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Schrodinger’s Catwalk November 27, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.
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I think a show devoted to discovering “Australia’s Next Top Model” needs a different format than the American version. Does Tyra know quantum mechanics?

And a physicist claims he has been plagiarized.

Gratitude November 18, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Ethics, Philosophy.

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us; its time to think about gratitude and food. Truth be told, my thoughts are seldom very far from the topic of food. I suppose there is an issue about whether fluffy mashed potatoes are better than creamy. I prefer fluffy but I don’t yet have a philosophical argument for this preference. So I shall leave discussion of the right method of making fluffy mashed potatoes to other media. (See here) However, gratitude raises some philosophical questions worth asking this time of year.

Gratitude is an emotion and, like other emotions, has what philosophers call an intentional object. Our emotions are about something. We don’t just feel fear–we fear something. We are not simply sad, but sad about something. Similarly, we are not just grateful but are grateful for something and feel gratitude toward something.

Our ordinary uses of the word “gratitude” suggest that the object of gratitude is another person. Gratitude expresses appreciation for a benefit received, and that suggests that something must have been the giver of the benefit and must have intended it as a benefit. Moreover, if our expressions of gratitude are to make sense, it would seem that we must express them to something that can recognize and appreciate the gratitude. The only thing that seems to qualify is another person.

To whom are we expressing gratitude at Thanksgiving? Believers in a personal God (Christians, Muslims, Jews, some Hindus, etc.) have a ready answer to this question. A God who listens to prayers, is capable of love, and has intentions has the necessary personal characteristics to be a recipient of gratitude, and if the religious narrative is correct, is surely deserving of it.

But what about non-believers (agnostics, atheists, Buddhists) or those who believe in an impersonal God, such as some Hindus, Taoists, etc. Does it make sense to give thanks to an impersonal God, or the universe, or nature? These impersonal beings have no intentions and lack conscious awareness. They neither intended to confer benefit on us nor recognize our attempts to give thanks. Is giving such thanks a coherent idea?

There are many people who do give thanks to impersonal objects. For instance, practitioners of yoga (with its roots in Hinduism) report intense feelings of gratitude and direct them towards nature or Being. But what is the structure of this feeling? What is the object? Of course one can pick an object like the sun toward which to express gratitude–surely the sun benefits us. But it’s just a ball of gas with no intentions or ability to receive our thanks. We can rejoice in its existence and appreciate its usefulness and beauty, but that is not the same thing as expressing gratitude.

My own view about gratitude is this. As human beings we are vulnerable creatures and when that vulnerability is lessened we naturally feel intense relief and celebration. The abundance we celebrate at Thanksgiving is a symbol of the mitigation of our vulnerability. But the object of gratitude is not some impersonal force. By themselves, the forces of nature confer no benefits on us. Without a human society that enables us to manage nature, the sun’s rays or a rainstorm’s moisture are cruel, blind impresses that would quickly snuff out human existence.We survive because of the existence of other persons both past and present who cooperate in ways that allow us to benefit from nature

The people sitting around our Thanksgiving tables are people we depend on and they deserve our gratitude. So do the people who continue to live only in our memories. But these concrete others are also symbols. They are symbols of the vast networks of anonymous others that make our abundance possible. Human beings who do their best everyday, who work hard, play hard, and take their responsibilities seriously. They make our abundance possible and deserve our thanks.

Of course, we don’t have personal relationships with all of these anonymous others. But they are persons who strive to add value and are conscious of doing so and who can acknowledge and receive thanks. And surely they are less abstract than the impersonal divinities of the Asian religions or the personal God of monotheism. Unlike the benefits conferred by deities, we can trace the causal lines of influence and explain the human excellence that puts food on our tables, energy in our homes, and information in our books and on our computers.

As we sit around the table at Thanksgiving, we see in the faces of family and friends the anonymous others who make our lives possible. Though anonymous they are not impersonal and are an appropriate object of gratitude.

Conservative Crackup? November 8, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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A group of influential conservatives recently raised the possibility of a third-party candidate should Rudy Giuliani gain the Repubican nomination. Their worry is that Giuliani is not committed to opposing abortion or gay rights, which have been the centerpiece of social conservative policy.

There is indeed some polling that suggests dissatisfaction among so called “values voters” with the current front runner. But I am skeptical about the conservative coalition falling apart.

At the end of the day, conservatism is about authority–the emotional need to follow an authoritarian leader who possesses moral clarity and is willing to use government power to enforce his moral vision.

Rudy is nothing if not authoritarian. Put Bush and Cheney in a wine press and squeeze–you will get the essence of Guiliani. So I suspect, despite some grumbling among the troops, conservatives will sacrifice a little spiritual “shock and awe” for a promise to push them foreigners around and kick some liberal butt.

It is not a surprise that Pat “9/11-was-God’s-punishment “Robertson and Rudy “9/11-is-my-epiphany” Giuliani are making nice.

Premature Ejaculations November 3, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Ethics, Science.

Renowned scientist James Watson got himself into hot water recently with his remarks about the intelligence of Africans. Watson, who won the Nobel prize for his part in discovering the structure of DNA, was quoted in an interview saying he was:

“inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”… His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level”. He writes that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so”.

Are Watson’s comments speaking truth to political correctness and the all-to-human tendency to believe bad things will go away if we don’t think about them; or were they just another racist rant misusing science to justify bigotry.

I think a little of both.

Had Watson simply stated that there was reason to believe there are genetic differences between geographically separated populations and that these genetic differences might extend to cognitive abilities, his comments would have been scientifically controversial but not necessarily racist.

It is not unreasonable to expect specific cognitive abilities to vary across populations just as other physical characteristics vary, and IQ tests show some variation although there is enormous controversy over what IQ is really testing.

But to suggest, using something as crude as an IQ test, that there is some generalized superiority of one race over another is racist and the idea that these differences would be significant enough to be obvious in the workplace is deeply offensive. This is not science but bigotry masquerading as science. Clearly, Watson’s best years are behind him.

This controversy over Watson’s remarks raises a more general concern that cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker raises in this essay. Pinker argues that:

“In every age, taboo questions raise our blood pressure and threaten moral panic. But we can’t be afraid to answer them.”

Among the questions Pinker thinks we should try to answer are: Do Most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage? Would society be better off if heroin and cocaine were legalized? Is Homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease? Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people? Etc.

Pinker is a sophisticated thinker and he provides a thoughtful and compelling case for allowing science to pursue unpopular ideas. I certainly agree with him in general.

However, I think Pinker’s essay fails to adequately discuss a crucial issue that the Watson case raises. For all of these questions that Pinker wants science to pursue, they are likely to be difficult to answer and subject to a good deal of uncertainty. We may in the end discover the truth, but the process will be full of false starts, blind alleys, misjudgments, and flawed research. Science is like that because it is hard to do, especially when the subject of inquiry is a complex animal like human beings. 

Because many of these topics have social and political implications, the false starts and blind alleys are likely to be reported and acted on long before we achieve a settled scientific consensus about them.

Thus, we run the risk that people will be harmed not by us acting on true beliefs but because we act prematurely on poorly supported beliefs. This is one of the problems with Watson’s remarks. They include a kernel of sound science and a lot of unsubstantiated and unwarranted speculation.

The issue is not whether some topics should be off limits. Instead, the question is how we limit the damage from the premature ejaculations of moral cretins with scientific credentials.



The Ultimate Learning Outcome November 3, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Teaching.

Bob Dylan, in Chronicles, the first volume of his memoirs, discusses his early influences. In commenting on the collection of classic literature of some Greenwich Village friends with whom he was staying, Dylan sensed:

“an overpowering presence of literature…you couldn’t help but lose your passion for dumbness.”

That is about the best description I have seen of the aim of undergraduate education, especially the study of philosophy–to overcome the seductions of incuriosity and laziness. 

Is there a standardized test to determine when this occurs?