Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I am a strange loop Commentary, preliminaries

     I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter, is a much bigger, deeper, and altogether more involved book than The Moral Landscape.  It has 24 chapters and an epilogue, it deals with difficult issues that Harris would likely dismiss as "boring".   He sweeps across a wide range of very complex ideas including Incompleteness, Turing Machine, Neurobiology, Artificial Intelligence, and causality, not to mention brushing against many maddening ideas in contemporary Philosophy of Mind.  I suspect I will sometimes need more than one entry for some of the chapters.

      It has been pointed out that what I'm starting here can't really be called a "book review", rather, it is a commentary.  For starters, I suggest glancing at the Wikipedia articles for some of the following if you are not familiar with these subjects: Philosophical Zombie, Qualia, and Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem.   Finally, and rather idiosyncratically on my part, read the wikipedia article on Johann Fichte, try to grapple with section called "Central Theory", about the "I" -- I'm not a Fichtean, but it's an interesting read.

Monday, May 30, 2011

I Am a Strange Loop book report/review/notes

I am going to start reading I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter.  I will start writing my notes with my next post.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The moral smart phone app -- Thoughts on Chapter 5 of The Moral Landscape

      In Chapter 5 Harris talks more about the "science" of happiness.  The idea that morality is based on happiness is based in the brain leads him to optimism:

"...the belief that morality is a genuine sphere of human inquiry, and not a mere product of culture, suggests that progress is possible.  If moral truths transcend the contingencies of culture, human beings should eventually converge in their moral judgments." (Harris pp. 163-164)

Perhaps one day moral judgments will be an app on my smart phone!  Once we become suitably sophisticated in our moral calculus, I see no reason we couldn't enter fields nto a moral judger app and have it tell us what the right thing to do in a given situation. Hmm.... I suppose malware attacking moral apps really would be "mal"ware as they would lead to evil judgments?  But  I digress.

     I agree that scientists, similarly educated, would likely agree on brain states that are associated with happiness.  I agree that science could help us make these states more of a reality. I still, however, cling to enough of the fact/value distinction that I can't wrap my head around the idea that the notion we "ought" to value happiness, especially that of others. 

Consider the following quotations from Bertrand Russell in his essay "We Don't Want to be Happy":

"The Feeling of revulsion against a well-ordered world has various sources: one of these is that we do not value happiness as much as we sometimes think we do. We like adventure, self-determination, and power more than we like happiness."

On the other hand:

"Pride and self-direction and all the other kinds of anarchic glory that have made our saints no less than our great sinners are becoming incompatible with the continued existence of a civilized society."

But those in the throes of addiction to "anarchic glory" will have to be convinced to lay down their arms for Harris's domesticated view of happiness.  I'm afraid Harris has failed to provide anything for such people to take seriously.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris-- Thoughts on Chapter 4

     One thing that Harris does not comment on in his usual diatribe against religion is that it provides social connections and belonging that many find preferable to other forms.  Rodney Stark asserts that many religious groups provide important services for their members.  He points to this as the reason why some religions that seem to require more from congregants seem to be growing faster than more reforned groups that may require less.  Stark points out that the Latter Day Saints, while demanding tithes and very strict rules, is one of the fastest growing religions. Stark believes the popularity of such groups actually is a rational decision based on what the religious group actually provides for its members.  See Stark's book, Discovering God.

     In raw economic terms, if Stark isn't right, if religion isn't doing something for its followers, then why does it still attract so many people, especially groups that are more demanding?  Some luxuries provided  by the developed world may assist people in not succumbing to the "opiate of the masses", but as the case of the USA demonstrates, entertainment and high-tech will not satisfy everyone.

     Harris suggests that religion may simply be a genetic tendency.  These tendencies arise from "mental categories that predate religion -- and these underlying structions determine the stereotypical form that religious beliefs and practices take"(Harris, pg 138).  He also considers the possibility that certain people have brains that are more succeptible to religious style thinking:

"Religious thinking was associated with greater signal in the anterior insula and the ventral striatum."(Harris, pg. 141 Nookbook)

  Well, does it help their "well-being" to force them not to express this part of their brains?  I return to Brave New World and recall the mystical rites the inhabitants were required to intone: "orgy porgy Ford and fun, kiss the girls and make them one, boys at one with girls in peace, orgy porgy gives release".   Perhaps Huxley was on to something by having a form of mysticism in his future society.  Seeming to understand this Harris says:

"I should say at this point that I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many of the world's religions. Compassion, awe, devotion, and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have.  What is irrational, and irresponsible in a scientist and educator[here referring to Francis Collins], is to make unjustified and unjustifiable claims about the structure of the universe, about the divine origin of certain books, and about the future of humanity on the basis of such experiences."(Harris pp. 151-152 Nookbook)

So much for The Varieties of Religious Experience! 

     At this point it seems obvious that part of Harris's view of well-being is that people are, and should be, rational, that they are not taken in by unjustified claims and charlatans.  So, his notion of well-being is not one represented by the epsilon minuses in Brave New World who can barely think at all.  Does Harris somewhere, buried down in his psyche, have some set of Greek[i.e., Aristotelian] excellences he thinks we should strive to posess?  Otherwise, if religion makes people happy and is consistent with their brains, I can hardly see his argument against it. 

     I mean, what's more important, the "Truth" that religions are false, or the intra-psychic well-being certain people may experience by practicing their religions?  It is not clear at all to me that knowing the TRUTH is a prerequisite for well-being.  It depends upon what that truth happens to be.  In some cases, the truth might be an impediment to "well-being".

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris -- thoughts on Chapter 3

     Chapter 3 is, so far, the most interesting of the book.  Here we get some pay-off for Harris's new doctorate in neuroscience.  In this chapter he talks about belief.  This is the first time I have ever read a scientist document that the same areas of the brain are activated when we believe mathematical kinds of statements and moral ones; he uses this to futher explode the fact/value distinction:

          "This finding of content-independence challenges the fact/value distinction very
            directly; for if, from the point of view of the brain, believing "the sun is a star"
            is importantly similar to believing "cruelty is wrong," how can we say that
            scientific and ethical judgments have nothing in common?"(Harris pg 113, Nookbook)

      His statement that true statements are usable ones reminds me of philosophers like Heidegger and his notion of "equipment".  For Heidegger, experience is, borrowing the notion from Husserl, always "intentional"; that is, perceptions are all of an object, not raw patches of color or durations of sound.  For Heidegger, these objects are all equipment that we use pre-reflectively until we change our standpoint to a reflective one, e.g., this is a hammer that I am using, and these are its parts.
          "When we believe a proposition is true, it is as though we have taken it in hand as
            part of our extended self: we are saying, in effect, "This is mine, I can use this.
            This fits my view of the world."(Harris pg. 113, Nookbook)

Harris's ideas heare seem of a piece in may ways with Heidegger's.

     I know what you're thinking.... "You are actually drawing a comparison between Heidegger and Harris?!"  Talk about two people who come from different places!   But introspection could give the idea and philosophy that our perceptions of fact and value are related to useability.  And that's the sort of method used in phenomenology.  More than the "rational reconstructions" you get from analytic philosophy, introspection might have some connection with what we actually might see going on in the brain. It's possible that in the future science might be able plumb a universal grammar ala Chomsky and its correlates in brain, and that might be more like a rational reconstruction, but so far Harris has only shown locations in the brain that are involved in the evaluation of propositions it already understands, rather than how such propositions must be constructed syntactically.

    Harris has a lot of faith in science's ability to discover sources of error in logic and also moral reasoning.  He references some interesting research by Robert Burton and Chris Frith and concludes:

          "The fact that we are unaware of most of what goes on in our brains does not
            render the distinction between good reasons for what one believes and having
            bad ones any less clear or consequential."(Harris pg.119, Nookbook)

     So, the fact that reason turns on itself does not mean that we have to give up.  We can analyze the brain in different contexts and conditions and draw valid inferences from observations.  We can use the information we get from such examinations to help us be wary of circumstances in which we are likely to fall into particular types of error. 

          "The truth is that people can transcend mere sentiment and clarify their thinking on
          almost any subject."


This puts Harris at odds with much contemporary thought, where reasoning is seen as "interested" and thus relativism ensues.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris -- thoughts on Chapter 2

     In the second chapter of The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris begins with evolutionary evidence regarding cooperation.  I want to inject a little Nietzsche into all this.  Nietzsche was afraid that evolution, rather than leading to the "survival of the fittest", would lead to the survival of nervous, rapidly reproducing little tribbles -- he didn't put it just that way, but you get the idea.  He was also concerned that Utilitarianism, maximizing happiness etc... is the royal road to the universal couch potato.  That is, when society gets all this worked out, what we will end up with is a bunch of overly-entertained, and thoroughly reprehensible, bourgeois slugs whose idea of excitement is playing virtual parchisi on their wii.

     The question is, can Harris's viewpoint satisfy the existential view that, in fact, we don't want happiness, we want freedom?  Well maybe, maybe not.  Can we take this all into account when we are looking at the brain and create a society that turns us all into a bunch of ubermensches?  Consult Brave New World by Aldous Huxley before deciding whether this is a good idea: a speech by one of the world controllers suggests a world full of ubermensches is not good for collective happiness.

     But then, maybe all this talk is a bunch of romantic, 19th century, goolash which we should just forget about and get back to the business of "inventing happiness" as Nietzsche's Last Man says.  I mean, what would you have an organized society do, NOT try to make people happy? NOT try to maximize well-being?    
     Furthermore, Harris does take on the problem of free will and determines(haha) that it is an illusion, I agree.  Now, if free will is an illusion, then is there anything to the Nietzchean point of view? Yes, because Nietzsche didn't believe in free will; even though he makes much of creating our lives as a work of art, he does not believe in free will metaphysically.  The question is, what is our experience of life?  Do we have the sense of creative "fulfillment" -- illusion or not?  How do we conceive of ourselves? As admirable? As pathetic?  Nietzsche is more concerned about our will to be creative than about whether metaphysically there is anything like "free" will.  Can we change society to create one where people feel more "powerful" and creative in this sense?  Can science do this for us? a priori I don't see why not.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris -- thoughts on Chapter 1

For an excellent introduction to this book and some of the reaction, first check out the wikipedia page for The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

      Sam Harris takes on all of academic philosophy in The Moral Landscape.  He claims that we can eventually have a developed science of the good life.  He starts innocently enough, rejecting the fact/value distinction, but then he goes in an unusual direction.  Rather than using this to undermine the legitimacy of scientific claims to truth by assaulting them as "value laden", he says that moral claims can have the same status as most scientific ones.  All we have to do is not obsess over typical is/ought dichotomy arguments.

     He wants to think of "well-being"(the fundamental value in Harris's scheme) the same way we think about "health": if we can do medicine without constantly arguing over philosophical arcana about health why can't we develop a scientific approach to well-being without being way-laid by such arguments? He sees no reason. Harris admits that ultimately starting with "well-being" as a fundamental value is not scientific in itself, but I agree with him that this is not some knockout blow to the project. 

     Harris believes that, using ever-increasing knowledge of the brain, we can determine which societies are better for it.    Some social organizations have to be associated with "better" brain states.  To say that all brain states are created equal is just not a position Harris takes seriously, and neither do I.  Look, do you really think the Taliban's morals generate brain states corresponding to as much well-being as the morals of the liberal western democracies? Really? Come on, really?!

     Once he has a foot in the door, that is, once we accept that some notion of "well-being" is a reasonable basis for social morality, he can begin considering a more scientific approach.  He thus considers a landscape model: some social arrangements represent being in moral valleys and others near or at peaks.  And I'm just now finished with chapter 1.

     As you can imagine, this book has been met with a huge amount of vitriol from academic philosophers, especially because doesn't have answers to questions like, "why should I, today, care about collective well-being rather than only my own?"  J.S. Mill famously glosses over this issue.  There are, I think, ultimately, no good answers to these questions, but such philosophical paradoxes shouldn't stop us from trying to think in terms of well-being anyway.  Here is what Harris says in the first footnote for Chapter 1:

          "Many critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy.       First, ...I did not arrive at my position ... by reading the work of  moral philosophers ... Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like "metaethics", "deontology", " noncognitivism", "antirealism", "emotivism", etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. (Harris, pg. 183, Nookbook)

By the way, in order to get a real sense of his sophistication, you should have a long look at the footnotes.  Here he addresses a number of issues that indicate he has thought this through more thoroughly than indicated in the text itself. For example, a little later in his chapter 1 footnotes he references Hilary Putnam:

          "Philosopher Hilary Putnam has argued that facts and values are "entangled."  Scientificjudgments presuppose "epistemic values" -- coherence, simplicity, beauty, parsimony, etc.Putnam has pointed out ... that all the arguments against the existence of  moral truth could  be applied to scientific truth without any change."(Harris pg. 189 Nookbook)

     Look, there are foundational/self-referential style paradoxes at the foundations of virtually every intellectual pursuit, and yet we have advanced mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, etc... But rather than using such problems to deflate science, he uses it to suggest a science of morality -- maybe a glass half full thing.   If we define ethics as trying to increase something like happiness and reduce suffering(man this sounds like the Dalai Lama!), then there is no reason not to use science to help us do this.