Friday, June 21, 2024

The other shoe is about to drop in 2024 - important closure moments in the state of the world.

I want to pass on a clip (to which I have added some definitions in parentheses) from Venkatest Rao’s most recent Ribbonfarm Studio installment in which he argues that the other shoe is about to drop for many narratives in 2024, a year that feels much more exciting than 1984, 1994, 2004, or 2014.
With the Trump/Biden election, the other shoe is about to drop on the arc that began with the Great Weirding (radical global transformations that unfolded between 2016 and 2020). This arc has fuzzy beginnings and endings globally, but is clearly heading towards closure everywhere. For instance, the recent election in India, with its chastening message for the BJP, has a 10-year span (2014-24). In the EU and UK, various arcs that began with events in Greece/Italy and Brexit are headed towards some sort of natural closure.
Crypto and AI, two strands in my mediocre computing series (the other two being robotics and the metaverse), also seem to be at an other-shoe-drops phase. Crypto, after experiencing 4-5 boom-bust cycles since 2009, is finally facing a triple test of geopolitical significance, economic significance, and “product” potential (as in international agreement that “stable coins” as well as fiat currencies are valid vehicles for managing debt and commerce). It feels like in the next year or two we’ll learn if it’s a technology that’s going to make history or remain a sideshow. AI is shifting gears from a rapid and accelerating installation phase of increasing foundational capabilities to a deployment phase of productization, marked by Apple’s entry into the fray and a sense of impending saturation in the foundational capabilities.
Various wars (Gaza, Ukraine) and tensions (Taiwan) are starting to stress the Westphalian model of the nation state for real now. That’s the other shoe dropping on a 400-year-long story (also a 75 year long story about the rules-based international order, but that’s relatively less interesting).
Economically, we’re clearly decisively past the ZIRPy (Zero Interest Rate Policy) end of the neoliberal globalization era that began in the mid-80s. That shoe has already dropped. What new arc is starting is unclear — the first shoe of the new story hasn’t dropped yet. Something about nonzero interest rates in an uncertain world marked by a mercantilist resource-grabbing geopolitical race unfolding in parallel to slowly reconfiguring global trade patterns.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Managing the human herd

 This post is a dyspeptic random walk through thoughts triggered by the front page photograph of the Wall Street journal of June 17, 2024, showing Masses of pilgrims embarked on a symbolic stoning of the devil in Saudi Arabia under the soaring summer heat. Such enormous mobs of people are those most easily roused to strong emotions by charismatic speakers.

How are the emotions and behaviors of such enormous clans of humans be regulated in a sane and humane way? Can this be accomplished outside of authoritarian or oligarchical governance? Might such governance establish its control of the will and moods of millions through the unnoticed infiltration of AI into all aspects of their daily life (cf. Apple's recent AI announcements). Will the world come to be ruled by a "Book of Elon"? 

Or might we be moving into a world of decentralized everything? a bottom up emergence of consensus governance the from the mosh pit of web 3, cryptocurrencies and stablecoins? The noble sentiments of the Etherium Foundation/ notwithstanding, the examples we have to date of 'rules of the commons' are the chaos of Discord, Reddit, and other social media where the sentiments of idiots and experts jumble together in an impenetrable cacophony.  

Who or what is going to emerge to control this mess? How long will the "permaweird" persist?  

 

Monday, June 17, 2024

Empty innovation: What are we even doing?

I came across an interesting commentary by "Tante" on innovation, invention, and progress (or the lack thereof) in the constant churning, and rise and fall, of new ideas and products in the absence of questions like "Why are we doing this?" and "Who is profiting?". In spite of the speaker's arrogance and annoying style, I think it is worth a viewing.

Friday, June 14, 2024

The future of life.

I want to pass on this science magazine review of Jamie Metzl's new book "Superconvergence: How the Genetics, Biotech, and AI Revolutions Will Transform Our Lives, Work, and World". Metzel is founder of the One Shared World organization. Check out its website here.
On the night of 4 July 1776, the Irish immigrant and official printer to the Continental Congress John Dunlap entered his Philadelphia print-shop and began to typeset the first printed version of a document that was to become the enduring North Star of the “American experiment.” It comprised an ideological handbook for its utopian aspirations and a codification of purported essential self-evident ground truths that included the equality of all men and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By the morning, Dunlap had produced an estimated 200 copies of the American Declaration of Independence, which Abraham Lincoln would later refer to as a “rebuke and a stumblingblock… to tyranny and oppression.”
In his erudite, optimistic, and timely book Superconvergence, the futurist Jamie Metzl laments the lack of any such authoritative reference to inform our exploration of an equally expansive, intriguing, and uncharted territory: humankind’s future. Replete with unprecedented opportunities and existential risks hitherto unimaginable in life’s history, the new world we are entering transcends geographical boundaries, and—as a result of humankind’s global interdependencies—it must, by necessity, exist in a no-man’s-land beyond the mandates of ideologies and nation-states. Its topography is defined not by geological events and evolution by natural selection so much as by the intersection of several exponential human-made technologies. Most notably, these include the generation of machine learning intelligence that can interrogate big data to define generative “rules” of biology and the post- Darwinian engineering of living systems through the systematic rewriting of their genetic code.
Acknowledging the intrinsic mutability of natural life and its ever-changing biochemistry and morphology, Metzl is unable to align himself with UNESCO’s 1997 Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. To argue that the current version of the human genome is sacred is to negate its prior iterations, including the multiple species of human that preceded us but disappeared along the way. The sequences of all Earth’s species are in a simultaneous state of being and becoming, Metzl argues. Life is intrinsically fluid.
Although we are still learning to write complex genomes rapidly, accurately, without sequence limitation, and at low cost, and our ability to author novel genomes remains stymied by our inability to unpick the generative laws of biology, it is just a matter of time before we transform biology into a predictable engineering material, at which point we will be able to recast life into desired forms. But while human-engineered living materials and biologically inspired devices offer potential solutions to the world’s most challenging problems, our rudimentary understanding of complex ecosystems and the darker sides of human nature cast long shadows, signaling the need for caution.
Metzl provides some wonderful examples of how artificial species and bioengineering, often perceived as adversaries of natural life, could help address several of the most important issues of the moment. These challenges include climate change, desertification, deforestation, pollution (including the 79,000-metric-ton patch of garbage the size of Alaska in the Pacific Ocean), the collapse of oceanic ecosystems, habitat loss, global population increase, and the diminution of species biodiversity. By rewriting the genomes of crops and increasing the efficiency of agriculture, we can reduce the need to convert additional wild habitats into farmland, he writes. Additionally, the use of bioengineering to make sustainable biofuels, biocomputing, bio foodstuffs, biodegradable plastics, and DNA information–storing materials will help reduce global warming.
Meanwhile, artificial intelligence (AI) can free up human time. By 2022, DeepMind’s AlphaFold program had predicted the structures of 214 million proteins—a feat that would have taken as long as 642 million years to achieve using conventional methods. As Metzl comments, this places “millions of years back into the pot of human innovation time.” The ability to hack human biology using AI will also have a tremendous impact on the human health span and life span, not least through AI-designed drugs, he predicts.
Metzl is right when he concludes that we have reached a “critical moment in human history” and that “reengineered biology will play a central role in the future of our species.” We will need to define a new North Star—a manifesto for life—to assist with its navigation. Metzl argues for the establishment of a new international body with depoliticized autonomy to focus on establishing common responses to shared global existential challenges. He suggests that this process could be kick-started by convening a summit aimed at establishing aligned governance guidelines for the revolutionary new technologies we are creating.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The pathologies of the educated elites

Another really nice opinion piece from David Brooks, who notes the consequences, as we have moved from the industrial age to the information age, of progressive energy moving from the working class to the universities, especially the elite universities.

I’ve looked on with a kind of dismay as elite university dynamics have spread across national life and politics, making America worse in all sorts of ways. Let me try to be more specific about these dynamics.
The first is false consciousness. To be progressive is to be against privilege. But today progressives dominate elite institutions like the exclusive universities, the big foundations and the top cultural institutions...This is the contradiction of the educated class. Virtue is defined by being anti-elite. But today’s educated class constitutes the elite, or at least a big part of it...This sort of cognitive dissonance often has a radicalizing effect. When your identity is based on siding with the marginalized, but you work at Horace Mann or Princeton, you have to work really hard to make yourself and others believe you are really progressive. You’re bound to drift further and further to the left to prove you are standing up to the man...elite students...are often the ones talking most loudly about burning the system down.
The second socially harmful dynamic is what you might call the cultural consequences of elite overproduction...the marketplace isn’t producing enough of the kinds of jobs these graduates think they deserve...Peter Turchin argued that periods of elite overproduction lead to a rising tide of social decay as alienated educated-class types wage ever more ferocious power struggles with other elites...The spread of cancel culture and support for decriminalizing illegal immigration and “defunding the police” were among the quintessential luxury beliefs that seemed out of touch to people in less privileged parts of society. Those people often responded by making a sharp countershift in the populist direction, contributing to the election of Donald Trump and to his continued political viability today...elite overproduction induces people on the left and the right to form their political views around their own sense of personal grievance and alienation. It launches unhappy progressives and their populist enemies into culture war battles that help them feel engaged, purposeful and good about themselves, but ...these battles are often more about performative self-validation than they are about practical policies that might serve the common good.
The third dynamic is the inflammation of the discourse. The information age has produced a vast cohort of people (including me) who live by trafficking in ideas — academics, journalists, activists, foundation employees, consultants and the various other shapers of public opinion...Nothing is more unstable than a fashionable opinion. If your status is defined by your opinions, you’re living in a world of perpetual insecurity, perpetual mental and moral war...French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu...argued that just as economic capitalists use their resource — wealth — to amass prestige and power, people who form the educated class and the cultural elite, symbolic capitalists, use our resources — beliefs, fancy degrees, linguistic abilities — to amass prestige, power and, if we can get it, money...symbolic capitalists turned political postures into power tools that enable them to achieve social, cultural and economic might...battles for symbolic consecration are now the water in which many of us highly educated Americans swim. In the absence of religious beliefs, these moral wars give people a genuine sense of meaning and purpose.
Brooks notes a number of potential ways of countering these dynamics, all of which require the educated class. progressive or not, to address the social, political and economic divides it has unwittingly created. But he also cites another, perhaps more likely, path:

Perhaps today’s educated elite is just like any other historical elite. We gained our status by exploiting or not even seeing others down below, and we are sure as hell not going to give up any of our status without a fight.

 Brooks then points to a forthcoming book, al-Gharbi’s “We Have Never Been Woke.” al-Gharbi notes:

...today’s educated-class activists are conveniently content to restrict their political action to the realm of symbols. In his telling, land acknowledgments — when people open public events by naming the Indigenous peoples who had their land stolen from them — are the quintessential progressive gesture...It’s often non-Indigenous people signaling their virtue to other non-Indigenous people while doing little or nothing for the descendants of those who were actually displaced...while members of the educated class do a lot of moral preening, their lifestyles contribute to the immiserations of the people who have nearly been rendered invisible — the Amazon warehouse worker, the DoorDash driver making $1.75 an hour after taxes and expenses.

 Brooks concludes:

That rumbling sound you hear is the possibility of a multiracial, multiprong, right/left alliance against the educated class. Donald Trump has already created the nub of this kind of movement but is himself too polarizing to create a genuinely broad-based populist movement. After Trump is off the stage, it’s very possible to imagine such an uprising....The lesson for those of us in the educated class is to seriously reform the system we have created or be prepared to be run over.

 

 

 

Monday, June 10, 2024

Protecting scientific integrity in an age of generative AI

I want to pass on the full text of an editorial by Blau et al in PNAS, the link points to the more complete open source online version containing acknowledgements and references:

Revolutionary advances in AI have brought us to a transformative moment for science. AI is accelerating scientific discoveries and analyses. At the same time, its tools and processes challenge core norms and values in the conduct of science, including accountability, transparency, replicability, and human responsibility (13). These difficulties are particularly apparent in recent advances with generative AI. Future innovations with AI may mitigate some of these or raise new concerns and challenges.
 
With scientific integrity and responsibility in mind, the National Academy of Sciences, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands recently convened an interdisciplinary panel of experts with experience in academia, industry, and government to explore rising challenges posed by the use of AI in research and to chart a path forward for the scientific community. The panel included experts in behavioral and social sciences, ethics, biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and computer science, as well as leaders in higher education, law, governance, and science publishing and communication. Discussions were informed by commissioned papers detailing the development and current state of AI technologies; the potential effects of AI advances on equality, justice, and research ethics; emerging governance issues; and lessons that can be learned from past instances where the scientific community addressed new technologies with significant societal implications (49).
 
Generative AI systems are constructed with computational procedures that learn from large bodies of human-authored and curated text, imagery, and analyses, including expansive collections of scientific literature. The systems are used to perform multiple operations, such as problem-solving, data analysis, interpretation of textual and visual content, and the generation of text, images, and other forms of data. In response to prompts and other directives, the systems can provide users with coherent text, compelling imagery, and analyses, while also possessing the capability to generate novel syntheses and ideas that push the expected boundaries of automated content creation.
 
Generative AI’s power to interact with scientists in a natural manner, to perform unprecedented types of problem-solving, and to generate novel ideas and content poses challenges to the long-held values and integrity of scientific endeavors. These challenges make it more difficult for scientists, the larger research community, and the public to 1) understand and confirm the veracity of generated content, reviews, and analyses; 2) maintain accurate attribution of machine- versus human-authored analyses and information; 3) ensure transparency and disclosure of uses of AI in producing research results or textual analyses; 4) enable the replication of studies and analyses; and 5) identify and mitigate biases and inequities introduced by AI algorithms and training data.

Five Principles of Human Accountability and Responsibility

To protect the integrity of science in the age of generative AI, we call upon the scientific community to remain steadfast in honoring the guiding norms and values of science. We endorse recommendations from a recent National Academies report that explores ethical issues in computing research and promoting responsible practices through education and training (3). We also reaffirm the findings of earlier work performed by the National Academies on responsible automated research workflows, which called for human review of algorithms, the need for transparency and reproducibility, and efforts to uncover and address bias (10).
 
Building upon the prior studies, we urge the scientific community to focus sustained attention on five principles of human accountability and responsibility for scientific efforts that employ AI:
1.
Transparent disclosure and attribution
Scientists should clearly disclose the use of generative AI in research, including the specific tools, algorithms, and settings employed; accurately attribute the human and AI sources of information or ideas, distinguishing between the two and acknowledging their respective contributions; and ensure that human expertise and prior literature are appropriately cited, even when machines do not provide such citations in their output.
 
Model creators and refiners should provide publicly accessible details about models, including the data used to train or refine them; carefully manage and publish information about models and their variants so as to provide scientists with a means of citing the use of particular models with specificity; provide long-term archives of models to enable replication studies; disclose when proper attribution of generated content cannot be provided; and pursue innovations in learning, reasoning, and information retrieval machinery aimed at providing users of those models with the ability to attribute sources and authorship of the data employed in AI-generated content.
2.
Verification of AI-generated content and analyses
Scientists are accountable for the accuracy of the data, imagery, and inferences that they draw from their uses of generative models. Accountability requires the use of appropriate methods to validate the accuracy and reliability of inferences made by or with the assistance of AI, along with a thorough disclosure of evidence relevant to such inferences. It includes monitoring and testing for biases in AI algorithms and output, with the goal of identifying and correcting biases that could skew research outcomes or interpretations.
 
Model creators should disclose limitations in the ability of systems to confirm the veracity of any data, text, or images generated by AI. When verification of the truthfulness of generated content is not possible, model output should provide clear, well-calibrated assessments of confidence. Model creators should proactively identify, report, and correct biases in AI algorithms that could skew research outcomes or interpretations.
3.
Documentation of AI-generated data
Scientists should mark AI-generated or synthetic data, inferences, and imagery with provenance information about the role of AI in their generation, so that it is not mistaken for observations collected in the real world. Scientists should not present AI-generated content as observations collected in the real world.
 
Model creators should clearly identify, annotate, and maintain provenance about synthetic data used in their training procedures and monitor the issues, concerns, and behaviors arising from the reuse of computer-generated content in training future models.
4.
A focus on ethics and equity
Scientists and model creators should take credible steps to ensure that their uses of AI produce scientifically sound and socially beneficial results while taking appropriate steps to mitigate the risk of harm. This includes advising scientists and the public on the handling of tradeoffs associated with making certain AI technologies available to the public, especially in light of potential risks stemming from inadvertent outcomes or malicious applications.
 
Scientists and model creators should adhere to ethical guidelines for AI use, particularly in terms of respect for clear attribution of observational versus AI-generated sources of data, intellectual property, privacy, disclosure, and consent, as well as the detection and mitigation of potential biases in the construction and use of AI systems. They should also continuously monitor other societal ramifications likely to arise as AI is further developed and deployed and update practices and rules that promote beneficial uses and mitigate the prospect of social harm.
 
Scientists, model creators, and policymakers should promote equity in the questions and needs that AI systems are used to address as well as equitable access to AI tools and educational opportunities. These efforts should empower a diverse community of scientific investigators to leverage AI systems effectively and to address the diverse needs of communities, including the needs of groups that are traditionally underserved or marginalized. In addition, methods for soliciting meaningful public participation in evaluating equity and fairness of AI technologies and uses should be studied and employed.
 
AI should not be used without careful human oversight in decisional steps of peer review processes or decisions around career advancement and funding allocations.
5.
Continuous monitoring, oversight, and public engagement
Scientists, together with representatives from academia, industry, government, and civil society, should continuously monitor and evaluate the impact of AI on the scientific process, and with transparency, adapt strategies as necessary to maintain integrity. Because AI technologies are rapidly evolving, research communities must continue to examine and understand the powers, deficiencies, and influences of AI; work to anticipate and prevent harmful uses; and harness its potential to address critical societal challenges. AI scientists must at the same time work to improve the effectiveness of AI for the sciences, including addressing challenges with veracity, attribution, explanation, and transparency of training data and inference procedures. Efforts should be undertaken within and across sectors to pursue ongoing study of the status and dynamics of the use of AI in the sciences and pursue meaningful methods to solicit public participation and engagement as AI is developed, applied, and regulated. Results of this engagement and study should be broadly disseminated.

A New Strategic Council to Guide AI in Science

We call upon the scientific community to establish oversight structures capable of responding to the opportunities AI will afford science and to the unanticipated ways in which AI may undermine scientific integrity.
 
We propose that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine establish a Strategic Council on the Responsible Use of Artificial Intelligence in Science.* The council should coordinate with the scientific community and provide regularly updated guidance on the appropriate uses of AI, especially during this time of rapid change. The council should study, monitor, and address the evolving uses of AI in science; new ethical and societal concerns, including equity; and emerging threats to scientific norms. The council should share its insights across disciplines and develop and refine best practices.
 
More broadly, the scientific community should adhere to existing guidelines and regulations, while contributing to the ongoing development of public and private AI governance. Governance efforts must include engagement with the public about how AI is being used and should be used in the sciences.
 
With the advent of generative AI, all of us in the scientific community have a responsibility to be proactive in safeguarding the norms and values of science. That commitment—together with the five principles of human accountability and responsibility for the use of AI in science and the standing up of the council to provide ongoing guidance—will support the pursuit of trustworthy science for the benefit of all.
 

Friday, June 07, 2024

Is it a fact? The epistemic force of language in news headlines.

From Chuey et al. in PNAS (open source):  

Significance

Headlines are an influential source of information, especially because people often do not read beyond them. We investigated how subtle differences in epistemic language in headlines (e.g., “believe” vs. “know“) affect readers’ inferences about whether claims are perceived as matters of fact or mere opinion. We found, for example, saying “Scientists believe methane emissions soared to a record in 2021” led readers to view methane levels as more a matter of opinion compared to saying “Scientists know…” Our results provide insight into how epistemic verbs journalists use affect whether claims are perceived as matters of fact and suggest a mechanism contributing to the rise of alternative facts and “post-truth” politics.
Abstract
How we reason about objectivity—whether an assertion has a ground truth—has implications for belief formation on wide-ranging topics. For example, if someone perceives climate change to be a matter of subjective opinion similar to the best movie genre, they may consider empirical claims about climate change as mere opinion and irrelevant to their beliefs. Here, we investigate whether the language employed by journalists might influence the perceived objectivity of news claims. Specifically, we ask whether factive verb framing (e.g., "Scientists know climate change is happening") increases perceived objectivity compared to nonfactive framing (e.g., "Scientists believe [...]"). Across eight studies (N = 2,785), participants read news headlines about unique, noncontroversial topics (studies 1a–b, 2a–b) or a familiar, controversial topic (climate change; studies 3a–b, 4a–b) and rated the truth and objectivity of the headlines’ claims. Across all eight studies, when claims were presented as beliefs (e.g., “Tortoise breeders believe tortoises are becoming more popular pets”), people consistently judged those claims as more subjective than claims presented as knowledge (e.g., “Tortoise breeders know…”), as well as claims presented as unattributed generics (e.g., “Tortoises are becoming more popular pets”). Surprisingly, verb framing had relatively little, inconsistent influence over participants’ judgments of the truth of claims. These results demonstrate how, apart from shaping whether we believe a claim is true or false, epistemic language in media can influence whether we believe a claim has an objective answer at all.

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Impact of our built environment on our microbiome and health

Bosch et al. do a perspective in PNAS (open source) pointing out that:
...contemporary built environments are steadily reducing the microbial diversity essential for human health, well-being, and resilience while accelerating the symptoms of human chronic diseases including environmental allergies, and other more life-altering diseases.
Here is their abstract:
There is increasing evidence that interactions between microbes and their hosts not only play a role in determining health and disease but also in emotions, thought, and behavior. Built environments greatly influence microbiome exposures because of their built-in highly specific microbiomes coproduced with myriad metaorganisms including humans, pets, plants, rodents, and insects. Seemingly static built structures host complex ecologies of microorganisms that are only starting to be mapped. These microbial ecologies of built environments are directly and interdependently affected by social, spatial, and technological norms. Advances in technology have made these organisms visible and forced the scientific community and architects to rethink gene–environment and microbe interactions respectively. Thus, built environment design must consider the microbiome, and research involving host–microbiome interaction must consider the built-environment. This paradigm shift becomes increasingly important as evidence grows that contemporary built environments are steadily reducing the microbial diversity essential for human health, well-being, and resilience while accelerating the symptoms of human chronic diseases including environmental allergies, and other more life-altering diseases. New models of design are required to balance maximizing exposure to microbial diversity while minimizing exposure to human-associated diseases. Sustained trans-disciplinary research across time (evolutionary, historical, and generational) and space (cultural and geographical) is needed to develop experimental design protocols that address multigenerational multispecies health and health equity in built environments.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Ancient origins of aspects of instrumental and song melodies distinctive from those of language.

 A global collaboration from many cultures shows that songs and instrumental melodies are slower and higher and use more stable pitches than speech, suggesting evolutionary origins universal to all humans that cannot simply be explained by culture. The numerous samples of music collected could be arranged in a musi-linguistic continuum from instrumental music to spoken language.

Both music and language are found in all known human societies, yet no studies have compared similarities and differences between song, speech, and instrumental music on a global scale. In this Registered Report, we analyzed two global datasets: (i) 300 annotated audio recordings representing matched sets of traditional songs, recited lyrics, conversational speech, and instrumental melodies from our 75 coauthors speaking 55 languages; and (ii) 418 previously published adult-directed song and speech recordings from 209 individuals speaking 16 languages. Of our six preregistered predictions, five were strongly supported: Relative to speech, songs use (i) higher pitch, (ii) slower temporal rate, and (iii) more stable pitches, while both songs and speech used similar (iv) pitch interval size and (v) timbral brightness. Exploratory analyses suggest that features vary along a “musi-linguistic” continuum when including instrumental melodies and recited lyrics. Our study provides strong empirical evidence of cross-cultural regularities in music and speech.

Friday, May 24, 2024

Think AI Can Perceive Emotion? Think Again.

Numerous MindBlog posts have presented the work and writing of Elizabeth Feldman Barrett (enter Barrett in the search box in the right column of this web page). Her book, "How Emotions Are Made," is the one I recommend when anyone asks me what I think is the best popular book on how our brains work.  Here I want to pass on her piece on AI and emotions in the Sat. May 18 Wall Street Journal. It collects together the various reasons that AI can not, and should not, be used for detecting our emotional state from our facial expressions or other body language.  Here is her text: 

Imagine that you are interviewing for a job. The interviewer asks a question that makes you think. While concentrating, you furrow your brow and your face forms a scowl. A camera in the room feeds your scowling face to an AI model, which determines that you’ve become angry. The interview team decides not to hire you because, in their view, you are too quick to anger. Well, if you weren’t angry during the interview, you probably would be now.

This scenario is less hypothetical than you might realize. So-called emotion AI systems already exist, and some are specifically designed for job interviews. Other emotion AI products try to create more empathic chatbots, build more precise medical treatment plans and detect confused students in classrooms. But there’s a catch: The best available scientific evidence indicates that there are no universal expressions of emotion.

In real life, angry people don’t commonly scowl. Studies show that in Western cultures, they scowl about 35% of the time, which is more than chance but not enough to be a universal expression of anger. The other 65% of the time, they move their faces in other meaningful ways. They might pout or frown. They might cry. They might laugh. They might sit quietly and plot their enemy’s demise. Even when Westerners do scowl, half the time it isn’t in anger. They scowl when they concentrate, when they enjoy a bad pun or when they have gas.

Similar findings hold true for every so-called universal facial expression of emotion. Frowning in sadness, smiling in happiness, widening your eyes in fear, wrinkling your nose in disgust and yes, scowling in anger, are stereotypes—common but oversimplified notions about emotional expressions.

Where did these stereotypes come from? You may be surprised to learn that they were not discovered by observing how people move their faces during episodes of emotion in real life. They originated in a book by Charles Darwin, “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” which proposed that humans evolved certain facial movements from ancient animals. But Darwin didn’t conduct careful observations for these ideas as he had for his masterwork, “On the Origin of Species.” Instead, he came up with them by studying photographs of people whose faces were stimulated with electricity, then asked his colleagues if they agreed.

In 2019, the journal Psycho--logical Science in the Public Interest engaged five senior scientists, including me, to examine the scientific evidence for the idea that people express anger, sadness, fear, happiness, disgust and surprise in universal ways. We came from different fields—psychology, neuroscience, engineering and computer science—and began with opposing views. Yet, after reviewing more than a thousand papers during almost a hundred videoconferences, we reached a consensus: In the real world, an emotion like anger or sadness is a broad category full of variety. People express different emotions with the same facial movements and the same emotion with different facial movements. The variation is meaningfully tied to a person’s situation.

In short, we can’t train AI on stereotypes and expect the results to work in real life, no matter how big the data set or sophisticated the algorithm. Shortly after the paper was published, Microsoft retired the emotion AI features of their facial recognition software.

Other scientists have also demonstrated that faces are a poor indicator of a person’s emotional state. In a study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2008, scientists combined photographs of stereotypical but mismatched facial expressions and body poses, such as a scowling face attached to a body that’s holding a dirty diaper. Viewers asked to identify the emotion in each image typically chose what was implied by the body, not the face— in this case disgust, not anger. In a study published in the journal Science in 2012, the same lead scientist showed that winning and losing athletes, in the midst of their glory or defeat, make facial movements that are indistinguishable.

Nevertheless, these stereotypes are still widely assumed to be universal expressions of emotion. They’re in posters in U.S. preschools, spread through the media, designed into emojis and now enshrined in AI code. I recently asked two popular AIbased image generators, Midjourney and OpenAI’s DALL-E, to depict “an angry person.” I also asked two AI chatbots, OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Gemini, how to tell if a person is angry. The results were filled with scowls, furrowed brows, tense jaws and clenched teeth.

Even AI systems that appear to sidestep emotion stereotypes may still apply them in stealth. A 2021 study in the journal Nature trained an AI model with thousands of video clips from the internet and tested it on millions more. The authors concluded that 16 facial expressions are made worldwide in certain social contexts. Yet the trainers who labeled the clips with emotion words were all English--speakers from a single country, India, so they effectively transmitted cultural stereotypes to a machine. Plus, there was no way to objectively confirm what the strangers in the videos were actually feeling at the time.

Clearly, large data sets alone cannot protect an AI system from applying preconceived assumptions about emotion. The European Union’s AI Act, passed in 2023, recognizes this reality by barring the use of emotion AI in policing, schools and workplaces.

So what is the path forward? If you encounter an emotion AI --product that purports to hire skilled job candidates, diagnose anxiety and depression, assess guilt or innocence in court, detect terrorists in airports or analyze a person’s emotional state for any other purpose, it pays to be skeptical. Here are three questions you can ask about any emotion AI product to probe the scientific approach behind it.

Is the AI model trained to account for the huge variation of real-world emotional life? Any individual may express an emotion like anger differently at different times and in different situations, depending on context. People also use the same movements to express different states, even nonemotional ones. AI models must be trained to reflect this variety.

Does the AI model distinguish between observing facial movements and inferring meaning from these movements? Muscle movements are measurable; inferences are guesses. If a system or its designers confuse description with inference, like considering a scowl to be an “anger expression” or even calling a facial movement a “facial expression,” that’s a red flag.

Given that faces by themselves don’t reveal emotion, does the AI model include abundant context? I don’t mean just a couple of signals, such as a person’s voice and heart rate. In real life, when you perceive someone else as emotional, your brain combines signals from your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, and the internal systems of your body and draws on a lifetime of experience. An AI model would need much more of this information to make reasonable guesses about a person’s emotional state.

AI promises to simplify decisions by providing quick answers, but these answers are helpful and justified only if they draw from the true richness and variety of experience. None of us wants important outcomes in our lives, or the lives of our loved ones, to be determined by a stereotype.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Happiness Gap Between Left and Right

 I want to pass on a few clips from a recent Thomas Edsall essay, followed by a condensed version of the longer piece provided by Chat GPT 4:

Why is it that a substantial body of social science research finds that conservatives are happier than liberals?...psychologists and other social scientists have begun to dig deeper into the underpinnings of liberal discontent — not only unhappiness but also depression and other measures of dissatisfaction.
One of the findings emerging from this research is that the decline in happiness and in a sense of agency is concentrated among those on the left who stress matters of identity, social justice and the oppression of marginalized groups.
There is, in addition, a parallel phenomenon taking place on the right as Donald Trump and his MAGA loyalists angrily complain of oppression by liberals who engage in a relentless vendetta to keep Trump out of the White House.
There is a difference in the way the left and right react to frustration and grievance. Instead of despair, the contemporary right has responded with mounting anger, rejecting democratic institutions and norms.

Here is my edited version of a Chat GPT4 4-fold condensation of Edsall's essay: 

…surveys have consistently shown that those on the right of the political spectrum enjoy a higher self-reported sense of happiness compared to their counterparts on the left. The reasons are as complex as they are intriguing.

Conservatives tend to view the social and economic systems as just and fair, where hard work is rewarded and natural hierarchies are maintained. This perspective shields them from much of the anger or dissatisfaction that might arise from witnessing social or economic inequalities. They see market outcomes and social stratifications as generally fair and based on merit, which fosters a sense of contentment or acceptance of their circumstances.

On the other hand, liberals are more likely to perceive social and economic systems as flawed or unfair, nurturing a sense of injustice and dissatisfaction. This ideological stance makes them more sensitive to the inequities and imperfections of society, which can manifest as frustration, sadness, or a pervasive sense of being wronged. The liberal focus on social justice, equity, and the protection of marginalized groups, while morally compelling, can also be a source of continuous discontent and agitation as these goals are often far from being realized.

Recent psychological research has started to probe deeper into these disparities, shifting the focus from documenting differences to understanding their underlying causes. This body of work suggests that the liberal emphasis on identity and the systemic oppression of marginalized groups can sometimes lead to a feeling of disempowerment. By defining themselves in terms of victimhood and systemic barriers, liberals might inadvertently undermine their sense of personal agency, which is closely linked to psychological well-being.

The current political climate, especially with the rise of Donald Trump and his brand of populism, has also highlighted a stark difference in how frustration and grievance are expressed across the political spectrum. While liberals might internalize their discontent, leading to despair and dejection, many conservatives have channeled their frustrations into anger and defiance. This is exemplified by the significant number of Republicans who view Democrats not just as political opponents, but as outright enemies, and who believe in the necessity of strong, even authoritarian leadership to preserve their way of life.

This divergence in emotional response is not without consequences. As observed in various studies and polls, more than twice as many Republicans as Democrats believe that extreme measures, including violence, might be necessary to protect the nation from its leaders. This growing acceptance of force and the bending of democratic norms and institutions reflect a profound shift in conservative sentiment, fueled by perceived threats to their traditional values and way of life.

The implications of these ideological and psychological divides extend beyond mere political debates to affect the very fabric of individual well-being. Scholars like Jamin Halberstadt and Timothy A. Judge argue that a focus on systemic injustices and an external locus of control can significantly dampen happiness and self-esteem. Liberals, with their emphasis on the collective and the structural, might find themselves feeling powerless and disillusioned, while conservatives, with their focus on individualism and personal accountability, maintain a more optimistic and empowered outlook.

Moreover, the phenomenon of concept creep, as discussed by Nick Haslam, illustrates another layer of complexity. This expansion of definitions around harm and abuse, often driven by liberal ideologies, has increased sensitivity to various issues, which while raising awareness, also intensifies feelings of vulnerability and injustice. This heightened sensitivity can lead to an atmosphere where free speech and expression are more heavily scrutinized, further complicating the landscape of political and social discourse.

In conclusion, the happiness gap between conservatives and liberals is a multifaceted issue that reflects deeper ideological beliefs and psychological orientations. While conservatives may find comfort in a worldview that sees the social order as just and self-determined, liberals' commitment to challenging this order and addressing systemic injustices, though noble, may paradoxically contribute to their own discontent. This dynamic interplay between ideology and well-being underscores the profound impact of our political beliefs on our personal lives, shaping not only how we view the world but also how we experience it.

 

 

Monday, May 20, 2024

Age of Revolutions

I've finished reading through Fareed Zakaria’s recent magisterial book: “Age of Revolutions Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present.” I was so impressed with the concluding pages of the book, titled "The Infinite Abyss" that I have re-read it several times, and was about to attempt a summary of its main points before checking and finding, sure enough, that Chat GPT4 and Anthropic Claude saved me at least an hour of work by performing their quite adequate responses to my prompt: "Writing as professional historian please write an approximately 1000 word summary of the conclusion of Fareed Zakaria’s recent book..." Claude generated 466 words, and ChatGPT 622. I pass on this slightly edited version of Claude's response: 

Zakaria reflects on how revolutions and rapid social change, despite bringing progress, have also generated widespread anxiety and backlash throughout history. Even the most successful revolutions like those in the Netherlands, Britain, and America faced deep resistance. The failed French Revolution instilled a lasting fear of radical change.  

Today, this dynamic plays out with populist leaders like Trump, Orban, and Bolsonaro pushing back against globalization and liberal values out of a desire to reassert national culture. However, Zakaria argues this crisis of global liberalism stems from rapidly transforming societies upending traditional ways of life, leaving many feeling unmoored despite material progress.  

Freedom and autonomy have come at the expense of eroding the authority and traditions that once bound communities together. This vacuum has allowed populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism to offer an "escape from freedom" by subjugating the individual to a higher cause like nation or religion. But Zakaria doubts such ideologies can truly fill the "hole in the heart" created by modernity, as human beings still fundamentally desire freedom for themselves.  

The liberal democratic state avoided the pitfalls of revolutionary excess and top-down imposition of change by gradually reforming within the fabric of society. Change unfolded more organically rather than being abruptly imposed. Zakaria calls for continuing this approach - persuading and educating people rather than forcing change upon them.  

He argues both the left and right have become susceptible to illiberal revolutionary impulses - the right's outright rejection of liberal democracy, and the left's desire to discard liberalism's rules like free speech to immediately achieve their vision of justice. Zakaria warns such extremism, convinced of its virtue, inevitably leads to coercion, violence and destruction.  

Instead, Zakaria advocates gradual, compromising reform that takes into account the whole of society. He points to past examples where conservatives eventually accepted previous liberal advances they had opposed. Like the British Conservatives after 1832 who made peace with democratization under the idea "reform, that you may preserve." Today, Biden has modestly pivoted to address some populist economic concerns to preserve the overall liberal project.  

Ultimately, Zakaria argues liberalism must imbue itself with moral meaning and instill a sense of pride to fill the void left by eroding tradition and religion. Its ideals of freedom, rights, and democracy should inspire the same passion as past causes that built civilizations. Without recovering that confidence in its driving vision, modern liberal civilization risks declining into cynicism and disillusion, paving the way for a new "dark ages" as its predecessors did when they lost faith in their animating principles.  

Human history's greatest tradition liberated the human spirit and mind. Zakaria urges not losing sight of its unfinished project amid the inevitable struggles of politics and social change. Liberalism's greatest achievements, he asserts, still lie ahead if its sublime vision can be reclaimed.  

Friday, May 17, 2024

Evolutionarily conserved neural responses to affective touch transcend consciousness and change with age

Interesting work from Charbonneau et al. in macaque monkeys on the affective (gentle, pleasant) touch pathways that in humans use a different neural network than pathways of discriminative touch:

Significance

Affective touch is thought to be a critical substrate for the formation of the social relationships which exist as a foundation for primate societies. Although grooming behavior in monkeys appears to recapitulate features of affective touch behavior in humans, it is unknown whether affective touch activates the same neural networks in other primate species and whether this activation requires conscious perception or changes across the lifespan. We stimulated lightly anesthetized macaques at affective (slow) and discriminative (fast) touch speeds during the acquisition of functional MRI data. We demonstrate evolutionarily conserved activation of interoceptive neural networks which change significantly in old age.

Abstract

Affective touch—a slow, gentle, and pleasant form of touch—activates a different neural network than which is activated during discriminative touch in humans. Affective touch perception is enabled by specialized low-threshold mechanoreceptors in the skin with unmyelinated fibers called C tactile (CT) afferents. These CT afferents are conserved across mammalian species, including macaque monkeys. However, it is unknown whether the neural representation of affective touch is the same across species and whether affective touch’s capacity to activate the hubs of the brain that compute socioaffective information requires conscious perception. Here, we used functional MRI to assess the preferential activation of neural hubs by slow (affective) vs. fast (discriminative) touch in anesthetized rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta). The insula, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), amygdala, and secondary somatosensory cortex were all significantly more active during slow touch relative to fast touch, suggesting homologous activation of the interoceptive-allostatic network across primate species during affective touch. Further, we found that neural responses to affective vs. discriminative touch in the insula and ACC (the primary cortical hubs for interoceptive processing) changed significantly with age. Insula and ACC in younger animals differentiated between slow and fast touch, while activity was comparable between conditions for aged monkeys (equivalent to >70 y in humans). These results, together with prior studies establishing conserved peripheral nervous system mechanisms of affective touch transduction, suggest that neural responses to affective touch are evolutionarily conserved in monkeys, significantly impacted in old age, and do not necessitate conscious experience of touch.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Collective behavior from surprise minimization

A fascinating model for collective behavior from Heins et al.:

Significance

We introduce a model of collective behavior, proposing that individual members within a group, such as a school of fish or a flock of birds, act to minimize surprise. This active inference approach naturally generates well-known collective phenomena such as cohesion and directed movement without explicit behavioral rules. Our model reveals intricate relationships between individual beliefs and group properties, demonstrating that beliefs about uncertainty can shape collective decision-making accuracy. As agents update their generative model in real time, groups become more sensitive to external perturbations and more robust in encoding information. Our work provides fresh insights into understanding collective dynamics and could inspire strategies in the study of animal behavior, swarm robotics, and distributed systems.

Abstract

Collective motion is ubiquitous in nature; groups of animals, such as fish, birds, and ungulates appear to move as a whole, exhibiting a rich behavioral repertoire that ranges from directed movement to milling to disordered swarming. Typically, such macroscopic patterns arise from decentralized, local interactions among constituent components (e.g., individual fish in a school). Preeminent models of this process describe individuals as self-propelled particles, subject to self-generated motion and “social forces” such as short-range repulsion and long-range attraction or alignment. However, organisms are not particles; they are probabilistic decision-makers. Here, we introduce an approach to modeling collective behavior based on active inference. This cognitive framework casts behavior as the consequence of a single imperative: to minimize surprise. We demonstrate that many empirically observed collective phenomena, including cohesion, milling, and directed motion, emerge naturally when considering behavior as driven by active Bayesian inference—without explicitly building behavioral rules or goals into individual agents. Furthermore, we show that active inference can recover and generalize the classical notion of social forces as agents attempt to suppress prediction errors that conflict with their expectations. By exploring the parameter space of the belief-based model, we reveal nontrivial relationships between the individual beliefs and group properties like polarization and the tendency to visit different collective states. We also explore how individual beliefs about uncertainty determine collective decision-making accuracy. Finally, we show how agents can update their generative model over time, resulting in groups that are collectively more sensitive to external fluctuations and encode information more robustly.

Monday, May 13, 2024

How the US is destroying young people's future.

When I wake up in the morning, I frequently remind myself to be grateful for the luck of having been born in 1942, and being able to ride the crest of a number of fortunate external circumstances that made my generation vastly better off than those who followed. I was in high school in the late 50s when Sputnik happened, fueling a huge increase in federal research funding that, powered my laboratory research career how our vision works. Both my parents and myself were clients of state governments or universities that offered generous retirement plans and pensions, and and the ability to set aside tax deferred money to invest for later years.

This has lead to the situation succinctly described in the following TED video done by Scott Galloway, who teaches at NYU, transcript of talk is here.  (It was sent to me by my 49 year old son, an senior E-commerce digital solutions architect, whose expectations about the future are vastly more modest than mine were when I was his age.) One of the most striking graphics in the video shows how the increase in household wealth of those 70 and older has increased by 11% since 1989, while it has decreased by 5% for those under 40. 

 

Friday, May 10, 2024

Blueprint - Nicholas Christakis on the evolutionary origins of a good society

This opinion piece by Frank Bruni in the NYTimes motivated me to download and read Nicholas Christakis' Magnum Opus “Blueprint” (very much in the 'everything you need to know about humans' spirit of Sapolsky's "Behave" and Harari's "Sapiens," and "Homo Deus," and "21 Lessons," all books that I have made the subject of previous posts.). It echoes Pinker's emphasis on the more positive aspects of human nature and progress. It is a very engaging read, and not amenable to a simple summary, but here is a bit from his introduction:
How can people be so different from—even go to war with—one another and yet also be so similar? The fundamental reason is that we each carry within us an evolutionary blueprint for making a good society.
Genes do amazing things inside our bodies, but even more amazing to me is what they do outside of them. Genes affect not only the structure and function of our bodies; not only the structure and function of our minds and, hence, our behaviors; but also the structure and function of our societies. This is what we recognize when we look at people around the world. This is the source of our common humanity.
Natural selection has shaped our lives as social animals, guiding the evolution of what I call a “social suite” of features priming our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, learning, and even our ability to recognize the uniqueness of other individuals. Despite all the trappings and artifacts of modern invention—our tools, agriculture, cities, nations—we carry within us innate proclivities that reflect our natural social state, a state that is, as it turns out, primarily good, practically and even morally. Humans can no more make a society that is inconsistent with these positive urges than ants can suddenly make beehives.
I believe that we come to this sort of goodness just as naturally as we come to our bloodier inclinations. We cannot help it. We feel great when we help others. Our good deeds are not just the products of Enlightenment values. They have a deeper and prehistoric origin. The ancient tendencies that form the social suite work together to bind communities, specify their boundaries, identify their members, and allow people to achieve individual and collective objectives while at the same time minimizing hatred and violence. For too long, in my opinion, the scientific community has been overly focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for tribalism, violence, selfishness, and cruelty. The bright side has been denied the attention it deserves.
(The above is a repost of MindBlog's 6/3/19 post)

Wednesday, May 08, 2024

Another Big History - why the West is WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic)

Alas, I usually end up reading reviews of books rather than the books themselves. Here I want to pass on clips from Shulevitz's review in The Atlantic: of Joseph Henrich's theory-of-everything type book: "The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous." Henrich directs Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology.

Consider this the latest addition to the Big History category, popularized by best sellers such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The outstanding feature of the genre is that it wrangles all of human existence into a volume or two, starting with the first hominids to rise up on their hind legs and concluding with us, cyborg-ish occupants of a networked globe. Big History asks Big Questions and offers quasi-monocausal answers. Why and how did humans conquer the world? Harari asks. Cooperation. What explains differences and inequalities among civilizations? Diamond asks. Environment, which is to say, geography, climate, flora and fauna. Henrich also wants to explain variation among societies, in particular to account for the Western, prosperous kind.
One culture... is different from the others, and that’s modern WEIRD (“Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic”) culture. Henrich’s ambition is tricky: to account for Western distinctiveness while undercutting Western arrogance. He rests his grand theory of cultural difference on an inescapable fact of the human condition: kinship, one of our species’ “oldest and most fundamental institutions.”...Higher-order institutions—governments and armies as well as religions—evolved from kin-based institutions...The Catholic Church changed all that. As of late antiquity, Europeans still lived in tribes, like most of the rest of the world. But the Church dismantled these kin-based societies with what Henrich calls its “Marriage and Family Program,..it meant quashing pagan practices such as polygamy, arranged marriages (Christian matrimony was notionally consensual, hence the formula “I do”), and above all, marriages between relatives, which the Church was redefining as incest.. ..Forced to find Christian partners, Christians left their communities. Christianity’s insistence on monogamy broke extended households into nuclear families. The Church uprooted horizontal, relational identity, replacing it with a vertical identity oriented toward the institution itself...Formerly, property almost always went to family members. The idea now took hold that it could go elsewhere. At the same time, the Church urged the wealthy to ensure their place in heaven by bequeathing their money to the poor—that is, to the Church, benefactor to the needy...The Church, thus enriched, spread across the globe...Loosened from their roots, people gathered in cities. There they developed “impersonal prosociality”—that is, they bonded with other city folk. They wrote city charters and formed professional guilds. Sometimes they elected leaders, the first inklings of representative democracy.
Why, if Italy has been Catholic for so long, did northern Italy become a prosperous banking center, while southern Italy stayed poor and was plagued by mafiosi? The answer, Henrich declares, is that southern Italy was never conquered by the Church-backed Carolingian empire. Sicily remained under Muslim rule and much of the rest of the south was controlled by the Orthodox Church until the papal hierarchy finally assimilated them both in the 11th century. This is why, according to Henrich, cousin marriage in the boot of Italy and Sicily is 10 times higher than in the north, and in most provinces in Sicily, hardly anyone donates blood (a measure of willingness to help strangers), while some northern provinces receive 105 donations of 16-ounce bags per 1,000 people per year.
Henrich’s most consequential—and startling—claim is that WEIRD and non-WEIRD people possess opposing cognitive styles. They think differently. Standing apart from the community, primed to break wholes into parts and classify them, Westerners are more analytical. People from kinship-intensive cultures, by comparison, tend to think more holistically.
Henrich is more persuasive when applying his theory of cumulative culture to the evolution of ideas. Democracy, the rule of law, and human rights “didn’t start with fancy intellectuals, philosophers, or theologians,” Henrich writes. “Instead, the ideas formed slowly, piece by piece, as regular Joes with more individualistic psychologies—be they monks, merchants, or artisans—began to form competing voluntary associations” and learned how to govern them. Toppling the accomplishments of Western civilization off their great-man platforms, he erases their claim to be monuments to rationality: Everything we think of as a cause of culture is really an effect of culture, including us.

 

(The above is a repost of MindBlog's 1/18/21 Post)

Monday, May 06, 2024

Are we the cows of the future?

One of the questions posed by Yuval Harari in his writing on our possible futures is "What are we to do with all these humans who are, except for a small technocratic elite, no longer required as the means of production?" Esther Leslie, a professor of political aesthetics at Birkbeck College, University of London, does an essay on this issue, pointing out that our potential futures in the pastures of digital dictatorship — crowded conditions, mass surveillance, virtual reality — are already here. You should read her essay, and I passon just a few striking clips of text:

...Cows’ bodies have historically served as test subjects — laboratories of future bio-intervention and all sorts of reproductive technologies. Today cows crowd together in megafarms, overseen by digital systems, including facial- and hide-recognition systems. These new factories are air-conditioned sheds where digital machinery monitors and logs the herd’s every move, emission and production. Every mouthful of milk can be traced to its source.
And it goes beyond monitoring. In 2019 on the RusMoloko research farm near Moscow, virtual reality headsets were strapped onto cattle. The cows were led, through the digital animation that played before their eyes, to imagine they were wandering in bright summer fields, not bleak wintry ones. The innovation, which was apparently successful, is designed to ward off stress: The calmer the cow, the higher the milk yield.
A cow sporting VR goggles is comedic as much as it is tragic. There’s horror, too, in that it may foretell our own alienated futures. After all, how different is our experience? We submit to emotion trackers. We log into biofeedback machines. We sign up for tracking and tracing. We let advertisers’ eyes watch us constantly and mappers store our coordinates.
Could we, like cows, be played by the machinery, our emotions swayed under ever-sunny skies, without us even knowing that we are inside the matrix? Will the rejected, unemployed and redundant be deluded into thinking that the world is beautiful, a land of milk and honey, as they interact minimally in stripped-back care homes? We may soon graze in the new pastures of digital dictatorship, frolicking while bound.
Leslie then describes the ideas of German philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno:
Against the insistence that nature should not be ravished by technology, he argues that perhaps technology could enable nature to get what “it wants” on this sad earth. And we are included in that “it.”...Nature, in truth, is not just something external on which we work, but also within us. We too are nature.
For someone associated with the abstruseness of avant-garde music and critical theory, Adorno was surprisingly sentimental when it came to animals — for which he felt a powerful affinity. It is with them that he finds something worthy of the name Utopia. He imagines a properly human existence of doing nothing, like a beast, resting, cloud gazing, mindlessly and placidly chewing cud.
To dream, as so many Utopians do, of boundless production of goods, of busy activity in the ideal society reflects, Adorno claimed, an ingrained mentality of production as an end in itself. To detach from our historical form adapted solely to production, to work against work itself, to do nothing in a true society in which we embrace nature and ourselves as natural might deliver us to freedom.
Rejecting the notion of nature as something that would protect us, give us solace, reveals us to be inextricably within and of nature. From there, we might begin to save ourselves — along with everything else.
(The above is a repost of MindBlog's 1/7/21 post)

Friday, May 03, 2024

Can there be scientific criteria for what is moral behavior?

I want to pass on an essay by Sam Harris updating his 2011 book "The  Moral Landscape."   I'm doing this mainly so that I can look back to this post when I want to firm up recall of some of its points,  and I would recommend that readers interested in this area have a look.  I largely agree with his positions with respect to distinctively human minds and culture that: 

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, of course, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever those turn out to be). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

It is the case, however, that in the larger context of the evolution of life on this planet, the emergence of complicated life forms has depended on the cranking of a relentless Darwin machine generating ever more sophisticated forms of predator and prey, a process in which the 'well being' of individual prey organisms is not obviously enhanced by their being another organism's  food source.

Here is the essay:

In 2011 I published my third book, The Moral Landscape, which was an edited version of my doctoral dissertation, in which I argued that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values, and that much of importance depends upon our admitting this and trying to work out how we can all make moral progress together.

The book was widely criticized, both for things I said in it and for things I hadn’t said. I did say a few things which needlessly provoked academic philosophers and graduate students. I wrote at one point, by way of explaining why I was dispensing with some of the terminology one might expect to encounter in any discussion about moral truth, that every mention of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “antirealism,” and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. That’s still true, of course, but it pissed off a lot of academics. Worse, many people couldn’t get past the book’s subtitle—“How Science Can Determine Human Values”—because they have a far narrower conception of science than I do. Many people, including many scientists, seem pretty confused about the boundaries between science and other modes of thought, as I’ll discuss here.

Consider the concept of “objectivity,” which most people assume is central to science. It is central, but only in one sense of the term. As the philosopher John Searle once pointed out, we should distinguish between epistemological and ontological senses of “objectivity.” Of course, terms like “epistemological” and “ontological” also increase the amount of boredom in the universe, but I’m afraid they are indispensable.

Epistemology relates to the foundation of knowledge. How do we know what is true? In what sense can a statement be true? Ontology relates to questions about what exists. For instance, is there only one type of stuff in the universe? Are there only physical things, or are there really existent things which are not physical? For instance, do numbers exist beyond their physical representations, and if so, how?

Science is fully committed to epistemological objectivity—that is, to analyzing evidence and argument without subjective bias—but it is in no sense committed to ontological objectivity. It isn’t limited to studying “objects,” that is purely physical things and processes. We can study human subjectivity—the mind as experienced from the first-person point of view—objectively, that is, without bias and other sources of cognitive error. And, as I have argued elsewhere, meditation is a crucial tool for doing this. It is simply a fact that human beings can become much better observers of their direct experience—and becoming better actually makes a wider range of experience possible.

Morality is subjective in the ontological sense—it’s not to be found out there among the atoms. It rests on the reality of consciousness and the experiences of conscious beings. To say that morality is “subjective” is not to say that it isn’t real. We can make truth claims about it—that is, we can be epistemologically objective about it.

I hope that distinction is clear. To say that science is committed to epistemic objectivity, is to say that science depends on certain epistemic values—values like coherence, and simplicity, and elegance, and predictive power. If I told you that I had an extremely important scientific theory that was self-contradictory, and needlessly complex, and could not account for past data, and could make no predictions whatsoever, you would understand that I must be joking, or otherwise speaking nonsense. We cannot separate statements of scientific fact from the underlying epistemic values of science. These values are axiomatic, which is to say that science does not discover them, or even attempt to justify them. It just presupposes their validity. If you suspect that I have just called the traditional distinction between facts and values into question, you would be right—and this is a point to which I will return.

For those unfamiliar with The Moral Landscape, here is my argument in brief: Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, of course, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever those turn out to be). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

Many people worry that any aspect of human subjectivity or culture could fit in the space provided: after all, a preference for chocolate over vanilla ice cream is a natural phenomenon, as is a preference for the comic Bill Burr over Bob Hope. Are we to imagine that there are universal truths about ice cream and comedy that admit of scientific analysis? Well, in a certain sense, yes. Science could, in principle, account for why some of us prefer chocolate to vanilla, and why no one’s favorite flavor of ice cream is aluminum. Comedy must also be susceptible to this kind of study. There will be a fair amount of cultural and generational variation in what counts as funny, but there are basic principles of comedy—like the violation of expectations, the breaking of taboos, etc.—that could be universal. Amusement to the point of laughter is a specific state of the human nervous system that can be scientifically studied. Why do some people laugh more readily than others? What exactly happens when we “get” a joke? These are ultimately questions about the human mind and brain. There will be scientific facts to be known here, and any differences in taste among human beings must be attributable to other facts that fall within the purview of science. If we were ever to arrive at a complete understanding of the human mind, we would understand human preferences of all kinds. And we might even be able to change them.

However, epistemic and ethical values appear to reach deeper than mere matters of taste—beyond how people happen to think and behave to questions of how they should think and behave. And it is this notion of “should” that introduces a fair amount of confusion into any conversation about moral truth. I should note in passing, however, that I don’t think the distinction between ethics and something like taste is as clear or as categorical as we might think. For instance, if a preference for chocolate ice cream allowed for the most rewarding experience a human being could have, while a preference for vanilla did not, we would deem it morally important to help people overcome any defect in their sense of taste that caused them to prefer vanilla—in the same way that we currently treat people for curable forms of blindness. It seems to me that the boundary between mere aesthetics and moral imperative—the difference between not liking Matisse and not liking the Golden Rule—is more a matter of there being higher stakes, and consequences that reach into the lives of other people, than of there being distinct classes of facts regarding the nature of human experience. There is much more to be said on this point, of course, but I will pass it by for the time being.

In my view, morality must be viewed in the context of our growing scientific understanding of the mind. If there are truths to be known about the mind, there will be truths to be known about how minds flourish—that is, about well-being altogether; consequently, there will be truths to be known about right and wrong and good and evil.

Many critics of The Moral Landscape claimed that my reliance on the concept of “well-being” was arbitrary and philosophically indefensible. Who’s to say that well-being is important at all or that other things aren’t far more important? How, for instance, could you convince someone who does not value well-being that he should value it? And even if one could justify well-being as the true foundation for morality, many have argued that one would need a “metric” by which it could be measured—else there could be no such thing as moral truth in the scientific sense. There is an unnecessarily restrictive notion of science underlying this last claim—as though scientific truths only exist if we can have immediate and uncontroversial access to them in the lab.  A certain physicist, who will remain nameless, was in the habit of saying things like “I don’t know what a unit of well-being is,” as though he were regretfully delivering the killing blow to my thesis. I would venture that he doesn’t know what a unit of sadness is either—and units of joy, disgust, boredom, irony, envy, schadenfreude, or any other mental state worth studying won’t be forthcoming. If half of what many scientists say about the limits of science were true, the sciences of mind are not merely doomed, there would be no facts for them to understand in the first place.

Consider the possibility of a much, much saner world than the one we currently live in: Imagine that—due to remarkable breakthroughs in technology, economics, psychological science, and political skill—we created a genuine utopia on Earth. Needless to say, this wouldn’t be boring, because we will have wisely avoided all the boring utopias. Rather, we will have created a global civilization of astonishing creativity, security, and happiness.

However, let us also imagine that some people weren’t ready for this earthly paradise once it arrived. Some were psychopaths who, despite enjoying the general change in quality of life, were nevertheless eager to break into their neighbors’ homes and torture them, just for kicks. A few had preferences that were incompatible with the flourishing of whole societies: Try as he might, Kim Jong Un just couldn’t shake the feeling that his cognac didn’t taste as sweet without millions of people starving beyond his palace gates. Given our advances in science, however, we are now able to alter preferences of this kind. In fact, we can painlessly deliver a firmware update to everyone. Imagine that we do that, and now the entirety of the species is fit to live in a global civilization that is as safe, and as fun, and as interesting, and as creative, and as filled with love as it can be.

It seems to me that this scenario cuts through the worry that the concept of well-being might leave out something that is worth caring about: for if you care about something that is not compatible with a peak of human flourishing—given the requisite changes in your brain, you would recognize that you were wrong to care about this thing in the first place. Wrong in what sense? Wrong in the sense that you didn’t know what you were missing. This is the core of my argument: I am claiming that there must be frontiers of human well-being that await our discovery—and certain interests and preferences surely blind us to them. In this sense epistemic and ethical values are fully entangled. There are horizons to well-being past which we cannot see. There are possible experiences of beauty and creativity and compassion that we will never discover. I think these are object statements about the frontiers of subjective experience.

However, it is true that our general approach to morality does not require that we maximize global well-being. There is this tension, for instance, between what may be good for us, and what may be good for society. And much of ordinary morality is a matter of our grappling with this tension. We are selfish to one degree or another; we lack complete information about the consequences of our actions; and even where we possess sufficient information, our interests and preferences often lead us to ignore it. But our failures to be motivated to seek higher goods, or to motivate others to seek them, do not suggest that no higher goods exist.

In what sense can an action be morally good? And what does it mean to make a good action better? For instance, it seems good for me to buy my daughter a birthday present, all things considered, because this will make both of us happy. Few people would fault me for spending some of my time and money in this way. But what about all the little girls in the world who suffer terribly at this moment for want of resources? Here is where an ethicist like Peter Singer will pounce, arguing that there actually is something morally questionable—possibly even reprehensible—about my buying my daughter a birthday present, given my knowledge of how much good my time and money could do elsewhere. What should I do? Singer’s argument makes me uncomfortable, but only for a moment. It is simply a fact about me that the suffering of other little girls is often out of sight and out of mind—and my daughter’s birthday is no easier to ignore than an asteroid impact. Can I muster a philosophical defense of my narrow focus? Perhaps. It might be that Singer’s case leaves out some important details: what would happen if everyone in the developed world ceased to shop for birthday presents and all other luxuries? Might the best of human civilization just come crashing down upon the worst? How can we spread wealth to the developing world if we do not create vast wealth in the first place? These reflections, self-serving and otherwise, land me in a toy store, looking for something that isn’t pink.

So, yes, it is true that my thoughts about global well-being did not amount to much in this instance. And yet, most people wouldn’t judge me for it. But what if there were a way for me to buy my daughter a present and also cure another little girl of cancer at no extra cost? Wouldn’t this be better than just buying the original present? What if there was a button I could push near the cash register, that literally cured a distant little girl somewhere of cancer. Imagine if I declined the opportunity to push this button saying, “What is that to me? I don’t care about other little girls and their cancers.” That, of course, would be monstrous. And it is only against an implicit notion of global well-being that we can judge my behavior to be less good than it might otherwise be. It is true that no one currently demands that I spend my time seeking, in every instance, to maximize global well-being—nor do I demand it of myself—but if global well-being could be maximized, that would be much better (by the only definition of “better” that makes any sense). I believe that is an objectively true statement about subjective reality in this universe.

The fact that we might not be motivated by a moral truth doesn’t suggest that moral truths don’t exist. Some of this comes down to confusion over a prescriptive rather than descriptive conception of ethics. It’s the difference between “should” and “can.” Whatever our preferences and capacities are at present—regardless of our failures to persuade others, or ourselves, to change our behaviors—our beliefs about good and evil must still relate to what is ultimately possible for human beings. And we can’t think about this deeper reality by focusing on the narrow question of what a person “should” do in the gray areas of life where we spend so much of our time. It is, rather, the extremes of human experience that throw sufficient light by which we can see that we stand upon a moral landscape: For instance, are members of the Islamic State wrong about morality? Yes. Really wrong? Yes. Can we say so from the perspective of science? Yes. If we know anything at all about human well-being—and we do—we know that the Islamic State is not leading anyone, including themselves, toward a peak on the moral landscape. We know, to a moral certainty, that human life can be better than it is in a society where they routinely decapitate people for being too rational.

When I wrote The Moral Landscape, I didn’t appreciate how much of ethical philosophy was conflated with concerns about personal motivation and public persuasion. For instance, it is widely imagined that a belief that one act is truly better than another (that is, that moral truths exist) must entail a commitment to acting in the prescribed way (that is, motivation). It must also rest on reasons that can be effectively communicated to others (that is, persuasion). If, for instance, I believe that I would be a better person, and the world a marginally better place, if I were vegetarian (this is a possible moral truth)—then, many people expect, that I must be motivated to exclude meat from my diet and be able to persuade others do likewise. The fact that I’m not sufficiently motivated to do this suggests that my presumed knowledge of moral truth is specious—either no such truths exist, or I do not, in fact, know them. The common idea is that for a moral claim to be objectively true, it must compel a person to follow it. Real values must cause action—not contingently, in combination with other motives, but absolutely—and they in turn constitute rational reasons for such action. Otherwise, the philosopher David Hume would be right, and the only way for claims about moral truth to be effective is for them to be combined with some associated passion or desire. Reason alone is useless.

But this paints an unrealistic picture of the human mind. Let’s take a simpler case: Let’s say that I want to lose 10 pounds. As it happens, I do, and I have absolutely no doubt that losing 10 pounds is possible (this is a biological truth). I also know that I would be marginally happier for having lost those pounds (this is a psychological truth). I am also quite certain that I understand the process by which pounds can be lost. I need only eat less than I generally do, and persist until I have lost the weight (this is another biological truth). These beliefs are cognitively valid, in that they describe objective truths about my body and mind, and about how I would feel in a possible future. I am totally unconflicted in my desire to lose the weight, in that I absolutely want to lose it. Unfortunately, that is not all I want. I also want to eat ice cream, preferably once a day.

The fact that I am not sufficiently motivated to shun ice cream, says nothing at all about my unconflicted desire to be thinner or the accuracy of my understanding of how to lose weight. My desire for ice cream is an independent fact about me. And gratifying this desire has consequences.
The point, of course, is that we can know what is true, without any doubt, and yet our knowledge is not guaranteed to produce behavior that is aligned with that truth. Such failures of will do not suggest that the relevant truths are just fictions.

At this point, I think we should differentiate three projects that seem to me to be easily conflated, but which are distinct and independently worthy endeavors:

The first project is to understand what people do in the name of “morality.” We can look at the world, witnessing all of the diverse behaviors, and cultural norms, and institutions, and morally salient emotions like empathy and disgust, and we can study how these things affect human communities, both now and throughout history. We can examine all these phenomena in as nonjudgmental a way as possible and seek to understand them. We can understand them in evolutionary terms, and in any present generation we can understand them in psychological and neurobiological terms. And we can call the fruits of this effort a “science of morality.” This would be a purely descriptive science of a sort that many scientists have begun to build.

And for most scientists, this descriptive project seems to exhaust all the legitimate points of contact between science and morality. But I think there are two other projects that we could concern ourselves with, which are arguably more important.

The second project would be to actually understand how good human life could be. This would require that we get clearer about what we mean, and should mean, by the terms like “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “evil”. We would need to understand how our moral intuitions relate to human experience altogether, and to use this new discipline to think more intelligently about how to maximize human well-being. Of course, philosophers may think that this begs some of the important questions, and I’ll get back to that. Again, what makes well-being important. But assuming for the moment that it is important, understanding how to maximize it is a distinct project. How good could human life be, and how do we get there? How do we avoid making the mistakes that would prevent us from getting there? What are the paths upward on the moral landscape?

The third project is a project of persuasion: How can we persuade all of the people who are committed to silly and harmful things in the name of “morality” to change their commitments and to lead better lives? I think that this third project is actually the most important project facing humanity at the moment. It subsumes everything else we could care about—from arresting climate change, to reducing the risk of nuclear war, to curing cancer, to saving the whales. Any effort that requires that we collectively get our priorities straight and marshal our time and resources would fall within the scope of this project. To build a viable global civilization we must begin to converge on the same economic, political, and environmental goals.

Obviously the project of moral persuasion is very difficult—but it strikes me as especially difficult if you can’t figure out in what sense anyone could ever be right or wrong about questions of human values. Understanding right and wrong in universal terms is Project Two, and that’s what I’m focused on.

There are impediments to thinking about Project Two: the main one being that most right-thinking, well-educated people—certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I suspect, most journalists—have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of our intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of value.

My aim in The Moral Landscape was to undermine this assumption. I think it is based on several fallacies and double standards and, frankly, on some bad philosophy. And apart from being just wrong, this view has terrible consequences.

In 1947, when the United Nations was attempting to formulate a universal declaration of human rights, the American Anthropological Association stepped forward and said that it just couldn’t be done—for this would be to merely foist one provincial notion of human rights on the rest of humanity. Any notion of human rights is the product of culture, and declaring a universal conception of human rights is an intellectually illegitimate thing to do. This was the best our social sciences could do with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking.

It has long been obvious that we need to converge, as a global civilization, in our beliefs about how we should treat one another. For this, we need some universal conceptions of right and wrong. So in addition to just not being true, I think skepticism about moral truth actually has consequences that we really should worry about.

Definitions matter. And in science we are always in the business of making definitions that serve to constrain the path of any conversation. There is nothing about this process that condemns us to epistemological relativism or that nullifies truth claims. For instance, we define “physics” as, loosely speaking, our best effort to understand the behavior of matter and energy in the universe. The discipline is defined with respect to the goal of understanding how the physical world behaves.

Of course, anyone is free to define “physics” in some other way. A Creationist could say, “Well, that’s not my definition of physics. My physics is designed to match the Book of Genesis.” But we are free to respond to such a person by saying, “You really don’t belong at this conference. That’s not the ‘physics’ we are interested in.” Such a gesture of exclusion is legitimate and necessary. The fact that the discourse of physics is not sufficient to silence such a person, the fact that he cannot be brought into our conversation and subdued by its terms, does not undermine physics as a domain of objective truth.

And yet, on the topic of morality, we seem to think that the possibility of differing opinions puts the very reality of the subject matter in question. The fact that someone can come forward and say that his morality has nothing to do with human flourishing—that it depends upon following Sharia law, for instance—the very fact that such a position can be articulated, has caused people to think that there’s no such thing as moral truth. Morality must be a human invention—because look, that guy has a morality of his own. The Taliban don’t agree with us. Who are we to say they’re wrong? But this is just a fallacy.

We have an intuitive physics, but much of our intuitive physics is wrong with respect to the goal of understanding how matter and energy behave in this universe. I am saying that we also have an intuitive morality, and much of our intuitive morality may be wrong with respect to the goal of maximizing human flourishing—and with reference to the facts that govern the well-being of conscious creatures, generally.

I will now deal with the fundamental challenge to the thesis I put forward in The Moral Landscape, and argue, briefly, that the only sphere of legitimate moral concern is the well-being of conscious creatures. I’ll say a few words in defense of this assertion, but I think the idea that it even has to be defended is the product of several fallacies and double standards that we’re not noticing. And I’ll mention a few.

I am claiming that consciousness is the only context in which we can talk about morality and human values. Why is consciousness not an arbitrary starting point? Well, what’s the alternative? Just imagine someone coming forward claiming to have some other sources of value that have nothing to do with the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. Whatever these things are, they cannot affect the experience of anything in the universe, in this life or in any other.

If you put these imagined sources of value in a box, I think it is obvious that what you would have in that box would be—by definition—the least valuable things in the universe. They would be—again, by definition—things that cannot be cared about. If someone says they care about these things—things that have no actual or potential effect on the experience of anyone, anywhere, at any time—I have to say that I think he is only pretending to care about these things. In the same way that I would say that a person is only pretending to believe that 2 + 2 = 5. So I don’t think consciousness is an arbitrary starting point. When we’re talking about right and wrong, and good and evil, and about outcomes that matter, we are necessarily talking about actual or potential changes in conscious experience. This really is an axiom that I think has to be accepted, but unlike most axioms, I don’t understand how anyone can even imagine not accepting it.

I would further add that the concept of “well-being” captures every sort of change in conscious experience that we can care about. The challenge is to have a definition of well-being that is capacious enough to absorb everything we can, in fact, care about, now and in the future. This is why I tend not to call myself a “consequentialist” or a “utilitarian” in philosophy, because traditionally, these positions have been bounded in such a way as to make them seem very brittle and exclusive of other concerns.

Consider Peter Singer’s Shallow Pond problem: Let’s say you’re walking home and spot a young child drowning in a shallow pond. This is a clear opportunity to save a life, but unfortunately you are wearing expensive shoes that will be ruined if you wade into that muddy water. So you walk on and a child dies. Singer argues that this is analogous to what we do every time we delete a fundraising email from UNICEF or any other organization that presents a concrete opportunity to save a child’s life. And if you’re like most people, you are left feeling that the argument is very hard to find fault with, and yet you’re someone unmoved. Something feels left out. Hence, you get the sense that consequentialism can’t be the whole story. 

However, I think that’s just an incomplete tally of the consequences. We all know, for instance, that it would take a very different sort of person to walk past a child drowning in twelve inches of water, out of concern for getting his shoes dirty, than it takes to ignore an appeal from UNICEF. It says much more about you, if you can walk past a drowning child. And if we were all this sort of person, there would be terrible ramifications throughout our culture. Simply counting bodies doesn’t get at the differences between these two actions—or differentiate the levels of selfishness and callousness entailed by each. Of course, part of Singer’s project as a philosopher is to argue that the two cases aren’t as different as they appear—that is, he is saying that we should create a culture in which we begin to feel just as depraved not sending our disposable wealth to Africa as we would letting our neighbors starve. And there may be some truth to that. However, given that we don’t have that culture, and given the psychological significance of proximity, the two cases remain quite different in moral terms. It is entirely normal, and compatible with psychological health and goodness, to not respond to every appeal you receive from a charity that is saving lives. It isn’t normal, or sane, to decline to save a child who is dying right in front of you, just because you don’t want to get your shoes wet. In order to be really consequentialist in our ethics, therefore, the challenge is to get clear about what the actual consequences of an action are—out in the world and in the minds of all involved—and to understand what changes in human experience are possible, and about which changes actually matter. There is usually much to the story than just counting bodies.

In thinking about a universal framework for morality, I now think in terms of what I call a “moral landscape.” Now perhaps there is a place in hell for anyone who would repurpose a cliché in this way, but the phrase, “the moral landscape” actually captures what I’m after: I’m envisioning a space of peaks and valleys, where the peaks correspond to the heights of flourishing possible for any conscious system, and the valleys correspond to the deepest depths of misery.

To speak specifically of human beings for the moment: anything that can affect a change in human consciousness might lead to movement across the moral landscape. So changes to our genome, and changes to our economic systems—and changes occurring on any level in between that can affect human well-being for good or for ill—would translate into movements within this space of possible human experience.

A few interesting things drop out of this model: Clearly, it is possible, or even likely, that there are many (culturally and psychologically distinct) peaks on the moral landscape. Perhaps there is a way to maximize human flourishing in which we follow Peter Singer as far as we can go, and somehow train ourselves to be truly dispassionate toward friends and family, without weighting our children’s welfare more than the welfare of other children, and perhaps there’s another peak where we remain biased toward our own children, within certain limits, while correcting for this bias by creating a social system which is, in fact, fair and compassionate. Perhaps there are a thousand different ways to tune the variable of selfishness versus altruism to land us on a peak on the moral landscape.

However, there will be many more ways to not be on a peak. And it is clearly possible to be wrong about how to move from our present position to some higher spot on the landscape. This follows directly from the observation that whatever conscious experiences are possible for us are a product of the way the universe is. Our conscious experience arises out of the laws of nature, and the states of our brain, and our entanglement with the world. Therefore, there are right and wrong answers to the question of how to maximize human flourishing in any moment.

This becomes very easy to see when we imagine there being only two people on earth: we can call them Adam and Eve. Ask yourself, are there right and wrong answers to the question of how Adam and Eve might maximize their well-being? Clearly there are. Wrong answer number one: they can take turns smashing each other in the face with a large rock. This will not be a way of living their best possible lives.

Of course, there are zero sum games they could play. They could be psychopaths who might utterly fail to collaborate in positive-sum ways. But, clearly, the best responses to their circumstance will not be zero-sum. The prospects of their flourishing and finding deeper and more durable sources of satisfaction will only be revealed by some form of cooperation. And all the worries that people normally bring to these discussions—like deontological principles or a Rawlsian concern about fairness—can be considered in the context of our asking how Adam and Eve can navigate the space of possible experiences so as to find a genuine peak of human flourishing, regardless of whether it is the only peak. Once again, multiple, equivalent but incompatible peaks still allow us to say that there is a larger reality in which there are right and wrong answers to moral questions. For instance, there are many correct answers to the question, “What should a human being eat?” And yet there are an even greater number of wrong answers.

There might be many different, mutually incompatible, but nevertheless equivalently good lives that Adam and Eve could live. But the crucial point is that all of these lives really are better than the countless ways they could be miserable.

One thing we must not get confused about at this point is the difference between answers in practice and answers in principle. Needless to say, fully understanding the possible range of experiences available to Adam and Eve represents a fantastically complex problem. And it gets more complex when we add another 8 billion people to the experiment. But I would argue that it’s not a different problem; it just gets more complicated.

By analogy, consider economics: Is economics a practical science yet? It’s hard to know. Maybe economics will never get better than it is now. Perhaps we’ll be surprised every decade or so by something terrible that happens in the economy, and we’ll be forced to conclude that we’re blinded by the complexity of our situation. But to say that it is difficult or impossible to solve certain problems in practice does not suggest that there are no right and wrong answers to these problems in principle.

The complexity of economics would never tempt us to say that there are no right and wrong ways to design economic systems, or to respond to a financial crisis. Nobody will ever say that it’s a form of bigotry to criticize another country’s response to a banking failure. Just imagine how terrifying it would be if the smartest people around all more or less agreed that we had to be nonjudgmental about everyone’s view of economics and about every possible response to a looming recession. Imagine a 50 percent plunge, in a single day, in the value of the stock market—and then imagine the world’s leading economists telling us that there simply are no right answers, and therefore no wrong ones, in how to respond, because economics is just a cultural construct. What masochistic insanity would that be?

And yet that is largely where we stand as an intellectual community on the most important questions of right and wrong and good and evil. I don’t think you have enjoyed the life of the mind until you have witnessed a philosopher or scientist talking about the “contextual legitimacy” of the burka, or of female genital excision, or any of these other barbaric practices that we know cause needless human misery. We have convinced ourselves that somehow science is, by definition, a value-free space and that we can’t make value judgments about beliefs and practices that needlessly undermine our attempts to build sane and productive societies.

The truth is, science is not value-free. Good science is the product of our valuing evidence, and logical consistency, and parsimony, and other intellectual virtues. And if you don’t value those things, you can’t participate in a scientific conversation. I’m arguing that we need not worry about the people who don’t value human flourishing, or who say they don’t. We need not listen to people who come to the table saying, “You know, we want to cut the heads off blasphemers at half-time at our soccer games because we have a book dictated by the Creator of the universe which says we should.” In response, we are free to say, “You are just confused about everything. Your “physics” isn’t physics, and your “morality” isn’t morality.” These are equivalent moves, intellectually speaking. They are borne of the same entanglement with real facts about the way the universe is. In terms of morality, our conversation can proceed with reference to facts about the real experiences of conscious creatures. It seems to me to be just as legitimate, scientifically speaking, to define “morality” in terms of well-being as it is to define “physics” in terms of the behavior of matter and energy. But most scientists, even most of those engaged in the study of morality, don’t seem to realize this.

Most criticisms of The Moral Landscape seem to stumble over its subtitle, “How Science Can Determine Human Values,” and I admit that this wording has become an albatross. To my surprise, many people think about science primarily in terms of academic titles, and budgets, and university architecture, and not in terms of the logical and empirical intuitions that allow us to form justified beliefs about the world. The point of my book was not to argue that “science” bureaucratically construed can subsume all talk about morality. My purpose was to show that moral truths exist and that they must fall (in principle, if not in practice) within some (perhaps never to be complete) understanding of the way conscious minds arise in this universe. For practical reasons, it is often necessary to draw boundaries between academic disciplines, but physicists, chemists, biologists, and psychologists rely on the same processes of thought and observation that govern all our efforts to stay in touch with reality. As do most normal people simply operating by what we call common sense.

Let’s say you come home one day and find water pouring through the ceiling of your bedroom. Imagining that you have a gaping hole in your roof, you immediately call the man who installed it. The roofer asks, “Is it raining where you live?” This is a good question. In fact, it hasn’t rained for months. Is this roofer a scientist? Not technically, but he is thinking just like one. An empirical understanding of how water travels, and a little logic, just reveal that your roof is not the problem.

So now you call a plumber. Is a plumber a scientist? No more than a roofer is, but any competent plumber will generate hypotheses and test them—and his thinking will conform to the same principles of reasoning that every scientist uses. When he pressure tests a section of pipe, he is running an experiment. Would this experiment be more “scientific” if it were funded by the National Science Foundation? No. By contrast, when a world-famous geneticist like Francis Collins declares that the biblical God exists, and he installed immortal souls, free will, and morality in one species of primate, he is repudiating the core values and methods of science with every word. Drawing the line between science and non-science by reference to a person’s occupation is just too crude to be useful—but it is what many people seem to do.

I am, in essence, defending the unity of knowledge here—the idea that the boundaries between disciplines are mere conventions and that we inhabit a single sphere in which to form true (or truer) beliefs about the world. Strangely, this remains a controversial thesis, and it is often met with charges of “scientism.” Sometimes, the unity of knowledge is very easy to see: Is there really a boundary between the truths of physics and those of biology? No. And yet it is practical, and even necessary, to treat these disciplines separately most of the time. In this sense, the boundaries between disciplines are analogous to political borders drawn on maps. Is there really a difference between California and Arizona at their shared border? No, but we divide this stretch of desert as a matter of convention. However, once we begin talking about non-contiguous disciplines—physics and sociology, say—people worry that a single, consilient idea of truth can’t span the distance. Suddenly, the different colors on the map look hugely significant. But I’m convinced that this is an illusion.

My interest is in the nature of reality—what is actual and what is possible—not in how we organize our talk about it in our universities. There is nothing wrong with a mathematician opening a door in physics, a physicist making a breakthrough in neuroscience, a neuroscientist settling a debate in the philosophy of mind, a philosopher overturning our understanding of history, a historian transforming the field of anthropology, an anthropologist revolutionizing linguistics, or a linguist discovering something foundational about our mathematical intuitions. The circle is now complete, and it simply does not matter where these people keep their offices or which journals they publish in.

Many people worry that science cannot derive moral judgments solely from scientific descriptions of the world. But no branch of science can derive its judgments solely from scientific descriptions of the world. We have intuitions of truth and falsity, logical consistency, and causality that are foundational to our thinking about anything. Certain of these intuitions can be used to trump others: It seems rational to think, for instance, that our expectations of cause and effect could be routinely violated by reality at large. It is rational, even, to think that apes like ourselves may simply be unequipped to understand what is really going on in the universe. That is a perfectly cogent idea, even though it seems to make a mockery of most of our other cogent ideas. But the fact is that all forms of scientific inquiry pull themselves up by some intuitive bootstraps. The Logician Kurt Gödel proved this for arithmetic, and it seems intuitively obvious for other forms of reasoning too. At some point we have to simply step out of the darkness. I invite you to define the concept of “causality,” for instance,  in noncircular terms if you would test this claim. Some intuitions are truly basic to our thinking.

In The Moral Landscape, I argue that this need not embarrass us in the field of morality, and I claim, for instance, that the conviction that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and should be avoided is among the most basic intuitions we can form about anything. The worst… possible… misery… for everyone… is bad. I claim that there is no place to stand where one can coherently doubt this statement. There is no place to stand where one can coherently wonder whether the worst possible misery for everyone is really bad. Of course, one can pretend to wonder this. Just as one can pretend to think thoughts like, “what if all squares are really round?” But if you make contact with the meanings of words—the worst, possible, misery, for everyone—you will see that if bad means anything, it applies here.

We have to start somewhere. The epistemic values of science are not “self-justifying”—we just can’t get completely free of them. We can bracket our ordinary notions of cause and effect, or logical consistency, in local cases, as we do in quantum mechanics, for instance, but these are cases in which we are then forced to admit that we don’t (yet) understand what is going on. Our knowledge of the world seems to require that it behave in certain ways (e.g., if A is bigger than B, and B is bigger than C, then A must be bigger than C). And when these fundamental principles appear to be violated, we are invariably confused. Science can’t use logic to validate logic, because that presupposes the value of logic from the start. Similarly, we can’t use evidence to justify valuing evidence. We simply do value logic and evidence, and we make no apologies for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in this way. Physics can’t justify the intellectual tools one needs to do physics. Does that make it unscientific? People who object to my claim that the well-being of conscious creatures is foundational, are holding this claim about moral truth to a standard of self-justification that no branch of science can meet.

Again, I admit that there may be something confusing about my use of the term “science”: I want it to mean, in its broadest sense, our best effort to understand reality at every level. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with using this term in a narrower way, to name a specialized form of any such effort. The problem, however, is that there is no telling where and how the pursuits of journalists, historians, and plumbers will become entangled with the work of official “scientists.” To cite an example I’ve used elsewhere: Was the Shroud of Turin a medieval forgery? For centuries, this was a question for historians to answer—until we developed the technique of radiocarbon dating. Now it is a question for chemistry. There are no real boundaries between our various modes of seeking to understand the world.

Most people who approach moral philosophy take for granted that the traditional categories of consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics are conceptually valid and worth maintaining. However, I believe that partitioning moral philosophy in this way begs the very question at issue—and this is another reason I tend not to identify myself as a “consequentialist.” Everyone knows—or thinks he knows—that consequentialism fails to capture much of what we value. But if the categorical imperative (one of Kant’s foundational contributions to deontology, or rule-based ethics) reliably made everyone miserable (that is, it reliably had bad consequences), no one would defend it as an ethical principle. Similarly, if virtues such as generosity, wisdom, and honesty caused nothing but pain and chaos, no sane person could consider them good. In my view, deontologists and virtue ethicists smuggle the good consequences of their ethics into the conversation from the start. Ultimately, therefore, I think that consequences, whether real or imagined, are always the point.

It seems clear that a complete scientific understanding of all possible minds would yield a complete understanding of all the ways in which conscious beings can thrive or suffer in this universe. What would such an account leave out that we (or any other conscious being) could conceivably care about? Gender equality? Respect for authority? Courage? Intellectual honesty? Either these have consequences for the minds involved, or they have no consequences. To say that something matters, is to claim that it matters to someone, actually or potentially. This is a claim about consequences, spelled out as changes in conscious experience, now or in the future.

However, many people seem to believe that a person can coherently value something for reasons that have nothing to do with its actual or potential consequences. It is true that certain philosophers have claimed this. For instance, John Rawls said that he cared about fairness and justice independent of their effects on human life. But I just don’t find this claim psychologically credible or conceptually coherent. After all, concerns about fairness predate our humanity. Capuchin monkeys worry about fairness. While they are very happy to be given slices of cucumber, they get very angry if they see another monkey getting fed grapes at the same time. Do you think that these monkeys are worried about fairness as an abstract principle, or do you think they just don’t like the way it feels to be treated unfairly?

Traditional moral philosophy also tends to set arbitrary limits on what counts as a consequence. Imagine, for instance, that a reckless driver is about to run over a puppy, and I, at great risk to myself, kick the puppy out of the car’s path, thereby saving its life. The consequences of my actions seem unambiguously good, and I will be a hero to animal lovers everywhere. However, let’s say that I didn’t actually see the car approaching and simply kicked the puppy because I wanted to cause it pain. Are my actions still good? Students of philosophy have been led to imagine that scenarios of this kind pose serious challenges to consequentialism.

But why should we ignore the consequences of a person’s mental states? If I am the kind of man who prefers kicking puppies to petting them, I have a mind that will reliably produce negative experiences—for both myself and others. Whatever is bad about being an abuser of puppies can be explained in terms of the consequences of living as such a person in the world. Yes, being deranged, I might get a momentary thrill from being cruel to a defenseless animal, but at what cost? Do my kids love me? Am I even capable of loving them? What rewarding experiences in life am I missing? There are guaranteed to be some. Intentions matter because they color our minds in every moment. They also determine much of our behavior, and thereby affect the lives of other people. And these people respond to us in turn. As our minds are, so our lives (largely) become.

Of course, intentions aren’t the only things that matter, as we can readily see in this case. It is quite possible for a bad person to inadvertently do some good in the world. But I argue that the inner and outer consequences of our thoughts and actions account for everything of value here. If you disagree, the burden is on you to come up with an action that is obviously right or wrong for reasons that are not fully accounted for by its (actual or potential) consequences, whether in the world or in the minds of any conscious beings that could possibly be affected.

I also think the spuriousness of our traditional categories in moral philosophy can be seen in how we teach our children to be good. Why do we want them to be good in the first place? Well, at a minimum, we’d rather they not wind up murdered in a ditch. More generally, we want them to flourish—to live happy, creative lives—and to contribute meaningfully to the lives of others. All this entails talking about rules and norms (i.e., deontology), a person’s character (i.e., virtue ethics), and the good and bad consequences of certain actions (i.e., consequentialism). But it all reduces to a concern for the well-being of our children and of the people with whom they will interact. I don’t believe that any sane person is concerned with abstract principles and virtues—such as justice and loyalty—independent of the ways they affect the lives of real people.


So what do we really mean by words like “should” and “ought”? Ethics is prescriptive only because we tend to talk about it that way—and I believe this emphasis comes, in large part, from the stultifying influence of Abrahamic religion. We could just as well think about ethics descriptively. Certain experiences, relationships, social institutions, and technological developments are possible—and there are more or less direct ways to arrive at them. Therefore, we have a navigation problem. To say that we “should” follow some of these paths and avoid others is just a way of saying that some lead to happiness and others to misery. To say that “You shouldn’t lie” (a prescriptive statement) is synonymous with saying that “Lying needlessly complicates people’s lives, destroys reputations, and undermines trust” (a descriptive statement). Saying that “We should defend democracy from totalitarianism” (prescriptive) is another way of saying “Democracy is far more conducive to human flourishing than the alternatives are” (descriptive). In my view, moralizing notions like “should” and “ought” are just ways of indicating that certain experiences and states of being are clearly better than others.

Strangely, the logical use of “ought” doesn’t confound us the moral one does. For instance, we could say that one “ought” to obey the law of the excluded middle, or that one ought to finish the equation 2+2= with a 4. We could speak prescriptively in this way about logic, but it would add nothing but confusion. And it would invite us to speculate on the apparent mystery that some people persist in making logical errors, all the while knowing that they shouldn’t do so. But, of course, this is no mystery at all.

There need be no imperative to be good—just as there’s no imperative to be smart or even sane. A person may be wrong about what’s good for him (and for everyone else), but he’s under no obligation to correct his error—any more than he is required to understand that π is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. A person may be mistaken about how to get what he wants out of life, and he may want the wrong things (i.e., things that will reliably make him miserable), just as he may fail to form true/useful beliefs in any other area. I am simply arguing that we live in a universe in which certain conscious states are possible, that some are better than others, and that movement in this space will depend on the laws of nature. Many people think that I must add an extra term of obligation—a person should be committed to maximizing the well-being of all conscious creatures. And this is what they think makes morality totally different than every other way of thinking about the world. But I see no need for this.

Imagine that you could push a button that would make every person on earth a little more creative, compassionate, intelligent, and fulfilled—in such a way as to produce no negative effects, now or in the future. This would be “good” in the only moral sense of the word that I understand. However, to make this claim, one needs to acknowledge a larger space of possible experiences (e.g. a moral landscape). What does it mean to say that a person should push this button? It means that making this choice would do a lot of good in the world without doing any harm. And a person’s unwillingness to push the button would say something very unflattering about him. After all, what possible motive could a person have for declining to increase everyone’s well-being (including his own) at no cost? I think our notions of “should” and “ought” can be derived from these facts and others like them. Pushing the button simply is better for everyone involved. And this is a statement of objective fact about the subjectivity of conscious beings. What more do we need to motivate prescriptive judgments like “should” and “ought” in this case?

Following David Hume, many philosophers think that “should” and “ought” can only be derived from our existing desires and goals—otherwise, there simply isn’t any moral sense to be made of what “is.” But this skirts the essential point: Some people don’t know what they’re missing. Thus, their existing desires and goals are not necessarily a guide to the moral landscape. In fact, it is perfectly coherent to say that all of us live, to one or another degree, in ignorance of our deepest possible interests. I am sure that there are experiences and modes of living available to me that I really would value over others if I were only wise enough to value them. It is only by reference to this larger space of possible experiences that my current priorities can be right or wrong. And unless one were to posit, against all evidence, that every person’s peak on the landscape is idiosyncratic and zero-sum (i.e., my greatest happiness will be unique to me and will come at the expense of everyone else’s), the best possible world for me seems very likely to be (nearly) the best possible world for everyone else. After all, do you think you’d be better off in a world filled with happy, peaceful, creative people, or one in which you drank the tears of the damned?
 

Part of the resistance I’ve encountered to the views presented in The Moral Landscape comes from readers who appear to want an ethical standard that gives clear guidance in every situation and doesn’t require too much of them. People want it to be easy to be good—and they don’t want to think that they are not living as good a life as they could be. This is especially true when balancing one’s personal well-being against the well-being of society. But the truth is, most of us are profoundly selfish, and most people don’t want to be told that being selfish is wrong. As I tried to make clear in the book, I don’t think it is wrong, up to a point. I suspect that an exclusive focus on the welfare of the group is not the best way to build a civilization that could secure it. Some form of enlightened selfishness seems the most reasonable approach to me—in which we are more concerned about ourselves and our children than about other people and their children, but not callously so.  However, the well-being of the whole group is the only global standard by which we can judge specific outcomes to be good.

The question of how to think about collective well-being is difficult. However, I think the paradoxes that the philosopher Derek Parfit famously constructed here (e.g. “The Repugnant Conclusion”) are similar to Zeno’s paradoxes of motion. How do any of us get to the coffee pot in the morning if we must first travel half the distance to it, and then half again, ad infinitum? Apparently, this geometrical party trick enthralled philosophers for centuries—but I suspect that no one ever took Zeno so seriously as to doubt that motion was possible. Once mathematicians showed us how to sum an infinite series, the problem vanished. Whether or not we ever shake off Parfit’s paradoxes around population ethics, there is no question that the limit cases exist: The worst possible misery for everyone really is worse than the greatest possible happiness. Between these two poles, it seems to me, we can talk about moral truth without hedging. We are still faced with a very real and all-too-consequential navigation problem. Where to go from here? Some experiences are sublime, and others are truly terrible—and all await discovery by the requisite minds. Certain states of pointless misery are possible—how can we avoid them? As far as I can see, saying that we “should” avoid them adds nothing to the import of the phrase “pointless misery.” Is pointless misery a bad thing? Well if it isn’t bad, what is? Even if you want to dispense with words like “bad” and “good” and remain entirely nonjudgmental, countless states of suffering and well-being are there to be realized—and we are, at this very moment, moving toward some and away from others, whether we know it or not.

And if we are going to worry about how our provincial human purposes frame our thinking about reality, let’s worry about this consistently. Just as we can’t have a science of medicine without valuing health, I believe morality is also inconceivable without a concern for well-being and that wherever people talk about “good” and “evil” in ways that clearly have nothing to do with well-being they are misusing these terms. In fact, people have been confused about medicine, nutrition, exercise, and related topics for millennia. Even now, many of us harbor beliefs about human health that have nothing to do with biological reality. Is this diversity of opinion a sign that health truly falls outside the purview of science?

And if we are going to balk at axiomatically valuing health or well-being, why accept any values at all in our epistemology? For instance, how is a desire to understand the world any more defensible? I would argue that satisfying our curiosity is a component of our well-being, and when it isn’t—for instance, when certain forms of knowledge seem guaranteed to cause great harm—it is perfectly rational for us to decline to seek such knowledge. I’m not even sure that curiosity grounds most of our empirical truth-claims. Is my knowledge that fire is hot borne of curiosity, or of my memory of having once been burned and my inclination to avoid pain and injury in the future?
 

We have certain logical and moral intuitions that we cannot help but rely upon to understand and judge the desirability of various states of the world. The limitations of some of these intuitions can be transcended by recourse to others that seem more fundamental. In the end, however, we must work with intuitions that strike us as non-negotiable. To ask whether the moral landscape captures our sense of moral imperative is like asking whether the physical universe is logical. Does the physical universe capture our sense of logical imperative? The universe is whatever it is. To ask whether it is logical is simply to wonder whether we can understand it. Perhaps knowing all the laws of physics would leave us feeling that certain laws are contradictory. This wouldn’t be a problem with the universe; it would be a problem with human reasoning. Are there peaks of well-being that might strike us as morally objectionable? This wouldn’t be a problem with the moral landscape; it would be a problem with our moral cognition.

As I argue in The Moral Landscape, we may think merely about what is—specifically about the possibilities of experience in this universe—and realize that this set of facts captures all that can be valued, along with every form of consciousness that could possibly value it. Either a change in the universe can affect the experience of someone, somewhere, or it can’t. I claim that only those changes that can have such effects can be coherently cared about. And if there is a credible exception to this claim, I have yet to encounter it. There is only what IS (which includes all that is possible). If you can’t find your moral imperatives here, I can’t see any other place to look for them.