Archive for Philosophy and Logic

Nov
21

Compassionate at birth

Posted by: | Comments (0)

Genesis 4
9 And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

One of the takeaways from the Genesis account of Cain’s murder of his brother is, yes, you are. And we are wired that way, suggest experiments involving young children. Cognitive scientist Paul Bloom, author of Just Babies told Inquiring Minds last week that a basic sense of morality likely developed via Darwinian evolution:

“I think all babies are created equal in that all normal babies—all babies without brain damage—possess some basic foundational understanding of morality and some foundational moral impulses,” says Bloom on the Inquiring Minds podcast.

The question is how much of our moral sensibility is innate and how much is acculturation? By studying babies before they receive instruction and language, Bloom and other researchers hope to get at that answer. Using simple puppet plays , researchers find that babies and toddlers exhibit a sense of fairness, and a preference for “helping” characters. They avoid “hindering” ones.

Interestingly, as the toddlers get a little older, this sense of fairness seems to morph into pure egalitarianism—at least when it comes to distributing other people’s stuff. “There’s a lot of research suggesting that when it comes to divvying up resources that strangers possess, they are socialists—they like to share things equally,” says Bloom.

When asked to hand out treats to other people or to stuffed animals, 3- and 4-year-old children will divide resources equally, if at all possible. Even if they know that one person deserves more of a resource than another because she worked harder for it, they will still opt for equal distribution. In a study of 5-to-8-year-olds, when it was impossible to divide resources equally—for example, if the children were given five erasers to distribute to two people—they would even throw the extra eraser in the trash instead of giving more to one person than the other.

“But this compassion and this helping, it all pertains to the baby’s own group,” says Bloom. They are less naturally generous with out-group members.

By our natures, we strongly value those around us over strangers. And to the extent that you and I don’t, to the extent that you and I might recognize that somebody suffering, I don’t know, from the Ebola virus in Africa, is a life just as valuable as those of our closest friends and family, that’s an extraordinary cultural accomplishment. And it’s something that’s not in the genes. It’s not what we’re born with.

What strikes me is how this research echoes something paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey said about Turkana Boy in speculating about the development of compassion in early Man:

Bipedalism carried an enormous price, where compassion was what you paid your ticket with. You simply can’t abandon somebody who’s incapacitated because the rest will abandon you next time it comes to be your turn.

There but for the grace of God. Compassion has an evolutionary advantage, Leakey suggests. Perhaps it is what helped us rise above the law of the jungle.

The irony is that a libertarian-leaning conservative posted the Mother Jones article on Bloom — “Science Says Your Baby Is a Socialist” — to a Facebook forum as a tweak to lefties (socialist babies, I suppose). In fact, it would seem that a movement that sneers at being your brother’s keeper in organizing human society is hardly an accomplishment, cultural, political, or evolutionary.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

Comments (0)
Oct
31

The politics of misdirection

Posted by: | Comments (0)

There is a scene early in Die Hard With a Vengeance where Jeremy Irons’ character, Simon, posing as a crazy revolutionary, gives the Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson characters a riddle over the phone:

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?

After fumbling for a moment trying to do multiplication in their heads, the two realize it’s a trick question. There’s only one guy. The rest is misdirection.

Read More→

Oct
29

For People

Posted by: | Comments (1)

In the flood of campaign email and glimpsed web pages yesterday, someone commented on a campaign using the slogan (IIRC), “For Education. For People.” Education has become a near ubiquitous Democratic theme this year.

But what was eye-catching was the stark simplicity of “For People.” And the fact that somebody thought being for people is a snappy message for contrasting a Democrat with the opposition. “For People” sounds so bland, yet asks a stinging question. If your opponents are are not for people, what are they for?

I like it. In an age when one major party believes money is speech and corporations are people, you have to wonder. In an economic system striving to turn people into commodities and every human interaction into a transaction, what is the economy for? In a surveillance state that treats citizens as future suspects, what is freedom for? In an election where red states view voters as unindicted felons, what is democracy for?

Republicans themselves must be asking what they are really for, given the rebranding campaign released a month ago:

The party of Cruz and Ryan and Gohmert wants you to know Republicans really are normal people. No, really.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

Comments (1)

Psychologists at the Yale Mind and Development Lab explore the human tendency to believe that “everything happens for a reason.” Not just religious believers think this, either. They found many atheists believe it as well:

This tendency to see meaning in life events seems to reflect a more general aspect of human nature: our powerful drive to reason in psychological terms, to make sense of events and situations by appealing to goals, desires and intentions. This drive serves us well when we think about the actions of other people, who actually possess these psychological states, because it helps us figure out why people behave as they do and to respond appropriately. But it can lead us into error when we overextend it, causing us to infer psychological states even when none exist. This fosters the illusion that the world itself is full of purpose and design.

That maybe puts too fine a point on it. People don’t just do this in relation to others and to events. Growing up, I heard the quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Man is a tool-making animal.” Man is also a pattern-seeking animal. We see faces in ink blots, madonnas in toast and in stains on buildings. We find animal shapes in the clouds and in the stars. We read messages in palms and tea leaves. And after a tragedy, we ask reflexively, “Why did this happen?” As if there is a why.

Read More→

Comments (4)
Oct
04

America’s Dunning-Kruger defect

Posted by: | Comments Comments Off

The two middle-aged aged women spoke with an English accent familiar from Monty Python sketches.

“Look at that one there,” said the first. “It’s got a swastika on it.”

I was traveling in Europe after college and visiting the Louvre in Paris. I was standing in the Roman antiquities section beside two British tourists. Before us, a glass case filled with ornate silver bowls and trays – ancient relics covered with intricate designs.

“Look at that one there,” said the first. “It’s got a swastika on it. Must be German.”

Her companion read the little white card lying in front of the tray, and in a non sequitur I remember to this day, said, “‘Donated by friends of the Louvre.’ Well, there you are.”

A polite-sounding name for this is the Dunning-Kruger effect, “a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.” Here, let John Cleese himself explain it:

Read More→

Comments Comments Off
Sep
18

Changing everything

Posted by: | Comments Comments Off

Naomi Klein appeared last night on All In with Chris Hayes to discuss her new book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate.” The logical extension of her earlier work, Klein called last night for a reevaluation of “the values that govern our society.” She writes, “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war … there are policies that can lower emissions quickly, and successful models all over the world for doing so. The biggest problem is that we have governments that don’t believe in governing.”
I haven’t read it yet, but I wanted to comment on the backlash we are sure to see.

Klein believes trying to address climate alone — as the environmental movement has — gets the issue wrong. As the Guardian put it, “[I]t’s about capitalism – not carbon – the extreme anti-regulatory version that has seized global economies since the 1980s and has set us on a course of destruction and deepening inequality.” Klein told Chris Hayes, “It’s not the end of the world. It’s just the end of that highly individualistic, zero-sum game kind of thinking.”

This, of course, will set lots of hair on fire on the right. In fact, Hayes led off the segment with a few choice quotes from some spokesmen on the right who believe climate change is a left-wing conspiracy. Then there is Rush Limbaugh: “That’s what global warming is. It’s merely a platform to advance communism.”

Please. I was born during the second Red Scare. I was a tot when they launched Sputnik. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. That was half a century ago.

A quarter of a century after that, the Berlin Wall fell and American conservatives declared that Saint Ronald of Reagan had slain the Evil Empire and won the Cold War. And a quarter of a century after that, they’re still looking for commies in woodpiles and for Reds under their beds before they cower beneath the sheets.

Last year, even Forbes gave communism all the relevance of a Renaissance festival.

Not even the Chinese are communists anymore. Have you seen Shanghai lately? China has about cornered the free market in glass-and-steel skyscrapers and the cranes and concrete to build them. They sure as hell cornered a chunk of investment by Republican donors.

It took most of the 1990s, but with the former Soviet Pacific fleet rusting away at the docks in Vladivostok, even the Pentagon figured out communism wasn’t the Red Menace anymore. It took Russia less than a decade after the Wall fell to revert to the oligarchy it was before the Bolshevik Revolution – peasants and plutocrats. Which is where we’re headed, if you haven’t noticed.

If conservatives’ would-be leaders are so worried about the U.S. emulating the Roosskies, they might want to stop licking the boots of our domestic plutocrats. They might want to get their heads out of their anti-communism and join the rest of us in addressing the challenges of the twenty-first century.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

Comments Comments Off
Sep
11

An economic cult

Posted by: | Comments Comments Off

Paul Krugman this morning writes about “the inflation cult,” doomsaying pundits and supposed economic experts who, economic rain or shine, predict that a steep rise in inflation is coming anytime now and, quite reliably, get it wrong time after time.

Part of that appeal is clearly political; there’s a reason why Mr. Santelli yells about both inflation and how President Obama is giving money away to “losers,” why Mr. Ryan warns about both a debased currency and a government that redistributes from “makers” to “takers.” Inflation cultists almost always link the Fed’s policies to complaints about government spending. They’re completely wrong about the details — no, the Fed isn’t printing money to cover the budget deficit — but it’s true that governments whose debt is denominated in a currency they can issue have more fiscal flexibility, and hence more ability to maintain aid to those in need, than governments that don’t.

And anger against “takers” — anger that is very much tied up with ethnic and cultural divisions — runs deep. Many people, therefore, feel an affinity with those who rant about looming inflation; Mr. Santelli is their kind of guy. In an important sense, I’d argue, the persistence of the inflation cult is an example of the “affinity fraud” crucial to many swindles, in which investors trust a con man because he seems to be part of their tribe. In this case, the con men may be conning themselves as well as their followers, but that hardly matters.

This tribal interpretation of the inflation cult helps explain the sheer rage you encounter when pointing out that the promised hyperinflation is nowhere to be seen. It’s comparable to the reaction you get when pointing out that Obamacare seems to be working, and probably has the same roots.

Not just economists, but the country (and perhaps the entire Republican Party) seems to be in the grip of an economic cult concerned with much more than inflation — that’s just a symptom. As Krugman suggests, ethnic and cultural (and class) divisions factor into it. Digby has written repeatedly (and just yesterday) that many of the same people “have always been wrong about everything.” And yet, their followers keep listening. Conservatism never fails. It is unfalsifiable. I wrote last week that the Koch brothers’ evangelism for the their libertarian Kochification Church resembles recruiting techniques used by cults.

Hey, let’s start a meme.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

Comments Comments Off
Sep
09

If Dogs Could Talk

Posted by: | Comments (3)

Don’t you like a good new fashioned dust up between two biologists who you would expect to agree on most things? A recent hypothetical draws a strong reaction which draws an even more outlandish hypothetical. Biologist, author, blogger and atheist PZ Myers recently wrote in a post titled The only abortion argument that counts:

We can make all the philosophical and scientific arguments that anyone might want, but ultimately what it all reduces to is a simple question: do women have autonomous control of their bodies or not? Even if I thought embryos were conscious, aware beings writing poetry in the womb (I don’t, and they’re not), I’d have to bow out of any say in the decision the woman bearing responsibility has to make.

Which drew this reaction from Richard Dawkins:

To which PZ responds by drawing up an even more fantastic hypothetical Read More→

Sep
08

Privileged lanes

Posted by: | Comments Comments Off

London bicycle courier, Oxford Street
Photo: ProfDEH, Wikimedia Commons

Can’t stop thinking about Ferguson, MO.

Over at A Little More Sauce, jdowsett draws an analogy between bicycle riding and white privilege that doesn’t rely on impugning anyone’s character. He very cleverly uses the highway infrastructure’s bias towards cars over bicycles to illuminate how the social infrastructure is skewed in ways many rarely notice.

I can imagine that for people of color life in a white-majority context feels a bit like being on a bicycle in midst of traffic. They have the right to be on the road, and laws on the books to make it equitable, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are on a bike in a world made for cars. Experiencing this when I’m on my bike in traffic has helped me to understand what privilege talk is really about.

Read More→

Comments Comments Off

I have long been wary of the fetish among the business and political classes for efficiency. It’s a frequent rationale for bureaucratic decisions that seem to come at the expense of living, breathing people.

A Good Read

Thomas Frank (“What’s the Matter with Kansas?”) speaks with Barry Lynn at Salon on the reemergence of monopolies in America. Lynn describes how, rather than overturning laws on the books for decades, the Reagan administration changed the way the laws regulating monopolies were enforced.

Yes, that was what was so brilliant about what they did. The Department of Justice establishes guidelines that detail how regulators plan to interpret certain types of laws. So the Reagan people did not aim to change the antimonopoly laws themselves, because that would have sparked a real uproar. Instead they said they planned merely to change the guidelines that determine how the regulators and judiciary are supposed to interpret the law.

The Justice Dept. went from raising its eyebrows in the 1960s at mergers that concentrated a few percent of a market to waving though deals involving 80-90% of it.

Read More→