Saturday, October 29, 2005


Is spirituality a good thing?

(See the end for a brief definition, if you want.)

Consider the belief that there is no world beyond the physical world. At the moment I’m interested in examining not potential arguments for that belief, but rather the implications of it.

If there’s no world beyond the physical one, the institution of religion could still be useful. It makes some people happy, it keeps kids off drugs, whatever. Religion does some good stuff. On the other hand, religion does some terrible stuff, too, like found America. (Just kidding. I love America.) Whether the good that religious institutions do outweighs the bad is an empirical question I wouldn’t know how to address.

But if there is no world beyond the world, then whether or not religion as an institution is a good thing, the false spiritual beliefs that those religions prescribe must be doing net harm, right? To my chagrin, I can’t say so for certain, because there exist arguments in favor of entertaining spiritual beliefs even if they’re false. I can think of a couple: (1) They might compel believers to behave better than they would have otherwise, and (2) they might provide comfort – that is, the beliefs might be goods in their own right. (1) I’m skeptical of, but (2) could be compelling. Both are, again, empirical questions I’m unable to answer.

Of course, it’s easy to think of ways that false spiritual beliefs would be harmful. If you think you will survive death, then you are likely to make poor intertemporal consumption decisions. If you think scriptures are a shortcut to the truth, you are likely to abnegate a lot of valuable philosophical debate. If you think you and your affiliates are the only people who will be admitted to Heaven, you are likely to put yourself through a lot of unnecessary pity. More generally, if the world is one way and you believe it’s another, then on net your error is far more likely to result in harm than benefit.

However, judging from the overwhelming number of religious people, it might be that the psychological benefits of believing in a spirit world outweigh the various harms resulting from misperceiving the real one.

I would not expect anybody, however religious, to argue with the above potential negative effects of false spirituality. Religious people (like all people) assume their beliefs are correct; it would be strange for them to defend the utility of their beliefs under the assumption that those beliefs are wrong.

Yet the question concerns me, because I think spirit, God, etc. is wishful thinking. I want to know whether I should desire that they all stop believing nonsense, or whether I should instead be thankful for it.

The aforepromised definition: Let’s define spirituality as “A belief in and preoccupation with a world beyond the physical world.” Include notions of thought, mind, ethics, and other computational-cognitive phenomena in the physical world, but banish notions of soul, God, and other non-falsifiable phenomena to the spirit world.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


Could sleep benefit a robot?

We will die. We don't know what it'll be like. But we know what sleep is like, and we compare death to it all the time. The ability to fall back on that metaphor helps us somewhat to deal with the emotional disturbance arising from our expectation of death.

Those are facts. Here’s a conjecture: Maybe the need for sleep comes in part from the need to reassure oneself that such experiences aren’t so bad? That is, maybe we’re assuaging our fear of death when we sleep? It sure would be nice, because it would suggest that by becoming less afraid of death, I could reduce my sleep requirement!

More generally, I wonder whether sleep serves a purpose psychologically, beyond what it accomplishes biologically. We know that animals need sleep, even animals like fish that eschew heavy introspection. That’s because sleep serves real, biological, physically concrete needs, such as letting us knit brain cells together in ways that we can’t do when they are in use. But I wonder whether there exist other benefits of sleep that are specific to the software of creatures with a notion of self, benefits having nothing to do with biology?

Assuaging one’s fear of death would be an example of a non-biological psychological benefit – e.g., a benefit that even intelligent machines could garner from sleep. Another such benefit might be that sleep forces one to step back from one’s involvement in the world. It could be perceived (erroneously, but perceived nonetheless) as the world’s way of saying, “You’ve got to chill out,” and because it’s “said” in such a peremptory manner, the “advice” is heeded, and the “advice” turns out to be healthy.

I’m stretching to look for reasons that sleep might be good for the mind even independently of the body, because sleep feels that way to me: the comfort that sleep provides seems partly philosophical, rather than purely biological. Sleep is a necessary part of the day, the way sex or gunfights are necessary parts of certain kinds of movies. Whether or not they have to happen as a matter of mechanism, they have to happen in order for the experience to feel complete and satisfying.

Alas, I’m probably confusing cause and effect. Sleep probably feels philosophically satisfying precisely because the human genome discovered that such feelings make us most likely to get enough sleep.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Firms aren’t parents, but money is life

Adam Gifford, a professor of mine, basically made the latter statement today. It was an epiphany to me.

He was going off on how our tort system doesn’t make sense. While there are multiple ways it’s unreasonable, the focus today was on the tendency juries have to punish the act of equating money with life.

Let me use an example: An auto manufacturer has to decide which safety devices to include in a car. They do that by figuring out which feature set will elicit the highest profit. If a feature helps sales, it’s because people want it, and so it should be included. If it hurts, it is not something people want, and it should be left out.

One could argue, “But that’s not fair! The consumer is uninformed about all the stuff that goes into an automobile, or any complicated machine. Producers therefore have a responsibility to make safe products, whether or not the consumer knows about it.” Well, in fact firms already do include safety features that most consumers don’t know or care about. That’s not weird: they have good market-based reasons to do it.

The question is not whether to include little-known safety features, but at what point to stop – and this is where juries get it wrong. There exist mechanisms that communicate to firms what is worth including and what is not. If you don’t trust the preferences revealed by most consumers’ purchases, there are those consumers who pay attention and make noise. Firms have reputations to protect. There exist consumer advocacy groups, watchdogs, and ratings services. Praise from them translates into profits; blacklisting translates into pain. And of course there’s government, which tells firms what they have to do.

Firms have to pay attention to that stuff. If they don’t, they go out of business. The question that I claim juries answer poorly is, supposing a firm adheres to all the guidelines laid out by the various groups keeping tabs on its products, does that firm have a duty to put even more safety into their stuff? If they want to, they certainly can … but I don’t think it’s a duty. It is the purpose of firms to provide people with what they want, not to tell them what they’re allowed to have.

We should not want it to be the duty of firms to invent safety standard. It would create a conflict of interest. If we want safety standards to be good, they should come from outside of the firm; the firm should be in the simple business of meeting those standards at low cost, thereby allowing consumers to enjoy those standards.

Not every safety feature is desirable – otherwise, everyone who could afford one would drive a $300,000 armored personnel vehicle. A producer by definition has to decide what’s worth producing, and if the benefit of a thing is less than its cost, that thing should not be produced. In following that principle, car manufacturers and other producers are basing life-or-death decisions on money.

Juries don’t like that. When they hear about a company that did not include some feature to make cars a little less dangerous, and there’s a chance that the left-out feature would have saved a plaintiff from injury, a jury finding in the plaintiff’s favor seems to routinely include a premium intended to punish the cavalier equation of life with dollars and cents.

But – and here’s the second point of this post – dollars and cents are life. You can turn your life (time) into money, and you can turn your money into life (time). The conversion isn’t perfect; every time it is made, something is lost. You’ll never be able to buy exactly the time that you spent earning money this year. But the conversion is real, and important, and it goes both ways. Every time you pay someone to do something that you could do if you spent enough time at it – sew your clothes, hook up your internet, cook your exotic lunch, raise your children – you are buying time. In that sense, we have more time now than ever before in history.

If we needed something to measure life in terms of, money would seem to be the only candidate. Is the measurement imperfect? Sure. But is it unreasonable? No.

In particular, juries don’t like to see life-or-death decisions based on money. But in many cases, that’s the only thing one could base them on.

Oh, I’m bored. Goodnight.

Saturday, October 15, 2005


Math trauma: Suppressing logic rather than data

Some psychologists believe people suppress data they find too upsetting to retain. What if some brain somewhere categorized the entire logical process that way, and suppressed it, rendering the brain’s owner bad at things like math?

I’m not saying I know anyone I think this happened to. It’s just a hypothetical.

Could such suppression of logic happen? It seems like it might work, from an upset brain’s point of view. Upsetting data is only upsetting to the extent that it can be processed. Suppressing the logic that enables one to become upset at a memory would be as effective as suppressing the memory itself.

It would be more costly, so it seems unlikely that a brain would “choose” logic suppression over data suppression without a reason. However, there might be something preventing the brain from suppressing the offending data itself. For instance, the data might be that someone is going to try to kill you.

I concede that a brain probably could not disable “the entire logical process” without basically disabling itself. But maybe it would be possible for that brain to merely introduce a high level of error into its logical processes, rather than disabling them entirely, so that the simple operations that might bear on one’s chances of survival would not be too greatly impacted, but the complicated ruminations that might lead one to become upset would be no longer possible.

This took me an hour to write. I’m unimpressed.


Schools should teach values

There are two kinds of bad decisions: those due to incompetence and those due to lousy values. Earth has got plenty of both, but I think the second kind is much worse, and it’s inadequately addressed.

I’ll use “values” in the most neutral sense, to mean “a preferential ranking of states of the world.” I have to provide a definition because “values” is a much-abused term. It’s common to think one’s own values are “the right” ones, an attitude that can lead to such ridiculous terms as “family values”. We’re largely unaware of how values form, and we often feel hostile or at least superior to people whose values are different from ours.

Perhaps due to the volatility of sentiment regarding “values issues”, schools are irresponsibly silent about the formation of values in students. Presently, our schools aim to impart competence – which of course is good. However, competence alone is no guarantee of worthwhile results. Adolf Hitler was competent. To generate good things, competence must be well-directed. That is, it needs a legitimate, credible system of values. Our schools impart huge quantities of knowledge, but they don’t help students decide how to use it. They should.

Note that I wrote “help students decide how to use it,” rather than “advise students on how to use it.” It would be monstrous, as well as impossible, for schools to implant their own preferences in students. However, to familiarize students with the logic of preferences and value judgments could only be beneficial.

The numerically-oriented may be thinking, “How beneficial? More so than the courses they already get?” I think so, and here’s why: Kids fresh out of school are prone to spectacular screwups – picking the wrong mate, the wrong job, the wrong habits, the wrong dreams, you name it. Such bad choices are for the most part, I think, the result of poorly-thought-out values, and they don’t have to happen so much.

One could argue that plain "life experience" inevitably leads one to define and rank one's values. I would agree. However, the traditional trial -by-fire ranking process is unnecessarily costly. When one is making real, important decisions for the first time, it’s true that mistakes are inevitable. And because of the high stakes, it’s reasonable for society to postpone those decisions (e.g. whether to drink, work, marry) to a certain age. However, if we want kids to make good decisions when their time comes, we ought to at least familiarize them with the ideas they’ll be facing. It’s one thing never to have faced a certain vital decision before, and quite another never to have developed the sort of thinking that the decision will require.

For most people I think the development of a value system is slow, at best semi-conscious, and often self-contradicting. (Some economists have shown that lots of people exhibit irrational preferences – e.g. behaving as if A is better than B is better than C is better than A.) It is my (culturally imperial?) belief that the intrepid few who create their value system entirely consciously are unlikely to do a thorough job of it without standing on the shoulders of past great thinkers.

I know the curriculum is already stuffed. But a course in values would be more than an addition to the curriculum; it would enhance the effectiveness of everything being taught already. It would lead to better use of the knowledge absorbed elsewhere. And hopefully, by transmitting the logic necessary to develop a sound set of preferences, it would also increase the likelihood that students would take the time to absorb what they’re taught. A values course might even create room in the curriculum for itself, by making students more efficient. I’m not saying it would, and if it didn’t, the course would still be worthwhile. If a child had to choose one course, one year, that he thought was least useful to him, and replace it with a values course, the loss to society would be close to nil, and I’m arguing that the benefits would be huge.

Alright, that’s my argument.

The course should hold whatever it would take to allow students to make their own value judgments in a way that maximizes happiness – in particular, rationally and consistently. I would like the course to include bits of logic, economics, ethics, and psychology. I can list a few specific topics I think would be good:

Students should become familiar with the algebra of how one’s own preferences change over time – e.g. how ex-post I might wish I had not wanted to drink the night before. They should learn what is known about how preferences are developed, including the extent to which it is possible to choose and steer oneself toward a “desirable” set of preferences.

They should be made familiar with how an individual’s preferences can conflict internally as well as with those of others. To operate well in society, one has to understand that conflict between individuals can be subtle. Examples: the conflict of advertisers trying to convince you to want something you don’t know much about; the conflict between a mechanic and a customer who doesn’t know how much he can trust the guy; or the conflict between colluding exporters of oil.

Students should get the opportunity to try to justify (or debunk, I suppose) the notions of human rights and societal utility, upon which (most of? all of?) our behavior ought to be based.

Wouldn’t that be awesome?

Friday, October 14, 2005


Implications of mood echo

Clap your hands on one side of a canyon, and the air in the canyon does something weird: It will report what your hands are doing now (you hear the clap instantly), and also, more quietly, what they did a little while ago. If you clap loud enough you’ll hear several echoes of your clap; that is, the delay effect recurses.

Many musicians, particularly guitarists, like to reproduce this effect with a gadget called a “delay box”. With a delay box between the guitar and the amplifier, the amplifier reproduces not only what the guitar is currently producing, but also, at a (usually) lesser volume, what it was producing a few moments ago.

Sending music through a delay requires some mental acrobatics, because each note turns into an investment over time. The guitarist’s choice of what to play becomes constrained, because he has to coordinate with what he was playing a little while ago, and because he’ll have to be able to play along with it in a little while.

I think there’s a similar signal delay in the human sensation of happiness. When I experience something that feels good, there is an immediate joy, and there is also a long-term contribution to my overall sense of well-being that does not take effect immediately. In fact, for some acts (such as altruistic ones) the first component may be totally absent.

Disregarding the happiness-signal-delay effect can lead to burnout. For instance, I have seen students choose to study when they really shouldn’t, because they think they can stand it. In the short term they’re right – the choice of studying now or not studying now does not seem to change the probability of burning out now. But beyond some point, it becomes too much – and at that point burnout is assured, regardless of what they decide to do now. The accumulation of past effects is real and binding, so disregarding it is dangerous.

On the positive side, in music there exist patterns that are easy to play, which when sent through a delay effect sound not just complicated, but really good. The same is true of happiness: simple activities, regularly compounded, can generate a rich, complex, and unexpectedly enjoyable result.

More generally, keeping in mind that changes in one’s sense of well-being are integrations (in the calculus sense) over one’s history can probably facilitate more effective use (in the utilitarian sense) of one’s time.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


Art as complex science

As a youngster, television gave me the idea that scientists look down on artists. I have seen little real evidence for that stereotype. But for the sake of an essay, let’s suppose that attitude existed. It would have to come from a misunderstanding of what art is. (Yes, this means I think my own definition of art is correct. I’m sure there are people who would disagree with me strongly. I wish they were reading this.)

Art is: the science of manipulating an audience’s thoughts and feelings. That makes art the most complex science – one so complex, we have trouble communicating what it does. Most of the other differences come from this one.

Scientists are humble about what they’re trying to accomplish. A scientist picks a question so specific that if he finds an answer, he’ll be able to verbalize it. By contrast, the scope of art can be as wide as all human experience. Any attempt to communicate artistic discoveries in non-art form is painfully incomplete.

Does the artist’s message get communicated perfectly in the art itself? Uh, no. Artistic communication is bizarre, because it’s stochastic. Whereas scientific ideas can be communicated in a lossless fashion (right?), artistic ones can’t be. Artists do have heuristics for guessing what sorts of stimuli will elicit what sorts of responses, and better artists have better heuristics. But they recognize an element of randomness in the audience’s interpretation process, and (perhaps because they have no choice) artists embrace that randomness. Each interpretation is different, and that’s supposed to be a good thing. (I’m a believer – I think it’s a good thing.)

An artist’s goals are as audience-dependent and hard to describe as art’s results. That doesn’t make the artist’s goals any less real or definite than a scientist’s. However, it does mean that the goals never make it very far into words, or perhaps even into the artist’s conscious mind.

Is that bad? Should artists be more conscious of what they’re doing? I say no.

One wacky aspect of the brain is that the majority of its calculations are subconscious. Being a human is just too complex to keep all operations conscious; we perform better by automating most of the performance. And automation is a useful way to think of emotion, intuition, and the other subconscious phenomena that artists rely on.

If art is as complex as living, one could hypothesize that art can be done better by leaving much of it subconscious. History confirms that hypothesis. If there were a better way to do art, it would be happening. Despite hundreds or maybe thousands of years of taunting for flakiness, and despite strong market pressure to generate an artistic product efficiently and dependably, artists continue to be fickle, strange, and “unmethodical”. I think that’s not a failure, but rather an empirical demonstration that the best way to make art is by relying heavily on the mind’s less-conscious parts. Madness, history tells us, is the best method.

I’ve been harping about the vagueness and the randomness of artistic communication. Works of art contribute to a body of knowledge, but again, stochastically. A scientific record will be understood to mean the same thing by multiple parties. Artistic ones won’t be. A piece of art is some sort of statement, but the statement that it is depends on who’s using the information.

Professionals from both areas will, if they’re good, spend a lot of time keeping track of the state of their art, and building on what has come before. Scientific literature is in one sense more efficient, because one can tell from a good article title what one will get from the article. But the body of art has an efficiency that scientific lit. lacks: Artists don’t have to read in their specialty, or even in their profession – e.g. musicians often build on ideas from filmmakers. This effect comes from the breadth of scope that so much art exhibits – pieces of art, by addressing many issues at once, can overlap each other more easily than scientific works can.

I’ve talked about how art is science. Others have probably said that, but I missed it. I can say for certainty that others have talked about how science is art, and I don’t have anything to add to that. So I’ll go to bed.

Saturday, October 08, 2005


How music is like childhood

You sense these patterns.
You can't describe most of them.
You think someone can.


Thursday, October 06, 2005


If you walked on all fours ...

... then wouldn't the floor be upright? And rotating?

(You may be responding, "Uh, no. Think of a cat -- its head and neck are built such that it, like a human, is generally looking forward." Of course you're right; but there exist creatures, four-legged and otherwise, designed to walk around staring straight down all day. That must be weird!)


Resenting leadership

Apes live in a hierarchy based on strength and recklessness. That is, the strong ones who are also daring enough to force others to recognize their strength are the ones that get to do more of what they want. Apparently it's very complicated -- and useful. For the most part everyone in the group accepts it.

I don't know if apes low on the totem pole are capable of harboring resentment, or of sublimating it. Humans can do that, though, and I think lots of us do.

We have a status quo in which one cannot easily change one's wealth, or whether one has the right to arrest another, or ... lots of stuff. Fortunately, it's possible to justify large portions of even a terrible status quo to oneself. But the justification is real work, and without a guarantee of the intended outcome -- peace of mind -- in advance, it might not look like work worth doing.

Most of us are low on the totem pole. Society gives strong incentives for someone down here who has not justified the status quo to themselves to accept it anyway, and try to succeed in it. Out of all the people who have done that, how many harbor unconscious resentment towards the human pyramid that they've become a part of? And how does it affect their behavior?

If monkeys in fact do harbor resentment toward their higher-ups, one might conjecture that it plays a useful role. Perhaps a leader who has to spar with competitors will be more attentive to the group. Maybe he will be more trusted if he has to demonstrate superiority sometimes. I don't know.

But evolution lacks foresight, and it might be that a mindset which works okay in monkey-space is much less suited to human-space.


Leading by denial

Some people are able to lead effectively by denying that they are leading. When others have no reason to take you seriously, such a method would seem to make sense: humility is more likely to result in cooperation. But I think I have seen people with legitimate claims to authority who chose nonetheless to do what I'm describing. And I think it worked.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005



this is my first post

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