17 December 2010

Some trends in English literature

obtained using Google ngram

The rise of individualism in 18th century (“I”-blue, “we”-red):


Love and death seem to go together (“love”-blue, “death”-red):


And I suppose “fuck” used to mean something else...


The classic, trousers (blue) vs. pants (red):


Post-1950 revenge of Aquinas (red) over Galileo (blue):


but Newton still destroys both of them.

Socialism (red) takes a dive since 1980s, but capitalism (blue) keeps growing:


11 December 2010

The Swordsmen Paradox

There are two swordsmen, A and B: A is attacking B. A knows that B has a weaker defense on the left side, but B also knows that A knows that he has a weaker defense on the left side. A knows further that B knows he knows about B’s weaker left side; and B knows that A has this knowledge.

At first glance, it would be rational for A to attack B on the left side. However, because B knows that A knows his weakness, it is rational to assume that B will concentrate his defending capabilities to his left side. But A knows that B will focus on his left side, thus, at second glance, it would be better to attack him on the right side after all. However, B also knows that A is making this judgment, thus, he will not concentrate especially on the left side.

The paradox consists in that A and B both have two very relevant pieces of information and yet the most rational path they can take is to act as if they wouldn’t possess these pieces of information, i.e. at random. Thus, from a purely behavioral point of view it is impossible to tell whether or not A and B have these two pieces of information. Thus, there exist beliefs, and even beliefs highly salient to the given situation, that cause an agent to act as if s/he wouldn’t have those beliefs. So, as long such beliefs exist – and indeed they do, it is theoretically impossible for a purely behavioral test to discover all the beliefs of a certain agent. Or, to put it differently, there are some cases in which it is impossible to tell whether one is lying. Even considering the goals as given and publicly known, the relation between beliefs and behaviors is not 1-to-1, but many-to-1.

Can we say that all the beliefs that entice the same behavior are in fact equivalent, despite their apparent divergence? The swordsmen paradox seems to imply a "no", as otherwise we would have to equivalate beliefs that are obviously relevant for the decision to a lack of knowledge.

Robert Wright & Kevin Kelly - A Theory of Technology

  • Kevin’s new book, “What Technology Wants”
  • Can technology be sentient?
  • How our gadgets have already made us into cyborgs
  • The selfishness and the generosity of our machines
  • Spirituality and the limits of science
  • Kevin’s Paradoxical God

01 December 2010

Robert Nozick – Is ethics binding?

From this interview:

Julian Sanchez: What is it, then, that evolution can tell us about ethics? Why should an evolved moral sentiment be any more normatively binding than, say, the urge to reproduce? Does explaining ethics as one more biological response suck out the normative force, the authority of morality?

Robert Nozick: Well, there are two places where I discuss that in detail. I refer to literature in the Kantian ethical tradition that's wanting a certain strength of bindingness to ethics -- including writing by my colleague Christine Korsgaard. I doubt that they can get it, and I argue that they're requiring something stronger of ethics than we have in the case of ordinary factual belief. A comparable question to that of the bindingness of ethics -- "Why should I always do what's right?" -- is "Why should I believe the truth?" In general it's a good policy to believe the truth, but in particular cases someone might actually be better off not believing what's true.

Examples one finds in the philosophical literature are somebody who's seen the trial of a child of theirs, where they're being proved guilty of some crime that would drive the parent into a depression, maybe a suicidal depression. They'd be better off not being convinced by this evidence. Or the literature that seems to show that optimistic or even overly optimistic attitudes towards one's chances at succeeding at something, or recovering from a disease, or something like that, actually increase the chances. Maybe not up to the level of optimism one feels, but there one would be better off not being a perfectly accurate assessor of chances. In fact there's some psychological literature that seems to indicate that when people are asked by psychologists what other people in their social circle think of them, and then the psychologists check with these other people about what they actually do think, that the people who have more accurate views of what other people think of them are less happy, less successful in life, cope less well with various things, than the people who have rosier views of what people think of them than is actually the case. Now, here's another case where one may be better off believing what's not strictly true. Parents raising children might think: "Well, do I want my child to have a disposition to believe exactly what's true about other people's opinions of him or her? Or to have, not an out-of-touch- with-reality view, but a more optimistic than is actual view, a rosier view, of what people think of them, so that their life will go smoother, more easily, and so on?"

Now, there's at least a question there. And in the case of factual truth, there's not any knockdown argument, in a particular case where one would be better off believing what's not strictly speaking true, for saying that a person is epistemically required to believe the truth. If we can't do that in the factual case, why would we expect to do, and think we have to do, the comparable thing in the ethical case? That is: have a notion of bindingness so strong that in every possible situation, it requires one to do what in general is to our benefit and right, and what we've been shaped generally to do, including to be reasonably cooperative agents in social cooperation. Through the evolutionary process, those who are able to engage in social cooperation of various sorts do better in survival and reproduction. So I'm questioning the demand for bindingness in ethics. One, because nobody's delivered on that demand yet, and secondly, even outside of ethics nobody's delivered on the comparable demand.

JS: Which does seem to take some of the wind out of the objection? and yet we don't want ethical conclusions to just be these sort of interesting facts.

RN: Correct. I search around for something that is more binding than merely an interesting fact. I do say that self consciousness is something that's crucial to guiding one's behavior in an ethical way, at least according to norms and principles, and that self- consciousness is something that people often take as the distinguishing mark of being human. Maybe in that realm, if the distinguishing mark of being human is something we've come to have because of its usefulness in having us adhere to norms, that is enough of a punch behind bindingness to leave us in a satisfactory situation.

JS: At the risk of asking something so counterfactual it's not useful? does the emphasis there on the historical source of consciousness as something selected by evolution for this purpose mean that, say, my Swampman counterpart [i.e. an exact duplicate of me who springs into existence by chance, not through an evolutionary process], who arises as a mere fluke, has no reason to be moral?

RN: Well? there'd be all of the general reasons that we have for being moral in a society where we're not good at deceiving others and others can detect when we're being hypocrites. But is there some desert island case where somebody can get away with things and those reasons don't apply? Yes. The strongest kinds of argument people make when you look in the Kantian literature seem to have something to do with preserving one's own identity, or something like that. But that's presupposing a concern with one's identity. Why should one be so concerned about that? And if one is so concerned about one's personal identity and integrity and keeping that identity, it's hard to reconcile that with the strong attack on self-interested motives that the Kantians mount. To say that self-interested motives are insufficient to ground the normative force of ethics, but somehow it's based on a concern with one's own identity? that's an uncomfortable position, a position in tension.

18 November 2010

Whom and what do you care about and how much?

What criteria should be used to decide whom to include or exclude from a utilitarian welfare estimation? To use Peter Singer’s metaphor, how far should the circle be expanded?

For example, considering the welfare of the next, soon to be born, generation doesn't seem exaggerated. But considering the welfare of all future generations seems an unreasonable stretch (it would dwarf the consideration of our own welfare). This could be addressed by using a discount rate, but what criteria should be used for estimating the discount rate and why not others?

Similarly, many pay lip service to the idea of considering all humans as part of the circle, but as a matter of fact, that is not the case (i.e. regardless of what they say, many don't actually consider this expansion to be reasonable, as evidenced by their actions). Should we consider (some) animals as well? One inclusion criterion proposed here is the ability to suffer. But this doesn't seem to work because it follows that we should consider all future generations' welfare as equally important to our own (no discount rate).

One possible solution is sociobiological - take genetic relatedness as the basis for the discount rate (both when expanding the circle to existing beings and when expanding it into the future). Care about the immediate family more than about strangers, care about your own children more than about your great-great-grand-children. However, this leads to a very small circle - smaller than what people now normally consider.

We could consider some multiplier to genetic relatedness, but, again, what multiplier should be used and why?

A simpler question is this: if this model is correct, what is the actual multiplier that most people use? Is there just one or are there many?

One possible multiplier that immediately comes to mind is familiarity. This can be applied both to animals (even objects) as well as to humans. Many people care more about their dog than about dying children in Africa, although they are more genetically related to the latter – the familiarity is less however.

From a evolutionary point of view, the importance of familiarity can be understood by considering that, in the original hunter-gatherer environment, familiarity used to be a proxy for genetic relatedness. However, these two factors seem to be independent, as evidenced by the fact that adopted persons care to meet their biological parents (with whom they have no familiarity at all). Thus, genetic relatedness cannot be considered to be simply incorporated into familiarity.

Considering the product between familiarity and genetic relatedness can also be applied in regard to future generations. The prediction however fails. We are less familiar today with the future generations than medieval people were with their future generations, because we expect things to change radically, while they expected things to remain the same. This leads to the prediction that the welfare of future generations should have been much more salient to medieval people than it is to us. However, as it was pointed out by Gregory Clark, medieval people lived in the present to a much larger extent than we do, as evidenced by the size of interest rates then and now.

This problem could be fixed by assuming another multiplier, the present welfare of the person we’re considering. Medieval people were very poor and miserable compared to us, and, thus, they tended to care more about themselves than about others. This multiplier can be justified from an economic point of view: the means one has at one’s disposal are scarce and these scarce means are distributed to the most important goals first. The more means one has, the more goals one is able to fulfill, i.e. increased welfare implies an expansion of the area of interests, including an expansion of Singer’s circle.

What I said so far is still not enough, as it predicts that we care equally about common people and about exceptional people. As evidenced by newspaper and mass media choice of subjects, there is little demand for regular people stories as compared to the demand for stories with “celebrities” and unusual people in general. (Also, applied to objects, what I said so far, fails to account for the concept of “garbage” – something that is so abundant that one is willing to pay to get rid of it.) We can fix this by dividing to the availability of what we’re considering – the more common she/he/it is (including oneself) the less one cares about her/him/it. This might also explain why people are horrified by the idea of cloning themselves – cloning would increase their availability and thus decrease the amount they care about themselves.

Here is thus a possible formula for the amount X cares about Y:

CX(Y) = (GXY + 1) × K × FX(Y) × WX / AX(Y)

GXY = genetic relatedness between X and Y (a number between 0 and 1, 0 corresponding to non-living objects and 1 to oneself and one’s identical tween; parents and siblings 1/2; cousins, uncles and aunts 1/4 etc.),

FX(Y) = X’s familiarity with Y (a number between 0 and 1), which is to be multiplied by some factor K in order to account for the fact that we care about some familiar animals more than about some unfamiliar people (i.e. familiarity and genetic relatedness don’t have the same measuring unit and K is the conversion factor),

WX = X’s current well-being (a number between 0 and infinity),

AX(Y) = the availability of Y to X.

There are further predictions of this formula. For example, the more one knows oneself, FX(X), the more one cares about oneself, CX(X). Thus, the problems of suicidal people [WX small –> CX(X) small] may be compounded if they are self-delusional [FX(X) small –> CX(X) small]. Also, people with low well-being don’t care much about anything [WX small –> CX(Y) for all Y]. And, conversely, the better one feels, the more one cares about everything.

We can also apply this to other things. For example, according to the above formula, the more one learns about a subject (familiarity increases with the subject), the more one starts to care about that subject. People who start studying something without much initial interest, may end up caring a lot about it. I suspect this is what happens to many students who don’t have a clear idea from the start about what they are interested. They think that are “searching” for what interests them, but it may be that in fact the interest is created rather than discovered. And those who keep “searching” never “find” – i.e. develop – any interest because they don’t get sufficiently familiar with anything. The issue of availability may also influence matters: getting familiar with relatively obscure subjects increases the likelihood of ending up caring a lot about them. The prediction thus is that one tends to become passionate about something in direct relation to the familiarity one develops with the subject and the obscure nature of that subject. This also explains why obscure artists and musicians tend to have much more loyal and passionate fans than mainstream artists and musicians.

While the above formula may work at describing how much people care about various people, animals, things and subjects, it surely does not tell what people should care about.

14 November 2010

When will Armageddon happen?

From Guesstimation: Solving the World's Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin, p. 63

There are about 6 × 109 people in the world. Thus, the total volume of blood is

V = 5 L/person × 6 × 109 people = 3 × 1010 L

There are 1000 L in a cubic meter, so that V = 3 × 107 m3 . Now let’s see how large a volume this is.


If we want to get biblical, we can compare it to the volume of blood shed at the battle of Armageddon as mentioned in the book of Revelation: “They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia” Rev. 14:20 (NIV). A horse’s bridle is about 2 m high. At almost 200 m per stadion, 1600 stadia is 300 km. Now we just need the width. That much liquid will spread out a lot, especially when flowing 300 km. Let’s use a width of 3 km. Thus, the volume of blood predicted to flow at Armageddon is

VArmageddon = 2 m × 3 × 105 m × 3 × 103 m = 2 × 109 m3

That  is  about  15  times  more  blood  than  humans currently have. We guess we just need more people.

So, Armaggedon is predicted to happen when the population will reach a minimum of

PArmageddon =  2 × 1011 L / 5 L = 4 × 1010

However, according to the moderate UN projection, this will never happen, because the population is expected to level off at about 1 × 1010 around 2050.

On the other hand, considering the high estimate (an increase of about 4 billion people every 50 years), we’ll have to wait for Armageddon for only another 412 years :)

08 November 2010

Adrian Matejka - Do the Right Thing

Spike Lee is so small I didn't even
see him at first, surrounded

by Black Expo goers like a gumdrop
in a fist. When I asked him to sign

my "Free South Africa" t-shirt,
he said, You didn't buy that at this

booth. Fresh off seeing Do the Right
Thing, I crowed: "What's that got

to do with your movies?" His fans
laughed, so he edited me like my name

was Pino: Why you care? You
ain't even black.
Someone behind

me said, Damn, Spike. That ain't
But Spike's shamed scribble

on my t-shirt didn't change the missed
free throw feeling in my chest.

Mixology, Penguin Books 2009 [via Poetry Daily]

16 October 2010

Wright & de Waal - Primate Ethics

  • Finding traces of human morality in non-human primates
  • Is morality just a “veneer” that conceals selfishness?
  • What believers get from their religious communities
  • Which came first, morality or religion?
  • Frans vs. Al Sharpton on God and morality
  • Are humans too nice to be products of natural selection?
  • Link

31 August 2010

Jacques Prévert – Iubire post-industrială

Un bărbat scrie la maşină o scrisoare de dragoste şi maşina îi răspunde de mînă în locul destinatarei

Maşina e teribil de perfecţionată

maşina de spălat cecurile şi scrisorile de dragoste

Şi bărbatul confortabil instalat în maşina lui de locuit citeşte la maşina de citit răspunsul maşinii de scris

Şi în maşina lui de visat cu maşina lui de calculat el îşi cumpără o maşină de făcut dragoste

Şi în maşina lui de realizat visele el face dragoste cu maşina de scris la maşina de făcut dragoste

Şi maşina îl înşală maşinal

cu un oarecare comic şi banal

care-i şoptea suav sub lună:

Sînii tăi tineri străluceau sub lună

dar el a aruncat

o pietricică rece

piatra de gheaţă-a geloziei

pe oglindirea frumuseţii tale

care dansa pe ape în neclintirea serii

dansa cu unduiri domoale şi era goală în splendoarea verii

Şi ea era la fel de mică

dar încă de pe-acum vorbea în ea ceva bătrîn ca lumea

de pe acum ştia lucruri cumplite

ştia de pildă că trebuie să n-ai încredere în nimic

şi se uita la ied şi iedul se uita la ea

şi ea aproape că plîngea

El e ca mine

a spus ea

e trist un pic şi vesel tot un pic

Pe urmă a pornit să plimbe iedul prin livadă

şi a zîmbit şi n-a mai spus nimic

şi ploaia a-nceput să cadă şoptind timid:

„Maşina este foarte perfecţionată.”

[mixaj „Dragoste á la robot”, „Gîrla”, „Nori” folosind traducerea lui Gellu Naum]

16 August 2010

Haidt & Graham - Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality

How to start an academic paper:

It has not yet been revealed to the public, but we have it on good authority that intelligent life was recently discovered on a planet several light years away. The planet has been given an unpronounceable technical name, but scientists refer to the planet informally as “Planet Durkheim.” Judging by the television signals received, Durkheimians look rather like human beings, although their behavior is quite different. Durkheimians crave, above all else, being tightly integrated into strong groups that cooperatively pursue common goals. They have little desire for self-expression or individual development, and when the requirements of certain jobs force individuals to spend much time alone, or when the needs of daily life force individuals to make their own decisions or express their own preferences, Durkheimians feel drained and unhappy. In extreme cases of enforced individualism, they sometimes commit suicide. Durkheimians have a biological need to belong to tight groups with clear and widely-shared norms for behavior.

Given this need, it is not surprising that Durkheimian ethics revolves around groups. For any action they ask: does it undermine or strengthen the group? Anyone whose actions weaken social cohesion is evil and is ostracized. For first offenders the ostracism is brief, but for the most serious offenses the offender is tattooed with the word “Individualist” and is expelled from the group. Durkheimian societies are hierarchically organized by hereditary occupational castes, and most of the ostracism cases involve individuals who fail to perform their caste duties. These individuals seem to prefer their own comfort or own projects to the needs of their highly interdependent groups.

Within a few weeks of the discovery of Planet Durkheim, Google found a way to translate and index all Durkheimian academic journals. We used Google Durkheim to examine the state of social psychology research, and we found a fascinating debate taking place over the puzzle of “The Dissenters.” The Dissenters are a social movement that disagrees with the frequent use of permanent ostracism. The Dissenters point out that the penalty is applied overwhelmingly to members of the lower castes, for whom work is often dull or dangerous. They argue that these individuals are not traitors, they are innocent victims who should be given compassion, more societal resources, and better work. The Dissenters even suggest that society should be changed so that each individual rotates through all the high and low caste positions. The Dissenters acknowledge that such rotations would be less efficient than the current system of lifelong specializations assigned at birth, but they say it would be somehow right or good to do it anyway.

The Dissenters are a puzzle because most of them come from the upper castes. Why would an upper caste Durkheimian press for a change to society that would harm not just him or herself (through loss of privileges) but also society as a whole (through loss of efficiency)? There is no justification for such a position within Durkheimian morality, so Durkheimian social psychologists recently proposed a theory – called “Victim Justification Theory” – to explain the unconscious motives that impel Dissenters to defend traitors and challenge the legitimacy of the social system.

The paper: link.

07 August 2010

Wright v. Yudkowsky: Does life on Earth have a purpose

Wright’s argument: Suppose you’re a Martian and you’re given a fertilized cell. You have never seen anything like it. You have no idea how it came to be (simply by chance or designed either by a natural selection process or by a conscious designer). You look at it and you see it grow and develop into a duck. Would you conclude, on the basis of this single data point, that it is a designed thing (rather than something that appeared by chance)? If yes, isn’t the entire Earth eco-system just like that? It started from something very simple and gradually evolved into something very complex. I.e. shouldn’t we take more seriously the idea that perhaps the entire process of evolution has a meta-purpose (such as building complexity and intelligence)?

Yudkowsky’s argument: No, the analogy is weak because internal elements in the eco-system have cross-purposes, e.g. a fox chases a rabbit, rather than cooperating for a single meta-purpose etc. while all the organs in the duck observed by the Martians work for a single purpose.

Wright argues that 1) the Martians, on the basis of seeing just that single duck, don’t really have very strong evidence supporting the idea that the duck has an optimized design, 2) similar correlations can be seen within the eco-system (e.g. plants produce oxygen for animals etc.), and 3) one cannot easily dismiss the idea that the observed cross-purposes (such as the fox/rabbit example) don’t have a higher optimization role.

The discussion: link

The old discussion with Dennett on the same subject referenced by Wright: link

Hayek about pleasure and civilization

Excerpt from an 1979 interview of Friedrich Hayek by Bob Chitester:

CHITESTER: it seems to me that individuals, in coming at the questions of value, questions of society, the question of enjoyment has to be in there. 
HAYEK: Oh, yes. 
CHITESTER: And it seems it is so often corrupting.  Why is it corrupting? 
HAYEK: Because our instincts, which of course determine the enjoyment, are not fully adapted to our present civilization. ... Let me put it in a much more general way.  What has helped us to maintain civilization is no longer satisfied by aiming at maximum pleasure.  Our built-in instincts -- that is, the pleasure which guides us -- are the instincts which are conducive to the maintenance of the little roving band of thirty or fifty people.  
The ultimate aim of evolution is not pleasure, but pleasure is what tells us in a particular phase what we ought to do.  But that pleasure has been adapted to a quite different society than which we now live in.  So pleasure is no longer an adequate guide to doing what life in our present society wants.  That is the conflict between the discipline of rules and the innate pleasures, which recently has been occupying so much of my work. 
CHITESTER: That suggests that we're outgrowing the usefulness of our native instincts. 
HAYEK: Yes, yes.  And it does raise the question whether the too-rapid growth of civilization can be sustained -- whether it will mean the revolt of our instincts against too much imposed restraints. This may destroy civilization and may be very counterproductive.  But that man is capable of destroying the civilization which he has built up, by instincts and by rules which he feels to be restraints, is entirely a possibility. 
CHITESTER: Yes, that's a kind of a terrifying thing. 
HAYEK: Oh, yes. 
CHITESTER: It suggests that there's no way out.
HAYEK: Well, there is no way out so long as -- It's not only instincts but there's a very strong intellectual movement which supports this release of instincts, and I think if we can refute this intellectual movement -- To put it in the most general form, I have to revert to [the idea that] two things happened in the last hundred years: on the one hand, an always steadily increasing part of the population did no longer learn in daily life the rules of the market on which our civilization is based.  Because they grew up in organizations rather than participating in the market, they no longer were taught these rules.  
At the same time, the intellectuals began to tell them these rules are nonsense anyhow; they are irrational.  Don't believe in that nonsense.  What was the combination of these two effects?  On the one hand, people no longer learned the old rules; on the other hand, this sort of Cartesian rationalism, which told them don't accept anything which you do not understand.  [These two effects] collaborated and this produced the present situation where there is already a lack of the supporting moral beliefs that are required to maintain our civilization.  
I have some -- I must admit -- slight hope that if we can refute the intellectual influence, people may again be prepared to recognize that the traditional rules, after all, had some value.  Whereas at present the official belief is, "Oh, it's merely cultural," which means really an absurdity.  That view comes from the intellectuals; it doesn't come from the other development.

04 August 2010


Imaginează-ţi o cutie cu lacăt. Toată viaţa ai avut-o cu tine, dar n-ai cheia. Nu contează până la urmă că nu o ai. Ai cutia dintotdeauna aşa că ai ajuns să ghiceşti aproape perfect ce-i înăuntru doar din ce zgomote face când o mişti sau din cum îşi schimbă greutatea dintr-o parte în alta. Sau aşa îţi imaginezi – că ai ghici corect ce-i înăuntru. Ideea e că la un moment dat găseşti pe cineva care are cheia. Atunci vei putea descoperi şi mai bine cine eşti. Dar trebuie să descoperi persoana care să fie curioasă să încerce să-ţi deschidă cutia. Această metaforă sună poate bine dar n-are nici o legătură cu realitatea. Imaginează-ţi că nu există nici o cutie, şi nu există nimic ascuns în ea, dar există totuşi ceva de descoperit, există ceva ce tu nu ştii, şi există altcineva care are un fel de cheie. Imaginează-ţi un mesaj secret. Ai purtat dintotdeauna cu tine acest mesaj, dar habar n-ai cum să-l descifrezi. Ţi s-a spus că este important pentru că ar conţine instrucţiunile despre cum să te comporţi în fiecare situaţie posibilă astfel încât să obţii întotdeauna maximul din ceea ce poate fi obţinut. Trebuie să fi în armonie cu persoana care eşti de fapt. La ce bun să ai mesajul dacă nu ai codul? Dar pe măsură ce îţi trăieşti viaţa reuşeşti treptat să ghiceşti părţi din mesaj, comparând cu ce-ţi iese şi ce nu. Înveţi din experienţă şi încerci să prinzi fire din mesaj. Este şi o chestie de inteligenţă. Unii reuşesc să-şi descifreze porţiuni mai mari din propriul mesaj decât alţii. Alţii în schimb şi-au băgat pula, au renunţat, este prea greu, este obositor, este plicticos, au ales să trăiască de pe o zi pe alta ghidaţi doar de ce pare să le ofere plăcere la un moment dat. Alţii au ales să creadă că toţi avem acelaşi mesaj şi că nişte oameni deştepţi din trecut l-ar fi descifrat deja – iată vestea bună: codul se cunoaşte, tot ce trebuie să faci este să crezi că ce ţi se spune e adevărata descifrare, să te supui şi să admiţi că alţii au fost mai deştepţi decât tine chiar şi în ceea ce te priveşte pe tine însuţi. Da, chiar şi de înainte să te fi născut. Nu-i nimic de mirare, lumea are un plan, iar tu faci parte din el. Şi ăştia şi-au băgat de fapt pula în mesajul lor. Acum încearcă să şi-o bage şi-n al tău. Să te convingă să li te alături. Să înlocuieşti realitatea cu imaginaţia. Povestea cu cutia a fost o minciună, o poveste pentru copii sau o telenovelă pentru cei care rămân copii în sensul prost de a rămâne copii. Ceea ce-i ascuns nu-i un lucru, ci o informaţie, şi, îmi pare rău, nimeni n-are cheia pentru mesajul tău. Dar nu-i totul pierdut, altceva e disponibil. Chiar dacă nu avem toţi acelaşi mesaj, realitatea e că fiecare are o bucată dintr-un singur mesaj mai mare. Da! E un mare puzzle. Cu cât găseşti mai multe piese şi le combini, cu atât ai şanse mai mari să-ţi descifrezi propria bucată. Şi să-i ajuţi şi pe ăilalţi în încercarea lor de a se autocunoaşte. Dar n-ai ce face cu piesele care nu ţi se potrivesc. Iubirea universală face parte din balivernele ălora care cred în mesajul unic. Dar nici nu suntem toţi unici. Nu pleca acum în pădure „să fi liber” ca Thoreau. Aia nu-i libertate. Vorbim aici de un puzzle foarte redundant. Nimeni nu-i de neînlocuit. Găseşte piesele de lângă tine, nu renunţa, în cel mai rău caz eşti la margine şi ai doar o opţiune posibilă, dar măcar una tot ai. Alege să fi ceea ce eşti. Imaginează-ţi că nu există de fapt nici un mesaj. Te-am minţit din nou. Dar de data asta chiar îţi voi spune adevărul. Nu de alta, dar nu cred că ai rezista la mai mult de trei încercări. Ai un instrument muzical. Habar n-ai cum să cânţi la el. Alţii îţi zic că parcă-parcă ar mai fi văzut ceva de genul ăla dar nici ei nu se pricep să-l folosească. Cică străbunică-tu se pricepea să cânte la aşa ceva. Păcat că a murit anul trecut. Se poate cânta şi de unul singur, însă nu se poate spune că te pricepi cu adevărat decât dacă reuşeşti să te ţii de armonia altuia. De multe ori nu afli cât de prost de pricepi să-ţi foloseşti propria fiinţă decât experimentându-ţi incompetenţa direct. În mintea ta liniile melodice par că s-ar potrivi perfect, dar când le auzi suprapuse de-adevăratelea te îngrozeşti. Notele nu sunt suficiente. Dimpotrivă, uneori pot mai mult să încurce. Trebuie să se potrivească şi timbrul. De exemplu pianul se potriveşte cu clarinetul dar nu şi cu chitara. Şi nu poţi să înveţi să cânţi la propriul instrument doar după note. Cică să exersezi! Nu merge. E vorba aici de ditamai orchestrele de măcar doi oameni. Foarte rar se găsesc între ei mai mult de doi odată. Muzica e grea. Dacă cântă toţi acelaşi note ca papagalii nu se pune. Aia nu-i orchestră e programa decretată de ministerul învăţământului. Şi cu atât mai rău e că nu există nici o partitură. Nimeni nu poate ţine minte melodiile. Pe bune. Poate că la un moment dat se va inventa vreo tehnologie pentru stocat oamenii, dar momentan nu există aşa ceva. Să-ţi povestesc despre cineva. E o prostie desigur, e ca şi cum ţi-aş cânta Liszt la chitara electrică. Nu zic că nu sună bine, doar că-i altceva. Acum vreo sută de ani artiştii intraseră mai toţi în psihoza asta în care-şi închipuiau că arta ar funcţiona ca mijloc de stocare a persoanelor lor. O tragică înşelătorie. Ce se păstrează e doar mahmureala de a doua zi. După cum ziceam, nimeni nu ştie cum să păstreze melodiile. Creativitatea nu-i o virtute, e o inevitabilitate. Memoria nu există, lucrurile sunt reinventate şi nu ne amintim diferenţele – de-aia credem că ne amintim. Nici măcar tu însuţi nu te poţi reţine pe tine însuţi. Tot ce poţi face e să inventezi alte melodii, altele şi altele şi altele. Dacă ai cu cine. Şi omenirea, o să întrebi. Zgomot. Muzică industrială de cea mai bună calitate.

31 July 2010

Bryan Caplan on the dynamics between ideas and economic growth

An interesting essay from 2004: The Idea Trap

Imagine that the three variables I just named—growth, policy, and ideas—capture the essence of a country's economic/political situation. Then suppose that three "laws of motion" govern this system. The first two are almost true by definition:
1. Good ideas cause good policies.
2. Good policies cause good growth.

The third law is much less intuitive:
3. Good growth causes good ideas.

The third law only dawned on me when I was studying the public's beliefs about economics, and noticed that income growth seems to increase economic literacy, even though income level does not. In other words, poor people whose income is rising—like recent immigrants—have more than the average amount of economic sense; rich people whose income is falling—like the Kennedy family—have less.

This bare-bones model has a surprising implication: There is more than one outcome with staying power. The good news is that you can have favorable results across the board. Good ideas lead to good policy, good policy leads to good growth, and good growth reinforces good ideas. The bad news is that you can also get mired in the opposite outcome. A society can get stuck in an "idea trap," where bad ideas lead to bad policy, bad policy leads to bad growth, and bad growth cements bad ideas.

This also predicts that economic recessions generate the spread of bad ideas which, in turn, hamper recovery.

Bart Wilson on the Meaning of "Fair"

29 July 2010

Moral relativism as a function of culture

culture v. moral relativism

The irony is that postmodernists cannot distinguish between 1 and 3, while natural rights theorists cannot distinguish between 2 and 3.

22 July 2010

Robert Wright – Deception and self-deception

Some quotes from The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are, chapter 13, “Deception and self-deception”:

Men and women may mislead each other — and even, in the process, themselves — about the likely endurance of their commitment or about their likely fidelity. There are two other large realms in which the presentation of self, and the perception of others, has great Darwinian consequence: reciprocal altruism and social hierarchy. Here, as with sex, honesty can be a major blunder. In fact, reciprocal altruism and social hierarchy may together be responsible for most of the dishonesty in our species — which, in turn, accounts for a good part of the dishonesty in the animal kingdom. We are far from the only dishonest species, but we are surely the most dishonest, if only because we do the most talking.

Leaving a good impression

People don't seek status per se. They don't chart out their desired ascent and pursue it as methodically as a field general prosecutes a war. Well, okay, some do. Maybe all of us do sometimes. But the quest for status is also built more finely into the psyche. People in all cultures, whether they fully realize it or not, want to wow their neighbors, to rise in local esteem. ...

In Victorian England, boasting was frowned on, and Darwin was an expert on how not to do it. Many modern cultures share this taste, and in them "excessive boasting" is merely a phase through which children pass. But what is the next phase? A lifetime of more measured boasting. ... Presumably, how much blatant boasting you do depends on the credible means of self-advertisement in your social environment (and was probably calibrated by feedback from kin and peers early on). But if you don't feel even some urge to disseminate news of your triumphs, however subtly, and some reluctance to talk widely about your failures, you aren't functioning as designed.

Does such self-advertisement often involve deception? Not in the grossest sense. To tell huge lies about ourselves, and believe them, would be dangerous. Lies can be found out, and they force us to spend time and energy remembering which lies we've told to whom. ... There are kinds of lies that, being slight, or hard to discredit, are hard to get tangled up in, and these are the sorts of lies we should expect people to tell. ...

The assignment of blame and of credit, an area where objective truth is elusive, offers rich terrain for self-inflation. The tendency to attribute our successes to skill, and our failures to circumstance — luck, enemies, Satan — has been demonstrated in the laboratory and, anyway, is obvious. In games where chance plays a role, we tend to chalk up our losses to the luck of the draw and our victories to cleverness.

And we don't just say this; we believe it. Darwin was an enthusiastic backgammon player and, not surprisingly, he often won when playing against his children. One of his daughters recalls that "we kept a list of the doublets thrown by each, as I was convinced that he threw better than myself." This conviction is familiar to losing backgammon players everywhere. It helps preserve our belief in our competence and thus helps us convince others of it. It also provides a steady source of income for backgammon hustlers.

Self-aggrandizement always comes at the expense of others. To say that you lost a game through luck is to say that your opponent won through luck. And even leaving aside games and other openly competitive endeavors, to toot your own horn is to mute other horns for status is a relative thing. Your gain is someone else's loss.

And vice versa: someone else's loss is your gain. This is where the unconscious pursuit of status can turn nasty. In a small group (a group, say, the size of a hunter-gatherer village), a person has a broad interest in deflating the reputations of others, especially others of the same sex and similar age, with whom there exists a natural rivalry. And again, the best way to convince people of something, including their neighbors' shortcomings, is to believe what you're saying. One would therefore expect, in a hierarchical species endowed with language, that the organisms would often play up their own feats, downplay the feats of others, and do both things with conviction. Indeed, in the social psychology laboratory, people not only tend to attribute success to skill and failure to circumstance; they tend to reverse the pattern when evaluating others. Luck is the thing that makes you fail and other people succeed; ability works the other way around. ...

The keen sensitivity with which people detect the flaws of their rivals is one of nature's wonders. It takes a Herculean effort to control this tendency consciously, and the effort must be repeated on a regular basis. Some people can summon enough restraint not to talk about their rivals' worthlessness; they may even utter some Victorian boilerplate about a "worthy opponent." But to rein in the perception itself — unending, unconscious, all-embracing search for signs of unworthiness — is truly a job for a Buddhist monk. Honesty of evaluation is simply beyond the reach of most mortals.

If advertisement is so deeply ingrained in people, why are there self-deprecators? One answer is that self-deprecation is without cost when everyone knows better, and can actually have some benefit; a reputation for humility boosts the credibility of subtle boasting. ... The third answer is the most interesting: social hierarchy has, via natural selection, had some ironic effects on the human mind. There are times when it makes good evolutionary sense to have a genuinely low opinion of yourself and to share that opinion with others.

The whole origin of status, remember, lies in the fact that some neighbors — some of a chicken's fellow chickens, say — are too formidable to challenge profitably. Genes that build brains that tell the animal which neighbors are worth challenging, and which aren't, flourish. How exactly do the brains convey this message? Not by sending little "Challenge" or "Don't Challenge" subtitles across the eyeball. Presumably, the message travels via feeling; animals feel either up to the challenge or not up to it. And animals at the very bottom of the hierarchy — animals that get pummeled by all comers — will get the latter feeling chronically. You could call it low self-esteem.

In fact, you could say that low self-esteem evolved as a way to reconcile people to subordinate status when reconciliation is in their genetic interest.

Don't expect people with low self-esteem to hide it. It may be in their genetic interest not only to accept low status, but, in at least some circumstances, to convey their acceptance of it — to behave submissively so that they aren't erroneously perceived as a threat and treated as such. ...

The anthropologist John Hartung, who in 1988 raised the possibility of self-deceptively lowering self-esteem — "deceiving down," he called it — has come up with another kind of example. Women, he suggested, may sometimes falsely subordinate themselves to men. If, say, household income depends partly on the husband having high self-esteem at the workplace, a woman may find herself unwittingly "building her husband's self-confidence by providing a standard of lower competence." ...

Where does truth belong on the spectrum of self-esteem? If one month, following a string of professional and social successes, you're fairly brimming with serotonin and feel enduringly competent, likable, and attractive, and the next month, after a few setbacks, and some serotonin slippage, you feel enduringly worthless, you can't have been right both times. Which time were you wrong? Is serotonin truth serum or a mind-numbing narcotic?

Maybe neither. When you're feeling either very good or very bad about yourself, it probably means that a large body of evidence is being hidden from view. The most truthful times come between the extremes.

Anyway, maybe "truth" is best left out of this altogether. Whether you're a "good" or a "worthless" person is a question whose objective meaning is, at best, elusive. And even when "truth" can be clearly defined, it is a concept to which natural selection is indifferent. ... Truth and honesty are never favored by natural selection in and of themselves. Natural selection neither "prefers" honesty nor "prefers" dishonesty. It just doesn't care.

Strong yet sensitive

Reciprocal altruism brings its own agenda to the presentation of self, and thus to the deception of self. Whereas status hierarchies place a premium on our seeming competent, attractive, strong, smart, etcetera, reciprocal altruism puts its accent on niceness, integrity, fairness. These are the things that make us seem like worthy reciprocal altruists. They make people want to strike up relationships with us. Puffing up our reputations as decent and generous folks can't hurt, and it often helps. ...

Our repertoire of moral excuses is large. Psychologists have found that people justify their failure to help others by minimizing, variously, the person's plight ("That's not an assault, it's a lover's quarrel"), their own responsibility for the plight, and their own competence to help. ...

Michael Gazzaniga, who conducted some of the split-brain experiments, has said that language is merely the "press agent" for other parts of the mind; it justifies whatever acts they induce, convincing the world that the actor is a reasonable, rational, upstanding person. It may be that the realm of consciousness itself is in large part such a press agent — the place where our unconsciously written press releases are infused with the conviction that gives them force. Consciousness cloaks the cold and self-serving logic of the genes in a variety of innocent guises. The Darwinian anthropologist Jerome Barkow has written, "It is possible to argue that the primary evolutionary function of the self is to be the organ of impression management (rather than, as our folk psychology would have it, a decision-maker)."

Dubious accounting

The warping effect of reciprocal altruism goes beyond a general belief in our own uprightness. It can also be seen in our skewed social accounting systems. Central to reciprocal altruism is the monitoring of exchanges — the record of whom you owe, who owes you, and how much is owed. From the gene's point of view, monitoring the two sides of the record with equal diligence would be foolish. If you end up getting slightly more than you give, so much the better. But if you give more than you get by even the smallest increment, that's an increment of loss. ... [P]eople keep closer track of what they're owed than of what they owe ... So there is reason to suspect an innate basis for biased social accounting. The bias appears to be universal, and seems intuitively to be a corollary of the theory of reciprocal altruism.

[People] simply find themselves constantly in touch with all the evidence supporting their position, and often having to be reminded of all the evidence against it. Darwin wrote in his autobiography of a habit he called a "golden rule": to immediately write down any observation that seemed inconsistent with his theories — "for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones. " The reason the generic human arguing style feels so effortless is that, by the time the arguing starts, the work has already been done. Robert Trivers has written about the periodic disputes — contract renegotiations, you might call them — that are often part of a close relationship, whether a friendship or a marriage. The argument, he notes, "may appear to burst forth spontaneously, with little or no preview, yet as it rolls along, two whole landscapes of information appear to lie already organized, waiting only for the lightning of anger to show themselves."

The proposition here is that the human brain is, in large part, a machine for winning arguments, a machine for convincing others that its owner is in the right — and thus a machine for convincing its owner of the same thing. The brain is like a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth, regardless of whether they in fact have any of either. Like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth; and, like a lawyer, it is sometimes more admirable for skill than for virtue. ...

One might think that, being rational creatures, we would eventually grow suspicious of our uncannily long string of rectitude, our unerring knack for being on the right side of any dispute over credit, or money, or manners, or anything else. Nope. Time and again — whether arguing over a place in line, a promotion we never got, or which car hit which — we are shocked at the blindness of people who dare suggest that our outrage isn't warranted.

21 July 2010

Darwinian liberalism

I'm enjoying the conversation at CATO Unbound about Larry Arnhart's ideas about the connection between Darwinism and liberalism. It seems to me that Arnhart is on to something, but that he is not presenting the argument very well, and thus the other contributors (PZ Myers, Lionel Tiger, and Herbert Gintis) have failed to appreciate it properly. Here is how I would reframe it (and perhaps change it’s conclusion a bit?):

Given the relatively unchanging human nature, various types of social order (i.e. different sets of formal+informal institutions) are not equally conducive of a particular social goal X; i.e. one cannot manufacture the “ideal human nature” for advancing social goal X, but instead has to take human nature as it is and search for institutional reforms that lead to X. Whether or not social goal X is better achieved by institutions A or B is an objective fact (although sometimes, due to the complexities involved, it is difficult to demonstrate A or B). This objectivity stems from human nature’s lack of malleability, as Arnhart argues and the others seem to agree.

The problem now is that there are many possible social goals that people may consider, and there's no consensus about which are “really” more important than others. This is where Arnhart’s weak point in the argument seems to be. He seems to be saying simply that, given human nature as it is, certain worthy social goals (e.g. welfare) are best achieved via classical liberal institutions. However, this isn’t enough to conclude that liberalism is a necessary consequence of human nature because other people may rather focus on different social goals (e.g. more equality, respecting tradition etc.). Various social goals are in conflict and there’s no objective way in which we can decide how to make the trade-offs between them. All we can hope for is a negotiation process among various people with different views, i.e. politics.

There is thus a problem if one wants to derive a normative position from the Darwinian theory of human nature. However, one doesn’t need to push for a normative position, and the above relativist argument actually fails to push Darwinism to its natural limits. There is a particular social “goal” that is objective, in the sense that it is derived from an application of the weak anthropic principle to the evolution of institutions: present institutions are here because they have survived (so far) in the competition with other institutions. In other words, any social goal X that one might favor has to obey a higher Darwinian “goal”: the institutions conducive of goal X have to be able to survive in the competition with other institutions.

Institutions survive and spread due to three possible reasons:
1) they further the average interests of individuals (classical sociological individualist functionalism and economics, e.g. see Mises for a rather extreme idealization of this position);
2) they further the power of the group (classical sociological group functionalism, and, notably, Hayek, David Sloan Wilson);
3) they simply spread, regardless of whether they actually bring any individual or group benefits, because people find them intuitive due to their evolved social instincts (Cosmides & Tooby, Sperber, Richerson & Boyd, Boyer, Atran).

To put it differently, institutions spread either because they are imitated from one society to another (and they’re imitated because of 1 or 3) or because a society conquers another and imposes new institutions to it (i.e. 2, a task somewhat difficult but not unseen).

Thus, from a purely descriptive point of view, asking what follows from the existence of a universal and inflexible human nature means asking: what ensemble of institutions furthers average individual interest better (the average being hypothetically computed by weighting the interest of each individual according to its power and influence within the group), makes society more powerful relative to other societies (such that it resists being conquered or it succeeds in conquering them), and is relatively in-sync with our evolved social and moral intuitions?

So, how does classical liberalism fare this test? Is it really the kind of institutional system we would expect to see spreading and conquering all others? First of all, it has a real intuition problem (especially because it conflicts with our intuitions about equality, bad luck, and strangers). Arnhart acknowledges this, which is why he sides with a liberal-conservative fusion, rather than with pure libertarianism. This intuition problem is compensated to some extent by the fact that a) liberalism increases individual welfare faster than any other system, b) it diminishes conflicts with other societies due to free trade, albeit c) greater wealth also translates into greater military power. Thus, at least prima facie, it seems that what we should expect to see spreading is basically the US-EU institutional model – i.e. a somewhat protectionist social-market economy with a strong military. And of course, this, rather than classical liberalism, is precisely the system that’s spreading (to China etc.).*

* my own liberal/libertarian normative beliefs are not exactly along the lines of this conclusion, but, heck, what can I do?

18 July 2010

Philip Rieff - “Because we have no real churches, we can have no reformations”

Some interesting quotes from The Triumph of the Therapeutic, by Philip Rieff.

In the natural beginning were the impulses; in the historic beginning were the repressions. Political history began when some of the repressed discovered how to use repressions to their own material gain. (p. 130)

To speak of a moral culture would be redundant. Every culture has two main functions: 1) to organize the moral demands men make upon themselves into a system of symbols that make men intelligible and trust-worthy to each other, thus rendering also the world intelligible and trust-worthy; 2) to organize the expressive remissions by which men release themselves, in some degree, from the strain of conforming to the controlling symbolic, internalized variant readings of culture that constitute individual character. (p. 199)

No culture of which we are aware of has yet escaped the tension between the modalities of control and release by which every culture constitutes itself. Cultures achieve their measure of duration in the degree that they build releasing devices into the major controls. These are the devices that modern psychotherapy seeks to develop; it is this development which gives to psychotherapy its present importance in the history of our culture. ...

A cultural revolution occurs when the releasing or remissive symbolic grows more compelling than the controlling one; then it is that the inherent tensions reach a breaking point. (p. 200)

(Here is a very similar view from Zizek: video)

This view of culture is a generalization of Rieff’s view of religion and of the function of faith:

It is essential to the understanding of the function of religion that it presents jointly and in fusion two analytically discernible alternatives: either a therapeutic control of everyday life or a therapeutic respite from that very control. On the one hand, faith is doctrinal, and that doctrine is internalized thus becoming functionally anti-instinctual. On the other hand, faith is ecstatic, or erotic; there is a relative absence of doctrinal internalization, and the religious mood covertly provides an opportunity for the instincts to express themselves more directly, for example, in orgiastic behavior, or in mystical states of mind which release the subject from traditional authority.

Defined as control of conduct in everyday life, faith tends to be methodical and systematic. Defined as remission of that control, faith tends to be anti-methodical and unsystematic. To the extent that a system of faith spreads, the line between usual and unusual religious experience grows fuzzy. (p. 27-8)

In the past, religion achieved its therapeutic function via “therapies of commitment”. “Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased” (p. 19)

In time of public philosophies and social religions, the great communities were positive. A positive community is characterized by the fact that it guarantees some kind of salvation to the individual by virtue of his membership and participation in that community. That sort of community seemed corrupt to economic man, with his particular version of ascetic ideal tested mainly by self-reliance and personal achievement. The positive community was displaced, in social theory, by the neutral market. Now, in the middle of 20th century, the market mechanism appears no so much corrupt as a fiction to psychological man, with his awareness of how decisions are made in the social system. (p. 43)

From Plato and Aristotle, through Burke and de Tocqueville, the therapeutic implication of social theory is remarkably consistent: an individual can exercise his gifts and powers fully only by participating in the common life. This is the classical ideal. The healthy man is in fact the good citizen. The therapeutic and the moral were thus connected in the Western tradition of social theory. (p. 56)

Ultimately the community cures. The function of the classical therapist is to commit the patient to the symbol system of the community, as best he can and by whatever techniques are sanctioned (e.g. ritual or dialectical, magical or rational). All such efforts to reintegrate the subject into the communal symbol system may be categorized as “commitment therapies”. Behind shaman and priest, philosopher and physician, stands the great community as the ultimate corrective of personal disorders. (p. 57)

In short, security cured; and security came through membership in an “organic” community. This was the basis of conservative and radical political theory alike: community cures through the achievement by the individual of his collective identity. To cure a man, one need only to return him to his community or construct a new one. (p. 59)

Moreover, the “religious therapeutic elites” acted to protect the “moral demands” and to promote “commitments” to a unique model of the good life. They were even willing to go as far as to engage “in the absurd task of trying to teach contended people how discontented they really are” (p. 207). This is no longer the case:

Therapeutic elites before our own were predominately supportive rather than critical of culture as a moral demand system. Admonitions were expectable predicates of consolations; that is what is meant, nowadays, by “guilt” culture. Whenever therapeutic elites grow predominately critical then a cultural revolution may be said to be in progress. Ours is such a time. (p. 11)

Thus, according to Rieff, we are in the middle of a major cultural revolution, characterized by growing individualism and a loss of communal goals.

An endemic individualism, such as that in the United States, whether doctrinally elaborated or not, may prevent a commitment therapy from taking full effect. Because of this preventive, long culturally dominant, another kind of therapeutic effort has become necessary, uniquely modern, and different in kind from the classical therapies of commitment. This new attitude underlying the therapeutic effort may be termed “analytic”. The chief and greatest of these therapies is the Freudian. The analytic therapy developed precisely in response to the need of the Western individual, in the Tocquevillean definition, for a therapy that would not depend for its effect on a symbolic return to a positive community; at best, analytic therapy creates negative communities. The distinction between positive and negative communities, in the usage here intended, is as follows: positive communities are characterized by their guarantee of some kind of salvation for the self; and by salvation is meant an experience which transforms all personal relations by subordinating them to agreed communal purposes; negative communities are those which, enabled to survive almost automatically by a self-sustaining technology, do not offer a type of collective salvation, and in which the therapeutic experience is not transformative but rather informative. Commitment therapies can prove efficacious only in positive communities; this kind of therapy would also be transformative, as in various kinds of religious conversion, when personality is supposed to undergo profound changes, so that even the name of the subject may be changed. This may happen, however, as we are aware, also in various secular revolutionary movements. ...

Advanced industrial communities are no longer culturally positive. Under this general condition, controls must be established in a way other than that of transformative experiences. The ways suitable to modern culture are generally classifiable as “informative”, aiming at strengthening of ego-controls over inner conflicts. (p. 61)

In the age of psychologizing , clarity about oneself supersedes devotion to an ideal as the model of right conduct. (p. 46)

But why did this revolution get started? I.e. what is the origin of “modernity”?

What happens, however, if the community itself is disordered? Plato and his successors faced this question. They tried to construct models for a re-ordering of the community and, therewith, for that of a personal life worth living. They assumed that personal and moral perfection would go parallel with insight into the right social order. Yet, suppose there occurred some disorder so fundamental in nature as to destroy the therapeutic function of the community per se? Suppose, for a variety of examined reasons, the community were no longer able to supply a system of symbolic integration? Here, then, in the destruction of all idealizations upon which traditional and classical communities were based, in theory and practice, is to be sought the origin of modernity. (p. 57)

The main cause of this “fundamental disorder”, and, thus, of the present cultural revolution, is economic and technological. “What happens if an entire society grows rich, technologically loaded with bribes, and is dominated by preoccupations that may be best defined as anti-creedal?” (p.213). What happens is that the commitments to a unique model of the good life are simply no longer perceived as necessary to the preservation of social order (negative communities “survive almost automatically”):

With their secondary needs automatically satisfied, men may no longer need to have something in common, as an end to love. The organization of indifference may well succeed the organization of love, producing a culture at lower cost to individual energies. (p. 204)

The strange new lesson we have begun to learn in our time is how not to pay the high personal costs of social organization. The revolution continues in a remissive direction, beyond that rationalism Max Weber called “disenchantment”, toward the dissolution of old systems of moral demand, with their requirements of almost total social cooperation in order to survive the hard reality in a world characterized by scarcity. The present swing in the direction of release may not be orbital but more extended and historically more permanent, based on the automaticity and ease with which an infinity of created needs can now be satisfied. ...

[T]he modern cultural revolution ... is deliberately not in the name of any new order of communal purpose that it is taking place. On the contrary, this revolution is being fought for a permanent disestablishment of any deeply internalized moral demands, in a world which can guarantee a plenitude produced without reference to the rigid maintenance of any particular interdictory (and counter-interdictory) system. (p. 205)

Our cultural revolution has been made from the top, rather from the bottom. It is anti-political, a revolution of the rich by which they have lowered the pressure of inherited communal purpose upon themselves. ...

[C]ultural revolutions before our own have asserted some limit on the race for status and satisfaction, and have promoted interdicts to limit and displace the dynamics of acquisitive appetite. Western culture has been dominated by an ascetic modal personality. Even the Calvinist bourgeois was to have his capital as if he had it not. Ours is the first cultural revolution fought to no other purpose than greater amplitude and richness of living itself. Is this not what is meant by the “revolution of rising expectations”? ...

For the culturally conservative image of the ascetic, enemy of his own needs, there has been substituted the image of the needy person, permanently engaged in the task of achieving a gorgeous variety of satisfactions. (p. 206-7)

Confronted with the irrelevance of ascetic standards of conduct, the social reformer has retreated from nebulous doctrines attempting to state the desired quality of life to the more substantial doctrines of quantity. The reformer asks only for more of everything – more goods, more housing, more leisure; in short, more life. This translation of quantity into quality states the algebra of our cultural revolution. Who will be stupid enough to lead a counter revolution? Surely, even the rich are now emancipated enough from ascetic symbol systems to concede more of everything to everyone, without serious loss to themselves. They cannot be threatened by a doctrine that merely asks for more, for this presupposes that quantity determines the quality of life – and this very assumption expresses the religion of the rich. (p. 208)

Not trained in a symbolic of obedience – indeed, entertaining the category merely as a convenience – Western man could be free at last from an authority depending upon his sense of sin. Even now, sin is all but incomprehensible to him inasmuch as the moral demand system no longer generates powerful inclinations toward obedience or faith, nor feelings of guilt when those inclinations are overridden by others for which sin is the ancient name. (209-10)

So, what happens when this concept of “more is the definition of better” is applied to human relationships? Here’s Rieff’s premonition of Facebook and social networking :)

Crowded more and more together, we are learning to live more distantly from one another, in strategically varied and numerous contacts, rather than in the oppressive warmth of family and friends. A culture of contacts is, at last, an historically accomplishable fact. (p. 208)

While close friendship is replaced by “contacts”, intimacy is replaced by superficiality:

All objects of commitment [are rendered] instrumental to the therapeutic process itself. ... To be truly free and yet social means to cultivate detachment, as opposed to alienation. The therapeutic, even in erotic action, can do without attachment – indeed, he can do with and do without it, simultaneously, for relations that are too near and too fixed may lead to symptoms that destroy the capacity of an individual to live out his own life in ways of his own choosing. This is not to say that to live thus, detachedly, implies an absence of erotic company, or even an absence of the erotic manner. On the contrary, the therapeutic treats love instrumentally. He is more likely to be more circumspect and better behaved than his ascetic forebear, who was subject to mood fluctuations between wild passion and accidie, due in part to the rigid system of controls and over burned devices of release. With a shift in the system, giving greater amplitude to the releasing devices, the subject personalities are likely to develop more measured, calculated capacity in the use of their spontaneity. (p. 50)

The faith in the external things, rather than in the externalization of feeling, has had the effect on making man think less and less highly of himself rather than more and more so. (p. 172-3)

The presumed enemy of this cultural revolution is traditional religion. However, it has been co-opted as they failed to mount a worthy opposition or present a credible alternative. Thus the triumph of the therapeutic – religion itself has been reinterpreted in individualistic therapeutic terms.

Faith is better than knowledge if it works; but knowledge is better if faith be only an escape from knowledge. (p. 83)

Truth is a matter of achieving therapeutically useful opinions. (p. 82)

Freud taught lessons which Americans, prepared by their own national experience, learned easily: survive, resign yourself to living within your moral means, suffer no gratuitous failures in a futile search for ethical heights that no longer exist – if they ever did. Freud proclaims the superior wisdom of choosing the second best. He is our Crito, become intellectually more subtle than the sick and old Socrates, who was still foolish enough to justify his own death sentence rather than escape from the prison of his own inhibitions about the sanctity of the state, which he mistakes for his father. Freud appeals to us because his wisdom is so cautious. (p. 48)

Emancipated from an ethic of hard work, Americans have also grown morally less self-demanding. They have been released from the old system of self-demands by a convergence of doctrines that do not resort to new restrictions but rather propose jointly the superiority of all that money can buy, technology can make, and science can conceive. (p. 216)

Nowadays, the world is full of tame Christians; in consequence, the churches are empty of life, if not of people. (p. 84)

[P]reaching, which once communicated revelatory messages, is a dead art, wrapping empty packages in elaborate solecisms. (p. 218)

Certain naive ascetic doctrines, which once did contain spiritual perceptions of great depth, such as that of holy poverty, now embarrass the churches, competing as they do for pride of place in a culture of affluence. Such perceptions are practically taboo subjects, specially among Americans, except negatively, when clergymen complain that they do not receive salaries commensurate with their status as professional men. ... Grudgingly, the Roman [Catholic] churchmen must give way to their Western laity and translate their sacramental rituals into comprehensible terms as therapeutic devices, retaining just enough archaism to satisfy at once the romantic interest of women and the sophisticated interest of those historical pietists for whom the antique alone carries that lovely patina they call faith. (p. 216)

On the other hand, the therapeutic has arisen out of a rejection of all therapies of commitment, precisely by persuading halfway the recalcitrant among those who submitted to the old commitment therapies that they have acted out of denials of knowledge and pleasure that no longer contribute to their spiritual health but, rather, to their mental disease. (p. 217)

[Western society] can develop no new (or renewed) system of interdicts from the therapeutic parody of a moral demand system; in consequence, all attempts at connecting the doctrines of psychotherapy with old faiths are patently misconceived. At its most innocuous, these psychotherapeutic religiosities represent a failure of nerve by both psychotherapists and clergymen.  (p. 218)

The aim of psychoanalysis is the aim of science – power; in this case a transformative technology of the inner life. Where science is, technology will be. This ultimate technology aims at increasing the range of choice. Yet, without a parallel range of god-terms from which choices may be derived or ordered, choice itself may become a matter of indifference or man will become a glutton, choosing everything. There is no feeling more desperate than that of being free to choose, and yet without the specific compulsion of being chosen. After all one does not really choose; one is chosen. This is one way of stating the difference between gods and men. Gods choose; men are chosen. What men lose when they become as free as gods is precisely the sense of being chosen, which encourages them, in their gratitude, to take subsequent choices seriously. Put in another way, this means: Freedom does not exist without responsibility. (p. 79)

The scientists are a curious case. By tradition and training they are intractably modest. Claims to spiritual perception rarely occur explicitly in their work. Profoundly as that work has affected modern culture, the scientists have been non-combatants in the culture class war. With rare exceptions, they still accept the Rtschlian distinction between statements of fact and judgments of value. They make fact statements; the task of making value judgments belongs to other specialists, those elites that won exclusive custody over culture even as they gave up pretending they had authoritative knowledge of nature. (p. 218)

The scientific community aspires to be supra-cultural, and is not qualified therefore to supply creedal dynamic to than new laity, the non-scientists. In this sense, the scientific endeavor in its entirety, representing as it does the effort to create a non-moral culture, embodies the moral revolution. With a commitment that is strictly vocational, the scientist personifies the latest phase in the Western psycho-historical process, one that refrains from laying down guidelines of moral intervention for the society as a whole. Whatever his professed intention, the scientist acts, therefore, as a spiritual perceptor to modern man. The therapeutic has everything – and nothing – to learn from the scientist, for, in the established sense of the word, the scientist, as such, has no culture. (p. 219)

That a sense of well-being has become the end, rather than a by-product of striving after some superior communal end, announces a fundamental change of focus in the entire case of our culture – toward a human condition about which there will be nothing further to say in terms of the old style of despair and hope. (p. 223)

27 June 2010

Jose Saramago - “Ignoranta ne apara de falsele cunoasteri”

Povestea unei vaci, din Calatoria Elefantului:

Despre ce poveste e vorba, intreba comandantul, Istoria unei vaci, Vacile au istorie, intreba din nou comandantul, zambind, Asta, da, are, douasprezece zile si douasprezece nopti in muntii din galicia, pe frig, si ploie, si gheata, si noroi, si pietre ascutite ca niste hangere, si hatisuri cu unghii, si scurte intervale de odihna, si lupta si atacuri, si urlete si mugete, istoria unei vaci care s-a ratacit pe camp cu vitelul ei de lapte si s-a pomenit inconjurata de lupi timp de douasprezece zile si douasprezece nopti, si a fost obligata sa se apere si sa-si apere puiul, o nesfarsita batalie, spaima de a fi la un pas de moarte, un cerc de dinti, de gatlejuri cascate, salturile bruste, coarnele care nu puteau sa dea gres, teroarea de a trebui sa lupte pentru sine si pentru un pui care nu se putea apara singur, si, de asemenea, momentele cand vitelul cauta ugerul mamei, si sugea lent, in timp ce lupii se apropiau, cu spinarea incordata si urechile ciulite. Subhro respira adanc si urma, Dupa dousprezece zile, vaca a fost gasita si salvata, plus vitelul, si au fost dusi in triumf in sat, dar povestea nu se termina aici, a continuat inca doua zile, pentru ca invatase sa se apere, pentru ca nimeni nu mai putea s-o stapaneasca si nici macar sa se apropie de ea, vaca a fost omorata, nu de lupii pe care ii invinsese in douasprezece zile de lupta, ci chiar de oamenii care o salvasera, poate chiar de stapanul ei, incapabil sa inteleaga ca, invatand sa lupte, animalul, pe vremuri pasnic si impacat cu soarta, nu se va mai opri niciodata.

O tacere respectuoasa domni cateva secunde in marea sala de piatra. Soldatii prezenti, desi fara mare experienta de razboi, e de ajuns sa spunem ca cei mai tineri nu mirosisera niciodata praful de pusca de pe campurile de bataie, se minunau in sinea lor de curajul unei creaturi irationale, o vaca, inchipuiti-va, care aratase ca are sentimente atat de umane ca iubirea de familie, darul sacrificiului personal, abnegatia dusa la extrem. Primul care a vorbit a fost soldatul care se pricepea la lupi, Povestea ta este frumoasa, ii spuse lui subhro, si vaca asta ar merita cel putin o medalie pentru curaj si merit, dar, in relatare, sunt unele lucruri neclare, ba chiar cam dubioase. De exemplu, intreba cornacul pe un ton bataios, De exemplu, cine ti-a povestit intamplarea, Un galician, Si el de unde o stie, Trebuie s-o fi auzit de la cineva, Sau s-o fi citit, Nu cred ca stie sa citeasca, A auzit-o si a tinut-o minte, E posibil, eu n-am facut decat s-o repet cat de bine am putut, Ai memorie buna, cu atat mai mult cu cat povestea e spusa intr-un limbaj putin curent, Multumesc, spuse subhro, dar acum as vrea sa stiu ce lucruri neclare si cam dubioase ai gasit tu in povestire, Primul este ca se se da de inteles, sau, mai bine zis, se afirma clar ca lupta dintre vaca si lupi a durat douasprezece zile si douasprezece nopti, ceea ce inseamna ca lupii au atacat vaca indata, in prima noapte, si s-au retras, probabil cu pierderi, in ultima, N-am fost acolo, n-am putut vedea, Da, dar cei care stiu cate ceva despre lupi stiu ca aceste animale, desi traiesc in haite, vaneaza singuri, Unde vrei sa ajungi, intreba subhro, Vreau sa spun ca vaca n-ar fi putut rezista atacului combinat a trei sau patru lupi, nu zic douasprezece zile, dar nici macar o singura ora, Atunci, in povestea vacii luptatoare, totul e minciuna, Nu minciuna, exagerare, zurgalai de limbaj, jumatati de adevar care vor sa treaca drept adevaruri complete, Atunci, ce crezi tu ca s-a intamplat, intreba subhro, Cred ca vaca intr-adevar s-a pierdut, a fost atacata de un lup, a luptat cu el si l-a obligat sa fuga, poate grav ranit, iar apoi a ramas pe loc pascand si dand sa suga vitelului, pana cand au gasit-o, Si nu se putea intampla sa mai vina inca un lup, Ba da, dar asta ar insemna prea multa imaginatie, pentru a justifica medalia de curaj si merit, e de ajuns un singur lup. Asistenta aplauda gandindu-se ca, la urma urmelor, vaca galiciana merita adevarul, tot atat cat medalia.

31 May 2010

It seems I’m a psychological reductionist :)

The Personal Identity Game

Your choices are consistent with the theory known as psychological reductionism. On this view, all that is required for the continued existence of the self is psychological continuity. Your three choices show that this is what you see as central to your sense of self, not any attachment to a particular substance, be it your body, brain or soul.

Jose Saramago despre dumnezeu si teoria jocurilor

Din Calatoria elefantului de Jose Saramago:

Hamalii s-au pus deja in mișcare. Conviețuirea cu militarii ii făcuse, aproape fara sa-si dea seama, sa capete anumite obiceiuri de disciplina precum cele care pot rezulta din ordinul de încolonare, de exemplu, invatasera sa se organizeze intr-o coloana formata din doua sau trei rânduri, pentru ca nu e indiferent cum sunt dispuși oamenii, intr-un caz, coloana ar avea cincisprezece rânduri, o întindere exagerata, usor de dezorganizat la cea mai mica tulburare personala sau colectiva, in alt caz, ea ar fi redusa la un solid bloc de zece rânduri, căruia nu i-ar lipsi decât scuturile ca sa semene cu țestoasa romana. Cu toate acestea, diferența e mai ales psihologica. Sa ne gândim ca oamenii au înaintea lor un marș îndelungat si ca e firesc ca, in cursul lui, sa stea de vorba ca sa treaca timpul. Or, doi oameni care trebuie sa meargă împreuna timp de doua sau trei ore fara oprire fara oprire, chiar imaginandu-ne ca e mare dorința de comunicare, vor sfârșit in mod fatal, mai devreme sau mai târziu, prin a cădea intr-o tăcere stânjenitoare, mai știi, chiar urandu-se. Cate unul s-ar putea sa nu fie in stare sa reziste tentației de a-l arunca pe celalalt in râpa. Au dreptate, așadar, cei care spun ca trei a fost socoteala pe care a făcut-o dumnezeu, numărul păcii, numărul concordiei. In trei, cel puțin, oricine va putea sa tacă timp de câteva minute fara sa bata prea mult la ochi. Cel mai rau ar fi daca unul care s-a gândit sa-l elimine pe altul ca sa-i ia mâncarea, de exemplu, l-ar invita pe al treilea sa colaboreze la condamnabila lui acțiune, iar acesta i-ar răspunde cu teama, Nu pot, i-am promis sa-l ajut sa te omoare pe tine.

29 May 2010

De la Craig Venter la genomul Neandertalienilor


Craig Venter’s artificial life 
Christina on the future of synthetic biology
John on the decoding of the Neandertal genome
How much like Neandertals are we?
A primer on fossil forensics
Paleoanthropology and synthetic biology: the hidden connections