Archive for the ‘Steven Pinker’ Category

Pinker, Animated.

February 15, 2011 1 comment

Cool video of one of Steven Pinker’s talks.

Categories: Steven Pinker

The Utility of Friendship

August 2, 2010 5 comments

Over at BloggingheadsTV, Robert Wright and Robert George have a great discussion on natural law and morality. I think readers of this blog will enjoy the whole video as it touches on many topics that often come up here. Free will vs determinism even comes up briefly. On the question of natural law vs utilitarianism, which was the overriding theme of the dialog, I found myself in agreement with Wright and had similar questions for George’s philosophy. Although, I must confess I was very impressed with George  – much more than I anticipated considering his connections to evangelical religion and their social positions. He’s clearly a very thoughtful thinker. Not sure if I was more surprised with that or with my head nodding to Wright, who I’ve had serious disagreements with before. Let me share a portion of their talk (but watch the whole thing) here that I want to comment on.

The sticking point here is if friendship is intrinsically good in and of itself – independent of its positive attributes. A utilitarian would argue, as Wright does, that we value friendship because friendship is more valuable to us (makes us free better, is useful, etc) than not having friendship – say, simply a business or trade relationship. A natural lawist argues that we can see that friendship is valuable in itself because we commit ourselves to the institution even when it may not provide us with specific utility (and even when its depressing, burdensome, etc). George also argues that its good is “intelligible” to us. That sort of begs the question for me: it seems to be saying that something is good just because we think it is good.

I was mostly with George on friendship until Wright challenged him using the evolutionary psychological explanation for friendship, to which George didn’t seem to adequately respond. George basically just argued that that explanation was reductionist, but I think he failed to understand the ultimate vs proximate distinction implicit in the rational, which I’ve discussed previously. I want to expand on Wright’s argument.

Wright argues that natural selection has “implicitly calculated” the utility of friendship, therefore, it feels good to commit to friendships. That seems to counter George’s example of us participating in a friendship even in a specific situation within that friendship that doesn’t have explicit utility such as visiting a friend in a hospital when it is sad, takes time, etc. Why? Because if we didn’t do those things we wouldn’t get the benefits of friendship. That of course doesn’t imply that we’re just selfish frauds that fake through the tough parts to get the helpful and fun parts. Natural selection has made us actually desire real friendship – cheaters, fakers, and friendship free riders will be spotted and are looked on negatively by society. If by nature (and through nature) we were all phonies, friendship as an institution would be less useful. In his superb New York Times piece on our moral instincts, Steven Pinker puts it this way.

In his classic 1971 article, Trivers, the biologist, showed how natural selection could push in the direction of true selflessness. The emergence of tit-for-tat reciprocity, which lets organisms trade favors without being cheated, is just a first step. A favor-giver not only has to avoid blatant cheaters (those who would accept a favor but not return it) but also prefer generous reciprocators (those who return the biggest favor they can afford) over stingy ones (those who return the smallest favor they can get away with). Since it’s good to be chosen as a recipient of favors, a competition arises to be the most generous partner around. More accurately, a competition arises to appear to be the most generous partner around, since the favor-giver can’t literally read minds or see into the future. A reputation for fairness and generosity becomes an asset.

Now this just sets up a competition for potential beneficiaries to inflate their reputations without making the sacrifices to back them up. But it also pressures the favor-giver to develop ever-more-sensitive radar to distinguish the genuinely generous partners from the hypocrites. This arms race will eventually reach a logical conclusion. The most effective way to seem generous and fair, under harsh scrutiny, is to be generous and fair. In the long run, then, reputation can be secured only by commitment. At least some agents evolve to be genuinely high-minded and self-sacrificing — they are moral not because of what it brings them but because that’s the kind of people they are. (my emphasis)

And piggybacking further on his ultimate/proximate distinction: we ultimately want friendship because of natural selection, we proximately want it because we actually value friendship – not just the “feeling” of friendship like on George’s friendship machine. So the reason friendship seems like it’s just inherently good and written into the laws of nature to George is not because its a good for its own sake but because its good for its ultimate utility. This inner psychology helps explain why it feels weird to treat friends and other “social” relationships the way we would business relationships.

Day Ariely argues that “social relationships have a lot of advantages. They protect us from future fluctuations, they give us trust and confidence, and all kinds of other things.” 

Anyone see a flaw in this line of reasoning?

At the end of Wright and George’s bloggingheads Wright and George go over different moral dilemmas to try to expose the flaws in each school.  Although I’m siding with Wright this doesn’t mean I don’t have some questions for utilitarians (which are a type of consequentialist). Don’t intentions matter? 
Here’s my on-the-fly thought experiment (sorry it’s no trolly problem): 

Say you could save 2 children that might fall off a bridge by jumping out and grabbing them, but another child is standing near the edge and for whatever reason the child would be at risk of being knocked off in your attempt to save the other two. If you knock the 1 child off and save the other 2 is that ok for a consequentialist? If 2 children were knocked off to save the 1 is that now morally wrong? Is it the same moral wrongness of deliberately killing 2 children to save 1? If not, doesn’t that show that intentions matter? Furthermore, does the level of risk affect the morality of the choice and, if so, why? If you can save 2 kids but you understood that you’d have only a 1% chance of knocking the single kid off is that more morally acceptable then if you thought you had a 99% chance? Also, does the probability of saving the kid(s) affect the morally of the choice as well? 

Free Will: Hardwired by the Universe?

Lately on the web there has been a bit of an uptick in discussing free will vs. determinism. Biologist Jerry Coyne shares his thoughts of some of the literature in a blog post and calls for more science to be injected into the philosophy. Over at the New York Times’ newish philosophy blog Galen Strawson tries to walk readers through the “maze” of free will/determinism arguments and consequences. She persuades me that even if determinism is false at its core by some randomness or some quantum ambiguity built into the universe, we can’t be entirely morally responsible for every action we take. 

There may be all sorts of other factors affecting and changing you. Determinism may be false: some changes in the way you are may come about as a result of the influence of indeterministic or random factors. But you obviously can’t be responsible for the effects of any random factors, so they can’t help you to become ultimately morally responsible for how you are.

Some people think that quantum mechanics shows that determinism is false, and so holds out a hope that we can be ultimately responsible for what we do. But even if quantum mechanics had shown that determinism is false (it hasn’t), the question would remain: how can indeterminism, objective randomness, help in any way whatever to make you responsible for your actions? The answer to this question is easy. It can’t.

I tend to find arguments in favor of free will stink of wishful thinking; so I concede that determinism or something philosophically equivalent is most likely true. Yet, as Strawson notes, we still feel as though we are making our own decisions. No matter how strong I think the arguments for determinism are, I behave as though I’m free to act (what other choice do I have?). The main reason is, what nihilists fail to appreciate, even if all our actions are compelled by physics they still have determined consequences which we still feel as conscious beings. 

Let me expand on this by borrowing Steven Pinker’s argument in The Blank Slate, where he eases readers’ fears that evolution and genetics (nature) compel our actions, and apply that argument to this subject.

The difference between the mechanisms that impel organisms to behave in real time and the mechanisms the shaped the design of the organism over evolutionary time is important enough to merit some jargon. A proximate cause of behavior is the mechanism that pushes behavior buttons in real time, such as the hunger and lust that impel people to eat and have sex. An ultimate cause is the adaptive rationale that led the proximate cause to evolve, such as the need for nutrition and reproduction that gave us the drives of hunger and lust. The distinction between proximate and ultimate causation is indispensable in understanding ourselves because it determines the answer to every question of the form “Why did that person act as he did?” To take a simple example, ultimately people crave sex in order to reproduce (because the ultimate cause of sex is reproduction), but proximately they may do everything they can not to reproduce (because the proximate cause of sex is pleasure).

This helps me respect the difference between our actions being ultimately determined by events prior and us proximately making actual decisions. We have been caused to have the ability to reason in real time even if the underlying operation of that reason is at its core predetermined. Ultimately people’s reason is determined by physics, chemistry, biology, and society, but proximately their brains apply logical analysis and emotions to reason and thus make a decision and act. To take this example further, ultimately you are choosing to read this blog post because a series of events beyond your control obligates you to be at a computer and prefer to make that choice, but proximately you are choosing to read because of you reasons (e.g. interest, enjoyment, friendship, lack of better alternatives, etc) that reading this is your preference. 

If our actions are determined beyond our ultimate control, but we still feel and live in that cause-and-effect chain, and therefore are not ultimately responsible (even if we are proximately responsible because we own the body which is acting) it gives me a sense of modesty and humility in condemning individuals’ behaviors. Of course, since nihilism and moral anarchy would cause actual suffering (who cares if it’s by will or has been determined?) we try to act in such a way that best reduces suffering. The pain impulse compels us to not retreat to nihilism. We are hardwired by the universe to act as though we have free will. The phrase Strawson shares with us from Jean-Paul Sartre is “condemned to freedom.”

So if we’re not ultimately morally responsible, what does that mean for criminals and evildoers? It shouldn’t mean that we let them act in ways that hurt others’ lives. But the arguments for determinism convince me that we shouldn’t punish for its own sake. Even if a rapist, for example, isn’t ultimately responsible for his actions doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t lock him up to prevent him from harming others. Likewise, if temporary punishment causes a change in behavior for the better like in the case of a misbehaving young child than that is a convincing argument in its favor. Just as if a doctor must stick a needle in a patient’s arm to provide a helpful vaccine or cure, a police officer might have to strike a violent criminal to prevent or stop an assault. Yet the vengeful torturer has no moral justification that sits comfortably with determinism. 

If you didn’t like this post I’m not ultimately responsible. Coming soon, a blog post on a form of proximate determinism. 

I hope to read Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves for a scientific and philosophical blended discussion on free will/determinism. Has anyone read that or any other titles which they recommend (or dislike)? 

(image: Erin Schell, The New York Times)

Humans, Apes, and War

Check out this short video with Steven Pinker on human nature and what we can learn about conflict from studying our closest ancestors.

Summers-Time Class: Gender Studies

June 16, 2010 2 comments

Discussing potential differences in innate abilities between groups remains a controversial topic and research area. Famously, Larry Summers found himself at the center of a nationwide controversy after he upset many of the students and faculty at Harvard when he speculated on the reasons why women might be less represented in math and science fields. John Tierney in The New York Times has written two columns (here and here) that present some research along with his opinions which seem to vindicate Summers. 

The Duke researchers report in Intelligence, “Our data clearly show that there are sex differences in cognitive abilities in the extreme right tail, with some favoring males and some favoring females.”

The researchers say it’s impossible to predict how long these math and science gender gaps will last. But given the gaps’ stability for two decades, the researchers conclude, “Thus, sex differences in abilities in the extreme right tail should not be dismissed as no longer part of the explanation for the dearth of women in math-intensive fields of science.”

Other studies have shown that these differences in extreme test scores correlate with later achievements in science and academia. Even when you consider only members of an elite group like the top percentile of the seventh graders on the SAT math test, someone at the 99.9 level is more likely than someone at the 99.1 level to get a doctorate in science or to win tenure at a top university.


The gap in science seems due mainly to another difference between the sexes: men are more interested in working with things, while women are more interested in working with people. There’s ample evidence — most recently in an analysis of surveys of more than 500,000 people — that boys and men, on average, are more interested in inanimate objects and “inorganic” subjects like math and physics and engineering, while girls and women are more drawn to life sciences, social sciences and other “organic” careers that involve people and seem to have direct social usefulness.  

You can argue how much of this difference is due to biology and how much to society, but could you really affect it by sending scientists and engineers off to the workshops mandated by the bill now in Congress?  

PZ Myers isn’t too happy with Tierney.

Now here’s the problem: there is no clear marker or metric for success in science. It’s a complicated task, with lots of variables and lots of different strategies for doing well. It’s not like looking for the person who runs the 100 meter dash the fastest, in which we could just line up the applicants, fire a starting gun, and give the job to the first person who crosses the finishing line. So what do we do? We use proxy metrics.

The best proxies are measurements that most closely approximate performance in science. We look at publication records, grants awarded, recommendations of colleagues, the sort of thing we’d expect our new scientist to continue doing. It’s not perfect — maybe the applicant is a neurotic living on the edge who’s about to break down, or maybe they have an abrasive personality that will affect the performance of other faculty — but it’s a good start. It’s what most committees should evaluate most highly in the hiring process. 


All of those things are still just proxies for the constellation of properties you want in a scientific colleague. We have to balance them to get an idea of the potential of an applicant: it would be insane to hire someone with no experience, no publications, and no grants just because they got straight As in high school and college. But for some reason, in this tedious argument about the suitability of women to do science, all that gets mentioned is a gender difference in performance on standardized tests. 

He then goes on to point out that wealth is also a great predictor of success in test scores. He’s using this example to blow up Tierney’s connection between gender and test scores since obviously wealth isn’t innate. Myers makes some interesting points but this is a poor one. It’s entirely possible (and researchers have made the point before (e.g. Steven Pinker)) that intelligence and wealth are correlated because, unsurprisingly, intelligent people are more likely to be wealthy due to their intelligence helping them get higher paying jobs. In other words, intelligence is a cause of wealth rather than the reverse. 

Real discrimination is a problem, but pretending that no differences exist makes it more difficult to establish when actual discrimination is taking place. At the very least we should be able to discuss the issue without being vilified. If not we might have to sue Mother Nature for age discrimination.

Logically Consistant ≠ Rational

I stumbled on a 2006 paper from Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics that further confirms my attitude toward voters in general.

Most of the time, the voters are merely reaffirming their partisan and group identities at the polls. They do not reason very much or very often. What they do is rationalize. Every election, they sound as though they were thinking, and they feel as if they were thinking, as do we all. The unwary scholarly devotee of democratic romanticism is thereby easily misled.

This of course shouldn’t be too surprising to people who study how our brains work. Human brains make shortcuts by seeking patterns and putting things in categories. This is a useful and necessary tool so that we can make any sense of a complex and chaotic world. Often it’s hard to break those intuitive theories and stereotypes (and very easy to reinforce them). So as the Achen and Bartels paper helps us see, I’d argue that partisanship and group identity politics is a quick natural substitute, a mental shortcut, for rigorous and rational thinking. Steven Pinker writes in How the Mind Works

[The] mind has to get something out of forming categories, and that something is inference. Obviously we can’t know everything about every object. But we can observe some of its properties, assign it to a category, and from the category predict properties that we have not observed.

When something doesn’t fit our categories we tend to ignore the evidence or alter it to fit our preconceptions instead of the other way around.  Pinker writes,

A third reason we are so-so scientists is that our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth. Sometimes the truth is adaptive, but sometimes it’s not. Conflicts of interest are inherent to the human condition, and we are apt to want our version of the truth, rather than the truth itself, to prevail. 

Everyone else excited for the 2010 midterms!?

(photo from Wired)

What Are Schools For?

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I often find it helpful to look at fundamental questions – it forces us to keep our bearings when thinking about public policy.  So, for one of my favorite topics – educational policy – I’d like to ask the question:

What are schools for?

Partly, this question was prompted from me watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about how schools kill creativity.  It is the most favorited video currently at TED and I certainly enjoyed it.

Although, I’m not sure I entirely agreed with its premises.  But he does make some great points along the way.  Robinson argues that since we don’t even know what the world will look like in 5 years, it is futile to try to educate children for specific industries that may not be there when they finish schooling. From that he argues that it is necessary to promote creativity in schools (fully agree).  Also, he’s certainly right that instilling the idea that making a mistake is the worst possible thing isn’t conducive to creativity.

Despite what Robinson claims, do our schools crush creativity?  At least compared to Japan’s schools, America seems to be in much better shape. I don’t think that creativity is necessary going to be best promoted by focusing more on art and dance in schools (for the record: I loved my theatre and music classes) – at least it might not be the proper role of a school.  We have to recognize that schools can’t teach everything.

But no matter how valuable a subject may be, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is also a decision not to teach another one. The question is not whether trigonometry is important, but whether it is more important than statistics; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important for an educated person to know the classics than to know elementary economics. In a world whose complexities are constantly challenging our intuitions, these tradeoffs cannot responsibly be avoided.

I’ve referenced this before but Steven Pinker also makes that enlightening argument that schools should promote subjects that are unintuitive to humans.

The goal of education should be to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with.

Those subjects might be more necessary for schools to step in and teach since students aren’t likely to learn them without special instruction, but need them to better navigate our modern world.  Subjects like economics, finance, and statistics aren’t likely to become obsolete either as Robinson worries about other areas of study. In order to determine what schools are for do we need to just list the subjects of highest priority?  Highest priority for what?  It seems that is straying a bit away from my original question.  Bertrand Russell can help get back to the core issue, he writes in his essay, “The Aims of Education:”

Before considering how to educate, it is well to be clear as to the sort of result which we wish to achieve.  Dr Arnold wanted ‘humbleness of mind’, a quality not possessed by Aristotle’s ‘magnanimous man’. Neitzche’s ideal is not that of Christianity. No more is Kant’s: for while Christ enjoins love, Kant teaches that no action of which love is the motive can be truly virtuous. And even people who agree as to the ingredients of a good character may differ as to their relative importance. One man will emphasize courage, another learning, another kindliness, and another rectitude. One man, like the elder Brutus, will put duty to the State above family affection; another, like Confucious, will put family affection first. All these divergences will produce differences as to education. We must have some concept of the kind of person we wish to produce, before we can have any definite opinion as to the education which we consider best.

So school’s purpose is derived from what we want our students to become as people. Further in the essay, Russell argues that students should be looked at as ends, not means.  It seems important to educate not for the sake of creating citizens that can serve the state, for example, but to give them the tools necessary to live their lives how they as individuals see fit.  After all, as I learn from wikipedia

Etymologically the word education contains educarae (latin) “bring up” which is related to educere “bring out”, “bring forth what is within”, “bring out potential” and ducere “to lead”.

Yet, clearly if we think of education as a public good, we want some sort of specific “means” goals from students, don’t we?  Providing them with a proper finance and economic background clearly helps them as individuals, but the additional externalities on society aren’t insignificant.  The question isn’t easily answered.  I’ll be sure to follow up on this topic in the future.  Feel free to offer your answer to the question: What are schools for?

Pseudoscience, Running in Reverse

February 14, 2010 Leave a comment

It didn’t even seem right at the time. A young girl gets a seasonal flu shot and is struck with incredible symptoms. It is clear now that the flu shot never caused Desiree Jennings’ bizarre troubles. Of course, even if it was real it was important to remember at the time that 1 ancedotal case doesn’t destroy the mountains of evidence supporting vaccines’ safety and effectiveness. It does, however, confirm our need to better educate the population about statistics. As Steven Pinker writes,

The goal of education should be to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with.
The obvious cure for [the innumeracy, factual ignorance, and scientific illiteracy of typical Americans] is enhanced education in relatively new fields such as economics, biology, and probability and statistics. (my emphasis)
The original vaccine story got a lot of play (some may even say it was viral). I hear about it every time the topic of vaccines comes up. What is disappointing in these situations is that the truth too often gets underreported and gets overshadowed by the shocking nature of the initial account.

God’s Morality

December 2, 2009 Leave a comment

In a common critique of atheists, theists often insist that it is impossible to have objective morality without invoking a deity. Although it is certainly difficult to justify an objective moral compass grounded completely in reason, adding God does nothing to solve the problem. Plato, famously, undermined basing morality on God.

“Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?”

Steven Pinker in his fabulous New York Times piece on morality first alerted me to this about two years ago.

Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

If anyone is interested, Steven Pinker’s wife, Rebecca Goldstein, has a new novel that uses this argument has well. Goldstein, of course, deserves her own recognition as an intellectual separate from Pinker.

Reference to God does not help in the least to ground the objective truth of morality. The question is: why did God choose the moral rules he did? Did he have a reason justifying his choice that, say, giving alms to the poor is good, while genocide is wrong? Either he had a good reason or he didn’t. If he did, then his reasons, whatever they are, can provide the grounding for moral truths for us, and God himself is redundant. And if he didn’t have a good reason, then his choices are arbitrary—he could just as easily have gone the other way, making charity bad and genocide good—and we would have no reason to take his choices seriously.

Yet, people do take “his choices” seriously. It is not just that they insult nonbelievers, but they try to set public policy that confirms to what they think God wants. Also, in our private lives the religious often stigmatize individuals and groups that don’t conform to their set of morals. This leads, obviously, to dangerous fissures in society. It also helps impede progress on establishing and improving secular morals.

Even if God did have morals that were just and we could agree to live by those standards it still leaves the question of how we would know what those morals actually are. After all, different religions and even different denominations don’t agree on what his answers to our moral questions are. A new study by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago found that man’s morals aren’t made in the image of God but God’s morals are made in man’s – right down to the individual. Blogger Ed Yong reports on this study.

Psychological studies have found that people are always a tad egocentric when considering other people’s mindsets. They use their own beliefs as a starting point, which colours their final conclusions. Epley found that the same process happens, and then some, when people try and divine the mind of God. Their opinions on God’s attitudes on important social issues closely mirror their own beliefs. If their own attitudes change, so do their perceptions of what God thinks. They even use the same parts of their brain when considering God’s will and their own opinions.

Religion provides a moral compass for many people around the world, colouring their views on everything from martyrdom to abortion to homosexuality. But Epley’s research calls the worth of this counsel into question, for it suggests that inferring the will of God sets the moral compass to whatever direction we ourselves are facing. He says, “Intuiting God’s beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one’s own beliefs.
The arrogant idea that theists know God’s mind and morals needs further challenge. It is increasingly clear that faith contributes nothing to cosmology and nothing to biology. No thinking person goes to the Church for answers to scientific questions. Let moral philosophy be the final discipline that religion removes its clutches from.
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