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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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?
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.
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).
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 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.
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?
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:
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.
I came to realize, then that what matters above all else in politics is what happens, not what people say about it. And for the most part what happens is independent of my wishes. In politics especially, people tend to allow their wishes to influence their assessment of reality, and to mix up the two even at conscious levels of thinking. For instance, all my life I have bet on elections, and all my life I have found that many people assume that what I am betting on is what I wish to occur. If I say to a group of people, “I’ve just put some money on the Conservatives to win the election,” I can count on at least one of them to say, “I didn’t know you were a Conservative.” Some people carry the mistake even further and assert that for someone who is not a Conservative to bet on a Conservative victory is wrong, in the sense of not morally right. Some even go so far as to assert that if you support a political party you ought to think that that party is going to win….
Forget Dennett’s strawmen destruction – read Gould carefully for what GOULD is trying to say. The Big Book is ‘Das Kapitaal’ of the 21st century biology – someone now needs to write a shorter, simpler Manifesto for the masses to read and understand….and we can go from there.
Go from there? Jerry Coyne better watch out! Genetic roaders are going to be swept away by the vanguard of the scientific revolution!1 Now, in all seriousness Das Kapital is an important book, a significant book. And there is truth in it as well; my understanding is that Karl Marx was one of the first to note what we would call the Industrial Revolution.2 But there’s truth in the Bible too; it records verifiable history and archeology. That doesn’t mean that it’s a blue-print for science (unless you’re a Young Earth Creationist). Das Kapital was a failure in terms of giving rise to a science of economics in a positivistic sense; its predictions were falsified, whether into the future, or as a model of what the past was like.3 Of course that doesn’t matter to a True Believer. Das Kapital echoed through the centuries not because of its scientific value; rather, it became the scripture of a secular religion, a political movement which appealed to mass psychological predispositions toward utopianism and the normative preferences of intellectuals who wished to give their sentiments, values and interests the imprimatur of science.4
As for The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, I don’t think it has the same psychological resonance. An anti-reductionist manifesto is by its very nature resistant to compaction; it’s non-mathematical verbosity will evade economization. It is, thank gods, a relatively innocuous scripture because not only do the believers not read it (as is the norm), but the preacher’s message can only be wholly negative, because to rebut the parsimonious formulations of the opposition is an easier task than to tame the overgrown doctrine and present it without distortion. Amen! Selection at work among religions, just as that apostle of functionalism David Sloan Wilson would wish it.
1 – Right, I know that wasn’t Marx. I just couldn’t resist.
2 – Most economic historians don’t think that it was really a revolution from what I gather.
3 – I know there are Marxist economists and historians who aren’t total fruitcakes. That being said, my understanding is that it is a relatively marginalized faction or sect, not an ascendant wave of scholarship.
4 – I’m sure you know that Marx was a keen follower of Darwin’s theory (Update: John Lynch says not really. Fair enough).
A few months ago I saw a paper which showed that small average differences across societies on a microeconomc parameter can result in massive variance in macroeconomic trends. Small differences in average trustworthiness or patience across societies (or, more precisely, small differences in the distribution of the psychological trait) can map onto to enormous between society variation in macroeconomic indices which one might adduce derive from the minor individual differences. I was struck by this because it formally and clearly elucidated a major issue I’ve noted across many domains of the human sciences.