Reductionism is not a dirty word

Approving nods to Prof Zeki, who writes about "Reductionism...the hate word."

For some years now I've considered myself pro-reductionist, and unashamedly so. Patterns are apparent at every level in nature but there's no magic in between levels. The behavior of a system observed at any particular level of detail can be understood in terms of the aggregation of behaviors observable in a more detailed view.

No exceptions. Everywhere we look, nature rewards the reductionist by gradually unveiling her mysteries to persistent students.

Nature doesn't have levels of detail. It's we who have to break systems up into digestible chunks and look at behaviors at various zoom levels in order to gain some understanding. We lack the mental computational power to be truly holistic. When someone says they take a holistic view, all it usually means is that they want to look at an outside, low detail view to see if they can identify regularities at that level. I've no problems with that approach. It can lead to some useful ways of predicting the behavior of a system, but it only takes understanding so far.

The "holistic" word has garnered at least a few positive connotations. It's a lovely all-inclusive, I'm-a-big-picture-person type adjective to apply to your field of study, but a holistic approach needs to be acknowledged as a superficial study. It's an approach that will leave lots of unexplained results and provide a model that lacks any suggested mechanisms for more detailed study.

In my experience the holism advocated by anti-reductionists is not actually a rejection of the discipline and methodology of reductionism, but a rejection of the possibility that the system under study might be reducible -- a premature conclusion driven by ideology, not evidence.

Sense of Entitlement

When Australia wants to improve its position on human rights, one of the big hurdles is Christianity. Yes, while there's a prominent Christian lawyer and active human rights campaigner on the committee to garner input from Australians, there's also the Australian Christian Lobby that really aren't happy with the idea.

Let's look at some of the spin:

It delivers increased power to vested interest groups who have failed to win their case for change with voters

Ummm, hang on. There's some code here. What they really mean there is that it grants normal human rights to same sex couples.

It turns rights into a tool for conflict through rights assertion

Translated: Conflict is bad. Leave things the same. Anyone who actually needs help with their rights should just shut up and stop making waves.

It fails its stated objective of protecting the vulnerable in society

Which means: it doesn't protect us vulnerable right-thinkers and our insufficiently insulated children from the invashun of teh gays.

However the point that tugged on my heartstrings was bullet point #3

It puts at risk important freedoms Christians take for granted by putting them on a level playing field with other "rights"

Oh cripes! This human rights business is all about bringing specially entitled Christians down to a LEVEL PLAYING FIELD!
Wouldn't that mean that Australian Christians end up with merely equal rights? The sky is falling!

Apple Ease of Use?

When a company releases an update to their terms and conditions, presented as a complete document of 17,835 words with no indication of which sections have been updated, or what definitions have changed, you know this company doesn't care if you read their contract.

That's 17,835 words of legally binding contract to be read. At an average reading speed of 200-250 words per minute, that's 1.2 to 1.5 hours, if you can stay awake. And this is supposedly just an update! How many words actually changed? What new conditions did they impose? What am I deemed to have committed to that I didn't commit to when I first signed up? I can't tell unless I read it all.

It's pretty clear that Apple don't expect iTunes users to read the terms and don't actually care. They know they have a big stick (lots of lawyers and lots of money), so they don't care that their approach to updated contracts is excessively burdensome to all of their users. They are, in effect, actively encouraging users to keep using iTunes without reading and understanding their contract. I'm not a lawyer, but it sounds to me like they've placed themselves on very shaky ground. Still, that probably doesn't worry them, because it would cost a user an arm and a leg to take any challenge to court.

Here endeth the rant.

I'm sorry Mr. Wells...

... but I had to change just a few words (from Jeff Wayne's adaptation of the text):

"No-one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinized, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life in other countries. And yet, across the Bering Strait, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this state with envious eyes; and slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us."

♦ link

Death threats... for threatening a cracker

"It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ."
Said Catholic League president Bill Donohue.

What must it be like to see the world through Bill Donohue's eyes?

[blinding flash]

This cracker really is the Body of Christ.
It really is.
It really, really, actually is.
It is because we Catholics say it is.
If we eat of these holy crackers, mixing them with saliva, grinding them up, moving them around with our tongues, swallowing them, digesting them, we're not desecrating the Body of Christ; we're honoring Him. (No, it doesn't count as cannibalism. Not when we do it.)
If you take a consecrated cracker (not an ordinary cracker anymore) and do anything to it other than eating it, then you're desecrating the Body of our Lord and Savior, our Creator, our Ultimate Reason For Being!
What you're doing is far, far worse than standing up and announcing that our beliefs are ridiculous delusions.
You're actually committing a repulsive physical act: desecration of a fully human body.
You really are.
Really, truly, honestly.
Because we say so.
And we're really not incredibly deluded.
It's not delusion when it's faith.

[the epiphany fades]

Meanwhile, back in the real world, PZ Myers receives death threats. I guess it could be worse. He could have allowed his biology students to name a stuffed toy "Allah".

Restore human dignity: ban ice cream cones

Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone--a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.

—Leon R. Kass, Bush's chief bioethics advisor (2002-2005), embryonic stem cell research obstructer, in past years noted for being anti-in vitro fertilization, and ethically troubled by organ transplants, autopsies, contraception, antidepressants and dissection of cadavers.

The price of freedom is tolerating behavior by others that may be undignified by our own lights. I would be happy if Britney Spears and "American Idol" would go away, but I put up with them in return for not having to worry about being arrested by the ice-cream police.

—Steven Pinker

♦ The Stupidity of Dignity

Posthuman dilemma?

Kip Werking's moral dilemma from the fourth anthropocentric conceit seems to present a problem for the posthuman. I don't think there is one.

Kip focuses purely on reproduction as the source of goals and values. He doesn't mention the other things that are part and parcel of reproductive fitness. In particular he fails to consider the need to survive long enough to reproduce.

Transhumanism threatens our utilitarian sensibilities further in the limiting case of "universal orgasm."

For that limit case to come to pass, what is needed to support us orgasmic beings? We need energy for orgasm, even if it is only to move the right chemicals to the right receptors. If transhumans are organic, who ensures we are fed and kept free from disease? If virtual, who provides runtime? Rust never sleeps. Mutation never sleeps. Who is it that wages the ongoing war on the second law of thermodynamics?

With advances in science, the cost of supporting survival might drop, but I'm skeptical that it will ever be zero. We do not have infinite resources. There will always be competition for those limited resources. Any person that spends life in permanent brain reward, with no motivation to do anything but enjoy it, will be out-competed. The Humans -> Happy Grey Goo scenario is a completely unrealistic limiting case unless the hypothetical goo can survive, spread and dominate without the support of a biologically diverse environment. Any artificial reward system that reduces real fitness within a system will be actively selected against (at least in the long term).

When Kip discusses ethics and presents two apparent alternatives that result in a dilemma, we see that both of the alternatives assume we can break the connection between happiness and genes, i.e., between motivation and survival. We find ways to speed up our own evolution, but it is wrong to think that we are free from selection pressures. Breaking that connection can only ever be a short term strategy.

We now understand that most of the things that make us happy and things that make us feel morally right have resulted from our own evolution. Our crude reward systems and moral feelings have been honed for survival as a communal species. Many of nature's experiments fail. Too much aggression and anger: fail. Too contented and unmotivated: fail. These traits can survive in a population, but only at limited proportions, and human societies work out methods to keep them under control because failure to do so is fatal.

Now consider that the means of changing the nature of humans is no longer limited to nature's tedious pace. We make the changes, when we're ready, but, there are 6 billion people here. We won't all change at once. What happens if one part of the world's population changes its own reward systems to disconnect them from survival mechanisms? Survival comes with a cost. Creatures that don't pay it in some way won't survive. Whatever changes we make must remain compatible with survival. We can try to break our happiness subgoal from the genetic supergoal, but that can never be a long-term successful strategy.

Kip needs to ask why the happiness subgoal is so strongly coupled to the genetic supergoal in the first place. It didn't appear by magic. The existence of a happiness subgoal is a predictable outcome of evolution, but it's not an outcome of the mechanism for generating change - that's effectively random. The predictable part comes from selection. When humans manipulate their own nature, they're only adding another mechanism for generating change, not changing the rules that determine survival. Selection still applies. Survival still has costs.

But that's all about the long term. Is there no moral dilemma in the short term?

The predicted moral dilemma that Kip describes in detail only arises if we think about making completely arbitrary changes to our reward systems. If we create beings who are rewarded for non-adaptive behaviour or anti-social behaviour, then we who implement those changes are the maladaptive ones. Creating a conscious, intelligent creature with a lack of connection from supergoal to subgoal to behaviour is an activity that would be short-sighted in the least, and grossly immoral at the worst.

Kip says:

I will show that the utilitarian arguments that ethicists use to justify human behavior would just as well justify the behavior of HS2, HS3, and HS4. Yet the behavior of these others is intuitively wrong.

and later:

HS3 becomes interesting when we consider the spectrum of possibilities for X1. X1 might be CMB or similar behavior. Alternatively, X1 could be positively maladaptive behaviors at the local scale. For example, the BRM of HS3s might be such that HS3s feel rewarded not for CMB but for being destitute, anorexic, insomniac, sexually abstinent child murderers. HS3s might delight in setting themselves on fire and laugh while their families burn.

So why would any scientist devise X1 to reward behaviours like that? In fact, how is that different from a despot choosing to reward cruel and inhuman behaviour in his/her minions? Rewarding people to make them do immoral things is immoral. You can't distance yourself from the person who behaves under your influence and deny that you bear any moral responsibility. If a scientist who manipulates a person's reward system at an intrinsic level in such a way that causes that person to want to do maladaptive stuff, that scientist is behaving immorally/maladaptively. The screwed up behaviour of the victim is a predictable outcome of the action.

The "moral dilemma" supposedly intrinsic to the fourth anthropocentric conceit is not intrinsic to the conceit, not intrinsic to the human state, but is a result of assuming that the transhuman project is somehow likely to create beings who are rewarded for maladaptive behaviours. Given the stated intent of the project to improve the human condition and reduce suffering, why should we even consider such a course? It seems to me to reduce to:

"Doctor, it hurts when I do this."

"Well, don't do that."

Mercy Girls... Ewwww

Message to Australian Government:
Allowing Hillsong Church (or any church for that matter) to provide mental health services is like:

  • letting Exxon Mobil determine your environmental policy
  • outsourcing theoretical physics research to the Flat Earth Society
  • appointing Paul Mullett to head a police corruption investigation
  • letting the Pope make decisions on reproductive health policy and abortion law.

This is what happens as a result:

Instead of the promised psychiatric treatment and support, they
were placed in the care of Bible studies students, most of them
under 30 and some with psychological problems of their own.
Counselling consisted of prayer readings, treatment entailed
exorcisms and speaking in tongues, and the house was locked down
most of the time, isolating residents from the outside world

No more Gloria Jean's for me.


The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them .... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary.

-George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

In a religious relative's Christmas roundup of the year's events, I read of an unfortunate fall: three metres off a ladder to the ground resulting in dislodged vertebrae and much pain. Apparently his guardian angel was looking out for him, because he could have broken his neck.

There but for the grace of enlightenment go I.

Informing America

Executive 1: "We need a new face... someone that beams honesty and understanding... someone who knows what's really going on and can explain it clearly."

Executive 2: "Nope. Viewers don't want smart talking heads. They want dumb people that they can relate to."

Executive 1: "Bullshit. They expect presenters to be informed. They look to them to help make sense of the world's confusion."

Executive 2: "That's so last century. That's from back when people had faith in science and technology to make a better world. It's different now. They know they'll never understand, so they just want television to reassure them that they're in line with the crowd. Talk shows are the new opiate of the masses."

Executive 1: "But if that's true, you could put absolutely anyone up as a face. As long as they have sex appeal and a clear voice."

Executive 2: "Bzzzt. Wrong. Don't need sexy. Don't want sexy. Physical attractiveness is another thing that places a barrier between the presenter and the viewer."

Executive 1: "No way! I still call bullshit. You CANNOT make a popular talking head out of a loudmouthed slob with a preschool education."

The rest is history.

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