Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Edge Question '08: Changing Minds

This year's question from Edge to various scientists is: 'What have you changed your mind about? Why?' I haven't read all the answers, but here are a few that stood out (some for being intrinsically interesting, and others which call out for philosophical attention).

1. Geoffrey Miller has become more optimistic about uncovering human nature, thanks to the realization that there are plenty of 'local experts' already in every walk of life:
Almost all of them know important things about human nature that behavioural scientists have not yet described, much less understood. Marine drill sergeants know a lot about aggression and dominance. Master chess players know a lot about if-then reasoning. Prostitutes know a lot about male sexual psychology. School teachers know a lot about child development. Trial lawyers know a lot about social influence. The dark continent of human nature is already richly populated with autochthonous tribes, but we scientists don't bother to talk to these experts.

2. Helena Cronin explains why she's come to see sex differences as better explained by differences in variance than in averages. (Now a familiar, if still underappreciated, theme.)

3. Jonathan Haidt defends sports and fraternities:
By the time I became a professor I had developed the contempt that I think is widespread in academe for any institution that brings young men together to do groupish things. Primitive tribalism, I thought. Initiation rites, alcohol, sports, sexism, and baseball caps turn decent boys into knuckleheads. I'd have gladly voted to ban fraternities, ROTC, and most sports teams from my university.

But not anymore. Three books convinced me that I had misunderstood such institutions because I had too individualistic a view of human nature.

Haidt sees modern Westerners as "bees without hives", lost in "a world so free that it [leaves] many of us gasping for connection, purpose, and meaning." But can't we find a way to forge meaningful connections without degrading into a knuckleheaded mob? Primitive tribalism might make us happy, or satisfy some urges of human nature, but I don't see that this makes it any less contemptible. (Not that I support "banning" anything, of course. If people want to degrade themselves, that's their prerogative. But I sure wouldn't want to encourage these cultural elements.)

4. Sherry Turkle has grown increasingly suspicious of society's love affair with technology:
A female graduate student came up to me after a lecture and told me that she would gladly trade in her boyfriend for a sophisticated humanoid robot as long as the robot could produce what she called "caring behavior." She told me that "she needed the feeling of civility in the house and I don't want to be alone." She said: "If the robot could provide a civil environment, I would be happy to help produce the illusion that there is somebody really with me." What she was looking for, she told me, was a "no-risk relationship" that would stave off loneliness; a responsive robot, even if it was just exhibiting scripted behavior, seemed better to her than an demanding boyfriend.

Isn't that what pets are for? What new concerns do robotic "friends" raise? (Is it just that the illusion of love may be more compelling, the pretense so satisfying a substitute that one is less motivated to pursue the real thing?)

5. Simon Baron-Cohen has a trite piece on "equality", or rather, the fact that people are not all the same. I can't discern any point to the article once we distinguish between qualitative (descriptive) vs. moral (normative) equality.

6. Finally, Thomas Metzinger offers his thoughts on moral philosophy. First, we have (what looks like) the gratuitous assumption of hedonism:
shouldn’t we have a new ethics of consciousness — one that does not ask what a good action is, but that goes directly to the heart of the matter, asks what we want to do with all this new knowledge and what the moral value of states of subjective experience is?

Why "states of subjective experience", rather than "states of affairs" more generally? (There's nothing new about getting to "the heart of the matter" in this way, of course; it's called 'value theory', and something consequentialists and others have been interested in for some time now!) Maybe Metzinger is making the more modest point that a growing ability to manipulate X-states provides us with reason to work out how to evaluate the various X-states. But that is not such a revolutionary suggestion.

And then the nihilism:
Here is where I have changed my mind. There are no moral facts. Moral sentences have no truth-values. The world itself is silent, it just doesn’t speak to us in normative affairs — nothing in the physical universe tells us what makes an action a good action or a specific brain-state a desirable one. Sure, we all would like to know what a good neurophenomenological configuration really is, and how we should optimize our conscious minds in the future. But it looks like, in a more rigorous and serious sense, there is just no ethical knowledge to be had. We are alone. And if that is true, all we have to go by are the contingent moral intuitions evolution has hard-wired into our emotional self-model.

This is a whopping non-sequitur. "We are alone", therefore no choices are more or less reasonable or worthy than any others. Huh. That's not any kind of logic I'm familiar with. (Though I suppose nihilists can't believe in good reasoning anyway, so maybe he's more consistent than I give him credit for.)

Seriously, though, why would you ever look to "the physical universe" for normative insight in the first place? Obviously that's not going to work. If there are moral truths at all, this will be due to the nature of rationality, not the nature of the world. And Metzinger hasn't offered any reasons at all for doubting that some ethical systems are appreciably more reasonable or coherent than others. He just asserts, without argument, that "all we have to go by are the contingent moral intuitions evolution has hard-wired into" us. Shoddy thinking.


  1. Miller discovered contemporary anthropology, Haidt encountered a reverse role version of the Stepford Wives, and Metzinger read some Dostoevsky. Crazy year for academia.

  2. I think Geoffrey Miller is wrong - no good future in understanding humanity lies in asking those local experts.
    Their views of the world are pragmatic templates and sets of easy ideas that somewhat simulate normal behaviour in that environment. Like a drill seargent who's theory might be 'women can't take it' - it may be a useful theory (for him) but it is crippiling for academia to take it on.

    Of course if one just wants a sufficient answer to a specific question then asking them might well still be better than asking a academic - but thats not really understanding.

    To me true understanding human nature comes from first principles. Somthing more like STANISLAS DEHEANE response.

    I think I agree with you on the rest

    I am also right behind Richard dawkins (on flip flopping being not a bad thing) - as I have argued here before

    I am also with NICHOLAS CARR in that I htink many people nievely think the internt is all about decentralization - not that it has not promoted that but that it could easily start to promote the opposite.

    I think STEVE CONNOR has a point - we really do suck as a species - we are outstandingly bad at cooperating to avoid disasters. My hope related to the previous point is actually that China can slap some sense into us.


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