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A Box Of Stories
Age of information
Greek & Latin
Mind & Brain
Science & Art
“Productiveness is your acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live—that productive work is the process by which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one’s purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values—that all work is creative work if done by a thinking mind, and no work is creative if done by a blank who repeats in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others.
That your work is yours to choose, and the choice is as wide as your mind, that nothing more is possible to you and nothing less is human—that to cheat your way into a job bigger than your mind can handle is to become a fear-corroded ape on borrowed motions and borrowed time, and to settle down into a job that requires less than your mind’s full capacity is to cut your motor and sentence yourself to another kind of motion: decay—that your work is the process of achieving your values, and to lose your ambition for values is to lose your ambition to live—that your body is a machine, but your mind is its driver, and you must drive as far as your mind will take you, with achievement as the goal of your road.
That the man who has no purpose is a machine that coasts downhill at the mercy of any boulder to crash in the first chance ditch, that the man who stifles his mind is a stalled machine slowly going to rust, that the man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap, and the man who makes another man his goal is a hitchhiker no driver should ever pick up—that your work is the purpose of your life, and you must speed past any killer who assumes the right to stop you, that any value you might find outside your work, any other loyalty or love, can be only travelers you choose to share your journey and must be travelers going on their own power in the same direction. (…)
If you hold the irrational as your standard of value and the impossible as your concept of the good, if you long for rewards you have not earned, for a fortune, or a love you don’t deserve, for a loophole in the law of causality, for an A that becomes non-A at your whim, if you desire the opposite of existence-you will reach it. Do not cry, when you reach it, that life is frustration and that happiness is impossible to man; check your fuel: it brought you where you wanted to go.”
Devotion to the truth is the hallmark of morality; there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man who assumes the responsibility of thinking.”
Q: Why do we need science to tell us what is right and wrong?
SH: “I’m using the term “science” very broadly, in terms of our best efforts to make valid truth claims based on evidence and clear reasoning. So history, for my purposes, is a science in the sense that we can make true or false claims about historical fact.
What I’m arguing is that morality, questions of good and evil, right and wrong, because they relate to questions of human and animal well-being, also entail truth claims about our world, human nature or the prospects of human happiness that fall within the purview of science. Otherwise, we’re just left to argue over preferences: things are wrong because we don’t like it or a majority of people don’t like it. (…)
Q: How do you get from that to the claim that science can actually determine human values?
All of this is a domain of discovery. If we understand the dynamics of mental life in real detail – to speak particularly of our case, if we understand the human brain in real detail – then we will know how various experiences and ways of living with one another – thoughts, intentions and behaviours – affect human life.
How much should we value freedom of speech? How much should we value compassion? How should we raise children to think about the suffering of other human beings? All of this can only be understood in the context of science in the end.
Then science will be answering questions about, for example, whether we should we be privileging obedience to parental authority over free expression and if so, exactly how much and when and what are the consequences of getting the balance wrong. All of these are neurological questions in the end. (…)
I think we can have a rational discussion about how much we want our states of consciousness, our emotional lives, to track the reality of our lives. We definitely want it to track it for the most part because otherwise, if we’re just taking this perfect narcotic each day, it’s not a sustainable situation. You’re just lying on the couch in bliss, but your relationships have dissolved, you’ve lost your job, and your children have starved to death. It’s materially unsustainable if nothing else. But your love for the people in your life, which you value and which is major component of well-being – your connections to others, your ability to function in the world – all of this is predicated on your states of consciousness tracking the actual reality of your life in the world. (…)
When I talk about morality I’m really talking about psychological health, and the health of societies. Can science tell us about psychological health? If the sciences of mind are, in fact, sciences, and they are, in fact, of mind, then one would hope so, at some point.
Take a truly fraught, value-laden question such as “How should parents raise children?” Clearly, if we understand anything about child development, healthy emotional lives, healthy cognition and what it means to equip children to become high-functioning adults, enjoying all the fruits of civil society peacefully and collaboratively, we are talking about how you should raise children, and there are scientific truths there waiting to be discovered. (…)
I view philosophy as essentially the womb of the sciences. Whenever a question is not experimentally tractable, not quantifiable, then it’s squarely in the domain of philosophy. The frontier between philosophy and science is never clear. But the moment you start actually talking about data and neurophysiology it would seem you’re playing more the language game of neuroscience than philosophy.”
— What would you think it’s worth telling future generations about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it?
“I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.
The moral thing I should wish to say… I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more closely and closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”
☞ The Three Passions of Bertrand Russell: Love, Truth, and Justice
“We could become far more intelligent than we are by adding to our stock of concepts, and by forcing ourselves to use them even when we don’t like what they are telling us. This will be nearly always, because they generally tell us that our self-evidently superior selves and ingroups are error-besotted. We all start from radical ignorance in a world that is endlessly strange, vast, complex, intricate, and surprising. Deliverance from ignorance lies in good concepts — inference fountains that geyser out insights that organize and increase the scope of our understanding. We are drawn to them by the fascination of the discoveries they afford, but resist using them well and freely because they would reveal too many of our apparent achievements to be embarrassing or tragic failures.
Those of us who are non-mythical lack the spine that Oedipus had — the obsidian resolve that drove him to piece together shattering realizations despite portents warning him off. Because of our weakness, “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle” as Orwell says. So why struggle? Better instead to have one’s nose and what lies beyond shift out of focus — to make oneself hysterically blind as convenience dictates, rather than to risk ending up like Oedipus, literally blinding oneself in horror at the harvest of an exhausting, successful struggle to discover what is true.
Alternatively, even modest individual-level improvements in our conceptual toolkit can have transformative effects on our collective intelligence, promoting incandescent intellectual chain reactions among multitudes of interacting individuals. If this promise of intelligence-amplification through conceptual tools seems like hyperbole, consider that the least inspired modern engineer, equipped with the conceptual tools of calculus, can understand, plan and build things far beyond what da Vinci or the mathematics-revering Plato could have achieved without it. We owe a lot to the infinitesimal, Newton’s counterintuitive conceptual hack — something greater than zero but less than any finite magnitude. Far simpler conceptual innovations than calculus have had even more far reaching effects — the experiment (a danger to authority), zero, entropy, Boyle’s atom, mathematical proof, natural selection, randomness, particulate inheritance, Dalton’s element, distribution, formal logic, culture, Shannon’s definition of information, the quantum…
Here are three simple conceptual tools that might help us see in front of our noses: nexus causality, moral warfare, and misattribution arbitrage. Causality itself is an evolved conceptual tool that simplifies, schematizes, and focuses our representation of situations. This cognitive machinery guides us to think in terms of the cause — of an outcome having a single cause. Yet for enlarged understanding, it is more accurate to represent outcomes as caused by an intersection or nexus of factors (including the absence of precluding conditions). In War and Peace, Tolstoy asks “When an apple ripens and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stem withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it….?” — with little effort any modern scientist could extend Tolstoy’s list endlessly.
We evolved, however, as cognitively improvisational tool-users, dependent on identifying actions we could take that lead to immediate payoffs. So, our minds evolved to represent situations in a way that highlighted the element in the nexus that we could manipulate to bring about a favored outcome. Elements in the situation that remained stable and that we could not change (like gravity or human nature) were left out of our representation of causes. Similarly, variable factors in the nexus (like the wind blowing) that we could not control, but that predicted an outcome (the apple falling), were also useful to represent as causes, in order to prepare ourselves to exploit opportunities or avoid dangers. So the reality of the causal nexus is cognitively ignored in favor of the cartoon of single causes. While useful for a forager, this machinery impoverishes our scientific understanding, rendering discussions (whether elite, scientific, or public) of the “causes” — of cancer, war, violence, mental disorders, infidelity, unemployment, climate, poverty, and so on — ridiculous.
Similarly, as players of evolved social games, we are designed to represent others’ behavior and associated outcomes as caused by free will (by intentions). That is, we evolved to view “man” as Aristotle put it, as “the originator of his own actions.” Given an outcome we dislike, we ignore the nexus, and trace “the” causal chain back to a person. We typically represent the backward chain as ending in — and the outcome as originating in — the person. Locating the “cause” (blame) in one or more persons allows us to punitively motivate others to avoid causing outcomes we don’t like (or to incentivize outcomes we do like). More despicably, if something happens that many regard as a bad outcome, this gives us the opportunity to sift through the causal nexus for the one thread that colorably leads back to our rivals (where the blame obviously lies). Lamentably, much of our species’ moral psychology evolved for moral warfare, a ruthless zero-sum game. Offensive play typically involves recruiting others to disadvantage or eliminate our rivals by publically sourcing them as the cause of bad outcomes. Defensive play involves giving our rivals no ammunition to mobilize others against us.
The moral game of blame attribution is only one subtype of misattribution arbitrage. For example, epidemiologists estimate that it was not until 1905 that you were better off going to a physician. (Semelweiss noticed that doctors doubled the mortality rate of mothers at delivery). For thousands of years, the role of the physician pre-existed its rational function, so why were there physicians? Economists, forecasters, and professional portfolio managers typically do no better than chance, yet command immense salaries for their services. Food prices are driven up to starvation levels in underdeveloped countries, based on climate models that cannot successfully retrodict known climate history. Liability lawyers win huge sums for plaintiffs who get diseases at no higher rates than others not exposed to “the” supposed cause.
What is going on? The complexity and noise permeating any real causal nexus generates a fog of uncertainty. Slight biases in causal attribution, or in blameworthiness (e.g., sins of commission are worse than sins of omission) allow a stable niche for extracting undeserved credit or targeting undeserved blame. If the patient recovers, it was due to my heroic efforts; if not, the underlying disease was too severe. If it weren’t for my macroeconomic policy, the economy would be even worse. The abandonment of moral warfare, and a wider appreciation of nexus causality and misattribution arbitrage would help us all shed at least some of the destructive delusions that cost humanity so much.”
“We are so much accustomed to the humanitarian outlook that we forget how little it counted in earlier ages of civilization. Ask any decent person in England or America what he thinks matters most in human conduct: five to one his answer will be “kindness.” It’s not a word that would have crossed the lips of any of the earlier heroes of this series.
If you had asked St. Francis what mattered in life, he would, we know, have answered “chastity, obedience and poverty”; if you had asked Dante or Michelangelo, they might have answered “disdain of baseness and injustice”; if you had asked Goethe, he would have said “to live in the whole and the beautiful.” But kindness, never. Our ancestors didn’t use the word, and they did not greatly value the quality — except perhaps insofar as they valued compassion.”
“The convention by which the great events in biblical or secular history could be enacted only by magnificent physical specimens, handsome and well-groomed, went on for a long time — till the middle of the nineteenth century. Only a very few artists — perhaps only Rembrandt and Caravaggio in the first rank — were independent enough to stand against it. And I think that this convention, which was an element in the so-called grand manner, became a deadening influence on the European mind. It deadened our sense of truth, even our sense of moral responsibility.”