Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘uncategorized musings’ Category

One question that  is pertinent to politics as well as psychology is the nature of moral progress. When I say moral progress, I mean the process by which individuals end up updating or modifying their basic moral beliefs (or priors). This process usually is a slow one, and at the micro level involves one’s reaction to evidences or thought processes.

This typically happens when Person A comes across some data/evidence that is in tension with his moral system. For example, A may value a certain principle and then realize one day that some regular action of his violates this principle. Or maybe A values several principles, and new data (or just new reasoning) seems to suggest that in at least some instance these principles are in conflict.

To give a couple of examples:

Time: 1790. Place: America. A values both individual liberty and a harmonious, prosperous society. The issue at hand is slave ownership. A reluctantly accepts slave ownership for the time being because he believes that Blacks are intellectually inferior and would not be able to live in the same land as the Whites. Perhaps A supports emancipation in principle but thinks an actual implementation would result in tremendous disorder, huge decrease in prosperity and would also require eventual deportation of all the Blacks back to Africa in a painful, costly and disrupting process. But one day his scientist friend shows him evidence that seems to strongly suggest that the inferiority of Blacks is a myth, and given proper education they would be as likely as Whites to succeed in intellectual endeavors.

Or to give a second example, A is a young European, living currently, who has a strong moral opposition to hunting for pleasure. He thinks it is wrong and rights-violating. Yet he eats meat. He justifies this by saying that killing for food or to achieve some other basic necessity is ok, but killing for pleasure is morally wrong. But one day, after a conversation with a friend he starts to wonder if his position is morally sound. He realizes  that he can get by  without eating animals (gaining the needed protein from other sources, such as lentils, milk and soy, as many Asians do) so the main reason behind eating meat is the pleasure he gains from it. So how is eating meat different form hunting then?

And so on…

The interesting question to me, is what A does in such a situation.  He has several choices:

1. Simple minded denial: He can just deny that the evidence exists. For instance the 18th century American could refuse to believe his scientist friend. He could claim that the facts and the research are false and move on. We seem to see something similar with some (not all) global warming sceptics today.

2. Tweaking:  He can decide that despite the new evidence/argument, he can resolve the tension with minor tweaks. For instance, he comes up with other evidence or arguments to counter the tension. Or he  makes minor changes to his priors that make this tension go away or at least become less pronounced. There are many ways to tweak one’s beliefs, some simple, some highly complex; some honest, some not, some based on reason, some based on emotion.

3. Biting the bullet: He can decide that his values are truly in conflict and modify them significantly. The 18th century American could either give up his belief  in liberty, or abandon his support for slave-ownership. The 2oth century European could decide that animals don’t have rights (and end his moral opposition to hunting) or decide to become a vegetarian. Any of these outcomes are what I’d call significant moral progress. At the individual level, they can be life-changing.

It seems to me that personality plays a complex role in deciding which of the above outcomes occur. As a rule, people have a strong emotional resistance to any sort of change in their moral priors. For that would mean acknowledging to themselves, and perhaps to others, that they have engaged in beliefs/actions that are false/evil. Some make a conscious attempt to avoid letting emotions take precedence over reason in deciding how one deals with such conflicts, while others go with the flow.

Age probably plays an important role in all this; younger people are more likely to change their belief systems. As Fitzgerald once wrote, “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”

In any case, I don’t have any deep insights to offer, but I think these are interesting questions, and being able to deal with moral dilemmas in an efficient, unbiased and rational manner would certainly improve political outcomes.

Read Full Post »

When it comes to how to deal with used stuff, or with things that you don’t need anymore, there are two kinds of people, the keepers and the discarders. My temparament leant towards keeper when I was younger but today I am a staunch discarder.

I love throwing away — or even better, physically destroying — my things whose time I deem to have passed. It is like being part of the dynamic cycle of destruction and creation.

Read Full Post »

1. I am currently in Hawaii. It is most wonderful. And there is something truly special about doing math on the beach. Some day I hope to find out if it is as good as having sex on the beach.

2. I am in the final couple of months of my US stay. This is not the post to express all the things I feel about the last five years of my life — that would take far too long — but I’ll just note a few things. Doing a PhD, at least in math, is much more about learning than research. The USA has its good and bad sides, but I came here, like a lot of Indians, with a somewhat negative view of this country and over the years I have come to love it and much of what it stands for. I really enjoyed my grad life and I think I grew as an individual — my political and philosophical views got more refined, my view of relationships and people got more mature. I will be sad to leave, sad to no longer be a student, sad to leave my friends, a close ex-girlfriend and a lover behind on this continent. But change is a wonderful thing, in spite of everything it entails; and while there are many aspects of my identity I consider significant — libertarian, atheist, mathematician, dreamer — I am perhaps above all a dynamist.

3. Talking of girlfriends and lovers, I completely agree with Kerry Howley’s take on the issue (stated only for marriages, but surely applicable to any meaningful relationship).

Read Full Post »

To make up for my lack of posting, let me link to a discussion over at Aristotle’s blog. It started off with Rawls but has evolved into topics like the nature of morality and the objectivity (or lack thereof) of values.

To a casual reader of the thread linked above, I might come across as rather critical of Ayn Rand and what I consider to be a flawed attempt by her to build an objective theory of morality. So to give a more balanced picture of what I really think of Rand and her works, let me quote myself from a different thread on the same blog.

I won’t say Rand is for everyone; I really do think you need to have certain personality traits in order for Rand’s fiction to really speak to you. This is especially true of the way she depicts the sexual and emotional aspects of her characters.

[…] So, I can see why The Fountainhead does not appeal to a lot of people, including many who really value individualism. As for me, I read it in my late teens and have re-read it since. I love it, and that’s an understatement.

Actually Ayn Rand is *not* my favourite moral philosopher; she does not even come close. There are several fundamental logical flaws in the way she treats the topics of rationality and first principles. But The Fountainhead is a different matter; it distills just the right aspects of her philosophy, perhaps by accident, but nevertheless.

There are a lot of things I dream of doing with my life and none of them have much to do with Rand or objectivism.

But if you ask me the name of just one book, *any* book from *any era*, that I wish *I* had written…. it would be the Fountainhead.

Reading Rand was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. For that I will be eternally grateful.

Read Full Post »

Certain events reminded me

of this funniness I once wrote.

So I called up K —  he told me

of she he was with no more;

So I asked him about the circles

And he said he’d come a full circle.

For some reason that makes me  sad.

Read Full Post »

Conversations, news and movies inform me that it is pretty common for a person to say bad things about his or her ex. I have always found that practice mystifyingly alien. It is not that I necessarily have any moral objection to saying such things; just that I cannot ever imagine myself doing it.

A part of this attitude has probably to do with my general distate to voicing private matters in public, even to close friends. But a lot of it also has to do with pride and self-respect; it seems to me that it is impossible to say really bad things about someone you were close to for an extended period of time in the past without disrespecting yourself. How can you today badmouth someone you loved and respected in the past without implying that your judgment, taste — in a sense your entire existence then — was in some fundamental way flawed or false? I mean I see that people can feel pretty strong negative emotions after a bad break-up but still… I simply don’t get it. I don’t think I can ever publicly put down or even strongly criticize anyone I had been together with for a reasonable period of time; however acrimonious the break-up, however hurt I were in the process. Maybe I am just weird in this way.

Read Full Post »

All time favourites are of two kinds.

The first kind is what I call ‘love at first sight’. You like them from the start and by the time you are done with them, you know they are going to become an all time favourite. Your appreciation for them peaks at or towards the end of your first experience with them and future reflection upon them does not increase your liking much higher.

In the second kind, much rarer, you don’t particularly like the object on first taste. By the time you are done with it, you still don’t exactly love it, though you are aware there is something very interesting about them. It is only on reflection, over the next few days or even weeks that you succeed in unraveling the many layers of quality that wrap around them. You fall in love slowly, the process is intrinsic rather than external and the eventual effect is a powerful, permanent one.

I am not trying to imply that one kind of favourite is superior to the other; nor am I saying the opposite. The above is merely an observation and nothing more.

Examples of the first kind in my life: Harry Potter, The Fountainhead, Surely you are joking Mr. Feynman, Saving Private Ryan, No Man’s land, The lives of others, Chungking express, When Harry met Sally, Satyajit Ray movies, most Tarantino movies, Top of the World, El Condor Pasa, Carmen, Dvorak’s 9th symphony, solution to IMO ’99 problem 3.

Examples of the second kind in my life: The Great Gatsby,The old man and the sea, The outsider, American Beauty, most Polanski movies (particularly Bitter Moon), Strawberry fields forever, Bangalore, TJ Bolivian blend coffee.

Some things however, I can’t decide which category to put in. Examples: Mozart’s music, Hardy’s Apology.

Read Full Post »

As I wrote in the comments following this post, I believe parents — being responsible for the birth and day to day care of their children — should also have considerable freedom in how they choose to raise them. Short of physical abuse or gross neglect, they have an absolute right to bring their children up in the way they think is best and teach the kids their religious and moral beliefs or whatever else they feel strongly about. Nothing will convince me that the state has any business interfering in those matters or that telling your kids about heaven or hell (or the superiority of socialism) amounts to “child abuse”.

However I draw the line when the parents’ beliefs actually lead them to deny their children vital medication or other fundamental assistance the lack of which may lead to death. Thus, I agree with every word Andrew Sullivan writes here:

We rightly understand sexual abuse to be horrifying and a legitimate reason to intervene. But withholding vital medication from a child out of religious or ideological reasons strikes me as no less abuse. I’m reminded of this acutely by the case of Christine Maggiore, a woman I met and interacted with as another person with HIV. Christine adamantly denied that HIV was related to AIDS and refused anti-HIV medication on those grounds. She died last week. Of AIDS. That was her choice, it seems to me, however tragic it is.

What was also her choice, however, was to refuse anti-HIV meds when pregnant and then to refuse HIV meds for her daughter when she was born. Eliza Jane lived three years before succumbing to HIV-related pneumonia. Magiore was never prosecuted for negligence, since she had taken Eliza Jane to doctors. One of those doctors suffered mild professional consequences.

What rights did Eliza Jane have to protect her very life from her own mother? What rights did Jett Travolta have under the control of Scientologist parents? I find it hard to believe they had none; and I find the sympathy for parents under those circumstances to be misplaced.

Read Full Post »

The age bias

I have realized that I suffer from the age bias, and I suspect I am not alone in this.

When I come across a political or philosophical writing by someone who is younger than me, I subconsciously view this fact as increasing the probability that he is wrong. In short, my immediate emotional instinct is to correlate age positively with regard to wisdom. If I read something I disagree with and the writer is 19, I am likely to go — Ah he is inexperienced! If he is 28, I will probably still think he is wrong, but I would be just a teeny-weeny bit more likely to take him seriously. This bias sometimes manifests itself even when I am impressed with the writer, as happened earlier tonight when I discovered this excellent philosophy blog written by a Princeton student. When I realized he is younger than me, some part of my brain immediate kicked off subtle, fleeting ‘be-on-guard’ signals.

But what’s wrong with that, you might ask. After all, biases, when rational, can be useful agents of initial quality control. And it does seem reasonable to suppose that the older you get (up to a point) the more likely it is that your views are mature, wise and useful, considering that you have had so many more years to chew on them and so many more facts to weigh them against.

But here’s the problem, my age bias isn’t entirely rational. For one, I do not seem to attach a positive weight to those who are significantly older than me but instead tend to think of them neutrally (and indeed, may take off points if they are too old). If I am attaching a negative weight to someone being three years younger than me, it seems reasonable that I should attach at least that much of a positive weight to someone being ten years older. But I don’t do that!

Well, you might counter, things don’t necessarily have to be viewed that way. It is at a younger age that people are likely to make mistakes; after the brain completely matures and has a few years of experience, it is conceivable that little changes afterwards. So while the man of 25 is indeed likely to be more intelligent (philosophically) than a lad of 22, the same is not true five years down the line.

But there’s a problem with that too. My age bias shifts its goalpost according to my age. When I was 23, my bias extended only to those younger than me; when I will be 30, I am pretty sure I will not limit my bias to only those 25 and below.

Clearly there is something mildly irrational going on here. In my defence, I am aware of it, so all is not lost.

Read Full Post »

Many years ago, my then girlfriend showed me a website dedicated to “positive music”.

Positive music, the website said, was music without harsh, discordant sounds. It wasn’t the kind of music that arouses negative emotions. It wasn’t music to disturb or change the world. It wasn’t rap, hip-hop, hard rock or grunge. It wasn’t heavy metal. It was music for warmth, for calm and serenity, for happiness and harmony.

As far as I remember, the classification was based on the musical quality of the sounds alone. The lyrics were incidental. They even had short audio files to illustrate what kind of sounds count as positive and what don’t.

It was an interesting site and I enjoyed it. I don’t know why I remembered it a short while ago.

I tried to find it with a google search.

What I found was this site, ostensibly of the “Positive Music Association”, and full of words like these:

The PMA is about seeing music not only as entertainment but as a means of creating positive change in the world. People drawn to Positive Music often are interested in subjects like personal development and empowerment, social transformation and peace, and in creating healthy and sustainable environments, relationships and communities. We encourage artistic integrity and social responsibility.

Positive Music is not: love songs, because they do not necessarily inspire action or change; religious since they are not inclusive of all human beings, just those who prescribe to that particular religion; simply happy songs unless they inspire appreciation or action; or anti-songs (e.g. anti-war, anti-drug) unless they focus on solutions.

Somewhere in these six years, the music went out of it. Or more likely, I just didn’t find the correct site.

Read Full Post »

A nice follow-up by Robin Hanson to his earlier post I had linked to:

You just can’t fight “conformity” by indulging the evil pleasure of enjoying your conformity to a small tight-knit group of “non-conformists.”  All this does is promote some groups at the expense of other groups, and poisons your mind in the process.  It is like fighting “loyalty” by dogged devotion to an anti-loyalty alliance.

Best to clear your mind and emotions of group loyalties and resentments and ask, if this belief gave me no pleasure of rebelling against some folks or identifying with others, if it was just me alone choosing, would my best evidence suggest that this belief is true?  All else is the road to rationality ruin.

Indeed. Whether your views are simple and mainstream or whether you subscribe to some fringe philosophy such as libertarianism, it is always a sign of danger when your beliefs and conclusions are affected and (subconsciously) dictated by emotions derived from your identification. I guess the human psyche, by its very nature, is hopelessly susceptible to this kind of bias; the first step in fighting it is to realize that it exists and it is poisonous.

[Edit] Just in case it wasn’t clear, I am not saying one should have no emotions associated with one’s beliefs. However, you need to be wary when your emotion is at least partially derived from loyalty to your group or your ideology; for it can then affect your reasoning ability when faced with a new issue. The pleasure of non-conformity should not get in the way of dispassionate analysis. See Robin’s last paragraph above, also see my comment below.

Read Full Post »

Sometimes I am tempted to modify my moral premises so that I can be more at peace with the world.

I am always saved by the realization that I cannot do such a thing deliberately and retain my self-respect.

Read Full Post »

Robin Hanson expresses eloquently a theme I have often touched upon:

We feel a deep pleasure from realizing that we believe something in common with our friends, and different from most people.  We feel an even deeper pleasure letting everyone know of this fact.  This feeling is EVIL.  Learn to see it in yourself, and then learn to be horrified by how thoroughly it can poison your mind.  Yes evidence may at times force you to disagree with a majority, and your friends may have correlated exposure to that evidence, but take no pleasure when you and your associates disagree with others; that is the road to rationality ruin.

I see this everyday with my liberal friends, I see it in the blogosphere, I see it in atheists and worshippers, libertarians and socialists, idealists and pragmatists. The collectivist tendency is a powerful one.

And I know it exists within me too, though it is rarely displayed on a social level, principally because there’s no one I know who I think of as an intellectual associate. Perhaps that is a good thing.

The tendency to immerse oneself within echo chambers is hard-wired into the human psyche. It is a survival mechanism and it is an enemy of rational thought.

Robin Hanson’s words deserve to be remembered everyday by each person who thinks of himself or herself as a rational, intellectual being.

Read Full Post »

Via a post by Althouse, I was alerted to this recent Richard Dawkins quote about children reading Harry Potter and other fantasy fiction:

I think it is is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know…

I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious [e]ffect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.

In fact, Dawkins goes further than simply advocating that children should not read Harry Potter. He thinks identifying children by their religion or even teaching them your religious views, is child abuse:

Do not ever call a child a Muslim child or a Christian child – that is a form of child abuse because a young child is too young to know what its views are about the cosmos or morality […]

It’s a form of child abuse, even worse than physical child abuse. I wouldn’t want to teach a young child, a terrifyingly young child, about hell when he dies, as it’s as bad as many forms of physical abuse.

It is worth noting that Dawkins also once advocated that legal action be taken against astrologers under trade laws.

Now, I am an atheist. However, on the Harry Potter issue, I am more inclined to agree with the Althouse commenter who writes:

Does he have kids? Does he remember being a kid? Does he approve of the way our culture infantilizes children through and beyond the age of 18?

To which I could add some more — does he understand freedom? Imagination? The simple fact that indulgence in fantasy is a necessary component of growing up?

Also, I am disturbed by his tendency to impose rationalism via coercion. For a very personal take on coercion vs science, read this old entry of mine.

Read Full Post »

Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:

One of the major surprises I received when I moved out of childhood into the real world, was the degree to which the world is stratified by genuine competence.

Now, yes, Steve Jurvetson is not just a randomly selected big-name venture capitalist.  He is a big-name VC who often shows up at transhumanist conferences.  But I am not drawing a line through just one data point.

I was invited once to a gathering of the mid-level power elite, where around half the attendees were “CEO of something” – mostly technology companies, but occasionally “something” was a public company or a sizable hedge fund.  I was expecting to be the youngest person there, but it turned out that my age wasn’t unusual – there were several accomplished individuals who were younger.  This was the point at which I realized that my child prodigy license had officially completely expired.

Now, admittedly, this was a closed conference run by people clueful enough to think “Let’s invite Eliezer Yudkowsky” even though I’m not a CEO.  So this was an incredibly cherry-picked sample.  Even so…

Even so, these people of the Power Elite were visibly much smarter than average mortals. In conversation they spoke quickly, sensibly, and by and large intelligently. When talk turned to deep and difficult topics, they understood faster, made fewer mistakes, were readier to adopt others’ suggestions.

No, even worse than that, much worse than that: these CEOs and CTOs and hedge-fund traders, these folk of the mid-level power elite, seemed happier and more alive.

This, I suspect, is one of those truths so horrible that you can’t talk about it in public.  This is something that reporters must not write about, when they visit gatherings of the power elite.

Because the last news your readers want to hear, is that this person who is wealthier than you, is also smarter, happier, and not a bad person morally.  Your reader would much rather read about how these folks are overworked to the bone or suffering from existential ennui.  Failing that, your readers want to hear how the upper echelons got there by cheating, or at least smarming their way to the top.  If you said anything as hideous as, “They seem more alive,” you’d get lynched.

Worth quoting, I think, especially in an era where much redistributionist logic stems from an assumption that money and ability have little relation.

We all have different goals in life, and some, like I, choose to do something out of love or reverence and perhaps a shot at greatness. In doing so, we often renounce the opportunity of doing something else that might have led to more money. However, it is important that we do not confuse this voluntary decision with some sort of moral superiority. There is nothing wrong with the fact that people with more money have better healthcare, better food, better recreation and better opportunities in life. Money may not be a perfect denomination, but it is the best that exists. And there is nothing more important, in these troubled days, to reaffirm the morality of a world that deals in it and rewards some more than others.

Let me end this post with an excerpt from a glorious passage by Ayn Rand, who expresses this idea more eloquently than I ever can.

To the glory of mankind, there was, for the first and only time in history, a COUNTRY OF MONEY—and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement. For the first time, man’s mind and money were set free, and there were no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work, and instead of swordsmen and slaves, there appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being—the self-made man—the American industrialist.

If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose—because it contains all the others—the fact that they were the people who created the phrase ‘to MAKE money.’ No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity—to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted, or obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created. The words ‘to make money’ hold the essence of human morality.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »