December 18, 2012

Two Types of Self-Interest

          Well, I haven't posted in a while, but that will change, as I've written a few essays for different classes that I will post soon. I recently was listening to Point of Inquiry and Richard Wiseman mentioned how people would come up to him and ask him how to write better, and he just asked them, "Have you written anything today?" To become a better writer...write! That was his message, and even if Gladwell was wrong about 10,000 hours, it still takes time doing something to become good at it. 

          Anyway onto the topic at hand, I was recently watching a presentation that first started talking about self-interest, and it threw the term around without ever really explaining what it meant, and in what sense he was using the term. More specifically, was talking about two different types of self-interest without ever distinguishing between the two different types.  There is a rational self-interest in an understanding of what would be the best for the individual in a given situation (if there was a plate of cookies it would be best for me to take them all and not share any) and a biological self-interest that isn’t a single calculation, but one ran over numerous generations (trimethylamine oxide being developed in the cells of the Greenland Shark due to it spending time in areas where those cells would normally freeze). The presentation talked about the self-interest of bee's and compared it to self-interest in people, but never took the time to explain the distinction made above.This led me to ask a question after the presentation, and I received a really strange response.

The question in question was, “There is a difference between biological self-interest that is calculated over thousands of generations and a rational self-interest in what you think would be best for yourself. People cannot make biologically self-interested choices, as they don’t have access to what would be successful in that way, so in what senses are what you talked about self-interested?”

The answer I received was a strange one, “First, I disagree with your premise that people don’t make biologically self-interested choices, and second I think that the poem on talks more about biological self-interest.”  Now this left me baffled, as it seemed apparent that this person thought that to make a moral decisions (it was a class is ethics) someone consciously weighted out all the evolutionary advantages to doing something, and acted on what was best, or they innately knew what was a good evolutionary decision and always acted on it.

The first way is easily shown to be flawed because, 1) even if someone made a calculation there is no way to be sure of what the future holds, so it necessarily has to be something that is determined over time and never at a single instance and 2) there is no way to way a person has access to all the information needed to make the decision in the first place, or even enough to consistently weigh a small portion of that information to make a quick decision.

The second way is also just as deeply flawed, as Dawkins shows when he talks about society and biology in The Selfish Gene when he points out the ‘unnaturalness’ of the desirable welfare state. He explains that, “What has happened in modern civilized man is that family sizes are no longer limited by the finite resources that the individual parents can provide. If a husband and wife have more children than they can feed, the state, which means the rest of the population, simply steps in and keeps the surplus children alive and healthy. There is, in fact, nothing to stop a couple with no material resources at all having and rearing precisely as many children as the woman can physically bear. But the welfare state is a very unnatural thing.”

This pretty much sums it up, if people innately knew what was naturally best for them then they would be acting in accordance with what Dawkins said and be completely abusing the welfare state, until it became a version of the tragedy of the commons.  There is a commonly understood ‘evolutionary lag’ where evolution is always a step behind changes to the environment, as it takes time to have the number of generations that adjust to it. Another phenomenon is that evolution is limited to what is available in positive genetic changes: evolution can’t take backward steps. This means that evolution can’t go in a different direction that would be better in the long run, if it would cause decreased fitness for an extended period. This means that even if evolution determined decision making existed with no evolutionary lag, the process of evolution still wouldn’t necessarily be able to make evolutionarily optimal decisions.   

All this reminds me of J. B. S. Haldane quote when asked if he would risk his life to save a drowning brother, he responded, “No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.” I think this quote alone is enough to point out the point out the absurdity of evolution directly controlling moral decision making, as no one thinks in this way and that’s why it’s funny. It doesn't have to micromanage each individual decision, as it can instill general principles that are effective. This is different than making evolution the decider of morality, and instead makes it create a general framework.
       Anyway, people can make decisions that they view as in their self-interest and this may or may not be in line with peoples biological self-interest, but if you’re talking about what self-interest is, especially when jumping back and forth between people and animals, it would be important to note the distinction.

July 28, 2012

Groundhog's Day Agian! Two Lessons from Phil Connors

Well for those of you dying for the next installment here it is and I think there is some interesting and valuable information.  Along with Camus and the implication of the ending Groundhog Day, which I wrote about in my last post, there is also is something to be learned about life, infinite loops and I even throw in a criticism of Murphy's Law. These things from the movie probably classify better as interesting bar room conversation than deep philosophy, but I guess that's kind of what this blog is about anyway. (If you want a summary of the movie so this makes sense here is a link to my last post)

1. Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence of the Same:

For those unfamiliar with Nietzsche and the idea of the eternal recurrence, I'll give you how he explains it, fairly straightforwardly, in The Gay Science. A hypothetical situation is given, by a demon where,

"This life as you now live it have live it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence--even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and with you it..."

That is the paragraph that most clearly states the problem of the eternal recurrence, but the power and scope of the situation outlined in the paragraph above are created in its limitations. It is the finality and the lack of change that creates the real problem. Now the person stuck in a Groundhog's Day situation is slightly different. Instead of living their life over and over again they are forced to re-live one day.

This can be used as a measuring stick for life with two different measures. The Eternal Recurrence is a measure where the balance of a person's whole life, up to that moment, must be measured and weighed, versus the Groundhog Day measure where each day could possibly be the one you are forced to relive, so each day must be weighed. If you wouldn't want to relive either one then it could be a statement that you aren't living your life in a way acceptable to yourself, but if you are alright with it then you are comfortable with what you have done.

It is clear that Phil Connors (Bill Murray's character) is not taking part in the eternal recurrence because he is able to change what he does each day and isn't forced to live through his choices again, but instead is able to make different choices.The eternal recurrence doesn't apply to Phil Connors, but it does to every other character with one difference.

Everyone else is trapped in a loop where the choices they made that day are the ones they have to relive over and over again, but Phil Connors has the special ability to change that and get them out of the loop. Phil Connors is a superhero in that movie situation where he and only he can save a person from being forced to relive a bad choice, like when he helps the couple that is going to get married get over their cold feet. Yet, his power is extremely limited as he much chooses who to help each day and change what decisions were made, and he is limited by the laws of time and space...which brings up a peeve of mine about the infinite.

2) With the infinite anything is possible!

The infinite causes may paradox's and strange things to be possible, like the hotel that is full but always has room, yet it is important to note that the infinite doesn't make anything possible. Groundhog Day is a surprisingly good example of why that is that is the case. Groundhog's Day has a system in place where the same thing that happened on Groundhog's Day happens again and again, where only Phil Connors can create change. This is a system like our universe, a system built on rules.

In each system change can take place, right now events could take place differently than they had been before, just as Phil Connors can change what happens at any specific moment, but in each case, there are rules that limit the possibility of the things that are able to happen. No matter how long time goes on the speed of light will be a constant and a speed limit for the universe. The hypothetical situation in Groundhog's Day is also limited as Phil Connors can only do so much in a single day and only cause a limited amount of difference, so not everything is possible in that world either, no matter how long it goes on.

There is one slight difference in these two worlds thought, if this universe is eternal, then even some things that would be likely to happen won't if something changes. It could be possible that I will win the Olympic gold in hurdling four years from now, but it is a race that is only run once, so after it is completed it falls into a category where it was something possible that still didn't happen in an infinite universe.

In a side note, this is also something that bothers me when people talk about Murphy's Law, as people often say when something goes wrong, that "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." Yes, if a situation is left for an infinite amount of time with the possibility of it going wrong, then Murphy's Law works. The problem with that is that's not the world in which we live, not everything that can go wrong does, and often it doesn't. Stating it as it is, really just means, that what happened had a chance of happening, which is useless information that doesn't add any additional information at all. It's as if you are saying water is water, but in this case, the person thinks they are saying something intelligent because they are referring to a law.

Anyway, the situation isn't the same for Phil Connors, because he gets a chance to do things over again, making it so anything that is possible could be achieved in the Groundhog Day world if Phil Connors made the choice to do it.

With the infinite not everything is possible, and not even a sure thing like me winning the gold medal in hurdling is guaranteed to happen.

Thanks for reading,

July 17, 2012

Groundhog's Day - Phil Connors is a Pitiable Killer


   Groundhog's Day is one of my favorite films and I can't really put a finger on why exactly that is, but I can think of many reasons why I like the movie so much. I don't think I need to announce that this post will contain many spoilers for the movie, but I just did anyway. This post also ran a little longer than I like to aim for in a blog post so it will be broken into two riveting parts, and I can only hope that excitement can be contained until the second installment is posted.
     Anyway, I first saw Groundhog's Day before I knew what philosophy was and just appreciated how funny, yet the odd tale was, but later I realized how interpretable this film is. There is a lot to think about in this film and I'm only going to write about what I thought about on one a sleepless night not so long ago, but before that, I'll give a brief summary for those unfortunate philistine's who haven't seen the film.

   The movie starts with Bill Murray playing the main character, Phil Connors. He one of the great miserable asshole's Bill Murray has played in his career and also a TV weatherman for a medium-sized TV network doing a segment in a small town for, you guessed it, Groundhog's Day. He ends up getting stuck in a town he hates because of snow and wakes up the next morning to find out that it is Groundhog's Day morning again. The same things that happened to him yesterday are happening again today; He is stuck in a loop which doesn't seem to have an end.
     Phil Connors then goes through a progression of different goals for the day. He just lives it up having fun and gorging himself with food and women, and then gets hopeless and tries to kill himself.After that he tries to find meaning by saving an old homeless mans life, but alas, but as Bill Murray's character repeats each day, this meaning also dies each time at around midnight.
    After numerous attempts at all sorts of things, the right answer is found when Phil stops being the miserable asshole and starts being a genuinely kind and good person. This is the secret and after a day of being a good person he gets the girl, they live happily ever after and it's a good ending...or is it?

    When Phil Connors travels to the next day at the end of the movie it is celebrated with cheers of triumph. Yet, when Phil is kissing the hotel manager out of happiness, one person isn't enjoying the festivities, as when the loop ends the homeless person Phil was staying to save is no longer reborn. In traveling to the next day Bill Murray's character has ironically found the only way to really kill the man he earlier was so desperately trying to save. If he had not closed the loop the man would have continued to be reborn and lived his life forever. Morally Phil Connors might have been in a position to try to stay in Groundhog's Day forever if he knew the consequences of his actions.

   There is another interesting consequence of the loop being closed at the end of the movie. It could be taken further and argued that Phil Connors shouldn't have been celebrating the end of Groundhog's day, and instead been mourning its demise.

   Albert Camus would view the situation that way as he explains in The Myth of Sisyphus. In Camus's  view what matters most is not the type of life lived, but the amount, as the continued struggle against the absurd is what matters. People would argue, as Bill Murray's character surely would, that if Phil Connors doesn't travel to the next day of his life than his life is meaningless because there is no progress or time. The major question than is, is there a meaning of life?

    42 jokes aside, there isn't an external meaning of life that can be found and pointed to and Camus realizes this, making life a battle of living without meaning, or in short an absurd existence. In this battle for meaning the absurd is where one can find enjoyment, even if you are only rolling a rock to the top of a hill for eternity. In fact being able to continue that fight for eternity makes you not someone to be pitied, but someone to be envied. Phil Connors didn't have a rock to push, but he did have the potential to fight against the absurd and reflect on life for an eternity thus making him a hero. Instead through celebrating the ending and closing of the loop he is no longer the Sisyphusian hero, and instead a nice guy and a killer.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic  

May 11, 2012

Kingston Police Doubles Down on Power Balance

The amount of disappointment I have towards the decisions of the Kingston Polices choice to promote Power Balance is hard to match, but the overwhelming condemnation of their choice should inspire a lot of hope that at least next time they will do a background check into products they put on their website and spend uniformed time selling. 

Kingston Polices twitter responses to Matt Watson shows why there isn't much hope for optimism yet though. Here is a copy of the twitter conversation between the two:

Matt Watson: you're selling those bracelets knowing full well they're advertising false benefits. Shame!

Kingston Police: Oh my, we've already addressed this. Don't endorse any purported effects. Most buy b/c they simply like the look, goes to good cause

Matt Watson: pardon the pun but what a cop-out. Selling them at all is endorsement and contributes to the perception they're effective.

Kingston Police: Pun pardoned. Raised $1,000s for , only you & 1 other has complained in 6 months, selling candy bars worse effect.

Matt Watson: that just goes to show people perceive them as legitimate and don't question the pseduo-science.

Kingston Police: Thanks Matt. No one is forcing you or anyone else to buy them. You're welcome to simply donate $10 to the Special Olympics instead.

Thanks to Matt for arguing pretty well in the 140 character space. The logic and ethics lying behind whoever is representing Kingston Police is completely perverse, they are doubling down with their chips on stupid. Advertising and providing legitimacy for a product that is actively deceiving its buyers was bad enough, but it is only worsened by the horrible logic used to defend their choice. 

There are 3 things that stick out from what was tweeted.

1. By putting a disclaimer Kingston Police can excuse itself as endorsing Power Balance:

This is a complete joke, first of all they advertise effects on their website which includes the statement that the benefits of negative ions (The 'good ions' that are in the Power Balance Band) are  higher levels of focus and concentration, increased feeling of serenity and well being, improved strength, flexibility and balance, elevated relaxation of body and mind, restful sleep, lessened recovery times and an injury or workouts, improved athletic performance, and relief from chronic joint and muscle pain. 

Which is a false list of effects of negative ions and not Power Balance, so even if Kingston Police doesn't support the product it is unclear if they think that the effect of negative ions are as listed above.

Just having to write that list makes me want to look for some chronic joint relief. At least in that state of mind maybe I could begin to understand how listing the benefits of a product on a police webpage and having uniformed officers selling Power Balance bracelets doesn't equate to an endorsement. 

2. It's better than selling candy bars:

Well I'd disagree that supporting a product that actively deceives the buyer is better than selling a product that isn't healthy, the whole thing is a false choice. The choice wasn't between a candy bar or power balance, as Kingston Police points out in their last tweet that says they could, and can still, take donations without the bracelet. 

Personally I wish they had sold Placebo Bands, which have the same hologram that impressed the Police and comes 100% Bullshit free and are a non-profit product.

3. If nobody complains it's alright:

Only you and one other has complained in 6 what? I guess if a tree murders someone in the forest it doesn't make a sound. Unfortunately, right and wrong doesn't rely on complaints, and whoever is representing the Police surely acts this way in most situations, but from some reason has compartmentalized this instance. 

It's disappointing when you point something out that is clearly wrong and the person just sticks with what they believed before, a phenomena that Chris Mooney does a great job at pointing out in his Point of Inquiry interview

I do remain hopeful that given increased attention and complaints that the Kingston Police will stop advertising Power Bands on their website and stop selling it in uniform.

Feel free to email Chris Mcfie and point it the hypocrisy if you see it in person, although that may be for the brave, as uniformed officers don't have a history of responding well to criticism, no matter how well founded.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

May 10, 2012

Kingston Police Selling Power Balance Wristbands

I was aghast at Cost-Co on the weekend, and it had nothing to do with low prices or 50 lbs. bags of dog food. As I was entering the store I saw a strange union set up at a table beside where the cards were flashed to gain entrance. I blinked and took a second look, but, unfortunately, it only made the picture more clear. The Kingston police were selling Power Balance wristbands.

I looked around for the same disbelief that must have sat registered on my face smeared on anyone else, but I didn't see it. I could forgive the lack of awareness for the people around me, but from the police, I could only find contempt for their negligence and stupidity.

The police are people who investigate things and are trusted to make good decisions, but any quick search will show that this was a boondoggle from the start. Power Balance wristbands are a rubber bracelet with a hologram inside it, that is claimed to improve strength, athleticism, and balance, by working with the body's natural energy fields and frequency. The only problem is that it's a known and proven scam.

The Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies studied them and found that "Results indicated that there was no statistically significant mean change in balance performance brought about by either the placebo or the Device." The BBC tested them and the headline of the story explains the conclusion, "Power Balance band is placebo, say experts" and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry took former Olympian Dominique Dawes and 14 other people test them and found that Power Balance bracelets are "A bust".  Look up any independent test of them and see the conclusions.

In fact why even look for independent tests, here is the word from Power Balance themselves, "We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974." which they published in Australia after losing a battle with the trade commission there. Power Balance has also been fined in Italy and the Netherlands for making unverifiable claims. 

All the evidence points to the bracelets being a scam, and also shows that Power Balance is run by a company who actively deceives the public. Why on Earth would the Kingston police support this and even advertise for it on their own website?  They give the disclaimer that,  "Kingston Police dose not guarantee or endorse the effects and benefits claimed from this product." only after listing a clear message that Power Balance would only dream of.

The only redeeming quality is that some of the money goes to help the Special Olympics, which I can tell you as a former Personal Support worker for people with special needs is a great cause. I encourage donations to the Special Olympics, but am dismayed at the Kingston Polices ignorance, negligence, and lack of investigation into a proven swindle. The police are supposed to be protecting the public from things like this, not actively taking part in it.  

In Australia the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has ordered Power Balance Australia to refund all customers who feel they were misled by the supposed benefits of Power Balance bracelets and in Canada we have the Police raising money with it....

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

April 14, 2012

Jesusaurus Rex FC

I was playing an X-Box live game one day when I was matched up with an opponent named 'Jesusaurus Rex' which I thought was a pretty funny name. It's really hard to narrow down what someone finds funny about something but I think I appreciated the novelty of the name and the contrast between the two ideas of Jesus and the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

It looks like I'm not the only one either, as there are songs entitled Jesusaurus Rex, a pretty funny youtube video, a Wikipedia style page and a few pictures on Google images, which are all pretty funny, although I didn't find the songs particularly enjoyable.

Anyway, after playing against this person I've unabashedly stole the name and used it for quite a few things when forced to name something. My trivia team, a name for my computer, and whatever happens to come up. It turns out that a few of my friends liked the name as well and one of them used the name for his Rec soccer team.

This seemed pretty lighthearted and silly, as Rec soccer usually is, but another friend didn't like the name. I don't have any problem with not liking the name as taste is pretty flexible, but the reason for not liking it was something I did disagree with. He didn't like the name because he found it to be derogatory against people of faith.

This is something I don't really understand because there is nothing inherently bad with Jesus or the Tyrannosaurus, so putting the two together shouldn't be a cause for offense. It isn't derogatory, mean spirited, or meant to imply ridicule. Yet, maybe there is one problem?

Would it fall under the third commandment of taking the lords name in vain? Well from what I've read (1 2) taking the lords name in vain has very little to do with swearing, as in vain usually applies to some kind of falsity. We looked for ketchup at the supermarket in vain or I tried to muster up the courage to say, "I don't want Dairy Queen" in vain. In fact, at least one page says that saying God dammit is pretty much the opposite equivalent of saying god bless, and neither should be offensive to anyone.

Historically taking Gods name in vain meant to put God's providence for something that God didn't really say. God tells me we will win this game! It was by the power of God that made apples taste better than oranges! God said go jump off that roof! Would all be examples of taking the lords name in vain and would violate the third commandment, but saying, 'god damn it' when you want god to damn something, or making a name like Jesusaurus Rex which makes no reference to what God would have done does not violate taking the lords name in vain.

What if the name instead was Muhammadaurus Rex would that make it worse? It seems like it would to me because Muslim sensitivity is so high. Muhammadaurus Rex shouldn't be any more offensive, but it is, not because the name is more derogatory, but because the people who believe in Muhammad are more inflexibly offended.  The problem then isn't with the name, but the people.

Does it belittle God? Possibly, but it shouldn't. If God is all powerful than how could a sarcastic name make him less powerful or diminish him at all? I think the one thing I got out of the God Delusion was that people need to be able to talk about belief in the same way they can talk about taxes without it becoming a personal attack that eliminates the conversation. Jesusaurus Rex shouldn't be any more offensive than Obamasaurus Rex or Muhammadsaurus Rex, any of which shouldn't be a call to arms for anyone.

Thanks for reading,

February 29, 2012

Rape Baby Morality

Rick Santorum is quite the news maker and I love and hate the guy. It would be hard for me to find anyone I disagreed with more than Rick, but he talks honestly, forgoing the usual political speech that clouds what someones true view are. He even backs up what he believes with why he believes it rather than say something vague. I think he at least deserves credit for that. 

Yet, pretty much everything he says makes me shake my head, and if I had the chance to talk to him I don't think we could really have a conversation. There is a fundamental disconnect about such basic beliefs that we would end up talking past each other. This can be shown in two stances we take on what should happen in the awful situation when a woman is raped and becomes pregnant. 

Rick's view is that even a mother who is raped should have to carry their birth to term because every baby is a gift from God, or as he says himself, "The right approach is to accept this horribly created - in the sense of rape - but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you." I think it would also be fair to attach the co-belief that God is infallible

There is really a blend of two arguments being put forth. The first one has the logic that (main argument) every birth is a gift from god, (unstated support) god doesn't make mistakes, so (conclusion) a person must accept what god gives them.

The second argument only makes a brief appearance when he talks about the gift being a human life. It first states that at the moment of inception a human life is created and it goes unstated that a human life should be kept alive. 

From one short quote two arguments are presented, although they are both only presented in a semi-complete fashion 

Now I'd argue that birth is a biological process with no special meaning, that natural processes are separate from moral ones, so a persons decision to continue with a pregnancy is their moral choice and independent of any consideration of nature/god. 

Looking at the two views you can see how even two reasonable people could come to talk with the best intentions of working something out and just run into road blocks. Santorum's belief that each birth has a divine hand is incommensurable with the understanding of birth as only a biological process.  

I think Ricks second view does leave some room for talking thought because the question remains whether all murder is wrong, so perhaps if the unborn fetus itself raped it's mother than it could be capitally punished.  There may be no clear solution, but there is room to talking and maybe even having some progress. 

The point is to recognize what people are really saying in their arguments and not all the time are even reasonable people going to get anywhere when they talk. It also shows how one belief can affect numerous other beliefs you hold, but maybe I'll post about that later.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

February 24, 2012

What Does the Earth Want?

This seems to be the fundamental question of environmentalism and it's often ignored, assumed, or not even asked. I feel like Camus, who first really put the emphasis on whether life was worth living, and put forth a fundamental question that should have been answered or at least defined before people went to work on solving problems. The cart is years ahead of the horse, and people trying to upgrade the cart to see if they can make it work better.

Now it may be argued, correctly even, that any answer given to this question will be anthropomorphizing the earth, but that doesn't diminish the value in asking the question in the first place. How the question is answered is still important because it defines your starting place and the bias's that were applied when asking the question.

Bias isn't a bad thing, its a natural omnipresent condition that affects any judgement and it is best to be aware to keep it in check. Physicists are biased with preconceptions that make it easier to believe that light is the cosmic speed limit, but that doesn't make the fact any less true. 

I've came up with 4 answers to the question of what the Earth wants and will describe them and what they show.

1. The Diversity Argument - Perhaps the best thing for the earth is to be as diverse biologically as possible.  A world built this way would provide for the greatest range of niches being filled and quite possibly the greatest range of the 'enjoyment' of the earth. This is to say that a mole enjoys the earth in a different way than a bat does, but doesn't say anything more than that. 

If that is the goal then all species should be attempted to be saved and the importance of the preservation  of different animals would go up exponentially as the number of the members of a species went down. This again wouldn't have to be limited to animal life and seems readily applicable to plant life as well.

Yet, if the greatest diversity is the core goal than people should also be trying to create new species through genetic modification and separating breeding populations to obtain quick changes in animals so that new species are created. Sure, some of these new species might expand their bounds and compete with the existing species, but than people can manage populations in an attempt to keep the greatest amount of different species alive.

This idea may sound far fetched, but at the heart of the idea that genetic diversity is important and that animals should be saved, even as their habitat disappears or in some cases becomes non-existent.

2. The Most Life - Sheer number of animals and plants could be the most important factor, as it wouldn't matter what species exist, so long as the Earth is supporting the greatest amount of life it could. A maximal mother earth wouldn't be a monoculture that is often criticized,as many more plants are able to live in a untouched forest than one where a single species has been planted, but it wouldn't be against the idea of a monoculture in principle either. 

One life would be just as important as another and there would be no favorites. This would probably mean a vastly more integrated human life where nature would be intertwined with life, and where pests, would be as valuable in principle as pets and it would also be highly unrealistic and unpopular.

3. The Human First - Egoism as expressed by the bible and more recently by Rick Santorum. As the bible said the world was created for man and he got to name all the animals. Than in Genesis 1:26 "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.'”   

This is the most popular view of nature, that humans matter and everything else matters as compared to what human value it has, but it's probably popular because of human exceptionalism and ignorance. 

Animals can be seen as stupid or unfeeling and thus can be morally written off to have no consideration, or people can just not think of the problem and act in their own self interest. Either way results in an exclusively human perspective.

4. Earth as an ecosystem - The common solution for environmentalists is that the earth wants to be an ecosystem. The earth only provides life by the inter-dependance of the earth, water, weather system, plants and animals working together to form a cohesive self replenishing system. 

Everything has value because everything functions in an integrated way.

Whats the answer to what the Earth wants? Just to restate is depends totally on what your view is and the question is only a canvas for what you believe. That's about the only thing conservatives get right about the environment, the earth may not have been put here under our dominion, but it surely doesn't care if we use up all the oil, kill all the polar bears (apology's the the bear pictured above), or turn it into a planet like Mercury.

Yet, animals, plants and people all must live here in some sort of balance and what that balance is important. The key is not to think that what exists now is perfect,  that what naturally happens is the best balance or that there is any one solution to the question.

Sam Harris points out that there can be many peaks and valleys in the ethical treatment of people, and this holds for the environment as well. That's why I enjoyed the Skeptical Environmentalist so much, because Bjorn thinks things are good now, but is willing to ask the question, will things be better in the future if we say the course we are on? Whether you agree with him about whether he got the right information or draws the right conclusions isn't as important as starting the conversation and being willing to ask the question. He is a man looking for many peaks.

The point is that there are many environments that work, and the answer isn't the steady state that we need to keep everything as it was found when people first entered the area, or that we need to terraform everything to make this world any particular way.

All the points of view have some value, and although I think it isn't usually the case that everyone see's a different piece of the truth, this time all the views have something important to say.

1. The value of diversity of life and captures the understanding and wonder when we find something new and the shame and feeling of loss when something goes extinct.

2. The amount of life is also important as it lets species overcome tragedies that may happen to any number of the individuals, but this seems like a lesser core value than the other three.

3. The egoist view has ever present importance of humans in ethical considerations. Any environmental philosophy that doesn't take that into account is going to be impossible to follow, as even the people who want to preserve nature for it's own benefit don't want to preserve nature as it was during any of the numerous ice ages the earth has had. Anything calling for mass human death, or your mother to have the value of a tree just is unsupportable.

4. Shows how the earth works as a system and how nothing exists on its own.Yet, this view does have a bias to what exists now against what could exist in the future, which is the topic of another post.

What does the Earth Want? A ecosystem that functions well, values life's diversity/volume, and still keeps a prominent place for human beings. I know that's not really an answer, but what it is a rubric for what the answer should look like.

Thanks for reading,
- the moral skeptic 

February 18, 2012

Is There a Social Need for Violence?

I have a weekend class, and a group was presenting about the problem of concussions in sports...a much better/more interesting topic than I got to present on, but three times during their presentation they insinuated that there was a social need for violence.  It wasn't the type of presentation where the audience felt welcome to talk during so I wasn't sure the question would be addressed, but as they ended they had discussion questions, and they had a question framed as it is titled in this post, "Is There a Social Need for Violence?"

I addressed the under-current that ran through their presentation, and said to the same effect what I'm going to recite with better statistics in the rest of this post.

I don't think that if sports became less violent and people lost what was described as their, 'outlets for violence' that they would take to the streets looking for someone body checking someone else or start to beat up other people because there was a build up in their internal violence meter.

This isn't a caricature of the position being presented, and what may be a more common belief than expected, yet it is a belief not only wrong it's completely backward from reality. Violence tends to only beget more violence as was well stated by some oft-quoted royal doctor.

I know no better way to show this than the experiments with anger and stress management, but if you know of other ways feel free to add them to the comments. The common expression is 'blowing off some steam' and I guess that is what the people in class thought. The view that the body naturally builds up a violent steam that can be released by watching or participating in violence, to the point that if there were no other outlets underground fight clubs would pop up to satisfy base human urges.

That doesn't seem to be the case though, acting out aggression or taking part in aggressive acts tends to only make the person more vengeful; acting out aggression doesn't vent anger it amplifies it. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that effect in 1999 when it published a paper entitled, "Catharsis, Aggression, and Persuasive Influence: Self-Fulfilling or Self-Defeating Prophecies?" A number of experiments were documented in this paper and their results were counter-intuitive and largely ignored by pop culture in the same way the discovery of there being no link between sugar and hyperactivity was ignored, but that's a different post.

In the first study, it was found that,

"Participants who read a procatharsis message (claiming that aggressive action is a good way to relax and reduce anger) subsequently expressed a greater desire to hit a punching bag than did participants who read an anticatharsis message. In Study 2, participants read the same messages and then actually did hit a punching bag. This exercise was followed by an opportunity to engage in laboratory aggression. Contrary to the catharsis hypothesis and to the self-fulfilling prophecy prediction, people who read the procatharsis message and then hit the punching bag were subsequently more aggressive than were people who read the anticatharsis message."

People who hit the punching bag didn't blow off steam, they built it up.

While another study in the paper that was similar went further. It compared people doing nothing to people hitting a punching bag. To get these people 'riled up' they were given a writing assignment and received comments about what they wrote telling them that it was the worst thing that the grader has ever read. Half the individuals were left alone and half the subjects were taken to use a punching bag, individually, of course.

After using the punching bag or just sitting for a period of time they were given a second test where, if they won they could blast another person with an air horn. The people were given the options of both how strong a blast they could use and the length of time they could blast the horn. The results were generally that people, "Who did hit the punching bag were significantly more aggressive than those who did not hit the punching bag." That aggression meant that people who used a punching bag to 'blow off steam' ended up blowing the air horns at a much higher volume and for a longer duration.

This is not the only study done on this topic as a good episode of Bullshit! showed where they re-created a number of previous studies. People who used punching bags are also more likely to give people more hot sauce as a punishment and fill in blanks with more violent words. For instance the blank RA_E was more likely to be filled in as RAKE for someone who just sat to themselves and RAPE to someone who used a violent outlet for their aggression. 

All this doesn't necessarily prove that there isn't some violent clock within people that needs to find an outlet, as it might have been the case that the calm people just so happened to watch a Steven Seagal movie the night before, while people who used the punching bag had an anger meter that went unchecked the night before by Exit Wounds, so there was a previous build up which is why the people wanted to also use a punching bag in the first place (two people refused to use the punching bag altogether, so they must have watched Under Siege and Under Siege 2 and had their violent meter at extra low).  

Yet, it seems pretty far-fetched that all the people who had a build up would be selected to one group and also that getting to outlet their violence on a punching bag wouldn't be enough to calm them down to a level of that of an average person. For that reason the belief that people have a need for a social outlet of violence seems to be far fetched. People don't need to outlet violence to calm down, or to take part in something violent to assure that they won't do something violent in the future.

As a side note, I ran across another interesting study that shows violence in video games may not be linked to future acts of aggression at all, as personal competitiveness was a much more accurate predictor of future aggression. It didn't matter whether a person played a violent fighting game or a racing game, the people gave out the same amount of hot sauce afterwards, but the people who were more competitive were the ones who loaded on the Franks. Who knew you could learn so much from hot sauce?

I'll end with a quote because so many Stephen J. Gould essays end that way,  

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.  - That same royal doctor 

Thanks for reading, 
-the moral skeptic 

February 9, 2012

The Biological Spandrel

In 1979, Stephen J. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin saw a growing problem in the field of biology. To combat and bring attention to the problem they saw they co-authored the paper entitled, "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme" which is now a classic and somewhat controversial paper in the field of biology.  Gould points out in I Have Landed that, that paper is his second most referenced paper behind only his paper with Eldredge on punctuated equilibrium.

The problem Gould and Lewontin saw was that every part of an animal's anatomy was being broken up and explained as having an evolutionary purpose. The tyrannosaur's small arms were to help it get up from sleeping and the female hyena's masculinized genitalia created aggressive/larger hyena. Those types of explanations typified the attitudes of much of the scientific community, which could be described as being extremely adaptationist. Each piece or feature of an animal was broken up and weighed; if something existed it existed for a Darwinian reason. The animal as a collective whole was never thought about.  Noses were created to hold glasses and ears to fit earplugs.

Yet, no matter how ideal the reconstruction of the purpose is, it remains a narrative created to explain something that doesn't always have such a simple, fitting, or, most importantly, purposeful explanation. There are numerous reasons why a feature of an animal might be the way it currently is and being a positive adaptation for increased fitness is only one of those reasons.

Lewontin and Gould point this out by way of the dome in St. Marks Cathedral in Venice, and by picking out this non-biological example they have created a platonic form for what a  perfect spandrel is, more perfect and clean than any biological example could be.  It is perfect because the dome was created, as many other domes were, with the four arches holding it up and the spandrels existing between those arches. Only years after construction did the spandrels get put to use and thus become meaningful/functional in themselves.

The architectural spandrel, in this instance, is a space created only because it was necessary as part of the gap between the arch and the dome. More generally they refer to an architectural constraint that is not part of the design, but instead a by-product of what is necessary from the design. Gould and Lewontin give the example also of a set of stairs with the bi-product or spandrel being space between the steps.

The example works beautifully with the biological idea, because something that can start out as a by-product of something else can still later develop an important function as happened in San Marco. This makes it clear that an adaptive narrative isn't the only way to explain how something came to be, even something that now has an important function.

A good example of this happening is the famous domestication of the Silver Fox in Russia. The only feature that was selected for in those foxes was tameness. This made tameness the adaptive feature being selected for and all other traits that changed with it would be spandrels, or features that just happened to be by-products of the result of one thing being selected for. These changes included the fox's becoming spotted, coming into heat every 6 months and becoming more 'dog-like.'

This seems to show the existence of spandrels as pretty clear-cut, but the most interesting part of spandrels may be hidden in an article written later by Gould, "The Exaptive Excellence of Spandrels as a Term and Prototype." Near the end of that article, Gould makes the open-ended statement that,

"The human brain may have reached its current size by ordinary adaptive processes keyed to specific benefits of more complex mentalities for our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the African savannahs. But the implicit spandrels in an organ of such complexity must exceed the overt functional reasons for its origin. (Just consider the obvious analogy to much less powerful computers. I may buy my home computer only for word processing and keeping the family spread sheet, but the machine, by virtue of its requisite internal complexity, can also perform computational tasks exceeding by orders of magnitude the items of my original intentions—the primary adaptations, if you will—in purchasing the device)."               

It seems that as a brain becomes more powerful, it does a more than just what is required for base evolutionary fitness. The examples of those types of spandrels have been argued to include everything from music or even language. I think an interesting area to apply the idea of a spandrel to ethics; the things people feel passionately are right and wrong, but for what reason? It could also fill in a lot of gaps in what is ethical, but can't be evolutionarily accounted for and that is what my thesis is on, so you can look forward to quite a few more posts on this topic in the future.

Thanks for reading,

January 20, 2012

Thomas Berry - Philosophy and Evolution

I was assigned to read Thomas Berry's The Viable Human, which was then a person/essay, I've never heard of so I wasn't sure what to expect. Well it didn't take me long into reading his essay before I could probably guess that I was going to disagree with almost everything he had to say, except for his overall conclusion. People should take a more active stance on how they see the environment and their place within it, but Berry gets there only through misunderstanding, mysticism and idealism.

It really comes from the first page of his essay and becomes more blatant further in. I agree with his first line that, "We need to move from our Human Centered- to an Earth-centered norm of reality and value." Yet, his second line starts the path to error and he begins to lose support and respectability. 

Berry qualifies the first sentence by saying that, "Only in this way [Changing from human-centered view to a earth-centered view] can we fulfill our human role within the functioning of the planet we live on." Which doesn't seem like such a big deal, but the 'role' isn't just something idealistic for Berry it's something real.

This subtle misunderstanding of evolution continues with something that most people might let slide, as Berry sums up his view of evolution, "As with every species, there was a need for humans to establish their niche, a sustainable position in the larger community of life, a way of obtaining food, shelter, and clothing." Yet, species don't get created and look for a niche, there are interacting factors and create subtle changes and create something different that is better adapted for the situation it is in, period. There is no talk of niche's or something having to fit in.

The community of life is, also a cover up for describing the struggle for life as it actually is.  Animals don't fit into a sustainable position and happily fill the web of life. If a cat can kill every bird/rodent on an island it will and has, despite whatever anyone thinks about the 'niceness' of cats or how the ecosystem strives towards balance.

Thomas, has attempted to slide in his view slowly with the two quotes above and then comes out and says more strongly that, "Human society in its beginnings would not have survived if it had not had some basic role to fulfill within the larger Earth community composed of all its geological as well as its biological elements." Animals don't exist and wait to be placed where it's role will be good and balanced. Birds didn't evolve wings and wait for a role of flight. The potential for flight was always there, but it isn't a role to be filled like a casting call for a script. Berry is putting the buggy in front of the horse. Human society wouldn't have evolved if there wasn't something to exploit in the first place.

Worse than that though is what he seems to be implying. That the Earth neatly fits together into something balanced and meant to be.  Evolution doesn't neatly fit something in with the geological and biological background, each animal is trying to be more successful than the next to the point that about 98% of all life that existed has become extinct.

He can argue the above because he knows that, "If we look back over the total course of Earth['s] development, we find that there was a consistent florescence [blooming] of the life process in the larger arc of the planet's development over some billions of years. Innumerable catastrophic events occurred in both the geological and biological realms but not of these could cause the forebodings such as we might experience at present." 

The earth is not in a steady state which, to Berry's credit, he seems to understand, but what he doesn't seem to get is that life isn't a fair and balanced game where everything works together to create a viable world. The earth may look like it has a balance and indeed many animals have found some long term stability, but it isn't supposed to be that way, just as the world isn't supposed to be any way in particular; it just happens to be the way it is now, which inherently shouldn't be viewed as anything special. There is no blooming just an unfolding ongoing struggle to which everything will eventually lose.

Moving a little away from Berry, you can say the would should be some way, but it should never be an appeal to how the earth 'naturally was' or 'ideally would be'. Those are conceptions that are anthropomorphic and idealized. The earth has no way 'it should be' expect in the subjective eyes of the person who is telling you. Take lessons from that, don't worry about what naturally is, or what has been in the past, those aren't limits for what the future can look like.

Human's are just starting to get the power to create the environment they want, and it can and should be un-natural. Schopenhauer see's the reality of the world, not viewable through Berry's rose coloured glasses,  and while it may need a little less pollution, it doesn't provide any roles or path that should be taken.

Thanks for reading,

January 9, 2012

Cee Lo Green - Stupid or Just Religious?

First of all I know that the title is a false dilemma, so if your here just to point that out, congratulations for being so clever. This is my first post in a while, but I've been busy moving, getting ready for my masters program and hibernating (It's cold in Canada).

Anyway, I was getting ready to break out of the new years slump when I heard about Cee Lo Green's New Years Eve performance where he changed the words to John Lennon's song Imagine.  Now I'm not a huge Beatles fan, but I don't mind them by any means and I respect what a song is trying to say when it does have a clear message, which is more than I can say for Cee Lo.

I'm also an atheist, so the words that were changed drew a lot of interest. Instead of saying, "Nothing to kill or die for and no religion too." Cee Lo chose to sing, "Nothing to kill or die for and all religion's true."

I understand the personal reasons that could have lead Cee Lo Green to change the words of the song to represent himself better, and he should have the freedom to do so, but I also have the freedom to criticize the changes he made.

The problem isn't that Cee Lo made changes to the song, it's that the changes he made ruined the message/meaning of the song. John Lennon wasn't bashing religion when he sang of there being an absence of religion. He was creating a situation where all the things that define and keep people separate from each other were magically taken away, so that people could be free to get along.  That being the case I don't see why even a religious person would have a problem with the hypothetical situation, just as no religious person should have a problem with John Rawl's Vail of Ignorance

It's a hypothetical situation created to show something, and if you don't like what you see because, you see that the world would be better off without religion than you don't have a problem with the hypothetical, you have a problem with religion. However, if you see the world as worse off without religion in the scenario 'Imagine' creates then there is no need to be offended by it, or to change the words.

That said, lets look at what Cee Lo Green created when he changed the words. Instead of there being no religion in the hypothetical situation, all religions are true. Well, that's nice to say, but how would it really work?

1. There could be one world where the rules change all the time, and then what ever your religion says comes true. It would  be an arbitrary world where everyone's religion's were true, but where it would be impossible to really communicate with others because of basic incompatibilities. For instance, 2+2 would be 4 for some people and maybe other people would have a religion where 2+2 = 5 and in Cee Lo's world both of them would  be correct. Yet, this complete incompatibility would leave people unable to communicate basic truths to each other and even if they could communicate them, they would be meaningless to the other person who has their own truth. 

2. Another way for it to work would be for every person to have their own little world where what their personal religion says is true. This is a world where you can be happy about having the capital 't' truth that just doesn't exist now, but it is also a world disconnected from everyone else. 

Either way, these are situations that seem less desirable than the world in which we currently reside, but that's alright because Cee Lo tweeted a clarification for us, "Yo I meant no disrespect by changing the lyric guys! I was trying to say a world were u could believe what u wanted that’s all.”

I have a news flash for Cee Lo, we live in a world where you can believe whatever you want! You don't have to create a hypothetical situation so see what that world looks like. There is no thought police, and the only limitations are in John Lennon's terms, what you can 'Imagine'.

So while he meant no disrespect, he did manage to take a classic song, ruin the message it had and create a new message that doesn't make any sense. If this were a game of clue we would find Mr. Green in the study humming while he urinated on John Lennon's rug that just so happened to tie the room together.

I've clearly put more thought into this than Cee Lo did, because I think anyone who knows the message of the song and then went through the implications of Cee Lo's words would come to the same conclusions I have.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

P.S. To those who were waiting to find out what a false dilemma was, it's when you're given a choice between a limited number of things and the answer isn't necessarily contained within the list of choices. Cee Lo Green is both stupid and religious, a choice excluded in the title.