Thursday, 31 January 2013

It's hard to kill your neighbour

There is a series of psychological thought experiments (the Trolley problem) in which participants are asked moral questions which produce increasing levels of discomfort.  These experiments - investigations of philosophical consequentialism -  are a litmus test to the commitment of a utilitarian's position but this post is not really about that issue so much as about how it is connected to our feelings about personal and impersonal violence.

Two of the trolley problem scenarios concern what you should do if you see a trolley on some rail tracks hurtling towards a group of 5 people who will die on impact.  In one scenario you have a lever that will divert the trolley onto another track but, on the other track, there is a single person who will then be killed by the trolley.  Should you pull the lever? In another scenario you are standing on a bridge alongside a fat man and you know that, by toppling him over the bridge, he will halt the trolley but die in the process.  Should you push the man?

Even if we cannot come to a conclusion about what actions are right for these scenarios most of us will feel that the second scenario presents a more challenging moral conundrum, and its resolution has been debated at least since the time of Thomas Aquinas.  But philosophy and morality aside the scenarios point to an aspect of our innate makeups that we need to acknowledge if we are to make sense of why individuals and societies act as they do under stress.  We might call this aspect of us our human empathy.

I offer the speculation that whatever it is in our psychology which makes us more leery of positive action in the second scenario is also what has contributed to the greater slaughter of people (military and civilians) in modern warfare.

Of course the huge mortality rates in modern warfare are definitely connected to another factor: the much greater killing power of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  (By the way, the definition that WMD just means nuclear weapons is, I think, completely arbitrary.  The London Blitz: 40000 dead , the Dresden firebombing: 25000 dead, the Hiroshima bomb: 100000 dead but estimates wildly vary).

However I think that if WMD were not activated at a distance, if the immediate connection between opening a bomb hatch and the resulting killing could be witnessed, then WMD would not be deployed as they have been.  Imagine having to achieve the same mortality figures if each life had to be taken by slitting the throat of the victims.  It is not simply that it would take more time: it would be viscerally opposed by our human empathy.

Of course, war warps our human empathy.  To be successful in war, military commanders have to force their troops to carry out actions that in peace-time they would not consider.  That is one of the reasons why very strict disciplines are practised.  And it must be one the reasons why, when the conflict is over, so many returning war heros are deeply traumatised (for example, in 2012, more US serving troops committed suicide than died in war action).

So there is the thesis: we are more leery about pushing a fat man off the bridge because it is more "hands-on" than pulling a lever, and this is for same empathetic reason that we would be more leery of knifing a civilian rather than bombing them.

In my opinion this human empathy is embedded in our brains.  Examples of its functioning exist in all areas of our society.  For example, it is a common phenomenon that when two individuals of different nationalities, skin colour, or political persuasion get to know each other they often overcome antipathies they might have felt towards one another before their empathetic sense was triggered.  This all suggests that our human society should become more harmonious the more we trigger our empathetic response - and this means that, as far as possible, we should engage with those we find the most at odds with our own predispositions.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

On historical causes

One of the most boring episodes of my high school career was the few weeks in fifth form history when we were taught the causes of the French Revolution.  To this day I really can't remember much of what we were taught but, looking up Wikipedia today, I read that one cause was the high level of taxation of the peasant class while the nobility led lives of conspicuous consumption.

But what exactly does "X causes Y" mean in the context of history?  Can we deduce that if the French peasantry had not been taxed highly then the revolution would not have occurred?  Of course not.  In fact we cannot know the answer to that question because we cannot rerun history.  Does it mean that there is a tendency for Y to occur when X is present in any historical situation?  Perhaps so, and this is indeed a hypothesis that could be tested by an examination of historical situations where X was present.  But the dataset might still be unconvincingly small.

I was led to these thoughts by two massive books that I've read over the last two years.  One was "Guns, germs and steel" by Jared Diamond, the other was "Ideas, a history from fire to Freud" by Peter Watson.  Both of them are staggering accomplishments that offer a comprehensive account of how hunter-gatherer societies developed into modern-day societies.  Inevitably the authors colour their accounts with opinions that can only be hypotheses, despite their persuasive arguments to support their opinions.

Diamond's main intent is to give an explanation of the factors that contributed to the greater success of European civilisation compared to its historical counterparts.  He completely rejects explanations based on racial differences and argues convincingly for geographical differences.  Among his explanations are, for example, the greater number of domesticable animals in the Old World compared to the new; and the larger number of plants that could be farmed for food production.  I strongly recommend the book for it is thoughtfully presented and hugely informative.

Watson's book offers a number of reasons why some ideas surfaced at a particular moment in history, and why they originated in a particular country.  Again it is all plausible coherent stuff and I greatly appreciated how he related the historical contexts to the development of key ideas.

But, just like the causes of the French revolution, what does it mean to say that a particular constellation of geographical factors made the Old World develop more quickly than the New World?  What does it mean to say that a particular constellation of social and historical conditions caused a certain set of ideas to be developed?  To make these claims is not to say that if X was not present then Y would not have occurred.  History is not a repeatable experiment.

Neither in the case of the Diamond and Watson claims can we even test the hypothesis "Y tends to happen in the presence of X".  We can't do this because they have already used up all the experimental data.  In other words they did too complete a job!

If we were to encounter a plentiful number of alien races not too unlike us we would have more scope to make historical claims of the form "X causes Y".  Since this is not likely to happen we appear to be stuck.  However there is a possible avenue that might enable us to test this type of causality.  We could simulate various worlds and societies in a computer, seed them with various initial conditions, and study how they evolved.  Such simulations already exist, some on a very large scale: some online computer games depend for their very fascination on watching how a virtual society develops under the constraints of the game.

So here's the ideal academic project: conduct history and sociology (and other inexact disciplines) through the medium of computer gaming.  Wouldn't that be great fun for the young folk of today?

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Weapons of personal destruction

In the aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook in Connecticut a vigorous debate is taking place about gun control and President Obama has just announced measures to put before Congress.  Outside America there is overwhelming support for much stricter gun control but inside the country opinion is more divided.

As an outsider it seemed to be a no-brainer to me until very recently; surely the case for gun control was overwhelming.  But two arguments in the debate have given me pause for thought.  Both of them derive from the obvious thought that what we should be trying to do is not restricting Second Amendment rights just for the sake of it, but preventing innocent victims being killed by guns.

The first argument is that there are already over 300 million guns in the hands of private citizens.  How can restricting the purchase of further guns have much effect?

The second is that nearly all the shooters in the depressing list of US gun tragedies are people with mental health problems.  Since the 1970s it has been US health policy to allow such people to be managed and cared for in their communities rather than under supervision.  Sadly, very little funding has been given to such communities.  The result is that a large proportion of homeless people are victims of mental illness.  Would it not be better to address the root cause of shooting incidents?

I don't maintain that these two arguments should necessarily carry the day in the debate but I would like to see it focussing on the actual problem: of preventing shooting incidents rather than bashing the odious NRA and perfectly responsible gun-owners.  That new debate would have to come to grips with the gun culture in the US and the glorification of ever more powerful weapons.

So how should one address a culture where so many people own killing machines, have easy access to them, where accidents happen (fatal or otherwise) together with deliberate abuses; all of them regarded as the necessary price for the freedom to own those machines?  Every developed country has faced such a problem in trying to make its roads safe from the automobile killing machine.  Can we learn anything from that parallel?

A generation ago there was a much laxer approach to the misuse of automobiles but there has been a sea-change in attitude.  It is no longer a lark to get behind the wheel of a car when impaired, and designating a safe driver has become routine.  In the last 20 years the number of road fatalities in my own country (New Zealand) has dropped by more than 50%; much of that decline is because of the attitudinal change to drunk-driving.  We know why this change has occurred: it is because of the far more severe penalties for driving while impaired.

There are other lessons also from the automobile parallel.  Many countries have regular safety checks on vehicles.  A road license fee is levied and is hopefully used to improve road safety.  Drivers themselves can be checked periodically when their own license is renewed.  Motoring organisations are strongly behind automobile safety concerns rather than (as the NRA) act as lobbying groups for the rights of their members.

I cannot pretend that to solve the gun death problem we merely have to imitate the solutions we have found to the automobile death problem.  The analogy is not perfect (not least because the automobile death problem is far more severe). The gun death problem will have some peculiarities of its own to reckon with but we have to stay focussed on solving the "gun death problem" not the "gun control problem".

Monday, 14 January 2013

Word game for those sleepless nights

I'm an enthusiastic solver of cryptic crossword puzzles and also have a keen interest in words (their spelling, meaning and origin).  I don't know which interest came first but they seem to reinforce one another.  In particular I love anagrams. I was tickled pink recently listening to an episode of the BBC's News Quiz which touched on the story last year of the Duchess of Cambridge being photographed topless: I learnt that 'Kate Middleton' is an anagram of 'Naked Tit Model'.

Anyway that is a bit off-track for this post, which is about a solitaire word game based on anagrams.  You take any word you like and remove its letters one by one (in any order you like) and, at each stage, you have to make an anagram of the current set of letters.  For example, if you start with 'wonderer' you could proceed as drowner, wonder, drown, down, own, no, o.  Such a word is deemed to be a success, otherwise it is a fail.

With practice the game can be played in your head and the more experienced you get the longer the word you can start with.  I find words of 9 or more letters a bit of a problem but I've discovered many 8 letter successes.

Here are some more examples of successful words to give you the idea:
many, man, an, a
words, word, row, or, o
demand, named, name, man, an, a
diligent, tingled, tingle, glint, lint, tin, in, i
efforts, forest, store, rote, toe, to, o

Obviously, to be a success the word has to contain at least one of the letters a, i, o (the only one-letter words).  A stronger necessary condition for success (but not so easily checked) is that the set of letters you start with must have letter subsets of all sizes which have anagrams.  For example 'ice' is a failure because it has no two-letter anagrams.  On the other hand

It is astonishing how many successful words there are (especially if you restrict yourself to words satisfying these necessary conditions).  When trying to "solve a word" I find it easiest to begin with the word itself and reduce it to one letter as in the examples above.  This would be 'top-down' approach.  But I suspect that a bottom-up approach - building up longer and longer words in several ways - would be a more efficient approach for a computer program; a natural use for the approach called 'dynamic programming'.

There are several ways in which one can 'mathematize' the basic idea.  For example one could define a graph whose vertices are English words and where there was a directed edge from one word to another if the second word was an anagram of the first word without one of its letters.  Then one might ask about the connected components of this graph.

But you don't have to be a mathematician to enjoy the game.  Have a go yourself (ourself, flours, flour, four, for, of, o).

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Atheism - proselytise or not?

I live in a country where we don't really have to worry much about an encroaching theocracy unlike many Islamic countries and the United States.  So there does not seem to be a strong imperative to persuade religious believers that they are wasting their energies devoting themselves to a deity.  Yet, as an educator dedicated to spreading truth and reason, I can't help wanting to reduce the religiosity of my society.  So, in an idle moment I had the fantasy of preparing and distributing a leaflet that would challenge two basic Christian beliefs: that the bible was true and that it was moral.  This is what I wrote.

Is the bible true?

Some people believe every word as the literal word of God.  Most people believe that at least some of the bible should be read metaphorically.  How should we decide which parts to believe and which to take as fables?  Indeed, why should we believe any of it?  The bible has a huge credibility problem  because it is riddled with inconsistencies.

Let's take just one example: the events around the discovery of the empty tomb.  The gospels describe the women who came to the sepulchre where Jesus' body lay but each of the four gospels tells a different tale:  John 20:1 claims that Mary Magdalene was first on the scene but Matthew 28:1  adds the mother of Jesus to the discovering party.  Mark 16:1 claims that Salome was also there whereas Luke tells us that there was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Joanna and 'other women' present.

A little later on that same resurrection day John 20:11 speaks of there being two angels in the sepulchre clothed in white, whereas Mark has it that there was just one young man clothed in a long white garment.  In other words, the bible does not give a consistent account of the most important Christian belief of all: - the resurrection of Jesus.  The gospel writers are in disagreement over many other aspects of Jesus' ministry.

Inconsistencies also occur in the account of the same writer.  In the gospel of John we learn that Peter (John 13:36) and Thomas (John 14:5) both ask  Jesus where he is going.  Yet in John 16:5 Jesus claims no-one has asked him where he is going.

These examples are the tip of a large iceberg.  If you would like to know more about the contradictions in the bible you only need to have internet access and a copy of the bible.  Just google "bible contradictions" and you will be overwhelmed with other examples.

The bottom line is that these contradictions and inconsistencies teach us that there is nothing sacred about biblical "truth".  The bible is a book compiled by many men (and apparently a very few women), fallible human beings with imperfect memories.  But it cannot have been divinely inspired or it would have told a more consistent tale.

Is the bible moral?

There are many good moral teachings in the bible.  The famous Ten Commandments have six commands that none of us should disagree with (although the first four seem to pander to Jehovah's jealousy).  The New Testament abounds with advice that we would do well to heed.

Yet there is much to condemn in the "good book".  The Old Testament is full of counsel to commit appalling acts.  In Isaiah 13:16 Jehovah proposes that "Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished."

But it is not only in the Old Testament that we find instructions to act immorally.  We hear the apostle Paul condoning slavery in Ephesians 6:5 "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ."

Even Jesus himself seems to cast away the cloak of forgiveness in Matthew 10:34; "I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law."  And he really loses it in Luke 19:27, "But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me."

Most of us want to live an ethical life and to do this we need to consider our actions  thoughtfully.  It would be nice if there was an authority that would always guide us on the complex moral questions we face both personally and societally.  The examples above show us that the bible is not such an authority.  This is not surprising since it was written hundreds of years ago and today's society has become much more complex.

Some of the issues we face today (such as stem cell research and global warming) could not have been anticipated by the writers of the bible; others we grapple with (such as women's rights and how we cope with societal offenders) in the light of centuries of historical experience.  It would be folly to rely on the bible as our moral compass: it is too unreliable and blunt an instrument.

A blogger among millions

When I met first met the idea of "blogging" I couldn't understand how it could possibly take off.  To some extent, years later, I still find it a puzzling phenomenon.  Yet here I am, having just created my own blog, composing my first posting.  So perhaps it ought to begin with some musing about why blogging has become the phenomenon it has.

There is probably a corner or every blogger's mind where he/she has the fantasy that their writing is going to be read by millions hanging on their every word.  They all know this is a pipe dream but still they do it.  Why?

Some people just love the act of writing: the polishing of phrases, the choice of metaphors, the attention to grammatical detail.  Indeed, if you don't have such a bent you are unlikely to persist for long as a blogger.  But there has to be more and, in order for a blogger to feel a sense of fulfillment, they have to have something to say - not once, or even two or three times, but on a continuing basis.  That is why the most successful bloggers are generally writing about a continuing enthusiasm and not merely using a blog as a personal diary.

The explosion of blogging therefore tells us that there are many people with both enthusiasm and writing facility.  Most of them cannot afford to care whether they have any readers, they just want to express themselves in print.  That leads me to wonder whether they might have difficulty expressing their enthusiasms in any other way.  Perhaps some bloggers are inarticulate in company and can only express themselves in the printed word.  Yet somehow I think such bloggers will be in a minority.  The late Christopher Hitchens was once asked how one became a good writer and he answered that you must first become a good talker.  That seems right to me.  It is not just that talking helps one polish ones prose it is more that most ideas develop best in an environment where feedback and challenge is provided.  The writing environment is not so interactive and therefore what one writes about will often be tempered by what one has talked about.

But whether or not a blogger has honed the ideas of each posting by trying them out with listeners they blog because they have something they want to say and they generally don't care how many readers they have.

Has it always been the case that there were millions of potential writers who prior to the availability of internet blogging had no outlet?  Certainly there must have been some but I think our present era has many more.  There are two related reasons.  The first is that many more people have been educated to enjoy and be skillful at writing than even a century ago; secondary and tertiary education has grown so much in this period.  The second reason, and also related to education, is the decline in authoritarian systems and the consequent encouragement for people to develop their own ideas without censorship.  For example a hundred years or more ago the established churches had a firm grip on the permitted discourse about how human beings ought to behave to forge a well-balanced society; nowadays people are free to present their opinions without fear of losing their immortal souls.

To summarise. Blogging has exploded not merely because the internet permits it.  Our society has developed to allow people to have enthusiasms by giving them greater freedom and it has provided them with the education to express those enthusiasms through having better writing skills.

Long may it last.