Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why reductionism about the self and other philosophical subjects is so common and so wrong

There's a new book called The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood. In an interview by Sam Harris, Hood explains his premise that the belief that you have a "self" is an illusion:

For me, an illusion is a subjective experience that is not what it seems. Illusions are experiences in the mind, but they are not out there in nature. Rather, they are events generated by the brain. Most of us have an experience of a self. I certainly have one, and I do not doubt that others do as well – an autonomous individual with a coherent identity and sense of free will. But that experience is an illusion – it does not exist independently of the person having the experience, and it is certainly not what it seems. That’s not to say that the illusion is pointless. Experiencing a self illusion may have tangible functional benefits in the way we think and act, but that does not mean that it exists as an entity.
Now, here's Will Wilkinson explaining his problem with that (he uses the word "eliminativism" where I use "reductionism"):
Right off, I get red flags. Eliminativism of all sorts -- about morality, consciousness, free will, the self -- is frequently motivated by what I like to call the “fallacy of disappointed expectations.” The heart of the fallacy is to accept at the outset that the nature of the self, for example, is precisely what an extravagantly metaphysical, often religious, account says that it is. Then one observes that there exists little or no evidence in support of that account. One then concludes, having already simply assumed that the self (or free will or consciousness or moral reasons) could not be something less grand, that there is no self (or free will or consciousness or morality). If the self isn’t a hard gem-like flame literally flickering somewhere east of the pancreas, then there is no self! Usually arguments from disappointed expectations are advanced in a spirit of excited, self-congratulation, as if reasoning poorly were the same thing as staring bravely into the abyss.
I strongly agree with Wilkinson — about the self and all his other examples (free will, consciousness, morality). He's articulating something I've noticed before, but I hadn't thought to put it in terms of "disappointed expectations."

When I was in college, I had a philosophy professor who seemed frustrated by the fact that many students wouldn't give the obviously correct answers to the most basic moral hypotheticals (e.g. whether it's morally better to care for a sick person or to eat babies). He said something to the whole class that was startingly rude but hard to deny: "The intelligence level tends to get turned down in philosophy classes."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"Any job creation was accidental."

So says this New York Times op-ed, which strongly suggests that Mitt Romney shouldn't get credit for creating jobs through his work at Bain Capital. The article is by Steve Rattner, who used to work for the Treasury in the Obama administration.

Thomas Sowell, in the book A Conflict of Visions, includes a chart with two columns and two rows. The columns are labeled "beneficial" and "harmful." The rows are labeled "intentional" and "unintentional." Sowell points out that intelligent people seem to disagree on whether there is anything of significance in the "beneficial" + "unintentional" quadrant. Rattner, the op-ed writer, apparently believes either that there's nothing significant in that quadrant, or that no one who creates things in that quadrant deserves credit for it.

The latter would be an odd view. As Sowell points out, we have a word for things in the "unintentional" + "harmful" quadrant: "negligence." We generally blame people for acting negligently. So, why shouldn't we praise people for doing the opposite — causing unintended benefits?

Great moments in verbosity

"Would all jurors with last names beginning with the letters A through Z please turn in your forms?"

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"I don't think they understand the complex foundation upon which their own prosperity rests."

That's a very important point made by economist Glenn Loury. Loury and my mom, Ann Althouse, bemoan the fact that most voters' knowledge of economics is so shallow that not only is Mitt Romney attacked for being successful in business, but Romney doesn't even seem able to defend himself:



On this topic, a must-read is Reihan Salam's "Let Us Now Praise Private Equity."

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012)

The New York Times obituary describes Fischer-Dieskau's experience as a German in World War II:

[I]n 1943, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht and assigned to care for army horses on the Russian front. He kept a diary there, calling it his “attempt at preserving an inner life in chaotic surroundings.” . . .

“Lots of cold, lots of slush, and even more storms,” read [one entry]. “Every day horses die for lack of food.”

It was in Russia that he heard that his mother had been forced to send his brother to an institution outside Berlin. “Soon,” he wrote later, “the Nazis did to him what they always did with cases like his: they starved him to death as quickly as possible.”

And then his mother’s apartment in Lichterfelde was bombed. Granted home leave to help her, he found that all that remained of their possessions could be moved to a friend’s apartment in a handcart. But as early as his second day home, he and his mother began seeking out “theater, concerts, a lot of other music — defying the irrational world.”

Instead of returning to the disastrous campaign in Russia, he was diverted to Italy along with thousands of other German soldiers. There, on May 5, 1945, just three days before the Allies accepted the German surrender, he was captured and imprisoned. It turned out to be musical opportunity: soon the Americans were sending him around to entertain other P.O.W.’s from the back of a truck. The problem was, they were so pleased with this arrangement that they kept him until June 1947. He was among the last Germans to be repatriated.
Here's Fischer-Dieskau singing "Gute Nacht," from Schubert's Winterreise (with Murray Perahia on piano):



Many of the comments on that YouTube video were posted today, echoing the song title:
Gute Nacht, meine freund ;(



(The third movement from A German Requiem by Brahms.)

Animal minds and meat

Recent studies have found that people are more likely to deny or minimize animal minds when they think of the animals as food, or when they expect to eat meat soon:

[M]eat eaters were asked to think about cows and sheep. Some of them thought about these animals living an idyllic life on a farm. Others thought specifically about these animals growing up on a farm and then being killed for food. Later, they also rated the mental abilities of the animals. When people thought about the animals as food, their ratings of the mental abilities of the animals were lower than when they thought about the animals living on a farm.

It isn't just thinking about animals being used for food, though. In one final study, all of the participants had to write about the process of raising and butchering animals for food. All of the participants thought they were going to do a food sampling task after writing the essay. Half of the participants were told they would be eating fruit during the food sampling, while others were told they would be eating beef and lamb. Finally, participants rated the mental abilities of cows and sheep. The group that was about to eat meat gave much lower ratings of the mental abilities of cows and sheep than the group that was about to eat fruit.
This abstract of the studies theorizes that we deny animal minds in order to reduce our own cognitive dissonance. The dissonance can result from simultaneously wanting to eat meat, yet not wanting to harm beings that have minds.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Europe, 1000-2005 in 3 and a half minutes

[UPDATE: The video has been taken down. I'm leaving this post up to preserve the comments.]

Monday, May 14, 2012

West Virginia uses federal stimulus money to buy $22,000 internet routers

I'm shocked, shocked to see wasteful spending by state officials with very little accountability or expertise, who have been showered with money under the theory that massive government spending is exactly what America needs right now.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Obama decides to make his support of same-sex marriage public.

My reaction to President Obama's decision to "go ahead and affirm" that he supports same-sex marriage (adapted from a comment by me on Metafilter):

It's nice that Obama has made this announcement, albeit after noticing that other high-level politicians like Joe Biden, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Dick Cheney don't seem to have suffered much political blowback from doing the same thing. (It's interesting that our 3 most recent vice presidents are all supporters of same-sex marriage.) Obama's switch from supporting it in 1996 to opposing it in time to run for president to supporting it again (now that the polls are turning in its favor) seems analogous to Mitt Romney's calculated flip-flop on abortion. Again, I'm glad about Obama's announcement, but I don't find his "evolution" particularly inspiring.

I don't think many of those who previously criticized Obama's opposition to same-sex marriage thought he was bigoted in the slightest. I assume his personal views, then and now, are not anti-gay, and I can't believe he was being honest in the past about being genuinely opposed to same-sex marriage. I find it hard to imagine that he ever had a private conversation with someone in which he passionately defended his view that two women or two men shouldn't be able to get legally married. I assume, though it's of course impossible to know, that he's been in favor of same-sex marriage all along and has decided to be honest about it now. Good.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of children's books including Where the Wild Things Are (which will be 50 years old next year), has died at 83.

From the New York Times obituary:

As Mr. Sendak grew up — lower class, Jewish, gay — he felt permanently shunted to the margins of things. “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy,” he told The New York Times in a 2008 interview. “They never, never, never knew.” . . .

Mr. Sendak could also be warm and forthright, if not quite gregarious. He was a man of ardent enthusiasms — for music, art, literature, argument and the essential rightness of children’s perceptions of the world around them.
In an interview last year, Sendak said:
"I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence."

Saturday, May 5, 2012

"Who's in charge — you or your brain?"

That question is debated in this Guardian piece. It's a flawed question, since your brain is part of you.

It reminds me of this excellent article: "'Is it evolutionary, or is it . . .?'" The point of the article is that that's probably not a good way to start a question, since you can agree with an evolutionary explanation of human behavior while also agreeing with other explanations of the same behavior. (Previously.)

The "brain" article ends with this passage by neuroscientist David Eagleman, which I strongly agree with:

It is not contradictory to recognise that we are sealed off from most of reality, and that we can discover more of it by a process of careful experimentation. That is the endeavour of science. For example, you cannot see, hear or touch radio waves, but you can build machines to translate the waves into the biologically delimited language in which you can understand them. You can build such machines only because science reaches beyond what we know to discover new realms.

Neuroscience is uncovering a bracing view of what's happening below the radar of our conscious awareness, but that makes your life no more "helpless, ignorant, and zombie-like" than whatever your life is now. If you were to read a cardiology book to learn how your heart pumps, would you feel less alive and more despondently mechanical? I wouldn't. Understanding the details of our own biological processes does not diminish the awe, it enhances it. Like flowers, brains are more beautiful when you can glimpse the vast, intricate, exotic mechanisms behind them.
One problem is that reductionism is very tempting. Reductionism means feeling unsatisfied with making an observation based on evidence — "Hey look, here's something" — and feeling the need to rule out the possibility of other types of observations by adding: "And it's the only thing." Reductionism can make people feel contrarian and scientific, without actually being scientific. There can be multiple layers of explanation that are all accurate and not mutually exclusive; different kinds of description can peacefully coexist.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys has died at 47.

The Beastie Boys' website has posted an obituary:

It is with great sadness that we confirm that musician, rapper, activist and director Adam "MCA" Yauch, founding member of Beastie Boys and also of the Milarepa Foundation that produced the Tibetan Freedom Concert benefits, and film production and distribution company Oscilloscope Laboratories, passed away in his native New York City this morning after a near-three-year battle with cancer. He was 47 years old.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Yauch taught himself to play bass in high school, forming a band for his 17th birthday party that would later become known the world over as Beastie Boys.
The New York Times reports:
Mr. Yauch’s mother said he died at 9 a.m. on Friday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan with his parents, his in-laws, his wife, Dechen Wangdu, and his 13-year-old daughter, Tenzin Losel Yauch, at his bedside. He had been admitted to the hospital on April 14 after a three-year battle with cancer of the salivary gland. He was conscious until the end.

“He was a very courageous person,” his mother, Frances Yauch, said. “He fought a long battle with cancer. He was hopeful to the very end.”

Mrs. Yauch said had been undergoing chemotherapy this spring, but his health deteriorated rapidly over the last two weeks. “It all just seemed to happen overnight,” she said.
MCA is on the right in this video from 2009, announcing his diagnosis.



Pitchfork says:
The Beastie Boys are one of the most important and influential hip-hop groups of all time. They were instrumental in making hip-hop a global, mainstream force. Formed in 1981 as a hardcore band, they combined punk and rap into a singular sound that grew increasingly broad over the years, encompassing a vast array of genres. Yauch, Michael Diamond (Mike D), and Adam Horowitz (Ad-Rock) released several classic albums, including their debut album Licensed to Ill in 1986, 1989's Paul's Boutique, and 1994's Ill Communication.
I'm not generally a big fan of rap, but the Beastie Boys were an incredibly energetic band that brought joy to a lot of people. This is a real loss to music.







Thursday, May 3, 2012

Federal government traps 24-year-old man in a room for 4 days

The Daily Caller reports:

Daniel Chong, a 24-year-old University of California, San Diego engineering student [was] detained and then forgotten about by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Chong was detained on April 21 when agents raided the home of a drug dealer. The agency confiscated 18,000 ecstasy pills, along with other drugs and guns.
The New York Times adds:
Mr. Chong was left alone in the 5-by-10-foot holding cell, with no food, no sink and no toilet — only a blanket. He said he could hear footsteps as agents walked by, other cell doors opening and toilets flushing. He kicked the door, screaming for water. But no one came.

After the first two days, Mr. Chong said, he began to hallucinate, imagining “little Japanese cartoon characters telling me what to do.” He clawed at the walls, convinced that they contained messages about where to find water.

Three times he drank his own urine. The only sustenance he had, he said, was a packet of white powder that he found wrapped in the blanket, which turned out to be methamphetamine.

On the fourth day, he said, the lights in the cell went out. Eventually, his hands still cuffed behind his back, he broke his eyeglasses with his teeth, as he contemplated killing himself. On his arm, he tried to carve a message: “Sorry Mom.” He also swallowed a piece of the glass, which cut his esophagus.
The DEA has admitted that they trapped him in the cell. A DEA spokesperson says:
"[H]e was at the house, by his own admission, to get high with his friends."
By his own admission!

This would have been unacceptable treatment even if he had been a serial killer.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mitt Romney on what President Obama isn't allowed to say about foreign policy

"Shorter Romney: Obama has to stop apologizing for America and stop taking credit for defending America" — Bill Scher (on Twitter)