Saturday, November 02, 2013

The problem with The Trolley Problem

Opened the last Atlantic and finally read the piece I'd been putting off for some time--Robert Wright's essay on innate morality ("Why We Fight and Can We Stop" in the print version). I put it off because I often find Wright to be . . .umm, rather credulous, I guess is the phrase I want. He seems to believe strongly that information about the origins of a human trait is always immediately useful in guiding us as to how to deal with that trait. I think that's a hopelessly naive attitude, so I often find Wright's work to be more than a little patience trying. On the other hand, he usually deals with interesting topics and its often pretty productive in making me try to figure out why I think Wright (or his subjects) have got something wrong.

For instance in this piece Wright prominent features the work of Joshua Greene, who has helped make the Trolley Problem--an ethical thought experiment--famous. Here it is as conveyed by wikipedia:
There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?
There is a variation:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
Many people opt to pull the lever but not push the fat man, in spite of the fact that the end results are the same. Some use this result to argue that human moral reasoning is essentially irrational, or that our moral reasoning has less to do with outcomes than it has to do with keeping ourselves above moral reproach:
. . . people who obey their moral intuitions and refrain from pushing the man to his death are just choosing to cause five deaths they won’t be blamed for rather than one death they would be blamed for. Not a profile in moral courage! 
But there is a big problem with this sort of thought experiment--they depend on the subject feeling a sense of certainty about outcomes (the five people in the car are definitely heading to certain death; the fat man's fall will definitely stop the train; the diverted train will definitely hit the one person on the track you divert to). Our life experience--the experience our brains have evolved to cope with--is all abut dealing with unexpected contingencies. We very seldom face situations where we know for certain what the consequences of our actions will be, and our natural suspicion when faced with the fat man situation is not that we'll have one death blamed on us--it's that we'll have six. That's how we think, even when told not to. We are beings who have evolved and grown up to deal with unexpected contingencies--we actually come to expect them in a way, and we tend to act modestly as a result. That's what the Trolley problem really points out. That's why we like Captain Kirk's solution to the Kobayashi Maru dilemma (he cheated), because in life there are lots more contingencies, uncertainties and opportunities than there are in tests and experiments (experiments being designed to absolutely minimize all of these). By attempting to test real-world judgements with a controlled experiment, all the Trolley Problem does is reiterate the difference between experience and experiment.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Two Culture Again . . . again

Now this whole thread of writings and counter-writings around the idea of the relationship between the disciplines--science & the humanities, specifically--comes out of a Steven Pinker article in the New Republic. The article is a rambling advocacy piece for science as against the humanities.

Pinker has long been a cheerleader for science and has long had an axe to grind with the humanities. And, in fact, most of his points against the humanities go back twenty years or so. Some of them aren't really very current anymore. But since Pinker has a profitable sideline in attacking things like postmodernism, philosophical anti-science and political correctness, he has no interest in learning that none of these things is really very important anymore.

Is there some hostility to science out there still? Sure. But you'll find most of it attached to environmentalism. Not postmodernism. Some streams of environmentalism is ambivalent about science because science has given man the capability to do a great deal more damage to the Earth than he otherwise could have wrecked. For those who, seemingly, value ecosystem above all, this is a black mark against science--it has given dangerous tools to the baby (Us), with predictable results.

And yes, there is ambivalence in academia and everywhere about science that one doesn't find, say, with history. Why? because history is not powerful. Even if one is inclined to think history is bunk, one doesn't fear it. Science, though, is power, and a lot of people in the humanities think that power needs to be constantly checked and curbed.

This current push for science to, essentially, colonize the humanities is but a case in point. Years ago Pinker wrote a book called the Blank Slate, which as a piece of argumentation is an utter piece of crap. Pinker, or more likely his graduate students assiduously mined social science and humanities texts for evidence that human nature was ignored, Pinker then inserted the quotes, in many cases baldly misinterpreted them, and then railed against the notion that human nature was unimportant,past and especially present.

The story that Pinker doesn't tell you is that the concept "human nature" was a huge impediment to the advancement of the social sciences because it was an empty signifier--it meant whatever the speaker would like it to mean at the moment he (inevitably) spoke it. By dispensing with it, observers were able to move on to observing how social interactions social customs and social institutions actually worked. And they could ask questions about the nature (or possible nature) of social groups as apart from individual human nature. No one ever believed that human beings were infinitely malleable, because that notion is absurd on its very face.

But at some point a radical feminist must have taken Pinker cruelly to task for his "essentialism" and he's been taking his revenge (on us) ever since. Frankly it's long since gotten beyond tiresome. Yes, every social science was said to be essentially an expression of "human nature." That's what thinkers in the 18th Century said pretty much reflexively. And emptily.

Today science has some solid things to say about human nature. But human nature is a big & complex thing, and most of science's observations are narrow and limited. And they often seem to contradict one another as far as their take home message about "human nature." And there seems to be some very sloppy thinking going on in science around this idea--more sloppy and more dangerous than simply bracketing the term--agreeing that we can't agree what the term means, so we can't use it to explain things--which is what the humanities have largely done. (On science's sloppiness around making determinations about human nature see this piece from Jaak and Jules Panksepp and its sequel.)

Using "human nature" as a means to "settle" disputes in the humanities is frankly folly. While science has certainly learned some things about human nature since the 18th century, they are a long way from defining the term. A long, long way. The picture is incomplete. But what Pinker and other advocates of this idea are looking for is to use and expand the authority of science, even where science doesn't really have answers to offer. In fact, so far we've seen little new insight created in these fields by science. That's bound to change, but that's where it stands at the moment.

Mostly because all heuristics and posturing aside the humanistic tradition has never really abandoned the concept of human nature, and the observations of humanists about human nature are at a far better developed and nuanced than science's are at the moment. The notion of human nature is, of course, still deeply fraught with conflicts, but science isn't about to settle those

And special pleading by those who don't know the humanistic tradition--the very best repository of our experience and thinking and knowledge on the question--is no help.

The Two Cultures. Again.

Been reading a fair deal of Jerry Coyne lately. He writes the whyeveolutionistrue blog. I am in full agreement with his two basic points: evolution is, indeed, true. And God, I'm afraid, is a myth.

And Coyne is a great scientist. His work on speciation is a big deal (haven't read it myself, but I'll trust other folks' opinion on that).

But (here's the but) he reads and writes like a bad college freshman. He doesn't recognize changes in voice, he can't understand subtle arguments or distinctions, he hunts through the works of others for selective quotes to condemn and mock regardless of the passage's intended meaning. In short, as a blogger, he's like a malignant growth on the positions he supposedly represents.

And now he figures that he should share the blessings of his blinkered and deficient worldview to the rest of the world . . . to the humanities in particular. Here he is arguing against someone proposing that the path of influence between the two cultures ought to be a two-way street:

I take issue with that on two grounds: scientists are so pressed for time that we can barely get our own work done and, more important, the potential benefit of philosophy to the conduct of science seems less to me than the potential benefits of infusing humanities with science—benefits described out by Steve [Pinker] in his New Republic piece.
I am not saying that philosophy or the humanities are without value. Far from it. What I am saying is that the marginal benefit of adding more science to the humanities is greater than vice versa. I personally absorb tons of what could be considered “humanities,” including literature, nonfiction, art, and philosophy. They’ve enriched my life immensely—but I can’t say with confidence that they’ve made my science better, or different.  I’d still have published the same work on speciation if I’d never read philosophy, although I wouldn’t be writing this website.  My benefits are personal, not scientific.

Though Coyne's benefits from the humanities may be "immense" I have to question how good a judge he is of his own case. For one thing, he can't read properly.

For another, we have to ask, aren't Coyne's humanistic deficiencies important to his blog, where he sets himself up as a spokesperson for science and atheism? And doesn't that blog trade on the authority he's gained in his scientific area of specialty in order to advance views that are more directly related to his rather incomplete humanist education that his scientific expertise?

Just a small for instance (you can find these practically anywhere Coyne reads unsympathetically). . . here Coyne tries to refute Gary Gutting, who is advocating for more philosophy in science as well as more science in the humanities: 

Gutting: And to tell the truth, rather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution. The use of the plural is required here—in part because of the diversity of explanations regarding the mechanism of evolution, and in part because of the diversity of philosophies involved. There are materialist and reductionist theories, as well as spiritualist theories. Here the final judgment is within the competence of philosophy and, beyond that, of theology. . .
Coyne: What are those materialist and reductionist theories, much less the spiritual ones? I am aware of only one going theory of evolution, which, while it has its controversial parts, does not deal with “materialism vs. reductionism” much less “spiritualism.”
How does Coyne go from what Gutting wrote to "materialism VS reductionism?" Gutting says AND, clearly meaning to pair the two rather than oppose them. Why can't Coyne tell the difference between what people say and the stupid things he'd like them to have said? Because however life-changing his experience with the humanities has been, he is essentially a philistine. He appreciates the humanities, but he is no judge of their importance, either in his own life or in society, any more than I'm a judge of differential calculus. His very limiting of the impact of the humanities to the "personal" marks him as such.

Stephen Gould had a bit to say (a lot, actually) about scientific philistinism, which he saw as not just happenstance, but as a pervasive and actively cultivated part of the culture:
Virtually every empirical scientist has a touch of the Philistine. Scientists tend to ignore academic philosophy as an empty pursuit. Surely, any intelligent person can think straight by intuition. . . . Although I will try to refute Bethell [an opponent of evolution generally], I also deplore the unwillingness of scientists to explore seriously the logical structure of arguments. Much of what passes for evolutionary theory is as vacuous as Bethell claims. Many great theories are held together by chains of dubious metaphor and analogy.  (Darwin’s Untimely Burial, 1976)
The humanities are about reading carefully, considering fully and expressing accurately. They probably play a small role at the workbench, but work isn't done at the bench for no reason--it's done to advance human interests. And when it comes to analyzing, evaluating, synthesizing and applying those bench results we often see scientists failing badly. Because they are "too busy" to have had a proper humanistic education.

Coyne's problems are indeed general. Steven Pinker, whose New Republic article he cites is a repeat offender in the misreading, misinterpreting, misconstruing and miscontextualizing lockdown. For which Coyne's former student and co-author H. Allen Orr (not a philistine) has repeated taken him down in print (see, here and here). Pinker and Coyne--trading off of real or supposed scientific expertise--have become prominent spokespeople for science. Neither of them could hope for the sort of prominence they have on the basis of their at-best-shaky scholarship, injudicious writing and narrow-mindedness. But their science background, real or imagined, gives them authority in areas where they do not deserve it. And that is the danger of the one-way street of influence between science and the humanities. Scientists are, typically, deficient in some very important areas of human discussion and decision making. But they are completely without compunction in trading on their scientific authority in venturing into every other field that kindles their mild or passing interest. Even if they have little idea what that field actually does, how it works or what it's done. Like the humanities.

The potential benefits of more science in the humanities are definitely worth considering. But there are potential pitfalls as well, which Coyne doesn't see or doesn't care to see. And those pitfalls are already well on display in the work of Coyne and Pinker, who I fear probably are better representative of the *best* than the worst science has to offer at present.

More later.