Saturday, July 31, 2010

Carnival of the Africans #15

Right, time for rounding up the best African scientific and skeptical blogging from the last couple of months - we haven't had a Carnival for a while, so while foraging for posts I decided to consider stuff written in June and July only, so that the posts would be relatively fresh.

Angela, the Skeptic Detective, has managed to cover the whole spectrum of woo-craziness, from its most air-headed and harmless, to its most grave and seriously shocking. In the former category she's given us a great series of posts of psychics and the Soccer World Cup. In the latter category, she's written what has to be one of the darkest blog posts I've read in a long while in which she deals with practice of "magic" and the associated "muti" killings which are a consequence of this system of beliefs. If you read only one of the blog posts in this Carnival, I suggest that it be this one.

Over at ionian-enchantment, Michael has been doing some interesting work. Firstly, he's posted about a commentary that he and his supervisor have just had published in Behavioral and Brain sciences (go Michael!). The target of their commentary is an article that points to a potentially significant problem in the behavioral sciences, which is that for the most part the subjects of their studies are WEIRD (that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and thus not representative of human beings in general. The problem being analogous to trying to say something about human fitness in general through studying professional athletes, or trying to draw conclusions about the average state of human livers through studying people who abuse alcohol - you just don't know if what you find can be legitimately generalized. Michael and Prof. Spurrett take this one step further, pointing out the fact that, if the subjects of these studies are WEIRD, then the researchers undertaking these subjects are extremely WEIRD, and that this fact itself has far reaching implications that have themselves been overlooked. Check out Mike's post summarizing the target article and his commentary, as well as a follow up post on the target articles authors' response to the commentary.
Be sure to also check out his post on the ASA and the Rock solid church of "miracles" (how did those shudder-quotes slip in there?)

At 01 and the Universe Owen defends SETI against some spurious, skeptical objections. He does a really great job of taking SETI's detractors to task, but I think that a little more can be said about the very first objection raised against them in his piece - I'm sure Owen wont mind if I add a little to his defense.
The point I have in mind is that "SETI is 'almost science', which [Massimo Pigliucci] justified by saying that although SETI is employing scientific methods in their endeavor, their hypothesis (that extra-terrestrial intelligence exists) is virtually unfalsifiable".
From the tone of his reply to this point, I think Owen would agree with me that this is an unsatisfactory objection to SETI's project. It's unsatisfactoriness can be demonstrated by a very unsatisfactory response, one that nevertheless meets this formal objection head on. Lets assume that the biggest worry is that SETI's working hypothesis, namely that "aliens exist" is unfalsifiable. Would SETI, without changing their day to day activities one iota, be rendered "scientifically acceptable" by adopting the eminently falsifiable "working hypothesis" of "Extra-terrestrial intelligence doesn't exist" - a hypothesis that can be easily falsified at the very first instance of prime numbers encoded in a signal from Vega? A hypothesis that is corroborated every single time they boot up their radio-telescopes and find nothing?
Somehow I don't think that SETI's critics would be satisfied with this response, but - without spending too much more time on this point - I think the fact that we can fudge the hypothesis to meet their formal requirement so easily speaks to the fact that there isn't much substance to their objection (at least, this simple version of it) in the first place. The point needs to be seriously developed before we should take it ... well ... seriously.

Sticking with space, at Communicating Science, the African way there is an interesting (if a little short) piece that asks whether Africans should care about space exploration. Also well worth checking out is the piece about whether we should be worrying about whether cell phones cause cancer - this latter question is particularly interesting because cell-phone technology has penetrated almost every level of African society. This is certainly not only a "first world" concern.

A few other notable highlights I found while looking for posts are Jacques Rousseau's article To ask for evidence is not (necessarily) scientism and Fluxosaurus' Cnidarian ecstasy. Both well worth a look.

And if you've not yet exhausted your enthusiasm on all this great writing above, feel free to take a squizz at my humble offerings on the reactive emotions, and Shame.

Okay - that about sums it up for this month - if I've missed anyone's awesome blog posts, I apologize, but - then again - shame on you for not submitting it. The only way you can make amends for not submitting is by hosting this very carnival on your own blog in the following months. If you're interested, browse over to this page, where you'll find all the relevant details.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Carnival of the Africans : call for submissions

Although it's a last minute arrangement - I'm going to be hosting this month's Carnival of the Africans; the South African Scientific and Skeptical extravaganza - so if you have anything you'd like to be considered for inclusion, mail through the URL and a short description to blaize{dot}kaye{at}gmail{dot}com.

You can find the guidelines for the Carnival here.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A brief note regarding Oatley's brief history of emotions

I'm currently reading Oatley's "Emotions : a brief history".
He's a wonderful writer, and the book's methodological eclecticism - dipping into evolutionary psychology, literature, philosophy, and neuroscience - is something that I heartily endorse in investigations of the emotions.

In his first chapter, Oatley gives a useful taxonomy of broad emotional types.
We have reactive emotions, those emotions that have a sudden onset in response to some immediate environmental stimulus, say, the way that anger overcomes you when you're cut off while driving.
We have moods, which unlike the ephemeral reactive emotions typically last for a few hours or days. They're also distinguished by the fact that they need not have an intentional object, they're often not directed at anything in particular.
We then have sentiments, which last longer still. These do have an object, typically a person. Love, hate, and distrust are examples of sentiments.
Finally, Oatley lists preference as part of our emotional types, he says that we should "think of it as a silent emotion waiting for an opportunity to express itself in a choice we make".

Oatley then turns to the "workings of emotions" - and here is where I take issue. In his discussion of how reactive emotions are "triggered" he says the following.

Reactive emotions occur when the appearance of the world as we assume it to be is pierced by reality. In our assumed world, objects and people take on the colors of our understandings, of our hopes, of our desires, of our likes and dislikes. A reactive emotion occurs with the unexpected; it is a meeting of what we assumed with what we did not assume ...
We know from dreams that our brains have the machinery to make scenes that we experience. So eyes are not windows that let in aspects of the world. Instead they pick up clues to enable us to construct the world as we experience it. the clues are used, along with our assumed and implicit knowledge of the way the world works, to construct what we perceive.
Reactive emotions are caused when something in the assumed world unexpectedly affects a concern. Sometimes the unexpected is delightful, and we have the sense of new possibilities. Sometimes the unexpected is painful : in anger, for instance, the world narrows to plans of how we might confront the offender with the offense.
I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt and would especially like to see the idea developed further; perhaps there is more to it than what can be expected to be delivered in this non-technical introduction to emotions?
But I don't think that this provides us with anything like a satisfactory account of how and why our emotions are "triggered".

As a simple counterexample let us consider anger. Anger is a paradigm case of the reactive emotions but I don't think that it's necessary for me to have my expectations frustrated in order to experience anger, far from it. I may experience anger even in cases where what I expect is exactly what plays out in reality.
Suppose there is some individual in my office is an apartheid-era-style white South African blockhead who can't go for an hour without uttering some racist remark. It's thus part of my "assumed world" that this idiot will regularly vomit up some disgusting hateful comment. Not only that, but I expect myself to get angry! I know beforehand that this is what's going to happen but I still get angry when it does happen.

This is not to say that surprise, or the unexpected, doesn't play a role in triggering emotions - think about surprise itself - but it seems to me that in order to make this workable, we'd need to either restrict the domain of reactive emotions to those emotions that are essentially characterized in terms of this relationship between the "real" world and our "assumed" world, or we need to drop the whole notion as defining of reactive emotions in general.
I have a feeling that the problem may well run in another direction as well. We experience our expectations coming up short the whole time without an accompanying emotional experience. For example, I thought my wife was sitting in the living room and when I get there I see that she isn't, she's outside. Unless there is something seriously wrong with me I don't think that we can expect me to feel anything at all. I make the appropriate adjustments to my beliefs and move on.
In this case there is still something "extra" that needs to be added into the mix to get an emotional response, the fact of there being a difference between my "assumed" world and reality isn't a sufficient condition for an emotional response at all.
And if we do, in fact, require another "extra" something to pick out emotions from non-emotional reactions, why even bother with this notion at all?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Gödel without tears

While being nice and technical - Peter Smith's truly excellent textbook An introduction to Gödel's theorems (it's not just about the completeness and incompleteness theorems btw) can be a challenging to the uninitiated. Smith has made available a great supplementary resource, a set of lecture notes he calls Gödel without (too many) tears.
If you're at all interested in these things, I suggest you check it out.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

On Shame

Over the last few years I've become increasingly interested in the philosophy of emotion. In particular, I'm interested in Shame. As an emotion, Shame seems to have everything one could want, and can be approached from numerous directions. It's distinctive qualitative feel means we can look at it through a phenomenological lens, it's intentional content means that it's amenable to conceptual analysis, and it's role in socialization (among other things) opens it up to some interesting studies in terms of evolution. Finally, as one of the so-called "emotions of self-evaluation", it opens up a new way of investigation our notions of self and our conceptions of what a "self" is.

Plus, if one spends their time studying Shame rather than, say, Love - there is the added bonus of sounding like a tortured existentialist. But that's just more to impress people in coffee shops ... now, where did I put my beret?

I recently read Michael L. Morgan's little book "On Shame". What I imagined I had ordered was a popular book that would give a useful synthesis or review of the literature on Shame, but what it turned out to be was - on one hand - rather more interesting than all that, but - on the other - a little less satisfying than what I had hoped for.
In his book Morgan wants to put Shame into action, he want to use it as a force for moral change. In doing this he is making use of the fact that part of Shame's intentional content is a self-reflexive judgement. Barring edge cases - and in the study of emotion there are always edge cases - Shame tends to signal that we have found ourselves to have fallen short of some standard that we've internalized.
Shame tends to be holistic in its condemnation of the self - it is the whole self that has failed, that isn't worthy etc.

There are a few typical reactions to this kind of negative self-evaluation. The first is to hide one's self - we avert our eyes from the Other, we withdraw into ourselves, and in extreme cases we may wish the self extinguished, to dissapear completely.
The second reaction is the desire to change the Self - to become other than what one is (or at least, other than one is presented as being in the judgement at the heart of Shame).

In essence these kinds of responses involve the same kind of reaction - doing something with or to the self - the only difference is that the second kind of reaction is positive - Shame, in the second instance, is used as a vehicle for change.

Philosophers tend to be divided on the utility of Shame. Those philosophers who doubt that Shame is a useful moral emotion tend to emphasize the first type of reaction, while those who champion Shame tend to focus on it as a source of motivation for change. While I don't want to get into this question now, I just wanted to point out that Morgan falls squarely in the camp of the pro-shamers. He thinks that Shame's power to motivate deep change in our selves makes it an extremely useful emotion.

Morgan's endorsement of Shame isn't at all interesting or exceptional in itself, it's a fairly common position. However, where his book gets interesting is in his endorsement of Shame as a collective emotion, and in particular, as a collective emotion in response to us living in a "world of genocide". His book is an attempt to work on the consciences of it's readers, to get us to actively invoke Shame in ourselves for the existence and persistence of genocide in our world.
It is in these respects that his book is most provocative. Collective emotions, and especially Shame, have long been neglected in the philosophy of emotions - most theories tend to explore individual instances of emotions and leave it there. But we cannot ignore the existence of collective emotions. Collective Guilt and collective Shame are serious players in our emotional repertoire and we miss the point if we merely reduce them to collections of coordinated individual emotional episodes.
Furthermore, his suggestion that we employ Shame as an active emotional strategy for change challenges the (by no means universally held) notion that emotions are passive, that they are - in a sense - beyond conscious control.
These two points alone take us deep into the heart of the philosophy of emotion. And this is where, for me at least, the book dissapoints.
Morgan introduces a novel and potentially illuminating approach to Shame, and yet does hardly any work to back it up.
My complaint isn't that he gets his account of Shame wrong but rather that he doesn't give us enough to tell if he gets it wrong. There just isn't enough theoretical detail to evaluate his argument.

As I mentioned earlier, the point of the book is to galvanize the reader to change his or her self. Responding to genocide is serious business, and perhaps theoretical issues can be put on hold by the exigencies of the mass slaughter of fellow human beings. The problem is, though, that a book like this sits uncomfortably between a philosophical investigation of a problem, and a manifesto for change, and although I can't really say whether it hits it's mark as a manifesto, it fails to satisfy philosophically.

I hope that what we're seeing here is the first salvo in a longer philosophical project dealing with Shame by Morgan (although, it must be pointed out that his work seems to have always had Shame on it's periphery). The brief sketch that he provides in this book is barely enough to whet the appetite, but what he does provide is enough to make me pay attention.