Saturday, March 31, 2007

Fools the Year Round

This morning I pulled an April fools' on my girlfriend (successfully I might add) and then an hour or two later it dawned on me that it was March 31st. A story from Newsweek reminds me that most people are fools the year round:

A belief in God and an identification with an organized religion are widespread throughout the country, according to the latest NEWSWEEK poll. Nine in 10 (91 percent) of American adults say they believe in God and almost as many (87 percent) say they identify with a specific religion. Christians far outnumber members of any other faith in the country, with 82 percent of the poll’s respondents identifying themselves as such. Another 5 percent say they follow a non-Christian faith, such as Judaism or Islam. Nearly half (48 percent) of the public rejects the scientific theory of evolution; one-third (34 percent) of college graduates say they accept the Biblical account of creation as fact. Seventy-three percent of Evangelical Protestants say they believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years; 39 percent of non-Evangelical Protestants and 41 percent of Catholics agree with that view. Although one in ten (10 percent) of Americans identify themselves as having "no religion," only six percent said they don’t believe in a God at all. Just 3 percent of the public self-identifies as atheist, suggesting that the term may carry some stigma.

Wow. Only 3% atheists and nearly half reject evolution. Poor, deluded fools...

The Problem With Infinity

Everything is pointless, but is there a chance that any species could exist for infinity? From an essay by Alan Lightman (Beginnings and Endings from 'The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics'):

The following scenario is possible if astronomers fail to find enough cosmic matter to close the universe and make its temporal future finite. Today, just ten billion years after the "big bang," we sit on a hospitable planet in stable orbit around a middle-aged and reliable star. But after another ten billion years elapse, the sun's fuel will be close to exhaustion, and it will expand to encompass the orbit of the earth. Even if we were ingeniously to evade that catastrophe, we would find ourselves evicted from the solar system after about 1015 years by the close passage of a neighbouring star. Likewise, the sun and its associates will probably be dispatched from our Milky Way galaxy after 1019 years. Any stars remaining in galaxies will have completed their steady slide into an all-consuming black hole at the galactic nucleus after about 1024 years. Any beings with the resilience and ingenuity to survive all this will still have to cross their greatest hurdle - the decay of all matter. After about 1032 years, we expect all protons and neutrons and nuclei to have decayed away. All that will survive are leptons and light, and slowly evaporating black holes. Only after a fantastic 10100 years will the black holes that were once galaxies evaporate away, leaving behind unpredictable naked singularities and a sea of inert particles and light. Throughout these aeons of lingering decay, the shape of the cosmos may change as radically as its contents. The last vestiges of geometrical symmetry will be lost.

If life, in any shape or form, is to survive this ultimate environmental crisis, then the universe must satisfy certain basic requirements. The basic prerequisite for intelligence to survive is a source of energy. Such a source could be present even in the indefinite future, if there were a deviation from a complete uniformity in temperature and some degree of disorder. The potential for this does seem to exist. The anisotropies in the cosmic expansion, the evaporating black holes, the remnant naked singularities are all life preservers of a sort. Even when the black holes have all dissolved and the naked singularities are few and far between, irregularities may still grow on a cosmic scale and provide a source of heat as they eventually are smoothed out. An infinite amount of information is potentially available in an open universe, and its assimilation would be the principal goal of any surviving noncorporeal intelligence. As the temperature approaches absolute zero, never quite arriving there, the reaming aeons seem doomed to eternal tedium. But where there is quantum theory there is hope. We can never be completely sure this cosmic heat death will occur because we can never predict the future of a quantum universe with complete certainty; for in an infinite quantum future anything that can happen, will eventually...
And from Pinker's 'How The Mind Works':
The mind is a neural computer, fitted by natural selection with combinatorial algorithms for causal and probabilistic reasoning about plants, animals, objects, and people. It is driven by goal states that served biological fitness in ancestral environments, such as food, sex, safety, parenthood, friendship, status and knowledge. That toolbox, however can be used to assemble Sunday afternoon projects of dubious adaptive value.

Some parts of the mind register the attainment of increments of fitness by giving us a sensation of pleasure. Other parts use a knowledge of cause and effect to bring about goals. Put them together and you get a mind that rises to a biologically pointless challenge: figuring out how to get at the pleasure circuits of the brain and deliver little jolts of enjoyment without the inconvenience of wringing bona fide fitness increments from the harsh world. When a rat has access to a lever that sends electrical impulses to an electrode implanted in its medial forebrain bundle, it presses the lever furiously until it drops of exhaustion, foregoing opportunities to eat, drink and have sex. People don't yet undergo elective neurosurgery to have electrodes implanted in their pleasure centers, but they have found ways to stimulate them by other means. An obvious example is recreational drugs, which seep into the chemical junctions of the pleasure circuits.
Why don't people have the surgery? If people want to be happy and we already have a viable shortcut, isn't it reasonable to make use of it? Relating this to the first extract, isn't the prospect of an infinite future almost as distressing as a future of complete annihilation? As Lightman points out, eventually a species that solves all of its problems will succumb to an eternal tedium: if death, illness, poverty, need and pain are eventually abolished, won't existence merely progress until everyone just sits around pressing the button to stimulate the electrodes in their brains (because they've heard all the stories, and it's still more fun than anything else)? And so you work and strive for a future of nothingness or the slim chance that your descendants might live forever in eternal tedium.

Why did reality have to turn out to be so absurd? All I know is I don't want to die, but given more time, perhaps that'll change.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Thinking Similar Thoughts

After the disappointing conclusion of Pinker's 'How The Mind Works', I was pleased today to discover two individuals who seem to have made the final step to understanding that everything is pointless. First thanks to ChooseDoubt for pointing me to Struggles For Existence, the website of John Hartung:

"I already exist" you say? ... but what if there comes a time when there will be no evidence — none whatsoever — that you, Kilroy and I were here? "Well ... I won't exist then, but I exist now" sounds like a sensible reply.

Sorry to disagree, but I do because there is a difference between a magician's illusion of sawing a woman in half and actually sawing a woman in half — a difference in consequences. Prospects [Prospects for Existence … one of Hartung’s papers, available on his site] argues that if a time comes when there is no evident difference between life having existed and life having been an illusion, we are conglomerations of matter and energy which merely perceive themselves to be alive. Put differently, if life vanishes without a trace, as is slated to happen if the universe unfolds without interference from us and our descendants, we will not exist then, so we do not exist, in any meaningful sense, now.

[Hartung goes on to argue that] if we agree that there is a problem about the future that affects the meaningfulness of our lives in the present, then we can discuss doing something about both. That's why I want to badger you about existence and offer an alternative to pie in the sky. Prospects proffers eternal consequence, and so existence, through making ourselves the ancestors of a line of descendants that will evolve forever. That is an empirical possibility which, considering the alternative, ought to be pursued.
And looking around the site, Struggles For Existence seems to cover a lot of the same ground as this blog and is well worth a look. Somebody else who has been thinking similar thoughts, is Matthew Alper, author of 'The God Part of the Brain' which I started reading today:
And if God does not exist? Then I am no longer the extension of some transcendental force or being, no longer one with any exalted spiritual realm, no longer infinite or eternal. In short, if there is no God, I am mortal. And if I'm mortal? Then death is the decisive end of my existence. These few fleeting years of life will be the only ones I will ever know. And when they're done, "Out, out, brief candle!" This person "I" called "me," the sum of my conscious experience will be snuffed out for all eternity. Without God, there is no transcendental realm. Instead, I am abandoned to the spiritless forces of a coldly indifferent and mechanistic universe, an expendable cog in a soulless machine - here today, gone tomorrow - a random event in an arbitrary universe, no more significant than a speck of cosmic dust. Consequently, without God, life holds no intrinsic purpose or meaning.
Thank god there are some sane people in the world. That others understand actually does make me feel a bit better! More on 'The God Part of the Brain' soon.

And Man Asked God

ClockWorkLouie

I am Pinocchio made wood again.
I am the Tin Man with his heart repossessed.
I am the troll who lives in his hole
and watches the billy-goats wonder at grass.
I am the universe made clockwork,
only to discover that it was all a big waste of time.

And you ask me how I feel or what I want? HA!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Weird Juan

Here's a strange tale from the Guardian (although I think the strangeness is all in the telling):

Bloody, satanic, amnesia case baffles Italian police

Police and prosecutors in northern Italy are wrestling with a mystery that brings together a man with memory loss, evidence of devil worship and a blood-drenched apartment.

One evening earlier this month, a dishevelled young man wandered into a Carabinieri barracks at Vercelli, between Turin and Milan. He said he had no idea who he was, or why he was there.

Three days earlier, on March 16, the owner of a bed-sit outside Bergamo, more than 70 miles away, had broken into the flat. The tenant had not paid his rent and she wanted to know if he was still there.

She found a scene of pure horror. The apartment was in chaos and there were signs everywhere that it had been used for a satanic rite.

There were upturned crosses, and the walls and floor were smothered with esoteric symbols written in blood. Police forensic experts estimated that as much as 3l had been splashed around.

Only later was it established that all of it belonged to the young man who had turned to the Carabinieri.

He has since been identified as a 22-year-old called Daniele - investigators have not released his surname - who, until recently, worked in a nearby factory. His family said his only real hobby was UFOs.

They told police that, last September, he had suddenly broken with his past. He had left his job and spent his savings, though his relation with his parents, whom he now says he cannot recognise, continued to seem normal.

According to a report in the daily Corriere della Sera, psychiatrists who have examined Daniele are convinced he is not feigning amnesia. Doctors, meanwhile, have found he has a scar, about an inch long, on his right arm and a series of smaller punctures on other parts of his body.

But there is no evidence that Daniele had taken drugs, and the marks do not correspond to those left when blood is extracted in the normal way by medical staff.

Among the puzzles vexing investigators are how a man who had lost almost seven pints of blood could have made his way 70-odd miles across country - and what happened to him in the at least three days that he was missing.

Domenico Chiaro, the prosecutor who has taken up the case, has said he is treating it as a case of attempted murder.

But he and the Carabinieri working for him are hampered by a number of factors. The hard drive in Daniele's computer is missing, as is the SIM card of his mobile phone.

As for the young man himself, all he can offer them is the faint recollection of an abbey.
And again I remember the St. Bernard sized slime mould, and wonder if someone's pulling somebody's leg!

Spanner in the Works?

So I reached the end (with only minimal skipping) of Pinker's excellent book 'How The Mind Works'. Throughout, he explains that the mind (like the body) is a system of modules, which have been designed by natural selection, over time. The heart is a pump, the eyes sophisticated cameras and the brain is a computer designed to process information. Nothing particularly earth-shattering, and I would say that he's absolutely correct in almost everything he writes.

But when it comes to his final chapter on the meaning of life, Pinker throws a spanner into the works and declares that there are just some things we may not have the computational abilities to understand:

Our thoroughgoing perplexity about the enigmas of consciousness, self, will, and knowledge may come from a mismatch between the very nature of these problems and the computational apparatus that natural selection has fitted us with. If these conjectures are correct, our psyche would present us with the ultimate tease. The most undeniable thing there is, our own awareness, would be forever beyond our conceptual grasp. But if our minds are part of nature, that is to be expected, even welcomed. The natural would evokes our awe by the specialised designs of its creatures and their parts. We don't poke fun at the eagle for its clumsiness on the ground or fret that the eye is not very good at hearing, because we know that a design can excel at one challenge only by compromising at others. Our bafflement at the mysteries of the ages may have been the price we paid for a combinatorial mind that opened up a world of words and sentences, of theories and equations, of poems and melodies, of jokes and stories, the very things that make a mind worth having.
And here I absolutely disagree. History has shown that the human brain is quite capable of things which our ancestors couldn't even have imagined (like sending probes out to the far reaches of the solar-system) and given enough time of peaceful productivity (with no catastrophic natural disasters) our species would have a very good chance of solving any and all of the major questions that face us. It is funny that Pinker quotes Ecclesiastes:
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to love, and a time to hate.
Because in a recent post on Ecclesiastes, I quoted this:
You must have noticed that no modern romantic who quotes this passage (“For every time there is a season…”) ever quotes the conclusion to the passage: “What's the point of bothering with anything, since the ceaseless round is ceaseless?”
And that is exactly my criticism of Pinker's book. How can you so fully explain the mind and human behaviour and then just stop short? Everything is pointless, really is just the logical conclusion. Funny that both Dennett and Pinker preach a similar philosophy of evolution and its impact on human being, but just can't quite find it in themselves to say "everything is pointless"...

Finally, I present one last quote from 'How The Mind Works' which sums up my entire attitude towards the arts (something Pinker spends some time discussing - concluding that most of it is a kind of stimulant for the brain):
Anyone who lived through the craze for Indian raga music after George Harrison made it hip in the 1960s appreciates that musical styles vary from culture to culture and that people most enjoy the idioms they grew up with. (During the Concert for Bangladesh, Harrison was mortified when the audience applauded Ravi Shankar for tuning up his sitar.)
One man's untuned sitar is another man's groovy tune. Get me off this ride, they're all f*cking insane...

Are Men Slime?

I'm nearing the end of Pinker's 'How the Mind Works' and if you're looking for a thorough overview of evolution and psychology, you couldn't start in a better place. Although a lot of what Pinker covers isn't particularly new to my ears, it's interesting seeing somebody who understands evolution well, applying it to consciousness and the brain. I've had to resist the urge to quote huge reams from the book, but here are two extracts which I just couldn't help reproducing:

Are men really slime, or are they just trying to look like slime? Perhaps in questionnaires men try to exaggerate their studliness but women want to avoid looking easy. The psychologists R. D. Clark and Elaine Hatfield hired attractive men and women to approach strangers of the opposite sex on a college campus and say to them, "I have been noticing you around campus. I find you very attractive," and then ask one of the three questions: (a) "Would you go out with me tonight?" (b) "Would you come over to my apartment tonight?" (c) "Would you go to bed with me tonight?" Half the women consented to a date. Half the men consented to a date. Six percent of the women consented to go to the stooge's apartment. Sixty-nine percent of the men consented to go to the stooge's apartment. None of the women consented to sex. Seventy-five percent of men consented to sex. Of the remaining twenty-five percent, many were apologetic, asking for a rain check or explaining that they couldn't because their fiancée was in town. The results have been replicated in several states. When the studies were conducted, contraception was widely available and safe-sex practices were heavily publicized, so the results cannot be dismissed simply because women might be more cautious about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

An awakening of male sexual desire by a new partner is known as the Coolidge effect, after a famous anecdote. One day, President Calvin Coolidge and his wife were visiting a government farm and were taken on separate tours. When Mrs. Coolidge was shown the chicken pens, she asked whether the rooster copulated more than once a day. "Dozens of times", replied the guide. "Please tell that to the President," Mrs. Coolidge requested. When the president was shown the pens and told about the rooster, he asked, "Same hen every time?" "Oh, no, Mr. President, a different one each time." The president said, "Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge."

...Other desires of gay men, like pornography, prostitutes and attractive young partners, also mirror or exaggerate the desires of heterosexual men. (Incidentally, the fact that men's sexual wants are the same whether they are directed at women or directed at other men refutes the theory that they are instruments for oppressing women.) It's not that gay men are oversexed; they are simply men whose male desires bounce of other male desires rather than off female desires. Symons writes, "I am suggesting that heterosexual men would be as likely as homosexual men to have sex most often with strangers, to participate in anonymous orgies in public baths, and to stop off in public restrooms for five minutes of fellatio on the way home from work if women were interested in these activities. But women are not interested."
Indeed! ;)

Hexagons in a Bucket

Following on from my last post on the mysterious hexagon at Saturn's north pole, the Scientific American blog points out that the only real explanation offered so far, comes from:

Thomas Bohr (grandson of Niels), who last year produced geometric whirlpools by spinning the bottom of a water-filled bucket while the sides remain stationary.
From Nature:
Researchers at the Technical University of Denmark in Lyngby have created similar geometric shapes (holes in the form of stars, squares, pentagons and hexagons) in whirlpools of water in a cylindrical bucket1. The shapes appear easily enough once the bucket is spinning at a rate of one to seven revolutions per second, they say.

Tomas Bohr and colleagues made plexiglass buckets, 13 and 20 centimetres across, with metal bottoms that could be rotated at high speed by a motor. They filled the bucket with water and spun the bottom to whip up the liquid into a whirlpool that rose up the sides of the container.

This set-up is very similar to the rotating bucket that Isaac Newton used in the seventeenth century to investigate centrifugal forces.

The researchers found that once the plate was spinning so fast that the water span out to the sides, creating a hole of air in the middle, the dry patch wasn't circular as might be expected. Instead it evolved, as the bucket's spin sped up, from an ellipse to a three-sided star, to a square, a pentagon, and, at the highest speeds investigated, a hexagon.
And in the end, the hexagon in space turns out to not be that interesting at all. Go figure!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hexagons in Space

Talking about mathematics and the structure of the universe, here's a new image taken by the Cassini probe, of a hexagon pattern which is circling Saturn's north pole. From NASA:

"This is a very strange feature, lying in a precise geometric fashion with six nearly equally straight sides," said Kevin Baines, atmospheric expert and member of Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "We've never seen anything like this on any other planet. Indeed, Saturn's thick atmosphere where circularly-shaped waves and convective cells dominate is perhaps the last place you'd expect to see such a six-sided geometric figure, yet there it is."
The NASA site also has a fantastic video of the phenomenon. Strange eh?

Pinker On How The Mind Works

I'm about half-way through Steven Pinker's 'How The Mind Works' and I must say it's not remarkably different from Dennett's 'Consciousness Explained', which I guess is good news because they both highlight that science is certainly on the right track to explaining how the mind actually works! First, an extract:

The complex structure of the mind is the subject of this book. Its key ideas can be captured in a sentence: The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and out manoeuvring objects, animals, plants, and other people. The summary can be unpacked into several claims. The mind is what the brain does; specifically, the brain processes information, and thinking is a kind of computation. The mind is organized into modules or mental organs, each with a specialized design that makes it an expert in one arena of interaction with the world. The modules' basic logic is specified by our genetic program. Their operation was shaped by natural selection to solve the problems of the hunting and gathering life led by our ancestors in most of our evolutionary history. The various problems for our ancestors were subtasks of one big problem for their genes, maximising the number of copies that made it into the next generation. On this view, psychology is engineering in reverse. (p.21)
None of which should really come as a surprise. Pinker's thesis is essentially a marrying of the computational theory of mind with evolution, to produce a very useful explanation of mental phenomena. I'm suppressing the urge to skip straight to the last chapter on the meaning of life, and I'll report back further, when I've finished reading the whole thing.

But, I want to relate this to my previous two posts on 'math angst' (which is the angst regarding what mathematics actually is). Pinker is arguing that human beings are computational machines, built by natural selection and specialised in the 'cognitive niche' (whereby our ancestors were particularly good at outwitting other organisms, to their benefit). And here again, for those people who don't quite get my 'existential angst' is an illustration of the absurdity of existence. We survive to reproduce. We compute to survive. To compute is to calculate and to calculate means to do maths. But maths is mysterious and the best I can come up with is that it is somehow related to the structure of the universe. From Wikipedia:
Mathematics (colloquially, maths, or math), is the body of knowledge centred on concepts such as quantity, structure, space, and change, and also the academic discipline that studies them. Benjamin Peirce called it "the science that draws necessary conclusions". Lynn Steen and Keith Devlin maintain that mathematics is the science of pattern, that mathematicians seek out patterns whether found in numbers, space, science, computers, imaginary abstractions, or elsewhere.
So it seems that organisms that could identify patterns in the world (and perform mathematical calculations on them) found that the answers were useful to helping them survive and reproduce. But there is no inherent meaning in any of this. Maybe this explains why humans are drawn to the patterns of music, art and mathematics - but I don't really see pattern worship as anything particularly interesting. One woman's unmade bed is another man's modern-art after all.

More on Pinker soon.

Barrow Full of Shit

I was going to discuss mathematician, cosmologist and physicist, John Barrow in the last post on math angst, but I thought he deserved his own post. I found an interesting talk by Barrow to the Royal Society, where he discusses what maths is (amongst other things):

'What is mathematics and why does it work' ? In this talk John Barrow takes a look at some of the ways in which mathematics can tell you things about the world that you cannot learn in any other way: how computers have extended the reach of human mathematicians, the simple nature of many hard' problems that no computer can solve, how to win at dice and even discover whether the Premier Football League is just a random process. He explains the modern concepts of chaos and complexity, showing how we can use them to shed light on Abstract Expressionist art, detect art fraud, and discover why it is possible to send spacecraft to the Moon with pin-point precision and yet fail to predict tomorrow's weather.
But now consider this: in 2006 Barrow was awarded a grant of over £700,000 from a religious organisation. From the Guardian:
So what is Barrow's work all about? His abiding point, it seems, is that science and religion need not clash in quite the manner that the likes of Richard Dawkins would suggest; as Barrow puts it, "Many of the deepest and most engaging questions that we grapple with about the nature of the universe have their origins in our purely religious quest for meaning. The concept of a lawful universe with order that can be understood and relied upon emerged largely out of religious beliefs about the nature of God." To ask the big scientific questions, he seems to suggest, is a quasi-religious enterprise - one that "has transformed the simple-minded, life-averse, meaningless universe of the sceptical philosophers" - and the mathematical aspects of astronomy are a perfect case in point.
Isn't this backdoor theism? Trust somebody who looks at the wonder of the universe (and the mystery of mathematics) to conclude that god is behind it all. For the rest of us who appreciate the answers evolution gives us, the mystery of maths is like the mystery of consciousness - it isn't going to make the universe pointful (and we won't find the signature of god in either location).

I say it often, but science never promised that the answers would be appealing - only that we'd try and get at the truth. Mathematics is strange, but then so is existence. The whole god damned thing is thoroughly absurd! But if things are ever going to improve, then the bare minimum required of science is to police its own members. Science and religion are mutually exclusive. Professor Barrow, step away from the money and let's feed some starving people. Scientists should not promote the supernatural. We've got a difficult enough job dealing with reality.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Math Angst

When I was at school, I hated maths. I'm still terrible at mental arithmetic, but as I always say, if god had intended us to be able to do sums, he wouldn't have invented the calculator! Recently I've been trying to understand what the heck maths is actually all about and so I pulled out a book I've had for years (but never really looked at), 'The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics', and lo and behold there is a whole section on 'math angst'. Here's an extract (from an essay by Eugene Wigner):

The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it. Second, it is just this uncanny usefulness of mathematical concepts that raises the question of the uniqueness of our physical theories. In order to establish the first point, that mathematics plays an unreasonably important role in physics, it will be useful to say a few words on the question, "What is mathematics?", then, "What is physics?", then, how mathematics enters physical theories, and last, why the success of mathematics in its role in physics appears so baffling. Much less will be said on the second point: the uniqueness of the theories of physics. A proper answer to this question would require elaborate experimental and theoretical work which has not been undertaken to date.
And with that you might be beginning to understand why maths provokes angst. It is at the same time vital to our existence and yet bizarrely detached from it. Do we invent maths or discover it? It drives me crazy thinking about it. So what is mathematics then? Some more from Wigner:
Somebody once said that philosophy is the misuse of a terminology which was invented just for this purpose. In the same vein, I would say that mathematics is the science of skillful operations with concepts and rules invented just for this purpose. The principal emphasis is on the invention of concepts. Mathematics would soon run out of interesting theorems if these had to be formulated in terms of the concepts which already appear in the axioms. Furthermore, whereas it is unquestionably true that the concepts of elementary mathematics and particularly elementary geometry were formulated to describe entities which are directly suggested by the actual world, the same does not seem to be true of the more advanced concepts, in particular the concepts which play such an important role in physics. Thus, the rules for operations with pairs of numbers are obviously designed to give the same results as the operations with fractions which we first learned without reference to "pairs of numbers." The rules for the operations with sequences, that is, with irrational numbers, still belong to the category of rules which were determined so as to reproduce rules for the operations with quantities which were already known to us. Most more advanced mathematical concepts, such as complex numbers, algebras, linear operators, Borel sets - and this list could be continued almost indefinitely - were so devised that they are apt subjects on which the mathematician can demonstrate his ingenuity and sense of formal beauty.

In fact, the definition of these concepts, with a realization that interesting and ingenious considerations could be applied to them, is the first demonstration of the ingeniousness of the mathematician who defines them. The depth of thought which goes into the formulation of the mathematical concepts is later justified by the skill with which these concepts are used. The great mathematician fully, almost ruthlessly, exploits the domain of permissible reasoning and skirts the impermissible. That his recklessness does not lead him into a morass of contradictions is a miracle in itself: certainly it is hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought, by Darwin's process of natural selection, to the perfection which it seems to possess. However, this is not our present subject. The principal point which will have to be recalled later is that the mathematician could formulate only a handful of interesting theorems without defining concepts beyond those contained in the axioms and that the concepts outside those contained in the axioms are defined with a view of permitting ingenious logical operations which appeal to our aesthetic sense both as operations and also in their results of great generality and simplicity. The complex numbers provide a particularly striking example for the foregoing. Certainly, nothing in our experience suggests the introduction of these quantities. Indeed, if a mathematician is asked to justify his interest in complex numbers, he will point, with some indignation, to the many beautiful theorems in the theory of equations, of power series, and of analytic functions in general, which owe their origin to the introduction of complex numbers. The mathematician is not willing to give up his interest in these most beautiful accomplishments of his genius.
So maths is about beauty? Isn't that a 'crock of shit'? Perhaps it's my aversion to maths, but I just don't understand the concept of beautiful mathematics. I do at least think I understand this paragraph, from Stewart Shapiro's 'Philosophy of Mathematics':
It is surely correct to maintain that if there had never been any language (or any people), there would be trees, planets, and stars. There would also be numbers, sets of numbers, and Klein groups, if not baseball defenses. Such is the nature of ante rem structures. Once a language and a theory impose a structure and sort the universe into objects—be they abstract or concrete—one can sometimes speak objectively about those objects, and we insist (surely correctly) that at least some of the objects were not created by us. Counterfactuals about the ways the world would be must themselves be formulated in our language and form of life—for we know no other. Trivially, had there never been any language, there would be no means of discussing, say, stars, as distinguished from the particles they contain and the galaxies that contain them. However, the lack of sortals available to speakers in a given possible world has nothing to do with which objects that world contains.
So although I think no-one really knows the answers, it seems that maths is related to the structure of the universe and that's why it works...

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Bible Agrees Everything Is Pointless

So as it's a Sunday I thought I'd post something I was saving for a rainy day. On my journeys through cyberspace, I came upon this page from the Online Parallel Bible on Ecclesiastes 12-8:

NASB: "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "all is vanity!"
GWT: "Absolutely pointless!" says the spokesman. "Everything is pointless!"
And I was intrigued. Does the bible really say that everything is pointless? Trying to answer this question, I found this (source):
Note that when Ecclesiastes says that “all is vanity” it doesn’t mean that everything is conceited, but that everything is pointless.
So I decided to find out more about Ecclesiastes, and though I normally wouldn't dream of frequenting a theist site, I found a fascinating sermon (source):
[1] Is there any point to life? Is living worth the effort? Why bother when all of life is “vanity”, nothing but “vanity”? The word “vanity” occurs more than thirty times in twelve brief chapters. And even where the word itself isn't used, the meaning and mood of the word are heard anyway. “Who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life...?”, says the author. Or think of the assertion as stark as it is bleak: “I thought the dead more fortunate than the living” -- and the stillborn more fortunate than either the dead or the living. (Ec. 6:12; 4:2-3; 6:3b-5)

According to Ecclesiastes human existence is anything but rosy. Not only is individual existence overwhelmingly pointless, the social order is anything but encouraging. To look out on the wider society is to find injustice rampant, to find oppression severe; and it's to find little reason for thinking that the social order will ever improve.

In the sermon today we are probing the book of Ecclesiastes. Before it's the title of a book, however, “Ecclesiastes” is the self-styled description of the book's author. Ecclesiastes is a common Greek word that means “lecturer” or “preacher.” We don't know the author's name. It appears, however, that he or she was a Jewish person living in Jerusalem (or near Jerusalem ) approximately 200 B.C.E. Persian forces had overrun Jerusalem , and the subsequent occupation had made matters difficult for Jews in Jerusalem . Soon Persian domination gave way to Greek domination. Greece 's rule of Jerusalem wasn’t only onerous; it was corrupt, exceedingly corrupt. Now matters were worse. The author wrote his book out of his reflection on human existence in such a setting; ultimately, human existence in such a setting under God.

[2] “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, the book begins. The Hebrew word translated “vanity” strictly means “transience”, “ephemerality”, the state of being short-lived, of passing quickly. “Transitory, transitory, everything is transitory; nothing lasts. Everything comes only to go.” The obvious question then is, “If everything is fleeting, then is anything real? Then is anything worth doing, or is everything pointless?”

Some readers see the book as a counsel of despair; they think the book preaches despair. But in fact it doesn't. The book, rather, is a sustained critique of secularism, a sustained critique of secularised religion. The author adopts the standpoint of the secularist and speaks from that perspective in order to render himself credible with the secularists of his era and ours. The author wants us to know that he has grasped the essence of secularism. At the same time, the shafts of light from God that pierce the bleakness of secularism here and there disclose the author's heart. While secularist existence is dark and bleak and transitory and pointless (says our author), he knows that life ultimately isn't like this in that life's ultimacy is God. To be sure, the author states in line after line that all roads lead to dead-end futility; all roads, that is, except one. And this one road is the road that leads to life. (Matt. 7:14)

[3] Ecclesiastes points out several occasions of secularist despair.

(i) The first one is the ceaseless round of things. “A generation goes and a generation comes....The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. What has been is what will be....” A treadmill. Ecclesiastes is telling us that life is a treadmill. We have to work ceaselessly merely to survive. But if we are toiling just for the opportunity to toil, what's the point of bothering?

The best-known passage from the book begins, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, a time to die...”, and on it goes. It sounds romantic. It adorns greeting cards and one of Karsh's books of superb photographs. But Ecclesiastes himself didn't put this passage forward as something romantic; he put it forward as an instance of secularist despair. For he concludes his repeated “there is a time...” with the “zinger”, “What gain has the worker from his toil?” You must have noticed that no modern romantic who quotes this passage (“For every time there is a season…”) ever quotes the conclusion to the passage: “What's the point of bothering with anything, since the ceaseless round is ceaseless?”

(ii) Another occasion of secularist despair is the fruitless search. The secularist assumes that learning, pure scholarship, will give her the profoundest contentment. (2:12ff) She wants to acquire the intellectual subtlety of the philosopher and the comprehensiveness of the encyclopaedist. To be sure, there's nothing wrong with wanting this. God has made us rational creatures and we are to love him with our minds. But it takes more than learning alone to content the human heart. It's no wonder the secularist cries out, “I applied my mind to seek and search out by wisdom all that is done under the sun; it is an unhappy business...he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (1:13,18)

I am the last person to denigrate scholarship. What's more, I deplore intellectual mediocrity, never hesitating to pronounce it sin. At the same time I'm aware that intimate acquaintance with God does not arise from subtle philosophising. I'm aware too that intellectual rigour and academic mastery guarantee us nothing with respect to wisdom. At the end of the day intellectual mastery doesn't yield contentment.

(iii) Another occasion of secularist despair is the preoccupation with pleasure. Now pleasure is good. Pleasure is preferable to pain. Yet even the noblest pleasures, the most sophisticated pleasures, can't finally satisfy the human heart, never mind transmute it. The aesthetically refined person watching the ballet is no closer to God’s righteousness than the blood-thirsty lout at a bullfight. Cultural sophistication doesn't render anyone godly; it doesn't promote innermost peace.

(iv) Another occasion of secularist despair is misgovernment. The author weeps when he sees how oppressed people are violated. “I saw all the oppressions that are practised under the sun. And the oppressed had no one to comfort them.” (4:1-3) Injustice abounds. Violence and victimization are virulent. Governments, whether intentionally or accidentally, invariably oppress at least some of the people they are mandated to protect. “Man lords it over man to his hurt”, cries the author. (8:9) To be sure, he adds, some rulers are virtuous and some are even helpful. Still, where political authority is concerned nothing can be counted on. At any time a society may find itself in the hands of political rulers who are fools, weak or dissolute. “Folly is set in many high places”, Ecclesiastes adds laconically. (10:5-6,16) None of us would disagree.

(v) Another occasion of secularist despair is misfortune. Life is riddled with radical accidentality. “Like birds that are caught in an evil snare, so the sons of men are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.” ( 9:11 -12) We never have life domesticated; we can never render life risk-free. Piercing misfortune may stab us at any time. What we can't foresee we can't protect ourselves against. It's almost as if we can only wait to be “clobbered.”

(vi) Another occasion of secularist despair is death. To be sure, there are moments in life so unambiguously glorious that in such moments we can't help being life-affirming. At the same time, says Ecclesiastes, life is characterized by a struggle wherein we struggle every day to keep death at arm's length. Proof of our struggle is our betaking ourselves to physician and surgeon and pharmacist as often as we need to. Struggle as we might, however, we are going to succumb; what's more, we know we are going to succumb. Life is a journey, says Ecclesiastes, from a naked beginning to a naked end. ( 5:15 ) When all the romantic mythology surrounding life is set aside, life ultimately adds up to zero.

[4] It all sounds so very bleak. Is it unbelievably bleak? Or can the bleakness be lessened in any way? Ecclesiastes suggests several matters that mitigate the bleakness.

(i) One such mitigation is life's simple joys. Simple joys sweeten life. The simple joys of food, wine and marriage (yes, Ecclesiastes says marriage mitigates life's harshness); simple joys are oases of rest and peace and fruitfulness in the face of life's difficulties and distresses. These simple pleasures are God-ordained and are therefore to be enjoyed with a clear conscience: “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.” ( 2:25 )

(ii) Another mitigation of life's bleakness is homespun helpfulness. Right in the middle of the book (chapter 7 of 12 chapters) the author interjects a host of proverbial sayings; e.g., “The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit”, and “Be not quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.” Nobody is startled upon hearing this; nobody regards it as life-saving revelation. Still, everyone knows that homespun helpfulness does much to soften the “bite” of life's bleakness.

(iii) Another mitigation of life's bleakness is enterprise (11:1-6) Just because life unfolds so very uncertainly (“You know not” is repeated four times in six verses) we ought to do whatever we can to stabilize life. While life is riddled with uncertainties, there's always one certainty: death. Therefore we should always be doing what we can while there's time to do it. Why keep life bleaker or harsher or more onerous than it has to be?

[5] Near the beginning of the sermon I indicated that the book of Ecclesiastes is a sustained critique of secularism (or of secularised religion), and as such it starkly depicts many occasions of secularist despair. To be sure, there are several mitigations (just mentioned) that lessen this despair. Still, does the author have anything positive to say? Does he have anything theologically profound to say? Is there any good news, any gospel, in the book? Indeed there is, for ultimately the author points us to the truth and reality of the God who shortly incarnated himself in Jesus of Nazareth.

(i) The final chapter of the book begins, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth”; i.e., remember your Creator from the days of your youth; remember always that God is your Creator. Specifically, the author insists we remember that God our creator has made us upright. ( 7:29 ) While humankind isn't upright now but is rather fallen and bent, our present sin and misery can't be charged to God. He made us upright. Human perversity isn't God's fault. Life's harshness, arising it does from our perversity, isn't his fault. Insofar as we are warped, we are self-warped -- and the wonder of God's grace is that he hasn't quit on us in disgust or lost patience with us or given us up as intractable. Precisely where we are handcuffed, he isn't. To “remember” our Creator is to have the love and power that created us in the past become operative to recreate us in the present. To “remember” our Creator is to find that God can do something with respect to human perversity precisely where humankind cannot. This is good news.
And so I'm shocked that the bible really can offer help to those pondering the meaning of life. Two hundred years before Jesus, and they'd already worked out that everything is pointless. In fact the above discussion reads very much like my blog; despair over death, corrupt government, the absurdity of pleasure etc. are all topics I regularly post about.

I have written before that I suspect one of the big problems in converting theists to atheism, is that they understand that without god everything is pointless (it says so in the bible after all). But because so few atheists actually come out and acknowledge that fact, the theists see a discrepancy between behaviour and philosophy - atheists seemingly do not practice what they preach. What we need to do is get across to them that, yes, everything is pointless, that there isn't a god, and one day they're going to die. So they should stop wasting their lives thinking and acting like they're going to get a reward in heaven. It's infantile and it has a negative impact on the world in a lot of ways. We really do need to start singing from the same hymn sheet!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Hetty Green: World's Greatest Miser

Go and read the Wikipedia entry on Hetty Green (because I don't want to reproduce it all here, and she's a very interesting character). Briefly, born in 1834 Hetty grew up to be arguably the world richest woman, by essentially being the world's greatest miser. From Wikipedia:

Green was mainly interested in business, and there are many tales (of various degrees of accuracy) about her stinginess. She never turned on the heat nor used hot water. She wore one old black dress and undergarments that she changed only after they had been worn out. She did not wash her hands and rode an old carriage. She ate mostly pies that cost fifteen cents. One tale claims that she spent a night looking around her home for a lost stamp worth two cents.
And from H.G Wells in 'The Work, Wealth & Happiness of Mankind':
Her habits were miserly from the beginning, and they became more so; in her phase of maximum business energy she wore newspapers in winter to avoid buying warm underclothing, and she lived in cheap lodging houses, moving from one to another in order to evade taxation.

...She had grown up in a community which held the getting of money to be the test of a satisfactory life, and where want of money was considered more hideous than any deformity. She was ego-centred, responsive to the standards about her, and capable of great sacrifices, so far as immediate satisfactions were concerned, to the ruling ideas in her mind. In happier circumstances she might have had altogether different ruling ideas; she might have been a fanatic of faith or works; or, if money had really been a fair measure of public service, even her avarice might have become an incentive to vigorous efforts for her community. As it was, she became a morbid accumulation and an arrest of spending power. She stimulated no wholesome human activity.

She was misguided. It is the way in which she was misguided that concerns us. She was misguided by our monetary-credit system and by our reliance upon competition in getting as a test of worth. Her significance in this study of human work and wealth lies in her demonstration of the entire ineffectiveness of that money-credit system. The money-credit system should be a system for stimulating and rewarding productive energy. Here we see in the plainest way how its fluctuations can be diverted entirely to unproductive accumulation. That is the fundamental unsoundness of the money motive. We see the surplus profits of the activities of city and rail road converging upwards to this sordid, clutching old woman, who desired no progress, imagined no increase in the grace and sweetness of life, opposed any development that touched her monopolies and securities. Slowly, inevitably, her fortune grew. She was a patient, implacable creditor. Only her death arrested the growth and concentration of her property. An immortal Hetty Green would have become step, by step, and in strict accordance with the rules of the money-credit game, the owner of an economically arrested world.
Finally I present one of Aesop's' fables (and Aesop himself was a Greek slave executed over 2000 years ago):
The Miser

To make sure that his property would always remain safe and protected, a miser sold all that he had and converted it into one great lump of gold, which he hid in a hole in the ground. Since he went there continually to visit and inspect it, one of his workers became curious and suspected that his master had hidden a treasure. When the miser's back was turned, the worker went to the spot and stole the gold. Soon thereafter the miser returned, and when he found the hole empty, he wept and tore his hair. But a neighbour, who witnessed his grief, told him, "Don't fret any longer. Just take a stone and put it in the same place. Then imagine that it's your lump of gold. Since you never meant to use it, the stone will be just as good as the gold."

The value of money depends not on accumulation but in its use.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Outsider

Today I purchased and read 'The Outsider' by Albert Camus. An extract:

Soon after that, my boss sent for me and for a moment I was annoyed because I thought he was going to tell me to do a bit less phoning and a bit more work. But that wasn't it at all. He announced that he wanted to talk to me about a project he was vaguely considering. He just wanted to hear what I thought of the idea. He intended to set up an office in Paris to handle that side of the business on the spot by dealing directly with the big companies and he wanted to know if I was prepared to go over there. I'd be able to live in Paris and travel around for part of the year as well. 'You're a young man, and I imagine that sort of life must appeal to you.' I said yes but really I didn't mind. He then asked me if I wasn't interested in changing my life. I replied that you could never change your life, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn't at all dissatisfied with mine here. He looked upset and told me that I always evaded the question and that I had no ambition, which was disastrous in the business world. So I went back to work. I'd rather not have upset him, but I couldn't see any reason for changing my life. Come to think of it, I wasn't unhappy. When I was a student, I had plenty of that sort of ambition. But when I had to give up my studies, I very soon realized that none of it really mattered.

That evening, Marie came around to me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said I didn't mind and we could do if she wanted to. She then wanted to know if I loved her. I replied as I had done once already, that it didn't mean anything but that I probably didn't. 'Why marry me then?' she said. I explained to her that it really didn't matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married. Anyway, she was the one who was asking me and I was simply saying yes. She then remarked that marriage was a serious matter. I said, 'No.' She didn't say anything for a moment and looked at me in silence. Then she spoke. She just wanted to know if I'd have accepted the same proposal it it had come from another woman, with whom I had a similar relationship. I said, 'Naturally.' She then said she wondered if she loved me and well, I had no idea about that. After another moment's silence, she mumbled that I was peculiar, that that was probably why she loved me but that one day I might disgust her for the very same reason. (p.44-45)
And from the afterword by Camus:
A long time ago, I summed up The Outsider in a sentence which I realize is extremely paradoxical: 'In our society any man who doesn't cry at his mother's funeral is liable to be condemned to death.' I simply meant that the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn't play the game. In this sense, he is an outsider to the society in which he lives, wandering on the fringe, on the outskirts of life, solitary and sensual.
In many ways the story is a mini 'Crime and Punishment' being the story of a young man, who commits a murder, and then is punished for it. But unlike Dostoevsky's protagonist, who spends much of the time punishing himself through the torment of guilt, Camus' Meursault is an altogether more indifferent hero. He is both Christ and Antichrist, which is fitting given his indifference to life. And he seems a perfect illustration of what I was trying to get at with my last post on psychopaths. Meursault is in no-way deranged - in fact far from it. Most of the other characters seem far less sane than he. Nor are we to suppose that he is in some way deficient. A broken tin-man he is not.

He just doesn't have the rose-tinted spectacles that others have, and so he flits from boredom to mild intrigue, not regretting his actions, so much as annoyed by the consequences. In the end he goes to the guillotine not unhappy - and somewhat comforted that his indifference in life is reflected by life's' indifference towards him. At least he finds it mildly amusing.

Perhaps my own problem with 'The Outsider' and 'Crime and Punishment' is that they bring it on themselves - man can be filled with existential angst and not partake in murder.

Are Psychopaths Born Bad?

Flicking through the book 'The Social Brain', I was particularly interested in a chapter called, 'Psychopathy, Machiavellianism
and Theory of Mind', which proposes that psychopaths are a naturally selected form of cheater:

psychopaths are 'designed' by natural selection to be specialised morphs that are highly effective at accruing resources and reproductive opportunities through deception, force and social manipulation.
According to the authors of the chapter, psychopathy boils down to empathy:
Empathy requires the ability to simulate the emotional state of another individual (Brothers 1990), i.e. to be able to 'walk in another's shoes' or 'get inside another's skin’. Therefore, the more similar any two individuals might be, the more similar will be their physical and mental experience, and the better will be their 'simulations' and their ability to empathise with one another (Preston and de Waal in press). But because psychopaths have a truly different design—and different nature—they are unable to accurately simulate the emotional experiences of others and, therefore, are unable to empathise with them (Mealey 1997; Mealey and Kinner in press).

Specifically, psychopaths exhibit an underarousal of what Gray (1982, 1987) calls the Behavioural Inhibition System. Psychopaths are relatively insensitive to low levels of stimulation (Gray 1987; Newman and Wallace 1993), and they do not exhibit typical autonomic or somatic responses to situations and stimuli which normally elicit anxiety or fear in others (Lykken 1957,1995; Eysenck and Gudjonsson 1989; Williamson, Harpur and Hare 1991; Patrick, Bradley and Lang 1993; Patrick, Zempolich and Levenston 1997; Herpertz et al. 2001). This different physiology not only explains the psychopath's impulsivity, sensation seeking and poor passive avoidance learning (Zuckerman, Buchs-baum and Murphy 1980; Ellis 1987; Newman and Wallace 1993; Lykken 1995; Lalumiere and Quinsey 1996; Daderman and af Klinteberg 1997; Newman 1998; Blair 1999; Daderman 1999; Herpertz and Sass 2000), but also renders him/her unable to experience the full range of emotions that most humans naturally do. If it is true that 'information about the self is used to model the states of others' (Gallup 1998), then psychopaths will never be capable of fully empathising with others because their own physical and phenomenological self is, in fact, quite different from that of others.

...It is this lack of empathic ability, in conjunction with the consequent forced reliance on conscious monitoring of the contingencies surrounding others' behaviour,that is perceived as the psychopath's 'Machiavellian cold-heartedness' (Mealey and Kinner in press). From an evolutionary perspective, the psychopath is designed in away that allows him to develop a ToM [Theory of Mind] that understands others in purely instrumental terms: unlike the rest of us, the psychopath is unencumbered by any physiological or psychological simulation of the emotional element of another's distress, suffering, attachment or sense of fair-play. This design frees the psychopath to act in a purely ego centric and selfish manner, without the constraints typically imposed by feelings of reciprocity, guilt or shame. The 'superficial charm' and occasional (seemingly) prosocial motivation of the psychopath are simply acquired techniques—honed by years of feedback and operant conditioning—for achieving personal gain.
Okay, so a psychopath is like the Tin Man: without a heart, he isn't restrained by it. If we look at the original definition:
highly effective at accruing resources and reproductive opportunities through deception, force and social manipulation.
I have one question. Though the physiological evidence suggests that some psychopaths may be a consequence of biology, isn't it intelligent to accrue resources and reproductive opportunities through deception, force and social manipulation? If you can get others to give you what you want, through the minimal effort on your part, isn't that an understandable strategy? And here I want to mention the idea of nefarious intentions: are there people who could be defined as a psychopath and yet choose to do what they do, understanding the ramifications? Are there people that just don't care, as long as they are okay? If you understand (or at least suspect) that everything is pointless, is there anything other than a man-made 'moral' code, which actually stops you from doing what you want?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What the Heck is Tickling About Anyway?

Over at the very interesting Conscious Entities is a post about emotions, which got me thinking about tickling (see the comments). First off, an extract from an article on tickling from the Register:

None other than Charles Darwin was the first scientist to seriously analyse this most peculiar human behaviour. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) Darwin described in detail the involuntary spasms tickling triggers in babies, children, adults, and non-human primates. He concluded that tickling was an ingredient in forming and keeping social bonds. Such bonding occurs through stimulating each other to laugh and feel merry. This is particularly true for parents and children.

Darwin noted that the key to success in tickling is that "the precise point to be tickled must not be known" to the person being tickled. Thus, it is surprise rather than tactile pressure that is a key ingredient in tickling.

Subsequent laboratory experiments have found that in people who are extremely suggestible, the threat of being tickled without laying a finger on them is enough to induce hysterics. This is as effective with adults as with children and provides a clue to the fact that tickling is not merely a physical sensation as Darwin theorised.

I don't know how sold I am on the idea that tickling is conducive to forming social bonds. I've had a few girlfriends who would threaten very severe punishments for even thinking about tickling them. Some more from an interesting (if not slightly old) article on tickling, from the Telegraph:
However, the work does change the nature of a long-running debate over one ticklish conundrum that has split scientists for more than a century: the cause of our merriment. Some say that the chuckle induced by a tickle is a reflex. Others argue that it is the result of close physical contact with another person, and thus "socially induced", an idea put forward by Charles Darwin in 1872. The inability to tickle oneself had been thought to support Darwin's theory. However, the new work shows tickle-induced laughter is indeed a reflex, one that can only work in social situations, say, when a friend is brushing a feather against the sole of your foot.

There remains one deeper question. Why do we laugh? The psychologist Wallace Chafe put forward the idea that laughter serves to incapacitate us, acting as a disabling device that allows you to relax when you realise that a threat is not genuine.

In his new book, Phantoms in the Brain (Fourth Estate), Prof Vilayanur Ramachandran of the University of California says that this idea, though intriguing, does not explain our need to generate "rhythmic, loud explosive sounds". We chortle to tell other people that a perceived threat or anomaly is trivial. "You approach a child, hand out menacingly . . . But no, your fingers make light, intermittent contact with her belly," he writes. "As a result of this tickle, the child laughs, as if to inform other children, 'He doesn't mean harm'."
And in the end, I really haven't got a good idea what the answer to tickling actually is. Perhaps it's just a quirk of evolution, one of those occasions when the reflex elicits a not very sensible reaction (and here I'm thinking of the feeling you get when you hit your funny bone - which I presume you can do yourself?).

Nefarious Intentions?

I'm in the process of writing a few disparate posts that are united by a common thread: a question that I find myself asking with greater frequency. Simply put, it is the question of the extent that nefarious intentions have played in human history. Have people directly manipulated others so as to remain better off? The answer on a general level must be yes. But I want to know more - and over a few posts will ask whether the founders and spreaders of religion and society, knew what they were doing? Have all the intentions been honourable, or is there no such thing as an honest public servant?

Fortuitously, I'm still ploughing through H.G. Wells' excellent tome, 'The Work, Wealth & Happiness of Mankind' and Chapter 10, section 5 begins:

Do The Modern Rich Want the Poor to be Kept Poor?

...We can represent Professor Soddy as saying on behalf of physical science: "We men of science have abolished toil, and people are still toiling; we have created plenty, and everywhere there is want. What has got between us and them?" And then sharply: "What the devil are you money-fakers up to?" These are not his words, but his manifest temper.

Here, however, we are not dealing with his temper, but with a very vital issue he raises. He raises it as a side issue, but it is indeed a fundamental issue. What he says in the particular matter we now want to discuss, follows. It is a bold assertion of the malevolence of successful humanity. He says in effect that most energetic men live for power to triumph over their fellow creatures. Here is the passage:

"Now it is one thing for science to make some relatively much richer than others, and quite another, without even a by-your-leave, for science so insidiously to undermine the established order of human society as to put all beyond the persuasive influence of want. There are many neither unimportant nor over-scrupulous people in the community, who would probably quite openly side with no civilisation at all rather than a, to them, so thoroughly uninteresting and objectionable one. Some have, in fact, already scented the danger. It used to be that only the genuine artists and aesthetes who railed, quite ineffectively, at the growing mechanization of the age. But when the tide turns, and science by making the poor richer makes the rich relatively poorer, the movement to break up the machines and revert to hand and serf labour is likely to receive some very unexpected and effective recruits."

...In response to his indignant outcries we are enabled to underline the more deliberate impression our survey evokes. We do not believe that any large proportion of bankers are plotting to keep the world poor. There is a number of honestly perplexed men among then, men who are dismayed and distressed by the turn things are taking. They are often business men unaccustomed as yet to the scientific method of thought, but they are picking it up steadily.

And further, as to the rich generally. There are only a minority of rich people, we suggest, who clearly and definitely want the poor to be kept poor, and they are not among the "forceful and successful" types.

...The way to the new world economy, when everyone will be prosperous, is likely to be hard, difficult and dangerous. But the best brains will be on our side. They will not be against us. We may have to wade through morasses of foolishness and fight stampedes of boorish plutocrats, but that plotting of a "majority of the most forceful and successful people in the community" against progress is a nightmare of Professor Soddy's bad hours.

...If Professor Soddy is right and the interpretation of current fact in this book is wrong; if it is true that the majority of able spirits among the contemporary rich are, for the sake of power and preeminence, deliberately impoverishing a community which need not be impoverished, then the conception pervading this book of the progressive construction of a universally prosperous economic world community out of the current social order, is unsound. There is nothing to be hoped for along that line. There is nothing for it but, as the Marxists teach, a class war against the rich and the able, social insurrection, the breaking up of the whole contemporary organization of mankind in wrath and disgust, and beginning again upon a different ground plan, with whatever hope is left to us, amidst the ruins.
So Wells considered the possibility that the rich and powerful (with nefarious intentions) plot to keep the poor in their place, but dismissed it as a pessimistic view of humanity. Wells though was writing at a time when the great experiment that was the Soviet Union, was moving in directions to which he was very sympathetic. Wells' own hope was a unified socialist world, ruled by science and working for the greater good. He did not live to see the collapse of communism and the great failure all of the modern governments have become. Russia today is a good example of the corruption and failure of the communist dream (not necessarily because the idea is bad, but because humans seem incapable of working together to the extent that is required).

Slavery has existed for many thousands of years and still exists in some corners of the globe today. That one human can enslave another is undeniable. Whether there is a conspiracy by the rich and powerful to keep the poor in place, is impossible to say. I don't see a way of knowing for sure what the state of affairs actually is. For the first time in my life, I've begun to consider political science and history as sources from which to draw conclusions, but I am not naive enough to think we can ever know for sure the extent to which the modern world is contrived for the benefit of a minority.

For some reason, even these legitimate questions have a whiff of conspiracy theory about them, but how does the saying go? 'There's no smoke without fire'.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Why Are Humans Hairless?

I caught a story over at MedicalNewsToday about a prize winning essay which puts forward a new theory as to why our species became less hairy:

Harris' paper describes Stone Age societies in which the mother of a newborn had to decide whether she had the resources to nurture her baby. The newborn's appearance probably influenced whether the mother kept or abandoned it. An attractive baby was more likely to be kept and reared.

Harris' theory is that this kind of parental selection may have been an important force in evolution. If Stone Age people believed that hairless babies were more attractive than hairy ones, this could explain why humans are the only apes lacking a coat of fur. Harris suggests that Neanderthals must have been furry in order to survive the Ice Age. Our species would have seen them as "animals" and potential prey. Harris' hypothesis continues that Neanderthals went extinct because human ancestors ate them.
Now I don't know about anybody else, but I personally think this is a lame explanation. Our ancestors have all been quite ugly and since beauty is to some extent in 'the eye of the beholder', I'm sure we'd look ugly to them too. Arguing that mothers neglect ugly babies is absurd. Babies are ugly (and the phrase 'only a mother could love that face' comes to mind).

There are some more likely explanations as to why we are less hairy than our ancestors. From a 2003 print edition of Scientific American:
When did we lose our hair?

The skeletons of ancient humans-such as the well - known skeleton of Lucy, which dates to about 3.2 million years ago - gives us a good idea of the build and the way of life of our ancestors. The daily activities of Lucy and other hominids that lived before about three million years ago appear to have been similar to those primates living on the open savannas of Africa today. They probably spent much of their day foraging for food over three to four miles before retiring to the safety of trees to sleep.

By 1.6 million years ago, however, we see evidence that this pattern had begun to change dramatically. The famous skeleton of Turkana Boy - which belonged to the species Homo ergaster - is that of a long-legged, striding biped that probably walked long distances. These more active early humans faced the problem of staying cool and protecting their brains from overheating. Peter Wheeler of Liverpool John Moores University has shown that this was accomplished through an increase in the number of sweat glands on the surface of the body and a reduction in the covering of body hair. Once rid of most of their hair, early members of the genus Homo then encountered the challenge of protecting their skins from the damaging effects of sunlight, especially UV rays.
There are also some other alternatives including the aquatic ape theory (which Dennett gives some consideration of in Darwin's Dangerous Idea). From Wikipedia:
Humans are the only primate species in which, over most of the body, hair is so fine and sparse as to reveal the skin under it into adulthood. Baby chimpanzees have thinner hair and visible skin but as they reach adulthood after a year or two (as opposed to more than ten for humans) their fur becomes much thicker. Furthermore, human hair is broadly aligned in such a way as to match fluid flow lines while swimming or sweating. Environments known to give rise to naked mammals are tropical (in some larger-sized mammals such as elephants — which are themselves descended from aquatic ancestors — and some rhinoceros species), aquatic (whales, dolphins, walrus, dugongs, and manatees), semi-aquatic or littoral (hippopotamus, babirusas), and subterranean (naked mole rat).
And here's another theory, again from Scientifc American:
SA: Humans evolved in Africa, along with a lot of primates that are covered with fur. Why did humans lose most of theirs?

NS: We don’t know. There’s a lot of variation in how much of the body is covered with fur in various primate groups. Some are incredibly hairy, and some have considerably less fur on the face and the chest and so on. Primates tend to rely on facial expressions for social communication, and of course the better you can see the face, perhaps the better that social communication works. That doesn’t mean you have to get rid of the hair to see the face. That just happens to be what happened in apes. But that could be one of the reasons why we don’t have hair on our faces.

Whether we'll ever know for sure what the actual truth is, surely the idea that we became less hairy for aesthetic reasons is just daft?

Drugs + Horror Flicks = Murder?

So I couldn't really let this story pass without a mention. Today, a 20 year old has been sentenced to a minimum of 18 years for the murder of two school boys. Some extracts from the Guardian:
A habitual cannabis user was jailed for life today for the "savage and brutal murder" of two school friends, promoting calls for a public health campaign about the side effects of the drug. Tom Palmer, 20, will serve a minimum of 18 years. A habitual user of cannabis and a fan of violent horror movies, Palmer murdered the pair with a hunting knife on a leafy footpath near Wokingham, Berkshire, in September 2005.

He did not smoke on the day of the killings but told doctors he had been using the skunk form of the drug regularly in the preceding weeks. Doctors told the court the drug had "exacerbated" Palmer's anxiety and the strange auditory and visual hallucinations he reported suffering in the months before the attacks. One friend became concerned when he discovered Palmer had used one of his knives to carve swastikas into his chest. After killing the boys, Palmer called police to say two people had been "cut a little bit" before handing himself in.

Police found the two schoolboys' bloodied bodies in woods. They were lying in the foetal position with their heads so close they were almost touching. Palmer later told officers he carried out the attack after the two boys mocked him about his odd eating habits and his parents' divorce.

The jury heard that Steven and T-Wood were in a group of about 15 friends in Wokingham who would meet in the woods to drink alcohol and smoke cannabis. Palmer would sometimes video them copying stunts from the Jackass television programme, jumping into bushes and messing around. The court heard that Palmer had a fascination with knives, buying the one he killed the boys with from a local sports shop. In the days before the deaths, Palmer repeatedly watched a DVD about a serial killer who filmed himself stabbing his victims to death, the court heard.

A consultant psychiatrist, Dr Robert Ferris, who has been treating Palmer since his arrest, told the jury his patient had started to believe he was at serious risk from people who wanted to hurt him. Dr Ferris said: "I believe his state of mind at the time of the killings was not normal. This was exacerbated, but not caused, by cannabis."

Following on from my recent posts on sensational correlations, this is just the usual knee-jerk reaction that I expect from the mainstream media. The blame here is cannabis, knives, violent movies, divorce, bullying, alcohol, Jackass and the Nazis! Over at the BBC, a guardian of one of the victims provides the most interesting opinion:
Mr Pontet said: "You always warn your child about straying away from the beaten path, talking to strangers, but when it's their own friend... you do not expect someone you know and trust to kill them, apparently for no reason. "There are certain aspects of the evidence that make it very clear to me in my mind that Tom is not mad, he is bad. "There are some people who are just naturally bad. Unfortunately, we didn't realise it until it was too late."
So it seems to me that the reason that Tom Palmer killed two innocent school-boys, was not because he was under the influence of any drug or video game, but because he was a bad person (whatever that might actually mean). I've mentioned before such nice people as the Dusseldorf Vampire (who murdered for sexual pleasure) and only Tom Palmer really knows why he did it. In the end, all of the other issues look like a convenient smoke-screen for a young man about to be incarcerated for two-decades (and a government and society that has grown increasingly intolerant - despite having had over a decade of Labour control).

Finally it is funny that the latest UK TV hit, 'Skins' is almost entirely about drug-taking, sexed-up teenagers (and having lived in student halls only a couple of years ago -don't ask- this behaviour is practically the norm up and down the country and most probably the rest of the world too). The fact that one or two end up doing terrible things is just a reflection of society at large - sometimes people just want to murder, rape and abuse. You can't ban everything to try and stop it and you can't always be safe. I'm afraid, that's just life. And if you're really unhappy with it all, I suggest starting a petition to god...