Category Archives: Science
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.
Image courtesy of highersights.
This 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.
TED 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:
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.
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.