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41dbipeX+pL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_ I was talking to a friend recently about life and its aims and meaning. Offhand I mentioned I was reading Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, arguably the most powerful man in the world when he was composing it. There is debate about whether he wrote Meditations for public consumption, but that is somewhat irrelevant to why we moderns read it.

I could attempt to derive the fundamental theorem of calculus and reconstruct vast swathes of modern mathematics from first principles. But I don’t. Part of it is that I don’t have the skill or time. But another aspect is that I can stand on the shoulders of those who have come before, and lean upon the hard work that has come before. And so with natural science, which has a institutional backdrop I can’t recapitulate. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel.

There are those, like Steven Pinker, who suggest that the nature of modern philosophy is that it has been relegated to answering questions which seem well night insoluble. And I am in broad sympathy with this perspective. But the reason I look to the ancients is that often I find their musings more human and real than those of the philosophers of today, who in the analytic tradition put passion in thrall to reason, and on the Continent place a premium on stylistic verve at the cost of coherency. I don’t think that Marcus Aurelius, or Seneca or Christ for that matter, had any specific deep insight into the general human condition. But they probably addressed most of the same questions that the average person today has. There may be benefit then in seeing what their answers to the deep questions were, because presumably the generations that have intervened have selected at least some for memetic clarity, if it not depth.

 
• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Philosophy 
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41BlNMFJqNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ A few separate pieces that I read today came together thematically for me in an odd confluence. First, an article in The Straits Times repeats the shocking statistics about the nature of modern academic intellectual production, Prof, no one is reading you, that you may be aware of. Here’s the important data:

Even debates among scholars do not seem to function properly. Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities – 82 per cent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. No one ever refers to 32 per cent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 per cent in the natural sciences.

If a paper is cited, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 per cent of papers cited have actually been read. We estimate that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely by no more than 10 people. Hence, impacts of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are minuscule.

What ever happened to the “republic of letters”? Are humanists reading, but not citing, each other? Or is it that humanistic production has basically become a matter of adding a line to one’s c.v.? So the scholar writes the monograph which is read by their editor, and then published to collect dust somewhere in the back recesses of an academic library.

Second, an article in The New York Times, Philosophy Returns to the Real World, declares the bright new world in the wake of the Dark Ages of post-modernism. Through a personal intellectual biography the piece charts the turn away from the hyper-solipsistic tendencies in philosophy exemplified by Stanley Fish in the 1980s, down to the modern post-post-modern age. Operationally I believe that Fish is a human who reconstitutes the characteristics of the tyrannical pig Napoleon in Animal Farm. Despite all the grand talk about subjectivism and a skepticism about reality which would make Pyrrho blanch, Fish did very well for himself personally in terms of power, status, and fame by promoting his de facto nihilism. Money and fame are not social constructs for him, they are concrete realities. Like a eunuch in the Forbidden City ignoring the exigencies of the outside world, all Fish and his fellow travelers truly care about are clever turns of the phrase, verbal gymnastics, and social influence and power. As the walls of the city collapse all around them they sit atop their golden thrones, declaring that they are the Emperors of the World, but like Jean-Bédel Bokassa are clearly only addled fools to all the world outside of the circle of their sycophants. After all, in their world if they say it is, is it not so? Their empire is but one of naked illusions.

Finally, via Rod Dreher, a profile of David Brooks in The Guardian. He has a new book out, The Road To Character. I doubt I’ll read it, because from what I can tell and have seen in the domain of personal self-cultivation of the contemplative sort our species basically hit upon some innovations in the centuries around 500 B.C., and has been repackaging those insights through progressively more exotic marketing ploys ever since. Xunzi and Marcus Aurelius have said what needs to be said. No more needed for me.

But this section jumped out:

“I started out as a writer, fresh out of college, thinking that if I could make my living at it – write for an airline magazine – I’d be happy,” says Brooks over coffee in downtown Washington, DC; at 53, he is ageing into the amiably fogeyish appearance he has cultivated since his youth. “I’ve far exceeded my expectations. But then you learn the elemental truth that every college student should know: career success doesn’t make you happy.” In midlife, it struck him that he’d spent too much time cultivating what he calls “the résumé virtues” – racking up impressive accomplishments – and too little on “the eulogy virtues”, the character strengths for which we’d like to be remembered. Brooks builds a convincing case that this isn’t just his personal problem but a societal one: that our market-driven meritocracy, even when functioning at its fairest, rewards outer success while discouraging the development of the soul. Though this is inevitably a conservative argument – we have lost a “moral vocabulary” we once possessed, he says – many of the exemplary figures around whom Brooks builds the book were leftists: labour activists, civil rights leaders, anti-poverty campaigners. (St Augustine and George Eliot feature prominently, too.) What unites them, in his telling, is the inner confrontation they had to endure, setting aside whatever plans they had for life when it became clear that life had other plans for them.

Many of the ancients argued for the importance of inner reflection and mindful introspection. Arguably, the strand of Indian philosophical thought represented by the Bhagavad Gita was swallowed up by this cognitive involution, as one folds in upon one’s own mind.

But let me tell a different story, one of the outer world, but not one of social engagement, but sensory experience of the material domain in an analytic sense. Science. A friend of mine happens to be the first using next-generation sequencing technologies to study a particularly charismatic mammal. I reflected to her recently that she was the first person in the history of the world to gaze upon this particular sequence, to analyze it, to reflect upon the natural historical insights that were yielded up for her by the intersection of biology and computation. It is highly unlikely that my friend will ever become a person of such eminence, such prominence, as David Brooks or Stanley Fish. Feted by her fellow man. But my friend will know truth in a manner innocent of aspirational esteem totally alien to the meritocratic professionals David Brooks references. On the day that you expire, would you rather be remembered for a law review article, or discovering something real, shedding light on some deep truth (as opposed to “truth”)?

This perhaps offers up a possibility for why humanists don’t cite each other. Too many have been poisoned by the nihilism of the likes of Stanley Fish. They do not see any purpose in the scholarship of their peers, because humanistic scholarship of the solipsistic sort is primarily an interior monologue with oneself. The experiments of English professors always support their hypotheses. Their struggle is to feed their egos, they wrestle with themselves, Jacob’s own angel as a distillation of their self-essence. The limits of their minds are the limits of their world.

Finally, this filament threaded through, of a reality out there, the possibility of being made aware of it, even through the mirror darkly, is why I continue to do what I do, and aspire to what I aspire to. The truth is out there. It does not give consideration to our preferences. But it is, and we can grasp it in our comprehension. Over the past ten years in the domain of my personal interest, and now professional focus, genomics, we’ve seen a sea change. That which we did not even imagine has become naked to us. Before the next ten years is out who knows what else we’ll discover?

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Epistemology, Philosophy 
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razibanddaugther

Lately my daughter has been expressing unintentionally philosophical questions. For example, when we were discussing as a family events from the “deep past,” i.e., before her existence, she asked “Where was I?” And we don’t even need to get into questions about the nature of death, which does come up when companion animals expire.

This dovetails with another thought which has been percolating in my mind recently: is there any point to philosophy of the existential kind once you have children? Men such as Plato and St. Paul did not have a family life in a conventional sense, though Aristotle did marry, and also had a son. Does this perhaps reflect itself in the nature of the philosophies expounded by Plato and his most famous pupil? Since becoming a father I have difficulty even understanding why the nature of Being and existence bothered me at all as a younger man. Children seem to give an answer to many of the “deep” questions we might have, on an emotional if not rational, level.* This is all ironic because it seems to me that children are the ones who most naively probe the root of the gaps in our comprehension of ontology.

* It is then of note that celibacy is common in many “higher religions” for professional clerical elites.

 
• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Philosophy 
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Now that I have a daughter I do reflect a bit more on what the purpose of my life is, because at some point I want to talk to her about the purpose of her life. There is a little bit of irony in this insofar as now she is a primary purpose of my life! But in any case, though Chris Rock’s raison d’être speaks to me, additionally my job is also to make sure that my daughter doesn’t become a C.P.A. Certain professions, such as dentistry or accountancy, are honorable. But there are enough people who want to enter those financially lucrative professions as it is. In a world of such absolute affluence we can afford the luxury of the life the mind. Aristotle’s father was a physician, no doubt a good man. But his memory persists only because of the incandescent brilliance of his son, who ventured into wide intellectual waters.

Speaking of Aristotle, Aristotle Onassis is reputed to have said that “If women didn’t exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning.” Point taken, and I think there’s a great deal of truth in this. But let me rephrase it: if books didn’t exist, all the time in the world would have no meaning. To many this sort of assertion would seem strange, but I suspect among my readership it is comprehensible. And by books I don’t mean to imply paper and ink and binding, I mean the information encoded within those books.

With that out of the way, I thought I would share an email from a long time reader (though only very rarely a correspondent). I don’t necessarily agree with everything stated here obviously, and I hope that the comments don’t devolve in discussions of the nature of East Asian society. I didn’t feel comfortable expurgating that aspect just because some might take objection though. Rather, it is to consider how one might find a place to flourish and be nurtured socially in their intellectual explorations.

I do not know how your off-line persona differs, if at all, but I’m assuming your on-line self is close to the truth. Obviously, life demands that we all be somewhat multifaceted in how we express ourselves in different situations. I have always had problems in dealing with people’s irrational emotionalism over many issues. I learned quite early that although everyone seems capable of logic, they definitely do not have the same innate ability or even desire to be rational in their approach to life. Most people are this way, as I am sure you know. It is often frustrating dealing with “the mob”, and the funny thing is I don’t hold myself as being very special in any regard. I am simply highly curious and tend to be quite rational, I guess that is enough to be an oddity in the modern world.

I’m in my late 30′s, born in the Midwest, but I have lived in 4 different states, and several nations, which include Switzerland, Singapore, China, Japan, and Taiwan. I have visited many more. Over the years I found that most people, even those we would consider quite educated, who are quite academically accomplished are far from intellectuals. Most people simply apply their intellect to their job, after which they focus on practical concerns or entertainment. They lack innate curiosity about the world or a drive to follow-up on things that do strike their fancy.

My family is a good example, not wanting to get too much into my background, my parents died when I was young, and I grew up with my mother’s family, who are quite blue collar in their sensibilities. They have never been able to understand why I would want to even visit Asia, let alone live outside the U.S. For them exotic is going to the Caribbean, and outrageous would be travelling to France. They have no interest in science at all. I suppose my generation is slowly breaking out of this mode, but despite having doctors, lawyers, and low level politicians in the family, most are far from intellectual in their pursuits. Outside my family, the most intellectually stimulating environment I have found was Washington D.C. I lived there for 5 years, during which time I was involved in a couple of organizations where I met some very interesting people, whom I still regard as fairly close friends. After leaving Washington D.C., I have mostly been surrounded by fairly educated business people, so not much intellectual depth.

This is especially true in East Asia, as the societies are so authoritarian, due to a Confucianist tradition, many people do not even know how to think for themselves about things that are not practical. It is not just the common complaint about the lack of self-initiative or creativity, that you might read on the internet, it is far deeper than that. I have met ethnic Chinese, Korean, and Japanese people (all Asian born) who have went to top universities, and might be seen as highly intelligent in the very narrow area of their occupation, but outside of this you might see them as retarded (in the classic sense). In Asia, but for Japan, there seems to be no love of learning outside of the practical purpose of money making, which is an obsession, especially among the ethnic Chinese. Hell, most people do not even read for enjoyment if the material is higher than a fashion magazine or manga. A Taiwanese woman once told me that education is so brutal and stressful for most, and then they grow and work 12 hours a day, after which no one wants to do anything but sleep, eat, and relax. A common joke in Taiwan is that people’s favorite hobbies are “sleeping and eating”, and like many quips, there is truth in it. I used to think this was a nouveau riche attitude, but honestly I think it is not a transient phase, it is deeply culture. East Asians are really just practical highly focused “grinders”. I have met people who were different, but few. I used to be involved with a discussion group in Taiwan, and I started a sister group in Singapore, we discussed all sorts of topics from birth rates, to modern marriage trends, to religious issues, but those type of groups I found were highly unusual, and a quick scan of Meet-up, which is quite popular in Singapore can show you that most people are interested in business networking, meeting a sex partner, or self-improvement (usually how to make more money). The funny thing is, in Singapore, almost all these events are dominated by ethnic Indians. Indians are chatty, far more than the “Mongoloids”. To be fair, there are groups for hiking, biking, and jogging, but they are usually lead by Western people with Asian tag-alongs.

In Asia people rarely give opinions in groups or even have strong opinions about many things, they simply look to be “told”. Chinese say they are like “roaches” which is a positive expression, it means they can survive anything, and the tenacity of the people is awe inspiring at times. They can take all manners of abuse and drudgery from authority figures, while suffering in silence, which I believe is why the suicide rate is so much higher than the West. Since face is so important to people, most will not put themselves “on the line” as they never want to be seen as wrong, let alone challenging authority. Face is so critical because everyone is judging everyone all the time, there is little “privacy”. The locus of moral control is generally “outside the person” because the societies are built on shame, not guilt. So people really fear being shamed, but if they think they won’t get caught, I’ve seen people do pretty terrible things, with little remorse or self-criticism. If you ever think someone from these nations will apologize to you for something wrong they did, dont’ hold your breath, the very act is a lose of face, so they will simply pretend it did not happen or top talking to you if you make an issue of it. I have seen this many times. Any criticism of a person or “the group” (which could also mean the nation/government) is seen as an attack by many, especially coming from a foreigner, and then the irrational “home team is always right” attitude kicks in, usually an illogical rant. Logical thinking is not fundamental at all, at least not for more abstract issues. Despite being “patriarchal societies” how the society functions reminds me of how junior high school girls operate. The whys and what fors are all quite complicated, but Asia is definitely not what most Americans think it is. I think if Western people really knew how fundamentally different the society is in a place like China, they would be terrified for the future, it is shocking, and takes a major adjustment for those of us who do not wish to live in an ex-pat bubble while living abroad.

Anyway, I added in the Asian part because I know you have some interest in the Far East, but my real question to you is how do you find the like-minded, off-line? I understand you live in the Pacific Northwest, are things better there or have you just found a niche. I assume blogging is not your only intellectual outlet, so are most of the people you speak with about various issues on-line? I need to figure out something, as I’m heading back to “money is life” land. Sports fans have their bars, dancers have night clubs, where do we go?

So, after all that, what’s my advice? Offline I have found the Less Wrong and BIL communities to be invigorating. The primary issue that I have is that I tend not to have an “off” switch when I’m intellectua;ly engaged. I can talk about sports and other “small talk” fare on “autopilot,” but when I engage cognitively I tend to get bored by a lot of discussion. The people I’ve met through Less Wrong and other such communities also tend not to have a genuine “off” mode, and intellectual discussion isn’t about signalling or showing how smart you are, it’s about getting to the heart of things. And that’s hard to find. The reality is that most smart people enjoy decompressing in the evening, having a good meal and a rich beer. But the corollary is that conversation also seems to become rather anodyne, banal, and mind numbing. In contrast, a minority of us just have a difficult time genuinely unwinding, because we’re always conscious of the fact that death is coming closer and closer, and we’re stilled mired in ignorance.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Philosophy 
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Justin Wolfers & Betsy Stevenson have a piece up in Bloomberg, Crowds Are This Election’s Real Winners. In The Signal and the Noise Nate Silver has a chapter on Wolfers’ belief that prediction markets are superior to the sort of quantitative analysis that is his stock & trade. The belief isn’t based on an intuition. One of Wolfers’ graduate students produced a paper showing that Intrade was actually better than FiveThirtyEight in 2008. Silver demurs in the chapter because he suggests that the model which Wolfers and his student lay out in the paper had some modifications which allowed for one to judge Intrade’s performance superior. I’m willing to accept Silver’s assertion here because I’ve seen enough economic models which are modulated just enough to produce elegant and clean results. That being said, the general tone of the chapter is such that in his heart Silver seems to agree that Wolfers is fundamentally correct in the long term. Prediction markets, when done right, are more powerful than any analytic an individual could cook up.


All that being said, the economist’ faith on the power of mass market signals (“the crowd”) often strikes natural scientists as peculiar. When talking about elections it does seem that the “crowds” are going to be superior to the judgement of individuals or powerful quantitative models (after all, elections are about crowds!). But there is a long history of the crowd being wrong in the very specific areas of natural science which rely on contingent and formal fameworks to make non-obvious predictions on somewhat complex systems. But that’s because in some areas of the natural sciences humans have a systematic bias due to intuitive psychological tendencies. Aristotle’s model was just more intuitively plausible than those of his skeptics’ for a few thousand years. And quantum theory would never win a crowd-vote. One Bohr is worth a thousand other humans. I think this long history of the worthlessness of mass market intuition across large swaths of the territory of science is why many scientists find technocratic solutions very appealing. The formal reflections of the elect has worked miracles in physics, so why not “social physics” (i.e., economics)?

Obviously there’s a difference between the expertise of a nuclear physicist, an economist, a financial entertainer, and an astrologer. When a physicist speaks about physics, you listen, for they are describing the world. When an economist speaks about economics, you listen, because they are reflecting honestly what economists think about the world. When a financial entertainer speaks, you listen for laughs, because they are mixing substance and style to entertain you. When an astrologer speaks you are a fool to listen, because they are using the artifice of science to sell you nonsense.

Epistemology is hard. There is no “Swiss Army knife” which allows one to know how to know. In some circumstances the utilization of statistics is a matter of style, to firm up a flimsy supposition with the rigorous garb of quantity. The delusion of false precision. But in other domains statistical knowledge is highly informative. And there are areas where one can usefully deploy deterministic models.

The problem that crops up is when one swims in one lagoon of the intellectual pool where a particular suite of tools is useful, it is easy to forget that the utility of that kit may be conditional on the characteristics of that domain. Many physical scientists seem to have a tendency of assuming that there can be a simple and elegant technocratic solution (I believe that this is one reason engineers are attracted to religious fundamentalism). Meanwhile, I have observed before that biologists are often totally wedded to the Malthusian model for humans, when that model has not been fruitful for nearly a century. Biologists may be correct over the long term, but as an economist once observed, over the long term we’re all dead. Finally, economists can see markets everywhere, when sometimes it is not supply & demand, but ecology which is speaking. In A Farewell to Alms I note that Greg Clark argued that the emergence of lactase persistence was a sign of the longstanding high per capita income of Northern Europe, because Northern Europeans could afford to consume large quantities of milk. But of course there are ecological parameters which are relevant for how rational it is to engage in dairy-culture.

In the end, the only solution I offer is trial & error iteration. There is no market, no decision tree, which can guide us here. What works, works. What does not, does not. We muddle on.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Philosophy 
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The recent controversy over Peter Singer and Fordhman got me thinking about the logical implications of a consistent ethos. Singer certainly has a consistent ethos. Or at least he tries to work out the logical implications of his axioms, no matter where that goes. I don’t agree with Peter Singer’s utilitarianism because I am skeptical of his extreme ethical reductionism, but it’s clarifying at least.

But that got me to thinking about the implications of being pro-life in the 21st century, as biotechnology becomes more and more a part of our lives. From what I gather the standard pro-life position is that life begins at conception, where you have the potential for a human being. One aspect of this has always disturbed me: it is likely that more than 50% of conceptions miscarry, without anyone being the wiser. Most karyotype abnormalities, for example, miscarry. If these are human lives, does this mean that the majority of humans die even before they are born? How can we fix this tragedy?

In the pre-modern age there wouldn’t be a tragedy to fix. Saving these humans would be beyond our power. But today there are ways we may reduce the harm. First, one could fertilize a range of eggs, and then screen them for genetic abnormalities. Only the ones who pass a quality control threshold would be implanted, to minimize miscarriage risk.* The others could be put in ‘stasis,’ until the point where medical technology has advanced to the point that ailments can be fixed by genetic re-engineering at the zygotic stage.

And that is my attempt to think like a pro-life Peter Singer.

* In the future artificial wombs are definitely the way to go, as the developing fetus could be closely monitored.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Philosophy 
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In the comments below there is a discussion about whether personhood is a continuous or categorical trait. I lean toward the former proposition as a matter of fact, but let’s entertain the second. What if personhood, and in particular consciousness and moral agency, emerged repeatedly over the past two million years in singular individuals? A model I propose is that the reason that ‘behavioral modernity’ exhibited such a long lag behind ‘anatomical modernity’ is that the first conscious human kept killing themselves. After all, imagine that you come to awareness and all your peers are…well, ‘dirty apes.’ You are literally the sane man in the asylum. This is similar the idea proposed, reasonably enough, that a demographic ‘critical mass’ was required for cultural evolution to truly enter into ‘lift-off.’ In any case, perhaps ~50,000 year ago a psychopath was born who could live with the knowledge that their days were to be spent copulating with and eliminating with animals. Animals whom said psychopath could congenially manipulate to increase their own fitness. No sensitive soul, he.

Ultimately obviously my hypothesis is far more science fiction than serious model. But it does get to the heart of something critical: the essence of humanity is not our rational reflective individual faculties, but our powerful social awareness and need for embeddedness. Even a misanthrope like me can recognize this. By our negation of it we recognize that which is the standard. Consciousness and self-awareness did not explode into the world like a shot in the dark in the form of the original human. Rather, groups of proto-humans through their collective actions stumbled upon the configuration of characteristics which connote to us humanity. There was no sentinel, only the passage of countless generations, melting unto each other.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Philosophy 
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A reader below asked me to exposit in more detail what I only alluded to in my post, The scourging of Sam Harris, when it came to substantive disagreements. The reason I did not elaborate much in the post is because Sam Harris’ original contribution had more to do with the deficits of interacting on the internet, and being routinely mischaracterized and having your reputation smeared. In this area I’m in close agreement with Harris, as I’ve experienced many of the same things. I suspect part of it is that like Harris, and unlike many internet commentators, I don’t really exist within a relatively tidy social-ideological bubble. My readership spans the ideological gamut, and though I’m personally on the Right, I don’t have much of a problem posting material which those on the Left may find congenial to their self-image (which naturally results in the tendency for random conservatives to term me a “liberal blogger,” totally unaware that I’m often a token conservative in science and secular circles). I’m not a contrarian, as much as I don’t really care too much about politics. People may remember Richard Feynman 1,000 years from now. They will be far less likely to remember Bill Clinton.

One minor note: I put “perceived” in the title because I understand that I may have misconstrued Sam Harris or his acolytes. I’ve read End of Faith, but have only a cursory familiarity with his follow up work. Of course it is hard to avoid Sam Harris and his detractors if you follow debates on the internet, so I think I have a sense of where he and his critics are coming from. But I could be wrong. A major problem that people have in constructive discourse is misunderstanding the positions of those who they think the disagree with (which is why I routinely ban any commenter who attempts to rewrite my own opinion before launching into their response; if you have to rewrite what I said when I’ve already written my opinion, I don’t see that as a good sign)

First, when it comes to faith in reason, I’ve touched on this several times, so I’m not going to repeat myself too much. When people try to “reason” with those they disagree with it is rarely a matter of convincing them that 1 + 1 = 2, rather than 1 + 1 = -2. Rather, their arguments tend to be embedded in a complex chain of propositions, with unspoken assumptions. You, as the reasonable person have axioms which aren’t out on the table, and these axioms may not be shared by the person whom you are trying to convince. Additionally, the chain of propositions may not be quite so clear across the two individuals. The most extreme skepticism of reason comes from those who we might term as “post modernists,” but even though this extremism is folly we do need to keep in mind that skepticism of truth claims are often rooted in the genuine malleability of interpretation. If the heuristics & biases literature does not ring a bell with you, and you do not have Asperger, I strongly suspect you’ve been engaging in motivated reasoning without even reflecting upon it. The main issue I have with Sam Harris (and many self-described rationalists) is that I think they underestimate the herculean task which true rationalism really is. It may not even be possible to construct a mathematics of morality, and we certainly aren’t close. In everyday discourse, even the highest levels, it is passion which has reason on the leash. And I do not even see this as problematic necessarily, for reason is a tool toward particular ends, which passion may define.

Second, in regards to complex phenomena I think Sam Harris’ model of religious belief and practice is too thin. Religious motivation is a deeply complex phenomena, and I don’t think that Harris and many of the rationalists have adequately addressed this. Richard Dawkins nods to this reality in The God Delusion, but does not truly engage with the literature which he cites. In short, religion is not just a supernatural ideology set forth in a book of fables. Supernatural intuitions are deep cognitive phenomena, perhaps inseparable from other competencies, such as theory of mind and agency detection. Not only that, but unlike some cognitive biases they are not the sum of their parts, but can become the superstructure of a social organism, serving as the focus of binding rituals and communal ecstasy. Furthermore, in complex societies the social dimension of religion is extended, scaled up, and synthesized with other institutions, to create what we call organized or higher religion. This phenomenon invariably manifests itself in a particular class structure, with priests and laiety, which reflects the complex societies in which it developed. Additionally, a philosophical dimension is injected into religion, and the resulting hybrid is often textualized. My problem with some of Harris and his fellow travelers’ conception of religion is that they confuse the distilled textualized form of religion as religion qua religion. I think this misses the deep psychological and social robustness of the phenomena. I am not saying here that Harris would not recognize what I write in this space, as certainly this critique has been leveled at him by others. Rather, he seems to think in many ways that it is superfluous, and that to forward his project he needs to just focus on the textualized manifestation of religion. This I think simplifies the project, as if abolishing irrationality is a matter of uninstalling third-party software. But in fact it may be part of the human BIOS.

Third, there is Sam Harris’ view of Islam. I have admitted that on some level I agree with much of what he says. I would not want to live in a Muslim society (I was born in one), and if Muslims do not reconstruct their religion I do not think they are appropriate citizens of Western societies. I believe it is fair to state that the average Muslims has a view of the relationship between their religion and society which would be more in place in the 18th century West, than the modern iteration. But, I do not think that Islam or Muslims are an existential threat to the world. To be frank most Muslim societies are more of an existential threat to themselves, because of the tendency toward internal conflict. Western Muslims, with the partial exception of Americans, tend to be economically less productive and somewhat parasitic on their host societies. This is not a recipe for coming domination, though it may be a recipe for segregation, as the democratic vision collapses before our eyes. I think that Robert Pape in Dying to Win has highlighted an important reality, and that is that Islamic violence seems suspiciously correlated with local political and economic disturbances. In other words, there may be material contingent conditions which are driving this ostensibly ideological conflict.

All this does not mean that I believe that Islamic violence is only a reactive force in relation to Western intervention. This is part of a worldview which denies non-Western peoples any agency. Certainly Chinese, Filipinos, and Indians might wonder how it could be that all notionally Muslim violence is derived from interactions with the West. It is more than just a simple reaction to specific sequences of events. Like Harris I do believe that there is an ideological gap between Islam and the rest, and more properly the community of Islamic societies. The reasons for this are complex, but I think one must admit that modern communication and the prominence given to Gulf Arab variants of Islam due to their economic heft play a role. More generally one must remember that Islamic movements such as that of Deoband, Wahabbism, and the Usuli ascendance in Shiism, go back to the 18th century. This was a period when Europe was rising, but the full force of colonialism had not been imposed. Additionally, many of these movements have roots further back into the pre-modern period. In other words Islamic reformism, radicalism, etc., are to some extent endogenous to Muslim societies, and probably an inevitable outcome of modernity, West or no West. Some of Harris’ critiques remove this detail, inverting his simple narrative of Islamic hostility derived from the interpretation of the Koran, to Islamic hostility being a Newtonian reactive force to Western aggression. I believe both these narratives are simple and digestible, but fundamentally wrong.

The elegance and force of Harris’ assertions can cut in several directions. On the one hand they allow his detractors to dismiss him. But it also makes him very appealing to people who are looking for a message. For example, though I disagree with Harris that science can determine human values (at least in the way I’ve seen and read him present it), I actually agree with many of the values that Harris espouses, and I appreciate the unapologetic tone he takes in this domain. Western liberal democratic values need clear-eyed champions, and there just aren’t too many of those. But, as I implied in my original post I am moderately skeptical that these values will ever be universal. I want the West to maintain its status quo, but it will probably be difficult to proactively push other societies in the same direction (though it may be that economic liberalism naturally leads to social and political liberalism). There are many things that are unjust in this world which I do not think that we have a feasible path to correct. I suspect Harris would disagree. I admire his ambition, but I think that that ambition is ultimately going to lead to failure and heartache.

So there you have it. Instead of a simple and powerful rational system, I suggest a complex and almost inscrutable tangle. Rather than grand and ambitious goals, I am offering that it is more practical to attain more modest objectives. Not sexy or romantic, but perhaps viable as more than just a rhetorical project.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Philosophy, Sam Harris 
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In my post below in regards to Sam Harris’ recent interactions on the web I reasserted by suspicion of reason. This naturally elicited curiosity, or hostility, from some. I’ve talked about this before, but the illustration to the left gets at my primary issue. When individuals are reasoning alone they often have a high degree of uncertainty as to their conclusions. But when individuals are reasoning together they seem to converge very rapidly and with great confidence upon a particular position. What’s going on here? In the second case it isn’t reason at all, but our natural human predisposition toward group conformity. There’s a huge psychological literature on this, so I won’t belabor the point. When people brandish “reason” and “rationality” explicitly I’m somewhat skeptical. If rational conclusions are so plain and self-evident why are we even asserting the primacy of reason? If something really is so clearly reasonable you usually don’t go around trumpeting how reasonable it is.

Another pitfall of reason is that it lulls use into the delusion that we have a transparent understanding of our own motivations and logic, as well as the motivation and logic of others. In my post below I explicitly stated that I disagreed with Harris on the substance of much of what he asserted and assumes in the first paragraph, but multiple people simply imputed to me his views as if they were mine! Even though I declaimed this position very early on, they simply could not generate an coherent framework where I did not agree with either them or Harris. There were only two options conceivable for them which the “reason” engine could operate upon. As I clearly did not agree with them (or so they thought), they simply injected in the axioms which would be appropriate for Sam Harris into my own box, and then began firing the appropriate propositions.

Here we have the problem that reasonable arguments and the self-evident truth of rationality is often only clear among people who already agree on everything of substance. People who agree can confidently assert the rationality and reasonableness of their arguments to those who have the exactly same perspective. So, for example, you have educated people like William F. Buckley, Jr. explaining that there is more evidence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ than that Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address (corrected). This was eminently reasonable to the circles which Buckley moved in. After all, Christ did rise from the dead, everyone knows that! Well, not really. Buckley’s son, Christopher, who is not a believer, has explained that his father had a genuinely difficult time imagining the perspective of those who did not share his beliefs on this matter.

This is not to say that reason and rationality are not without utility. These are humanity’s great cognitive jewels. But great tools can be used to various ends, and true reason and rationality are very difficult. Mathematics for example is undoubtedly true rationality, with crisp and precise inferences being derivable. But most other intellectual structures are not so clearly self-evident as mathematics. Verbal logic and reasoning are riddled with the pitfalls of cognitive bias. Because most people share the same systematic biases it is very difficult for groups of individuals engaging in self-reinforcing masturbatory ‘rationality’ discourses to perhaps step back and wonder about their motivated reasoning. Unfortunately it may be that reason emerged as a human faculty to win arguments, not resolve truth. If this is true we are much more lawyers than mathematicians in our discourse. Does this seem plausible to you? Unfortunately it does seem plausible to me.

Where does this leave us? I think we need to be skeptical of reasoned arguments. This doesn’t lead me down the path of intellectual nihilism. Reason is which leads us to truth is possible. But it may be that this is a very specialized usage of reason, which requires special conditions. ’tis far easier to seem clever than be correct.

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• Category: Science • Tags: Philosophy 
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Of all the taxonomic ranks species is the most clear, distinct, and concrete. More practically, it is the level which most naturally falls out of the patterns of life’s tree. Or does it? If the term “species concept” does not ring a bell, please see this entry. If it does, how do you define species in a non-arbitrary manner?

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• Category: Science • Tags: Philosophy, Species concepts 
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The GiveWell Blog has some suggestions for “Suggestions for the Social Sciences”. Here is the big one:

Our single biggest concern when examining research is publication bias, broadly construed. We wonder both (a) how many studies are done, but never published because people don’t find the results interesting or in line with what they had hoped; (b) for a given paper, how many different interpretations of the data were assembled before picking the ones that make it into the final version.

The best antidote we can think of is pre-registration of studies along the lines of ClinicalTrials.gov, a service of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. On that site, medical researchers announce their questions, hypotheses, and plans for collecting and analyzing data, and these are published before the data is collected and analyzed. If the results come out differently from what the researchers hope for, there’s then no way to hide this from a motivated investigator.

As the example of the NIH illustrates this is not just a social science problem, it is rife in any science which utilizes statistics. Statistical methods have become metrics to attain by any means necessary, when in reality they should be guidelines to get a better grasp of reality. The only solution to the problem of conscious and unconscious bias in statistical sciences seems to me to be radical transparency of some sort. There’s a fair amount of science ethnography which suggests that how science is done departs greatly from the clean and rational enterprise which one might presume based on the final product. The only way to clean up some of the natural human bias in the enterprise is to shed some light on it.

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• Category: Science • Tags: Philosophy, Psychology, Social Science 
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A comment from earlier this week struck a nerve with me. I’ll repost it in totality first:

I find it interesting that Fox Keller seems to be assuming that human interest in “nature” began only in the 19th century. Rather, the concept of mankind’s nature has been a topic of much interest since at least the induction of philosophical inquiry by the Greeks, and remains a topic of interest in philosophical circles in the philosophy of man. While the ancient Greeks certainly had no idea about DNA or genes, they were able to examine man’s behavior and physical characteristics and to try to determine whether or not men were born a certain way (nature) or could learn to alter some traits by choice (a great example of such an inquiry is in the Nicomachaen Ethics by Aristotle, regarding the definition and inculcation of virtue). The current debate about nature vs. nurture in a specifically genetic mode is merely a more specialized version of the exact same concept…how to differentiate what parts of “man” are immutable and what parts seem to respond to differing environments (whether internally or externally imposed). That might explain why Fox Keller is so confused about why this concept seems to be so rooted in Western thought…it’s been around for about as long as “Western thought” has!

I find it interesting how so often, people in intellectual circles today fail to consider any thought development that occurred prior to the French Revolution. After all, empiricism (scientific thought) is simply one form of philosophy, not the ONLY form of philosophy.

This general problem has been frustrating me a great deal recently. There are two dimensions. There is the temporal one, and there is the spatial one. The temporal one is implicitly addressed in the above comment. It is that a particular idea had a single genesis, and that once we can locate that genesis relatively recently in the past we can then assert that “the idea of X was conceived in the year xxxx!” Quite often the year “xxxx” is not too far off from 1800. I believe this has to do with the fact that modern Western civilization entered into a major transition and period of cultural creativity between 1750 and 1850. The Enlightenment was a “hinge of history,” the transition between the early modern Ancien Régime with its neo-feudal pretensions straight-jacketing the industry and innovation of the bourgeoisie, to our present era, riddled with Whiggish presumptions. The man of 1850 is nearer to us, 150 years in the future, than he is to that of 1750, in a deep moral-political sense.


By Whiggish, I mean the cool confidence that what we hold to be true, right, and proper, has been the direction which history inevitably takes. That progress marches on, onward and upward. Ideas which change, revolutionize, and edify, humanity were “invented,” matured, and washed over the world in our age, and will continue waxing into the future. There are clearly cases where this model holds true in the broad sense. Consider slavery, which for most of human history was a necessary evil, and sometimes even a positive good! Today we consider it evil, and only a tiny minority would admit to its utility and proprietary.

But is this even a good example? I would suggest that in some hunter-gatherer societies of the deep past slavery would have been a strange idea as well. Because of the nature of their ecology these human populations would simply not have seen the need or utility in holding another human being in bondage. I do suspect we perceive hunter-gatherer populations to be somewhat more egalitarian than they were because the ones which have persisted down to the present are the most marginalized. The Pacific Northwest Native Americans were hunter-gatherers, or more accurately fisher-gatherers, and they practiced slavery, likely because their societies had reached a level of density and complexity due to the enormous primary productivity of their home region. But I would hazard to say that the apogee of slavery as a pervasive institution lay between the age of hunter-gatherers and the modern period.

In this way history is not monotonic. From a Whiggish and broadly liberal perspective the agricultural societies were a major regression. A conception of personal autonomy unfettered by cloying institutions was not invented, it was rediscovered in the modern age. Evoked by radically different conditions, but evoked to the same ends nonetheless.

The second dimension is that of space. I am currently re-reading The Anti-Christ by Friedrich Nietzsche. Its Eurocentrism is pretty stark to me at this point (be careful, I am Europhilic, so Eurocentrism is not a term of opprobrium by me). The references to Indian religious concepts are strongly shaped through the lens fashioned by Arthur Schopenhauer (in fact, many have argued that Eastern mysticism in the West today still remains constrained by the parameters outlined by Schopenhauer’s interpretation and emphases!). As a classically educated philologist Nietzsche had an enormous broad corpus of Western history to draw upon in making his observations and inferences. But he fundamentally missed something because of his understandable ignorance of other cultures, in particular other civilizations. The societies of India and China both developed relatively distinct and independent “full service” Weltanschauung (on this huge coarse scale I am bracketing the world of Islam and Christendom into one class as “the West”). Those who rave against St. Paul’s purported heresy of elevating the slave morality generally lack an awareness of radical altruism of Mozi. Even the more conservative and pragmatic teachings of Confucius and his heirs which are rooted in the traditions of the Chinese gentry ultimately aim toward the flourishing of the many under the beneficence of Heaven. Confucianism in its classic form operationally enslaves the energies of the natural oligarchs to the peasants below and the emperor above.

Today we have at our fingertips a wealth of knowledge which was not available even to an academic like Nietzsche. And yet in the age of specialization we tunnel and burrow evermore deep into that precious earth which we have lain claim to as our domain of expertise. Many of my friends and acquaintances who espouse fashionable multiculturalism seem absolutely ignorant of the cultures which they claim to be equally are valid ways of being and knowing, except as negations of Western culture. My post Taking the end of the age seriously was a cri du cœur, attempting to make a case for genuine awareness of non-Western and non-white cultures and peoples as something more than just props for a fashionable anti-Western “social justice” political plank.

In The Blank Slate Steven Pinker bemoaned the fact that works of Hobbes and Locke loom so large in the modern curriculum. Their prominence is a testament to the fact that a science of human nature, human understanding, has not progressed much in all those centuries. Or perhaps more accurately Pinker’s view is that modern humanistic intellectuals for whatever reason choose not to acknowledge any progress beyond Locke, that expositor of the ‘blank slate.’ One of the major tasks of the modern science of humanity has been to catalog the range of human universals which seem to reemerge time and again through the interface of our preloaded software with conventional environmental inputs. A possible inference from this model is that humans should “invent” particular cultural forms and ideas repeatedly assuming a range of social environments are replicated (e.g., the city-states of the ancient Near East and pre-Columbian Meso-America are eerily similar, down to the monumental architecture). Therefore, “love,” “nationalism,” and “feminism,” may all be evoked by a given range of social complexities because of the constrained set of biobehavioral parameters which we can term “human nature” several times in history.

Going full circle, in an inchoate form the “nature vs. nurture” debate probably dates back at least to the “Great Leap Forward” ~40,000 years ago. For the purposes of scholarship narrowing the range of time and space and focusing upon one evolutionary arc of the budding, maturation, and flowering, of an idea or set of ideas seems acceptable. The problem is when one confuses one instantiation for the only instance!

Addendum: I think science is the great example of a human invention which does fit into a classic Whiggish model. I think the institution of science has been invented only one, in the 17th century in Western Europe. But most intellectual domains are not like science at all. Aristotle’s ideas on ethics are still worth reading for their primary content. His ideas about physics and biology tend to be of more historical interest.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: History, Science • Tags: Culture, Philosophy 
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Over at the Less Wrong blog there is a post, So You’ve Changed Your Mind. This portion caught my attention:

So you’ve changed your mind. Given up your sacred belief, the one that defined so much of who you are for so long.

You are probably feeling pretty scared right now.

I reflected and realized that the various issues where I’ve held relatively strong opinions and then changed my mind were generally cases where I relied on received wisdom, looked more closely, and felt that there was some misrepresentation among the orthodox gatekeepers of wisdom. But there’s one “big” issue that I guess I have changed my mind: I used to view all utility calculations on the scale of the individual, and accepted that all entities above or below the scale of the individual were useful only as a means toward individual well being. I probably wouldn’t defend this position anymore, though I think it has a logical coherency and may still be viable in some places and times. I’m not a “communitarian” or anything like that, rather, I have an impulse to just disavow these sorts of formal constructions of how best to attain and maintain human happiness in a time and space invariant sense.

Individual and social life are often best optimized by both forethought, and a simple process of trial and error through living. Those who accept the power of a priori in matters societal are often younger from what I have experienced.

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• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Philosophy 
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A boring man

Immanuel Kant is famous. You’ve probably heard of him. And you know some of his ideas, such as the categorical imperative, or have at some point started the Critique of Pure Reason (if you’re like me, you never finish it). But what do you know about his biography? I may not be able to complete a Critique of Pure Reason, but I did read Manfred Kuehn’s Kant: A Biography in the winter of 2002. From that I learned one surprising fact: Immanuel Kant in his personal beliefs was not an orthodox Christian, if he had religious sentiment at all. This surprised me because I had read elsewhere in passing that Kant was a Pietistic Lutheran. Ultimately whether Kant was religious or not was not a major issue for me, but I did update my personal factual database.

Fast forward six years to 2008. I was at a party kicking back with some philosophers (as in, people completing their doctorates), and it came up that one of them was doing their dissertation on some of Kant’s ideas. This individual happened to be Roman Catholic, and was trying to work in some religious thought. I expressed curiosity, and mentioned offhand how Kant himself was irreligious. My interlocutor expressed surprise and corrected my confusion, explaining that Kant was a devout Lutheran Christian. I shrugged and accepted the correction. I had only read one biography on Kant, and I wasn’t going to make a stand on the views of one scholar (especially when as I said I didn’t really care).

I bring this up because these issues came to the fore in my mind when Matthew Yglesias issued a correction from an earlier post where he stated that Kant was a Pietistic Lutheran. That correction was prompted by Ian Blecher, a University of Pittsburgh graduate student who is writing a dissertation on Kant. He cites the Kuehn book which I mention above. So is the Kuehn book creditable? Should I trust Blecher, or my passing acquaintance?

Analytic philosophy isn’t quite like some of the more “post-modern” inflected fields. There is usually a pretense toward the importance of objectivity and the reality of a set of concrete facts. But even here a simple trivial piece of biographical data can be confused and transmitted in error. It’s not really a big issue in and of itself, but it’s kind of disturbing that simple information like this can’t be taken for granted. It should also remind us that in the age of Google and Wikipedia true certain knowledge is still hard, and often more than a link or two away.

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• Category: Science • Tags: Philosophy 
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John Hawks and Jerry Coyne are mooting the ‘species concepts’ debate, with particular focus on recent human origins (specifically, the relationship of modern humans to Neandertals and Denisovans). Coyne, who coauthored the book Speciation and remains preoccupied with the issue in his academic work, knows of what he speaks. And of course he wouldn’t think that the discussion of species, how to delineate them, and what they are, is a sterile exercise. He has chosen to allocate a significant portion of his life to the topic. I think very few would disagree with Coyne when he contends that “Species are not arbitrary divisions of an organic continuum.” If there is one taxonomic category which has a concrete basis in reality, that would seem to be species. But, I would observe that I’m not sure that species are necessarily so clear and distinct. After all, we know that there is here and there, but where does here end, and there begin?

I’m of a reminded of the classic Zeno’s paradox:

In the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, Achilles is in a footrace with the tortoise. Achilles allows the tortoise a head start of 100 metres. If we suppose that each racer starts running at some constant speed (one very fast and one very slow), then after some finite time, Achilles will have run 100 metres, bringing him to the tortoise’s starting point. During this time, the tortoise has run a much shorter distance, say, 10 metres. It will then take Achilles some further time to run that distance, by which time the tortoise will have advanced farther; and then more time still to reach this third point, while the tortoise moves ahead. Thus, whenever Achilles reaches somewhere the tortoise has been, he still has farther to go. Therefore, because there are an infinite number of points Achilles must reach where the tortoise has already been, he can never overtake the tortoise.

The Greeks had a fascination with paradoxes because they perceived that they illuminated deep truths about the true nature of reality which we may have been blind to via sense perception. But sometimes I think that a fixation on species as the taxonomic category to rule them all confuses and calcifies the understanding of evolutionary genetic processes in the eyes of the public. Just as it is difficult to communicate that science is not a collection of facts, that it is a process and a method, so many people seem to take species categorizations as reflecting the true order of the universe. Historically this goes back to the pre-evolutionary taxonomists whose aim was to catalog all of God’s creation. It persists today explicitly among Creationists, who bandy about terms like “kinds,” but are really talking about immutable ideal entities with particular essences. Species on steroids if you will.

A fixation on the species has also confused the public on the issue of microevolution vs. macroevolution. Creationists regularly accept the former and reject the latter, despite the fact that the majority of biologists would probably assert that evolutionary processes are a unified whole, with no difference of scale. The constant usage of the term “microevolution” by the enemies of evolution seems to have even cast that term into some disrepute, I’ll admit to be shocked when a reader was confused as to the non-Creationist usage when I recommended Alan Templeton’s Population Genetics and Microevolutionary Theory. One could argue that the subject of modern population genetics is fundamentally microevolution.

Species are obviously abstractions. But I think an analogy can be made between them and physical objects. At the end of the day we know that the solidity and boundedness of physical objects are perceptions and interpretations filtered through our brains. Fundamentally they’re a bundle of particles and forces, interacting with other particles and forces. We don’t need to deny this deep reality, all the while instrumentally acknowledging the usefulness of categories of physical objections.

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• Category: Science • Tags: Biology, Philosophy, Species concepts 
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In the post below on the genetic history of India, or earlier when discussing the revisions of European prehistory, one general trend that is cropping up is that the future seems more complex and muddled than we’d presumed. This introduces the real possibility that in the foreseeable future we won’t be able to opine with any credibility about the nature of the pre-literate past, because our tools are good enough to falsify simple models, but not powerful enough to distinguish between the set of more complex models. In contrast, ten years ago when it came to the expansion of farming in Europe on offer we had simple and clear dichotomies; demic diffusion of Anatolian farmers vs. cultural diffusion of farming techniques along trade routes. Ten years ago when it came to India we are mooting the possibilities between elite transmission of Indo-European language, versus demographically significant migrations into South Asia bringing the Indo-Aryan dialects.


I think that such models are wrong, because there are major parameters left out of the picture. Now in the world we see around us the possibility of really achieving plausible consensus around a positive truth has decreased significantly, because the causal possibilities are proliferating. A model then becomes synonymous with a story. But to admit that it may be that we can’t know is still a greater improvement on the delusion that we did know.

These are general observations. R. A. Fisher’s attempt to transform evolutionary biology into a deterministic set of laws as powerful as those of thermodynamics seems to have failed; at least beyond a trivial level. The importance of history and contingency, of specific detail, muddles the general insight which we can derive in evolutionary processes. But if there is no general insight to derive then we shouldn’t be deriving it, should we? False confidence in knowledge we think we have is a far greater sin than the admission of ignorance.

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By now you’ve probably stumbled onto Wired‘s profile of Sergey Brin, and his quest to understand and overcome Parkinson’s disease through the illumination available via genomic techniques. I want to spotlight this section:

Not everyone with Parkinson’s has an LRRK2 mutation; nor will everyone with the mutation get the disease. But it does increase the chance that Parkinson’s will emerge sometime in the carrier’s life to between 30 and 75 percent. (By comparison, the risk for an average American is about 1 percent.) Brin himself splits the difference and figures his DNA gives him about 50-50 odds.

Brin, of course, is no ordinary 36-year-old. As half of the duo that founded Google, he’s worth about $15 billion. That bounty provides additional leverage: Since learning that he carries a LRRK2 mutation, Brin has contributed some $50 million to Parkinson’s research, enough, he figures, to “really move the needle.” In light of the uptick in research into drug treatments and possible cures, Brin adjusts his overall risk again, down to “somewhere under 10 percent.” That’s still 10 times the average, but it goes a long way to counterbalancing his genetic predisposition.

Do you think Brin’s chances are really 10 percent? Is he being an objective analytical machine, or is he exhibiting the ticks of systematic bias which plague wetware? This is interesting because when it comes to big-picture extrapolations individuals who come out of the mathematical disciplines (math, computer science, physics, economics, etc.) have a much better ability to construct models and project than those who come out of biology. Biology is dominated by masters of detail. The system-builders only have small niches across the sub-domains, with the exception of evolutionary biology where the system is the raison d’etre of the field. But though biologists lack strategic vision, they are often masters of tactics when on familiar ground. I would like to believe Sergey Brin’s estimate of the probability in his case, but I do wonder if biomedical scientists working on Parkinson’s are aware of powerful constraints and substantial obstacles which would force one to be less optimistic. I would of course assume that Brin though is aware of constraints, or lack thereof, because he has talked to the relevant researchers. On the other hand, would a biomedical scientist be totally candid with Sergey Brin due to even the silver of a possibility of a research grant of magnificent scope?

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• Category: Science • Tags: Biology, Personal Genomics, Philosophy, Probability 
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Michael Vassar emailed me the following in response to my indicated skepticism of rationality:

First, it seems to me that it is much easier to measure the aggregate power, across human history, of rationality, than to measure its power in individual manifestations. In aggregate, rational thought is what’s responsible for not living in mud huts that fall down frequently if not built by following one’s proper tribal rituals of mud-hut-building. I would expect that we would all agree on that. Likewise, most of what’s wrong with the world is in an important respect the result of lacking rationality. Arbitraging the potential gains from trade between Saddam and the shrub would have been more productive and rational than the Iraq war, as a trivial instance. Well then, most of the evidence regarding the impact-per-manifestation for rationality comes from dividing “everything” by “frequency of manifestation of rationality”. As one learns more it becomes increasingly appearent that X is not about Y and that most actions are not rationally derivable from their alleged (and explicitly believed) goals. This means that rationality manifestations are less common thus more powerful than is commonly believed.

What I have strongly moved away from is the attitude that classes of people such as nerds, scientists, skeptics and the like who like to describe their membership in terms of rationality are noticibly better than average at behavioral rationality, as opposed to epistemic rationality where they are obviously better than average but still just hideously bad.

I agree with Michael. I think rationality, and more specifically science, is our hope in the great sea of noise. It is after all what we depend on to enable the affluent life which we all take for granted. But on an interpersonal level I’m rather skeptical of great rational systems which very smart people attempt to convince me of, and which I was rather attracted to as a younger man. I’m also skeptical about my ability to judge the plausibility of many the rational systems which I encounter in my conversations as well. My skepticism varies a function of domain. In mathematics and the physical sciences rationality has enormous utility. In much of the life sciences rationality has some utility, but it has far less power than in the physical sciences. And so on down the great chain.

My skepticism manifests in rather concrete ways. I would rather have a drink with someone than listen to their grand theory of history, no matter how smart they are. On the other hand if they are able to illuminate the Feynman lectures with exceeding clarity because of their intelligence and knowledge I am definitely interested in passing on the alcohol to maintain my mental acuity.

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• Category: Science • Tags: Philosophy 
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David Brooks has a new column grandly titled The End of Philosophy. Heather Mac Donald at Secular Right chides him for his criticism of the New Atheists, while John Derbyshire offers guarded praise. It seems to me that the jab at the New Atheists was something of a throwaway line and I lean more toward John’s position. I give Brooks credit for attempting to inject insights from the new cognitive sciences into contemporary political commentary. Politics is a phenomenon which manifests on a grand scale, but its ultimate roots are at least in part in individual human psychology. The empirical patterns of that psychology, and its deep structure, are being elucidated by contemporary researchers (and some of the work can be found in popular works such as The Blank Slate). Humans believe they have an intuitive understanding of our species’ psychology and nature in a manner which is unlike our mystification by much of the physical sciences. And that belief is rooted in a reality. Nevertheless, on the margins there is a great deal of fine-grained description which is open to exploration by systematic scientific methods, and though there are many human cognitive universals, there are also critical individual differences which individuals are often ignorant of because of their own peculiar position. The armchair is appealing, but it does not suffice to construct an accurate and precise map of reality.
My friend John Schwenkler says in response to Brooks’ column:

But in addition to all of this, I think it’s important to see that the role of servant to the high priest of emotion involves a good deal more than mere bowing and scraping. Even if we credit the emotions with the kind of role that Brooks follows Haidt and others in envisioning for them, that still leaves to be done all the work of systematizing all those axiomatic intuitions into a rationally cohesive structure; of working out the tensions, lacks, and – perhaps – outright contradictions among them; of developing a robust theoretical understanding of the good that respects those intuitions even as it moves beyond them toward an articulation of the deeper principles that make them true in the first place; and so on….

I think the main disagreement that I might have with John is the pragmatic feasibility of a grand systematic structure, as opposed to my own sense of there being many ad hoc localized moral structures to address issues on a case-by-case basis. Most everyone can agree that conscious reflection and reason, and emotively driven intuitive and reflexive response, have roles in the cognition of morality. The devil lay in the details of the relative weights, and how the two parameters relate together. This is one issue where I think individual differences come into play. In The Myth Of The Rational Voter Bryan Caplan lays out copious social science data on human irrationality, or more precisely systematic biases in thinking. But Caplan also observes that systematic biases likely rooted in intuition and reflex vary across the population. In short the more intelligent, for one, tend to be closer approximations to rational calculators than the less intelligent. My suspicion that only relatively modest plural moral structures are possible, as opposed to an integrated and coherent grand system, is due to the fact that I simply find it unlikely that most humans are have the intellectual disposition to engage in deep and concerted moral reasoning which involves more than a small number of propositions.
This does not of course mean that reason has no place. And intellectual elites are capable of moving the Zeitgeist, but that may be less due to the power of their reasoning faculties than their social status and the respect and authority which so accrues upon them. In the end Brooks’ piece was badly titled. A discipline of moral science which draws upon contemporary philosophy, cognitive science and biology, is simply a return to the roots of philosophy before the time when natural philosophy evolved into science. Perhaps “The Return Of Natural Philosophy” would be more apt?

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Ideology, Science • Tags: Philosophy, Politics, Psychology 
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expethics.jpg If the trolley problem is not known to you, I would recommend Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Experiments in Ethics. It is one of those works which combines brevity with density, a feast of ideas laid out before you which is nevertheless consumable in a minimal span of time. And Appiah is an engaging writer to boot, switching seamlessly between informal and elevated registers. I suspect the last is a reflection of his interactions with younger people in the form of graduate students in concert with his British philosophical training.
In Experiments in Ethics Appiah takes the tack of an experimental philosopher in exploring the shoals of human moral sense and sensibility. There are three threads which work their way through narrative: history of philosophy, empirical results from various disciplines which speak to ethical questions and finally the Big Questions of the good and right life. These threads are naturally not clear and distinct, fading into each other. Appiah argues plausibly that experimental philosophy with its diverse toolkit is actually more in keeping with the spirit of the discipline as it has been practiced for most of its history. What we know of as philosophy is an orphaned creature, shorn of its innumerable daughter disciplines, the natural and human sciences. As I am already one who accepts the proposition that understanding human nature through a priori means is a fool’s errand Appiah’s brief against the universality of the reflective insights, intuition and introspection of professional philosophers finds a ready audience.
Yet even though Experiments in Ethics proselytizes for novel if true & tested methods to revitalize the most ancient of intellectual endeavors, Appiah nevertheless remains focused on questions which philosophers traditionally ask. In concert with cognitive scientists experimental philosophers seem to have rather convincingly toppled the methodological presuppositions as to the powers of reason of individual scholars. But at the end of the day this is a case of being unable to put Humpty-Dumpty back together. Even though the emperor has no clothes at least he had some moral clarity. After ripping through the pretensions of contemporary wisdom it seems that we’re left back at the doorstep of Nicomachean Ethics. But is that truly so bad?
Related: For a meatier review, I recommend Morality Studies by the cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Philosophy 
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com"