do so because in doing so they change the branch.

(Think about it this way. Suppose there was a god or something outside of time and he was able to pump his knowledge into the precogs’ heads. Doing that would change the time branch—the universe. There is no way around that.)

Strangely, the movie Minority Report ends correctly where the short story does not. (The writers had 45 years to think about.) In the movie, the flaws in precrime are exposed and the system is ended. (However, they are not the metaphysical flaws I am discussing here.) In the story, Anterton does as the precogs predicted in order to save the system. It is unfortunate, because Dick explicitly discusses branches of time as the different timing of the precog predictions affect later ones. But the more fundamental problem that I’ve discussed here seems completely to have eluded him. But it’s a really great story!


I just looked up the title of this article on Google to see what people had written. I have to say, I’m pretty disappointed. No one seems to be aware of the issues I’ve raised here. These do not strike me as terrible profound or intelligent observations. Maybe it just my peculiar combination of mysticism and science that draws me here. But these metaphysical question are explicitly raised in both the story and the movie. Geez!

Cynical Son of a Bitch

60 MinutesI am a cynical son of a bitch. I am the first to push emotion aside for the purpose of the greater intellectual good. So I was surprised how much tonight’s episode of 60 Minutes struck me. The show brought together a group of parents who lost children at Sandy Hook. The cynical side of me was very clear: this was a very manipulative segment; the producers should have been ashamed. And I thought that as someone who agrees with the parents fully on the issue of gun control.

But I thought that with a small part of my brain. The majority of my brain was overwhelmed, desperately trying not to be emotionally destroyed by the stories that the parents were telling. My brain failed utterly. There is just no way to get past the emotional tug (more like a tractor beam) of these very human stories and the tragedy of these deaths. I had to turn it off. I don’t need to hear this kind of thing. After all, I’m the guy who says fuck the assault weapons, let’s outlaw handguns.

It got me thinking. (Of course!)

I understand the arguments of the gun lovers. They says things like, “Rights are more important than lives.” And, “If you outlaw guns, even more people will die.” I have a very clear answer to this: bullshit! Just admit it: you care more about keeping your assault rifles than you care about the lives of these grammar school kids. And may God make you fry in hell for the privilege.

But it’s worse. These gun people are not arguing that gun rights are more important than the lives of these children. They are arguing that the simplest reforms—getting rid of the gun show loophole of a law they claim to be for—is more important than the lives of these children. Are they fucking kidding me? Really: I get the slippery slop argument. It’s bullshit, but I get it! But this isn’t it. I don’t even know what this is. “If we fully enforce the law then the Nazis will come in and take away all our guns”?

I am a cynical son of a bitch. And I just don’t get it.

Melissa Harris-Perry Calls BS

Melissa Harris-PerryFew political commentators can call bullshit as well as Melissa Harris-Perry. In the clip below from yesterday’s show, she is talking about the Tennessee bill that would cut welfare funding from families who have children who are not performing well in school. I don’t have much to add to what she says, although I think I would go further. These lawmakers are not interested in improving how well students do in school. This is the same issue that we see elsewhere with conservatives trying to tie welfare benefits to clean drug tests. It is, in fact, the same thing that makes applying for food stamps a bureaucratic nightmare requiring 40 pages of documents while billion dollar bailouts of banks require just two.

It is no longer acceptable to say, “Get the blacks!” or “Get the Mexicans!” But given that conservatives think that all welfare recipients are black or brown, the “Get the shiftless poor person” has been a good substitute for their need to express their latent racist fury. I know that Harris-Perry feels the need to make nice. She is on national television, after all. And I’m sure she (rightly) thinks that calling out these racist shenanigans would be counterproductive.

I am under no such constraints. Anyway, I’m waging a longer-term battle here. It is one where we don’t wait for racist euphemisms to be retired before we call them out. From the passion that she shows on these issues, I know that Melissa Harris-Perry is a fellow (and far more successful) warrior. What this clip. It is a thing of joy.


Of course, I don’t want to leave the impression it is all about race. These people also hate the poor as poor. Did I focus on race because it was Tennessee? Maybe. But it doesn’t really matter. In the conservative mind there are two kinds of people: us and them. That’s why Rob Portman suddenly became pro-gay rights. He learned that part of “them” was in fact “us.” But that mentality defines conservatism.

Manchurian Speaker

John BoehnerWhen I saw that Ezra Klien had written an article titled, The Strange Alliance Between John Boehner and Liberals, I knew just what he was talking about. Basically, over the last couple of years, John Boehner has saved the liberal cause by refusing to accept rather conservative deals on things like Chained-CPI. Of course, Boehner is nixing these deals because they aren’t conservative enough. But that hardly matters; the fact remains, he has been saving the liberal cause from the Bipartisan President.

In the actual article, Klein suggests that if the Democrats could have created a “Manchurian Speaker,” he would be John Boehner. Clearly, such a person could not actively be in favor of liberal policies. If that were the case, Boehner would have been voted out of his speakership, and soon out of office all together. But just by being ultra-conservative, Boehner is doing what liberals want. Klein isn’t seriously suggesting that this is what is going on. But the theory is valid and it points to an important problem in the modern American Democratic Party.

The “Manchurian Speaker” works so well for liberals because he protects us from our rather conservative president. In this reality, obstruction is a good thing because the only policy changes coming from the top people in the Democratic Party are conservative. Yes, they are not as conservative as what the Republicans want, but they are more conservative than the legacy that the Democratic Party willed to us.

So we have three groups: the liberals on the left, the Republicans on the right, and the Democratic Party elite in the middle. You know the Democratic Party elite: they supported the Iraq War; they gave us the insurance industry give away that is Obamacare; and they pushed “tighten our belts” economic policy that has kept tens of millions out of work. That party. They’re the ones we’re fighting with. And that’s why they call us “fucking retarded.” We’re just too stupid to give up on the great liberal project that is the United States of America.

So yes, we really are grateful to John Boehner and the rest of the Crazy Caucus. But that will only work for so long. We should take this respite, when Boehner is doing yeoman’s work, to change our party into the 21st century equivalent of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the Great Society. We can only play defense for so long. And let’s not forget: Republicans don’t need to win elections as long Democrats keep electing people like Clinton and Obama. It would be worth it to lose some national elections if it might move the center of American political debate a bit to the left.

Remember: Boehner isn’t really the Manchurian Speaker. And if Democrats continue to be “Republican Lite! (Nothing you want in a party; but less!)” we will start losing national elections anyway.

Lady’s Day

Billie HolidayOn this day in 1770, William Wordsworth was born. (I named one of my puppets after him—surely there is no greater honor.) The visionary philosopher Charles Fourier was born in 1772. The great sitar player Ravi Shankar was born in 1920 and only died last year. Alan J. Pakula, director of the exceptional To Kill a Mocking Bird, was born in 1928. And the great make-up artist Stan Winston was born in 1946.

James Garner is 85 today. The Bradley Manning of the 1970s, Daniel Ellsberg is 82. California governor Jerry Brown is 75. Francis Coppola and David Frost are both 74. Janis Ian is 62. And Jackie Chan is 59.

There are a number of people I could have picked to win the birthday contest, but the day goes to Billie Holiday, who was born in 1915. Few people have given so much to this country but suffered so much at its hands. I watched Lady Day—The Many Faces of Billie Holiday just a couple of days ago. It’s a bit of a whitewash of her life, but a loving tribute nonetheless.

Happy birthday to one of the greatest singers ever! May the producers of American Idol rot in hell.

Update (7 April 2013 8:04 pm)

I’ve been listening to Edith Piaf this evening (A sign of depression?) and I noticed that she was born the same year as Holiday. And only lived a couple of years longer. Sad. But like Holiday, she left us so much. This, of course, the most obvious:

I’ve also been listening to Madeleine Peyroux, who often sings just like Billie Holiday. I’d hate her for it, but she’s so damned good!