Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Limits of Occam's Razor


Occam’s Razor, also called The Law of Parsimony, is a principle that we shouldn’t add more explanations for a thing than absolutely necessary.  However, popular interpretations of this principle usually go something like “The simpler explanation is to be preferred over the complex one”.  While this does sound appealing on the surface, it is actually a distortion of Occam.  Even worse, this interpretation itself is open to rhetorical abuse.  This is particularly true when people are unwilling to do the actual hard work of considering the totality of the facts, deciding which facts are relevant, then deciding what the facts mean.

The truth is that Occam’s Razor applies only to explanations that account for identical sets of facts.  If the simple explanation takes into account eight relevant facts while the complex ones also take into account those same eight facts and only those eight, then Occam’s razor applies.  However, if the complex explanation takes into account even nine relevant facts, including all eight of the previously stated ones, then we should at the very least not dismiss the more complex explanation from the get-go simply because it’s not as simple as the one that takes into account only the aforementioned eight facts.  The complex explanation might still be wrong anyway, for any number of reasons.  Even so, if it is wrong, it is certainly not due to its complexity; for the explanation takes into account one more relevant fact that the simple one does.  

Occam’s Razor is also easy to abuse rhetorically, especially in light of the above.  This is particularly true with regard to highly complex issues that vex practically everyone – religion, politics, economics, psychology, morality / ethics and so forth.  As emotionally charged as these issues are, these spheres are especially fertile ground for demagogic rabble-rousing.  In these situations, while it may appear the speechmaker seems a master at making the complex clear, it is at least as likely he or she is engaging in oversimple explanations – whether because he or she truly believes their own explanation or merely to provoke people into becoming outraged enough to given them support.  In either case, it is best stop and take a healthy skepticism toward any viewpoint that seems to explain a lot of things, especially about “human nature” issues.   If history and personal experience teach anything, human nature and human actions are often not easily reducible to one simple neat explanation.

So while Occam’s Razor, properly used, is often a powerful tool for discerning the truth of a matter, it’s very appeal as a supposedly simple method of discerning truth from lies makes it very vulnerable to abuse.   Therefore, like any other tool, we should learn what it can and cannot do for us before we actually use it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Living for the Sake of Living is a Myth

It’s a common myth that we seek to live simply for the sake of living. However sensible this may seem on the surface, there is a lot of evidence against this; most noteworthy are suicides in the conventional sense (both attempted and successful) and “heroic sacrifices”. Further evidence comes from the “death with dignity” movement, which pushes to legalize physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill people. This is especially true if they are likely to experience intense pain or debilitation in their final days.

In the opposite direction, it's safe to assume that most people with extreme disabilities do not want to die; for most do find pleasures in life not dependent on the physical or mental ability they lack (e.g. hobbies and interests, having favored company in their presence, etc). Also, many people say they do not fear death. By this, it’s safe to assume they mean the precise event itself (as opposed to the probably painful process leading to their deaths). Therefore, it’s likely more sensible to say people live for the sake of experiencing new pleasures rather than life per se.

Regarding the pain we will likely experience just before our deaths, it’s said pain exists to warn us of threats to our lives. While this is true, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Imagine we have a machine, drugs, or other means to fool our nerves into thinking that we’re being stabbed, beaten, burned, cut, whatever. Further suppose that researchers are conducting some kind of experiment in which experiencing intense pain is a relevant part of the experiment. They fully inform the prospective volunteers about what they will experience during the experiment and in all other ways conduct the experiment that exceeds all the highest ethical and legal standards. Then, when the person is hooked up to the machine, administered the drugs, etc. they will experience pain more excruciating than they ever experienced in their life – to the point that they actually want to die at that moment. Never mind that they know fully well there is no actual agent threatening their lives. They just want the pain to end right now (!!!!!). This is the clich├ęd “fate worse than death”.

The same goes for not having enough pleasure in life, even if we don’t experience physical pain, social rejection, poverty, or other commonly-considered “social ills”; for that creates boredom. This is also a pain, a psychic one to be sure, but a real one nevertheless. Therefore, it’s likely more plausible to say that people avoid pain not so much to avoid danger as it is to avoid pain for its own sake.

For these reasons, I think we don’t so much seek life as we do seek pleasure and avoid pain. In other words, life is only a means to an end – the end is experiencing pleasures to the extent those pleasures can mitigate pain. Excuse the anthropomorphism, but both are tricks our DNA uses to perpetuate itself as long as it can possibly do so.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On Hiatus

Today, I started a new job that'll take up a lot of my time and leave me quite tired. So for the forseeable future, I'll not post a whole lot. Thank you all for all the comments and compliments you left me, and I hope to be back soon one day.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Globalization and Diversity

It’s no secret that globalization is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing for many areas from an economic perspective, both “First World” ones and up-and-coming powerhouse nations. On one hand, the collapse of Communism as a credible ideology and protectionism as a credible way to create home-grown prosperity opened up vast swaths of the globe to opportunities that simply did not exist even a quarter of a century ago (aside from the odd North Korea and similar such isolated nations). As if to drive this point home on cue, the rise of the Internet pretty much coincided with the breakdown of government-imposed controls of all sorts - including (perhaps especially) communications barriers, both regulatory and structural ones. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear that one event came about to support the other (but I do know the practically simutaneous collapse of governmental barriers and the rise of the technology making The Internet as we know it possible was just a fortuitous accident of history).

Regardless of its causes, the Internet and the collapse of the barriers brought us all closer together. Who on here has not chatted, posted, or twittered with someone from a foreign nation?! In this sense, globalization and the Internet brings us (sort of) face to face with new perspectives and attitudes that shape the very ways we think - for good or ill. Truly this is the next step in creating a global culture that allows the common person to interact with people in other cultures while reducing the risk of unfortunate cultural communications breakdowns (at least in theory).

On the other hand, globalization also comes at the inevitable expense of losing at least some number of truths forever. Rarely is it due to any deliberate cultural extermination policy on the parts of governments, nor is it due to any cultural discrimination. It’s simply due to the fact that the predominant culture inevitably dominates the most paid-attention to media and Internet sources. The reason for this is simple mathematics. Whichever groups are largest are most likely to have their views expressed through the most watched, listened-to, or read communications channels.

The fact is that many cultures have different ideas, values, attitudes and general perspectives that may seem alien to the mainstream, but nevertheless they stand the test of time. Also, minority and indigenous cultures remind us that there are different ways of being human. This means that assumptions, actions, and attitudes that may be simple “human nature” or “common sense” to the majority may not necessarily be such if we take a closer look. These cultures are thus invaluable human resources, particularly as sources for new ideas (or even rediscovering old ones long forgotten by mainstream society - whether national or global). These ideas could very well prove to be humanity's salvation if we are convinced the minority belief about a matter is correct after all.

For example, languages themselves shape the way the brain thinks. The Finnish language, for example, uses a strikingly different grammar system from most other European languages. Therefore, when forming a thought, the Finnish mind automatically focuses on certain words, stressing certain words in a sentence, and so forth. Also, like all other languages, they invent short words and phrases that have no real easy equivalent in English. One example from German is Schadenfreude, the paradoxical joy of seeing pain come upon certain people, usually enemies. English has no such phrase that I know of. Still, in English itself there exists two common everyday words that sharply distinguish between two very roughly similar but still sharply different notions: “sky” and “heaven”. Spanish, French, and German do not have such simple phrases that I'm aware of. Of course it’s easy to overstate the case for how grammar and syntax shape our though process, but it does seem to be the case in subtle but no less significant ways.

From this vantage point, it’s easy to see the importance of preserving cultural diversity, specifically where it concerns advances in sciences, business fields, and the arts. The more differences that exist among people, the more people are forced to be flexible in their thinking, which is a fertile ground for creative thinking. Therefore, diversity, properly nourished and supported, can be a long-run economic advantage to a globalized world. Beyond the cultural and economic benefits, it helps us to see that many ideas and attitudes we hold are as more the product of our culture than of our genes. This is truly a nonrenewable resource – for once a culture dies, it and its ideas and assumptions are gone forever.

So while it’s true that a globalized culture can help reduce conflict and misunderstandings, the potential peace and understanding might well be obtained at the expense of truth. Therefore, for our own global society as well as our own souls, you might want to seek out people from different cultures and wiggle your way into a long conversation about their culture’s worldview. Both you and the world will be richly rewarded for doing so. Do it before the mass-global societal memes overpower its voice through the weight of sheer mass. Before it’s too late!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Transhumanism and Antinatalism

On the earlier post about transhumanism, Bazompora said something to the effect that both antinatalism and transhumanism have the same goals – eliminate suffering. I find nothing to strongly disagree with here, and in fact I think this is a self-evident truth. The only difference between the two groups is how we go about eliminating suffering.

Strictly speaking, I see no complete contradiction between these two schools of thought, for if we come to know how to switch off the genes giving rise to the parts of the sensory nervous system dealing with pain, plus similar knowledge regarding our ‘survival instincts’, then we could in theory eliminate all pain. As noted above, this is also a goal of antinatalism, probably the ultimate goal. However, eliminating all pain via transhumanist technologies comes with a price - it ultimately must eliminates our desire to live, though not our actual living existence itself (a root cause of pain is lack of desire satisfaction). This would essentially turn us into glorified robots in the classical connotation of the word. Picture a computer with self-awareness but without emotions and you get the picture.

This is all fine and good if you don’t mind the idea of being a DNA-based robot. However, most people would mind, and emphatically so at that. For this reason, transhumanism is not likely to be a realistic route to true happiness, although "non-robotic" variations of it might increase our pleasures (two different things if you think about it). Nevertheless, barring a very tiny fraction of the population who would see a robotic existence as preferable to a “human-like” one, transhumanism cannot be a permanent solution because most people will not use it to eliminate the very emotions and survival instincts which cause so much pain in the first place, suffering and evil (i.e, that which causes suffering).

Given all this, I throw my lot with antinatalism as the most realistic route to suffering elimination, though I use "realistic" loosely; for there is practically no chance of everyone embracing antinatalism before they embrace transhumanism. Antinatalism offers the promise of a permanent solution to both suffering and evil (at the very least for humans, and potentially for other neurological life). It does so in a theoretically simple way besides - simply stop having children. By contrast, transhumanism, were it to be successfully implemented, would be just a means to an end. That end to increase the emotions and joys of human existence, even if it still means at least some inevitable misery, and even retaining the risk of severe misery besides. In the end, though, it’s much easier and simpler to just not procreate in the first place.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Is "Manliness" Obsolete?

This blog entry is inspired by a discussion by my friend Karl and a commenter named dali at this Page. His post wasn't about manliness but certain reader comments did steer into that topic. In particular, the commenter dali said that men pushing buggies and taking care of children in the middle of the afternoon was effectively "unmanly", which Karl implicitly agreed with. This blog post counters the claim, namely by showing that "manliness", as defined by popular culture, is inherently arbitrary - i.e. just a bunch of ideas pulled willy-nilly out of thin air with little to no rhyme-or-reason about them. In fact, I conclude by saying that "manliness" is obsolete at best and even potentially counterproductive for a society with our level of sophistication and especially our level of technology.

Manliness is an elusive term in many respects. Personally, I stick to the minimalist definition, the one that makes the most sense scientifically because it’s the least ambiguous and most objective - “a physically mature member of the species Homo sapiens with an XY chromosome configuration that allows for unambiguously male physical reproductive traits and simultaneously unambiguously lacks any female reproductive organs”. Popular culture, on the other hand, while agreeing with this definition, goes a lot further. It adds traits that while not specifically male are usually associated with traits many (if not most) cultures consider to be characteristic of an adult human male: strength, decisiveness, take-charge attitudes, plus inspiring loyalty and respect in others.

My definition plus the popular addition is highly likely satisfy most people. Even so, plenty of others will go still further - namely all the above plus a tendency toward bluster, swagger, and a slightly cocky and aggressive mannerism. If we take these traits still further - and some people do - it conflates “manliness” with frank “douchebaggery”. Even where most people are concerned, they would still consider “douchebags” to be “real men, although of a very unpleasant and – ironically – immature sort”.

This last phrase shows a blatant contradiction. Either maturity is necessary for manliness or it’s not. Of course it depends on what one (or in this case prevailing societal opinion) means by "maturity". Even so, most people would consider mature behavior as necessarily including civility, consideration of others, self-control, judicious thinking, planning ahead, considering the consequences of your actions, and almost always refusing to break the rules of civility and etiquette. Even in refusals to abide by the last point, mature people break the rules only when there is absolutely no other choice if you are to successfully secure your life, liberty, dignity, and reputation - or those of your loved ones and friends. Yet for all this, many people would still consider douchebags as "real men".

This is at least one place where popular definitions of manliness are arbitrary. The only way to escape this contradiction is to say that the aforementioned douchebag traits (bluster, swagger, and a very cocky and aggressive mannerism) are more "manly" than the aforementioned civilized traits. Few, if anybody, will go that far; including many knee-jerk fans of douchebags themselves. So this definition of a "real man" ultimately contradicts itself.

The social and psychological sciences also imply there are mental and emotional components to maturity, although having more to do with the civilized traits plus my minimalist definition (to a degree) than to the popular definition. To this, these sciences add what is basically definable as "meeting my minimalist definition AND functioning independently in society" (though even "independent functioning" itself, ironically, inevitably depends on prudent interdependence with other functionally independent adults). Under this definition, mentally challenged male humans would not qualify for this definition of manliness. Still, in some contexts popular culture almost certainly would call this person one, albeit more in the sense of character strength and "giving it the hero's try”, as opposed to independent functioning in a financial and related senses.

Therefore, so far, I seems that “manliness”, the popular definition, is based more on imagery than productive content. I'm still open to alternative popular, widely believed-in definitions of manliness but so far the evidence seems to point to a popular definition of it that is very much arbitrary and contradictory, and therefore cannot stand up to logic and rational judgment.

In yet another way, the popular definition of “manliness” ultimately refutes itself, which further reinforces its meaninglessness. If “manliness” necessarily includes not caring deeply about what others think (and most of mainstream society does), then what about a so-called "alpha male"* who cares about maintaining an "alpha" image? This is especially so if he does so for reasons of his social status and sexual access. How is worrying about status among peers or sexual interests alpha behavior - especially in light of the next described man?

How also do we account for a widely-considered "beta male" or even an "omega male" who vigorously and passionately defends a guy's right to remain a virgin until after marriage on explicitly non-religious grounds, fully knowing the ridicule most "real men" will hurl his way?  Going against the crowd is not for the faint-hearted after all, certainly not public expressions of views widely ridiculed among many people.Never mind that he lacks social status in some way and/or has low to no sexual success.  Should we say that gutsy level of assertiveness - no doubt compounded by not caring what mainstream society thinks - not count as "manly" behavior?  If we say it does count as "manly", then how can that person be a true "beta" or "omega"?  This paragraph in conjunction with the previous one reveals a disproportion difficult to explain.

*Yes there is room to debate if this guy is a "true 'alpha male'".   Still, I think it's not that rare to find such men widely considered to be in the alpha-most 15% or so.

stay at home dad who helps take care of the kid and performs a lot of functions around the house – especially if he is, for example, studying for his PhD or working at home for a software company? Is he any less of a “man”. Furthermore, what if the man is a truck driver who has a week off? Surely the latter is entitled to spend even more time with his child because the child has fewer chances to see him, an important part of his or her life. Given that fathers are such an important part of a child’s life development, a man spending all the time he can with his children is far from being “unmanly”, it's more like being a good father. Surely you wouldn’t call “manly” a distant father who neglects the emotional well-being of his children, even if he is good at providing them a realistically humane standard of living AND good at protecting them from trouble.

Also, suppose a man backs down from a street fight because he realizes any benefits he may gain from punching them in the mouth aren’t worth the consequences (to say the least, getting arrested, which can very well hurt his resume. Even worse he might get stabbed, shot, or bludgeoned with a blunt object). That’s also far from being “unmanly”, that’s being judicious – a sure sign of real manliness, even by the standards of much of mainstream society itself. In fact, those same people would likely call risking the fight a rash action at best, lacking in self-control at middling, and childish at worst. Yet some people with a "Mortal Kombat" definition of manliness (basically the definition based on adolescent emotional reactions, only turbocharged) would call the guy backing down from the street fight a "pansy wimp" merely for being judicious. Yet another point at which the pop cultural definition contradicts itself, thereby rendering the "manliness" concept meaningless.

Or, what if the man may be physically timid but in a debate can hold his own in arguing his points convincingly, especially if he’s as experienced and well-trained in argumentation as any professional boxer is with his craft?

The other difficulties with manliness are legion. In the end, the closest thing to a coherent pop culture definition I can think of is "having physical survival skills, social dominance talents, and competence - especially as judged by our first intuitions,impressions, or animal instincts".

Even if this definition were complete and internally self-consistent, it still has the feel of someone throwing spaghetti against the wall - just chucking out initial reactions as they come out of the brain and mouth and hoping they'll stick to the wall and form some kind of recognizable pattern. It's one thing to define something in a way that's both complete and internally self-consistent, but entirely another thing say we should accept this as the only legitimate definition of the term. In this case, why should we accept those traits described in that definition as the only possible definition of "manly", thereby suggesting that any adult human male lacking in even one of those traits as automatically "unmanly". As I show below, anyone seeking to prove this as the only possible definition of "manly" will have a difficult task on his or her hands.

This 'best' popular definition of "manliness", even assuming it's very much defensible in the eyes of mainstream society, fails to take into account of the demands of a modern civilization, where the very means of making a living are incomprehensible to a hunter-gather or other Stone Age culture. Therefore, I have reason to believe that my proposed coherent pop culture definition of "manliness" is based on the demands of earlier ages - when physical survival skills were vital to even pick nuts and berries, let alone bring down mastodons with an obsidian-pointed spear and wolves with fire-sticks.

In short, I hold that contributing ideas and products that further humane development of civilization are far more important in the 21st Century than any conformity with society's gender expectations per my proposed definition above. This is because there's no logical relationship between pop culture definitions of "manliness" and ability to contribute high-valued, cutting-edge goods, services, and ideas that further widen the gap between ourselves and death/extinction. History shows that ideas and products are ultimately what create a world more pleasant and less painful to live in. The higher a society's level of organizational sophistication and especially it's level of technology, the more true this is and will become (although we in advanced technical societies certainly have pains and troubles that we did not have in the past).

Regardless of the pros and cons of 21st century living, we're here in this time and place and therefore we have to conform to its demands in terms of achieving prosperity and happiness. That includes creating new cultural and societal attitudes needed that allows us to achieve prosperity and happiness in our time on this earth. Common knowledge shows that "manliness" in the pop culture sense is not required for an adult human male to be a valuable contributor to society.

Therefore, even if "manliness" were somehow necessary in earlier ages (esp. the Stone Age and early Agricultural Age), the usefulness - even helpfulness - of the "manly" traits shrinks over time. It's time to put “manliness” in its proper context, respect it for helping us to survive and thrive as a species in earlier ages but today give it a respectful escort to the retirement home of ideas and behaviors that were perhaps necessary in their time, but no longer have any real usefulness in the betterment of the human condition.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

For Humans, Paradise Would Be Hell.

This post turns out to be an extended commentary on the last post, which discussed why I find a transhumanist future for humanity unrealistic even if it does become technically possible to accomplish, namely due to profound difficulties within human nature itself. As such, it's best to treat this as a continuation of the current theme, though I won't comment on transhumanism itself in any capacity. Instead, I'll concentrate on evidence supporting the notion that humans in their present form simply are not psychologically equipped to handle perfection.

In the last post, I referenced a comment to the effect that humans are not equipped to handle a perfect world, no doubt because we humans are designed to deal with imperfections in this world. In fact, the author of the paper I referenced claimed that we cannot deal with a perfect world precisely because we’d be so bored by it.

At this point, an interesting notion occurred to me: What implications does this have for human day-to-day interactions in particular and for world peace in general?

Basically, I think most of us tend to be troublemakers by nature. How else do you explain Internet usernames like ”Bandit” “Outlaw” or names of certain other antisocial behaviors being considered a “cool” username, even if people who name themselves as such aren't egregious lawbreakers? Now before you say I’m being ridiculous about this, ask yourself how most people you know would consider catchy, attractive or intriguing usernames like “GoodCitizen” “BoyScout” “NiceGuy” “PlaysByTheRules” or similar such super-civilized usernames. Not many! In fact, most people would eye-roll at such usernames.

So far, we only a description of a fact: people think antisocial self-descriptors "cool" or exciting while considering civilized-sounding usernames boring or otherwise undesirable. Now we have to ask Why do we have such attitudes toward such usernames in the first place despite our purported love of peace and civility (which I hastily admit we do love it to a great extent).

(AGAIN, before you say I’m being ridiculous, I completely understand the contexts and general situations surrounding people's choice of usernames. I just as strongly agree that it would be ridiculously paranoid to assume anything about anyone’s character from such usernames. It's just that I’m looking below the surface to get at the meanings and motivations behind our reactions toward such usernames. With that said, I'll continue)

Were this merely a matter of username choices, then this would indeed be a pointless blog entry. However, other examples of what I speak exist in everyday life. For example, a little kid jokingly saying “Here comes trouble!” sounds exciting and fun to the child, presumably because “trouble” has a certain kind of fun about it - as long as you keep it in proper limits. Even granting this condition, it’s still highly revealing that little kids saying “Here comes civility!”, “Here comes niceness!” and so forth does not have nearly the entertainment value that “Here comes trouble!” does.

Both the username choices and the childish fun found in “trouble”, even if nowhere near the truly menacing sort, tell me that we humans actually enjoy breaking the rules, often for no reason at all. There’s something “fun” about it. This goes even for not only the most truly law-abiding citizen types but also even for those who have practically zero chance of experiencing famine, violent crime, poverty, war, or any other situation that more or less invites societal breakdown. We’ve all heard about idle rich Manhattan socialites gossiping about this and that, making big dramas out of trivial matters, and such. Why is this so, when there is no apparent threat to their lives or livelihoods? From a strictly logical point of view, it makes no sense whatsoever.

Yet another example is the oft-spoken female sexual desire (at least on the “raw animal level”) for guys with a “bad boy” image (yes, it’s very much debatable to what extent or degree girls like “bad boys”, but real life experience and reading many forums seems to at least partially confirm this). Adding weight to this is the fact that “nice guys”, even those who are not weak, indecisive, “unmanly”, etc. often get passed over in favor of guys who have at least jerk-like tendencies, if not bonafide through-and-through jerks. Frequently given reasons why girls like them is that “Semi-jerks are exciting and nice guys are boring”, even if the two guys are equal in all other respects.

Yet a fourth exhibit meshing well with this is a personal anecdote. Years ago, I heard a preacher say that if you die unsaved, then Heaven will likely be a kind of Hell for you – for you’d get bored to tears glorifying God when you clearly had no passionate interest in Him while you walked this earth. This also meshes well with my interpretation of human nature, for how can you truly love something or someone if they are not in the forefront of your mind at least a huge portion of the time? It’s like asking a stereotypical American football or rugby player to attend a seminar about the latest findings of the soil composition of Mars’ Hellas Basin, then listening to speculations about what types of chemistry and geologic processes created that soil. Same thing with people who aren’t interested in God’s Will being in His Holy Presence forever and ever, Amen.

Taking all four examples together, this seems to support what I discussed in the last blog entry - humans are simply not psychologically equipped to handle Utopia.

Given that at least some proportion of our behaviors, mentalities, and sexual turn-ons are genetic, then it seems that our default position is to be at least somewhat troublesome because we really do get bored with peace easily. Never mind that most people truly appreciate a lack of war or serious civil disruption. We simply need at least some rulebreaking in our lives in order to keep life interesting to us. You even find this in the music of peaceful periods versus times of turmoil. The popular music of the early 1960s, the late 70s, and practically most of the 1980s is not nearly as memorable or groundbreaking as was the music of the late 60s and early 70s. Of course there is good music from those relatively peaceful time periods but it was not as groundbreaking as the protest music at Woodstock or other anti-establishment tunes.

All this suggests that deep down we humans have a secret but strong love of troublesome behavior toward each other. In fact, without stimulation of some sort, we become positively bored if those around us are polite and civil ALL the time; or maybe it’s just that it’s easier (i.e. takes up less brain power) to just start trouble somehow than it is to take full advantage of what the peaceful periods offer to us – namely the time and energy afforded us to use our brains in truly creative ways, ways that further improve society. Regardless of where the truth lies, the fact remains that many of us have a strong love of at least moderate breaking of even time-honored traditional rules.

Given that we aren't truly equipped to handle Utopia for the reasons given above, it could well be that human nature is best off with only moderate improvements at best - meaning purging ourselves of only the worst of our behavioral and attitudinal traits, especially those with strong genetic components.* Beyond this, asking for a Utopia in which not even minor bad things can happen to anyone is far too much to ask for, even if we could eliminate all bad things. The result would not be living happily ever after, it'd be just our eternal search for our version of paradise - an imperfect world that cannot hurt us in any way (a contradiction in terms, particularly in terms of human-induced trouble and misery). Therefore, I'll close this by wishing all of you a moderately annoying and troublesome day.

ADDED: What does all this mean for not only world peace, but rooting out the ultimate causes of world disorder? Personally, I'd say "Not much hope, with the possible exception of eliminating the worst threats to our civilization (nuclear, biological, chemical weapons, the most egregious violations of human rights, property rights, and civil liberties). Beyond that, we might find corruption, sex scandals, fallen heroes, and other inefficiencies in even our strongest democracies a source of entertainment - and may secretly regret their demise. If not in the political arena, then certainly we'd find it sad to be without office gossip or social circle scandals. For this reason, I think that even if a truly sustainable world peace and justice is theoretically possible (i.e. have all the institutional mechanisms in place to establish and maintain it), we won't really want it. And as history shows, societies usually get what they deserve in the long run, especially if they have no strong external enemies to fight.


*I'm particularly thinking any genetic inclination to Narcissism and other "Cluster B" Personality Disorders, which are not only among the most resistant to treat but also among the most socially disruptive).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Transhumanism: "If It Sounds Too Good to be True, It Probably IS!"

Today, I came across an article by Patrick D. Hopkins, A Moral Vision For Transhumanism. Overall, I found nothing to seriously disagree with, even if it is a bit utopian.  To be fair, I don’t think Hopkins intended to predict how we will apply transhumanist technologies; he simply asserts in the article what transhumanism ought to stand for, regardless of how and to what ends Homo sapiens sapiens will use these technologies after they're invented.  

In this article, Hopkins argues convincingly that, for all our ideas of and wishings for utopia, Homo sapiens are simply not mentally and emotionally equipped to handle utopian states of affairs. Presumably, in utopia, we'd have few to no unmet needs.  In that case, Utopia would not be a state of eternal bliss but a state of boredom.  We humans have evolved to ultimately like struggle, perhaps even conflict.  Therefore, living in the very Utopia we desire would necessitate reengineering human nature itself (presumably through a combination of both genetic and/or neurological engineering; and adding artificial intelligence to our brains besides).

His next claim also seems true to human nature: without changing our basic mentality, we’d not be transhuman but merely superhuman – merely a greater abundance of the same physical and mental abilities we so often blindly admire, but with the same instincts and emotions that cause so much conflict in this world.  While I definitely agree with Hopkins here, I think it's by no means the only objection most people would have to transhumanism. I find it much more likely that people will oppose it because humans love "human nature" just the way it is so much that the great majority will not be willing to embrace the change.

People will give any number of objections why we shouldn’t change human nature even were it in our power to do so.  Primarily they fall into either one of the following categories:

(a) stick-in-the-mud conservatism (That’s just the way we are; If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; etc)
(b) fear of the unknown (this is not entirely unreasonable, given that if we can control the minutest details of genetic engineering and our brains, the possibilities of transhumanism are limited only by the human imagination - and later the transhuman one besides)
(c) egotism (too much pride in the way human nature is)
(d) petty personal distaste at the possibilities of our nature becoming radically different (We won’t be human any more!)
(e) the established “winners” among Homo sapiens fear they’ll lose power (again, given human nature desire for power, glory, and control even in the most "civilized" societies, this is not a groundless worry).

Excuse the anthropomorphism, but it makes the idea easier to get across. Nature has already been genetically engineering Homo sapiens for a few hundred thousand years already, and in ways we don’t like besides (e.g., we’re often violent, dishonest, belligerent, bigoted or otherwise judging others by their superficial traits, and being hypocritical about it besides).  If we develop the technology and techniques to purge these traits from our nature, then why shouldn't we use them?  If anything, failure to purge these traits would be a dereliction of duty to humanity.

My Opposition to Transhumanism on Practical Grounds

Yet, at the same time, I generally oppose transhumanist schemes even if they prove to yield only ten percent of the results their most ardent boosters claim they will be able to yield.  This is because the power to change the nature of life is so powerful that any mishap or misuse is likely to cause a cataclysmic catastrophe for at least a large segment of society. In fact, given the potential of transhumanist technologies to change human nature itself, I would say that safe use of them requires human nature itself to change before they are used.  This is putting the cart before the horse.  Given the human drive for power and domination at all costs plus our natural contempt and personal distaste for anyone strikingly different from ourselves, I find it far more likely that reengineering human nature will make our superhuman descendants - on average - even more despicable than we are now; or at least make this world even more unpleasant to live in. At the very least, it will give a lot of our post-human descendants enhanced abilities without empathy and compassion commensurate to that power they possess. In this case, we can't simply hope that the "good post-humans" can successfully defend mere humans and/or less-developed post-humans like some superhero; for unlike in the movies or graphic novels, there's no guarantee the good guys will win in the end.  

In fact, one can very well argue that our technology is already too powerful for our present level of compassion or empathy for others. After all, were our empathy and compassion commensurate with our technology, then why do we still - in this day and age - still have a world that requires soldiers, police, and social workers – just to name three?  This is especially true for societies as highly educated as 21st century Earth.  As explained above, it's highly unlikely we'll use this technology to purge the worst of humanity's baser instincts from ourselves - which means that a post-human world can easily be a lot worse than this one. Continuing the graphic novel analogy, imagine a super-villain with the raw strength of a gorilla and the reflexes of a cat. Then imagine it has more intelligence than any of us currently do - even making the proverbial Einstein seem to have the IQ of a rodent by comparison. Consider how easily he or she could dominate you or even the world. Now consider a whole species of such people.  Therefore, if we don’t change the nature of these superhumans before we give them superpowers, namely by purging them of the most destructive and self-centered tendencies we find in our present selves, how much chance would Homo sapiens have in a battle with them?
 
It may well be the case that the more high-minded, idealist segment of humanity will change themselves or, more likely, gene-enginner their children, into being truly transhuman rather than mere superhuman.  Even so, the fact remains that even idealistic sounding liberal movements take time to seep into the mass consciousness.   The mental and emotional ideas and memes required to transhumaninize as opposed to superhumanize Homo sapiens will likely take at least a full century,  very possibly a few.  During that time, there will undoubtedly be people using the technology, theoretically usable for transhumanization, to merely superhumanize their offspring - essentially making us either quasi-supervillians or quasi-superheroes (no doubt created to deter the supervillains.  In short, it'll be a kind of arms race based on genetic or other kinds of enhancements. This will very likely create a worst of both worlds scenario:  Enhancement in physical strength, agility, and mental cunning without any improvement in the being’s empathy, sympathy, open-mindedness, tolerance, and compassion.  This is exactly the situation we risk if we don’t enhance our compassion and concern for others before we genetically and mentally augment ourselves.

Unfortunately, for my stated reasons, it seems much more realistic to expect that advent of the ability to reengineer ourselves in all aspects is more likely to lead to dystopia rather than utopia; thereby making the world an even worse place than it currently is.  For these reasons, I cannot help but be concerned about humanity’s future; for history shows that anything inventible by humans will be invented and used by us.  It is also one reason I don’t think humanity will exist much longer than a few more centuries.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Response to Dan of "Take the Bully By The Horns"

This is a response to Dan of Take the Bully By the Horns . While I find a few parts agreeable, I believe the advice relies too much on traditional paradigms to truly improve the overall bullying situation in schools. This is especially true when tackling the overall cultural attitudes that allow bullying to spring forth and even flourish.  In short, the only true way to reduce bullying sustainably is to change our culture in general.  That includes changing the adult cultural attitudes toward weakness and "going along to getting along".  With this said, I'll get to Dan's post.

If you are an adult who knows a lot of children and teens, the chances are good that some of them shared experiences with you about being bullied. Some people give the wrong suggestions to a victim of bullying. The purpose of this article is to help guide you in the right direction to effectively help a bullied kid.

This short article is fairly opinionated, as every situation is different and outcomes are seldom perfect. This article probably won't be useful if you're dealing with a kid who is experiencing very severe forms of bullying.

Do not suggest to someone that they run away from bullies, or tell them they should snitch

You're better off engaging in a fight then running away, unless it is a group that's chasing you. A kid at school has a reputation to maintain and weak, cowardly people are naturally unpopular. The same thing is true of bullies but for different reasons of course. If the kid is small, perhaps he should join a wrestling team or a martial arts school to build up strength and work around the limitations of his small frame. The latter is likely to be a better bet initially.

People who tell on others a lot naturally have a bad reputation, and they are not likely to have a lot of friends. They are not self sufficient and they are not fun to hang out with. .


Firstly, all the above are just short-term fixes at best.  They does nothing to change the CULTURE that supports bullying,  Contempt for weakness (or cowardice) is among the worst of these traits. Does that mean the weak or timid person can’t be an honorable, decent human being?  Does that mean weak and timid people have no integrity, civility, and kindness?  Does that mean they can’t be  fun to hand out with in the proper setting (not that that being “fun” should be a huge criteria of your respect-worthiness).  


Secondly “Being fun to hang out with” sounds too close to  “go along to get along” for my comfort.  This is precisely what leads to peer pressure. Worse yet, this is the exact opposite of the very courage you seek to instill.  Also, this is akin to an adult not reporting a physical battery to the police on the grounds that he’s snitching.  Some may say “kids are kids, adults are adults”, but in this case that’s merely an arbitrary distinction set by the culture.  As far as I’m concerned, if you’re old enough to know it’s wrong (and most teenagers do), then you should be held responsible for your actions.

Put all this together, this advice amounts to little more than “Be like the normal, sensible, self-respecting people with strong backbone or be worth less than the gum that sticks to your shoes”.  That kind of message isn’t going to lead to any kind of sustainable improvement in the situation – whether for the bullied, the bully, or the school culture.  It’s just the same advice that appeals more to our animal-based prejudices, those that on a larger scale held back so many segments of our society for so long.

Negative gestures and comments deserve responses

Whether you're an adult in the workplace experiencing unnecessary negative feedback or a teenager in high school who hears a comment that is the least bit pushy or rude, it is deserving of a response that is equally as potent. You probably agree that its rude to tell someone to "Move!" if they're not standing out of place. Bullies test you out with small stuff, then they work their way into more things over time after they see how passive their victim is.


Maybe I’m reading too much into your remarks, but there’s a subtle undertext here that reinforces the tired old adage “bullying builds character”.  While it’s important to give kids the cognitive tools necessary to assert their rights, it’s a huge leap of faith to imply that it prepares them for the adult world.  I don’t suppose you’d look down on an adult being bullied at work if he or she went to personnel to deal with the matter.  Why should children be any different, other than our own cultural biases about the "proper" role of youth behavior vis-a-vis its adult counterpart(or human nature, if you prefer)?

This is not to say that any snappy comment is coming from a bully trying to soften you up. This is more about building and maintaining boundaries as well as self confidence.

While verbal assertiveness is important go gain breathing space, this is only another short-term fix at best. What all of society needs to do to help the bullied feel more secure and self-confidence is to attack the cultural attitudes that that not only turn a blind eye to, but even encourage bullying.  That’s how we took a big bite out of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-semitism, and a whole host of other bigotries.  No one or even small group of people could accomplish that by themselves – it takes a wholesale cultural change to get rid of an evil.  If we could do it for those deeply entrenched bigotries, why not for bullying?

Stress the importance of eye contact and how to interact with peers

Someone who is quick to look away from someone while talking with them appears timid. If someone approaches you for something, they should be the one to look away / walk away first when the conversation is over with. This helps to maintain equality among peers.

People who talk in a sad or guilty tone are likely to be yelled at more than most people. A tone of voice that is apologetic is provocative to a hot headed person that is easily annoyed by people who are weak.

If you're talking in an apologetic manner then it appears that you don't believe in yourself. Get some pride if this is the case, and you will be more assertive. If you notice someone looking at you, it's best to look back at them right away, in a non judgmental fashion. I don't think its worth pretending that you don't notice. This way you give off a vibe that says "I won't let you mess with me."

This I do find partially agreeable, even if incomplete. While this would do a lot to deter bullies, the problem with the advice is that the very basis of the target's pride was somehow destroyed by some incident or another.  It could be their incompetence in what they really would like to do or it could be that the youth culture disdains the very things at which they are most competent (more about this next). So it’s not going to be as simple as just telling them to “get some pride”.  After all, pride doesn’t just pop up out of a vacuum; it’s based on precedents earlier in the young person’s life.

Very obscure interests should possibly be kept private

In today's world individuality has become very popular. If a teenager is very fascinated by calculus or astronomy then they should get to know someone before talking about it that much. It is a stereotype that nerds get picked on but like most stereotypes, there is something in it. Every situation is different, it depends on the interests and the environment the youngster is in.

Again, this is more “going along to get along” – as though popularity with one’s peers should be the yardstick by which we should measure someone’s worth.  The mass of peers may do that, but I’m not sure letting popular opinion be “judge, jury, and executioner” is all that great at encouraging self-reliance and independent thought (the base of self-reliance).  Even worse, if the kid’s interest is something he or she can make a career of, then the message you are sending is actually counterproductive, both personally and – eventually – economically.  Perhaps there’s a reason that Silicon Valley is in San Francisco Bay Area , by definition, only a stone’s throw away from the famously weirdo-friendly city of SF itself . Also, the SF Bay metro area also has highest per capita income of any American metro area (yes, even higher than New York). 


Determine whether the victim of bullying is socially awkward and has a lot of annoying habits

Bullies might not bully just for the sake of dominance and amusement, they might be jealous or otherwise annoyed by traits of the victim. They get defensive when they bully for this reason.

Does the victim chew his gum loud? Does he smell bad? Does he have a high pitched voice?


While I agree that easy to correct traits should be dealt with (the first two you listed), the “high-pitched voice” part is likely not something that’s within his control, and therefore it’s grossly unfair to insist they change part of who they are, however superficially unappealing.  That’s like asking a fat and ugly girl to “make herself hot”.  Moreover, this  tells me more about how narrow-minded, intolerant, and judgmental people are over nit-picky, non-character traits than it does how wrong it is to have that last said trait and it’s implicit message “boys with high-pitched voices deserve disrespect, regardless of whatever positive traits they bring to the table”.

Whether its you or someone you know who is the victim of bullying, honestly is a very good step in solving the problem. Compare the victim to their peers. What things does the victim have, or what things does the victim lack? If a socially awkward person complains to you about being bullied, you should point that out to them. Don't be concerned about hurting their feelings, show them that you are trying to help and they will hopefully understand in time.

Half-way correct: it is giving them specific reasons they are bullied. However, the answer is framed in the wrong way.  If they are socially awkward, they should be given the tools to be proud of themselves in spite of their social awkwardness.  Even then, there’s an implicit condescension in this reason that tells them “YOU are the problem”, thereby further undermining the very self-esteem they need to attack bullying.  Rather, they should concentrate on building a rich inner life and REAL accomplishments  second-to-none (those with societally, culturally, or economically redeeming benefit LONG after high school). Not the least of these is to teach them how not to care about what their peers think, and teach them the mental process and logic behind being proud of themselves in spite of what their peers say.  Also, show them how to find their own authentic personality and express it in a way that’s culturally, societally and intellectually redeeming. Living well, emotionally speaking, is the best revenge - even more so than living financially well!

In the end, this advice, even if well-meaning, assumes that it’s more important to be respected by a tight-knit, All-American, in-crowd type than anything else – i.e. a clique culture I find excessively macho, excessively conformist, and indifferent (if not disdainful) of intellectualism.  This kind of central assumption isn’t going to lead to any kind of true improvement in our culture – only a reinforcement of the status quo “the majority is right because the majority says so” kind of pseudo-philosophy.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Accomplishments of Liberalism

This one is an "oldie but goodie" from years ago.  Mike Silverman, host of the now-defunct TurnLeft.com, answered the all-too-common demagoguery equating "liberalism" with "communism", "euro-socialism", and all other negative caricatures showing liberalism is rarely, if ever, a good thing.  In response, Mike wrote this article on his website. His copyright notice is included below, per his insistence that credit for this article be given to him.



Accomplishments of Liberalism

So what have you done for me? If you are an American citizen, liberalism has done a lot for you. This list is nowhere near complete, but it touches on the highlights of liberalism's proudest accomplishments. Also, notice how many of these have the word "present" for the time frame. This shows that we are still reaping the benefits of these liberal programs today, in 1996. If you have an addition to this list, please send me e-mail.

Interstate Highway System

Era: 1950's-present

Proposed by Roosevelt and erected by Eisenhower (a Republican), the Interstate system was a big government project. As much as anything else in the post WWII era, the Interstate is responsible for tremendous economic growth, prosperity, and has spawned an entire culture.

GI Bill

era: 1950's

This act of Congress enabled millions upon millions of Americans to get college educations, something that most Americans had never had the opportunity to do previously. An entire generation of leaders, scientists, and business people owe their education to the GI Bill.

Labor Laws

era: 1930's-present

An end to child labor, 40 hour work weeks, the right of employees to collectively bargain, overtime pay, workplace safety, all of the things we take for granted today are thanks to liberal laws passed in the first half of this century. It was the conservatives who fought tooth and nail against the end of sweatshops and exploitation.

Marshall Plan

era: late 1940's-1950's

Foreign aid is a popular scapegoat these days. Those who would cut it should look back at the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe, and is the major reason that Communism never made it past East Berlin.

Environmental Laws

era: 1970's-present

The environment has gotten much better in the last 30 years thanks to liberals. Bald Eagles fly once again thanks to endangered species laws, most rivers and lakes are clean again due to anti-pollution laws, and frequent smog days are a thing of the past in most big American cities.

Food safety laws

era: 1910's-present

Ever read Sinclair's "The Jungle?" That's what things were really like before food purity laws were on the books. Today cases of food poisoning are rare, and consumers know that whatever they buy is safe to eat.

Workplace safety laws

era: 1930's-present

Long hours in unsafe conditions are much rarer today than in the past. Tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and child labor have been eliminated by liberal and progressive legislation.

Social Security

era: 1930's-1970's

This program has provided three generations of Americans retirement benefits, and nearly eliminated poverty among the elderly. The program is weakening now, but for 50 years it did its job to a T.

Economic Growth

era: 1950's-1960's

Liberalism and economic prosperity go hand-in-hand. Unlike the pseudo-boom of the 1980's, the 1950's and 1960's were a period of sustained and real growth for all sectors of the economy and all social classes. Taxes were fair, government worked, and America prospered under both Democratic and Republican administrations

Space Program

era: 1950's-present

It was Kennedy who challenged us to make it to the moon, and it is under his and Johnson's administrations that the space program took off, with numerous benefits to American industry and peoples' standard of living, not to mention national pride. If you are reading this on a computer, thank the space program and the liberals who got it going.

Peace corps

era: 1960's-present

Kennedy inspired thousands of Americans to ask what they could do for their country, and the Peace Corps is his most visible and effective legacy

Civil rights movement

era: 1950's-present

Liberal ideals drove the biggest change in American society since the Civil War, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. All Americans who believe in freedom and opportunity cannot help but be inspired by the valiant struggles of MLK and others. Also recall if you will that the major opponents of civil rights were conservatives.

The fight against Totalitarianism

era: always

World War II was fought by all Americans; liberals and conservatives fought together the evil of Nazism. The ideal we fought for was freedom and the dignity of the individual against totalitarianism. Under the leadership of Roosevelt and Truman, we won. But the battle is never over, so we must remain vigilant.

The Internet

era: 1960's-present

Not a liberal program per se, but rather a government one, which many equate as the same thing. The internet is a good example of what a government program can do when allowed to work.

The Tennessee Valley project

era: 1930's

The Depression-era government program bought electricity to thousands of impoverished families in Appalachia, prevented floods, and created thousands of new jobs.

Women's right to vote

era: 1920's-present

Before 1920, half of America's population could not exercise the essential duty of citizenship.

Universal Public Education

era: 1890's-present

The reason America is so strong economically is because we have a well-educated citizenry. Public schooling is the true melting pot of America, where every student, regardless of economic background can be taught the basics of citizenship. It is no coincidence that in the last 20 years, as conservatives have greatly weakened the public school system, that American students have scored lower on tests and our civic society has started to unravel.

National Weather Service

era: 1930's-present

This is one of those things you never think about, but you are glad its there. Far from just forecasting the weather, the NWS also provides vital data to pilots and sailors, and the NWS satellites and observation posts provide the raw data that all other weather forecasting services (private ones too!) depend on.

Scientific Research

era: 1940's-present

Much of the great discoveries in science have come about through grants from the government. This is not to say that scientific genius depends on Washington, but the fact remains that pure science is expensive, and private industry will often not fund experiments which don't have a direct commercial potential. From Salk's polio vaccine to todays Human Genome Project and Hubble Space Telescope, the government is an important partner in scientific discovery.

Product Labeling/Truth in Advertising Laws

era: 1910's-present

We take it for granted that if a claim is made publicly for a product, it's reasonable to assume it's true. Plus, every time we check the ingredients on a can or package of food, we should mentally call down blessings on the liberals who passed the necessary legislation over the anguished howls of the conservatives, who were convinced such info would be prohibitively expensive, and too big a burden on business.

Public Health

era: 1910's-present

Government funded water and sewage systems are an important part of modernity. In addition, organizations such as the National Institute of Health and the Center for Disease Control play an important part in maintaining the national health and preventing epidemics through research, vaccination programs, etc.

Morrill Land Grant Act

era: late 1800's

This act is the reason why nearly every state in the Union has a large public university. These centers of learning have educated untold millions of Americans. If you went to a school with a state name in it, then you were helped by liberalism.

This is not to say that Liberalism is perfect. Far from it. Like any ideology, it must be constantly on guard for signs of internal decay, and must embrace change in order to remain relevant in a changing world.

This document was written by Mike Silverman (mikes@turnleft.com), and is from Turn Left, the liberal home page on the World Wide Web located at http://www.turnleft.com. Redistribution is encouraged, provided this notice remains intact.