The Daily Mail is involved in a dispute with Ed Miliband over a recent article in the paper that accused Miliband’s father Ralph, a Marxist academic, of hating Britain. Miliband says he disagrees with the views of his father, who died in 1994, but says his father loved Britain. Dalrymple has written a short but powerful article for the Telegraph that reminds readers of the troubling emotional and moral foundations of Marxists like Ralph Miliband. I should know, Dalrymple says, because my father was Marxist too:
I saw that his concern for the fate of humanity in general was inconsistent with his contempt for the actual people by whom he was surrounded, and his inability to support relations of equality with others. I concluded that the humanitarian protestations of Marxists were a mask for an urge to domination.
In addition to the emotional dishonesty of Marxism, I was impressed by its limitless resources of intellectual dishonesty. Having grown up with the Little Lenin Library and (God help us!) the Little Stalin Library, I quickly grasped that the dialectic could prove anything you wanted it to prove, for example, that killing whole categories of people was a requirement of elementary decency.
Well, since the tussle about epigenetics involves Brits, they’re really too polite to engage in a “smackdown.” Let’s just call it a “kerfuffle.” Nevertheless, two scientists have an enlightening 25-minute discussion about epigenetics at the Guardian‘s weekly science podcast (click the link and listen from 24:30 to 49:10). If you’re science friendly and have an interest in this ‘controversy,’ by all means listen in. It’s a good debate about whether “Lamarckian” inheritance threatens to overturn the modern theory of evolution.
Readers know how I feel about the epigenetics “controversy.” “Epigenetics” was once a term used simply to mean “development,” that is, how the genes expressed themselves in a way that could construct an organism. More recently, the term has taken on the meaning of “environmental modifications of DNA,” usually involving methylation of DNA bases. And that is important in development, too, for such methylation is critical in determining how genes work, as well as in how genes are differentially expressed when they come from the mother versus the father.
But epigenetics has now been suggested to show that neo-Darwinism is wrong: that environmental modifications of the DNA—I’m not referring to methylation that is actually itself coded in the DNA—can be passed on for many generations, forming a type of “Lamarckian” inheritance that has long been thought impossible. I’ve discussed this claim in detail and have tried to show that environmentally-induced modifications of DNA are inevitably eroded away within one or a few generations, and therefore cannot form a stable basis for evolutionary adaptation. Further, we have no evidence of any adaptations that are based on modifications of the DNA originally produced by the environment.
In the Guardian show, the “Coyne-ian” position is taken by Dr. George Davey Smith, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Bristol. The “epigenetics-will-revise-our-view-of-evolution” side is taken by Dr. Tim Spector, a genetic epidemiologist at King’s College. Smith makes many of the points that I’ve tried to make over the past few years, and I hope it’s not too self-aggrandizing to say that I think he gets the best of Spector, who can defend the position only that epigenetic modification is important within one generation (e.g., cancer) or at most between just two generations.
But listen for yourself. These guys are more up on the literature than I am, and I was glad to see that, given Smith’s unrebutted arguments, neo-Darwinism is still not in serious danger. (I have to say, though, that I’d like to think that if we found stable and environmentally induced inheritance that could cause adaptive changes in the genome, I’d be the first to admit it.)
… is from Parker T. Moon’s 1928 volume, Imperialism and World Politics; it’s a passage quoted often by Tom Palmer – for example, on page 418 of Tom’s 1996 essay “Myths of Individualism,” which is reprinted in Toward Liberty (David Boaz, ed., 2002):
Language often obscures truth. More than is ordinarily realized, our eyes are blinded to the facts of international relations by tricks of the tongue. When one uses the simple monosyllable “France” one thinks of France as a unit, an entity. When to avoid awkward repetition we use a personal pronoun in referring to a country – when for example we say “France sent her troops to conquer Tunis” – we impute not only unity but personality to the country. The very words conceal the facts and make international relations a glamorous drama in which personalized nations are the actors, and all too easily we forget the flesh-and-blood men and women who are the true actors. How different it would be if we had no such word as “France,” and had to say instead – thirty-eight million men, women and children of very diversified interests and beliefs, inhabiting 218,000 square miles of territory! Then we should more accurately describe the Tunis expedition in some such way as this: “A few of these thirty-eight million persons sent thirty thousand others to conquer Tunis.” This way of putting the fact immediately suggests a question, or rather a series of questions. Who are the “few”? Why did they send the thirty thousand to Tunis? And why did these obey?
Moon’s point applies also, of course, to trade. When we say, for example, that “America trades with China” we too easily overlook the fact that what’s going on is nothing other than some number of flesh-and-blood individuals living in, or citizens of, a geo-political region that we today conventionally call “America” voluntarily buy and sell with a number of flesh-and-blood individuals living in, or citizens of, a geo-political region that we today conventionally call “China.”
Nothing - nothing at all - about such exchanges differs in any economically relevant way from exchanges that take place exclusively among Americans or from exchanges that take place exclusively among the Chinese. Any downsides or upsides that you might identify as a result of Americans trading with the Chinese exist when Americans trade with Americans or when the Chinese trade with the Chinese. Yet personifying the collective masks this reality that all exchange is carried out by flesh-and-blood individuals, and that nothing about having those exchanges occur across man-drawn political boundaries is economically relevant.
A few thoughts.
Will’s column is excellent.
George F. Will: Detroit’s death by democracy – The Washington Post: uto industry executives, who often were invertebrate mediocrities, continually bought labor peace by mortgaging their companies’ futures in surrenders to union demands. Then city officials gave their employees — who have 47 unions, including one for crossing guards — pay scales comparable to those of autoworkers. Thus did private-sector decadence drive public-sector dysfunction — government negotiating with government-employees’ unions that are government organized as an interest group to lobby itself to do what it wants to do: Grow.
A Look Inside Detroit, Bus Edition …
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” — George Orwell
LCBO’s new ‘simplified pricing formula’ gives diplomats, federal government 49% discount on booze | National Post: OTTAWA — Ontario’s liquor board has sweetened an already sweet deal for the federal government and foreign diplomats as it chops the prices they pay for beer, wine and booze almost in half. Late last month, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario began offering its products to federal departments and agencies at a 49% discount from the retail price that everyone else pays. The cut rate on alcoholic beverages is also available to foreign embassies, high commissions, consulates and trade missions, most of whom are located in the Ottawa area, within the LCBO’s jurisdiction. And the favoured buyers will be exempt from an LCBO policy dating from 2001 that sets minimum prices for products, under its “social responsibility” mandate.
I’d already written up this post, and it raises some of the issues that are being discussed in the previous post’s thread, so I figured I’d post it now and then respond to comments and critiques to both posts as the week progresses. (Plus we’re putting up follow-up experiments this week, so if anyone has helpful criticisms, we might try to address them.)
So, here’s a summary of my latest x-phi results on what people say about the possibility of perfect prediction based on neural activity. The goal was not to address traditional philosophical debates (head on) but to pose challenges to a claim often made by “Willusionists” (people who claim that modern mind sciences, such as neuroscience, show that free will is an illusion). Willusionist arguments typically have a suppressed (definitional) premise that says “Free will requires that not X” and then they proceed to argue that science shows that X is true for humans. (In this forthcoming chapter I argue that Willusionists are often unclear about what they take X to be—determinism, physicalism, epiphenomenalism, rationalization—and that the evidence they present is not sufficient to demonstrate X for any X that should be taken to threaten free will.)
The definitional premise in these arguments is usually asserted based on Willusionists’ assumptions about what ordinary people believe (or sometimes their interpretation of an assumed consensus among philosophers). I think their assumptions are typically wrong. For instance, Sam Harris in his book Free Will argues that ordinary people would see that neuroscience threatens free will once they recognized that it allows in principle perfect prediction of decisions and behavior based on neural activity, even before people are aware of their decisions, and he gives a detailed description of such a scenario (on pp. 10-11).
With former students Jason Shepard (now at Emory psych), Shane Reuter (now at WashU PNP), and Morgan Thompson (going to Pitt HPS), we tested Harris’ prediction. I will provide the complete scenario we used in the first comment below.
The basic idea was to develop Harris’ scenario in full detail. We explain the possibility of a neuroimaging cap that would provide neuroscientists information about a person’s brain activity sufficient to predict with 100% accuracy everything the person will think and decide before she is aware of thinking or deciding it. They do this while Jill wears the cap for a month (of course they predict what she’ll do even when she tries to trick them). Along with everything else she decides or does, the neuroscientists predict how she will vote for Governor and President. (In one version the device also allows the neuroscientists to alter Jill’s brain activity and they change her vote for Governor, but not President, without her awareness of it.)
On the one hand, our scenario does not suggest that people’s (conscious) mental activity is bypassed (or causally irrelevant) to what they decide and do. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how to interpret it such that it allows a causal role for a non-physical mind or soul (or perhaps for Kane-style indeterminism in the brain at torn decisions or agent-causal powers). The scenario concludes: “Indeed, these experiments confirm that all human mental activity is entirely based on brain activity such that everything that any human thinks or does could be predicted ahead of time based on their earlier brain activity.” (Jason, Shane, and I plan to do follow up experiments with scenarios that more explicitly rule out dualism or non-reductionism and ones that are explicitly dualist, and also use ones that include moral decisions. See first comment.)
Some highlights of our results (using 278 GSU undergrads, though I’ve also run it on some middle school students for a Philosophy Outreach class and their responses follow the same patterns; we may try it on an mTurk sample too):
80% agree that “It is possible this technology could exist in the future”. This surprised me since there are so many reasons one might think it couldn’t be developed. Of the 20% who disagreed, only a handful mentioned the mind or soul or free will; instead, most mentioned mundane things like people not allowing it to be developed or technological difficulties. Responses to this possibility question didn’t correlate with responses to those described below.
The vast majority (typically 75-90%) responded that this scenario does not conflict with free will or responsibility regarding (a) Jill’s non-manipulated vote, (b) regarding Jill’s actions in general while wearing the scanner, or (c) regarding people if this technology actually existed, except this one was lower in the scenario where neuroscientists could manipulate. Mean scores were typically around 6 on a 7-point scale, though they were lower for the same statements in the case where the neuroscientists could manipulate decisions but didn’t. Means were similar for questions about having choices, making choices, and deserving blame.
Responses were markedly different for the decisions that were in fact manipulated by the neuroscientist (in the 2.3 range). This is not surprising but at least it shows people are paying attention (questions were intermixed), and that they are not just offering ‘free will no matter what’ judgments in the other cases.
Responses to “bypassing “questions partially mediated responses to free will and responsibility questions. That is, the degree to which people (dis)agreed with statements like, “Jill’s reasons had no effect on how she voted for Governor” or “If this technology existed, then people’s reasons would have no effect on what they did” partially explained their responses to statements about free will and responsibility for Jill or for people.
We also asked whether people agreed with this statement: “If this technology existed, it would show that each decision a person makes is caused by particular brain states.” Even though the scenario does not explicitly discuss neural causation, 2/3 agreed and responses to this statement did not correlate with responses to statements about free will and responsibility.
Now, we think these results falsify the armchair prediction made by Harris (and suggested by other Willusionists) about what ordinary people believe about free will. And I also think they provide support for the idea that most people are amenable to a naturalistic understanding of the mind and free will, or better, that they have what I call a ‘theory-lite’ understanding (with Morgan, I develop this idea in this paper, which is a companion piece to this paper by Joshua Knobe—feel free to broaden the discussion to these papers if you look at them, and I’ll have to say more about the 'theory-lite' view in response to Thomas’ questions).
But rather than further describing our interpretations of these results (and some potential objections to them and data problematic for them, such as the data presented by Thomas in comments), which I will do in the comments, let me start by asking y’all what you think these results show, if anything, about people’s beliefs, theories, and intuitions about free will, responsibility, the mind-body relation, etc. And to the extent that you think they don’t show much, why is that? Are there variations of the scenarios (or questions) that you think would help us show more? (Feel free to throw in critiques of x-phi along the way!)
Families, when a child is born, want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence
having wrecked my whole life,
only hope the baby will prove
ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
by becoming a cabinet minister.