Tuesday, September 22, 2009


George Will on Sunday wrote a short article about the lessons of our failed nation building in Bosnia. If nation-building could ever be successful, we'd expect it to work in Bosnia:
If Bosnia -- situated in placid and prosperous Europe; recipient of abundant aid and attention from the United States, the European Union, NATO and the United Nations -- is so resistant to nation-building, what are sensible expectations for a similar project in remote, mountainous, tribal Afghanistan?
The lesson should be that we didn't simply make the wrong decisions and now we've learned from it and we'll do it all correctly the next time. The lesson really should be that nation-building has never succeeded, and we really don't know what would be necessary to make it succeed and may never know. Even with models of successful nations like the the US or Western Europe, it's still not quite clear what it is that makes these countries successful, let alone what another country would have to do to get there.

On a different topic, Radley Balko yesterday wrote an article at Reason Magazine about Shaken Baby Syndrome. Doctors used to be confident that a triad of symptoms in infant deaths were ironclad evidence that the child had been just prior to death been shaken violently enough to kill the baby. This led to about 200 convictions per year mostly for murder based almost entirely on autopsies which showed the presence of the triad of symptoms. But now those convictions are all suspect:
Where the near-unanimous opinion once held that the SBS triad of symptoms could only result from a shaking with the force equivalent of a fall from a three-story to four-story window, or a car moving at 25 mph to 40 mph (depending on the source), research completed in 2003 using lifelike infant dolls suggested that vigorous human shaking produces bleeding similar to that of only a 2-foot to 3-foot fall. Furthermore, the shaking experiments failed to produce symptoms with the severity of those typically seen in SBS deaths.
SBS misdiagnosis is part of a more general problem, namely that we've quite overrated the reliability of much of our forensic science and thought we had ironclad evidence when in fact such "evidence" had never been subject to rigorous scientific review. We're starting to reevaluate the criteria which we've used to convict suspects.

Both of these are stories of overconfidence quite out of keeping with the available knowledge, and in both cases such overconfidence ruined many lives (also, the hubristic were not among the victims). We all make mistakes and those little foibles make life interesting and tend to be our food for growth. But when it comes to making decisions on great matters in which many lives are at stake, going forward boldly with untested ideas can only be described as hubris. We should remember these stories when we think about the grand plans that people are proposing to make our lives better.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Uploading our brains to computers

Bryan Caplan today mentioned the idea of achieving immortality via uploading one's brain to a computer. I've heard others propose such a concept, such as Ray Kurzweil, or seen it appear in fiction, such as in William Gibson, or in Stephen King's Lawnmower Man. It's a tantalizing idea.

Nonetheless, based on what I said earlier about consciousness and teleportation, my biggest fear is when you upload your brain, you won't really upload your consciousness.

In other words, imagine one day in the future, you're sitting there in a chair, with some brain-reader strapped to your head. It reads your brain, uploads it, and then voila, there's now some sort of digital intelligence newly created within the computer's memory. But you're still sitting in the chair, looking at the computer as this computer intelligence is greeting you. And even worse, this computer intelligence is absolutely convinced that it is the true you, and that the physical person sitting in the chair is an obsolete copy that needs to be deleted. From this point, one could spin some sort of sci-fi horror story about an omnipresent computer intelligence trying to kill you because it thinks it's the real you, which might make for an interesting story, but is not a very appealing reality.

If technology is going to give us virtual reality, it seems likely that there is going to have to be some sort of physical continuity for the brain In other words, we have to figure out ways to prolong and preserve our bodies, especially our nervous system, in order to achieve some sort of immortality, if such a thing is at all possible.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Otanes the Persian, a man after my own heart

I've been reading Herodotus' Histories, and there's a short interesting story about a Persian named Otanes. A group of magi (priests) briefly seized control of Persia in the 6th century BC. Seven conspirators, including Otanes and Darius led an insurrection which led to Darius becoming sole monarch of Persia. After the insurrection, but before Darius had been declared King, according to Herodotus, there was a debate among the conspirators about what new government Persia should be given. Otanes favored turning the government over to the Persian People (Book III ch 80-83). He was overruled, since amazingly, these seven conspirators deliberating on whether they should forgo power or seize it for themselves, decide they want power themselves, and they side with Darius who favors a sole monarchy. After deciding this, the next question is who among them is to be the sole monarch, and it's here were Otanes really shines through. Otanes says that he doesn't want power, and that he will withdraw if they leave him and his descendants be. According to Herodotus, Otanes says:
Fellow partisans, it is plain that one of us must be made king (whether by lot, or entrusted with the office by the choice of the Persians, or in some other way), but I shall not compete with you; I desire neither to rule nor to be ruled; but if I waive my claim to be king, I make this condition, that neither I nor any of my descendants shall be subject to any one of you. (Book III ch 83)
The conspirators agree to this, and apparently the agreement is honored down to Herodotus' own day--Otanes and his descendants are given complete autonomy.

Otanes is definitely a man after my own heart. It really makes me wonder how many people, given the choice between ruling others or to be free from the rule of others, would choose the latter. I suspect not many, but I really don't know.

Interestingly there's sort of a related tidbit in Book V about freedom and prosperity. After the Athenians have liberated themselves from their tyrants, with the help of Lacedaemonians, the Lacedaemonians start to grow worried about the Athenians:
the Lacedaemonians, when they ... saw the Athenians increasing in power and in no way inclined to obey them, realized that if the Athenians remained free, they would be equal in power with themselves, but that if they were held down under tyranny, they would be weak and ready to serve a master (Book V ch 91)
The Lacedaemonians were realizing that people left free grow both more prosperous and more powerful. Thus, just as Darius would want to restrict his people's freedom to insure that his people don't threaten his power, so the Lacedaemonians realized they would rather had left Athens oppressed to insure that the Athenians didn't threaten their power.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Are American filmgoers so opposed to Darwin?

A new British Charles Darwin biopic called Creation premiered at the Toronto film festival last week and is set to be released in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and three other European countries over the next several months, but it isn't going to be released in the US. The question is why.

The British Daily Telegraphy thinks it's because the movie is too controversial for American audiences:
according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution .... The film has sparked fierce debate on US Christian websites .... "The film has no distributor in America. It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it's because of what the film is about."

The film stars Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany and is about the struggle between his religious beliefs and his evolutionary theory. The Daily Telegraph says that "Early reviews have raved about the film," but Rotten Tomatoes lists only two reviewers, who are split: one liking it, the other not. Rotten Tomatoes, though, doesn't include the Hollywood Reporter review, which is quite positive.

John Scalzi has a different theory. He thinks it's because the movie just isn't that sexy and exciting:
it may be that a quiet story about the difficult relationship between an increasingly agnostic 19th Century British scientist and his increasingly devout wife, thrown into sharp relief by the death of their beloved 10-year-old daughter, performed by mid-list stars, is not exactly the sort of film that’s going to draw in a huge winter holiday crowd, regardless of whether that scientist happens to be Darwin or not, and that these facts are rather more pertinent, from a potential distributor’s point of view.

This latter theory has some plausibility to it. Controversy is not a good excuse not to release a film since controvery tends to bring bring in the crowds. If Christians got all upset about this movie and it made some press, then people would start piling in, just as people piled in to see The Last Temptation of Christ and Life of Brian.

Something similar happened before with the American release of Battle Royale. It was a Japanese movie set in a dystopic future in which randomly selected school children are placed on an island with weapons and forced to kill each other off for the entertainment of tv audiences. It never got an American release, and people assumed it was because it was too violent or controversial. Turns out the problem is that the Japanese studio and the American distributors couldn't come to an agreement. The Japanese wanted a major American release akin to any big budget American action movie: opening in lots of theaters with lots of promotion and such. But the American distributors would only give it a more limited release, thinking it wouldn't make much money because it was a foreign language film. Foreign language films seldom do very well in the US. For this reason, they couldn't get come to an agreement and the film was never released here in the US.

It's possible something like that is going on with Creation, where the British producers want a wide release and the American distributors think it would only be worth a limited release. It seems implausible that the film wouldn't do fine with a limited release in a couple big cities like New York, LA, San Francisco and other cities which have a lot of small theaters specifically catering to independent and foreign films like this.

Nonetheless, it will be too bad if this film doesn't get an American release, even though, I admit, I probably wouldn't go see it, since it really doesn't look like my cup of tea.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pain Free Animals & Utilitarian Calculus

Robin Hanson has an interesting commentary on the possibility of using animals that are genetically modified not to feel pain for animal testing and livestock. The idea is that people would have fewer moral qualms about eating meat from an animal that didn't experience the pain of slaughter and that people would approve of animal testing if the animals didn't suffer.

This reminds us of Utilitarianism. According to the Utilitarians nothing is in itself good or bad. An action's moral value is determined by the consequences. And we evaluate the consequences by the quantity of the resultant pleasure and pain, since these are the only absolute measures of virtue. If something causes, in the aggregate, across all persons that it affects, more pleasure than pain, then it's good, but if more pain than pleasure then it's bad. This means that we could skew this Utilitarian calculus in our favor by making something entirely pain free. Thus, it would be impossible to do anything bad to a thing that feels no pain (so long as we assume that no one else is affected).

A separate survey gives us some insight into home open to thinking of things in Utilitarian terms. According to this survey which asked people whether they'd be okay with creating pain-free animals for animal testing, people are pretty equally split, about half favoring, half opposing. People who are opposed to cruelty to animals altogether (vegetarians and the animal protection community) are most strongly opposed to it. I think many people probably oppose it simply because they oppose genetic modification entirely. The results are not unambiguous. For example those most opposed to animal cruelty when asked, if pain-free animals already were around, would a scientist "be morally obliged to use a pain-free animal in an otherwise painful experiment," a significant majority agreed.

The idea of a pain-free animal does provide an interesting thought experiment for Utilitarianism: if you have a person who can't experience pain is it impossible to do anything bad to them? I don't think this undermines Utilitarianism, but it does provide an example to chew upon, especially if Utilitarians want to think upon correlative issues like, how do we formulate ethics for the treatment of the dead?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Forget the "We Shall Never Forget" mantra

I concur with Will Wilkinson. There's nothing healthy in this insistence that we never forget 9/11:
Those most insistent that we “never forget” 9/11 are those who need our continuing collective complicity in the erosion of our civil liberties, in the weakening of the rule of law, in the unjustified invasion of unrelated foreign countries and the murder of their people, in the policy of state-sanctioned torture.
Yes, there are many people who died on that day, and we should remember these people. But, we need to move the event into the back of our collective consciousness, where it no longer guides our actions. No person ever grew psychologically healthy by dwelling on past misfortunes. Memory of 9/11 has only led to exaggerated fear of terrorism, which is this county is a nominal threat. It has also led to erosion of civil liberties, invasion of privacy, and still continuing military aggression. Let's put 9/11 behind us.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Why are guys attracted to crazy girls?

Glamour blogger Shallon Lester brought this issue up last week. Why are guys sometimes attracted to those emotionally unstable, unpredictable women? She suggests,
I think guys secretly like the drama. Maybe it makes them feel alive or brings some action to their otherwise dull lives. Or, perhaps it reminds them of the chaos of their own family life as a child ... Or, they could just be weak guys who like being dominated and repressed.

Lauren Fritsky, in response suggests possibly, "men need to feel needed" and and are with such crazy women to boost self-esteem.

Ami Angelowicz, to one up them all, adds five possible theories (ht Glenn Reynolds)

1. Men love to be heroes. They love to “fix” things. It makes them feel needed, important, and feeds the male ego. Who makes a better damsel in distress than a poor, defenseless lunachic? Note to guys: a woman is not like a house. Fixer-uppers do not usually turn out to be a wise investment. If you need to fix something, there are plenty of us normal single girls out there who need some light bulbs changed.
2. If she’s crazy day to day, chances are she’s crazy in the sack. But men don’t really care about sex that much, do they? Wait … I think they might.
3. He has mommy issues. If a guy had a dysfunctional mother (or primary family member) he may not actually be aware that his lady’s behavior is NOT normal. There’s no shame in going to therapy and working that stuff out.
4. Need to figure out your future career? Money troubles? Feeling anxious or depressed? Having a GF with problems much worse than your own is a wonderful distraction. Warning: she will only make your problems worse.
5. He is not ready for a real intimate and committed relationship, and we all pick the wrong kind of person when we’re not ready. As soon as he envisions a lifetime of cracked-out antics, chances are he’ll be on the road to Mrs. Rightville, ASAP

As a guy who has in the past been attracted to some crazy chicks I think I'm in a position to provide insight. From my perspective, I think Shallon Lester gets closest to the truth.

First, I should say, that this is not something confined to just guys. People in general are attracted to "crazy" people, in the sense that we're talking about here (see the movie Withnail & I for a perfect example of a crazy guy like this). The key to this type craziness is a lack of inhibitions which is what leads to the mood swings, the unpredictable actions, and the inability to really make long term commitments. Such people are attractive because they're more interesting, more exciting, more unpredictable. People who deviate from expectations are just plain more interesting and we're attracted to them.

Many people are scared by such unpredictable people, but others are simultaneously attracted to them. The men who are attracted to these crazy chicks (like me when I was younger) are definitely not going to be more dominant personalities ("more spineless," one might say) and are also probably going to be more open to novel experiences. And, I sort of agree with Angelowicz on number 5: if a guy starts thinking long term with a crazy girlfriend he's going to have to think either that he can somehow tame her, without losing the excitement of her crazyiness (unlikely, but a guy can still dream right?) or he's going to drop her for someone more stable.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Persian Strategy: Deliberating while drunk

I’ve just been reading Herodutus’ Histories. In his discussion of the Persians, he writes (Book I, chapter 133) that they decide upon important matters by first getting drunk and debating and coming to a decision while drunk. Then, the next day when they are sober they deliberate and decide whether they want to stick to the decision made. If they decide yes, they go through with it. If they decide against it, they drop it, and ostensibly go back to square one. He also says they do the opposite, if they initially deliberate sober, they’ll make their final decision drunk.

I don’t know whether Herodotus is reliable on this bit of cultural history. He was an avid traveler and knew of Persian culture via first hand experience. But the more important is: is this a good way to deliberate?

Aside from the obvious benefits that it makes decision making a lot more interesting and more fun, and that if congress were to attempt it, it would probably significantly increase C-Span’s rating, those Persians might have been on to something. I think what they found useful in drunkenness was the lack of inhibitions. Perhaps in a state of drunkenness one would be less reserved during deliberation in proposing bold ideas that one might hesitate to propose when sober. One would be also be less reluctant to step on other people’s toes. Thus, things would probably be a lot more contentious and rowdy. This might have an upside, since people might be less prone to step in line behind the most charismatic voice, and so, instead of everyone falling behind the strongest personality, a broader consensus would be reached.

The opposite strategy of deliberating sober and then deciding drunk, seems a bad idea though. The impulsiveness of drunkenness would seem to just always impulsively conceding to whatever one agreed to while sober. It suggests that what the Persians had in mind was that one should consider something from multiple angles, by inducing multiple states of mind.

Nonetheless, it might be an interesting strategy to adopt. I doubt it would make national politics any worse. And it might have some novel benefits.

UPDATE: David Harsanyi has a short article at Reason Magazine, "Civility is Overrated," that we really shouldn't overrate the importance of civility in political debate. I think sobriety in political debate is overrated.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I like to think of myself as an open-minded person (I think most people assume they are). Where do I come up with such a judgment? Well, I notice that sometimes I change my mind. But really how is it that I change my mind? How do I form new opinions?

In the first place, from experience, when introduced to new topics about which I have little or no previous experience, I'm pretty credulous. I usually take the first opinion made available, or, if multiple opinions are made available, I'll throw myself on top of whichever seems most reasonable. For example, if someone tells me that civet coffee is the world's best coffee, since I seldom drink coffee and don't spend too much time thinking about or comparing coffee, I'll take this as authoritative and assume this person knows things I don't.

Such an early opinion is not unshakable. As I begin to learn more about the topic, my opinion might evolve. But as I get more knowledgeable my opinion becomes more intractable. And by the time I progress to the point of expert coffee gourmand, I might be completely unpersuadable.

The reason for this may simply be because I've learned so much, that it's really hard for someone to muster enough evidence to knock down the large bulwark behind my position. For example, if I was a late eighteenth century physicist who'd invested himself for years studying the caloric theory of heat, with numerous experiments and experiences and arguments that seemed to back it up, I wouldn't be persuaded by Count Rumford's one single cannon boring experiment and its proposal that heat is motion. I'd need more evidence. Even great scientific experiments that in retrospect can be seen to clearly refute the theory that preceded them, meet great resistance in their own day, and are met with strong resistance by defenders of the old way.

A second reason for becoming unpersuadable might also be some sort of endowment effect: namely that we sometimes value more what we possess than what we don't possess. In other words, I think of an opinion of mine as MY opinion, and don't want to let go of it.

A third somewhat related reason, might be that this opinion has become part of my self-identity. I might for example, identify myself as a defender of the caloric theory, or as a civet-coffee-lover, which would mean, I'd have to change who I was to change this opinion. And how shocked others would be who knew me as this caloric defender or civet-coffee-lover to discover I've changed so radically! Better be cautious about changing my mind lest I distress all my friends upon discovering that now I'm a totally different person.

For these reasons, it's generally pretty hard to persuade me in conversation on issues about which I've formed an opinion. In reality, I don't think I really can be persuaded, on many issues, just by taking. This is relevant, since so much philosophical debate is precisely built around discussing issues, either at conferences in person or via journals. If people, especially experts discussing issues about which they've invested serious time thinking about and researching are completely intractable, what's the point in these conferences and journal articles? Is it just for the factions in agreement to announce their allegiance and trade good arguments? Is it just to ensnare in discipleship the naive and still malleable young grad students who mosey through these conferences and journals?


I should note, though, that my mind does change sometimes. It takes a lot to convince me, which is usually more patience or time than I have for a conversation. But if someone's arguments stick with me, I may be willing to think about it. Upon considerable reflection even some of my most cherished beliefs can be knocked down. But it's never someone else who changes my mind. They might provide the initial spark, but I ultimately have to persuade myself. Why this is so, might again come back to a sense of identity. I like to think of myself as someone who forms his own opinions, and not as the gullible parrot of some persuasive authority (though there are definitely many opinions I harbor which I'm just parroting from someone else).

I'm writing about these things not to talk about how open-minded I am, but to try to understand open-mindedness through understanding the only person I've had a chance of closely observing (myself). I believe that my experiences are fairly typical.

The only thing I think is unusual is that I am more reflective and spend a lot more time contemplating things than the average person (though this is the norm in academia), but otherwise, I think I'm fairly typical on these points.

Admittedly, that I am so reflective, does mean that I've thought a lot more about a lot more issues and probably means that I've got a lot more strong opinions than most people. This may mean that I like most other seriously reflective people, am perhaps more close-minded than most people.

As an after thought, I'll note that people who like to play devil's advocate are generally the most fun to debate with. I think this is because they don't as strongly identify with their beliefs and thus don't feel like a disagreement with them is a personal attack. This might mean they're somewhat more open-minded.

Monday, September 7, 2009

How influential are corporations

Robin Hanson's recent post on the issue the supreme court is deciding this week of whether corporations have the right to support political candidates, got me thinking about influence. Corporations have been prohibited from contributing to campaigns of federal candidates since 1907. The idea behind preventing corporations from contributing to candidates is that their substantial wealth will give them too much influence upon potential future candidates. This raises the immediate question, if corporations are so influential why did they allow such a law to be pass in the first place? The reason, I think, is because they don't have that much influence.

The reason corporations don't have too much influence is twofold. For one they are beholden to their customers. The hullabaloo over the Wall Street Journal column of John Mackey recently demonstrates that corporations advocate many political positions at the risk of losing customers. Those customers are heterogeneous, and a company will find it far too easy to offend a significant number of them. Secondly, corporations don't have uniform interests themselves. There will be in-fighting between them. Microsoft, Pepsi and News Corp do have similar interests. Sure, they all want to make money, but the ways they go about doing that are so dissimilar, that they will seldom agree on policy. The individual influence of some corporations will be offset by the individual influence of competing corporations.

This isn't to say that corporations don't have heavy influence. Of course they do. But so do many groups. In fact, the problem as I see it is not that there are some--such as big corporations, wealthy individuals, interest groups or wealthy nation--that have inordinate influence, it's that the politician their trying to persuade has sufficient power to attract these groups. If you assume that corporate heads have such unwieldy power, why is it that they go to Washington to get politicians to help them? If you want to eliminate the problem of people corrupting politicians, mitigate the power of federal politicians (smaller government, less taxes, fewer laws, etc) and then groups will find it less worth their while to bother.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

On the Brain Drain

A study released recently talks about the negative effects of attempting to stem brain drains (ht Ian Vasquez). The authors argue, somewhat surprisingly, that the brain drains aren't nearly as bad as the underlying factors that are encouraging the brain drain. For example, probably history's biggest brain drain would be the emigration of primarily Jewish Europeans during the era of Nazi Germany. That so many intellectuals were leaving was a small problem in comparison to much bigger problems like the rise of Hitler and the National Socialist party and their megalomanic intentions.

The study also argues, even more importantly, that attempts to prevent these brains drains are more harmful than beneficial because they have many unintended consequences The author really thinks that countries need to encourage their skilled labor to stay instead of preventing them from leaving.

In the United States, we have our own mini brain drain problem. We train and educate lots of skilled laborer from other countries and then practically boot them out the door when they finish. Per the results of the above study, it would clearly be unwise for us to force these foreign college grads to stay here if they wanted to return home. But, it's equally foolish to make it prohibitively expensive for them to jump through over all the vast legal hurdles in order to remain here. Education is an investment which is paid back by the increased productivity of the labor that is educated. Tuition hardly covers the true full costs of education. Thus, it's not really smart to educate people and kick them out the door, just as it's not smart for a company to train workers that it intends to promptly fire after the training is over.

Immigration policy for American-educated college grads needs to be revised (heck immigration policy needs to be expanded for everyone, but lets start simple).

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why has violence declined so much?

Steven Pinker wrote an article last April about the rapid decline in the level of violence throughout history. The essay is adapted from his talk at TED. We've gone from a 15-60% chance that you would die by being killed by another person in hunter/gatherer times to less than a 1% chance in the 20th century. The question is why. Pinker presents four possibilities:
The first is that the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short—not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors and steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don't strike first, retaliate if struck—but to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta.

These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence. States can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Manuel Eisner attributes the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband.

James Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one's own life, one feels less compunction about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general.

A third theory, championed by journalist Robert Wright, invokes the logic of non-zero-sum games: scenarios in which two agents can each come out ahead if they cooperate, such as trading goods, dividing up labor, or sharing the peace dividend that comes from laying down their arms. As people acquire know-how that they can share cheaply with others and develop technologies that allow them to spread their goods and ideas over larger territories at lower cost, their incentive to cooperate steadily increases, because other people become more valuable alive than dead.

Then there is the scenario sketched by philosopher Peter Singer. Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people's moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races, and even animals. The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, à la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the Golden Rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the precariousness of one's own lot in life, more palpable—the feeling that "there but for fortune go I."
Personally, I tend to think the last possibility from Singer the strongest possibility. I agree that our instinctive morality seems to have a double standard: what is evil to do to one's group is not evil to do to those outside one's group. And we do seem to think in more international terms these days.

The question would then be, if that's the reason, then why have our polities/groups expanded? The increase in journalism/memoirs/fiction and ideologies of cosmopolitanism as Singer suggests? Perhaps other factors such as increased trade? more traveling? cheaper long-distance communication? Perhaps all of these?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Music for Monkeys

At Wired they have a story about music composed to appeal to tamarin monkeys. Monkeys don't like our favorite music and generally don't respond to it emotionally. So a composer and some scientists wrote music, "based on the pitch, tone and tempo of tamarin calls." The monkeys did respond to this music. You can listen to two samples at the wired article. It's definitely not the most appealing or evocative to our ears. It really makes one wonder what makes music so appealing to us.

Kant for example, didn't think too highly of music. he thought it was pretty low on the scale of art, saying it was tantamount to color patterns, like say fabric or wallpaper. Poetry was the most sophisticated art form to him. I think Kant came to this conclusion because he just didn't get music, and probably wasn't exposed to very good music (the great musicians of his day didn't tour much, and he never left his home town). And I understand why he doesn't get music. It seems much more clear to me why I find other forms of art appealing, but I can't explain what makes music appealing.

Darwin talks about the origins of music in Descent of Man, and I think he gives us some insight into how emotions are conveyed through music. He says that what we hear as, for example, power or softness or playfulness (or whatever) in music is just us hearing by extension the power or softness or playfulness of the person's physical movements while playing it. It's almost like, when we hear a really forceful section of piano music, we are as if imagining a pianist forcefully attacking the piano keys, though we don't actually literally visualize this in our head. Thus, music is almost like an extension of body language, an extension of the emotion we see conveyed in body language. Our tone of voice similarly conveys emotions. For example, a higher pitch of voice usually evokes defensiveness, and its caused by us sort of clenching ourselves up, like a boxer clenching themselves in preparation for receiving a punch. So when we hear this higher pitched voice we are hearing, as it were, the defensive clenching.

This might explain why monkeys don't find our music appealing, since they won't hear the physical/bodily motions that are conveyed in sounds appealing to us. But they will hear it in sounds more similar to the vocal calls they make. This might provide some insight into what makes music appealing, but much is still unclear.

Skepticism is good

Alvin Johnson tells the story of how the prominent Chicago economist Frank Knight switched from philosophy to economics while studying at Cornell. Knight's philosophy professors apparently thought Knight wasn't suited for philosophy and told him so. Johnson thought Knight was a good student, so he asked these professors, who told him, in Johnson's words:
It isn't that he's devoid of ability, but with his ingrained skepticism, he repudiates all the values of philosophy. As a teacher or writer he will be not just the blind leading the blind in pitfalls, he will destroy the true philosophic spirit wherever he touches it.
Alvin Johnson concluded that Knight should be studying economics and became his teacher.

It's interesting since several philosophers like Hegel and Husserl saw philosophy as struggling against the pernicious persistence of skepticism. I personally think it's rather too bad that a smart individual like Knight was wooed away from philosophy. Skepticism is good in philosophy. One reason is that philosophy progresses by coming up with better and better ways of overcoming skepticism (which is how Husserl sees it as well). But also, in addition, I think that since philosophy deals with such intractable issues, for which adequate solutions will never be reached, a level of skepticism is necessary to prevent one from thinking one has certain truth when one is merely speculating. A healthy skepticism is an ability to recognize the limits of one's ideas, the level of doubt and uncertainty surrounding one's conclusions, but also not to let skepticism make one so despondent that one never tries to seek knowledge.

It seems like the attitude of Knight's Cornell philosophy professors is an attitude of false certainty, of believing that one can find certain truth where it can't be found and throwing all one's confidence behind ideas that could be wrong. To me Knight has more of the true philosophic spirit that his former professors because of his ingrained skepticism.