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.
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.
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.
Over at the Less Wrong blog there is a post, So You’ve Changed Your Mind. This portion caught my attention:
So you’ve changed your mind. Given up your sacred belief, the one that defined so much of who you are for so long.
You are probably feeling pretty scared right now.
I reflected and realized that the various issues where I’ve held relatively strong opinions and then changed my mind were generally cases where I relied on received wisdom, looked more closely, and felt that there was some misrepresentation among the orthodox gatekeepers of wisdom. But there’s one “big” issue that I guess I have changed my mind: I used to view all utility calculations on the scale of the individual, and accepted that all entities above or below the scale of the individual were useful only as a means toward individual well being. I probably wouldn’t defend this position anymore, though I think it has a logical coherency and may still be viable in some places and times. I’m not a “communitarian” or anything like that, rather, I have an impulse to just disavow these sorts of formal constructions of how best to attain and maintain human happiness in a time and space invariant sense.
Individual and social life are often best optimized by both forethought, and a simple process of trial and error through living. Those who accept the power of a priori in matters societal are often younger from what I have experienced.
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).