Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 17:20 on 31-10-2013, Adrienne
I hate the world today. Someone tell me something nice, or funny, or uplifting, please?
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at 20:45 on 30-10-2013, Arthur B
Not started it yet (going to dig into it tonight after I'm done watching In the Mouth of Madness), but I can believe a product of the Dear Esther crew feeling inert.
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at 19:06 on 30-10-2013, Alasdair Czyrnyj
So I played Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, and I'm in a bind: I didn't like it, but I can't figure out why. I mean, it's wrapped in an atmosphere of industrial anxiety, and it evokes the anxiety of the late Victorian era, the struggles of modernity and modernism, and mankind's propensity for apocalyptic thought, stuff I'm normally really interested in...and yet it seems so inert. It has me baffled.
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at 23:21 on 28-10-2013, Jamie Johnston
So Pear took me to the Kitschies' Secret histories discussion panel event this evening and unless our ears were very much mistaken the moderator called On stranger 'there's just a little problem: the misogyny' tides a seminal work of feminist speculative fiction.

It was quite an interesting evening, though it would have been nice if the panellists had had a bit more time and been a bit more challenged by the moderator and each other. Tim Powers came across as slightly pedantic and very unreflective about the nature of his work and fiction in general, though he had some good anecdotes and one-liners. Lavie Tidhar was thoughtful and engaging but seemed to be holding himself back a bit. I wasn't quite sure what to make of Katie Griffin but she had some interesting things to say and said them in a fun way. Pear's going to do a fuller write-up for For Books' Sake soon.
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at 15:44 on 27-10-2013, Arthur B
Fun recommendation: Room 237, a documentary that isn't so much about The Shining as fan analysis of creative works in general through the framework of fan analysis of The Shining, ranging from the credible (a lot of the stuff about the weird geometry of the film feels correct to me, especially considering how obsessively attentive to detail Kubrick was and the labyrinth motif which overtly runs through it) to the wacky (apparently it's Kubrick confessing to his part in faking the Moon landings).
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at 06:40 on 26-10-2013, Kit
That sounds potentially really fascinating!


Just chiming in (having followed this conversation for a while) to say that Latour is indeed fascinating and that anyone even remotely interested in philosophy and sociology of science should give it a whirl. I also wrote my MA thesis on a subject in science studies which touched upon some of Latour's writings, and I've got to say that it's probably the best place to start when embarking on that line of inquiry. (Also, Robinson, "Science and Imperialism" sounds quite intriguing...)
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at 04:50 on 26-10-2013, Melanie
Latour draws heavily on Alfred North Whitehead to make the argument that "nature" as a category is juxtaposed in the Western philosophical tradition (and practically nowhere else) with culture - the one being the objective realm of the real, the other being the subjective realm of human interactions.


That sounds potentially really fascinating!

And of course saying that something is artificial is important at times, for many reasons. It is helpful to know [...] I think the problem is to use such words to mean something more than they are and then categorically use the term as a value judgment.


Yeah. It's not bad to have a set of words that distinguishes between "we did this" and "we didn't do this", I don't think. I mean, if you're trying to study... fffffff... I'm just going to say "natural processes"; you all know what I mean... then it might be important whether the thing you're looking at is the way it is because of human intervention or not. Like whether a hill is that shape because of erosion or because of earth-moving equipment, say.

for example the difference in skills in mathematics between men and women have been statistically noticed, but the difference is very small and can't really explain the difference


And, apparently, also isn't the same or even in the same direction in every country. /digression

Why the chess-phobia?
Because you combat him by checking your privilege.


...Ow. Ha!
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at 11:29 on 25-10-2013, Arthur B
I imagine him being a hetero white cismale with an aversion to chess.

Why the chess-phobia?
Because you combat him by checking your privilege.
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at 11:07 on 25-10-2013, Axiomatic
Percy Privilege is an awesome character and I want to read more about him.
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at 08:08 on 25-10-2013, Shimmin
our assessment of what is "natural" affects our assessment of what we would expect to observe in ideal situations. This in turn affects our assessment of whether structural discrimination exists.

My most/least favourite example here is classroom interaction. Teachers who firmly believe they are allocating time equally to girls and boys have been shown to spend disproportionate amounts on boys; and when taking special precautions to actually allocate equal time, both they and the pupils felt that they were spending all their time on the girls.
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at 07:30 on 25-10-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
@Melanie:
So... in a certain context, "nature" also means "how things are supposed to be". Where "supposed to be" may be according to the speaker's philosophy/religious stories/thought experiments about cavemen, and doesn't have to have any connection to reality at all.

I guess this is pretty much the case. And of course saying that something is artificial is important at times, for many reasons. It is helpful to know, that a particular strain of wheat for example, is either "natural" or or wild(there probably is a term for this), cultivated(the traditional way of gene manipulation) or gene manipulated(in the sense that people are doing today). On the other hand, artificial can be a negative quality, if someone is enamored of things being natural. Artificial emotions for example or artificial sweetener as opposed to real sugar. I think the problem is to use such words to mean something more than they are and then categorically use the term as a value judgment.

So the problem arises not so much because of prescriptive statements (which are an issue too, of course, but are also, I think, fairly rare) but because our assessment of what is "natural" affects our assessment of what we would expect to observe in ideal situations. This in turn affects our assessment of whether structural discrimination exists.

It may be that since I began my argument from the direction that I did, that I might have exaggerated its importance. I think in the examples you give, it is important though to note that in basketball, for example, the physical attribute under consideration is very easily defined and easy to observe as well. But extending it into engineering for example, is where the trouble starts. If the possible reasons for an asymmetry in the gender of engineers is the thing under consideration, for example, then we can offer a very wide array of hypotheses as to why this is. The problem with trying to pinpoint the issue to an issue with genetics is to me always something that tries to reduce the matter into the minimum level of factors, so that statistical analysis at least appears to be possible. This in the end, ignores many quantifiable things as well as everything that are not easily quantifiable, as if these don't matter. For example social issues are hard to figure into these kinds of issues. Quite often the statistics themselves are a bit sketchy, for example the difference in skills in mathematics between men and women have been statistically noticed, but the difference is very small and can't really explain the difference, but this is still used to explain the asymmetry(and what causes the difference in mathematical skills anyways?).

A common criticism of this sort of scientific and statistical approach is that what we set out to examine(the hypothesis in question) affects the choice of proof. While this is of course understandable and nothing by itself, it becomes a problem with the sort of idealization, that is trying to reduce the matter at hand into some factors that can be handled in a way that gives clear results. But if the research is not honest enough and careful in its interpretation, this ends up in results that somehow assume that the idealization actually reflects reality in more than a very, well, ideal form.

So where I think the sort of prescriptive thing I have been yammering about still comes into question is the whole set up of these sorts of studies. We have an issue, say the existence of an asymmetry in the genders of engineers. But the assumptions made to frame the hypothesis itself are value judgments of what is important and what is not. And this leads to a circular sort of thinking where the hidden assumptions, that asymmetries in the professions are due to predominantly biological factors, becomes the result as well, because the whole study is set to prove this assumption, even if it began with that. Actually, research in anthropology or archaeology in, for example, evolutionary psychological terms, would be a valuable tool in debunking such research.

Well, just to say that even in situations where it seems that the matter at hand is purely factual, the choice of how to handle the facts and how the facts are chosen is often a matter of value where hidden assumptions or premises are often reflections of a certain set of values.

Latour draws heavily on Alfred North Whitehead to make the argument that "nature" as a category is juxtaposed in the Western philosophical tradition (and practically nowhere else) with culture

To avoid making this post insufficiently short, this sounds like an interesting book. I think one of the reason between this binary thing has to do with western philosophy's preoccupation with meta-physics. I guess one could go all the way to Platon with this, but quite often, morality(or human action) is treated in a different way because of the difficulty of deciding what moral facts are and do they actually exist. Of course there have been many efforts to ground ethics in all sorts of things, from naturalness(Aristotle and the scholastics) to god(theological voluntarism) and varied other stuff(Hobbes, Spinoza). The crux of the issue is that if we observe a thing happening in the physical world, a ball dropping to the ground, we can make observations and postulate theories of why this happens and how it happens. But as Hume pointed out, we can not really make the same claim of moral or ethical statements because these do not actually describe a thing or relate an observable fact, but instead they are prescriptive in nature, they tell us or try to tell us how things should change or be. But how can we evaluate such statements? To bring ethical statements back together with the natural, explainable world, there have been varied efforts. But while there have certainly been noble efforts, these have mostly failed to establish any hard ground on which to stand on.

Simply put the issue depends on how one resolves certain meta-ethical issues. Is one an ethical realist, that is, are there objective ethical qualities in the world to which we refer when we use the term 'good' or 'bad' in a moral sense. This of course raises the question of what sort of things are these and whether they are present in things materially(like evil can be in D&D for example) or are they something else. And if so then what?

The alternative to this is to try and resolve the issue by denying the existence of ethical facts and trying to sort it out in other terms. Utilitarianism is an early effort, replacing good with pleasure(at least with Bentham). Or one could argue that ethical facts are an emergent feature, brought into existence by independent individuals relation with other independent individuals(Macintyre's neo-aristotelism could be a form of this, I think).

Logical positivists tried to combine the "natural" world of scientific facts with the ethical human world by this sort of ethical non-realism called non-cognitivism. There are no ethical facts which could be handled through logic and where it is possible to say that an ethical statement is true or untrue. Instead, ethical statements are expressions of emotions or preference of one thing over another. If I like something, it is moral and if I don't it is immoral. And then we have the error theory(or nihilism), that says that ethical statements are sort of errors because they do not refer to anything that exists, but are by form statements that seem to do so.

But anyways, this connects to the binary split in that ethical or moral facts are not something that can be handled by empirical means since the existence of genocide is no reason to assume that existence by it self is justification or by Hume's Guillotine, we can't tell what ought to be from what is. I don't know how Latour resolves this, but I am predisposed to think that he will bump into some problems on the way.
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at 00:36 on 25-10-2013, Robinson L
Melanie: Extranatural? Post-natural? Anatural? I dunno. It doesn't seem like there really is an applicable word in the whole natural/unnatural/etc. cluster of words.

The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities, some consider to be ... ‘unnatural.’

Okay, obligatory Star Wars joke out of the way, I actually wrote my MA dissertation on "Science and Imperialism," for which my academic advisor had me read Bruno Latour's "The Politics of Nature." Latour draws heavily on Alfred North Whitehead to make the argument that "nature" as a category is juxtaposed in the Western philosophical tradition (and practically nowhere else) with culture - the one being the objective realm of the real, the other being the subjective realm of human interactions. It's how you can have stuff like the split between facts (nature) and values (culture). My brain is operating at too low a capacity to explain the argument much better than that just now, but basically, Latour thinks this ontology of a binary between nature and culture (the "bifuraction of nature" in Whitehead's terminology) like the gender binary, is inaccurate and unhelpful, and he spends the rest of the book devising an interesting if slightly esoteric method whereby all the useful work of scientific inquiry, politics, morality, and a host of other important human pursuits could be managed without reference to said binary.

So, uh, yeah, slightly roundabout way of saying that my recent reading would tend to uphold the interpretation that the use of "natural" as a descriptor is spectacularly pointless.


... But now ptolemaeus has just got back home on a visit and I haven't seen her since March, so I now bid you all a fond good night.
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at 00:30 on 25-10-2013, Arthur B
"Tremble, evil-doers! It is I! Non-Coercive Campaign For Social Progress Man!"

SEE NCCFSPMan pamphlet an entire city in the space of a second! GASP as his power of multiplicity makes him a true one-man protest! THRILL as he counteracts the diabolical schemes of his foes, including Percy Privilege, Roger Reactionary, and the Dastardly Derailer!
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at 00:12 on 25-10-2013, Dan H
@Janne

You are no doubt right in this. But I would say that this demonstrates exactly the problem of moving from scientific description to prescriptive commands.


I think that's partly true, but I think it gets difficult in practice, particularly when it comes to questions like discrimination.

For example, most professional basketball players are tall. This isn't because of widespread discrimination on basketball courts, it's because tall people are genuinely better at basketball than short people, for obvious reasons (those reasons, of course, being that in the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, tall people would have to go out and hunt mammoths by throwing balls into their ears while they slept). Nobody thinks that the NBA needs to be more accepting of short athletes, or that it is a problem that short people are under-represented in professional basketball.

Similarly, women are under-represented in a whole variety of areas - Engineering is a good example. Now a lot of EvPsych arguments would suggest that women are naturally poor engineers, just as short people are naturally poor basketball players, and that the small number of women in engineering is simply a reflection of the small number of women who have the capability to succeed in engineering. Quite a lot of people disagree, and feel that women are just as capable of succeeding in engineering as men, and argue that if women are under-represented it is because the field is hostile to women for solvable, cultural reasons.

Now you could argue that even if women *were* intrinsically worse engineers than men, we should still try to encourage more women to go into engineering, but that argument has a rather shaky ideological footing. If a perfectly fair system produced a gender imbalance as a result of innate biological predispositions, it would be hard to justify changing that system to correct the imbalance, unless you genuinely believe symmetry is more important than fairness.

So the problem arises not so much because of prescriptive statements (which are an issue too, of course, but are also, I think, fairly rare) but because our assessment of what is "natural" affects our assessment of what we would expect to observe in ideal situations. This in turn affects our assessment of whether structural discrimination exists.

Or something.

Also @Robinson:

Thing is, the types of evil I'm most concerned with combating are structural - it's hard to see how having superpowers would help much in that kind of fight


This strikes me as a potential setup for the BEST SUPERHERO COMIC EVER: "Tremble, evil-doers! It is I! Non-Coercive Campaign For Social Progress Man!"
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at 02:35 on 24-10-2013, Melanie
Plus it raises the question of whether it is unnatural or supernatural, what humans are?


Extranatural? Post-natural? Anatural? I dunno. It doesn't seem like there really is an applicable word in the whole natural/unnatural/etc. cluster of words. Even when "nature" is used to mean everything except humans and our stuff, that doesn't seem to really carry an implication that we as a species are specifically (or at least, necessarily) unnatural. But then, "unnatural" has more of a sense of being opposed to nature (or at least, the speaker's understanding of nature?), not just not being part of it/from it. Of wrongness. You don't really hear anyone saying that... pencils, say... are "unnatural", even though they clearly don't just occur without human intervention--they're "artificial" instead. So... in a certain context, "nature" also means "how things are supposed to be". Where "supposed to be" may be according to the speaker's philosophy/religious stories/thought experiments about cavemen, and doesn't have to have any connection to reality at all.

Which is what makes "unnatural" a value judgement when "artificial" is more neutral (not to mention "impossible"). They're both antonyms, but for different senses of the word.
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at 06:12 on 23-10-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
If you want to say that we're part of nature and not special or separate, that we evolved in this environment and so we're part of it just like everything else... that's a perfectly valid point, but it renders the words "nature", "natural", etc., meaningless

That's basically true and perhaps it would be preferable to limit it's use to that, given that the distinction between natural and not-natural is hard to make and is really value ridden. Plus it raises the question of whether it is unnatural or supernatural, what humans are? The way natural is used is that it is somehow better, even if that is usually not true, as Jules pointed out. Is human exceptionality a good thing or a bad thing? If it is bad, and humans are somehow outside nature in a bad way, it leaves open the way for arguments like we've discussed, appeals to natural laws(in a moral sense) that are being broken, which is what most moral condemnations of sexuality considered to be less normal than others are, even if made by religious people. On the other hand, if the exceptionality is considered a good thing, does this not leave open options of just considering non-human things somehow beneath us and over which we have authority to use as we see fit? If natural and natural laws are used in a strictly scientifically realistic sense, it might be a bit useless, but at least it would remove the basis of moral arguments based on perceived naturalness of things. If something exists, it must be because it is not breaking any natural laws. This might force us to reconsider the way humans have defined those laws, in case of anomalies. But in these terms, when someone is said to break a natural law, it would be as nonsensical as claiming that that person is in opposition to the strong nuclear force somehow.

Thing is, the types of evil I'm most concerned with combating are structural - it's hard to see how having superpowers would help much in that kind of fight, and you might just as easily fall into reinforcing one or another oppressive system.

To butt in, if one would have some sort of abilities that generated a lot of power, perhaps that power could be used to generate lots of clean power. It wouldn't solve all problems, but it would make some things easier and make it possible to have a fairly regular life. Generating power from 9-5 and then do things.

Most probably the hypothetical AI would consider all these hopes and aspirations heaped upon it to be creepy and stress inducing. Try being a unique life form going through some heavy stuff in relation to your place in the world and some dorks are clamoring for you to enable their pointless hedonism.
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at 04:42 on 23-10-2013, Bookwyrm

Thing is, the types of evil I'm most concerned with combating are structural - it's hard to see how having superpowers would help much in that kind of fight, and you might just as easily fall into reinforcing one or another oppressive system.


Yeah same here. If I had superpowers I would want to spend my time rescuing people, not hunting down criminals. Aside from the above reason I just don't think I have it in me to hurt anyone. Besides there is a very realistic possibility that I could interfere in what I think is criminal activity and wind up hurting innocent people . There's also the possibility that I could run into a crime so violent and disturbing that it scars me for life. Which would cause me to give up super heroics altogether... or turn me into Rorschach.
Ideally if I were a superhero I'd work with public service. That way I could get training (basic first aid, how to handle injured people, emergency protocol, etc), insurance, a salary (I won't have to split my time between a regular job and superhero duty), access to therapists, and legal protection. I'd also like a secret identity. I value my privacy.
As for superpowers I would really like have the ability to phase through solid objects and invisibility. It makes getting from place to place easier and makes you impervious to harm. These powers also make it easier to lose people who are attempting to follow you. It allows you to sneak up on people, just for the giggles.
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at 02:58 on 23-10-2013, Jules V.O.
It means that "nature" is just... everything that exists, I guess, and that "natural" just means things that can happen.

I remember reading a book about advertising which had a really entertaining/depressing list of what certain commonly-used terms meant, legally. 'All-natural' meant 'composed of matter.'
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at 00:34 on 23-10-2013, Melanie
Oh, wow, speaking of "cult-like", apparently they have a special way of saying "cult" (rot13ing it to "phyg", which entertainingly enough is some kind of winged pig in Minecraft) to avoid, um, search engine troubles apparently?

...Hey. Shouldn't anyone worried about the possibility of a hypothetical "good" AI torturing simulations of them for not donating enough also be worried about the possibility of the institute thing fucking up and creating that Voldetron 5000? In which case donating anything would essentially be the worst possible use of their money since it would help create or at least hasten some future hell?

As long as we're talking about AI and all, I'd like to rec Freefall, which is a fairly light sf webcomic with AI themes, and a lot more interesting than "what if we accidentally make a super-machine that hates us".
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at 22:36 on 22-10-2013, Arthur B
I vaguely remember a Ken MacLeod novel where the premise was that the AIs, once invented and given the wherewithal to make their own upgrades to themselves as required by the transhumanist pipe dream, built spaceships and blasted themselves off to go live in the atmosphere of Jupiter, because there was nothing in our ecosystem they couldn't get elsewhere with less trouble and they were entirely disinterested in being bothered with human visitors.
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at 22:01 on 22-10-2013, Melanie
My favourite thing about LessWrong is the Roko's Basilisk incident - summarised here, explained in more detail here, original exchange here - in which they freaked the fuck out about the possibility of future AIs torturing them for not doing enough to make the AIs come into existence


Every time I see the phrase "Friendly AI" I think of "Friend Computer", which I bet isn't what they're going for, but I am impressed that they apparently have this idea that 1)if they make a good enough AI it will definitely solve all our problems for us, because why wouldn't it, 2)their instutite thing (and nobody else) will definitely create such an AI, given enough money, and 3)they are in a race of some kind against an evil AI being created, meaning that 4)they are literally the most important people in the world and humanity's last hope.


I'm not sure "natural" is really even a useful concept in the context of humans. I mean, the whole idea of "nature" is basically "everything except us and stuff we make/do", so in some sense all of human society is by definition "unnatural" because it's us doing it. If you want to say that we're part of nature and not special or separate, that we evolved in this environment and so we're part of it just like everything else... that's a perfectly valid point, but it renders the words "nature", "natural", etc., meaningless--because in that case what could possibly not be natural? How is a house less natural than a beehive or a nest? It means that "nature" is just... everything that exists, I guess, and that "natural" just means things that can happen. Which seems spectacularly pointless.
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at 20:33 on 22-10-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
I think it's more subtle than that. I think a lot of Evolutionary Psychology stuff (particularly of the armchair variety, but also a lot of the actual mainstream stuff too) makes the mistake or - if you prefer - cynical strategic decision of seeking to provide an "explanation" for something which may or may not be true at all.

You are no doubt right in this. But I would say that this demonstrates exactly the problem of moving from scientific description to prescriptive commands. The point in these is to prove the "naturalness" of a supposed phenomenon and by using the rhetoric of evolution make it so that the phenomenon in question cannot be changed and is somehow deterministic. But an evolutionary framework does not have to be genetically determined, as it is generally accepted today that it is not nature vs. nurture, but nature and nurture together; with humans being specifically such complex creatures that no one's behaviour can be reduced to simple genetic triggers. It's been some time since I've read up on the subject and I freely admit that EvPsych no doubt includes a lot of bad science, especially in its popular forms, but I do have this quote from Robin Dunbar:

"Vertebrates evolved large brains precisely to allow them to adjust their behaviour to suit the circumstances in which they happened to find themselves on a moment-by-moment basis. The genes that code for the brain have been selected expressly to enable the organism to escape from a genetically driven existence."

And it can't be denied that EvPsych is hopelessly vague and it's findings are often gleaned from statistical tests of very specific circumstances, where one can imagine a lot of differing qualities between subjects which can make the findings questionable. Secondly, it has the fault shared with economics of depending on very simplified idealizations to explain behaviour, where the assumptions implicit in the idealization are very rarely justifiable in the real world. But in some limited circumstances and with appropriate care to abstain from generalizations and speculations, there can be enlightening insights.

Your example of the caveman theorem is a great one. Even if all the claims were true(which is really iffy for cavemen. Which never existed.), there is really no reason to draw any conclusions from it since there is no reason to assume that people behave deterministically. Since people change their behaviour according to circumstances.

I sincerely doubt, for example, that there is a strong selection pressure in favour of cracking one's knuckles in a particular way. And ice-cream headaches can be explained in terms of it being generally useful to have a nervous system that warns you when your body is at risk of damage, but I don't see much advantage in having a body that is likely to be damaged by things you are likely to eat.

I have to say I agree with this. Actually, one could easily claim that as every living thing, including humans, are descendants of a straight line of evolutionary "victors", as it were, all the way to the hypothetical abiogenesis, most of the evolutionary traits we have are either very strongly selected for or are incidental. Of course there are a lot of exceptions, but most people do live to an adult age. (Actually I'm a bit of an exception here because I have diabetes mellitus and would have gone the way of the dodo just a hundred years ago, so I probably have no business being a parent, biologically speaking.)

But as this is so and I agree, my examples are faulty, all human behaviour is actually natural and possible, in as it has not been eliminated from what we do by natural selection. So everything people do is as natural as anything else, which includes what is generally seen as good and which is generally considered bad. So even if we would observe a majority of people doing thing X, there is still no reason to say to people who are doing thing B that they are behaving against evolution or anything like that, since you can only say that after the fact and even then it doesn't really matter since if it were truly against some natural law to not have children, people would simply be unable to abstain from trying. I mean, sure, the genes will not carry on(excluding some cloning or whatever), but if someone doesn't want to, there is really no way of arguing from evolution that they should be obliged to do something they don't want to and the existence of such behaviour is actually empirical data that has to be included in an explanation of how people behave. Okay this is getting long and I'm as usual unsure of how good a job I'm doing of this.

But returning to my point about the difference between descriptive and prescriptive language(or Hume's guillotine or the naturalistic fallacy), given that all that human's do in its diversity has to be accepted as empirical phenomena, we can instead of headaches picture a different situation. On the one hand, it has happened that a human has found a baby on the road and has taken it with them and taken care of it. On the other hand it has no doubt happened that a human in similar circumstances has actually killed the baby. So, we can have a psychological explanation for both, whether evolutionary or not. But since both are actually things that can happen, those explanations are useless for prescriptive commands, because clearly they both are "natural" as it were. We can strive to build our society so that abandoned babies are taken care of, based on for example evolutionary explanations of what might cause a certain sort of behaviour. But descriptive explanations can not really tell anything beyond what is, they cannot tell us what should be or what is preferable. And that is what I tried to say, by saying that evolution, in a sense, is the cause for all things humans do. It cannot be used to tell us what we should do, at least not by itself. Because people do bad things as well and saying that if something is natural it cannot be bad is begging the question. Which is what many people do when they try to argue that science tells us to do something. I think J. S. Mill wrote that if women could not be blacksmiths, because of their being women, there would be no point in laws saying that they can't be blacksmiths.

Oh glob. Sorry about the length of this. Such meandering sentences.
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at 20:30 on 22-10-2013, Robinson L
Bookwyrm: If you could choose your superpowers and decide to become superhero what type of hero would you be?

Ooh, interesting question. Thing is, the types of evil I'm most concerned with combating are structural - it's hard to see how having superpowers would help much in that kind of fight, and you might just as easily fall into reinforcing one or another oppressive system. I also find the concept of superheroes kind of patronizing - "oh, I see you have a problem, let me just swoop in and fix it for you, no need to thank me." And then we get into the whole issue of misuse of power. Even the most beneficial powers I can think of like empathy or emotional healing I could easily see myself misusing, out of the very best of intentions (most of the time) ... Clearly I am approaching this question with entirely the wrong mindset, but I can't switch it out for another one.

Heroics aside, I believe I'd like the power to fly because - well, come on, seriously. Hmm, I think I had this conversation with one of my sisters a couple years ago, and I believe the answer I came up with at the time was the ability to become indestructible at a moment's notice, that could be pretty fun.


Janne: Hey, if the supercomputer is inevitable and virtual reality is a thing, then we might actually already live in a horrid simulation for the amusement of some machine god.

I actually ran across a very similar argument in, of all places, Star Wars on Trial around five years ago. Except it wasn't a machine god that created the simulation, but an advanced civilization that had already created artificial reality - perhaps many layers of artificial realities.

Even in those less analytical days of mine, the argument struck me much the way arguments for the inevitability of the Singularity or the profundity of Bayes' Theorem strike me now - taking for granted assumptions about the nature of intelligence and technology and society and a boat-load of other things on which the actual science involved is extremely inconclusive at this point. Still not sure how seriously I was supposed to take the whole thing.


@Dan: Great discussion. I have nothing to add.
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at 19:01 on 22-10-2013, Dan H
the problem as I see it is making the jump from descriptive explanation of the incredible diversity of human behaviour into prescriptive commands of how some people are somehow doing nature wrong.


I think it's more subtle than that. I think a lot of Evolutionary Psychology stuff (particularly of the armchair variety, but also a lot of the actual mainstream stuff too) makes the mistake or - if you prefer - cynical strategic decision of seeking to provide an "explanation" for something which may or may not be true at all.

An awful lot of EvPsych stuff, at least as far as I've seen, has basically been about "explaining" cultural stereotypes in terms of evolutionary biology. It almost always comes down to some variant of "Group X does thing Y because In Caveman Times Group X had to do thing Z which is a bit like thing Y". Frequently these claims show no evidence that group X actually does thing Y at all, nor that group X ever did thing Z in the past, nor that thing Y necessarily constitutes a continuation or revival of thing Z even if Y and Z really were things to begin with.

Classic examples of this being things like "women like to go shopping more than men because in hunter-gatherer societies females would have been the gatherers and males the hunters" and "women talk more than men because men would go away hunting and the women would stay in the caves and do things that required communication." There's little evidence that women do in fact shop or talk more than men, and nobody actually knows very much at all about how our evolutionary ancestors lived, so neither of these arguments really have any scientific merit at all. They do, however, have rather a lot of *rhetorical* merit because superficially "X can be explained by Y, therefore X and Y are both true" is remarkably convincing, particularly if you leave out the final clause and just let people fill it in for themselves.

If we accept that evolution is the best explanation for life being how it is, then everything is because of evolution, from the way that some people crack their knuckles to ice cream head aches


I'm not sure that's strictly true. Or rather, I'm sure it's *strictly* true but I'm not sure it's usefully true.

Certainly any fact about a living organism can be explained in terms of evolution, but an awful lot of the time the explanation will be "because there is no strong evolutionary pressure against it."

I sincerely doubt, for example, that there is a strong selection pressure in favour of cracking one's knuckles in a particular way. And ice-cream headaches can be explained in terms of it being generally useful to have a nervous system that warns you when your body is at risk of damage, but I don't see much advantage in having a body that is likely to be damaged by things you are likely to eat.

In a roundabout way, a lot of evolutionary "explanations" wind up being curiously like the way people try to explain away the problem of evil. The thing is, evolution isn't supposed to be omniscient or omnibenevolent. It's perfectly okay to accept that some features of living organisms have no evolutionary benefit at all. It's certainly okay to accept that some - I might even suggest most - elements of human behaviour may not actually be the consequences of heritable biological factors for which our ancestors preferentially selected.
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