Thursday, January 21. 2010
As a side-note to our earlier conversation about pantheism, I thought it was interesting to see how that religious philosophy was playing out in the global warming debate. I just finished SuperFreakonomics (really enjoyed it, more on that later) and I had heard on the news that the authors, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, had gotten lambasted by various prominent environmentalists for daring to suggest that geoengineering was a promising strategy for averting global warming. Evidently, backing any solution that does not revolve around carbon reductions is considered "aiding and abetting the enemy," since it takes the wind out of the carbon-reduction cap-and-tax (oops, I mean, cap-and-trade) schemes currently being pushed. After finishing the book, I read the critiques from Elizabeth Kolbert and Raymond Pierrehumbert, as well as Dubner and Levitt's replies.
Let me start by saying: I have no idea who's right. I generally agree with Dubner and Levitt's basic assertion that it will be well-nigh impossible to get 6 billion people to all forego their self-interest for sake of averting a possible crisis hundreds of years from now. The outcome in Copenhagen only bears that out – the costs of the proposed solutions (slowed growth, lots of money changing hands) is still too high to get everyone on the same page, and you need everyone on the same page to avert a tragedy of the commons. So I think it's only sensible to look for some game-changing technological breakthroughs instead of relying on altruism and changes in human behavior. I also know that Malthusian doomsayers have been predicting the end of the world for centuries, and they routinely overestimate the hazards and underestimate the effects of new technology. On the other hand, I think geoengineering is so rife with the potential of unintended consequences that it also deserves some serious skepticism – even if we succeed in changing the earth's climate, it's impossible to predict the side-effects. So on the facts of the matter, I'm not taking any sides yet.
What interests me about this debate, though, is how absolutely nasty some of the environmentalists were in their reactions. Dubner and Levitt maintain a basically cheerful but factual tone in their writing, while Kolbert and Pierrehumbert drip with condescension, insult, and innuendo. Dubner and Levitt notice it, too, and they suggest the reason some environmentalists are so upset about geoengineering is because it offends a moral sensibility rather than an intellectual one. Dubner and Levitt just wanted to find the best strategy for cooling the earth, while environmentalists like Al Gore are trying to live in harmony with Mother Earth.
It does seem like a lot of environmentalists are carrying around certain pantheistic assumptions:
Someone with that kind of world view will perceive global warming very differently than those who don't. For the pantheist, global warming is a moral issue. We haven't merely created a difficult situation; we have sinned against the Goddess. The problem isn't that global warming will cause all kinds of problems for humanity; the problem is that a global economy, capitalism, consumerism and technology have offended the gods. Sometimes it seems like averting global warming is only the convenient pretext for a much larger agenda for reshaping society into a socialist, vegan, agrarian, earth-worshipping retro-utopia (with environmentalists as the high priests, of course). So of course geoengineering would be a heresy – that's only more "interfering" with Nature. That's why even safe, non-polluting thorium-based nuclear energy still ruffles their feathers. A purely technological fix only interferes with their plans to stick it to the capitalists.
Ok, maybe that's too much. I don't want to descend to Kolbert's level of snark. I think everyone in this debate is well-intentioned and even well-informed. I also think everyone in this debate has self-interested motivations and underlying philosophies that affect their positions (even me). We might as well root them out.
Tuesday, January 19. 2010
Friday, January 15. 2010
It's Friday, and I'm tired, and moreover I'm strung out on all the hyperlogical arguments of the last couple of weeks. I have tried to follow logic where logic will lead, without regard to the outcome, and with faith that somehow it will get me closer to the truth. But I don't much like where it leads, and I have only so much tolerance for existential dread.
So, as an antidote, let me offer an extended passage, one of my favorites that I take out and read at least once or twice a year. I don't know how, exactly, it relates to the discussions we've had, but it resonates with me, and never ceases to move me. This is from The Farthest Shore, by Ursula K. LeGuin, which is widely considered to be one of the classics of high fantasy. The characters in this scene are Ged, a powerful and wise wizard, and Arren, a young prince. They have travelled together to the literal ends of the earth, hunting another wizard who is on the verge of destroying the world in his quest for immortality.
They followed the lowest, outmost range of hills, mostly within sight of the ocean. The grass was dry and short, blowing and blowing forever in the wind. The hills rose up golden and forlorn upon their right, and on their left lay the salt marshes and the western sea. Once they saw swans flying, far away in the south. No other breathing creature did they see all that day. A kind of weariness of dread, of waiting for the worst, grew in Arren all day long. Impatience and a dull anger rose in him. He said, after hours of silence, "This land is as dead as the land of death itself!"
"Do not say that," the mage said sharply. He strode on a while and then went on, in a changed voice, "Look at this land; look about you. This is your kingdom, the kingdom of life. This is your immortality. Look at the hills, the mortal hills. They do not endure forever. The hills with the living grass on them, and the streams of water running . . . In all the world, in all the worlds, in all the immensity of time, there is no other like each of those streams, rising cold out of the earth where no eye sees it, running through the sunlight and the darkness to the sea. Deep are the springs of being, deeper than life, than death . . ."
He stopped, but in his eyes as he looked at Arren and at the sunlit hills there was a great, wordless, grieving love. And Arren saw that, and seeing it saw him, saw him for the first time whole, as he was.
"I cannot say what I mean," Ged said unhappily.
But Arren thought of that first hour in the Fountain Court, of the man who had knelt by the running water of the fountain; and joy, as clear as that remembered water, welled up in him. He looked at his companion and said, "I have given my love to that which is worthy of love. Is that not the kingdom and the unperishing spring?"
"Aye, lad," said Ged, gently and with pain.
They went on together in silence. But Arren saw the world now with his companion's eyes and saw the living splendor that was revealed about them in the silent, desolate land, as if by a power of enchantment surpassing any other, in every blade of the wind-bowed grass, every shadow, every stone. So when one stands in a cherished place for the last time before a voyage without return, he sees it all whole, and real, and dear, as he has never seen it before and never will see it again.
Sunday, January 3. 2010
Shortly before Christmas, I was running some late-night errands when I heard a lecture by David McCollough, the Pulizer Prize-winning historian, on NPR. It was an unexpected Christmas gift.
Our culture does not appreciate history much. We are a people of industry and innovation and technology – we think only the present and the near future matter. With the increasingly rapid pace of change brought on by technology, even ten years ago feels like the distant past, and almost by definition irrelevant. (See, for example, the Onion's coverage: "Internet Archaeolgists Find Ruins of 'Friendster' Civilization".) Why, then does history matter at all?
History is not merely useful or good. McCollough maintains it is vital to the education of our children, and most especially to our leaders:
After hearing the lecture, I went back to my bookshelves and found a gift from several Christmases past: a copy of 1776, McCollough's best-selling history of the beginning of the American Revolution. It is every bit as good as the critics proclaim. One of the advantages of my relative ignorance of history: it makes for an exciting story when you read it for the first time.
Saturday, January 2. 2010
Every writer (or reader, for that matter) can't help but watch the bookstore shelves. We know the relative dimensions of the Barnes & Noble sections better than the supermarket aisles. One trend I had noticed is the philosophy section growing significantly larger. About ten years ago, genuine philosophy books took up about two shelves, wedged between three bookcases of Religious Inspiration and two bookcases of New Age. Now, philosophy is occupying about two bookcases, with two whole shelves just dedicated to the "new atheism." About three shelves are given over to the "Philosophy and…" books. Evidently the popular culture has a taste for philosophy as long as it is liberally mixed with its favorite music, television, movies, and/or pulp fiction: "Philosophy and Superheroes". "Philosophy and Def Leppard". "Philosophy and Twilight". The publishing trend is noticing something the SKS has recognized for decades: people (especially young people) are interested in philosophic ideas, so long as they are made relevant to the things they care about, and framed up in compelling narratives instead of abstract principles.
Maybe it's just a matter of title inflation. After all, the big-box bookstore came into being in my lifetime, and now there's five times as much of everything. Christian Inspiration now has one side of an entire aisle. But still, the Long Tail is making for more and better philosophy offerings.
I've always been somewhat ambivalent about these "Philosophy and…" hybrids. I got into philosophy by reading popularizations like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which made high-falootin' thinkers accessible to a high school senior. So I'm usually for anything that brings the wisdom to the masses, no matter where they are at. On the other hand, it's a little sad that Plato can't get a hearing in our culture unless he dresses up in a clown suit. I'd feel a lot better about the popularizations if they led people to read the actual texts, or better yet, to write them.
I got an unexpected taste of the Philosophy and [insert pop culture fad] trend in a stocking stuffer this year: Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates. This is a sequel to Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes. (I am notoriously difficult to shop for, Puritanical Stoic that I am, so a lighthearted book on philosophy was a safe bet for Santa to make.)
The book was . . . much better than I expected. The jokes were only so-so -- there were only one or two worth the retelling. What surprised me was how heavy the philosophy was. The book opens with a discussion of Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death, which is the correct place to start with talking about death, but it's no laugh riot. Kierkegaard gets a surprisingly detailed treatment as well, in spite of hilarious titles like "Fear and Trembling" and "The Sickness Unto Death". For all of their lighthearted banter, the authors don't pull any punches. They keep up the banter strictly because it's the only way to sugar coat a bitter pill. "We're all going to die, and that really sucks! Hahahahahahaha!" Rather than hewing to the chicken-soup recipe of feel-good visions of heaven, they deconstruct it. It turns out our common popular notions about the afterlife -- clouds, harps, meeting loved ones, etc. -- are more the result of paintings and movies than scripture, and the authors make it fairly clear that even a fundamentalist (especially a fundamentalist) will not find a lot of scriptural backing for a continued existence in the hereafter.
I give them credit for tackling not only the unpopular ideas, but the hard-to-understand ones, too. The nature of consciousness, qualia, time and eternity -- no philosophical distinction is too subtle for their undertaking. That's tough sledding, especially if you want to keep Joe Six-Pack's attention.
Even more surprising: the authors reference the same pop culture items that had been part of the SKS canon for years. For instance, Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" or Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying." And best of all: Thornton Wilder's Our Town. I'm glad we're not the only ones who noticed.
After all their wise-cracking explanations, do they take a stand on anything? Do they have an answer to the question of Death? Not really . . . but they are mostly honest about it. They candidly admit that the promises of religion are not credible, the offerings of existentialism are cold comfort, and technological immortality is currently unobtainable and not even necessarily desirable. They have a consolation prize from Williams James, a get-out-of-angst-free card that defends our "right to believe anything that is live enough to tempt our will." In effect: "Unless you have direct contradictory evidence, you're free to believe whatever you darn well please. Whatever works for you, baby, that you're thing." That sounds like a great way to avoid offending anyone, but throws wide the gate to all kinds of rationalizations. As many devout Pastafarians can attest, once you're free to believe in something without evidence, you are free to believe anything . . . which ultimately devalues the very notion of belief. The whole reason we have beliefs is because they are true (at least, conditionally true), and truth helps us navigate the universe. If we use our beliefs to guide our actions, then there is an inevitably price to be paid for holding false beliefs. And if we don't use our beliefs to guide our actions – if a belief is so harmless that it has no impact on the way you live -- then it's hardly worth having, is it?
Tuesday, May 19. 2009
The writers at the New Yorker keep coming up with new angles on a recurring theme: talent is Out, effort is In.
I had already written previously about Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers, in which he details how effort and opportunity are more important than talent in creating super-successful people. Now, in another article, "How David Beats Goliath," (The New Yorker, May 11, 2009) he asks a seemingly simple question for a dedicated basketball fan such as himself: "Why don't more teams play the full-court press?" It doesn't take a genius to realize that a weaker team can dramatically slow down a superior team by playing the full-court press: guarding their opponents they moment they get the ball, and doing everything in their power to stop them from advancing to mid-court in the required 10 seconds. And yet, you rarely see that strategy pursued, at any level of play.
Gladwell followed up on those who did use the full-court press -- a team of 12-year-old girls in the National Junior Basketball league, and the teams of college coach Rick Pitino -- and found that they triumphed . . . at a price. The full-court press is an exhausting strategy, one that requires players to run and run and run. Few teams, it turns out, are willing to work that hard. It also makes for rather ugly basketball, a rushing and flailing of arms and legs instead of the graceful passes and shots players like to make and fans like to watch. The full-court press is stigmatized -- those who use it are met with both anger and contempt, and some officials make biased calls to discourage its use.
All this would be interesting enough on its own. But Gladwell loves isomorphisms -- he wants to see if this same phenomena maps to other sorts of struggles. And before you know it, he draws parallels with the military history, and academic studies of how underdogs prevail in battle. Lawrence of Arabia played the military equivalent of the full-court press, using the everywhere-at-once attacks of his Bedouin troops in the places his foes were weakest. They prevailed because the hustled, and refused to play by the rules that favored their opponents. Those same tactics -- small, fast, non-traditional, and out-of-bounds -- have now redefined modern warfare in an age of terrorism and insurgency. David can win against Goliath, but only by using methods Goliath finds repellant.
The triumph of effort found another voice this week in another New Yorker article ("Don't! The secret of self-control," May 18, 2009) that looked at the unexpected results of psychological research in the sixties. Some researches had created "the marshmallow test," a simple exercise to see how long four-year-olds could resist eating a treat in order to earn a greater reward later. Kids' abilities to defer gratification varied significantly, but they could also be taught cognitive tricks to make it easier. The researchers didn't realize the significance of their findings until they followed up on their subjects decades later . . . and found that the marshmallow test was profoundly predictive of success in later life. Those who passed the marshmallow test scored higher on the SAT. Those who couldn't resist the marshmallow were more likely to have behavioral problems, had trouble paying attention and maintaining friendships.
For years educators and parents have been focusing on IQ as the most important cognitive measure, when it turns out willpower was more significant. And willpower, they've found, is not some mysterious quality of character, but rather a specific skill for controlling one's attention, focusing on certain thoughts and tuning out others. Persistence of attention and effort are what ensure lifelong success.
What does this mean for our culture? I hope it signals a rejuvenation of the American meritocracy, restoring our faith that people can control their destinies, if they are willing to pay the price. The "land of opportunity" is really "the land of the opportunity to work." Effort is not omnipotent, but it's the closest thing to it.
Thursday, April 9. 2009
Some good comments from Gary and Kenny; let me return to those in a moment.
Pinker had another point in The Stuff of Thought (another of his books that I just finished and am still digesting) that seemed relevant to the discussion, about the nature of taboos. A taboo is a cultural norm, but it's not just that a certain action is proscribed, but rather that even directly thinking about something is forbidden. You can violate a taboo just by mentioning it in conversation, or otherwise inviting other people to think thoughts that should not be thought. Taboos are kinda weird, because it's not that the taboo subject is completely unknown to the people who respect the taboo – it's just that they don't want to think about it directly, or behave as if it's a subject for rational contemplation.
Sex used to be a taboo subject in our culture. You could offend someone just by mentioning its existence. Everyone, of course, knew all about sex and certainly engaged in it – it was just not a subject for conversation or contemplation. Over the last fifty years or so that taboo has faded considerably, given what you see on TV, but you will still see some boundaries in what most people will comfortably talk about in public. Religion was also a great taboo that has faded over time; there is more talk now about the "religious marketplace" in which people freely mix and match religious traditions and beliefs. But with religion, too, we become conscious of certain taboos when we see them violated. Recently, the atheists started crossing a taboo line by boldly, publically declaring the non-existence of God. Lots of thinkers declined to believe in divine personage over the centuries, but their opinions tended to be quiet and oblique. It is still largely considered rude to announce one's atheism loudly in a dinner party.
Why do we have taboos, if everyone knows about what we're not talking about? In The Stuff of Thought, Pinker suggests some taboos are related to the terms on which we define our relationships. The anthropologist Alan Fiske categorized all human relationships into three broad categories: Communality (freely sharing among kin and community), Authority (using power to claim resources), and Exchange (trading resources for mutual gain). Each kind of relationship has its own rules and logic, and if you mismatch the rules to the situation, the result is a faux pax. A man who gets up from his mother's Thanksgiving feast (Communality) and offers to pay her $200 for it (Exchange) will certainly offend her and everyone present. Likewise, if a waiter in a restaurant provides good service in hopes of receiving a big tip (Exchange) and instead gets a hearty "thanks!" from the patron (Communality), the waiter will be offended.
Some topics, then, are taboo because they frame the relationship with the wrong set of instinctive relationship-logic. Pinker gives the example of the pre-nuptial contract. Since half of all marriages in our country now end in divorce, you might logically think everyone ought to get a pre-nuptial contract spelling out how a divorce would be handled. Yet most couples strenuously resist even discussing prenuptials, because it engages Exchange mentality ("I'll give you this if you give me that") at precisely the time they want to be emphasizing Communality ("what's mine is yours and what's yours is mine") to ensure a committed marriage. Even thinking the thoughts can bring about the outcome they are trying to avoid in the first place.
I think religious taboos follow a similar sort of logic. People don't want to discuss religion because it undermines the intuitive logic of Communality ("we are all children of God") and Authority ("He alone is the Lord") which defines the nature of our relationships with each other. Whether there actually is a God is not the point – we just want to keep treating each other as if there is a God. And while specific religious traditions have blurred into one another in the multicultural melting pot, the most basic common elements of religion as a definer of our relationships persists: a belief in God (though barely defined), and a vague consensus on a moral reality.
Which brings us up to the current conversation about the genesis of morals. Whenever I pursue moral arguments out to their logical ends (as Singer does), I wind up standing at the precipice of this final taboo: no one wants to admit that our morals are hanging in space with no visible support. Even atheists such as Pinker, who are perfectly comfortable declaring God to be "palpably unreal," are unwilling to say that "there is no moral law." Even after demonstrating that the emotions that support morality and ethics are evolved mechanisms, he will still vehemently insist there really is such a thing as right and wrong. Pinker suggests that maybe morality is the necessary result of logical truth: it always stands to reason that everyone is better off if everyone helps everyone else. Maybe our brains evolved the moral emotions to perceive an objective truth, just like we evolved the mechanism to understand mathematics. These explanations are hardly explanations; to define morality as merely enlightened self-interest is just to say, once again, that we only have self-interest and all we do is look out for ourselves. To say that morality is character of the universe simply begs the question: morality is real because it's real. I have to suspect that Pinker is holding back for reasons other than logic. Perhaps even he can't override the programming in his brain that says right and wrong are real. Or perhaps he just knows it's taboo: to declare morality to be non-rational is social suicide. Nobody trusts the man who has no law.
Sunday, March 29. 2009
In his comments to yesterday's post, Kenny writes:
I love what you're doing with this. I love the careful analysis of the basis of the moral instinct which I exploited, but did not examine at all, in my essay.
But where I feel like you are headed, or at least where my brain heads once I start down this path, is to the ultimate question: why, in fact, is it a bad thing to boil babies? If Pinker is right--if "Boiling babies is bad" is just a convenient shorthand for "Humans have a hard-coded instinctive aversion to boiling babies"--then, as Bergman's knight says, life is an outrageous horror. Nothing really matters at all. Pinker can't even say to me "You should face the truth," because any sentence that contains the word "should" is fundamentally meaningless in his world.
Believe me, I understand dangers of nihilism when asking these questions. These posts have taken me a very long time to write, because I keep alternating between the excitement of knowing I'm asking the right question, and the stark depression of realizing I don't like the answers I'm finding.
Pinker devoted an entire book – The Blank Slate – to showing the awful mistakes that come from rejecting a truth when it threatens to overturn your world view. Pinker was just trying to state what he thought was obvious: that there is such a thing as human nature, and that certain things about our nature are built-in, hard-wired capacities of our organism. But lots of forces lined up against him – progressive liberal academia as well as right-wing fundamentalists – because they couldn't comprehend how there could be human nature and still preserve the things they held most dear: moral responsibility, free will, self-determination, or an immortal soul. The result is that otherwise rational beings twist themselves into knots trying to sustain their world-view, trapped in self-contradictions and sometimes spinning out disastrous policies as a result.
We've all seen this sort of conceptual evolution in others, and even in ourselves. In this week's Independent I saw an interview with Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted. Ehrman was an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian who wanted to learn as much as possible about the scriptures, and who found himself inexorably dragged into questioning his faith as he learned of historical critiques of the Bible. It's relatively easy for someone like me or Kenny to look a fundamentalist in the eye and say: "Look, I know you think that everything hinges on the Bible being absolutely true. It feels like if the Bible is taken away, everything is going to crumble and you'll be left in total darkness in a meaningless universe. But I'm telling you, it's not like that. You will not become a bad person by doubting. You might even become a better person. It takes some getting used to, living in the doubt. But eventually you'll realize that dealing with the doubt is better than caging yourself in a lie. And you might even find the real truth, the thing you were hoping to find in the scriptures to begin with."
We are no better, though. When the evolutionary biologists come along, telling us that our morals are evolved mechanisms for reciprocal altruism, we plug our ears and say, "LALALALALA -- I'm not listening! I know you're probably right, but if I start believing that, I will live in a meaningless universe, and I don't want to live in a meaningless universe." And Pinker say, "Look, I know it feels that way right now, but . . ."
I'm not saying anything Kenny doesn't already know. Kenny wrote that essay on poverty because he believes in trying to face the truth, even if it's a truth he can't handle. He put his moral conviction out for all to see, in spite of the fact that he couldn't live by it himself, because he trusts that facing the truth will ultimately lead to the best possible outcome. I agree with him . . . which is why I'm going to keep going down this rabbit hole.
Wednesday, March 25. 2009
I have continued chipping away at Atlas Shrugged while on the elliptical machine. It has made for timely reading, since during the period I was reading it the financial system melted down. Lots of Ayn Rand fans have commented on the fact that current events somewhat parallel the events of Atlas Shrugged – government efforts to serve the needs of the unproductive leads to economic failure, which leads to more government interventions, which leads to more failure, etc. I must admit, Congress' platitudes about helping out the little guy by pushing Fannie and Freddie into ludicrous loans, and then the Wall Street rush to exploit this unsustainable generosity, looks an awful lot like the "looters" of Ayn Rand's magnus opus.
If current events made Rand's philosophy look more plausible, though, it was counteracted by the fact that I was also reading Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works at the same time. Evolutionary psychology blows a lot of big holes in Rand's philosophy, and it looks like the critics of Objectivism have noticed. It was screamingly obvious to me that Rand's view on sexuality – that people are sexually attracted to those who manifest their highest ideals – was perfectly consistent with what evolutionary psychology would predict for a woman. Females' genetic interests are best served by mating with the most fit male, i.e. the wealthiest, most productive one, and since they have such a high investment in having a baby, they will tend to be very selective of their mates. That same formula doesn't quite work for the males, though – males get much more genetic, ahem, bang for the buck by being promiscuous, since the have to invest much less than the female in generating offspring. Rand concocts a contorted theory that only men who hate themselves could be promiscuous, and that promiscuity is antithetical to their true nature. I didn't buy it. Even men who are profoundly committed to monogamy (such as yours truly) will admit that it is not the natural state of affairs – if commitment was natural, why would we have to make vows to stick to it? Evolutionary psychology presented a cleaner explanation than Rand, in this case.
The gaps were even more noticeable in Rand's notion of the virtue of selfishness, and the sin of altruism. Evolutionary biology points out that people are self-interested, but not exclusively self-interested. We are also predisposed to helping our relatives, since they share our genes, and helping our mates, since their genetic interests are mostly identical to ours. Rand would have us believe that altruism is nothing but an illusion and a sham, but in fact our inmost nature tells us otherwise. There are no children in Rand's books, because love for one's children blows apart most of her ideas. Nearly all parents do believe in sacrificing their own interests for the sake of their children's interests – and no amount of arguing will make us think otherwise. Again, evolutionary biology perfectly explains what Objectivism strains to cover.
If she was so wrong about human nature, then, why does her philosophy appeal so strongly to so many? The world-view in Atlas Shrugged is not implausible – I often find myself seeing life as a war between the competent producers and the incompetent freeloaders. There still may be some truth to be mined from it.
Thursday, March 12. 2009
For most of my life, and most of my career as a spiritual seeker, I had a classically Romantic notion of reason and emotion:
In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker inverts this model. Pinker asserts that the mind is an evolved mechanism, and as such any complex mechanism in the mind must have served a survival function. And that function is not the lowest of functions, but rather the highest.
Pinker posits that if you had a perfectly rational, sophisticated cognition machine without emotions (say, a robot, or Dr. Spock) and you set it lose in the world with no instructions, it would do . . . absolutely nothing. Intelligence has no use at all unless it has goals – it has to want something. It has to have a motive. And intelligence itself cannot generate the motive; it can figure out how to achieve a goal, but it can't figure out what goals to achieve. The highest-level goal has to come from somewhere else. And that's where the emotions come in. Pinker: "The emotions are mechanisms that set the brain's highest-level goals. Once triggered by a propitious moment, an emotion triggers the cascade of subgoals and sub-subgoals that we call thinking and acting."
So, rather than reason controlling emotion, it's exactly the other way around – emotions mobilize reason to fulfill goals. Every emotion we have is evolutionarily designed to meet some challenge in the world. Pinker spends most of the second half of the book deconstructing the design and survival value of every human emotion: fear, disgust, happiness, friendship, gratitude, sympathy, romantic love, guilt, grief, etc.
For now, though, just consider the ramifications of that simple formulation: emotions trigger responses that lead to action. It becomes a sort of mindfulness meditation: what emotion is motivating my thoughts and actions right now? If you want to change your behavior in some way (after, of course, considering the emotions that make you want to change your behavior) you will probably have to consciously manage your emotions – figure out what environmental cues trigger the emotions that generate the thoughts and behaviors that are manifesting in your life.
These ideas were not entirely new to me – I was always partial to Hume's formulation: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." But this was the first time that I heard a strong scientific case for that position. And rather than seeing the emotions as "primitive" or somehow undesirable, Pinker gives the emotions their due as sophisticated, engineered, essential aspects of cognition. It makes it that much easier for me to accept them and understand them for what they are.
(Page 1 of 5, totaling 48 entries) » next page
Syndicate This Blog