Monday, September 30, 2013

Hysteria

Awais Aftab

(after an incident in the hospital)

Three buxom nurses
wrestled
and I struggled, befuddled
You, who held on to my white-coat
as if your life depends on it
You frail little thing,
what tenacity you have in your fingers
what vacuous desire in your eyes

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Encounter

Ezra Pound

All the while they were talking the new morality
Her eyes explored me.
And when I rose to go
Her fingers were like the tissue
Of a Japanese paper napkin.

Gray Room

Wallace Stevens

Although you sit in a room that is gray,
Except for the silver
Of the straw-paper,
And pick
At your pale white gown;
Or lift one of the green beads
Of your necklace,
To let it fall;
Or gaze at your green fan
Printed with the red branches of a red willow;
Or, with one finger,
Move the leaf in the bowl--
The leaf that has fallen from the branches of the forsythia
Beside you...
What is all this?
I know how furiously your heart is beating.

(via Modern & Contemporary American Poetry by Al Filreis)

*Spoiler alert from Lincoln... well, kinda.*

Thaddeus Stevens: When the war ends, I intend to push for full equality, the Negro vote and much more. [...] We'll build up a land down there of free men and free women and free women and free children and freedom. The nation needs to know that we have such plans.
Abraham Lincoln: That's the untempered version of reconstruction. It's not... It's not exactly what I intend, but we shall oppose one another in the course of time. Now we're working together, and I'm asking you—
Thaddeus Stevens: For patience, I expect.
Abraham Lincoln: When the people disagree, bringing them together requires going slow till they're ready to make up—
Thaddeus Stevens: Ah, shit on the people and what they want and what they're ready for! I don't give a goddamn about the people and what they want! This is the face of someone who has fought long and hard for the good of the people without caring much for any of 'em. [...]
Abraham Lincoln: I admire your zeal, Mr. Stevens, and I have tried to profit from the example of it. But if I'd listened to you, I'd have declared every slave free the minute the first shell struck Fort Sumter; then the border states would've gone over to the Confederacy, the war would've been lost and the Union along with it, and instead of abolishing slavery, as we hope to do in two weeks, we'd be watching helpless as infants as it spread from the American South into South America.
Thaddeus Stevens: Oh, how you have longed to say that to me. You claim you trust them—but you know what the people are. You know that the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, North and South, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery. White people cannot bear the thought of sharing this country's infinite abundance with Negroes.
Abraham Lincoln: A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it'll point you True North from where you are standing, but it's got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms you'll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what's the use of knowing True North?

Lincoln (2012)

I love this dialogue from the film! On one hand we have a man whose moral sensibility is way ahead of his time, who knows what is morally right and who is not willing to compromise on the absoluteness of his ideal for the sake of the people. And yet, for that very reason, he does not have the power to change them; he is a 'radical' in their eyes. The gulf between him and the people is too wide for the people to jump over.

On the other hand, we have a man whose moral sensibility is also way ahead of his time, and who knows what is morally right, but who is willing to compromise on the moral ideals he knows to be true to be able to bring to life a part of that moral vision. He cannot make people go all the way, but he is willing to bear the weight, and drag the reluctant, kicking humanity half way, even if that means he himself goes only half way.

What a brilliant portrayal of the moral dilemma! One can wonder which of these is the better way, but I do not doubt that the world needs people of both kinds.

Friday, September 27, 2013

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #6: Building Pyramids

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding. All ideas and examples are by Dr. Harari.)

Homo sapiens have no natural instincts for cooperating with large numbers of strangers. Humans evolved for millions of years living in small bands. Consequently, there are no instincts for mass social cooperation. To make up for that, humans have to rely on all kinds of imagined realities that regulate cooperation on such a huge scale. The human empires are based on shared common beliefs, social and legal norms that sustain them. The stability of the complex societies is not based on natural instinct or on personal acquaintance, but on shared imagined realities.

Compare the Code of Hammurabi with the American Declaration of Independence. Code of Hammurabi, written around 1776 BC, provided the basis for the social order of the ancient empire of Babylon. The American Declaration of Independence, written in 1776 AD, is the basis for the social order of the modern USA. 

The code of Hammurabi is a collection of laws and judicial decisions made by king Hammurabi, and reflects how ancient Babylonians Understood social order and injustice. Hammurabi's code asserts that Babylonian social order is rooted in universal and eternal principles of justice dictated by the gods. People are divided into two genders and three classes. There are superior people, commoners and slaves, and each of these categories is divided into men and women. Members of each gender and class have a different value. For example, the life of a female commoner is worth 30 silvers of shekels. In contrast, the life of a female slave is worth only 20 silver shekels. And the eye, just the eye, of a male commoner is worth 60 silver shekels.

The American Declaration of Independence also proclaims universal and eternal principles of justice inspired by the divine. It speaks of self-evident truths that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

So, we have two historical documents both of which provided a foundation for social order in a society, and both of them claim to outline universal eternal and divine principles of justice, but the principles are opposite. One proclaims hierarchy and the other proclaims equality. Which of these is really true? Neither, because the fact is that the only place where such universal principles of justice exist is the fertile imagination of homo sapiens*.

There is no objective justice and there are no objective principles of justice. There is nothing in biological reality that suggests the essential equality of all humans. Imagined orders exist not because they are objectively true, not because they are a scientific fact, but because believing in a shared imagined story it enables us to cooperate effectively and to forge a stable society.

As the social order of humans does not have basis in biological instinct, it is far, far less stable than the social order of animals. It is also the reason why the social order of humans is so amenable to change, and there are so many revolutions in history. At the same time, the social order is not so unstable as to be changing all the time. Humans invest a lot of efforts in stabilizing the social order and the stories that uphold it.

Some of these efforts of stabilization take the shape of violence and coercion, but an imagined order cannot be sustained only by violence; it also requires true believers. Through education and socialization, from birth till death, we are constantly being told over and over again, the basic stories of our societies, in fairy tales, dramas, songs and political propaganda. We also see and touch, and smell, and taste these fundamental stories in paintings, in architecture, in food fashions and in clothing fashions.

There are three main factors that prevent people from realizing that the social order in which they live exists only in their imagination.

1) The imagined order is embedded in the material environment.

Consider, for example, architecture. Westerners today believe in equality and individualism. In modern homes, children have their own private room, which they can decorate as they please. 

“Somebody who grows up in such a private and closed space, cannot but imagine himself or herself to be an individual. Somebody whose true worth, whose true value, emanates from within myself and not from what others are thinking about me.” (Dr. Harari)

In contrast, in the Middle Ages, noblemen they did not believe in individualism. The medieval nobility believed that the true value of people is determined by their place in the social hierarchy. The home of a medieval nobleman rarely had private rooms for individual children. The children slept and grew up in the constant presence of other people, and this is how they came believe that true worth depends on their place within the society.

2) The imagined order shapes our deepest desires and wishes.

People today believe in ‘romantic consumerism’. Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our lives, we must have as many different experiences as we can, a wide spectrum of emotions, relationships, foods, fashions etc. One of the best ways to do so is by taking a break from daily routine and visiting unfamiliar and distant cultures. Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. Consumption of new products, car, clothes, foods, or services like yoga classes is what we need to live in the best way. 

Romantic consumerism is basis on which the modern tourism industry is founded. Tourism industry doesn’t sell us tickets or hotel bedrooms; it sells us experiences. In a modern society, if a multimillionaire and his wife have a fight, he may seek to patch things by taking her on expensive vacation to Paris. But a wealthy man in ancient Egypt would never have dreamed of solving a relationship crisis with his wife by taking his wife on vacation to Babylon. He might instead have offered to build for her the sumptuous tomb that she always dreamed about!

3) The imagined order is embedded not only in the desires of a single person, but of countless people.

The imagined order is an inter-subjective order that exists the shared imagination of millions of people. Things like the U.S. dollar, the human rights, or the United States of America itself exist as inter-subjective realities. If I stop believing in the dollar or human rights or the USA, it does nothing to threaten their existence. In order to really change them, you will have to change the beliefs of billions of different individuals. However, in order to accomplish such a massive social change, you would need to convince millions of strangers to cooperate with one another. This will only be possible if these strangers believe in some other shared myth, in some other shared story. In order to change an existing imagined order, you require an alternative imagined order.
----

* Dr Harari seems to have the belief that the only objective reality is the biological reality or the reality of scientific facts. Are there objective moral facts? Dr Harari's answer seems to be a clear-cut no. I, for my part, would be hesitant to rule out the philosophical possibility of the existence of objective values so easily.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

In week 2 of Modern & Contemporary American Poetry by Al Filreis we explore some of the modern poets who have worked in Whitmanian and Dickinsonian modes of poetry. All the poems discussed are somewhat difficult in the sense that they don't open up to the reader immediately. All of them require some deliberation (to a varying degree) on the reader's part for their meanings and themes to come out, but ultimately the reward of comprehension is worth the effort.

Given that I cannot replicate the extensive discussions, and the nature of the discussions makes it almost impossible even if I had the time and energy, I can offer but small hints of guidance for readers who may be interested in reading and figuring out these poems on their own. It would also be worthwhile listening to poets recite their own poems in the links given.

Whitmanians

William Carlos Williams's "Smell!"

Consider a playful sexual interpretation... what can a nose serve as an innuendo for?

William Carlos Williams's "Danse Russe"

Think of the conflicting attempts to juggle an indulgent artistic lifestyle with the demands of an American suburban family.

Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California"

Ginsberg imagines seeing a reincarnation of Walt Whitman in a supermarket, and explores what sort of an existence Whitman would have in these times, and how things have changed.

Dickinsonians

Lorine Niedecker's "Grandfather advised me"

Appreciate how condense the poem is ('sit at desk' instead of 'sit at a desk' or 'the desk'), and how in such few words it tells a story of the poet's response to grandfather's advise to learn an economically-viable trade. Also consider the shape of the poem... (does it look like a type-writer?)

Lorine Niedecker's "You are my friend"

Consider an un-reciprocated relationship ('friend-zoned'), think of sexual innuendos, particularly masturbation. Consider the theme of self-reliance with regards to relationships.

Cid Corman's "It isnt for want"

Think of the relationship of the poet with the readers, and how in a sense the poet continues to exist as long as the reader exists.

Rae Armantrout's "The Way"

A difficult poem to figure out. First half is a collage of unrelated observations and recordings. Leaves the reader frustrated and lost. Second half is a personal recollection of how the poet was read stories by her mother and she felt lost in the story and abandoned. The poem therefore recreates the same sense of abandonment for the reader. Some additional hints here.

Here is something I wrote about the poem on the discussion forum:

'I have re-read The Way several times now and I am beginning to get an idea of why I felt so enraged when I first read it. The poem radically shatters my expectations of what a poem ought to be like. I come to a poem with a certain expectation, that it would make sense in so and so manner, and then when I read The Way, it doesn't conform to any of that, leaving me (and many other readers) stumped. Now when I am re-reading the poem, I am approaching it with a very different set of expectations, and it begins to make sense. When it comes to such post-modern poetry, the usual ideas of poetry no longer hold. Every normative notion with regards to poetry will be challenged.

The task here is quite radical, because we are not just learning to figure out a complicated poem, we are learning to figure out a completely new way of reading a poem. Whether this new way is of as much value as others prior to it, I wouldn't say, but at least I can begin to appreciate that there is a place for it, and no number of frustrated readers can snatch away its right to existence.'


Robert Doisneau
Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville (Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville), 1950
Became a recognized symbol of young love, preserved for times to come; the relationship between the couple photographed, however, went on only for 9 months.

Friday, September 20, 2013

"The reasons for wearing the veil are manifold, ranging from liberative to oppressive, and they co-exist. This does not warrant immunity, but a more sophistication of critique."

My article on the Muslim practice of veil published at The Friday Times Blogs.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The sixth and final week of Social Psychology course by Prof. Scott Plous deals with empathy, happiness and relationships.

The lectures featured an animated video on empathy by Roman Krznaric titled 'The Power of Outrospection'. It is also available on youtube here. Another featured video was 'Understanding Happiness' from Dan Gilbert's series This Emotional Life. That video is not available online for free but the upshot of it is that you can't be happy alone: happiness comes from satisfying social relationships.

The most interesting part of this week's materials for me was the discussion on factors leading to close relationships in general and romantic relationships in particular. I'll just mention the conclusions here without citing the research studies supporting them.

Proximity: Geographical nearness, and more accurately 'functional distance' (how often people’s paths cross), is a powerful predictor of liking. It is no surprise that most people develop relationships with people who are their classmates, workmates, gym-mates, etc. Proximity enables interaction (pre-requisite for developing a relationship), anticipatory liking (anticipating interaction with someone increases likelihood of liking that person), and repeated exposure. More exposure has been demonstrated to lead to more liking (mere-exposure effect).

Physical attractiveness: A very predictive factor and not surprisingly so. Men express more concern about physical attractiveness, but when it comes to actual partners, men and women value attractiveness to nearly the same degree.

Matching phenomenon: Even though people find more attractive people as more likeable, people tend to pair off with people who are about as attractive as they are. (In cases where this is significant difference in the degree of attractiveness, there are 'compensating qualities' present, such as wealth or status.)

Physical-attractiveness stereotype: People tend to perceive attractive people as happier, sexually warmer, more intelligent and successful. 

Contrast effect: Attraction also depends on comparison standards. Exposure to super-attractive people would make another attractive person seem less appealing. With continuous exposure, the effect can linger on. Also applies for self-perceptions (i.e. we find ourselves less attractive once exposed to people we believe to be more attractive).

We perceive attractive people as likeable, but we also perceive people we like as attractive. We are also perceive someone with whom we share similarities as more attractive. 

Predicting Successful Relationships:

Friends and spouses are more likely to share common beliefs, attitudes and values. Greater the similarity between husband and wife, the happier they are likely to be. (The concept of 'opposites attract' has found no reliable evidence.)

With regards to predicting the success of a relationship, the amount of conflict in a relationship is not very predictive. What really matters is the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions in a relationship. A ratio of 5 positive interactions to 1 negative interaction is highly predictive of a happy and successful relationship.

Humans have the need to belong: when we feel supported by close, intimate relationships, we tend to be healthier and happier. Happiness and well-being result from a balanced satisfaction of three needs: belonging, autonomy and competence.

(This concludes my series of posts covering this course. All posts can be found in the tag Social Psychology Course.)

Week 5 of Social Psychology course deals with conflict, peacemaking and interventions. I wouldn't cover this material, but there was one important phenomenon discussed in the lectures which I'd like to mention. It is the bystander effect. It refers to situations in which people do not offer any help to a victim who is being victimized or is suffering in front of their eyes. Studies have shown that the probability of people offering to help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. Wikipedia has a good entry on this topic, and I'll refer the readers to that.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #5: History’s Biggest Fraud

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding.)

In this lecture Dr Harari makes the contentious claim that agricultural revolution is 'the biggest fraud in history'.

Contrary to several myths about agricultural revolution,
* Agricultural revolution was not due to increase in human intelligence
* It did not raise standards of living for humans. Agricultural revolution increased the sum total of food, but it did not lead to a better diet or better life. What it did result in was a demographic explosion and the rise of nobility, kings and elites who took major share of the food.
* It did not make work easier. Average peasant worked harder than the average hunter-forager, and consumed a worse diet.

We usually say that humans domesticated wheat (and other plants like rice, potatoes, corn, etc), but in a sense one can say that it is wheat that domesticated humans. What did humans gain out of this relationship with wheat? Wheat did not offer a better diet, it did not offer economic security (more risk of draught if harvest fails), it did not offer better security against violence (permanent settlements increased the risk of clashes and violence). Wheat offered nothing to individual humans, but it offered something for humans collectively: it allowed many more humans to live in the same area. 

Evolutionary success is measured not by happiness but by the number of copies of DNA. Agricultural revolution allowed many more people to exist, but under worse conditions. Our affluent society today developed out of the foundation of agriculture, so we tend to think of it as a great progress, but it is wrong to judge consequences of agricultural revolution from perspective of today. 

It should be noted, however, that the switch to agriculture was not a conscious decision. It was a gradual accumulation of many steps. People simply did not foresee the negative consequences of permanent settlements, such as over-population, droughts, infectious diseases, poor hygienic conditions, worse diets and child mortality. It took generations to realize that things were not working out well, and by that time, no one had the living memory of the fact that once humans had lived differently. Another reason is that population had kept growing and growing, making it impossible to switch back to hunter-gather way of life.

The desire to have a better life trapped humans in harder conditions. 'It is one of the iron laws of history: luxuries tend to become necessities.' (Dr Harari) Once people get used to a certain habit, with time it becomes essential. Herein lies a very important lesson for humanity: 'Humanity's search for an easier life releases immense forces of change which transform the world in ways that nobody envisioned or wanted' (Dr Harari), and this actually ends up making life harder.

Some mysterious religious or cultural purpose may also have played a part in the switch to agriculture, at least in some areas. The archaeological remains at Göbekli Tepe mark the site of the oldest known religious temple, dated to around 9500 BC. The construction of this temple would have necessitated the development of a village around it. DNA analysis of domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat reveals that the DNA is closest to wild wheat found on Mount Karaca Dağ, a site at a distance from 32 km from Göbekli Tepe, suggesting that possibly this is where modern wheat was first domesticated. It cannot just be a coincidence that the oldest religious site that we know of, and the place where wheat was first domesticated are in such proximity. 

Another aspect of agricultural revolution is the domestication of animals. It may have started from selective hunting of animals with containment of herds within selected areas, or from adoption of animals, to be eaten later on. With time, strategies such as selective slaughtering or castration of the aggressive animals, and mating the docile ones would have led to domestication. The domesticated animals are evolutionary success stories in terms of the number of DNA copies, but they are actually among the most miserable creatures on earth. In this way, agriculture not only increased the misery of humans, but also the misery of animals.

Friday, September 13, 2013

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the 
beginning and the end, 
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end. 

There was never any more inception than there is now, 
Nor any more youth or age than there is now, 
And will never be any more perfection than there is now, 
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now. 

Walt Whitman, excerpt from section 3, Song of Myself

Week 1 of Modern & Contemporary American Poetry course by Al Filreis is about the poetry of two proto-modernists, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Some representative poems are discussed, with regard to how they break from traditional poetry and serve as prelude to future poets. In addition, an artificial binarism is created between Whitmanian and Dickinsonian modes of poetry, as being two opposite ends of the spectrum of poetic experimentalism and break from tradition in the nineteenth century.

Poems discussed in class
Walt Whitman: Sections 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 14, 47 & 52 of Song of Myself

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"Of late, I've met men who dwell in shadows, speaking of other times and other lives."

Da Vinci's Demons, #1.08

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Castrén E. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013 Jul 10. 

Abstract

The brain processes sensory information in neuronal networks that are shaped by experience, particularly during early life, to optimally represent the internal and external milieu. Recent surprising findings have revealed that antidepressant drugs reactivate a window of juvenile-like plasticity in the adult cortex. When antidepressant-induced plasticity was combined with appropriate rehabilitation, it brought about a functional recovery of abnormally wired neuronal networks. These observations suggest that antidepressants act permissively to facilitate environmental influence on neuronal network reorganization and so provide a plausible neurobiological explanation for the enhanced effect of combining antidepressant treatment with psychotherapy. The results emphasize that pharmacological and psychological treatments of mood disorders are closely entwined: the effect of antidepressant-induced plasticity is facilitated by rehabilitation, such as psychotherapy, that guides the plastic networks, and psychotherapy benefits from the enhanced plasticity provided by the drug treatment. Optimized combinations of pharmacological and psychological treatments might help make best use of existing antidepressant drugs and reduce the number of treatment-resistant patients. The network hypothesis of antidepressant action presented here proposes that recovery from depression and related mood disorders is a gradual process that develops slowly and is facilitated by structured guidance and rehabilitation.

---

In essence, it appears that antidepressants require appropriate environmental influence (such as, but not restricted to, psychotherapy) for recovery from depression, and in the absence of such environmental influence, the recovery will be sub-optimal and may not happen at all.


Tamara de Lempicka, The Kiss (c. 1922)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

"Suppose we take a set of Lego blocks, and the things we can construct with them, as the domain of a very simple science. We can list all possible ways of attaching two blocks together, and then use that list to describe how to attach a third, a fourth, and so on, recursively. Eventually we have descriptions of an immense set of objects – walls, bridges, houses, and of course many objects that have no meaning for us at all. Now suppose, further, that before we start testing this theory of Lego objects, a mischievous daemon introduces an identical, slight, imperceptible curvature in the shape of each block. We will have no knowledge of it because it is so slight as to unmeasurable in individual blocks. The first objects we build will be in accord with the theory that we developed for perfectly rectangular blocks, but as they grow, we may find that many objects can’t be completed because the members become warped in various ways, as a result of an accumulating curvature. On the other hand, we find that some objects, like gently curving walls, can be extended indefinitely, occasionally producing, among other things, cylindrical towers of some large but invariable diameter. This development is not predicted by the theory because the curvature of individual blocks is imperceptible in individual blocks and is not represented in the combining rules of our theory. 

Cylindrical tower-forming is, in a simple way, an emergent property of the daemonized Lego block physics. Since the curvature of individual blocks is imperceptible, we cannot be sure of its existence, and we cannot legitimately build it into the ground level rules of combination, but empirically we see that as objects grow larger, the ground level theory breaks down and something else increasingly determines the objects’ shapes. It appears to us that somehow the Lego blocks were meant for building cylindrical towers, but we do not and cannot know exactly what the cause is, although we can postulate that it has to do with some elementary property of the Lego blocks. Blocks builders will say something like “As structures get very large, the blocks seem to want to form coherent curved surfaces; when the direction of curvature remains constant, we get towers.” The attribution of intentionality is, of course, not testable, but also not disprovable, since the underlying, non-intentional theory does not account for it.

[...]

It appears that Nagel sees a sort of Lego-block teleology as present in the material which has furnished the basis for evolution on our planet, and sees this teleology as indeed having produced learning or discovery algorithms in humans that can converge on objective truths of certain kinds."


That's definitely an interesting interpretation of Nagel's philosophical position. Mulling over it...

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Edward Feser on how a popular introductory textbook on the philosophy of mind grossly misrepresents the case for dualism.

Volcanoes be in Sicily (#1705)

Emily Dickinson

Volcanoes be in Sicily
And South America
I judge from my Geography—
Volcanos nearer here
A Lava step at any time
Am I inclined to climb—
A Crater I may contemplate
Vesuvius at Home.

(hat-tip: Modern & Contemporary American Poetry)

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #4: The Human Flood

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding.)

Homo sapiens reached Australia about 45,000 years ago, by crossing vast stretches of open sea up to 100-150 kilometres between the islands of Indonesia and Australia. Most likely this was preceded by the establishment of first sea-faring societies in Indonesia. The journey itself is not the only fact of significance; it was the first time any species has managed to migrate out of the Afro-Asian ecological system to settle and adapt into a completely new ecological system.

The moment humans landed on the shore of Australia, they began to transform the Australian ecological system. There were all sorts of giant animals (giant kangroos, giant kaolas, giant birds, marsupial lions, the Diprotodon etc) but within a few thousand years all these animals had vanished. How did humans cause this immense change in the history of ecology of Australia? 

Large animals breed slowly. Even if humans killed one Diprotodon every few months, it would've been enough to upset the balance. Humans were expert in use of fire agriculture. They burned down vast areas of dense forests, paving the way for open grasslands in which they could more easily hunt. (Eucalyptus trees are more resistant to fire; they were previously rare in Australia, and become abundant afterwards.)

Climate change also played a significant role. Under normal circumstances, Australian ecosystem could have recovered from the climate change, but the human invasion prevented it from doing so. Climate change by itself would not have been enough to cause the mass extinction.

This ecological disaster in Australia is the 'first big thing' our species accomplished in the world.

Humans reached America about 16000 years ago, or 14000 BC, in pursuit of game animals via a land bridge connecting North-Eastern Siberia with North-Western Alaska due to low sea levels. By 10,000 BC they had settled in the southern most parts of American continents, adapting to a huge variety of radically different habitats. Similar to Australia, there were many unique species of giant animals (mammoths, mastodons, saber-tooth tigers, etc). Soon after human invasion, most of these species disappeared. 

Human invasion of the world is one of biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to ever befall the animal kingdom. Large terrestrial animals suffered the most. Even before the agricultural revolution, half of all the genera of large terrestrial animals had gone extinct. This was the first wave of extinction.

The second wave of extinction was re-staged in miniature versions countless time during agricultural revolution. For instance, in Madagascar there was many very unique animals, such as flightless elephant birds and giant lemurs, all of whom had vanished by 500 AD, when humans arrived to Madagascar.

Third wave of extinction is going on today, due to the industrial revolution. In prior waves, large animals of ocean had suffered little, but now many of those species are also on the brink of extinction, due to pollution and over-use of ocean resources by humans.

Dr Harari makes an apt reference to the biblical story of flood at the end. Bible tells us of the flood in which Noah built an ark and saved a pair of each animal specie to prevent their extinction. The truth is entirely different: we are the biblical flood, and the only animals we took in the ark are the few animals we needed for our purposes. The rest we condemned to destruction.

Friday, September 6, 2013

"Well, it doesn’t work according to the textbooks. If you look at economic textbooks, the whole world is meant to work according to the logic of differential calculus; there are these reciprocal relationships - one side goes up and one side goes down. But deep within it there’s a paradox. On the one side you have Adam Smith, where everyone is pursuing their own self-interest leading to an outcome which is better than any of them could have intended. On the other, you have John Maynard Keynes. Today Keynes is thought of as someone who just talks about deficit spending and so on, but that’s just complete rubbish. Keynes’s central message is that individual rational action can be collectively disastrous. So, if you have a series of economic models in a text book where everything balances out, it’s much more attuned to the world working the way that Smith would like to tell us. 

But what if it works the other way? That basically there are fallacies of composition and collective action problems at the base of everything, which means that your own individual best first strategy can lead to everybody having a second best outcome. That’s how I think about the world. Take climate change, for example. Everybody agrees that it’s a problem – unless you’re a crank. Why is it then so difficult to do something about it? Because everybody pursuing their own self-interest can be a really good thing, and it can lead to lots of innovation. But it can also lead to the fragilities that brought us the financial crisis and our inability to solve climate change. So where’s the space between Smith and Keynes? To me, that is where you should look for how the world works."

Mark Blyth 


"If I do nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost."

Vincent van Gogh

Thursday, September 5, 2013

One of the interesting ideas explored in week 4 of Social Psychology is The Abilene Paradox. It is a paradoxical situation in which all members of a group (or organisation) collectively decide to pursue a course of action which, in reality, none of them wants to pursue. None of them knows that others also feel this way, and because everyone thinks that everyone else wants it, they all agree to the group decision in order not to be the sole opposing voice. In this way, the group decision runs counter to the individual preferences of all members.

The lecture contained a fun and entertaining educational video by CRM Learning explaining this paradox. Unfortunately that particular 2nd edition is not available for free outside Coursera (you can see the trailer here) but the first edition of the video with the same script can be viewed here. Alternatively you can read the classic 1988 paper by Jerry B. Harvey in which this concept was first proposed.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Week 6 of Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy is about rational decision making.

There are a number of possible acts an agent can choose, and associated with each act are a number of possible outcomes, each with a certain probability. Each outcome has an associated utility value which specifies how much the agent desires the corresponding outcome. Given these parameters, it is possible to calculate which act results in the maximum utility, and the Principle of Maximizing Expected Utility asserts that a rational agent will act in the manner which maximizes the expected utility.

These are 4 axioms of rational decision making. These axioms lead to the theorem that every decision of a VNM-rational agent in a given set of scenarios is characterized by maximization of the expected value of a single function u, which is the utility function.

Not surprisingly, real life human decisions often violate the VNM theorem, such that no single utility function can explain every preference in a given set of scenarios. Example of this include the Allais paradox and the Ellsberg paradox.

Week 5 of Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy is about what it means for an evidence (E) to confirm a hypothesis (H) relative to background knowledge (K). The issue is addressed using Bayesian Confirmation Theory, which is derived from Bayes' Theorem.

Bayes Theorem describes the relationship between the new (or posterior) probability of a hypothesis (H), after having learned a piece of evidence (E). Using the theorem we can derive a formula known as Bayes' rule.

P(H) is the prior probability of hypothesis
P(E/H) is the likelihood of evidence given the hypothesis
P(E) is the expectedness of the evidence
P(H/E) is the posterior probability of the hypothesis, the new probability given the Evidence

Evidence confirms the hypothesis if the posterior probability is greater than the prior probability of the hypothesis. Evidence disconfirms the hypothesis if the posterior probability is less than the prior probability of the hypothesis, and the evidence is irrelevant if the posterior probability is equal to the prior probability.

The lecturer elaborates Bayesian Confirmation Theory using the example of the famous Monty Hall problem.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

It seems to me that Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos signed its own death warrant by the outrageously misplaced subtitle Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. I liked the book and I find its central arguments quite appealing, but I would never phrase the main thesis as it is spelled out in the subtitle. It is not only a horridly crude portrayal of a sophisticated philosophical critique, it instantly sets off the readers on a misguided idea of what the book intends to do. I do not know if Nagel chose this subtitle himself, and perhaps he did, but it is so incongruent with the contents of the book that it seems more likely to be an act on the part of the publishers as a marketing tactic. Half of the horrible reviews that the book has received have focused more on the what the subtitle says about the book than what the book says about the book.

To the best of my understanding, Nagel at no point demonstrates that the Materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is 'almost certainly false'. He does argue and conclude, though, that it is almost certainly incomplete, which is an entirely different thing to say. Secondly, perhaps it wasn't as obvious as I think, but the book isn't trying to refute the scientific theory of evolution by means of philosophical argumentation. The validity of scientific theories cannot be challenged in this manner. What the book aims for, instead, is the criticism of a philosophical worldview ('Materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature'), which is inspired by a materialist interpretation of evolutionary sciences but is distinct from it. The scientific and empirical facts are not the targets; there is no denial of the reality of biological evolution of species. What is argued for is a change in the way we make sense of these scientific theories, based on the argument that the mind-body problem expands to include evolution in its folds. The empirical facts of evolution stay the same whether we view nature as being teleological (as Nagel argues) or non-teleological (as the neo-Darwinian philosophical conception argues). Much of the criticism of the book as attempting to refute evolutionary science is therefore unfounded, but perhaps the guilty party is none other than the book itself, thanks to its atrocious subtitle.

Monday, September 2, 2013

I would love to get some feedback from the readers of this blog regarding my recent series of posts on Coursera lectures, if anyone is interested. To clarify, the intention is not to deliberately promote Coursera, if anyone got that impression. I am not making any money out of it or getting any other sort of advantage (in fact, there is always the concern of copyrights on my mind, hence the disclaimers). It's just more convenient for me to post about what I am studying. But how do you, the reader, feel about it? Do the posts annoy you? Are you indifferent to them? Do you enjoy them or find them useful? Would you prefer them to be more brief and shorter? Here's your chance, speak now or forever hold your silence!



Cave of the Hands, Argentina
Cave art dating from from 13,000 to 9,000 years ago

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #3: Daily Life in the Stone Age

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding.)

For the vast majority of history, Homo sapiens lived as hunter-gatherers, and this had significant impact on shaping their bodies and minds. Subconsciously, we still live in the stone-age. This is one of the central ideas of evolutionary psychology: our minds are shaped by evolutionary pressures. 

Some scholars believe that stone-age humans lived in communes without marriage or monogamy, and children were raised by the entire tribe. Other scholars strongly disagree. Yes, humans were more communal than now, they say, but even so, the basic cell of that society was a nuclear family of two parents with children. Such discussions are likely to ignore the fact that humans of stone age did not have a unified way of living. There were thousands of different groups living in various different regions and circumstances, and there was no single natural way of life.

Some generalizations, nonetheless, are probably true about human life in stone age:

* People lived in small bands (up to a maximum of a few hundreds). 

* There were no domesticated animals, with the exception of dog. The domestication of dog occurred before the agricultural revolution, with evidence from 15 thousand years ago. Dogs and humans basically co-evolved.

* High level of intimacy among people within groups.

* Relations with neighbouring bands were hostile as well as friendly, and large alliances were formed based on common causes (something which other human species couldn't do).

* They lived in constant movement, in search of food, dictated by seasons and annual migration of animals, the growth cycles of plants etc. Permanent fishing settlements on the coast of Indonesian islands, however, might have appeared as early as 45,000 years ago (might have been the base for invasion of Australia).

* They ate all variety of foods. For most bands, gathering was more important than hunting.

* Humans were physically and mentally in a state of great fitness. Individual humans required an immense amount of knowledge of their immediate world and various skills for survival, much more than we require today for individual survival. Collectively we know much more, but individually much less. There is some evidence that the size of average human brain has been decreasing since agricultural revolution.

* They had a better life in many ways that humans of the post-agricultural revolution era. They probably just worked 35-45 hours per week. Their lives were also more interesting (say, compare a Chinese forager 30 thousands years ago with a Chinese peasant from agricultural age or a Chinese factory worker today). Their nutritional status was much better than peasants of agricultural age, who depended on a very limited number of food stuffs. They suffered less from infectious diseases. Most of infectious disease today actually originated in domesticated animals and were transferred to humans after agricultural revolution. They lived in small communities, roaming around, which was not conducive for infectious diseases to spread within a tribe.
(The point is that history doesn't always progress from bad to good. Many good things of the past may have been lost in the way. From the perspective of an average peasant or average factory factor, perhaps the agricultural revolution was not such a good idea.)

* They, however, also had very high child mortality, even minor accidents could be fatal, social persecution could make one's life hell, and there was probably more violence.

* Animistic beliefs were common among ancient foragers. The world, for them, was suffused with spirits and animated beings. Every place, animal, plant and natural phenomena had mind and awareness, and communication was possible through a variety of ways. There was no hierarchy among the spirits and the humans. Apart from this common characterization, different groups of animists would have held very different and distinct beliefs.

* At Sungir in Russia, there is a 30 thousand year old burial site of a society of mammoth hunters. In one particular grave, the grave of an old male is covered with ivory beads and the skeleton is adorned by a hat of fox-teeth and ivory bracelets. Others skeletons have far fewer decorations. Most likely it was a hierarchical society, and the adorned skeleton is that of a big chief. In another tomb at the same site, they found skeletons of two children, buried head to head, a boy and a girl, with similar extravagant adornments. One option why these children received such an extravagant burial is that they were children of some chief. Another option is that they were identified at birth as a reincarnation of some long dead spirit. A third option is that perhaps these children were sacrificed as a part of burial ritual. Whatever the case, this burial site at Sungir is among the best evidence that socio-political codes already existed among Homo sapiens 30 thousand years ago.

* On the question of large scale conflicts and wars, opinion is divided. Some scholars think wars started only after agricultural revolution with accumulation of private property. Other scholars think that the stone age was an exceptionally cruel and violent world. Evidence in support of either is based on anthropology and archaeology. 
Anthropological observations of hunter gatherers in large and dense populations in North America and North Australia in 19th century showed that there was relatively high frequency of armed conflict between different bands. This, however, is not conclusive, as violent behavior observed in modern times in not proof of such behavior in stone-age as well.
Archaeological evidence is also mixed. At sites such as Portugal and Israel, very few skeletons show clear marks of human violence. Remains at other places tell a different story. For instance, a burial site at the Offnet Cave in Bavaria provides evidence that a whole forager band was massacred. Most likely, different regions of the world at different times had varying violence rates.

* Over-all, however, we have a lot of speculations and very little evidence. We know practically nothing of the first 60 thousand years of the 70 thousand years of human history.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Week 4 lectures of Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy are about conditionals (if-then) sentences. A lot of the material was pretty technical and I had a difficult time following it step by step. Consequently, I don't think I am in a position to offer a summary of it as in previous posts, but I'll just talk briefly about my broad understanding of the main conclusions.

Conditionals are sentences of the form 'If A, then B'. They are of two kinds: indicative conditionals and subjunctive conditionals. A subjunctive conditional (also called counterfactual) indicates what would be the case if A were true (although it is not true). For example, 'If Oswald had not killed Kennedy, someone else would have'. An indicative conditional indicates what is the case if A is (in fact) true (which it may or may not be). For example, 'If Oswald did not kill Kennedy, someone else did'.

What I understand is that there are two ways of making sense of indicative conditionals. Thesis 1 says that indicative conditionals express propositions and that their degrees of acceptability are given by the degrees of belief in these propositions. These propositions will be expressed in mathematical form as sets of possible worlds, as discussed in prior lecture. Thesis 1 is represented as X -> Y.

Thesis 2 says that the degree of acceptability of an indicative conditional is given by the corresponding conditional probability, i.e. you assume that A is true, then you analyse what effect it has on the probability of B. "If the moon is made of cheese, then the moon is edible." If you accept that the moon is made of cheese, then it is quite probable that it is edible. The conditional is true, even though by itself, the separate probabilities of moon being made of cheese and moon being edible are low enough to be zero. Thesis 2 is represented as P(Y|X) (The probability of Y given X.) Thesis 2 was suggested by Ramsey.

For a lot of philosophers, it seemed natural that the acceptability of an indicative conditional from thesis 1 and thesis 2 would be equal to each other. This is called Stalnaker's Hypothesis, and expressed as

P(X->Y) = P(Y|X)

In the words of Lewis: probabilities of conditionals [P(X->Y)] are conditional probabilities [P(Y|X)].

David Lewis, however, famously showed in his Triviality Theorem that if Stalnaker's Hypothesis is accepted, it leads to an absurd result. Through a series of complicated steps, which I won't replicate, Lewis demonstrated using the hypothesis that

P(X->Y) = P(Y)

The probability of X->Y = the probability of Y. This is obviously absurd. (The probability of "If the moon is made of cheese, then the moon is edible." is obviously not equal to "Moon is edible". It's not a contradiction, but nonetheless absurd.) Lewis' Triviality Theorem, therefore, showed that Stalnaker's Hypothesis is untenable.

There have been many philosophical responses to the triviality theorem. One is obviously to suggest that Stalnaker's Hypothesis is false, and that thesis 1 and thesis 2 are not equal to each other, and that the two degrees of acceptability for a conditional are different from each other, though it may be difficult to explain why so. Another interesting philosophical response is the Suppositional Theory of conditionals which suggests that indicative conditionals do not express propositions, and hence they are neither true nor false.

 

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