Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

The Moral Landscape is an intelligent and well-researched work that engages the reader to question if notions of fact and value are really that different, but this landscape is not without its pitfalls.

On November 1st there is a book group meeting to discuss The Moral Landscape so I shall review the book in a way that makes it easier to examine different ideas and themes by presenting a list of the main positives (peaks) and negatives (valleys) about the book.
1) Conscious well-being – Harris argues that this is the only thing one should and could care about. All notions of happiness and suffering are contained within the phrase “well-being” and we want more of the positive than the negative. It is “conscious” because that is all we experience. It is true that subconscious events affect us, but that really means that they have an effect on our conscious well-being. Although I’m not 100% convinced, there does seem to be a lot of truth to this and this is likely what we care about most often.
2) The Moral Landscape has peaks and valleys - Harris tackles head on the fact that some ways of living are better than others and we can investigate these discrepancies further to better understand ourselves and better ways to live. This message may seem obvious to some and challenging to others, hopefully more people will admit to the former.
3) Fact & Value – Many think these must be different because not everyone agrees on moral issues. Harris rightly points out that we rarely use mass consensus to determine other issues (look to polls about scientific or any other type of knowledge), but we can all admit that some ways are better than others (…so he argues). Restated, it is important to draw parallels to other areas of knowledge and ignorance and how such discrepancies don’t force people to abandon notions of objective X.
4) Clarity – Harris is quite clear about what he is arguing, what he means and what he doesn’t mean, and provides responses to anticipated criticism. While this is how all books should be, not all authors seem to agree or can write that way.
5) Interesting – For those who like philosophy and science, there are many interesting things in The Moral Landscape. Aside from the main content, one reads about different selves, (the illusion of) the illusion of free will, psychopathy, recent findings in neuroscience and various tidbits (mainly from psychology) along the way.
6) Thought-provoking – Harris forces the reader to clarify their own positions in relation to his argument. If you disagree, you should be prepared to say why.

1) Disagree? Dismissed – Harris wants you to agree with him about his notion of well-being, and if you don’t, then he says your opinion doesn’t count. Additionally, if you disagree it is about conscious well-being, then your opinion doesn’t count. Further, if you disagree that extreme horror isn’t worse than tranquil delight, then your opinion doesn’t count. I am sympathetic to many of these points, but not to the degree that I can fully support his stance. (See below)
2) Arguing Extremes (Straw man; Slippery slope fallacies)
Throughout the book I was continually disappointed by Harris’ reliance upon an extreme example to try to prove a point. It was if he had a strategy of “One, Two, Extreme” and wasn’t afraid to use it. He begins by describing an issue, then providing some analysis which almost makes you agree with him, and then instead of further analysis he provides you with some extreme situation or example that you can’t disagree with.
The example I made up below isn’t quite the same, but it gives the right idea (Three is real content):
One: Different cultures have different practices.
Two: Some people think all these different practices are equally valid.
Three: If you agree with point two you are crazy because then you validate things like this: “Generose Namburho [is] a 40-year-old former nurse [who lives in the Congo]. Namburho is a stocky, self-assured woman who led us down a mud path, using a crutch to replace her missing right leg. An extremist Hutu militia invaded Namburho’s home a few years ago, killed her husband, raped her and then hacked off her leg with a knife. Then the soldiers cooked the flesh from her leg and forced her children at gunpoint to eat it. When her beloved oldest son refused, they shot him in front of her.”
Surely you don’t think children should be forced to eat their mother’s leg, do you?!
I think such argumentative structures are counterproductive because they do not address the all important middle case (and typically raise emotions which do not help with reasoning).
3) Science can’t really determine human values(?) The subtitle of the book is “How Science Can Determine Human Values” so one is given to thinking that most of our moral questions will be answered. The problem is that so far there are only general answers. Harris wisely admits that there can be equivalent peaks on the moral landscape, where there are alternate ways of achieving a similar good, but, problematically, there is little way to figure out which path to take. Additionally, Harris states that quite often there might only be answers in principle, not in practice. Harris believes this is an important point, and it is, but not to the degree he ascribes. To say that whatever is the most reasonable way to calculate collective well-being will be the most reasonable way to do it, is both true and unhelpful. True, it does follow from other premises about the nature of what we value and our notions of well-being, but because of the complexity of moral systems (i.e., us), how are we going to do this? Harris readily admits that it may be impossible for science to figure these things out. So then what is so new here? Near the end of the book (p. 183) Harris says we don’t need science to tell us many of the things we already know about having better lives. Cruelty and being tortured are bad; nearly all agree. What we all (probably) wanted is more detail on the gray areas, but there isn't much to be found in this book on such important issues. Knowing what is wrong and knowing what is right are different things (i.e., it is easier to point out how not to live than to say how to do so). Additionally, near the end (p. 189) he uses the phrasing “the claim that science could have something important to say about human values…” and that is far more modest than science determining them. This is exactly why the Is/Ought distinction is so important.
Harris seems to be saying that science cannot determine specific moral actions in practice. If that is true, then there isn’t much to disagree with. This particular topic probably warrants the most discussion (and has also received it thus far - see responses to his TED talk).
Perhaps the subtitle should have been "Science could, perhaps theoretically, determine human values, but not what we should value, unless you agree with my other arguments."
Granted the length makes it a poor subtitle, but something less misleading could have been picked.
4) Disagreement is met with condescension – While it is understandable that moral issues are of grave concern, I do not think that people should be denigrated (at least in public) for holding different (modest) views. Someone might disagree with you because they are informed and disagree, not because they are confused or stupid. All too often Harris sees his opposition as intellectual bankrupt or baffled (when they might be neither). Harris says Mooney is confused because he wants there to be accommodation and 'spiritual atheism' but Harris doesn't criticize Dan Dennett for wanting to reclaim the word spiritual (Dennett was a key reviewer of the book). Perhaps it is an issue of who his intended audience is.
5) Interesting, but lacking coherence. The content of the Moral Landscape was indeed interesting, but most of the bits after the first few chapters didn’t seem to flow as well, nor was a strong case made to tie the content back to the overall thesis. I think Harris could have filled things in a bit more. For example, how does our lack of free will impinge upon our ability to even recognize a moral landscape?

After all that, I guess you'll know if you should read it or not. I think it was worthwhile but I can't say I'll recommend this to many who are not already in the science/skepticism/atheist world.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

This delightful and amusing semi-novel is a collection of 11 related short stories about the life of English gentlemen Bertie Wooster and his valet Reginald Jeeves. The stories entail Mr. Wooster’s adventures in the city, enduring life’s perceived hardships (especially his Aunt), gambling, his friend Bingo who always falls in love, and, almost inevitable, Jeeves assisting Wooster to get through it alright. I experienced the word audibly, with J. Cecil doing a bang up job with all the voices and narration. It might have made all the difference as I can still hear lovely English expressions rattling around in my brain that still bring a smile to my face (“Good egg; biffed off; rummy; stick it… etc).
The droll sense of English humour shines in these stories and one cannot help but appreciate the way in which things fall apart if only to come together (but often still in pieces).
I had heard good things about Wodehouse for awhile but this was my first. After finishing it, I can definitely say that it will not be my last.
I highly recommend you give a listen (or read).

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How to Watch TV News by Neil Postman & Steven Powers

Although a bit dated (1992), this was a great overview and reminder of how TV news works and how careful one should be when exposed to it. I quick light media analysis so it was worthwhile to burn through the audio version.
Key points:
-Think more about how TV watches you, how the selection of content depends upon the demographic viewing
-What is news? Omission is always present. They suggest imaging that the biases and backgrounds of the background of the owners, anchor and reporters being stated up front.
-One reporter said he could manufacture a crime wave by simply reporting all the crime that occurs in a day, and stop it by simply stopping the reporting.
-Morning news shows almost try to provide a family
-The Weather person is of prime importance (this is one of the most viewed segments)
-There is no context given for events because there isn’t space. Newspapers sometimes print more pages, but there is no going over time.
-There is a high turnover of news directors, who many journalists say that it is them who decides what is news.
-Increased use of press releases.
-Sound bites have decreased over time, from the 50s and 60s to the present.
-A good discussion of the validity of recreations.
-They stress the biases of language and pictures. A judgement has been made for every word and every picture. TV cannot show abstraction. Consequently, things like fire are great news. Change is happening while you watch. TV itself cannot provide depth.
-The absurdity of commercials, especially after serious news is presented. You watch a story about an earthquake that has killed 100s and destroyed the lives of 1000s… and now toothpaste. Such is our consumerist society, but the notion that you are in any mood to consume toothpaste indicates the seriousness of the earthquake is not absorbed.
-A news show is a show
-Final advice: watch less TV, read more, think more, and reduce the number of opinions you feel you should have.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Public Domain by James Boyle

An excellent introduction to the very important world of intellectual property rights. Centered on US issues, Boyle presents a balanced overview while at the same time arguing for a particular position (the subtitle of the book, Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, might be an indicator of where he stands). I liked this book because I knew almost nothing about intellectual property issues and now feel I at least have a sense of the history and current issues. Consistently, the entire work is available for free online.
Boyle’s main positions are:
1) Intellectual property (IP) is not the same as physical property, so when we discuss rights we should be cautious about using analogies between to two to justify our decisions.
2) There should be IP rights, but they should also be limited to ensure that creators can still quote, parody, criticize, and build upon the works of others.

To quote Boyle discussing his various proposals:
"We could sum them up thus: do not apply identical assumptions to physical and intellectual property. Focus on both the inputs to and the outputs of the creative process; protecting the latter may increase the cost of the former. Look both at the role of the public domain and the commons of cultural and scientific material and at the need to provide incentives for creativity and distribution through exclusive rights. More rights will not automatically produce more innovation. Indeed, we should confine rights as narrowly as possible while still providing the desired result. Look at the empirical evidence before and after increasing the level of protection. Pay attention to the benefits as well as the costs of the new technologies and the flowering of creativity they enable.
To me, these points seem bland, boring, obvious—verging on tautology or pablum. To many believers in the worldview I have described, they are either straightforward heresy or a smokescreen for some real, underlying agenda—which is identified as communism, anarchism, or, somewhat confusingly, both."

One also reads of an interesting story of theft/borrowing/collaboration/creative inspiration with the history and origins of a song: George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People this was written by a duo called “The Legendary K.O.” who wrote lyrics to the tune of Kanye West’s “Gold digger” which were inspired by West’s statement on a TV program with a shocked Mike Myers. “The Legendary K.O. reached for Kanye West’s song in order to criticize Mr. Bush, they found themselves sampling Jamie Foxx, who was copying Ray Charles, who was copying the Bailey Gospel Singers, who themselves may have borrowed their theme from an older spiritual.” So much for originality! But we should remember it is rare if not unparalleled for an artist to create from nothing.

I’ll end by quoting an insightful part of the book that asks the reader to imagine we might be losing if we make IP rights too limiting using the Internet as an example:
"Imagine you knew nothing of the Net. (Those of you who are over twenty-five may actually be able to remember when you knew nothing of the Net.) Imagine that you are sitting in a room somewhere discussing—perhaps with a group of government bureaucrats or some policy analysts from the Commerce Department—whether to develop this particular network. The scientists are enthusiastic. They talk of robustness and dumb networks with smart terminals. They talk of TCP/IP and HTML and decentralized systems that run on open protocols, so that anyone can connect to this network and use it any way they want to. You, of course, know nothing about the truly astounding outburst of creativity and communication that would actually flower on such a system, that would flower precisely because it is so open and no one country or company controls it or the protocols that run it. You do not know that millions of people worldwide will assemble the greatest factual reference work the world has ever seen on this network—often providing their information for free out of some bizarre love of sharing. You do not know about Amazon.com or Hotornot.com or the newspapers of the world online, or search engines, automatic page translation, plug-ins, or browsers. You cannot imagine free or open-source software being assembled by thousands of programmers worldwide. E-mail is only a dimly understood phenomenon to you. Teenagers in your world have never heard of instant messaging—a nostalgic thought.
As the scientists talk, it becomes clear that they are describing a system without centralized direction or policing. Imagine that your decision is framed by the logic of control I have described in this chapter, by the fears that the content industry has had for at least the last thirty years—by the logic of the suit they brought in Sony. Imagine, in other words, that we make the up-or-down decision to develop the Internet based on the values and fears that our copyright policy now exhibits, and that the content industries have exhibited for thirty years. There is no way, no way at all, that a network like it would ever be developed. It would be strangled at birth. You would be told by the lawyers and policy wonks that it would be a haven for piracy and illegality. (And it would be, of course—though it would also be much, much more.) You would be told that the system needed to be designed to be safe for commerce or it would never attract investment, that it would need to be controlled and centralized for it to be reliable, that it would need to be monitored to stop it being a hotbed of crime. With the copyright lawyers in the room, you would end up designing something that looked like cable TV or Minitel. The Internet would never get off the ground.
The Internet is safe now, of course, because it developed so fast that it was a reality before people had time to be afraid of it. But it should give us pause that if we had our current guiding set of policy goals in place, our assumption that cheaper copying means we need greater regulation, we would never have allowed it to flourish. As Jessica Litman points out, we are increasingly making our decisions about technology and communications policy inside copyright law. We are doing so according to the logic of control that I have sketched out in this chapter. But the logic of control is a partial logic. It blinds us to certain possibilities, ones that have huge and proven potential—look at the Internet."


The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Terry Eagleton

A useful and concise work that, like much good philosophy, forces the reader to consider what they mean by certain words and phrases. Is “What is the Meaning of Life6” a valid question or is it actually incoherent and only seems to be valid due to a quirk of our language? I agree with pursuing clarity and precision in the presentation of words, thoughts and ideas, but I understand that others might see such examinations within this book as annoying or boring (even if they admit the importance of language). But, if we do not engage in such considerations, what shall we do when someone asks, “Can people sacrifice their happiness to their happiness?”
Eagleton certainly drops a lot of names and quotes many philosophical and historical figures, which it just part of the tradition even though it can sometimes disrupt how I sometimes like things to flow.
As for what the meaning of life might be, I do think it is a fallacious framing of an issue. It would be far better to ask something like, “How can I make my life more meaningful?” Fortunately or not, only you can answer that, but reading more and doing some experiential and introspective exploring will be of great assistance.

Monday, October 11, 2010

What Intelligence Tests Miss by Keith E. Stanovich

This was a good book because Stanovich successful argues that IQ tests do not measure many components of rational thinking and behaviour, which in turn explains why we are confused when ‘smart’ people do stupid things. It was not a great book though, because it seems Stanovich couldn’t quite decide on the audience so the book is not of uniform accessibility/challenge (perhaps it was rushed?). The book was a decent overview of decision science findings paired with cognitive scientists’ descriptions of information processing. I also agreed with his ‘narrow’ definition of intelligence and that it is a useful construct that shouldn’t be blurred to accommodate all different types of abilities as those modifications sacrifice explanatory power. His discussion of Bayesian probability could have been better and it would have been extremely helpful to be given some specific techniques to try to overcome our own irrational biases and behaviours.
I can’t fully recommend it because it might be too detailed for a reader unexposed to the literature, but not detailed enough for those readers who have been. Perhaps there is a better version or a book with similar content by Stanovich himself.

Atheism: A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini

An excellent overview of the main arguments for and reasoning behind Atheism. Baggini presents both positive and negative arguments, using clear philosophical reasoning without too much detail. For those well-read on the subject, this work will have little that is new, but it is useful as a concise reference guide or alternate phrasing and framing of issues.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Mary does it again. For those who haven’t read her previous works like Stiff and Bonk, Mary Roach typically writes a great amount of detail about a subject (and adjacent topics) while providing a presentation that is both interesting and amusing. Packing for Mars, the examination of the history and future of space exploration is no exception. We get some of the politics of the space race, how animals were used, what micro-gravity is like, and just how difficult it is for people in space. Alternatively, those seeking more information about physics and new technologies instead of an emphasis on the human factors (especially on going to the bathroom in space) might be disappointed.
Personally, it was useful to learn more about the pre-moon missions and the Russian competition, as well as how bloody complicated everything is in space. Finally, it was also neat to think about a time before we knew so much (i.e., scientists weren’t sure if your organs would work the same way if there was no gravity).