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This is the archive for May 2005

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

A post at Science Blog reports a study from Arizona State University in which it is suggested that prejudice is a hardwired reponse to perceived threats.
Contrary to what most people believe, the tendency to be prejudiced is a form of common sense, hard-wired into the human brain through evolution as an adaptive response to protect our prehistoric ancestors from danger.
Subjects rated different groups on the level of threat they posed to American society and then associated emotions with the groups. Researchers found that "the different 'flavors' of prejudice were associated with different patterns of perceived threat" -- threats to physical safety, health, and economic resources.

It must be made clear that an argument for the evolutionary roots of prejudice is not a justification for prejudical behavior. As Steven Neuberg, ASU professor of social psychology, who co-authored the study, says
What we think and feel and how we behave is typically the result of complex interactions between biological tendencies and learning experiences. Evolution may have prepared our minds to be prejudiced, but our environment influences the specific targets of those prejudices and how we act on them.
Prejudice hard-wired into the human brain | Science Blog

Friday, May 20, 2005

Ronald Bailey at Reason Online discusses the future of neuropharamcology.
At a Dana Foundation conference on neuroethics last week at the Library of Congress, University of Pennsylvania neurologist Anjan Chatterjee declared that we are already well advanced in the enhancement era of neuropharmacology.

Reason | A Day at the Brain Spa: Coming soon to a mall near you

Thursday, May 19, 2005

There is an interesting discussion of the relationship between thought and language at cognitive Daily.
One of the oldest questions in the study of language involves how it influences our thought. One of the most controversial answers comes from Benjamin Whorf, the student of renowned anthropologist Edward Sapir: language not only influences thought; language determines thought -- thought cannot exist without language. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, at least in its strongest form, has been discarded by mainstream psychologists. After all, it's not difficult to come up with many examples of thought that do not involve language, such as mentally rotating an object or learning how to juggle (think about it: by the time you verbalized the tiny adjustments necessary to juggle successfully, the floor would be littered with juggling balls). But a weaker form of the hypothesis has yet to be disproved: the idea that the available linguistic expression does to a certain extent constrain our thoughts.

Cognitive Daily

Saturday, May 14, 2005

A simpleton admits he's a simpleton and goes on to give an overly simplistic explanation of what it is to be a simpleton.
Yes, I am simpleton. It is not a mental disorder, it is a worldview that recognizes real evil instead of rationalizing it and calling it a "different way to live". Simpletons do not need to understand and empathize with evil. We want to stop it from propagating. Simpletons do not need lengthy explanations from lawyers with loopholes, and we are not interested in understanding how Communism, Socialism, Marxism or Leninism might work if we try it again with a few tweaks.
At first I thought this was a farce, a site designed to lampoon christian conservativism by presenting a cartoonish picture of their simplistic thinking. But no...

Thursday, May 12, 2005

At the Edge Steven Pinker and Elizabith Spelke debate sex differences and their bearing on careers for women in science. To explain the datum that women are under-represented in the sciences, Pinker emphasizes innate genetic factors while Spelke focuses on the social influences.
On April 22, 2005, Harvard University's Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative (MBB) held a defining debate on the public discussion that began on January 16th with the public comments by Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, on sex differences between men and women and how they may relate to the careers of women in science. The debate at MBB, "The Gender of Gender and Science" was "on the research on mind, brain, and behavior that may be relevant to gender disparities in the sciences, including the studies of bias, discrimination and innate and acquired difference between the sexes".

It's interesting to note that since the controversy surrounding Summers' remarks began, there has been an astonishing absence of discussion of the relevant won't find it in the hundreds and hundreds of articles in major newspapers; nor will find it in the Harvard faculty meetings where the president of the leading University in America was indicted for presenting controversial ideas.

Scientists debate continually, and reality is the check. They may have egos as large as those possessed by the iconic figures of the academic humanities, but they handle their hubris in a very different way. They can be moved by arguments, because they work in an empirical world of facts, a world based on reality. There are no fixed, unalterable positions. They are both the creators and the critics of their shared enterprise. Ideas come from them and they also criticize one another's ideas.

Through the process of creativity and criticism and debates, they decide which ideas get weeded out and which become part of the consensus that leads to the next level of discovery.

But unlike just about anything else said about Summers' remarks, the debate, "The Science of Gender and Science", between Harvard psychology professors Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke, focused on the relevant scientific literature. It was both interesting on facts but differing in interpretation.

Both presented scientific evidence with the realization and understanding that there was nothing obvious about how the data was to be interpreted. Their sharp scientific debate informed rather than detracted. And it showed how a leading University can still fulfill its role of providing a forum for free and open discussion on controversial subjects in a fair-minded way. It also had the added benefit that the participants knew what they were talking about.

Who won the debate? Make up your own mind. Watch the video, listen to the audio, read the text and check out the slide presentations.
There's a lesson here: let's get it right and when we do we will adjust our attitudes. That's what science can do, and that's what Edge offers by presenting Pinker vs. Spelke to a wide public audience.
Video and audio recordings of the debate are available, along with Power Point presentations and transcripts.

Edge| The Science of Gender and Science

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Yet another survey categorizes me as a liberal. Imagine that.
Based on your answers to the questionnaire, you most closely resemble survey respondents within the Liberal typology group. This does not mean that you necessarily fit every group characteristic or agree with the group on all issues.

Liberals represent 17 percent of the American public, and 19 percent of registered voters.

Basic Description
This group has nearly doubled in proportion since 1999, Liberals now comprise the largest share of Democrats and is the single largest of the nine Typology groups. They are the most opposed to an assertive foreign policy, the most secular, and take the most liberal views on social issues such as homosexuality, abortion, and censorship. They differ from other Democratic groups in that they are strongly pro-environment and pro-immigration, issues which are more controversial among Conservative and Disadvantaged Democrats.
I was using the PEW Political Typology survey, which sets out nine groups based on values, political beliefs and party affiliations.

PEW | Political Typology

Monday, May 09, 2005

Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst) has this wonderful song ridiculing the literal suggestion that W talks with God. I, like many others, deplore the practice of assigning the responsibility for controversial actions to the specific commands a personal God. I can excuse schizophrenics, but not world leaders (unless they are also schizophrenic), and especially not world leaders who claim such divine conversations to gain cheap political advantage. The song is getting plenty of attention, especially after he played it on the Leno show last week. It's rather Dylan-like in structure and mood, but, however clever, it lacks Dylan's sophisticated subtlety.
"When The President Talks To God"

When the president talks to God
Are the conversations brief or long?
Does he ask to rape our women's rights
And send poor farm kids off to die?
Does God suggest an oil hike
When the president talks to God?

When the president talks to God
Are the consonants all hard or soft?
Is he resolute all down the line?
Is every issue black or white?
Does what God say ever change his mind
When the president talks to God?

When the president talks to God
Does he fake that drawl or merely nod?
Agree which convicts should be killed?
Where prisons should be built and filled?
Which voter fraud must be concealed
When the president talks to God?

When the president talks to God
I wonder which one plays the better cop
We should find some jobs. the ghetto's broke
No, they're lazy, George, I say we don't
Just give 'em more liquor stores and dirty coke
That's what God recommends

When the president talks to God
Do they drink near beer and go play golf
While they pick which countries to invade
Which Muslim souls still can be saved?
I guess god just calls a spade a spade
When the president talks to God

When the president talks to God
Does he ever think that maybe he's not?
That that voice is just inside his head
When he kneels next to the presidential bed
Does he ever smell his own bullshit
When the president talks to God?

I doubt it

I doubt it
The song is not available on any album, but it is a free download from iTunes.

Lyrics from
From Mind Hacks I found that V. S. Ramachandran was a guest on the Radio National show All In The Mind.
He's had patients with absent limbs that ache, others convinced that they are dead or that their parents are imposters, and yet others who vividly sense numbers as colours or flavours. Now he's turned his attention to perhaps the wiliest question of all: What is Art? Acclaimed neuroscientist Professor V.S Ramachandran is celebrated as one of the most creative and colourful communicators about the brain and its discontents. Author of the Phantoms in the Brain, and now, A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, the passionate Rama joins Natasha Mitchell this week.
You can listen to a real audio archive of the discussion.

ABC Radio National - All in the Mind - Home Page

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Don Herzog at Left2Right offers the following quiz.
Today's quiz has just one question.? All you have to do is fill in the blank and explain what "unnatural" means.? Notice that your account of "unnatural" has to justify the crucial closing clause, "and therefore wrong."? I'm happy to make it an open-book quiz, because you'll all fail anyway.? Ready?? Here goes.

? ?? ?? _____________ is unnatural and therefore wrong.

I hasten to note that I am not any kind of skeptic about moral or political argument.? My conviction that there is no sound way to fill in the blank here is a targeted skepticism.? We have to get along without any appeals to what's natural or unnatural, I think, because those appeals are strictly speaking nonsensical.
What he is skeptical of here is whether appeals to what is natural (or unnatural) can provide any critieria for evaluation in normative ethical systems. He's right that those simple inferences won't go through. But there are other interpretations of "ethical naturalism" that might be more interesting. Richard Chappell at Philosophy, et cetera points out that
Ethical naturalism is not the claim that morals are found by looking to (biological) "nature". Rather, it is the view that ethical properties are (metaphysically) naturalistic properties - or, more simply, that the natural facts determine the moral facts.
And there are also efforts to naturalize ethics by explaining the ground of ethical principles in terms of empirical (natural) processes.

Left2Right | a skeptical challenge
From the NYT Editorial Page: As bloggers become more influential, they need to become more accountable. With the ascent of blogging there exist no established guidelines for reporting, though bloggers have repeatedly and successfully called attention to the mainstream media's failures to follow its own standards.
Bloggers may need to institutionalize ethics policies to avoid charges of hypocrisy. But the real reason for an ethical upgrade is that it is the right way to do journalism, online or offline. As blogs grow in readers and influence, bloggers should realize that if they want to reform the American media, that is going to have to include reforming themselves.
I think first we need to recognize that anyone who puts out information for public consumption is accountable for what they say. Whether engaged in personal conversation, writing in a public journal, distributing a pamphlet, or reporting on a newscast, we all have a responsibility to be fair, honest, and accurate. It is, of course, easier to institutionalize ethical policies when working in an organized environment, as we have with the MSM, but lack of organization does excuse individuals from responsibilities.

The Editorial calls for organization amongst bloggers and the plea for institutionalized ethical policies. No doubt the NYT would like to include bloggers in the MSM so that they have better defined adversaries who must play by the same rules and face the same economic and social pressures. But the real advantage of the bloggers is that they are not organized and are thus free to explore stories and offer opinions that are not subject to the same pressures of the MSM. The diversity within the blogosphere and the independence of the bloggers is an asset and should be encouraged. Of course, we might find convergence to conformity over time, especially because becoming larger and more organized provides more resources for covering and analysing news information. But, until then, within the sphere there remain responsibilities to be fair, honest, and accurate. There is no reason why individual bloggers or blog communities could not acknowledge and articulate these responsibilities and post them for readers. But I would resist the call to institutionalize.

And, of course, I have still a responsibility to be a critical consumer of information.

New York Times | The Latest Rumbling in the Blogosphere: Questions About Ethics

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A follow-up to my earlier blog in which I discussed Antony Flew's alleged conversion to theism. I recently found this December 2004 article in which Flew himself rejects the idea of a conversion.
Those rumours speak false. I remain still what I have been now for over fifty years, a negative atheist. By this I mean that I construe the initial letter in the word 'atheist' in the way in which everyone construes the same initial letter in such words as 'atypical' and 'amoral'. For I still believe that it is impossible either to verify or to falsify - to show to be false - what David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion happily described as "the religious hypothesis." The more I contemplate the eschatological teachings of Christianity and Islam the more I wish I could demonstrate their falsity.
Now I don't much care what Flew believes, but there are those who do and this should help set the record straight.

Butterflies and Wheels Article
Carl Zimmer talks about evolutionary psychology and the Wason test.
Evolutionary psychologists argue that we can understand the workings of the human mind by investigating how it evolved. Much of their research focuses on the past two million years of hominid evolution, during which our ancestors lived in small bands, eating meat they either scavenged or hunted as well as tubers and other plants they gathered. Living for so long in this arrangement, certain ways of thinking may have been favored by natural selection. Evolutionary psychologists believe that a lot of puzzling features of the human mind make sense if we keep our heritage in mind.

The classic example of these puzzles is known as the Wason Selection Task. People tend to do well on this task if it is presented in one way, and terribly if it is presented another way.

Monday, May 02, 2005

I'm late getting to the recent flurry of blogs about moral relativism. Following Pope Ben16's recent denouncement of relativism, several philosophy-minded bloggers have attempted to clarify the issues. Velleman at Left2Right has this to say:
Despite the warning of then-Cardinal Ratzinger that "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism (una dittatura del relativismo)", there are in fact very few relativists in the world.? And because moral relativism lacks adherents, it lacks active opponents as well. There is little point in campaigning against relativism, because almost no one supports it. Those who issue denunciations of "moral relativism" are usually pursuing some other agenda.
He quickly dismisses moral relativism on the grounds that it denies ethical universalism. Then he offers several versions of what anti-relativists might be defending, including Fanaticism, Authoritarianism, Intolerance, Moralism, and Absolutism (see the blog entry for the useful definitions).

Though Velleman refuses to speculate on what Ben16 might intend, Yglasias suggests that
Benedict XVI is mostly concerned about moral authoritarianism rather than relativism and anti-relativism. Even Protestants who do think the Bible provides an authoratative account of moral truth accept that nobody in particular has privileged access to the correct understanding of the text. Catholics are all committed to some stronger brand of authoritarianism about this (it's an ugly-sounding term, but this isn't meant to say that they're secretly hankering for dictatorship) and back in the day Benedict XVI was known for trying to strengthen this element of Church operations, thinking it very important to get all the Bishops on more-or-less the same doctrinal page.
I have to agree, though I would add that in defending the church's authoritarianism (and not just any authoritarian doctrine) there is also a commitment to absolutism in the sense that moral prescriptions should be black and white and without exception. Ultimately the Pope wants Catholics (and non-Catholics) to be more in line with church teaching. So the "relativists" include moral skeptics and nihilists (see Majikthise) as well as error theoriests and non-cognitivists (see Ethical Werewolf).

Calling the enemy "relativism" is interesting. Is it supposed to sound so bad--lacking any genuine, objective, absolute moral commitment--that even American evangelicals (who also worship what Majikthise has called a "vengeful fag-hating God") will be sympathetic to the Pope's mission?

Left2Right | Relativism isn't in the eye of the beholder
Yglasias | Relativism and Beyond
Ethical Werewolf |The Anti-objectivist Menu
Philosophy Talk | How to be a Relativist
Majikthise | What's Wrong With Relativism
A nice interview in Salon with Richard Dawkins, who is apparently working on a book about the delusion of religion. I love the picture that goes with the article:

At one point Dawkins remarks
My American friends tell me that you are slipping towards a theocratic Dark Age. Which is very disagreeable for the very large number of educated, intelligent and right-thinking people in America. Unfortunately, at present, it's slightly outnumbered by the ignorant, uneducated people who voted Bush in.

But the broad direction of history is toward enlightenment, and so I think that what America is going through at the moment will prove to be a temporary reverse. I think there is great hope for the future. My advice would be, Don't despair, these things pass.
I hope he's correct, but the prediction doesn't fit his normal model of evolution, here memetic evolution, which goes more like this:
In general, evolution is a blind process. That's why I called my book "The Blind Watchmaker." Evolution never looks to the future. It never governs what happens now on the basis on what will happen in the future in the way that human design undoubtedly does.
So how are we moving toward enlightenment? On the basis of what is there hope? Does he think there are different evolutionary principles at work in human culture, given human intelligence? He adds:
But now it is possible to breed a new kind of pig, or chicken, which has such and such qualities. We may even have to pass that pig through a stage where it is actually less good at whatever we want to produce -- making long bacon racks or something -- but we can persist because we know it'll be worth it in the long run. That never happened in natural evolution; there was never a "let's temporarily get worse in order to get better, let's go down into the valley in order to get over to the other side and up onto the opposite mountain." So yes, I think it well may be that we're living in a time when evolution is suddenly starting to become intelligently designed.
I suppose what he's getting at is the fact that once intellient beings can intentionally manipulate their environment and can accurately model future consequences and can formulate some rational goals, then truly intelligent design sets in--evolution with a purpose. But where are these intelligent beings? And why aren't they voting in larger numbers? News | The atheist