Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

Moral Realism

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Sean Carroll has taken issue with Richard Carrier over the latter’s position on Moral Realism.

On reading Carrier  I think that his real point is (or should be) that realism and relativism are not in conflict. Moral values, like the economic value of diamonds, may be relative but are real nonetheless. The existence of absolute moral values on the other hand is not supported by anything in his argument.

Carrier is probably correct in asserting  the existence of such things as “moral facts” that are “true independent of your opinion or culture” in the sense that our moral sense probably does include principles that are the same in all human cultures, and that we may sometimes be mistaken in our judgement of what action will subsequently give us the greatest moral satisfaction. But he provides nothing to support the idea that such principles are mutually consistent or that their “value” has any meaning outside the context of human culture.

I would add that Carrier shares with Sam Harris the blunder of referring to things like “the consequences you would want most”(assuming blah blah blah) without understanding that there is probably no single real variable which measures our level of “total satisfaction” at even a single instant (let alone integrated over time).

“The Belief Instinct”

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Jesse Bering’s “The Belief Instinct” is described as an exploration of possible sources of religion in cognitive tendencies towards a sense of being observed even when we have no evidence for it. To support this idea he reportedly both cites experimental evidence and postulates evolutionary explanations – which lead him to identify “adaptive illusion” as being behind the development of religion in our species (but I suspect what he means is  that it is just a susceptibility to  illusions of being monitored rather than any specific illusion itself that may be innate).

Apostate Theocon Damon Linker, writing in The New Republic, finds all this “marvelously informative and endlessly infuriating“. He says he does not like the mix of  “experimental data about modern civilized human beings and groundless speculation about our evolutionary ancestors“, but what he is most upset about is his belief that if we accept Bering’s thesis then a “possible consequence is that we will take his arguments to heart and seek to live truthfully, without illusions—which in this case is to say, without shame.” And by the end of the review has worked himself up into quite a state of angry confusion and despair. But I think he misunderstands the implications. Giving up and/or resisting the illusion of oversight by an external god-like being does not mean giving up the moral values that entity is presumed to enforce (or the fear of incurring our own self-disapproval and/or of having bad behaviour noted and reported to our peers). So there is no reason to believe that we must either “begin shamelessly shitting on ourselves in public” or be subject to “sustained, ongoing, irredeemable self-deception“. There really is an honourable and moral alternative.

The Chinese Room

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Stephen Downes links to this notice about three free Philosophy courses from John Searle who is famous for his Chinese Room thought experiment.  Now Searle may be a great teacher, and the ‘Chinese Room’ may be a useful paedagogical device, but I’m afraid I have difficulty respecting any dsicipline which ever in modern times treated it as anything more than that.

Selfish Altruism

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

‘Psychological Altruism’ is just a special case of ‘Biological Altruism’ and the “gene” for either is the most selfish of all.

Of course the concept of genes for actual characteristics all being in one-to-one correspondence with discrete sequences of DNA is simplistic, and the “gene” for something as complicated as a behaviour pattern may involve those for many different proteins along with related expression-controlling sequences, but no matter how it works, any hereditary tendency towards “altruistic” behaviour is one which is prepared to sacrifice the rest of its host’s genome in order to enhance the number of its own duplicates that are carried forward by co-specifics of the sacrificed host (even ones who are outside its host’s immediate family so less likely to share other parts of the host’s genome).

Not only this, but the wily and misnamed “altruistic gene” has often also evolved links to behaviours (manifest in humans in concepts like “morality”, “fairness” and “religion”) which ensure that the benefits of the altruistic gene actually are *not* shared with co-specifics of the host who lack that particular “gene”! (Such hosts may take risks with their own lives and relatives for the benefit of their non-related “moral peers” and/or to punish the “immoral” – possibly even including members of their own family)

Psychological vs. Biological Altruism is the latest topic at PholosophyTalk.

[Note added Aug 10: Tim Dean at ‘Ockham’s Beard’ makes an interesting connection between the genetics of morality and of the immune system.]

Brain Scans as Lie Detectors

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

BBC News – Brain scans being misused as lie detectors, experts say.

And of course those who claim to interpret the scans will also call themselves experts. (Which leads us off to another conversation entirely)

I am troubled by the confounding of privacy and accuracy concerns here. Frankly if lie detection were actually possible I’d be strongly in favour of it and “privacy” be damned! And I suspect that some of the scepticism is exaggerated by those who just don’t like the idea and so want it not to work. But I am also pretty confident that for now they are right and that it will be a long time before any method of lie detection is ever proved to be reliable enough to use as evidence in court.

We do of course need to be sceptical but is there any more need to legislate against the practice than against the use of chicken entrails to evaluate a job candidate? In both cases perhaps the technology shouldn’t be forbidden but until evidence is provided that it actually does work any evidence of its use should be taken as valid grounds for a civil suit re unfair practices.

Getting Smarter

Monday, July 20th, 2009

This article shares some of my own reaction to the “internet is making us dumber” nonsense, as well as commenting on other possible sources of increasing global intelligence.

Is Mental Causation a Problem?

Monday, May 11th, 2009

Stephen Downes points to this review by Sara Worley in NotreDame Philosophical Review of the book ‘Mental Causation’ by Anthony Dardis, and he (Stephen) concludes with this:
“The main takeaway? This nice neat picture of ‘A causes B’ is deeply mistaken.”

Now I’m no philosopher, and I haven’t read the book, but I have to agree with Stephen on this. It has long seemed to me that even in the purely physical world the whole idea of cause and effect is just baby-talk. i.e. superstitious nonsense that has no real meaning beyond the question “What is a minimal subset of actual antecedents of B from which the eventual occurrence of B could have been deduced? (indefinite article intended since solution not necessarily unique).”


I Google, therefore I Don’t Think

Monday, June 30th, 2008

My friend Gerry Pareja sent this article by John Naughton from The Observer, responding (I think very well) to Nicholas Carr’s ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?‘ in The Atlantic, but I can’t say that its arrival is what distracted me from my previous line of thought. In fact I was just tired, but feeling my need for sleep as a sign of lack of commitment-to-task prompted me to start also on my own intended response to Carr – and others who decry the influence of the web and other technology on our mental capacities. (more…)

Hedonic Man

Monday, June 30th, 2008

Hedonic Man is the title of a review by Alan Wolfe of two books on the “new economics”. Like Wolfe (and probably countless others) I am sure that the science of economics is sorely lacking, but also like him I am more than skeptical of the ideas of these revolutionaries (which I must admit I have not read directly but have come across in various contexts). However my objections are often different than Wolfe’s and in fact I think his review misses the point in a number of key respects.

To start with the second of the authors being reviewed, it was a discussion elsewhere (in Scientific American if I recall correctly) of some of the experiments described by Dan Ariely which irritated me so much that I have been meaning for some time to look it up again and write a response. Wolfe’s review now gives me that opportunity.

But in the unlikely event that I actually have a reader for any of this, I am afraid you will have to wait until tomorrow (since my attention span has just expired).

Leaning Tower Illusion

Sunday, August 12th, 2007

My friend Gerry Pareja forwarded a link to this story from ‘Improbable Research’ about the first prize winner in the Neural Correlate Society’s 2007 Illusion of the Year contest.

The image certainly is pretty cool. But to test the explanation I tried covering each image in turn and the effect was still there! I wondered if there was a perceptual delay effect in that our memory of one picture affects our interpretation of the other but then I also noticed that the effect changes depending on where the picture is in our field of view. If I position myself facing the right hand edge of the monitor, then the right hand tower seems more vertical and the left one almost seems to lean left or backwards. So the illusion may be more (or at least partly) due to the fact that in the absense of other visual cues in the picture we tend to interpret as if viewed from the direction at which we are looking at the picture – ie we interpret the picture edge as a window frame.

An Orthogonal Trajectory

Friday, April 27th, 2007

Light and Dark

These words (used in the previous post) need exploring. We are not nocturnally well adapted so naturally fear the dark. This leads to much weight being attached to the words and makes their metaphorical use a powerful tool in discourse. But that use reinforces an association that is false and wrong in other contexts. Should it be avoided? How can we avoid the negative effects without giving up much of the richness of our language?

Note also the negative implications of pallor (esp in China) and darkenss as robustness or strength. Would striving for more balanced use of  metaphor save both ends? How can this be encouraged without introducing a tone of moralistic political correctness?

The DNA of Religious Faith

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

David Barash reviews some theories of religion in an article in The Chronicle: 4/20/2007

Faces Just 6 Pixels Wide

Friday, March 9th, 2007

This post by Stephen Downes presents an interesting link, but I don’t agree that it supports his thesis about human reasoning. Pattern recognition at this level is characteristic of many species and devices, and it’s a capability that is probably necessary for human reasoning whether or not such reasoning is based on rules and language.

In fact, it seems to me that if such a thing as distinctly human reasoning exists, then it shares many features with other more rudimentary forms of reasoning, but to say it is “based on” these is similar to saying it is based on biochemistry (or even physics if you want to go that far down into the foundations).

But if, as the base of human reasoning we are looking for  a characteristic which distinguishes it from other forms of reasoning, then language is not enough since it appears that language at some level is practiced by other species. Some people suggest that an awareness of contingency is key, but anyone who has watched a cat learning to control a mouse may be inclined to disagree. But unless Chimp research proves otherwise it may be that the language of contingency is unique to us (and perhaps also that of propositional truth though I suspect that a chimp who can lie to keep a friend from finding a treat might eventually be trained to recognize and label the lie of another). Failing that it may just be that the concept of a distinctly human form of reasoning is a mere conceit based on quantity or scale rather than anything qualitatively different.