Archive of ‘psychology’ category

Concrete Cognition and the Cogs of the Brain

It’s somewhat unfashionable in polite circles to refer to the brain as a machine. But I reckon that’s precisely what it is. This isn’t in any way diminishing the wonder of the mind or the brain, but the notion, when understood, dramatically elevates the wonder we ought to feel for machines.

The Difference Engine in the British Science Museum.

And I use the word “machine” deliberately rather than “computer.” It’s actually both, but the machine comes first. It’s in the properties and interactions of the cogs of the machine that we can ultimately find intelligence, and it’s insufficient to refer only to symbol manipulation or cognitive models. We must see that intelligence is built in to the physical properties of the brain. But in a particularly clever way – but not fundamentally much more clever than an abacus.

This approach also sheds light on why I find so distasteful the notion that all knowledge is knowledge-that – i.e. propositional or explicit knowledge that can be captured in propositional form, such as “I know the sky is blue.” I far prefer to start with knowledge-how – concrete knowledge and abilities, and things like “I know how to ride a bike” – as the foundation of knowledge.

Let me explain:


Political Philosophy and EVE Online

Even if you don’t dabble in massively multiplayer games, EVE Online is worth a look just for the revelations that emerge from creating a loosely regulated world and opening it up for nerds to play with.

This interview with The Mittani, who is CEO (or guild leader) of Goon Fleet, the largest corporation in EVE, is solid gold. Enlightening even. It touches on politics, human nature, psychology and even has traces of game theory lurking just under the surface

One of the greatest advertisements of all time.

First, a bit of context for those unfamiliar with the game. EVE is a space-based massively multiplayer online (MMO) game where thousands of players flit between hundreds of solar systems, each with unique planets, moons, asteroid fields and space stations, and they mine, trade and fight. Often they fight each other.

EVE has one of the most active player-versus-player (PvP) communities of any MMO. A large tract of space in EVE is called nullsec, meaning it is effectively lawless. While a player will become an outlaw and be hunted by computer-controlled authorities for attacking another player in high security (highsec) space, in lowsec there’s no automated retribution. It’s true frontier stuff.

Players can also band together to create corporations, mining the rich resources in nullsec, using those resources to build ships, equipment and even space stations. These corporations effectively gain sovereignty over that sector, and they protect it from invasion by other corporations.


The Poverty of Postmodernism

You may not realise it, but you’ve probably been poisoned by postmodernism. No-one who lived through the 1970s would have escaped untainted. And just about anyone who underwent schooling or a university education in the 1980s or 1990s received a crippling dose. I was entirely oblivious to my own indoctrination during my undergraduate in the early ‘90s until only a few years ago.

You can blame postmodernism for the banalities of political correctness.

You can blame it for making contemporary art ugly and incomprehensible.

You can blame it for moral relativism, and the inability to criticise individuals from other cultures when they do plainly heinous things.

You can blame it for rampant individualism and greed.

You can also blame it for words like ‘deconstruction,’ ‘hermeneutics,’ and my favourite, ‘subversion.’ You can even blame it for the identity crisis afflicting the political Left.

The good news is that postmodernism is philosophically defunct. Deep exhale. We can all let it go now. Let it sink to the bottom of the Swamp of Bankrupt Ideas. And we can move on to firmer conceptual territory, in doing so discovering the world is, in fact, more (and less) explicable than we probably think, and intractable problems – like multiculturalism, for one – are more solvable than we realise.


Moral Meltdown

When Scott Stephens invited me to pen something on the ethics of nuclear power, I must admit I winced.

I mean, I’ve written for the ABC about morality after god, about the muddle of multiculturalism and about how moral nihilism can actually be a good thing (no pun intended), but the ethics of nuclear power is as starkly real an issue as the previous are abstract.

Still, it was an interesting exercise, and one that forced me to reflect on what ethics is all about. Lofty ruminations on normative theories or metaethics is all good and well (or perhaps not for the latter; my feelings on metaethics are already well known). But ethics is ultimately about applied ethics. It’s the application of the theory to the real world where things get really crunchy.

And I must say, it strikes me how little I hear philosophers talking about applied ethical issues these days. Here we are, with a nuclear crisis unfolding in front of our very eyes, a nuclear debate is heating up, and where are the philosophers?

Back around the time of World War I, Bertrand Russell was more than a pontificator, he was an agitator. He wrote profusely about war, not only in academic circles, but for the general public. He even went to prison as a result of his pacifist stance.

You don’t see that kind of philosophy in action any more.

It seems as though the philosophy community today is largely obsessed with technical and theoretical problems, and with responding in academic journals to arguments against x, where x is their preferred theory. Yet they don’t seem terribly engaged with the very subject matter of ethics in the first place: humanity.

The real world offers a slew of moral dilemmas that can test even the most robust moral theory. Philosophical moral dilemmas, like ye olde trolley dilemmas, are good for rarefying one particular element of a moral theory and placing it, and our intuitions, under stress. But real world dilemmas are different.

Moral philosophy has largely been seeking the right answer to morality. The single approach to discovering moral truth; the single value or set of values upon which all others are based; the normative system that lends justification to our moral utterances.

But morality in the real world isn’t absolute. Even if there is one set of ‘right’ values, unless everyone can agree what they are, then we’re forced to behave either as inquisitors, and impose our truth on others, or we must accept pluralism, and have a modicum of tolerance for dissenting views.

After all, moral action isn’t a theoretical debate, it’s a drive to motivate behaviour. And it’s a time-limited endeavour.

Writing about the ethics of nuclear power reminded me of these important lessons. And I hope that while I continue to study and write about ethics, they’re lessons I don’t forget.

Morality Without God

It keeps being said that without God, there can be no morality. It keeps being said that if we’re evolved from selfish genes, there can be no altruism. It keeps being said that a universe without a divine creator is a universe without meaning.

It keeps being said.

And it’s flat out wrong.

I’m sympathetic to religious sentiments, even if I think the accompanying metaphysical interpretation of those sympathies is in error. But I’m entirely unsympathetic to those of a religious persuasion spreading untruths and fallacious arguments about secular morality.

It’d be like me saying that there is a God, and He is malevolent.

Disagreement over the existence of God is one thing, but to misrepresent the religious view is not acceptable. Not for anyone. Likewise, misrepresentation of the secular view by the religious is ignorant at best, malicious (and immoral) at worst.

So, in the interests of providing a clear and unambiguous exposition of the secular moral position, I’ve compiled a list of false claims made by some in the religious community and the reasons why they’re in error.


The Problem with Revolutions

We’re all holding our breath watching the events in Egypt unfold. Many commentators are ebullient. Some are more cautious. In fact, I think Mark Colvin makes an important point about the dangers of revolution, and how quickly the unity in deposing a despot can turn into fractious in-fighting to fill the political vacuum.

United a group may be in their opposition of something, but that doesn’t say much about what they do stand for. Those holding hands today might be wielding clubs tomorrow.

Furthermore, it is precisely in times of instability and unrest – such as those immediately following a revolution – when people are more inclined to turn to a strong authoritarian leader to keep the peace. It’s precisely when people feel the most threatened, either bodily or in a more abstract sense by feelings of uncertainty about the future, that people lean to the right.

And it’s precisely when a nation is undergoing unrest, with multiple political ‘tribes’ vying for power, that trust in ones’ fellow citizens is eroded – “I don’t know whether that person is part of my tribe or the other.”

This kind of tribal mentality is devastatingly destructive to democracy, where trust in your state and trust in other citizens is paramount to making democracy a success. Democracy only works when I’m confident that if the ‘other tribe’ get elected and take power, they’re not going to embark on a pogrom targeted against myself and my ‘tribe.’ It’s this distrust in the system that spelt doom for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In situations like this the trust required for bottom-up democracy is so lacking that a strong top-down authoritarian government is virtually required to keep the peace. However, top-down governments are only good for keeping the peace or defending against invaders. Oh, and they’re good at being corrupt, at entrenching power, at embezzling the nation’s wealth and taking the nation straight back to where it was prior to the revolution.

Democracy is remarkable not because it’s inevitable, but because it’s so difficult to get off the ground. It often takes a unified vision, a population with a largely similar culture and value system, and a stable environment in terms of economic prospects and absence of threat from invaders.

If a state can satisfy all those conditions, and if the people genuinely want democracy – which means they buy in to a system where they might vote for their entire lives and never see their candidate in power – then democracy can flourish. And once established, it’s hard to shake.

Egypt might yet become such a democracy. I’m not conversant enough in recent Egyptian history or ethnography to say whether it does satisfy all these conditions, but I think it stands a chance. The recent restraint shown by the military, and the apparent lack of military ambitions to take over from Mubarak, are positive indications.

But, while the protests underway in Egypt this week are exhilarating  – and cause for optimism for a brighter, more open, more inclusive, more democratic Egypt – we should be mindful of the lessons of history and of political psychology and hope that authoritarianism doesn’t block out the sunlight before democracy has a chance to grow.

Why Moral Philosophers Aren’t More Moral Than the Rest of Us

Brace yourself. Or sit down. Or both. Eric Schwitzgebel and compatriots have uncovered a startling revelation: professional ethicists don’t behave any more morally or courteously than non-ethicists.

Full abstract of their paper:

If philosophical moral reflection tends to promote moral behavior, one might think that professional ethicists would behave morally better than do socially comparable non-ethicists.  We examined three types of courteous and discourteous behavior at American Philosophical Association conferences: talking audibly while the speaker is talking (vs. remaining silent), allowing the door to slam shut while entering or exiting mid-session (vs. attempting to close the door quietly), and leaving behind clutter at the end of a session (vs. leaving one’s seat tidy).  By these three measures, audiences in ethics sessions did not appear, generally speaking, to behave any more courteously than did audiences in non-ethics sessions.  However, audiences in environmental ethics sessions did appear to leave behind less trash.

I love it. But it’s actually not a startling revelation at all. In fact, it just lends weight to a point that myself and many others have been making for quite some time, that abstract moral reasoning is quite far removed from the nitty gritty mechanisms that govern and steer moral behaviour.

It’s like saying that couch potatoes who studied a booklet on the rules of basketball were found to be less proficient at shooting hoops than individuals who have practised shooting hoops.

Moral behaviour is a practice. It is knowledge-how, not knowledge-that. One can know that lying to cover up a misdeed is wrong without being very good at putting that knowledge into practice.

Certainly, an increased awareness of the knowledge-that and being practised in moral deliberation might help with particular moral conundrums, such as moral dilemmas, where various positions need to be weighed up. But these moral dilemmas often pit one value against another, or one morally undesirable outcome against another – like whether to kill one innocent individual to save five. A knowledge of moral philosophy might help someone navigate this difficult conceptual terrain.

However, even with moral dilemmas, there’s no guarantee that a moral philosopher, once they’ve come to their conclusion about the most moral course of action, would be any more inclined to carry it out. Say they decide the moral thing to do is sacrifice one innocent to save five – could they do it? Could they kill an innocent person in ‘cold blood’? Could they act contra to their deep-seated emotional proclivities?

The situations observed in the paper above are also different from the moral dilemmas that philosophers love oh so much. These situations observed are simply where a moral – or socially desirable/responsible – action is pitted against a self-interested or lazy action. If asked, many of the professional ethicists at that conference would probably agree that slamming the door or leaving trash is not morally ideal behaviour. But what they lacked was either the willpower to prevent their actions or the desire to act morally in that situation.

Moral behaviour is directed by very different psychological mechanisms than moral deliberation. We should no more expect professional ethicists to be virtuous as we would a gymnastics coach to be able to pull off a flawless floor routine.

What’s the Point (of a Thesis on Evolution and Morality)?

One of my supervisors asked a singularly curly question when we last met: what’s the point of your thesis?


But he raises an important issue – a couple of important issues, really. One is the fundamental question of: is what I’m trying to say actually important, relevant or new?

And the other is: if it is important, relevant or new, are you making sure this is clear to your reader/marker?

So, anyway, it’s sent me on a navel gazing quest of thesis-introspection. What is the point? Why is telling a story about how evolution has shaped our moral psychology to produce a pluralism of moral strategies interesting? To what is it relevant? Who cares? And how do I make them care?

My initial response – besides being speechless for a rare moment – is to think this thesis is relevant on a few levels. I just need to choose which is the most relevant, and which is worth emphasising, because it’s unlikely I can hammer them all home in one thesis.

The first relevance is simply in providing an accurate genealogy of morality: a purely descriptive endeavour that seeks to understand where morality comes from and how we came to think about morality the way we do. Although, arguably, this is more the purview of anthropologists and moral psychologists rather than a mere philosopher.

The second relevance is in exploring why there appears to be an apparent contradiction between the way we think of morality – i.e. that it’s about finding the correct answers to moral questions – and the fact that we disagree so broadly and intractably about so many moral issues. Is it just that there is a right answer, but that most people are simply wrong?

Or is moral disagreement suggestive of something else – perhaps something more interesting – such that morality isn’t about the right and wrong answer, but is a pursuit that seeks to tackle problems that admit of multiple answers? Perhaps understanding how our moral proclivities evolved can reveal something illuminating about the kinds of problems morality evolved to solve. And this insight can change the way we think and talk about morality today.

A third angle is to tie descriptive evolutionary ethics to contemporary normative ethics. If a normative ethicist wants to advance a normative system, I’d suggest that it needs, at minimum, to be compatible with human psychology.

Advancing a normative system – even one that we can all agree yields the right answer in any particular situation – but which places unreasonable demands on our cognitive faculties is doomed to fail. After all, normative ethics isn’t just an armchair endeavour of speculation about how morality might be (although many moral philosophers and metaethicists might disagree), it’s supposed to be a practical system that can actually guide and encourage moral behaviour.

Perhaps, in light of this, a more robust descriptive account of how we think about morality – and why we vary in the way we think about morality – could be useful for the development of a normative system that has a hope of accommodating our diverse moral psychology. It might also help inform a normative system by having it acknowledge that pluralism and disagreement aren’t a sign of weakness, but a path to a stronger moral system. And it might place practical bounds on what a realistic normative system can achieve.

As it happens, I don’t think I’ve been focusing on any one of these issues exclusively so far. In fact, I’ve found myself in a most interesting diversion talking about the influence of evolved psychology on political attitudes. Well, my supervisor suspects it’s a diversion. So it’s probably prudent of me to lock in one of these (or a different) ‘point’ and focus on that.

After all, a PhD thesis is not one’s last word as an academic. It’s their first. If I want to explore these other issues, there’s ample time to do so after I get my PhD (assuming I do get my PhD, and the even more unlikely prospect that I’ll score a gig in academia afterwards – but still, gotta get the damn thesis done before anything else).

I’m open to any thoughts on what is the most interesting angle of my various rants on this blog, and which aspects of my thesis might yield the ripest (and lowest hanging) fruit. Sometimes I’m far too close to my own research to get any perspective on what’s actually novel or interesting any more…

Redefining the Political Spectrum (Version 2.1)

A slight revision of my recent redefinition of the political spectrum along psychological lines. I’ve replaced the Beautiful-Safe World axis with the simpler Safe-Dangerous World. The safe-dangerous spectrum is already talked about quite a bit in the literature, particularly concerning Bob Altermeyer’s Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale, so I should stick with that.

So here’s the updated chart:

The x axis represents the extent to which an individual perceives the world as a safe or dangerous place (which can scale to the world-at-large, their society or even their local community – with political attitudes possibly varying for each).

The y axis represents the extent to which an individual perceives the world as being just, such that someone gets what they deserve, either good or bad. If reward/punishment are perceived to be the product of luck or randomness, that’s an unjust world. If you live and breathe (and see the world through) the Protestant work ethic, you see a just world.

The ideologies located on the diagram are those that appeal to individuals at that location. Each ideology might be defined in terms different from safe/just world, but ultimately, I’d suggest they’re responding to the concerns of people that hold that particular worldview at that location in the chart.

Note, I also added a couple of new entries:

Utopianism (high Safe world; high Unjust world): by “utopianism” I mean the view that we can become a society where everything works perfectly, and everyone will cooperate for mutual benefit without defection. This isn’t strictly a political ideology, just an example of extremist thinking, in this case optimistic about the world around us and optimistic about human nature to a fault. You see flashes of it when people say “why can’t everyone just get along” and when people sign off with “peace.”

Honour culture (high Dangerous world; mid Unjust world): those who adhere to an honour culture view, particularly when they aren’t required to, see the world as a dangerous place and other people as potentially untrustworthy. As such, reputation management is crucial. To earn a good reputation is hard when there are many who would fake a good reputation in order to exploit others. Being slapped with a bad rep effectively makes one an outsider in their own community, almost an ostracism. Yet it’s a system and mentality that emphasises community standards that ought to be followed, even to the letter at the cost of the spirit.

Also, talking about Right-Wing Authoritarianism, I’d say high RWAs reside in large bubble on the far right of the chart, centred on Authoritarianism. High Social Dominance Orientation (Sidanius, Pratto et al.) would be in a bubble in the top right-hand corner of the chart. I’ll add them to the chart – when I can figure out how to do so in an aesthetically non-disruptive way…

Redefining the Political Spectrum (Version 2.0)

I was wrong. I recently wrote that the liberal-conservative political spectrum could be most parsimoniously described along a single axis representing whether the world was considered a safe or dangerous place. I no longer think that’s correct.

Instead, I’ve elaborated on that theme a little, adding a second dimension which, along with safe-dangerous world, I believe accurately characterises the political spectrum – at least psychologically.


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