Historians Uncover Lost Socrates Dialogues (The Onion)

LOL.

In a landmark discovery that sheds new light on the development of Western thought, historians announced Tuesday they had found several lost Socratic dialogues in which the ancient Greek philosopher simply gives up and screams that his debate opponents are all fucking brainwashed shills. “In these newly unearthed texts, there are numerous instances in which Socrates accuses his interlocutors of having small penises before going on to claim he has fucked their wives,” said Harvard University professor Helen Speck, citing dialogues in which Socrates proposes that anyone who disagrees with him is a pathetic piece of shit on the payroll of the Athenian aristocracy and ought to just kill himself. 

Are We Out Of Our Minds (Or Our Minds Out of Us?)

Probably not many people’s idea of good relaxing reading, but Jerry Fodor takes on the Extended Mind Thesis in a review of Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind.

To oversimplify it a bit, the extended mind thesis claims that technology literally extends our minds outside of our bodies such as, for example, when we’re using a smart phone. Quoting Fodor quoting David Chalmers’ foreword to Supersizing the Mind,

I bought an iPhone. The iPhone has already taken over some of the central functions of my brain  . . . The iPhone is part of my mind alrady . . . [Clark’s] marvellous book . . . defends the thesis that, in at least some of these cases the world is not serving as a mere instrument for the mind. Rather, the relevant parts of the world may have become parts of my mind. My iPhone is not my tool, or at least it is not wholly my tool. Parts of it have become parts of me . . .  When parts of the environment are coupled to the brain in the right way, they become parts of the mind.

I won’t go into more detail as Fodor does an excellent job of explaining the thesis and some criticisms of it, except to note that along with technology other people would seem to also be part of the extended mind imagined by Clark and Chalmers.

For example, there is a whole class of things that rather than my smart phone I consult my wife about. Restaurant food, for example. My wife can remember exactly what I want to eat at many food establishments, whereas I don’t consider it worth my time to commit this to memory and so will interrogate the waiters about this and that food choice.

Frequently, it is just easier for me to turn to my wife and ask her what I should order since she is able to much more quickly access what it is I would like at a given place than I would. Under Clark and Chalmers formulation it would seem my wife is part of my extended mind. I haven’t read enough to know what their view on other people as part of the extended mind is, but it certainly would be an odd result if they affirm this.

The Golden Rule Is Still Not Much of a Moral Principle

Charter for Compassion is yet another group of people who for some reason think the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or similar nonsense) should be made the basis for some sort of global morality,

By recognizing that the Golden Rule is fundamental to all world religions, the Charter for Compassion can inspire people to think differently about religion. This Charter is being created in a collaborative project by people from all over the world. It will be completed in 2009. Use this site to offer language you’d like to see included. Or inspire others by sharing your own story of compassion.

Give me a break.

As I’ve said before, the problem with the Golden Rule is that it is simply a check against hypocrisy. Beyond that, however, it is entirely compatible with a long laundry list of immoral acts. There is nothing in the Golden Rule, for example, that would render the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks wrong.

It doesn’t even seem like the organizers of this effort have really thought about the Golden Rule beyond some sort of wishy washy feel good nonsense,

. . . the Golden Rule is our prime duty and cannot be limited to our own political, religious or ethnic group.

Huh? Clearly those religious traditions that the Charter for Compassion cites saw nothing wrong with limiting the Golden Rule to apply only to a relatively circumscribed group of people (i.e., “those who agree with us”). One could adhere to the Golden Rule while slaughtering the non-believers down the street with nary a contradiction.

Consider a call to action such as, “Infidels should be murdered.” All the Golden Rule really ends up saying is that I should only agree with this statement if I too am willing to be murdered if it turns out I am an infidel. Since most religious people generally operate on the principle that someone else is an infidel, there’s not contradiction there at all.

What the Charter for Compassion folks are really doing is outlining a broader moral vision and trying to pass it off as some sort of universal view by repeating “Golden Rule” like some sort of mantra that will smooth things over.

I can’t wait to see how they handle genuine debates such as that surrounding abortion. Should I oppose abortion since clearly I would not have wanted to have been aborted as a fetus, or should I favor abortion because I would not want other people telling me what to do with my body.

That’s a real moral dilemma — and one the Golden Rule pretty much  does nothing to help solve.

As George Bernard Shaw put it,

Do not do unto others as you expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.

Book Review: Moral Minds

Moral Minds by Marc HauserMarc Hauser’s book Moral Minds purports to travel much the same territory for morality that books like Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct does for language — he argues that human beings are born with an innate moral capacity that is separate and distinct from other faculties (morality is not, for example, simply a byproduct of a general rational ability).

As Hauser sums it up in the prologue,

I argue that our moral faculty is equipped with a univeral moral grammar, a tookit for building specific moral systems. Once we have acquired our culture’s specific moral norms — a process that is more like growing a limb than sitting in Sunday school and learning about vices and virutes — we judge whether actions are permissible, obligatory, or forbidden, without conscious reasoning and without explicit access to the underlying principle.

Moreover, Hauser believes that we should go beyond merely describing such an innate moral faculty, but that in addition the existence of said moral faculty should be taken into account in policy making.

But does the book actually deliver? Briefly, no. The author complains in an afterword in the paperback version of the book about an early negative review from the late Richard Rorty in the New York Times (Hauser claims that the review was especially insulting because, Hauser claims, it was clear that Rorty hadn’t read the book). Having slogged through the book, I thought Rorty was pretty much spot on with his criticisms. Rorty wrote,

The exuberant triumphalism of the prologue to “Moral Minds” leads the reader to expect that Hauser will lay out criteria for distinguishing parochial moral codes from universal principles, and will offer at least a tentative list of those principles. These expectations are not fulfilled. The vast bulk of “Moral Minds” consists of reports of experimental results, but Hauser does very little to make clear how these results bear on his claim that there is a “moral voice of our species.”

. . .

Hauser thinks that Noam Chomsky has shown that in at least one area — learning how to produce grammatical sentences — the latter sort of circuitry will not do the job. We need, Hauser says, a “radical rethinking of our ideas on morality, which is based on the analogy to language.” But the analogy seems fragile. Chomsky has argued, powerfully if not conclusively, that simple trial-and-error imitation of adult speakers cannot explain the speed and confidence with which children learn to talk: some special, dedicated mechanism must be at work. But is a parallel argument available to Hauser? For one thing, moral codes are not assimilated with any special rapidity. For another, the grammaticality of a sentence is rarely a matter of doubt or controversy, whereas moral dilemmas pull us in opposite directions and leave us uncertain.

The book never comes close on delivering on the prologue’s claim about an innate moral faculty. Instead, much of the book is filled with a mind numbing discussion of Hauser’s particular framing of moral philosophy interspersed (which is Rawlsian, though he doesn’t make a convincing case even on that) with long catalogs of animal experiments that are somehow supposed to tie-in to the philosophy but never quite seem to (which isn’t to say that some of the experiments aren’t fascinating, they just don’t ever come close to demonstrating what Hauser sets out to convince the reader of).

All-in-all this book was bloody awful. Someday someone is going to write a classic book on the sociobiology of human morality. This, however, is not it.

Determinism, Free Will and Quantum Spin

Science News has a fascinating — if brain splitting — look at research by Princeton mathematicians John Conway and Simon Kochen who are trying to defend free will in what looks like a completely deterministic universe,

Conway and Kochen say this search [for variables that would determine the outcome of quantum-level events] is hopeless, and they claim to have proven that indeterminacy is inherent in the world itself, rather than just in quantum theory. And to Bohmians and other like-minded physicists, the pair says: Give up determinism, or give up free will. Even the tiniest bit of free will.

. . .

Kochen and Conway say the best way out of this paradox is to accept that the particle’s spin doesn’t exist until it’s measured. But there’s one way to escape their noose: Suppose for a moment that Alice and Bob’s choice of axis to measure is not a free choice. Then Nature could be conspiring to prevent them from choosing the axes that will reveal the violation of the rule. Kochen and Conway can’t rule that possibility out entirely, but Kochen says, “A man on the street would say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ A natural feeling is, of course, that what we do, we do of our own free will. Not completely, but certainly to the point of knowing we can choose what button to push in an experiment.”

Nobel Prize winning physicist Gerard ’t Hooft retorts to this that Kochen and Conway are correct, but that they’ve simply come down on the wrong side of the argument — there simply isn’t even a tiny bit of free will in the universe.

“As a determined determinist I would say that yes, you bet, an experimenter’s choice what to measure was fixed from the dawn of time, and so were the properties of the thing he decided to call a photon,” ’t Hooft says. “If you believe in determinism, you have to believe it all the way. No escape possible. Conway and Kochen have shown here in a beautiful way that a half-hearted belief in pseudo-determinism is impossible to sustain.”

It is telling that Kochen ultimately has to appeal to the phenomenology of consciousness and talk about “natural feelings” to attempt to convince us — and perhaps himself — that we really do have free will in deciding whether or not to push that button. That’s not exactly a convincing theoretical framework to base free will on.

One of these days I’m going to write a longer review, but I’d recommend Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves which makes a fairly lucid (though still brain straining) case for a compatibilist approach between determinism and free will and does an especially good job of highlighting how much of the debate over free will vs. determinism is predicated on hidden assumptions in the way we talk about freedom and deciding.