Category Archives: Science

Tolerance and Understanding

Listen, Understand, Act

I grew up in a very conservative religious environment and “tolerance” was not a positive word. In fact, quite a few people in the churches I attended were proud to describe themselves as “intolerant” of what they perceived as wrong or evil. As I’ve spent more time in liberal circles I’ve become very interested in the concept of tolerance and I have a fundamental criticism of the basic idea. Should we be working on increasing tolerance or should we instead focus on increasing understanding?

Lets take homosexuality as our main example. It’s pretty clear at this point that the LGBT community has not been well tolerated by the rest of humanity throughout human history. But a lot of this intolerance has been the natural result of a misunderstanding of human and animal sexuality. We now know that homosexuality is widespread throughout the animal kingdom. It is perfectly natural for a small percentage of a species to be wired up for homosexual thoughts and behavior. But just because something is natural doesn’t make it good or right, if we make that move we are committing the naturalistic fallacy. We need to learn more about homosexuality before we make a judgment on it.

The American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations started seriously studying homosexuality in the 1960’s and 70’s. They eventually discovered that sexual orientation is not subjectively experienced as a choice in the vast majority of people. People do not choose their sexual orientation, it is something heavily influenced by the genes and the early experience of the fetus in the womb. Also for bisexuals and lesbians sexual orientation is often more fluid and may change over time. After decades of research it has become clear to the scientific community that LGBT orientations and experiences are a normal variation of human sexual orientation.

It is important to note that we could have discovered something completely different. LGBT attractions and behavior could have been proven to be a mental disorder. We could have lived in a world where James Dobson was right and sexual orientation could be heavily influenced by childhood experience. But we don’t live in that world. People are not blank slates and LGBT thoughts and behavior are a normal expression of the variety of human sexuality. The evidence is in, and according to the APA the evidence has been conclusive since at least 1973. Human sexuality is largely wired in and the vast majority of people do not experience attraction as a choice.

Imagine if people had actually sought out a proper understanding of the intricacies of human sexuality in only the past 2000 years. Imagine if the New Testament of the Bible had an entire chapter devoted to a deeper understanding of the complexity of sexual attraction. The Old Testament has a book called “Song of Solomon” which rather graphically describes the intricacies of heterosexual attraction, so a more open discussion of sexuality in the New Testament would not have been out of the question.

In the end, tolerance is not enough, our main goal should be understanding. Tolerance is a good start but we should proceed as soon as possible to a scientific understanding and once we have that understanding we ought to spread the word that the time for ignorance is over. It’s time to accept the overwhelming evidence, understand our LGBT brothers and sisters, and realize that human sexuality is a complicated phenomenon where people have a vanishingly small “choice” in their orientation and the expression and acceptance of that orientation is normal and healthy.

Creative Commons License Image courtesy of highersights.

The Righteous Mind – The Intuitive Dog and Its Rational Tail

This is Part 3 of my journey through The Righteous MindHere is Part 2.

The social intuitionist model offers an explanation of why moral and political arguments are so frustrating: because moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog.  A dog’s tail wags to communicate.  You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail.  And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.  If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants.

- Jonathan Haidt

And as reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.

- David Hume

The Righteous Mind - By Jon Haidt

At this point in the book Jon describes the distinction of “seeing-that” versus “reasoning-why”.  The thinking here is that our reactions to religious and political statements come from a low-level rapid and unconscious pattern matching engine in our minds.  Research by Howard Margolis (building on previous work by Peter Wason) ultimately led both to the conclusion that judgment and justification are separate processes.

Margolis sees these as two different cognitive processes.  The “seeing-that” process is a form of pattern matching that all animals do and is a highly evolved and deeply ingrained part of all animal brains after hundreds of millions of years.  The “reasoning-why” process is brand spanking new in evolutionary terms and is only available to beings that have evolved language and have a need to justify their actions to other highly evolved beings. And of course we anthropomorphize lower animals, objects, and concepts when, out of frustration or a sense of comedy, we try to reason with something like our car or our dog.  The point is that the reasoning process is not automatic, it is a slower, conscious process that is bolted on top of our ancient, powerful, and efficient pattern-matching process. Read the rest of this entry

Taking Care of Business

Kramer doing a little TCB:

I recently switched jobs and started on a new software development project.  It’s new but I’m working with a group of people who I’ve had a great experience with before, so I know what I’m getting into.  I just came off a pretty bad two-year run in a project that was frustrating and rather unfulfilling.  It was one of those work environments where the systems were not very advanced, end users were not thrilled, and we had a few clients that hated the contract so much that they actively worked against us.  Just a horrible environment to work in.

In fact, my bad experience in this job actually worsened my depression and forced me to see a psychiatrist.  This is when my social anxiety disorder was finally appropriately treated and I had a sea-change in my outlook.  The depression started to fade away and I was able to deal with the vagaries of the job.  So there was some good in the bad.  But, things got to a point where I just had to move on, so I contacted some old co-workers and found out about this new project.

So, if you’re stuck in a bad job, don’t lose heart, there is light at the end of the tunnel.  Just put together your résumé, talk to some trusted ex-coworkers, see what’s out there and take your time finding the right place for you.  Make sure you do some investigative work and find out what your potential new workplace is really like.  Some early investigative work can save you a whole lot of pain and frustration down the road.  Always know what you’re getting yourself into!  Seems like it should be common sense, but we all forget that piece of advice from time to time.

As for me, I’m finally in a great work environment again and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.

The Righteous Mind – The Origins of Morality

This is “Live Blogging The Righteous Mind” Part 2.  Here is Part 1.

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

- David Hume

The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.

- Jon Haidt

The Righteous Mind - By Jon HaidtJon used the elephant/rider metaphor before in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis.  The elephant is our ancient, emotionally driven limbic system.  It is a deep part of our evolutionary past, but still very much a part of who we are in the present day.  The rider is a newcomer on the scene, the pre-frontal cortex in the brain.  Full of grand plans and bright ideas but most of the time very much unaware that it is controlled and manipulated by the lumbering beast down below.  The elephant does what it wants, when it wants, and the rider, strapped on the beast and unable to climb off, rationalizes, confabulates, and groans in frustration when the elephant once again disobeys its commands.  When the elephant is ambivalent the rider can gain a measure of control, but when the elephant has a strong desire, the rider is just a simple passenger who’s along for the ride.

Understanding the simple fact that morality differs around the world, and even within societies, is the first step toward understanding your righteous mind.

Jon takes us through a winding history of morality in the West.  The nativists who prize nature, the empiricists who prize nurture and the rationalists who believe that children figure out morality for themselves.  Children grow into rationality as caterpillars grow into butterflies.  Piaget and Kohlberg were both famous psychologists who championed rationalism.  Kohlberg came up with the famous idea of pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional stages of morality that children go through on the way to adulthood.  Rationalism valued self-discovery and authority figures were ultimately just a roadblock in the way of natural development.  This thinking eventually led to a liberal consensus that morality is mainly about justice.  It’s about harm and fairness and NOT about loyalty, respect, duty, piety, patriotism, or tradition.

Read the rest of this entry

Live Blogging The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind - By Jon HaidtI’m going to try something a bit different over the next week or so.  I’m going to read Jonathan Haidt’s new book about moral psychology, The Righteous Mind, and blog my thoughts as I read through the book.  Most people write short summaries and critiques of entire books, but I thought it might be interesting to write my thoughts and present them as I read through a new book.  I’ll try to combine as many thoughts as I can into single blog entries in order to avoid inundating people with new blog post notifications.  So without further ado, here are my thoughts on The Righteous Mind:

We start off the book with a quote from Baruch Spinoza from his Tractatus Politicus:

I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.

It’s pretty clear that one of the main themes of the book will be prizing understanding over judgment, something that I’ve become a big fan of recently.  In that regard it appears there might be some concurrence between this book and the last book I read, Sam Harris’ Free Will.  I know that Jon has a large measure of philosophical disagreement with the “New Atheists” so it will be interesting to see how this all pans out.

Introduction

We start off the introduction with a discussion about Rodney King and his rarely quoted response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots:

Please, we can get along here.  We all can get along.  I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while.  Let’s try to work it out.

Read the rest of this entry

The Psychology of The Silver Chair

The Silver ChairI’m no longer a Christian but I’m still a big fan of The Chronicles of Narnia.  I was practically raised on the books of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.  J.R.R. Tolkien took great pains to let everyone know that he wrote The Lord of the Rings with no allegorical intentions whatsoever.  C.S. Lewis on the other hand was very open in declaring that his books were full of allusions to Christianity.  But that doesn’t really bother me.  Literature is a form of art and we can interpret art in many different ways.  Also, Christians can write some very enthralling and entertaining fantasy fiction, I wonder why that is? (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

One of the ideas from the Chronicles of Narnia that keeps popping into my head again and again is the concept of “the silver chair”.  The Silver Chair is the fourth book in the original (and correct) ordering of the series.  In this tale,  Aslan (a Christ-like figure in the series) transports the children Eustace and Jill to Narnia on a special mission to save Prince Rilian.  Prince Rilian is the long missing heir to the throne of Narnia.  Eustace and Jill eventually end up in the underground kingdom of the imaginatively named Queen of Underland (sorry Clive, had to take a shot at you there).  When the kids arrive in the underground city the Queen is away for a bit and they meet a young man about the same age as Prince Rilian (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), serving at the right hand of this wicked witch.  He tells a tale of the queen rescuing him from an evil enchantment and dines with the children.

Soon, the young man informs the children that he must be placed in restraints, for the enchantment still has a small hold on him.  For an hour each day they restrain him, he succumbs to the spell, and becomes delirious.  The queen in her grace and wisdom is using her magic to slowly purge him of these spells, but for now the queen’s servants come to restrain the young man and he willingly goes with them.

Read the rest of this entry

I Have “Chosen” Determinism

Sam Harris - Free WillThis is the conclusion to my previous post: I Will Choose Free Will

Well I’ve finished the new Sam Harris book “Free Will”.  It turns out this book is very short and a quick read.  I highly recommend buying the economical electronic version.  This is Sam’s second short book and I have to say, I like this format a lot.  This format may become a new niche in the digital book age along the lines of the “Kindle Single”.

So let’s dig into the book.  Here’s a section where Sam addresses the concerns of determinism and fatalism.

As Dan Dennett and many others have pointed out, people generally confuse determinism with fatalism. This gives rise to questions like “If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?” This is pure confusion. To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist. And the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they don’t matter. If I had not decided to write this book, it wouldn’t have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors.

I agree that we need to keep determinism and fatalism separate.  Although, do we live in a completely deterministic universe if there are random events at the quantum level? Either way, there is little room for freedom here.  A thought popped into my head as I read this, a person suffering from clinical depression has the exact opposite problem regarding leaving their bed in the morning.  They find it extremely difficult to get out of bed and it takes a heroic effort in order to do so.  This kind of depression is certainly not a conscious choice.

The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad environments, and bad ideas (and the innocent, of course, have supremely bad luck). Which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for? No human being is responsible for his genes or his upbringing, yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character. Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself.

I definitely agree with this sentiment, and now see if you can wrap your mind around Sam’s conclusion:

 Not only are we not as free as we think we are—we do not feel as free as we think we do. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.

I’d love to read a book like this from a compatibilist and be able to more capably compare and contrast the views.  I still think that we have a measure of free will.  It’s just a very constrained and limited form of freedom which some people like Sam argue is not free at all.  Either way, the lesson we need to take away from this is that people are heavily constrained by their genes, environment, and good/bad fortune.  Let’s spend more time understanding people, helping them where we can, and less time judging and demonizing them.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, leave your comments below.

Introversion Expert Susan Cain at TED 2012

TED: Ideas Worth SpreadingTED 2012 is here! Actually it looks like the final sessions will be wrapping up this evening, but the videos are just starting to be released.  For those who have never heard about TED, it is a “genius conference” where luminaries from the fields of technology, entertainment, and design discuss their groundbreaking achievements and ideas.  The tag-line of TED is “ideas worth spreading” and the 18 minute “TED Talks” are released free to the world.

I’m looking forward to hearing the talks from a number of speakers.  Neuroscientist Steven Pinker was on the slate this year.  Reggie Watts performed some of his unique brand of live music, can’t wait to hear what he came up with.  Also, psychologist Jonathan Haidt spoke about some of the themes in his new book about divisions of morality in politics and religion.  I await all of these talks with bated breath, but today they released a video from one of the speakers that I am most interested in, Susan Cain.  A few months ago Susan wrote a great article in the New York Times that I commented on earlier and she recently published an outstanding book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  Without any further ado, here is Susan Cain at TED:

Our Amazing Perception

I am currently watching a wonderful lecture series from The Teaching Company called “Understanding the Secrets of Human Perception”.  In lecture 18 “Illusions and Magic” Professor Vishton walks through a number of interesting perceptual illusions.

The first is the Café Wall Illusion:

All of the horizontal lines in this image are perfectly straight, but we infer a tilted edge because our brains decide that this is the best explanation for the distributions of brightness in the image.

The next perceptual oddity is motion-induced blindness.  Stare at the green dot in the center of the video and watch the green dots disappear:

The yellow dots are always displayed above the grid and are therefore projecting on your retina for the entire length of the video.  However, deep in your visual perception system the motion signals override the yellow dots.  Motion can often blind us to very large and salient things in the world around us, something which magicians often use to their advantage.

Read the rest of this entry

SciAwakening:

Happy Darwin Day everyone!

Originally posted on :

Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin!

Happy Darwin Day, everyone!

A global celebration of science and reason.

Today more than ever, when anti-science has become a veritable movement in America (think anti-evolution, global warming denial, anti-vaccination), it is important that we commemorate the lives of the people, like Charles Darwin, who changed the course of our history through the use of reason and my expanding our scientific understanding of the world around us.

In our own celebration of Darwin Day, and of science and reason, my daughter and I are taking a trip to our local science museum. If you’re interested in commemorating this man’s birthday, you can go to the International Darwin Day Foundation and see if there are any activities in your area, and I’ve included this video to help us all celebrate. It’s a TED talk by Dennis Dutton where he discusses a Darwinian theory of beauty. Not…

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