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The Righteous Mind – The Origins of Morality

This is “Live Blogging The Righteous Mind” Part 2.  Here is Part 1.

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

– David Hume

The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.

– Jon Haidt

The Righteous Mind - By Jon HaidtJon used the elephant/rider metaphor before in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis.  The elephant is our ancient, emotionally driven limbic system.  It is a deep part of our evolutionary past, but still very much a part of who we are in the present day.  The rider is a newcomer on the scene, the pre-frontal cortex in the brain.  Full of grand plans and bright ideas but most of the time very much unaware that it is controlled and manipulated by the lumbering beast down below.  The elephant does what it wants, when it wants, and the rider, strapped on the beast and unable to climb off, rationalizes, confabulates, and groans in frustration when the elephant once again disobeys its commands.  When the elephant is ambivalent the rider can gain a measure of control, but when the elephant has a strong desire, the rider is just a simple passenger who’s along for the ride.

Understanding the simple fact that morality differs around the world, and even within societies, is the first step toward understanding your righteous mind.

Jon takes us through a winding history of morality in the West.  The nativists who prize nature, the empiricists who prize nurture and the rationalists who believe that children figure out morality for themselves.  Children grow into rationality as caterpillars grow into butterflies.  Piaget and Kohlberg were both famous psychologists who championed rationalism.  Kohlberg came up with the famous idea of pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional stages of morality that children go through on the way to adulthood.  Rationalism valued self-discovery and authority figures were ultimately just a roadblock in the way of natural development.  This thinking eventually led to a liberal consensus that morality is mainly about justice.  It’s about harm and fairness and NOT about loyalty, respect, duty, piety, patriotism, or tradition.

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Live Blogging The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind - By Jon HaidtI’m going to try something a bit different over the next week or so.  I’m going to read Jonathan Haidt’s new book about moral psychology, The Righteous Mind, and blog my thoughts as I read through the book.  Most people write short summaries and critiques of entire books, but I thought it might be interesting to write my thoughts and present them as I read through a new book.  I’ll try to combine as many thoughts as I can into single blog entries in order to avoid inundating people with new blog post notifications.  So without further ado, here are my thoughts on The Righteous Mind:

We start off the book with a quote from Baruch Spinoza from his Tractatus Politicus:

I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.

It’s pretty clear that one of the main themes of the book will be prizing understanding over judgment, something that I’ve become a big fan of recently.  In that regard it appears there might be some concurrence between this book and the last book I read, Sam Harris’ Free Will.  I know that Jon has a large measure of philosophical disagreement with the “New Atheists” so it will be interesting to see how this all pans out.


We start off the introduction with a discussion about Rodney King and his rarely quoted response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots:

Please, we can get along here.  We all can get along.  I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while.  Let’s try to work it out.

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The Psychology of The Silver Chair

The Silver ChairI’m no longer a Christian but I’m still a big fan of The Chronicles of Narnia.  I was practically raised on the books of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.  J.R.R. Tolkien took great pains to let everyone know that he wrote The Lord of the Rings with no allegorical intentions whatsoever.  C.S. Lewis on the other hand was very open in declaring that his books were full of allusions to Christianity.  But that doesn’t really bother me.  Literature is a form of art and we can interpret art in many different ways.  Also, Christians can write some very enthralling and entertaining fantasy fiction, I wonder why that is? (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

One of the ideas from the Chronicles of Narnia that keeps popping into my head again and again is the concept of “the silver chair”.  The Silver Chair is the fourth book in the original (and correct) ordering of the series.  In this tale,  Aslan (a Christ-like figure in the series) transports the children Eustace and Jill to Narnia on a special mission to save Prince Rilian.  Prince Rilian is the long missing heir to the throne of Narnia.  Eustace and Jill eventually end up in the underground kingdom of the imaginatively named Queen of Underland (sorry Clive, had to take a shot at you there).  When the kids arrive in the underground city the Queen is away for a bit and they meet a young man about the same age as Prince Rilian (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), serving at the right hand of this wicked witch.  He tells a tale of the queen rescuing him from an evil enchantment and dines with the children.

Soon, the young man informs the children that he must be placed in restraints, for the enchantment still has a small hold on him.  For an hour each day they restrain him, he succumbs to the spell, and becomes delirious.  The queen in her grace and wisdom is using her magic to slowly purge him of these spells, but for now the queen’s servants come to restrain the young man and he willingly goes with them.

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I Have “Chosen” Determinism

Sam Harris - Free WillThis is the conclusion to my previous post: I Will Choose Free Will

Well I’ve finished the new Sam Harris book “Free Will”.  It turns out this book is very short and a quick read.  I highly recommend buying the economical electronic version.  This is Sam’s second short book and I have to say, I like this format a lot.  This format may become a new niche in the digital book age along the lines of the “Kindle Single”.

So let’s dig into the book.  Here’s a section where Sam addresses the concerns of determinism and fatalism.

As Dan Dennett and many others have pointed out, people generally confuse determinism with fatalism. This gives rise to questions like “If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?” This is pure confusion. To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist. And the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they don’t matter. If I had not decided to write this book, it wouldn’t have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors.

I agree that we need to keep determinism and fatalism separate.  Although, do we live in a completely deterministic universe if there are random events at the quantum level? Either way, there is little room for freedom here.  A thought popped into my head as I read this, a person suffering from clinical depression has the exact opposite problem regarding leaving their bed in the morning.  They find it extremely difficult to get out of bed and it takes a heroic effort in order to do so.  This kind of depression is certainly not a conscious choice.

The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad environments, and bad ideas (and the innocent, of course, have supremely bad luck). Which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for? No human being is responsible for his genes or his upbringing, yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character. Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself.

I definitely agree with this sentiment, and now see if you can wrap your mind around Sam’s conclusion:

 Not only are we not as free as we think we are—we do not feel as free as we think we do. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.

I’d love to read a book like this from a compatibilist and be able to more capably compare and contrast the views.  I still think that we have a measure of free will.  It’s just a very constrained and limited form of freedom which some people like Sam argue is not free at all.  Either way, the lesson we need to take away from this is that people are heavily constrained by their genes, environment, and good/bad fortune.  Let’s spend more time understanding people, helping them where we can, and less time judging and demonizing them.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, leave your comments below.

I Will Choose Free Will

Each of us, a cell of awareness; imperfect and incomplete
Genetic blends, with uncertain ends; on a fortune hunt that’s far too fleet

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose free will

– Rush, “Free Will”

Sam Harris - Free WillI just started reading a new book by Sam Harris entitled “Free Will” in which Sam argues that free will is an illusion.  Clearly he makes this argument in opposition to religious arguments about choosing to follow and obey God or not.  But also he makes this argument in opposition to his good friend and compatibilist Dan Dennett.  The compatibilist view states that free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive and can co-exist.

I find that there are few topics more confusing than the free will vs. determinism debate. Most people, including me, seem to have a gut reaction that I am the author of my actions and that I do have a form of free will.

However, as I grow older, I see more and more the power of determinism.  I did not choose to be born in this era.  I did not choose to be born in the United States.  I did not choose to be born into a family of conservative Christians.  I did not choose the genes I was given.  I did not choose to suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder.  I had no role in developing the drug that has largely cured my disorder.  I did not choose to be born at all.  The number of things that I did not choose is so large that they seem infinite.  And the “choices” that I’ve made are so small and petty that they seem almost insignificant.  Still it feels like I am not just an automaton and it seems like I do have a measure of freedom at some level.

What about faith?  Did I choose to leave the Christian faith?  Or was I compelled by experiences and reasoning that parts of my brain could not ignore?  I certainly did not choose to enter the Christian faith.  I was born into it and it became my default position.  And I think that this is the case for many religious people.  They are born into their religion, they learn to love it, they internalize it, and unless they undergo a dramatic experience that forces them to question everything they hold sacred, they will not leave the faith.

Right now I think that human beings have a limited form of free will.  It is not “pure” free will, because such a thing could never exist.  We are heavily constrained by our environment, our biology, and the very nature of our existence.  But I think we have a small measure of constrained choice.  Some flexibility that comes from the pre-frontal cortex that allows us to override and deny our more ancient biological urges.  We can make small but high-level, informed decisions that have major consequences in the long run.

I don’t think I can give up on the idea of free will.  Not yet.  Not until my back is absolutely up against the wall.

I find that my views on this subject swing back and forth like a pendulum.  This subject matter is obviously very complex and  I’m sure I’ll have more to say as I finish reading the book, so watch this space.  Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts and discuss this topic with you, please add your comments below.

Introversion Expert Susan Cain at TED 2012

TED: Ideas Worth SpreadingTED 2012 is here! Actually it looks like the final sessions will be wrapping up this evening, but the videos are just starting to be released.  For those who have never heard about TED, it is a “genius conference” where luminaries from the fields of technology, entertainment, and design discuss their groundbreaking achievements and ideas.  The tag-line of TED is “ideas worth spreading” and the 18 minute “TED Talks” are released free to the world.

I’m looking forward to hearing the talks from a number of speakers.  Neuroscientist Steven Pinker was on the slate this year.  Reggie Watts performed some of his unique brand of live music, can’t wait to hear what he came up with.  Also, psychologist Jonathan Haidt spoke about some of the themes in his new book about divisions of morality in politics and religion.  I await all of these talks with bated breath, but today they released a video from one of the speakers that I am most interested in, Susan Cain.  A few months ago Susan wrote a great article in the New York Times that I commented on earlier and she recently published an outstanding book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  Without any further ado, here is Susan Cain at TED:

Our Amazing Perception

I am currently watching a wonderful lecture series from The Teaching Company called “Understanding the Secrets of Human Perception”.  In lecture 18 “Illusions and Magic” Professor Vishton walks through a number of interesting perceptual illusions.

The first is the Café Wall Illusion:

All of the horizontal lines in this image are perfectly straight, but we infer a tilted edge because our brains decide that this is the best explanation for the distributions of brightness in the image.

The next perceptual oddity is motion-induced blindness.  Stare at the green dot in the center of the video and watch the green dots disappear:

The yellow dots are always displayed above the grid and are therefore projecting on your retina for the entire length of the video.  However, deep in your visual perception system the motion signals override the yellow dots.  Motion can often blind us to very large and salient things in the world around us, something which magicians often use to their advantage.

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