Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Moral Landscape

In a world without God, where does morality come from?  Is morality a matter of opinion or a matter of fact? The rallying cry of atheists has long been “no absolutes”, which has left some people wonder:  Where does their strength of conviction to make a stand on matters of right and wrong in the world come from?  A reticency to convict others for trespassing moral law is a strength, but also a major weakness. This book is answers these questions.  According to Harris, true moral knowledge is possible, and science can illuminate an entire moral landscape. 

Reading his book was a delight, and I felt he was following in the same tradition of La Mettrie, a vanguard stating aloud what others had hitherto only mentioned in passing.  Harris' thesis that meaning, morality, and values can be reduced to facts, and thereby be objectively determined, denies moral error theory, and does not specifically endorse hedonism or utilitarianism (subjects I had recently read that primed me for his book).  Harris believes that “well-being” is a deeper notion than pleasure.  He forms his argument from many sources in science and philosophy, asserting that science is natural philosophy, or “philosophy in practice” (180).

Harris disagrees with E.O. Wilson that “morality is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends.”  While morality was very likely adaptive in some sense at one point, and perhaps sexually selected for, that does not imply that it continues to fulfill this narrow function.  I was disappointed to see that while Harris mentioned Geoffrey Miller, he did not give due credit to Amotz Zahavi.  All the more a shame since Zahavi and Harris share the same concern for altruism.  (Zahavi saw altruism as a reliable fitness indicator that confers status upon and improves the reproductive chances of the individual.  Harris seems to see morality as a kind of codified version of objective altruism.)  It was interesting to learn that out group hostility and in group altruism are two sides of the same coin (101).  After reading the first few pages of Harris' latest book I felt it was a reaction to Europe's growing unease with its immigrant Muslim population.  I was reminded of French president's recent decision to make wearing burqas in public illegal.

There was considerable references made to other researchers.  I would like to read about Robert Edgerton's book Sick Societies.  And I found Adam Smith's quote about our reaction to distant tragedies very telling (58).  The description of the Dobu Islanders was of such a horribly organized society that I instantly suspected it was a “Poe”, but there is no reason to doubt that it could very well be a real society.  I instantly identified with the reasoning of a four year old about the difficulty of acting on moral decisions (71).  In the second half of the book Harris seemed to stray from his subject (only to bring the overall scope of the topic into clearer resolution no doubt).  I learned that parenting strategies that increase empathy in children are very important (99), but having children generally decreases happiness (188)!  I also learned that Harris' dislike of Francis Collins runs very deep!  I particularly liked the following quote, in which he rails against Collins while identifying the human-like qualities of animals (170):
And just how widespread must "glimmerings" of morality be among other animals before Collins - who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes - begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors?  What if mice show greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.)  What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.)  What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards?  (They have.)  What if dogs do too?  (Ditto.)  Wouldn't these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?  
I wondered at one point, that if morality is a system of thinking about and maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures (who stand in relation to specific environmental states) then does it not also follow that science can determine aesthetic values as well?  One of the criticisms of a science of morality is Hume's assertion that it is impossible to deduce “oughts” from what “is”, but I wonder what the distiction between these two really consists of, or for that matter the difference between truth and goodness.  Have we answered the question of why a science of morality is important?  Our intuitions of right and wrong are fallible (87).  Population ethics govern some of the most important decisions societies ever make (68).  What of the ethics of nuclear power?  Or of particulate air pollution?  Some of these questions bear on matters closer to home than others.  Harris identifies a few more advantages (188):
We would all be better off in a world where we devoted fewer of our resources to preparing to kill one another.  Finding clean sources of energy, cures for desease, improvements in agriculture, and new ways to facilitate human coop0eration are general goals that are obviously worth striving for.  
Now I am ready to enjoy reading Anthony Grayling's book, which is also about ethics and morality, though I gather without as much speculation on science's role in determining it.

Update: The best review I have read of this book is here and his response to critics. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Hot Sheets Episode II: Work, bugs, and questions

Continuing the Hot Sheets list from the previous installment:  

3. Lines of Work Lapham's Quarterly, 2011: Spring  It is a subject that is near and dear to many people. 

4. Jurgen Otto's photostream.  Life is beautiful!  (Recently highlighted by Coyne at The remarkable courtship of the world’s most beautiful spider.) 

5. A way of categorizing questions in philosophy (I was prompted to review these by my recent skepticism of a science of morality.  Over ten years ago this brief outline was presented by a professor in a philosophy class I attended.)
Metaphysical - What are things really?
Topics: essences/appearances
Epistemological - How do I know?
Topics: experience, reason, intuition, revelation
Ontological - What do I mean?
Topics: definitions, meaning, language, what is being/existence
Axiological - What is true/beautiful/harmonious?
Topics: good/evil, subjective/objective, true/false
6. Chinese Cracked Ice Pattern.  When I first saw it several years ago in a book about Chinese architecture, I loved it.  Here's a mathematical description.  I got to thinking about these patterns when I read about "Li Symmetries" on pg. 120 of Quadrivium, a book with many illustrations from early thought in math, geometry, and music.  The short description included a reference to Alan Turing, who wrote "The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis".  You can see some examples of modern application of this idea in this Wired article.  While these look like fractals, they seem somehow different.  Oddly, searching for "Li Symmetries" online turns up no results.  So where did that name come from? 

7. Kona Africabike: I like the idea, and am thinking of a test ride soon.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Hollander's How to Build a Sauna

In 1979 Carlton Hollander published How To Build a Sauna.  This book has many illustrations of construction details, but only a handful of actual photographs.  In his book he attempts to cover all aspects of construction.  Hollander makes the point that a dressing room is important for the enjoyment of a sauna (33), which I agree with.  Other rooms such as a shower room, storage room, and relaxation room can be combined with either the sauna room or dressing room and do not require a separate space, though Hollander includes these in his building layouts.  The need for an easily accessible wood storage area is also mentioned and should not be overlooked when siting the sauna's location.  Hollander quotes the Finnish Building Information Institution as recommending that the stoveroom allow for 105 cubic feet per bather (36), which he describes as a very generous allowance, and certainly not an absolute.  His recommendation to cut an inch from the bottom of the stoveroom door to allow for ventilation (40) is the same as Glenn Auerbach's at Sauna Times, which makes me wonder if Glenn didn't use this book as a reference for his own sauna. 

The cold water immersion tub (43) is frequently described by Hollander, and it seems he considers it an important part of the experience.  Keeping a large tub of water from freezing throughout a Fairbanks winter is not impossible, and would make a very interesting addition.  His description of insulating the floor seems out of date and incomplete to me, and the illustration (65) he uses was not clear enough to inspire confidence in a complete novice like me.  I did like his description of the the properties and types of wood to be used in the interior paneling, treating this portion of the sauna like a piece of furniture (77).  He recommended two foot wide benches as a comfortable width (97).  No where else had I read of using pyrogallic acid for chemically staining the interior wood of the sauna (103), which is interesting but also unnecessary.  A short bibliography at the end listed four sources, all of which being older than this book undoubtedly contain dated information that I would consult only after having read some of the newer books that still await my attention. 

Hollander's book is an introduction to sauna building which filled a niche when published, and it still focuses more on the basic building than a lot of more recent books do.  For example, the illustration of a hanging post foundation (58) is very good advice.  The same basic foundation is also described in the March/April 2011 issue of Mother Earth News, attesting to the timelessness of some basic carpentry techniques.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Hot Sheets Episode I: Perennial grains and moral skepticism

From Men In Black:
Dialog - [after telling J that they're going to check the "hot sheets," K buys some tabloid newspapers]
Agent J: These are the hot sheets?
Agent K: Best investigative reporting on the planet. But go ahead, read the New York Times if you want. They get lucky sometimes.
Agent J: I cannot believe you're looking for tips in the supermarket tabloids!
Agent K: Not looking for.
[tosses down a paper whose headline reads "ALIEN STOLE MY HUSBAND'S SKIN!"]
Agent K: Found.
As for myself, I turn to the most comprehensive local magazine rack, which happens to be at Barnes and Noble.  There I read two inspiring articles that are also available to read online:

1. The Big Idea: Perennial Grains National Geographic Magazine, April 2011
Agroecology is almost as glamorous as microbial ecology. Almost a year ago I read Emily Pidgeon's article  (page 47 of The Management of Natural Coastal Carbon Sinks by Laffoley and Grimsditch), about the importance of sea grasses, which play a significant and under appreciated role in carbon sequestration.  Now grains could do the same. 

2. Morality: The Final Delusion? Philosophy Now, No.82 
I was waiting for the library to get a copy of Grayling's latest book, but now I've begun reading Richard Garner's Beyond Morality, which can be downloaded for free online.  From the conclusion of his book:
This alone might make morality, in Nietzsche’s words, “the danger of dangers.” Plenty of powerful religious and political figures have insisted that their followers have a moral duty to destroy some country, or to abuse or even kill the members of some race, religion, or alternative persuasion. Our future will be much brighter if we can all stop our self-involved and combative moral posturing, develop a more realistic understanding of our conflicts of interest, and come up with ways to resolve them that are based on mutual respect and the best information we can get.
I look forward to reading the contra position to moral abolitionists such as Garner - Sam Harris' recent book The Moral Landscape presents this opposite case.  He believes that there are in fact objective values and argues for a kind of neo-utilitarianism as Coyne describes it.  But I am currently more skeptical of a science of morality than I am of moral nihilism.

Update: I paged through The Moral Landscape at the bookstore recently and saw that Harris briefly addressed J.L. Mackie (a moral error theorist).  Harris wrote: "The main criterion, therefore, is that misery and well-being not be completely random."  Well, for the human species it isn't completely random, but if I go out on a limb here and suppose we are able to have meaningful communication with other species in the future, it will soon be apparent that well-being is not as easily determined.  I think the case by case approach of moral error theorists may be more useful in this event.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Permaculture's sauna

Permaculture No. 67 Spring 2011 carries an article about how to build a sauna.  A very basic design is given, but that also means it is very affordable.  I could build two of these and probably have materials to spare (aside from the stove).  Below is a screenshot of the article from the free online preview.  One of the hippy-esque recommendations from the author is to use sheep wool as insulation in the walls instead of fiberglass.  I like natural materials, but wonder about price and performance. 

The Discipline Gradient

I recently finished reading Susan Thierman's The Discipline Gradient after I heard it was used in a local parenting class.  Being the father of two young children, I don't feel it is possible to know too much about how to be a good parent, and I am glad to have read this book.

Thierman acknowledges that every child is different and no single discipline approach will work all the time.  She makes frequent reference to different forms of discipline that have been described by child psycholgists and places them on a gradient beginning with those that rely on prevention and communication, moving on to behavior management.  Time outs, aka "boring interludes", are higher up on the discipline gradient and included among other behavior management tools.  (It sounds simple, but there really is a right and wrong way to use time outs effectively.)  Positive reinforcement is emphasized, with intrinsic reinforcement and self-discipline being the goal.

I found interesting the observation that praise should be specific, which echoes what I have long known about the importance of the feeling of self-efficacy.  From page 162 of the book:
On a more subtle level, specific praise admires the task, not the child.  Admiring the task helps the child feel confident about his abilities.  Admiring the child can build expectations that may hinder the child later... praising the task gives children feelings of accomplishment which, in turn, raise their self-esteem.  With positive self-esteem, the child feels even more confident and willing to try more new things.  
One of the best things parents can help their children learn are decision making skills.  Thierman writes: "What we can do is look toward the future and plan to encourage our children, to help them gain confidence and the skills of decision-making, problem-solving, and self-discipline."  Teach self-discipline, not obedience (218). 

Thierman's book is full of good advice to the new or experienced parent - parents should try to spend at least one hour a week alone with their child to build strong relationships, use active listening skills and I messages, and explain consequences in advance.  Always anticipate potential problems.  Parents are advised not to reward children for stopping negative behaviors, but for doing positive behaviors.  And Thierman is careful to distinguish between discipline and punishment.  Discipline aims to teach internal controls; punishment aims to control behavior.  And punishment is often accompanied by anger.  She reminds us that "every child, no matter how difficult his behavior, has positive characteristics."  Two chapters at the end of the book make a very strong case for never reacting in anger to a child.