Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More On The Amazing Wrasse

It turns out that the coral reef fish genus known as the wrasse is even more interesting than I realized when I wrote this post about their amazing ability to change sexes when the male leader of a harem dies. I read in this article, that a paper was published this week in the journal Coral Reefs by Giacomo Bernardi, UCSC professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, which included this video of tool use by a wrasse to crush clam shells.

Well, either that or he's just enjoying a solitary game of clam racquetball.
The animal kingdom never ceases to amaze and delight.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Spirit Molecule

The mystery of the evolutionary purpose of endogenous DMT and the implications of its presence in most organisms is an intriguing dilemma. I first learned about it a decade ago by reading a book by Rick Strassman called DMT: The Spirit Molecule.
Well now they've made a movie about it. Check it out here. Very interesting. No doubt there is some kind of neurophysiological basis to mystical experience. Is this it?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

And Then My Brain Exploded...

This blew my mind. As described in this paper, scientists at U.C. Berkley were able to construct the video on the right from the signals generated from the brains of subjects in fMRIs that were shown the original video on the left. I don't know what to say about this.
(If you can't see the video above try clicking on this link.)

Faster Than A Speeding Photon?

According to our best theories of physics, nothing can travel through space faster than the speed of light, this is integral to Einstein's theory of relativity. That's why the news from the OPERA collaboration at CERN that an experiment has observed neutrinos apparently traveling faster than the speed of light is so mind-blowing. Of course, as often happens in science, when experimental results tend to defy well-evidenced and generally-accepted scientific theories, this is much more likely the result of an error in the experiment or its interpretation. It is unlikely that the neutrinos in question actually did travel faster than light speed, but one of the things that science does really well is to find its own mistakes. And considering the earth shattering implications of this finding should it be confirmed, there are no doubt multitudes of particle physicists dissecting the data and trying to confirm or disprove the results.
Nonetheless, it is an awe-inspiring prospect to consider the implications of faster than light neutrinos. Not being a physicist myself I don't have the best grasp on all of the details, but even from a lay perspective the implications make my mind reel. Going against relativity, faster than light travel destroys the idea of causality, that an effect can not precede a cause. Causality is the basis for all science. Faster than light travel opens the door to time travel. As Einstein described, the faster we move relative to something else the slower our time moves in relation to that time. At the speed of light, it is thought that time "stops", it does not move forward. Presumably then, moving faster than light would cause time to go backward.
These results, if accurate, would shake the physical sciences to their core. However, applying the very scientific principle of Ockham's razor, which is the simpler explanation: that a century of scientific evidence and theory are mistaken, or that an experiment got screwed up? Regardless of whether the results turn out to actually turn physics on its head, it is mind-expanding to consider the possibilities. Call it a thought experiment.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Two Executions, One Protest

On Wednesday night there were two men executed by the apparatus of State in America, Troy Davis in Georgia and Lawrence Russell Brewer in Texas, but we only paid attention to one of them. The point is made clearly and saliently in this post over at the blog. One person murdered in my name for any reason is one too many people murdered in my name.

Everyone Is Biased But Me. But Me?

Okay, so the overwhelming preponderance of evidence from the neuropsychological sciences seems to tell us that human cognition is susceptible to a variety of biases, defects and logical fallacies which make our beliefs not the product of dispassionate rational analysis of the available objective evidence, but rather the pre-decided prejudices of the sum of our biases and a myriad of other subtle deterministic influences. We've all learned from everyday experience how irrational people can be, how biased people are and how those biases corrupt their ability to evaluate data and reach the right conclusions. And what are the right conclusions? Why they are my conclusions of course, because I am the only one who is not susceptible to bias and irrationality. I have access to my cognitive processes, so I would know if I was biased.
I find evidence of my belief in the superior purity of my own cognition every time I hear a study of priming or other non-rational psychological influences. Maybe studies of priming do show that people's judgements about the character of people in pictures shown to them could be influenced by the temperature of a cup they held for a few seconds before making the judgement, but if I was in the study I wouldn't have done the same thing.
I'm not biased like everyone else. And, yeah, I know everyone else thinks the same thing, but in my case it's really true. This is the background assumption that I and many others carry, but obviously it's ridiculous. And a few days ago I finally caught myself in the act and discovered a concrete example of biased thinking. I was listening to an editorial on NPR about the role of government in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in green energy technology. The speaker was arguing that the government could and should not act as venture capitalist in investing in new green technologies. He argued that government had a role in funding research, in passing regulations etc. but it would be a mistake to invest in start up companies because the purpose of the venture capital investor was to get a return on their investment, but the purpose of the government in the investment of venture capital would be manifold, including promoting energy independence, creating jobs, stimulating the economy as well as receiving a return on its investment. I didn't know who it was who was speaking but what he was saying seemed to make sense to me and I had a generally favorable impression of his arguments. Then the segment ended and I learned that he had been an economic advisor to George Bush. Immediately my assessment of the value of his ideas dropped. I turned a harshly skeptical eye to the argument and decided that more research was needed before I could agree with or dismiss the idea. It was amazing how dramatic and immediate the change in attitude was and this shift was based purely on bias divorced entirely from reason.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that these situations where I actually consciously notice the action of bias in my thought processes are so rare and I am pretty sure that this is not an indication of the rarity of bias but rather the rarity of its discovery. Until I can increase my ability to recognize bias when it corrupts my reasoning, the fight to exile bias from my belief generating mechanisms will be futile. To strive for rationality one must not only examine the evidence and the arguments, one must also examine the processes that are at work within us while we are examining and assessing the evidence. After all, every one is biased, especially me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Death Penalty Research Paper

Considering the travesty of justice which occurred tonight in Georgia, I thought I'd post a research paper I wrote about the Death Penalty for an English course I took a few years ago. The statistics may be a few years out of date, but I think the sentiment is as timely as ever.

Patriotic Shame

After a delay from the scheduled time of 7:00pm, during which the Supreme Court declined to issue a last-minute stay so that an appeal could be considered, at 11:08pm local time in Georgia behind several thick, high walls and razor-wire of the Georgia Correctional Facility as well as a single-file line of body-armored riot-control police, my country's government executed a man for a crime, of which he could not be convicted today given the state of the evidence against him. Seven of nine witnesses who testified against Troy Davis have since recanted their testimony and claimed that they were pressured to testify falsely by police, and one of the remaining two was accused by the defense of truly committing the crime. Ballistic evidence has also been called into question. Five of the jurors who convicted him said they wouldn't have, given the new evidence. Personally, I believe the drastic consequences of mistakes in capital cases make capital punishment morally impermissible under all circumstances. The practice of law is undertaken by human beings who are prone to making mistakes. Mistakes are unavoidable. Since the consequences of possible mistakes in a system which applies the death penalty include the execution of potentially innocent defendants, it is morally equivalent to murder to proceed with such a system.
Today I am ashamed of my country.

The Wall

The state of Georgia is now waiting to execute wrongfully convicted Troy Davis until it hears about the status of the last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States submitted by the defense. The 7:00pm eastern time at which the execution was to take place has come and gone. Troy Davis refused the privilege of a specially ordered last meal and ate the regular prison meal in preparation for his death.
The psychological torture being inflicted by this process is beyond my power to imagine. I recall Sartre's story "The Wall" told from the perspective of a condemned prisoner, or the story about Dostoyevsky's experience in prison when he was told he was going to be executed, marched out to a shooting squad, who were ordered to take aim, then at the last minute, the sentence having been commuted, he was sent back to his cell.
If Troy Davis does manage to avoid the death chamber, he will no doubt be struggling with the psychological scars of this torture for the rest of his life.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Problem With The Trolley Problem

The so-called "Trolley Problem" in experimental philosophy, which I discussed in this post, is considered a problem because it seems to demonstrate that our moral judgements tend to be irrational.
Since there is no material difference between the results of acting in both situations (in both instances one person is sacrificed to save five), we would expect no difference in the moral judgement. The problem is that is not what we see. Nearly ninety-five percent of people will claim that throwing the switch to redirect the trolley from the track with five people to the track with one person is morally obligatory, it would be abominable not to. Yet the same percentage of people claim that throwing the one fat man in front of the trolley to save the five people is morally unjustified, it would be abominable to do so.
The traditional explanation that philosophers give in response to the trolley problem is evolutionary. They claim that moral judgements tend to take the form of internal power struggles between different evolutionary drives. In the first situation we are governed by the rational, computational part of the brain. It deals with the numbers, compares one death to five and answers accordingly. In the second hypothetical it is claimed that this part of our brain is challenged and overcome by the more primitive emotional part of the brain which deals with feeling and yells at us "Don't push human beings to their deaths!".
Another, less popular, explanation forgoes the evolutionary and schizoid narratives and simply claims that there is a difference in the two hypotheticals in the depth of emotional salience. There is an immediacy to the action of pushing someone to their death that makes it difficult to mitigate the moral consequences to the conscience.
I'm not entirely sure that the differences between the two explanations go too much further than semantics, although I think the second explanation better frames the issue. The same kind of tension can be seen in many moral judgements, and I think the more examples we examine the better the issue comes into focus.
What does the omnivore say when asked about the morality of animal sacrifice? I believe there is an analogous tension between peoples moral judgement on whether it's right to eat meat, which most people have no moral qualms with, and moral judgement of animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice is just a way of ritualizing the slaughter of food animals, and one could argue that by examining the significance of the act, those who slaughter their food animals ceremonially are acting with a deeper moral consideration than those who let industrialized slaughter serve up unidentifiable animal parts to them via McDonald's. Even if one removes the dichotomy and simply asks the carnivore to slaughter the animals they eat, we notice a broad tension between rationally identical moral actions which differ primarily in the depth of emotional salience.
It is for this reason that I believe the appropriate ethical system will be based on a rational analysis of the consequences of our acts. The best system will also include safe guards to protect our moral judgements from the irrational influence of our emotions.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Free Will Argument To The Problem Of Evil

The so-called problem of evil has dogged theistic philosophy since its inception. Essentially it posits that the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God is incompatible with the existence of evil in the world. Prominent among the theistic arguments against this incompatibility is the free will argument advanced by philosophers of religion like Alvin Plantinga. They basically argue that free will is such a valuable good that in order to secure it for humanity, an all-good God would allow the possibility of its misuse and the resultant evil. Therefore they claim that evil is compatible with an omnibenevolent God.
I happen to think that this argument is totally unconvincing. First it does nothing to address the problem of natural evil, or suffering that is not caused by the agency of a person like that in natural disasters or congenital birth defects, etc. Also, an omniscient God supposedly would know exactly how each person will exercise their free will and whether they will misuse it or not, so God is not trading on possibilities but facts, he knows that if he gives certain people free will they will rape infants, yet we are to think that that person's free will is such an intrinsic good that it is worth the price of that evil? Most defenders of theism believe in a God that is capable of acting in contradiction to the laws of nature when it suits his purposes, the Old Testament is full of these cases. So, why wouldn't God reach down and turn off the free will of everyone he knows is about to commit a horrific and senseless evil?
I could go on and on but my purpose here wasn't to argue against the free will argument but to follow its logical implications and see what they say about how proponents of this argument ought to act.
The free will argument says that the most horrific and senseless instances of evil are justified on the basis of the absolute goodness of human freedom. It says that whatever the cost that the world pays in senseless suffering and anguish, it's not too much for the gift of freedom. Since this is supposedly the logic of God himself and God is considered not only all-knowing and wise, but also the paragon of morality, it follows that we ought to follow his logic in such matters on earth, too. What does this mean practically? Well, if we are to consider freedom the ultimate good and consider no cost paid for it (i.e. in suffering, evil, etc.) as too high, it necessarily follows that we cannot justify the existence of jails, prisons, mental institutions or even rule of law. It is more important that we are able to exercise our free will, than that we be protected from the consequences of its exercise. If God himself does not see fit to restrain a person whom he knows will commit an evil, than what justification can we have for restraining a person just because they might commit an evil, or have in the past?
It seems to me that Anarchy is the only justifiable system to the promoter of the free will defense to the problem of evil, otherwise one is claiming one knows better than God.