« December 2005 | Main | February 2006 »

January 30, 2006

Selecting morality

I've been musing a little more about Dr. Paul Bloom's article on the human tendency to believe in the supernatural. (See here for my last entry on this.) The question that's most lodged in my mind right now is thus, What if the only way to have intelligence like ours, i.e., intelligence that is capable of both rational (science) and irrational (art) creativity, is to have these two competing modules, the one that attributes agency to everything and the one that coldly computes the physical outcome of events? If this is true, then the ultimate goal of creating "intelligent" devices may have undesired side-effects. If futurists like Jeff Hawkins are right that an understanding of the algorithms that run the brain are within our grasp, then we may see these effects within our lifetime. Not only will your computer be able to tell when you're unhappy with it, you may need to intuit when it's unhappy with you! (Perhaps because you ignored it for several days while you tended to your Zen rock garden, or perhaps you left it behind while you went to the beach.)

This is a somewhat entertaining line of thought, with lots of unpleasant implications for our productivity (imagine having to not only keep track of the social relationships of your human friends, but also of all the electronic devices in your house). But, Bloom's discussion raises another interesting question. If our social brain evolved to manage the burgeoning collection of inter-personal and power relationships in our increasingly social existence, and if our social brain is a key part of our ability to "think" and imagine and understand the world, then perhaps it is hard-wired with certain moralistic beliefs. A popular line of argument between theists and atheists is the question of, If one does not get one's sense of morality from God, what is to stop everyone from doing exactly as they please, regardless of its consequences? The obligatory examples of such immoral (amoral?) behavior are rape and murder - that is, if I don't have in me the fear of God and his eternal wrath, what's to stop me from running out in the street and killing the first person I see?

Perhaps surprisingly, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett (Tufts University) mentions in this half-interview, half-survey article from The Boston Globe, being religious doesn't seem to have any impact on a person's tendency to do clearly immoral things that will get you thrown in jail. In fact, many of those whom are most vocal about morality (e.g., Pat Robertson) are themselves cravenly immoral, by any measure of the word (a detailed list of Robertson's crimes; a brief but humorous summary of them (scroll to bottom; note picture)).

Richard Dawkins, the well-known British ethologist and atheist, recently aired a two-part documentary, of his creation, on the BBC's Channel 4 attempting to explore exactly this question. (Audio portion for both episodes available here and here, courtesy of onegoodmove.org.) He first posits that faith is the antithesis of rationality - a somewhat incendiary assertion on the face of it. However, consider that faith is, by definition, the belief in something for which there is no evidence or for which there is evidence against, while rationally held beliefs are those based on evidence and evidence alone. In my mind, such a distinction is rather important for those with any interest in metaphysics, theology or that nebulous term, spirituality. Dawkins' argument goes very much along the lines of Stephen Weinberg, Nobel Prize in physics, who once said "Religion is an insult to human dignity - without it you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things it takes religion." However, Dawkins' documentary points at a rather more fundamental question, Where does morality comes from if not from God, or the cultural institutions of a religion?

This question was recently, although perhaps indirectly, explored by Jessica Flack and her colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute; published in Nature last week (summary here). Generally, Flack et al. studied the importance of impartial policing, by authoritative members of a pigtailed macaque troupe, to the cohesion and general health of the troupe as a whole. Their discovery that all social behavior in the troupe suffers in the absence of these policemen shows that they serve the important role of regulating the self-interested behavior of individuals. That is, by arbitrating impartially among their fellows in conflicts, when there is no advantage or benefit to them for doing so, the policemen demonstrate an innate sense of a right and wrong that is greater than themselves.

There are two points to take home from this discussion. First, that humans are not so different from other social animals in that we need constant reminders of what is "moral" in order for society to function. But second, if "moral" behavior can come from the self-interested behavior of individuals in social groups, as is the case for the pigtailed macaque, then it needs no supernatural explanation. Morality can thus derive from nothing more than the natural implication of real consequences, to both ourselves and others, for certain kinds of behaviors, and the observation that those consequences are undesirable. At its heart, this is the same line of reasoning for religious systems of morality, except that the undesirable consequences are supernatural, e.g., burning in Hell, not getting to spend eternity with God, etc. But clearly, the pigtailed macaques can be moral without God and supernatural consequences, so why can't humans?

J. C. Flack, M. Girvan, F. B. M. de Waal and D. C. Krakauer, "Policing stabilizes construction of social niches in primates." Nature 439, 426 (2006).

Update, Feb. 6th: In the New York Times today, there is an article about how quickly a person's moral compass can shift when certain unpalatable acts are sure to be done (by that person) in the near future, e.g., being employed as a part of the State capital punishment team, but being (morally) opposed to the death penalty. This reminds me of the Milgram experiment (no, not that one), which showed that a person's moral compass could be broken simply by someone with authority pushing it. In the NYTimes article, Prof. Bandura (Psychology, Stanford) puts it thus:

It's in our ability to selectively engage and disengage our moral standards, and it helps explain how people can be barbarically cruel in one moment and compassionate the next.

(Emphasis mine.) With a person's morality being so flexible, it's no wonder that constant reminders (i.e., policing) are needed to keep us behaving in a way that preserves civil society. Or, to use the terms theists prefer, it is policing, and the implicit terrestrial threat embodied by it, that keeps us from running out in the street and doing profane acts without a care.

Update, Feb. 8th: Salon.com has an interview with Prof. Dennet of Tufts University, a strong advocate of clinging to rationality in the face of the dangerous idea that everything that is "religious" in its nature is, by definition, off-limits to rational inquiry. Given that certain segments of society are trying (and succeeding) to expand the range of things that fall into that domain, Dennet is an encouragingly clear-headed voice. Also, when asked how we will know right from wrong without a religious base of morals, he answers that we will do as we have always done, and make our own rules for our behavior.

posted January 30, 2006 02:43 AM in Thinking Aloud | permalink | Comments (3)

January 18, 2006


Normally, I detest the kind of chain letters that circulate over email, where you're supposed to answer a (long) series of questions about your personality and life, and then forward it to all of your friends. But, since I've been specifically invited, and this seems a relatively benign version of the meme, here goes (and yes, it took me far too long to come up with seven entries for each category - I'm just a bit slow on some things).

1. Seven things to do before I die

(i) See every country on this planet
(ii) Learn to play the guitar
(iii) Take my (eventual) kids to six different continents
(iv) Live in New York City
(v) Write a book (a textbook on modeling complex systems seems the most likely)
(vi) Be a tenured professor
(vii) Bank a million dollars

2. Seven things I cannot do

(i) Anything related to being musical
(ii) Program a VCR
(iii) Speak a language other than English (much to my shame)
(iv) Give up my optimism, or my liberalism
(v) Get worked up about little things
(vi) Relate to "flakey" people
(vii) Relate to the culture of sports television

3. Seven things that attract me to [Albuquerque]

(i) The wilderness just beyond the city limits
(ii) Restaurants like The Artichoke Cafe
(iii) Always being able to see mountains when I'm outside
(iv) The bright sun and broad blue sky
(v) Leaving town
(vi) The proximity to places like LANL and SFI
(vii) The contrast with the East Coast

4. Seven things I say most often

(i) "I read this [study / book / paper / article] recently"
(ii) "Remember that conversation we had [X days / months / years] ago, well I was thinking about it and"
(iii) "The movie was great, except for the parts where they ignored the laws of physics"
(iv) "Um, well, let's see"
(v) [insert play on words here]
(vi) "I'm not sure", or "I don't know"
(vii) "What this means is that"

5. Seven books (or series) that I love

(i) V for Vendetta, Moore and Lloyd
(ii) Lord of the Rings, Tolkien
(iii) Blade of the Immortal, Samura
(iv) The Meaning of It All, Feynman
(v) Raising Cain, Kindlon and Thompson
(vi) Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Puig
(vii) The Atlantic Monthly

6. Seven movies that I watch over and over again (or would if I had the time)

(i) Dr. Strangelove
(ii) Before Sunset
(iii) Casablanca
(iv) The Matrix
(v) Bladerunner
(vi) Office Space
(vii) Some Like It Hot

7. Seven people I want to join in, too.

(i) Tim Burke
(ii) danah boyd
(iii) The folks at Fafblog!
(iv) Terry McMahon
(v) Nick Yee
(vi) Brad Delong
(vii) You, whomever you are

posted January 18, 2006 05:16 PM in Self Referential | permalink | Comments (0)

January 13, 2006

On Wit and Pith in Reviewing

While exploring some pages over at ScienceBlogs, I came across a discussion of two current titles about the modern relationship between politics and science, The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney and Politically Incorrect Guide to Science by Tom Bethell, and what one can learn about these texts from their reviewer comments at Amazon.com. Interesting in and of itself, but that's not the point of this entry.

Rather, consider this wonderful book listing, and more importantly, its reviewer comments.

posted January 13, 2006 12:30 PM in Humor | permalink | Comments (1)

January 05, 2006

Is God an accident?

This is the question that Dr. Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale, explores in a fascinating exposé in The Atlantic Monthly on the origins of religion, as evidence by a belief in supernatural beings through a neurological basis of our ability to attritute agency. He begins,

Despite the vast number of religions, nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things: the existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe. Recently psychologists doing research on the minds of infants have discovered two related facts that may account for this phenomenon. One: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena. And two: this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry. Which leads to the question ...

The question being, of course, whether the nearly universal belief in these things is an accident of evolution optimizing brain-function for something else entirely.

Belief in the supernatural is an overly dramatic way to put the more prosaic idea that we see agency (willful acts, as in, free will) where none exists. That is, consider the extreme ease with which we anthropomorphize inanimate objects like the Moon ("O, swear not by the moon, the fickle moon, the inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circle orb, Lest that thy love prove likewise variable." Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet 2:ii), complex objects like our computers (intentionally confounding us, colluding to ruin our job or romantic prospects, etc.), and living creatures whom we view as little more than robots ("smart bacteria"). Bloom's consideration of the question of why is this innate tendency apparently universal among humans is a fascinating exploration of both evolution, human behavior and our pathologies. At the heart of his story arc, he considers whether easy attribution of agency provides some other useful ability in terms of natural selection. In short, he concludes that yes, our brain is hardwired to see intention and agency where none exists because viewing the world through this lens made (makes) it easier for us to manage our social connections and responsibilities, and the social consequences of our actions. For instance, consider a newborn - Bloom desribes experiments that show that

when twelve-month-olds see one object chasing another, they seem to understand that it really is chasing, with the goal of catching; they expect the chaser to continue its pursuit along the most direct path, and are surprised when it does otherwise.

But more generally,

Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in a baby's brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks. The understandings develop at different rates: the social one emerges somewhat later than the physical one. They evolved at different points in our prehistory; our physical understanding is shared by many species, whereas our social understanding is a relatively recent adaptation, and in some regards might be uniquely human.

This doesn't directly resolve the problem of liberal attribution of agency, which is the foundation of a belief in supernatural beings and forces, but Bloom resolves this by pointing out that because these two modes of thinking evolved separately and apparently function independently, we essentially view people (whose agency is understood by our "social brain") as being fundamentally different from objects (whose behavior is understood by our "physics brain"). This distinction makes it possible for us to envision "soulless bodies and bodiless souls", e.g., zombies and ghosts. With this in mind, certain recurrent themes in popular culture become eminently unsurprising.

So it seems that we are all dualists by default, a position that our everyday experience of consciousness only reinforces. Says Bloom, "We don't feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them." The problem of having two modes of thinking about the world is only exacerbated by the real world's complexity, i.e., is a dog's behavior best understood with the physics brain or the social brain?, is a computer's behavior best understood with... you get the idea. In fact, it seems that you could argue quite convincingly that much of modern human thought (e.g., Hobbes, Locke, Marx and Smith) has been an exploration of the tension between these modes; Hobbes in particular sought a physical explanation of social organization. This also points out, to some degree, why it is so difficult for humans to be rational beings, i.e., there is a fundamental irrationality in the way we view the world that is difficult to first be aware of, and then to manage.

Education, or more specifically a training in scientific principles, can be viewed as a conditioning regiment that encourages the active management of the social brain's tendency to attribute agency. For instance, I suspect that the best scientists use their social mode of thinking when analyzing the interaction of various forces and bodies to make the great leaps of intuition that yield true steps forward in scientific understanding. That is, the irrationality of the two modes of thinking can, if engaged properly, be harnessed to extend the domain of rationality. There is certainly a great many suggestive anecdotes for this idea, and it suggests that if we ever want computers to truly solve problems the way humans do (as opposed to simply engaging in statistical melee), they will need to learn how to be more irrational, but in a careful way. I certainly wouldn't want my laptop to suddenly become superstitious about say, being plugged into the Internet!

posted January 5, 2006 04:50 PM in Scientifically Speaking | permalink | Comments (0)