Obama on The Daily Show

December 16, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Here’s a 32-minute interview that Barack Obama gave to Trevor Noah on yesterday’s “The Daily Show”.  I’m not a big fan of Noah as a comedian, but he asks Obama some pretty good questions. The main subject, of course, is Obama’s new book (volume 1) and its contents. As I’ve commented before, one reason several reviewers liked the book is because it portrays (as Obama notes here), what it’s like for a more-or-less average Joe to become President. This may be humblebrag, but the part of the book I read, excerpted in the New Woker, does give the sense of what it would feel for one of us—with the chops and experience, of course—to deal with the quotidian duties of the Chief Executive.

Noah asks Obama whether America should fear the loss of our position as the “world’s leader”, and what it was like to deal with terrorism (the apparent subject here is Osama bin Laden, but his name isn’t spoken).

The part that led me to this interview was an article which describes how Obama, responding to Noah, addresses claims that the ex-President misspoke when he said that the “Defund the police” slogan of the Left may have help squelch the hoped-for “blue wave” last month. Obama’s claim came in this video segment below, and one can make a good case that arguments to reduce or even eliminate the cops could indeed turn off centrist Democrats or centrists proper.

Noah calls 2020 a “year of racial reckoning,” and at 18:13 Obama says he’s been misunderstood when people say he was against the race-related protests because he criticized the slogan “defund the police”: that he was indeed a fan of the racial protests of the summer. As he says, his source of optimism about the future of race relations was “the activism that we saw in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter”.

Then, exactly 21 minutes into the interview, Obama is asked about that criticism of “defund the police.” I quote him:

“I was making a very particular point around that, if we want to translate the very legitimate belief that how we do policing needs to change and that if there is, for example, a homeless guy ranting and railing in the middle of the street, sending a mental health worker, rather than an armed untrained police officer to deal with that person might be a better outcome for all of us and make us safer, right?

[JAC note: you need to send a cop AND a mental health worker; that’s what’s done in this form of collaborative policing.]

“That, if we describe that to not just white folks, but let’s say Michelle’s mom, that makes sense to them. But if we say ‘defund the police,’ not just white folks, but Michelle’s mom might say, ‘If I’m getting robbed, who am I going to call and is somebody going to show up?’

” The issue here becomes ‘how are we translating and using language?’— not to make people more comfortable. . . The issue to me is not making them comfortable; it is ‘Can we be precise with our language enough that people who might be persuaded around that particular issue to make a particular change to get a particular result that we want—what’s the best way for us to describe that?'”

I think he’s right, and he has nothing to apologize for. It’s pragmatism, Jake. I can’t prove it, but I think the kind of extremism that prompted the Left’s “Defund the police” slogan (and in many cases defunding actually meant “abolishing”) did reduce the vote for non-Presidential Democratic candidates.

Finally, Obama talks about the “built-in advantages of the Republican party,” even though he says they’re definitely the “minority party.” He finishes off by asserting that he doesn’t miss the big stage and is simply satisfied with the job he did as President. There’s a moment in which he good-naturedly puts down Noah, and then finishes by describing what he’d consider his true legacy.

It’s a decent interview, and great to see a President with intelligence, humanity, and no need to bloviate and brag that he’s a “stable genius.” Let’s hope Biden can recapture at least a soupçon of Obama’s panache.

The FFRF exposes Amy Coney Barrett’s religious extremism

October 17, 2020 • 2:00 pm

In this video from the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s (FFRF’s) “Ask an Atheist” series, co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor and constitutional attorney Andrew Seidel, FFRF’s Director of Strategic Response, masticate the Amy Coney Barrett hearings, beginning with a legal analysis of Barrett’s testimony (until 11:30). Seidel, as always, is percipient and eloquent on the hearings.

Then Gaylor interviews Coral Theill (starting at 12:30), who once belonged to the group “People of Praise“, the Christian sect to which Barrett and her family still belong. According to reader Charles Sawicki, who sent me this link, Theill tried to testify at Barrett’s Senate hearings but was refused by Lindsey Graham.  Charles added this:

The ideas espoused by this cult makes the idea that Barrett is a member of SCOTUS much more worrisome. In particular, as a true believer, Barrett is “in submission” to her husband and cult leadership (that is she has to submit to their leadership).

At 34:00, Theill takes questions from both the moderators and the viewers.

Coral Theill’s description of People of Praise is absolutely spine-chilling.  The group is clearly a cult and the women members clearly “handmaids”. Fortunately, Theill has managed to make her awful life with PoP into something good, as she now advocates against abuse and promotes recovery from trauma.

I’d recommend going to the People of Praise website and see what they’re about. That and the Wikipedia article will tell you what we’re in for with Justice Barrett.  Given this information, it’s pretty clear that Barrett wouldn’t be a big fan of evolution. But that’s the least of our worries. Listen to the group’s views on the subjugation of women.

As for what this means for Barrett’s future decisions on the Court, I think you’d have to be in denial to think that she issue decisions that contravene her religious views. As one Jon Meador commented on the YouTube video:

Democrats are criticized for pointing out that Judge Barrett is biased due to her religious beliefs on the grounds that the “no-religious-test clause” bars asking those sorts of questions. The problem is her religious beliefs are the very reason she’s getting the job. Belief in god was not supposed to qualify or disqualify you. Here it’s what qualifies her; it’s the very reason she’s getting the job. Her lack of partiality is the very reason she’s getting the job. When you pick a jury, people with religious beliefs that affect their judgment as excused from service. They can’t serve as a matter of law. Here we have a “juror” picked because she’s a hardcore, right-wing, pro-life Catholic. I hope someone on our side will start filing motions to recuse these religiously-bigoted judges not because we’ll win (because we won’t) but because it’ll raise awareness and make a historical record.

If Barrett truly adheres to the cult’s guidelines, she’d probably be the first Justice to be a member of such a loony sect.

Thanks to Annie Laurie, Andrew, and especially the courageous Ms. Theill for putting this together.

Gregg Caruso on free will, the justice system, prisons, the meaning of life, and the good life

September 1, 2020 • 12:45 pm

The New Philosopher has a long interview, “On Purpose,” with Zan Boag speaking to the philosopher Gregg D. Caruso, Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning, Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University, and Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network (JWRN) at the University of Aberdeen School of Law.

Although I’ve never met Caruso, I consider him a philosophical confrère, as he’s a hard determinist who has no truck with notions of contracausal free will (classical you-could-have-done otherwise free will that’s the basis of Abrahamic religion). Not only that, but he thinks, as do I, that the rejection of conventional free will should absolve us of moral responsibility and therefore lead to big changes in the justice system.

He’s thought a lot harder about this than I have, and has written about the issue in several books, which you can see here. He’s debated free will with Dan Dennett, a compatibilist who thinks that you can have both determinism and free will; and Gregg tells me that he has a book coming out next January called: Just Deserts: Debating Free Willin which he and Dennett “debate our respective views on free will, moral responsibility, and punishment.” I’m looking forward to that one! He’s got yet another one coming out about the implications of “no free will” for criminal justice: Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice. 

Definition of free will: Caruso has a unique way of defining free will, as he says many philosophers “define free will in such a way that it directly follows that we either have it or we don’t.” Instead, he limns the concept by whether or not it gives us moral responsibility, which is, to most people, the essential concomitant of free will. And so he comes up with this:

I’ve long argued that the variety of free will that is of central philosophical and practical importance is the sort required for moral responsibility in a particular but pervasive sense. This sense of moral responsibility is typically set apart by the notion of basic desert and is defined in terms of the control in action needed for an agent to be truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. Understood this way, free will is a kind of power or ability an agent must possess in order to justify certain kinds of basically deserved judgments, attitudes, or treatments – such as resentment, indignation, moral anger, and retributive punishment – in response to decisions or actions that the agent performed or failed to perform. These reactions would be justified on purely backward-looking grounds, that is what makes them basic, and would not appeal to consequentialist or forward-looking considerations, such as future protection, future reconciliation, or future moral formation.

I contend that there are several distinct advantages to defining free will in this way. First, it provides a neutral definition that virtually all parties can agree to. Unlike some other definitions, it does not beg the question or exclude from the outset various conceptions of free will that are available for disputing parties to adopt. Second, by defining free will in terms of basic desert moral responsibility, this definition captures the practical importance of the debate. Third, this definition fits with our everyday understanding of these conceptions. There is, for instance, growing evidence that ordinary people not only view free will and moral responsibility as intimately tied together, but that it is precisely the desire to blame, punish, and uphold moral responsibility that motivates belief in free will. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, rejecting this understanding of free will makes it difficult to understand the nature of the substantive disputes that are driving the free will debate.

This of course winds up with a view of free will as will that is free from determinism: contracausal free will, which, despite Dan Dennett’s compatibilism, is really the kind of free will that most people “want.” Because Caruso, like me, sees no way that we can have the kind of agency that gives us true moral responsibility, he rejects the idea of moral responsibility.

As an aside, Caruso claims that, in his book with Dennett, Dan reveals himself as someone who also rejects moral responsibility. Now since I once argued with Dan about that very point for three hours in a car, with Dan asserting that we do have moral responsibility, with me disputing it, I’ll be curious how Greg can discern this:

As to how my view compares to Dan Dennett’s, I’ll just add one final point. While Dennett’s compatibilism appears to be fundamentally at odds with my free will scepticism, when you actually drill down into what Dan means by free will, you’ll find that he too rejects what I’m calling basic desert moral responsibility. For that reason, I think he’s more of a free will sceptic than he admits – although he would resist that characterisation.

Crime and punishment.  Caruso is even more of a penal reformer than I. While we agree that punishment can and should be levied even without moral responsibility, I see the punishment as basically consequentialist, and useful for not only reforming bad guys and keeping them away from others until they’ve reformed, I also think punishment is necessary as a deterrent.(We both reject retributive punishment out of hand, as it’s based on punishing someone because he made the wrong choice.) Caruso, though he doesn’t discuss deterrence in this interview, rejects it because he thinks it has philosophical and moral problems.  However, I’m not sure what you do to deter people from, say, cheating on their income taxes or running red lights, and I’ll be curious to see how Gregg deals with this in his new book on retribution. You can’t just let people drive their cars without regulation and without the threat of some punishment!

At any rate, Caruso has what he calls a “public health” view of punishment, which seems quite progressive—though I still worry about the absence of a deterrent aim:

. . . . If we reject retributivism, either because we come to doubt or deny the existence of free will or for other reasons, we need an ethically defensible and practically workable alternative. In Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice, I develop and defend what I believe is the most promising, humane, and justified alternative: the public health-quarantine model. The core idea of the model is that the right to harm in self-defence and defence of others justifies incapacitating the criminally dangerous with the minimum harm required for adequate protection. Yet the model does not justify the sort of criminal punishment whose legitimacy is most dubious, such as death or confinement in the most common kinds of prisons in our society. In fact, the model is completely non-punitive and requires special attention to the wellbeing and dignity of criminals that would change much of current policy. Perhaps most importantly, the model also develops a public health approach that prioritises prevention and social justice and aims at identifying and taking action on the social determinants of health and criminal behaviour.

. . . Analogously, on this model the use of incapacitation should be limited to only those cases where offenders are a serious threat to public safety and no less restrictive measures were available. In fact, for certain minor crimes perhaps only some degree of monitoring could be defended. Secondly, the incapacitation account that results from this analogy demands a degree of concern for the rehabilitation and wellbeing of the criminal that would alter much of current practice. Just as fairness recommends that we seek to cure the diseased we quarantine, so fairness would counsel that we attempt to rehabilitate the criminals we detain. Rehabilitation and reintegration would therefore replace punishment as the focus of the criminal justice system. Lastly, if a criminal cannot be rehabilitated and our safety requires his indefinite confinement, this account provides no justification for making his life more miserable than would be required to guard against the danger he poses.

This model would have the effect of eliminating the grossly inhumane types of punishment imposed by countries like the U.S. and India, replacing it with one along the lines of Norway, which has a much lower rate of incarceration as well as a much lower rate of recidivism than the U.S. (see my earlier post on this). The other day I watched this video about the country’s most secure prison, the ADX Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado where, as the show below notes, “America sends the prisoners it wants to punish the most”. I was absolutely horrified at the treatment of the prisoners, who are in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and have one hour of solitary exercise. Note that the “punishment” goes to prisoners who may not be especially dangerous to guards or other prisoners, but they are being punished retributively.

And here’s a Supermax cell. Note the barred door behind the main door. It’s 7 feet wide and 12 feet long.

There’s a lot more, but I’ll add just that Caruso lards his discussion with a lot of social justice talk, but not of the woke kind: he says that hand-in-hand with punishment reform must go an attempt to prevent crime by eliminating “racism, sexism, poverty, and systematic disadvantage as serious threats to public safety.” This of course is useful and necessary, but it won’t of course eliminate crime completely.

I strongly agree with Caruso that penal reform is a huge priority for the U.S., and that taking the no-free-will “public health” approach—which basically sees criminals as individuals with an infectious disease that needs to be cured humanely—is essential in spurring such reform. But I’ve said that many times before.

The meaning of life and the good life. Caruso goes on to speak about the meaning of life, and what he considers a good life (he has a fascinating digression on one of his hobbies that gives his life meaning), and once again we agree on this:

[Interviewer] In philosophy, and for many people throughout history, a common quest has been the search for the meaning of life, or perhaps just for meaning in life. Is there a meaning of life? And how can one find meaning in life – a purpose to our lives?

[Caruso]: The search for the meaning of life is a fool’s errand. There is no singular, universal, all-encompassing meaning to it all. There is, however, meaning in life. We create meaning through our roles as players in the game of life.


If you have a spare hour or so, have a read. Even if you reject Caruso’s hard determinism, there’s a lot to think about in the interview.

h/t: Tom

Steve Stewart-Williams on the value of evolutionary psychology

August 26, 2020 • 10:15 am

When I give talks about why Americans reject evolution so frequently, I refer to Steve Stewart-Williams’s excellent book from 2010: Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything you Though You Knew.  It goes through reason after reason why evolution not only undermines our ideas, but why that undermining makes people resistant to evolutionary biology and its conclusions. It explained to me, for instance, why 27% of American Catholics are creationists, embracing Biblical literalism despite the fact that the Church itself explicitly accepts evolution. Those people, like many, just can’t get past the naturalistic and non-human-centric implications of evolution. The book is like a bucket of cold water tossed on the idea that evolution doesn’t conflict with religion.

Steve has a newer book, published in 2018 (click on screenshot below to go to Amazon site). I haven’t yet read it, though it’s coming to me through my library, but it’s apparently a discussion of the evolution of culture (“evolution” that’s both genetic and cultural), as well as a discussion of the merits of and problems with evolutionary psychology.

 Stewart-Williams is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, and I’ve written about some of his work here, describing why he thinks that the difference between human males and females in levels of aggression has a substantial evolutionary basis.  But, as the interview below shows, in which he speaks with Pablo Malo at the site La Nueva Ilustración Evolucionista (“The New Evolutionary Enlightenment”), Stewart-Williams doesn’t accept whole hog all the claims of evolutionary psychology, and is sometimes quite critical of them. In other words, Stewart-Williams’s attitude towards the discipline is similar to mine. Read the interview by clicking on the screenshot below. There’s an English translation so you don’t have to use Google translate except for the introduction (or if you speak Spanish):

Stewart-Williams’s take on evolutionary psychology also differs from that of biologists on the “progressive” left who reject evolutionary psychology as a whole, dismissing it as a farrago of “just-so stories” and untested (and untestable) hypotheses. You can see this attitude, for instance, in people like blogger P. Z. Myers, who should know better, and his minions. Yes, the discipline has its “soft underbelly,” as I’ve described, but it’s also led to informative insights, and simply cannot be swept away with unwarranted ridicule. Dismissal of evolutionary psychology as a whole (see another dismisser below) comes not from a scientific attitude, but an ideological one: if human behavior evolved over millions of years, just like human bodies and physiology (one can’t deny the latter), then perhaps we are partly slaves to biological determinism, and, worse, behavioral differences between men and women might be in part the result of evolution.

I think the evidence for evolved differences is pretty solid, but blank-slaters, who happen to populate the progressive Left, deny this determinism because they mistakenly think that evolved differences somehow imply moral differences. As Steve Pinker showed in his book The Blank Slate, and I’ve said many times, the idea that evolution tells us what is right and wrong is a fallacy—the “naturalistic fallacy”.

But I digress. I’ll just say once more that the blatant dismissal of evolutionary psychology as a discipline is not only unwarranted, but ignorant and ideologically based. To think that human bodies are the product of evolution but human minds are not can only be the product of some overweening and blinkered ideology.

On to the interview. It’s in both Spanish and English.. I’ll highlight the main points in bold, and any quotes from Steve will be indented:

Some of evolutionary psychology is weak and “silly”, and can comprise “just-so stories”. 

A third reason I decided to write Ape was that I wanted to present a somewhat circumspect view of evolutionary psychology – one that met the critics halfway on a number of issues. This includes the common criticism that evolutionary psychologists too often overextend the adaptationist mode of explanation, seeing adaptations in all sorts of psychological and behavioral tendencies that probably aren’t adaptations at all. My response to this criticism is: Guilty as charged. Evolutionary psychologists have sometimes put forward some pretty silly adaptationist hypotheses, and we need to be a bit more careful about that
But a lot of it is sound, though not “proven”—but of course no science is “proven”. We just accrue more or less confidence in hypotheses as we do more tests. So the declarations of people like philosopher Subrena Smith, who declared that doing evolutionary psychology was “impossible”, are badly mistaken. (I discussed Smith’s paper here, and Steve Pinker’s ideas about it here.) 

Evolutionary psychology certainly isn’t perfect, but I have to say I wasn’t particularly impressed with [Smith’s] critique. The idea that that EP is impossible – not just difficult, but impossible – strikes me as so extreme that I’m a little surprised so many people took it so seriously. It also strikes me as awfully convenient that, of all the sciences, the one we can rule out a priori, on purely logical grounds, just happens to be one that many people dislike and object to for explicitly political reasons.

Smith’s argument is basically a sophisticated reboot of the old retort that “behaviour doesn’t fossilize.” She claims that there’s ultimately no way to show that the psychological tendencies underpinning people’s behaviour today evolved in prehistoric times to perform the same functions that they currently perform, and thus that evolutionary psychology is impossible in principle.

Is she right? Well, one reason to doubt that evolutionary psychology is impossible is that… people are already doing evolutionary psychology: They’re gathering evidence bearing on evolutionarily informed hypotheses, and this evidence nudges up or down our confidence that these hypotheses are accurate. Sure, no one has provided evidence that proves any hypothesis in evolutionary psychology with the certainty of a mathematical proof. But that’s true of every claim in science. Scientists can only ever nudge our confidence up or down. Perhaps this is harder in EP than in some fields (although the replication crisis in psychology and elsewhere suggests that it’s not as easy as we thought in any field). But saying that it’s harder is very different than saying that it’s impossible.

And in some cases, it isn’t even particularly hard. Consider hunger. Strictly speaking, we can never say with 100% certainty that this psychological capacity evolved in our prehistoric ancestors, or that it had the same function back then as it does today (i.e., motivating us to seek and consume food). But it seems reasonable to think that it did. Indeed, it seems unreasonable to think otherwise – unreasonable, in other words, to think that our ancestors did not experience hunger or that the primary function of hunger back then was unrelated to eating. And if you accept that, I think you also have to accept that there’s no in-principle reason to reject any and all evolutionary psychological hypotheses, even if others are more difficult to evaluate. For a more detailed response to Smith’s paper, see Ed Hagen’s excellent post on the topic.

Few evolutionary psychologists now accept two views they’re often accused of: “Massive modularity” (the brain comprises various semi-independent modules that code for different behaviors), and the “Environment of evolutionary adaptedness”: the idea that our behaviors all show adaptations to the life of our ancestors on the African savannas. The latter, at least, would be foolish given the evidence that humans have undergone palpable evolutionary change in the last 10,000 years. Stewart-Williams prefers that evolutionary psychologists just analyze human behaviors using well-established evolutionary principles like kin selection, parental investment, reciprocal altruism, and the like.

Refutations of the “Cinderella Effect”: the demonstration that parents are more brutal toward their stepchildren than their biological children, are weak. (These were mostly raised by Hans Temrin.) According to Stewart-Williams, the data come down pretty much in support of the Cinderalla Effect. If further studies buttress those data, it would be good evidence for an evolutionary-psychology explanation based on relatedness and parental investment. It makes sense that you’d treat your biological children better than those unrelated to you, and you might even abuse the latter if it favors the prospects of the former. (Remember, lions that invade a pride immediately kill all the cubs from the mothers, and then inseminate the mothers, yielding cubs that are related rather than “step-cubs”.)

The idea of memes hasn’t been that productive in understanding human cultural evolution, but there are a few suggestive examples of memes evolving simply because they have self-propagating characteristics. One of these examples involves witch hunts, and was published last year by Hofhuis and Boudry. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been a pretty severe critic of “memetics.”

The Himba people of Namibia have a 48% rate of non-paternity; that is, half the children in a family aren’t fathered by the “father.” Isn’t that a refutation of evolutionary theory? Stewart-Williams explains why we’d sometimes expect these anomalies.

Disparities in representation of males vs. females in different areas don’t always demonstrate sexism and bigotry, as many assume. They could just be differences in preference, and perhaps some of these are the result of evolved behaviors. I’ve made this point many times before, but it still goes over the head of many “progressives”, who fail to realize that there is, for many cases of unequal representation, a competing hypothesis to the idea of “structural discrimination.”

Here’s what Steve says about that in response to a question:

What are you working on now? What mystery would you like to unravel next?

I’m working on two main projects at the moment. One is a theoretical paper with Lewis Halsey, looking at the causes of gender disparities in STEM. As everyone knows, men outnumber women in certain areas of STEM, including mathematics, computer science, and physics. As everyone also knows, the most common explanations for the gender gaps are discrimination and socialization. We argue, in contrast, that although discrimination and socialization are part of the story, they’re not the whole story. We make two main claims in our paper. The first is that factors other than discrimination contribute to gender gaps in STEM; these include, in particular, average sex differences in interests and life priorities. The second is that these average differences aren’t due entirely to socialization. Socialization plays an important role, but the differences are also partly inherited.

People sometimes assume that if you admit a role for biological factors in shaping STEM gender gaps, you must think nothing should be done about those gaps. But that’s not our view. We are wary of overly coercive fixes, such as offering people monetary or other incentives to make career choices they wouldn’t otherwise make, and affirmative-action policies that, in effect, discriminate against men and lead people (including the benefactors of such policies) to secretly wonder whether they really earned their success. But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing. We should let young people know about all the science careers on offer, and make clear that these are options that women as well as men should consider. We should make sure we highlight the scientific achievements of both sexes, rather than focusing unduly on men. We should encourage people to accept and support women (and men) who make gender-atypical choices. We should put policies in place that reduce the possibility of bias against either sex, including gender-blind evaluation of job applications, research grants, and the like. And we should do what we can to make science careers compatible with the demands of motherhood (and fatherhood).

Having done all that, though, we should respect the choices that people make about their own lives and careers, even if this doesn’t result in perfect gender parity. In other words, we should aim for equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome. People are ultimately going to be happier if they pursue the careers that most interest them.

There’s a lot more to the interview than this, so if you want a level-headed take on evolutionary psychology, I’d recommend that you have a look at the interview, and perhaps read Steve’s latest book.
Steve Stewart-Williams



An interview with Noam Chomsky and why he signed the Harper’s letter

August 13, 2020 • 9:30 am

I’ve been remiss in following—or even learning about—Noam Chomsky. I’m not much into linguistics, and, truth be told, I couldn’t even recount his big contributions there beyond the concept of Universal Grammar, or how well they’ve stood up over time. I have read several of his political pieces, so I’m aware of his severe criticism of the American government and its actions overseas, and not just under Trump. But in the past few years I haven’t read a word he’s written.

Chomsky is now 91, and when I saw him at a meeting in Puebla, Mexico a few years back, he was frail and needed help walking. But that’s to be expected at his age, and, according to the interview with Anand Giridharadas in The Ink (click on screenshot below), Chomsky is as sharp as ever. According to Wikipedia, he’s now a part-time professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona at Tucson, though of course he spent most of his career at MIT.

Chomsky’s interview reveals that he favors Biden, but especially because, as he says, Biden has been pushed leftward by Bernie Sanders—the candidate Chomsky really likes (even though he sees Sanders as a faux socialist). When asked if he thought that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could ever become President of the U.S. (Ceiling Cat forbid), Chomsky didn’t answer but praised the leftward movement towards progressivism in some segments of the Democratic Party:

Well, if you’d asked me 10 years ago whether someone like Bernie Sanders could be the most popular political figure in the country, I would’ve said you’re out of your mind. But it in fact happened in 2016 and it’s continued to create a significant movement. There are real possibilities. I think if you take a look at the United States in the 1920s, and you asked, Could there ever be a labor movement?, you would’ve sounded crazy. How could there be? It had been crushed.

But it changed. Human life is not predictable. Depends on choices and will, which are unpredictable. So right now, for example, we’re in the process of formation of a Progressive International. It’s based on the Sanders movement in the United States and Yanis Varoufakis’s DiEM25 movement in Europe, which is a transnational European movement seeking to preserve and strengthen what makes sense in the European Union and to overcome its very serious flaws.

. . .Well, actually, the Sanders movement was remarkably successful. And it’s something that has broken with over 100 years of American political history. To bring a candidate to near nomination without any support from the media, from big donors, from the corporate sector. Nothing like that’s happened before. Could it do more? I think so.

Not to make a big fuss about it, but I’ve been mildly critical of Sanders’ presenting himself as a socialist. He’s not a socialist in my opinion. He’s a New Deal Democrat. A mild social democrat. His policies would not have surprised Eisenhower very much. It’s a sign of the shift to the right, of both parties, during the neoliberal period, that his positions are considered revolutionary.

He says it’s also reflected in the Black Lives Matter movement:

Take the United States. Maybe the greatest social movement to develop in American history, the Black Lives Matter-inspired movement. It’s all over the place. Has the kind of public support that no activist movement ever had. Martin Luther King, at the peak of his popularity, had never reached two-thirds public support for what he was doing. That reflects something.

But I wanted to concentrate on Chomsky’s discussion of the Harper’s Letter decrying “cancel culture” (though it doesn’t use that term), a letter Chomsky signed. When asked about his sense of the letter in view of the controversy it generated, he has a remarkably sensible take, one that the Woke opponents of the letter might be well to ponder:

Well, there’s two different things. There’s the letter and there’s the discussion. The letter is anodyne. It’s a simple statement that it’s worth being careful to preserve freedom of speech. The main attack on freedom of speech was not discussed there. It’s the mainstream establishment, which for years has been engaged in massive cancel culture.

But now segments of the left are picking up part of the same pathology. It’s harmful; they shouldn’t be doing it; it’s wrong in principle. It’s suicidal. It’s a gift to the far right. So here’s a quiet statement saying, “Look, we should be careful about these things and not undertake this.” Should’ve been the end. Then comes the reaction, which is extremely interesting. It proves that the problem was much deeper than was assumed. The reaction is pretty hysterical, mostly totally irrational. Sensible people, personal friends of mine, are writing articles attacking the statement because of the people who signed it. Just think what that means for a second. I’m sure you, like any other person who’s well-known, are deluged with requests to sign statements on human rights issues, civil liberties issues, and so on.

Do you take account of who the signers are going to be? You can’t. You can’t know who the signers are going to be. If this position of the critics were adopted, there would never be a statement. Nobody in his right mind would sign a statement if the content of the statement is going to be judged by who might sign it tomorrow.

This criticism is much to the pleasure of the right wing, which hates these statements. So it’s another massive service to the right wing. Just as breaking up a meeting of somebody you don’t like is a service to the right wing. You want to play their game? Do it straight. Don’t pretend you’re on the left.

I think by “mainstream cancel culture” he’s referring to the slanting of the news about America by the government and mainstream media, but I can’t be sure. (Readers may want to weigh in.) Nevertheless, his take on Leftist cancel culture is on the money, as is his take on having to be ideologically compatible with everyone who signs a letter that you’ve signed as well.  And surely he’s right—as we know from right-wing sources like Fox News—that the Right makes hay of divisions in the left, particularly those, like the kerfuffle over the Harper’s letter, that look inconsequential and petty.

h/t: Ken

A profile of Glenn Loury

July 12, 2020 • 1:30 pm

Glenn Loury, a professor of economics at Brown University, is well known to us as an African-American intellectual who, though a centrist with liberal tendencies (he might contest that position), dares to question the received wisdom of critical race theory. In this he’s sympatico with Columbia’s John McWhorter, and the pair often do discussions on bloggingheads.tv’s “The Glenn Show.

Two days ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a profile of Loury, and though it’s probably paywalled for most of you (click screenshot to see), judicious inquiry will yield a copy. It details his personal/political history from a young liberal on Chicago’s South Side to a college-age conservative who voted for Reagan, and then to his embrace of Christianity and return toward the Left by reading people like Murray, Herrsntein and Dinesh D’Souza.  I didn’t know Loury was religious (and I’m not that keen on it, since it implies a willingness to embrace delusions), but on issues other than Jesus he seems pretty hardheaded, and brave enough to challenge the “cancel culture.”

If you want to know a guy who’s liable to show up here fairly often in the future, have a read. I’ll give just two quotes:

Next spring Glenn Loury will teach a new course on freedom of expression to students at Brown University, where he’s a professor of economics. “We’ll read Plato, Socrates, Milton, John Stuart Mill, George Orwell and Allan Bloom, ” he says, stressing that Bloom’s best-known work, “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students,” is as relevant as it was when published in 1987.

Mr. Loury is thinking about adding “the Paxson letter” to his syllabus, so that his students might critique it. That June 1 missive to “the Brown Community” from Christina H. Paxson, Brown’s president, asserted that “oppression, as well as prejudice, outright bigotry and hate, directly and personally affect the lives of millions of people in this nation every minute and every hour.” It committed the university to “programming, courses, and research opportunities” that promote “equity and justice.”

Mr. Loury scorns the letter as Ms. Paxson’s “company policy” and “the Black Lives Matter view of the world reflected from the Brown University college president’s office.” On June 5, he published a rebuttal in City Journal. [JAC: see my post on this letter here.] Ms. Paxson’s letter was signed “by everybody,” from deans to the general counsel and even the investment manager for Brown’s $4.2 billion endowment, Mr. Loury tells me by Zoom from his home in Providence, R.I. “That made it an official policy,” he says. “I don’t think universities should have official policies about contentious political issues.”

If they do—“if we foreclose debate over contentious issues by declaring that there’s only one way for a decent person at this university to think about them”—“how can we fulfill our mission of teaching our students to think critically?” Scholarly inquiry ought to consist of an exploration of the evidence, the “moral commitments,” the political issues and the historical context. The Paxson letter makes these “hard questions” more perilous to ask.

“I’m 71,” he says. “I have tenure. I have a chair. That doesn’t mean that the McCarthyism can’t get me, but I’m as secure as anybody is ever going to be.” What if he were 32, an untenured assistant professor of English or history? “Dare I even mumble a contrary word once this kind of thing has been put out into the air? Universities shouldn’t be handing down a party-line document.” Few have dared dissent: Of his “500 professorial colleagues here at Brown,” he says, only three responded to his rebuttal by saying “good job.”

Now you just know that more than three of his colleagues thought Loury did a good job. Their failure to support him is just more evidence of the cancel culture whose existence is denied by the Woke.

Two more quotes and then I must feed my waterfowl. First, why he refused to sign the Harper’s letter:

Mr. Loury says he “politely declined” an invitation to sign “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published by Harper’s on Tuesday. Endorsed by some 150 liberal academics and writers, it denounces President Trump as “a real threat to democracy” before criticizing leftist repression.

“I declined for two reasons,” Mr. Loury says. “First, I’m not ‘on the left’ and felt no need to signal solidarity with the left before criticizing cancel culture. And second, I don’t view Trump as the greatest threat to democracy in this country.” The truth, he adds, is “quite the opposite. It has been the refusal of the left to accept the democratic outcome of 2016 which precipitated the intolerance about which [the signatories] were complaining. So I did not sign.”

Well, one can quarrel with the second claim, and indeed I do.  Most of us, I think, have accepted that Trump was elected President (though not by the popular vote) in 2016. But many of us, me included, also think that Trump and his administration pose the greatest threat to democracy in the U.S. right now. If not, what does? (Loury doesn’t say.)

Finally, he outlines his differences from most black activists and intellectuals:

Parsing the politics of black America, he says that the prevailing orthodoxy requires him to support the payment of reparations to descendants of slaves, to assert that “voter suppression” today is comparable to Jim Crow, that the overrepresentation of blacks in prisons is “ipso facto an expression of white supremacy and structural racism,” and that preferential treatment is “entirely appropriate, and indeed imperative, as a matter of racial justice.”

I’m not sure what he means by “the prevailing orthodoxy requires him to support. . . “, because he’s not the kind of guy who supports things because they’re orthodox. And he undercuts that in the next paragraph:

A black person who takes issue with these premises is largely ostracized. Here, an impassioned Mr. Loury delivers a small speech without pausing for breath: “If you don’t think that systemic racism accounts for the high rate of outside-marriage births amongst African-American women, if you don’t think the school-to-prison pipeline cultivates the incarceration of black youngsters, if you have doubts about affirmative action, if you think self-reliance is important, if you think the coherence of the family is an elemental aspect of any social group’s being able to function adequately in the world, if you’re religious, and if you think that blacks’ obeisance to the Democratic Party is unhealthy for their long-term political interests—you’ll be dismissed as being on the right. And that’s where I find myself.”

Well, the interview also says this:

Mr. Loury is a hard man to pigeonhole. He belongs to no party and says he isn’t “partisan in the electoral process,” so “ ‘on the right’ doesn’t quite suit me.” Yet on the issues that he cares about most—race, inequality and social justice in America—he is, he says, “right of center for sure, and considerably right of the center of opinion amongst African-Americans.”

In other words, he’s a maverick. I can’t remember who (someone in Congress?) dismissed people like Loury because they weren’t talking like an African-American is supposed to, but hand the man this: he says what he thinks.




Sapolsky interview redux (and SpaceX launch/docking)

May 31, 2020 • 7:30 am

Most of the issues plaguing this website were resolved by WordPress yesterday, but the site was inaccessible for much of the day. I thus invite you to comment on yesterday’s post about Robert Sapolsky’s Scientific American interview on free will. Comments were few for this kind of post; the paucity is either due to reader fatigue about free will (you needn’t tell me if you have it), or people not having time to listen or to see the post. It’s worth hearing (and perhaps responding to what he or I said about it), so if you missed it, try again and comment here or there.


I was sad that the site was down yesterday, because I wanted to watch the SpaceX launch to the ISS, and I simply forgot about it. Here’s a short video of the launch.  The Dragon is scheduled to arrive at the ISS this morning, docking at 10:29 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, so be sure you’re tuned in well before that. NASA TV has it at the screenshot below this first video.

Click here in at most two hours to see the docking. I’ve set my alarm. You can read what’s going to happen at the New York Times. As I write this at 7:30 a.m. Chicago time, all is copacetic.

Right now the Dragon capsule is only 400 meters below the International Space Station. Do not miss the docking. Again, click below to see it.

James Carville on the 2020 Democratic candidates

February 19, 2020 • 11:15 am

Who doesn’t like James Carville? He’s smart, strongly liberal and pro-Democratic Party, and has an impish look but a potty mouth. His Louisiana accent is endearing. And he’s famous as a campaign strategist and for posting these three mantras on the wall of the Clinton election’s “campaign war room” in 1992:

  1. Change vs. more of the same.
  2. The economy, stupid.
  3. Don’t forget health care.

The man doesn’t mince words. Carville now teaches at Louisiana State University, and he’s still married to conservative Mary Matalin (I have no idea how that marriage works!).

So Carville has a recent interview in Vox with Sean Illig, and makes some strong pronouncements about how the Democratic Presidential race this year is going south, and what we need to do to fix it. Click on the screenshot to read it. I’ve given quotes below from only a part of the interview, which you should read in full

Carville has a lot to say.  He avers that he’s not a centrist but a liberal, but that the Democratic party has tacked to the left—”off the damn radar screen”. He’ll vote for any Democratic candidate, including Bernie, whom he doesn’t much like, but says the Dems have to coalesce around a central message that can appeal to everyone. And they’re not doing it by promoting policies like Medicare For All or “free college tuition or debt forgiveness.” But on to the quotes:

Sean Illing

What’s gone wrong? Who’s responsible?

James Carville

I don’t know. We just had an election in 2018. We did great. We talked about everything we needed to talk about, and we won. And now it’s like we’re losing our damn minds. Someone’s got to step their game up here.

Sean Illing

What does that mean?

James Carville

In 2018, Democrats recruited really strong candidates, really qualified candidates. And the party said, “This is what we’re going to talk about and we’re going to keep talking about it.” And you know what happened? We fucking won. We didn’t get distracted, we didn’t get deflected.

Sean Illing

Give me an example of what you mean by distractions.

James Carville

We have candidates on the debate stage talking about open borders and decriminalizing illegal immigration. They’re talking about doing away with nuclear energy and fracking. You’ve got Bernie Sanders talking about letting criminals and terrorists vote from jail cells. It doesn’t matter what you think about any of that, or if there are good arguments — talking about that is not how you win a national election. It’s not how you become a majoritarian party.

For fuck’s sake, we’ve got Trump at Davos talking about cutting Medicare and no one in the party has the sense to plaster a picture of him up there sucking up to the global elites, talking about cutting taxes for them while he’s talking about cutting Medicare back home. Jesus, this is so obvious and so easy and I don’t see any of the candidates taking advantage of it.

The Republicans have destroyed their party and turned it into a personality cult, but if anyone thinks they can’t win, they’re out of their damn minds.

Like many of my friends, including the most liberal ones, Carville isn’t enthused by Bernie, but he’d still vote for him (as would I).

James Carville

Look, Bernie Sanders isn’t a Democrat. He’s never been a Democrat. He’s an ideologue. And I’ve been clear about this: If Bernie is the nominee, I’ll vote for him. No question. I’ll take an ideological fanatic over a career criminal any day. But he’s not a Democrat

. . . But back to Sanders — what I’m saying is the Democratic Party isn’t Bernie Sanders, whatever you think about Sanders.

Sean Illing

A lot of threads there. First, a lot of people don’t trust the Democratic Party, don’t believe in the party, for reasons you’ve already mentioned, and so they just don’t care about that. They want change. And I guess the other thing I’d say is, 2016 scrambled our understanding of what’s possible in American politics.

Are we really sure Sanders can’t win?

James Carville

Who the hell knows? But here’s what I do know: Sanders might get 280 electoral votes and win the presidency and maybe we keep the House. But there’s no chance in hell we’ll ever win the Senate with Sanders at the top of the party defining it for the public. Eighteen percent of the country elects more than half of our senators. That’s the deal, fair or not.

So long as [Mitch] McConnell runs the Senate, it’s game over. There’s no chance we’ll change the courts, and nothing will happen, and he’ll just be sitting up there screaming in the microphone about the revolution.

The purpose of a political party is to acquire power. All right? Without power, nothing matters.

Two more quotes (I can’t resist: Carville doesn’t mince words!):

Sean Illing

So your complaint is basically that the party has tacked too far to the left?

James Carville

They’ve tacked off the damn radar screen. And look, I don’t consider myself a moderate or a centrist. I’m a liberal. But not everything has to be on the left-right continuum. I love Warren’s day care plan just like I love Booker’s baby bonds. That’s the kind of stuff our candidates should explain and define clearly and repeatedly for voters and not get diverted by whatever the hell is in the air that day.

Here’s another stupid thing: Democrats talking about free college tuition or debt forgiveness. I’m not here to debate the idea. What I can tell you is that people all over this country worked their way through school, sent their kids to school, paid off student loans. They don’t want to hear this shit. And you saw Warren confronted by an angry voter over this. It’s just not a winning message.

The real argument here is that some people think there’s a real yearning for a left-wing revolution in this country, and if we just appeal to the people who feel that, we’ll grow and excite them and we’ll win. But there’s a word a lot of people hate that I love: politics. It means building coalitions to win elections. It means sometimes having to sit back and listen to what people think and framing your message accordingly.

That’s all I care about. Right now the most important thing is getting this career criminal who’s stealing everything that isn’t nailed down out of the White House. We can’t do anything for anyone if we don’t start there and then acquire more power.

And what about Mayor Pete? (This interview was before Bloomberg seriously began campaigning and debating.) I like Carville’s implicit critique of the Bernie Bros here:

Sean Illing

Buttigieg seems to model the sort of candidate you think can win.

James Carville

Mayor Pete has to demonstrate over the course of a campaign that he can excite and motivate arguably the most important constituents in the Democratic Party: African Americans. These voters are a hell of a lot more important than a bunch of 25-year-olds shouting everyone down on Twitter.

. . . Falling into despair won’t help anyone, though. I mean, you can curse the darkness or you can light a candle. I’m getting a fucking welding torch. Okay?

I’m pretty much with Carville on his view that sharp tacking to the left won’t do the party any good, that many Democratic candidates are supporting positions that won’t play well with “non elite” Democrats or with African Americans, and that I find no candidate who stands out strongly from the pack.  I’ve always liked Carville, and agree with him here. I mean seriously, free college tuition for people in college now but not those who just graduate? Open borders? Now that is going to play well with Middle America? Or debt forgiveness for those who have debt now, but “screw you” to those who already paid off their debt? This kind of stuff is going to make voters angry. It may not make them vote for Trump, but it may well keep them from the polls.

A new interview with Steve Pinker

January 9, 2020 • 9:20 am

I’ve often been a defender of Steve Pinker, and it’s because I agree with most of what he says and because I think he’s been unfairly maligned—perhaps the most unfairly maligned public intellectual in the U.S.. But today I’m going to praise and criticize his views, largely praising his views on identity politics but criticizing his views on free will. Both are laid out in an absorbing new interview by Pelle Axelsson on the site IntellectInterviews. (I’m pretty sure Steve would hate the title below!). Click on the screenshot to read it.

There’s a lot of material in this interview: stuff about the evolution of language, the effects of social media, climate change and denialiam, Pinker’s own reading habits, and, as I said, identity politics and free will. I’ll deal only with the last two.

Identity politics (“IP”). I think this is Steve’s most explicit critique of identity politics to date. Here’s what he says:

What are your thoughts on identity politics?

– It’s a regrettable development. Even though it is essential to combat racism, homophobia and sexism, we ought to do so under the principle of fairness, rights and equity. That means each individual should be treated according to his or her merits and not according to the color of their skin, their chromosomes or their sexual orientation. This is different from identity politics, as it is commonly understood, namely that there is a perpetual zero-sum contest for power among racial and sexual cartels. On that view, the source of injustice is not that people have been treated with bigotry or unfairness, but that one group has monopolized power at the expense of others. To rectify that we have to upend the hierarchy and wrest power away from the faction of straight, white males and hand it to factions of gays, racial minorities and women.

– This vision of social change is hard to justify. Modern societies aren’t divided into monolithic armies of a single sex or skin color, and it’s people who suffer or prosper, not categories. Yes, group-based bigotry and exploitation exist, but at the same time there are poor white males who are horribly disadvantaged, women of color born into privilege, and every other combination. To shame or disempower an entire category of people violates the principle of fairness and can have repercussions, such as the election of President You-Know-Who. So identity politics, with its notion of group-based power reassignment, is not the appropriate response to the undeniable existence of racism, sexism and homophobia; the principle of equal rights is.

– Another regrettable form of identity politics is the notion that we should evaluate ideas based on the demographic traits of who advocates them — that an idea should be sidelined if it comes from a white male and taken seriously if it comes from a person with some other combination of gender and skin color. I appreciate where this concern comes from. I’ve often seen brilliant women ignored, interrupted, talked over and mansplained, and have heard of many more. This and other injustices must be called out and eliminated. But that’s different from considering the ideas themselves based on who talks about them. The existence of anthropogenic climate change, for example, is true regardless of who discovered it. It’s insulting to women and people of color to evaluate their opinions based on their census traits, as if they all thought alike, or their arguments could not stand on their merits.

I pretty much agree with this (and the claim that identity politics played a role in Trump’s election), although the source of IP is a combination of bigotry and power.  After all, if whites didn’t have power in this country, there wouldn’t have been slavery or Jim Crow laws, for it was whites who made those laws and had the power, via politic and police, to enforce them.

I also agree that our goal is to give everyone equal rights, though I’m not sure whether Steve thinks that attaining that goal requires some form of time-limited race- or gender-based affirmative action. (I myself favor a limited form of affirmative action, but one that takes not just race and gender into account, but things like poverty, general background, degree of “privilege” in one’s upbringing, age, and so on.)  I agree more strongly with the notion that the validity of an idea depends not on its source but its content, which means that the views and prescriptions of “minoritized” people, who should have a voice and to whom we should listen, aren’t automatically correct—even on issues of oppression. Nor are the views of straight people, white people, men, or older people to be dismissed on grounds of sex, sexua preference, race, or age.

Free will. In the first sentence of his response below, Steve clearly takes the position of a determinist, but then tries to identify what free will can mean, opposing it—to my mind, somewhat misleadingly—with autonomic reflexes, and confusing freedom with predictability:

How do you view free will?
– Like most scientists and modern philosphers [sic], I don’t think that every time we make a decision a miracle happens. It’s all brain physiology. But “free will” does refer to a distinct neurobiological phenomenon. When people refer to “free will,” they are singling out a neurophysiological process that is distinct from the one that gives rise to reflexive or impulsive responses. The brain contains complex circuitry, mostly concentrated in prefrontal cortex, which takes in information from many sources, including memory, current goals, understanding of the social situation and internal models of what would happen in hypothetical futures. These include anticipations of reward and punishment, praise and blame, respect and shame. Also, the output of those circuits is not completely predictable; it can be deflected by chaotic or random elements in the brain. The decision process that we call “free will” is not completely predictable, and it is unfathomably complex, but that does not mean that it takes place outside of information processing by neural networks.

If it’s all brain physiology, then it’s all naturalism and materialism, and therefore decisions obey the laws of physics and we couldn’t have decided otherwise. In other words, “a miracle happens” is a somewhat obscure way of characterizing “libertarian free will”. In other words, I think the first sentence is an admission that we couldn’t have chosen otherwise when we make a decision or commit an act. That’s an important admission because it’s a deterministic view of behavior, which, to me at least, has enormous consequences in how we reward and punish others, and in how we view other people.

In the next question, below, he says that there are factors that could have made us behave otherwise in a situation, but I think that he’s wrong in general (see below).

I’m not sure about the absolute distinctness of a reflexive instinct from a “reasoned” one. Insofar as determinism is concerned, they’re both determined and not controllable by “will”. The former may not involve the brain at all, but it’s all neurons and the laws of physics—as is a “decision” based on taking into account the workings of an evolved and adapted brain. Yes, the latter are far more complex, but both reflexes and decisions obey the laws of physics, i.e., you could not have behaved other that how you did.  In terms of what most people think of as “free will,” which is “I could have decided otherwise” free will, predictability is irrelevant. I suppose Steve is offering a form of compatibilism here: if your brain works through its hardware and software and comes up with a decision, that is “free will”, while if you jerk your leg when your knee is tapped, that is not free will. That’s Dan Dennett’s view of free will: a decision that passes through a brain’s processing, if that brain is sufficiently complex, is what he calls a decision made by free will.

But “reflexive” vs. “processed output” behaviors are relevant for things like praise, blame or punishment. If you kick someone because you’re mad at them, that’s a different matter from kicking them because they happen to walk by when a doctor is testing your reflexes. As I’ve always said, in cases like these you’re “responsible” in both situations because you are the actor who did the kicking, but what society does about it is—and should be—very different. Likewise with crime and punishment. There are reasons to sequester lawbreakers and miscreants, namely to deter others, to reform people who habitually do bad things, and to keep bad people from further injuring society. That view of crime and punishment doesn’t contain anything about whether someone committed a crime of their own “free will”, because even in the case of a premeditated murder the criminal had no “choice”. In fact, there is no way to construe “free will” in a way that will always be useful in a court of law. What we need to figure out are what are the deterministic factors that caused a problematic act, and then the best way to mitigate them.

And what about intermediate situations? If you jump out of the way of a speeding car, is that reflex or Pinker’s “free will”? There is brain processing involved, but also reflex and hormones.

Dragging “predictability” into the issue doesn’t add anything as far as I can see. Find out if someone did an harmful act, and then you can determine how to proceed in the best interests of both society and the malefactor. In many cases, treatment rather than punishment should be prescribed, or even a change in the law, as with the increasing legalization of marijuana.

Now, about predictability. Here’s the next exchange:

If we knew every bit of information existing in the brain, we could still not predict the next choice?

– Theoretically, maybe. Perhaps some Laplacian demon that knew the entire connectome of the brain, and the position and velocity of every ion and every neurotransmitter molecule, could deduce the trillions of neural firings that would take place in the ensuing moments. Though perhaps not — it’s conceivable that there are quantum effects in the brain, or thermal noise or Brownian motion in the molecules in the brain that fall below the threshold of any physically realizable measurement device. In that case, even Laplace’s demon may not be able to predict with certainty wat [sic] we will do.

– At the same time, we all can predict human behavior statistically. Clearly, the fact that society, not to mention everyday social life, functions more or less coherently means that behavior must be in large part predictable, so that our laws, norms, threats and promises can be effective. Otherwise we would be solitary hermits who just happen to share the same space, randomly bumping off each other, rather than families and institutions and societies. That doesn’t require us to predict each other’s behavior down to the last sentence and action.

First of all, predictability has nothing to do with most people’s concept of free will, which involves volition:  you make a decision but could have made another decision. But, as Steve says, a decision is not a “miracle.” And yes, we know enough about people to be able to roughly predict whether or not they’ll do something. But I defy you to predict what I’ll have for dinner on Friday! That will be determined on Friday, but this lack of predictability doesn’t mean my decision about victuals is freely made.

Further, the only factor that can make you “decide otherwise” is not volition, but the unpredictability of quantum mechanics. Factors like “thermal noise” or “chaotic or random elements in the brain”, while making decision hard or impossible to predict, are still deterministic, and thus should not be limped with quantum-mechanical factors . But none of these so-called random factors have anything to do with whether or not we have free will unjder most people’s construal of that term. Random factors are not part of volition, be they based on quantum mechanics or Brownian motion.  With the exception of quantum-mechanical indeterminacy, a deterministic view of human choice and behavior is independent of predictability.

h/t: Barry

A profile of George Church on 60 Minutes

December 10, 2019 • 1:00 pm

60 Minutes is the only non-evening-news show I watch on television, but I missed this week’s episode that included a 13-minute segment on Harvard /MIT geneticist George Church. I’ve written about Church before, but only to kvetch about his accommodationism, for he truly has a soft spot for religion, is a big-time accommodationist, and has pronounced that “the overlap between science and faith is vast and fertile.”  I believe I’ve also said that I think his project about “de-extincting” the wooly mammoth is a non-starter, as it won’t really revive that extinct species but merely genetically engineer a modern elephant to look like a wooly mammoth, having, for instance, more hair and longer tusks.

But that said, Church is an interesting guy and a scientific polymath, with all kinds of interests. Fortunately, 60 Minutes has put the segment on Church online, and you can see it by clicking on the screenshot below (I’d watch it soon before it disappears).  The site also has a transcript in case you’d prefer to read than to watch:

Extra segments include a two-minute extract in which Church discusses the money he took from Jeffrey Epstein (he says he didn’t know much about Epstein, though it’s not clear whether the man had already been convicted when Church took his dough), and a five-minute “overtime” segment in which interviewer Scott Pelley asks Church about the ethics of genetic engineering.

Church mentions a number of projects his 100-person lab (!!) is engaged in, including engineering humans so they’re less susceptible to viral infection (at first I thought that wasn’t viable since viruses mutate so readily, but he wants to alter the human genetic code in such a way that impossible multiple simultaneous mutations in the virus would be required to overcome the immunity). That might be dicey, but other projects, like growing human organs from one’s own cell, or rendering pig organs feasible for transplants by engineering out the pig viruses that prevent that), seem more viable. They’re at least sufficiently attractive that investors have put hundreds of millions of dollars behind these projects.

Other projects include genetic engineering to reverse the aging process (it seems to work in mice, and he’s trying now in dogs), and a dating app in which your genome is compared to your partner’s to see if your kids could get any genetic diseases (this is a more sophisticated method of what genetic counselors already do, like telling two carriers of Tay-Sachs disease that there’s a 25% chance that a child could have the syndrome).

It’s an absorbing interview, though perhaps a bit shallow for those of us who already knew some genetics. But it’s still amazing to see the breadth of his interests and research.  He’s also “neuroatypical” and has narcolepsy, so you can see him fall asleep in class.

But all that genetic engineering talk has angered some people, like this one:

But we have to remember that “eugenics” include both negative eugenics (fixing broken genomes, preventing the production of offspring with genetic diseases, curing genetic diseases by injecting DNA) and positive eugenics, which is the engineering of humans with more positive traits, like higher IQs and so on. The former is far less problematic than the latter, which is seen as “playing God”,  but you can’t just dismiss all genetic engineering as undesirable “eugenics” and “wrong”.  Further, Church has an ethicist on his staff and has thought carefully about the ethics of what he’s doing, so he’s not some kind of Hitler.

Let’s face it: genetic engineering of humans is inevitable, starting with eliminating or curing genetic diseases, and there’s nothing wrong with that so long as people think carefully about what they’re doing and so long as the dangers of tinkering with our genome are known and accepted.