Monday, June 25, 2012

Evolutionary psychology and philosophers: An anecdote

N. Strohminger's review of philosopher C. McGinn's recent book on disgust (via cshalizi's pinboard) is hugely amusing, and reminds me of something that happened when I was a freshman in college.

I was attending a talk by someone in the NYU philosophy department, and the subject was the almost universal (human) fear of death. Towards the end of a long disquisition by the speaker on why the fear of death was puzzling (for example, death itself is not painful, and dying need not be), and philosophical explanations for why it might exist regardless, I raised my hand and asked: "Since we were produced by evolution, wouldn't a fear of death be selected for, because a fear of death would make us more likely to avoid it, and organisms that avoid death are likely to be more successful?"

This seemed to me like a curious theory to have omitted entirely from the talk. At the time, I had recently read R. Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, so evolutionary explanations for our behavior were on my mind. And also, it seems to align with common sense.

However, a reader of a certain background might notice that my explanation was an invocation of evolutionary psychology. I had, unwittingly, landed in a minefield on the scholarly battlefront between evolutionary psychology and its critics. So the speaker replied, roughly: "Well, evolution might select for avoiding death, but it wouldn't necessarily select for fear. I would also direct you to [list of scholars' names here], who have produced devastating critiques of evolutionary psychology." He then breezily moved on, evidently feeling that he could now ignore the idea, and evolution was not mentioned further.

I was so astonished by this response that I couldn't even muster a follow-up question. At the time I thought: is this philosopher seriously claiming that evolution could play no role in our fear of death? Could there be any psychological phenomenon which is more likely to be evolutionarily motivated? (Maybe love for one's children?) The speaker's reply correctly noted that evolution did not necessarily entail a fear of death, but it certainly could be sufficient explanation, and under an evolutionary account there might simply be no necessary explanation, only a sufficient one: the fact that death-avoidance is motivated by fear, rather than some other mechanism, might be no more inevitable than the fact that we have five fingers per hand rather than four. (Or, if you prefer, its necessity might be an artifact of the adaptive mechanisms that were at hand when the selective pressure was applied, rather than an a priori truth about the nature of the mind.)

I don't remember the content of the rest of the talk, but if you've ever read a work of scholarly philosophy you should be familiar with the style: a lot of precise reasoning from first principles (which I love), coupled with an almost disdainful elision of the empirical (which I do not).

At any rate, it seems to me C. McGinn's bizarre ideas about disgust, and total ignorance of the modern scientific literature thereof, share something in common with the NYU speaker's dismissal of my question. There is a certain strain in philosophy which doesn't particularly like science. Science offers a mode of investigation of such staggering power that it threatens the philosophical discipline. When you like sitting on the metaphorical mountaintop, pondering from first principles about morality, or aesthetics, or emotion, it can be a rude awakening to learn that some yob with electrodes or a pipette or a computer might be able to probe deeper and more certainly into reality than you can — even those aspects of reality which you thought were your exclusive domain.

To muddle things up further, a great deal of evolutionary psychology is terrible science, and the worthy interdisciplinary project of battling that nonsense provides cover for this brand of intellectual anti-intellectualism.

Truthfully, the episode with the seminar speaker above left me more sympathetic to evolutionary psychology, not less, so whatever effect he wished to have on me was completely thwarted. I am not by nature contrarian or perverse for its own sake; in fact I think that contrarianism without regard for correctness is one of the most pernicious and irresponsible seductions that clever people allow themselves to fall prey to; so my sympathies are not merely a reaction against misguided authority. I suggest in all earnestness that the next time you read some hilarious evisceration of embarrassingly popular bad evolutionary psychology, recall Strohbinger's review and consider that there's plenty of evisceration to be done on the other side as well.

Monday, June 18, 2012

D. Lowery on copyright infringement: How to alienate potential allies through intellectual dishonesty, illustrated by example

Young people's cavalier attitude towards copyright infringement is maddening, but this essay by D. Lowery comprehensively misunderstands what the Free Culture movement stands for. The guy repeatedly slams Free Culture but apparently has read neither Lessig's book Free Culture which gives the movement its name, nor the Creative Commons website, even though he links to a PDF of CC's tax filing.  This intellectually irresponsible ignorance makes me disinclined to be sympathetic to him.

Furthermore Lowery seems to have no conception whatsoever of:

  • The purpose of copyright law: viz., to ensure the production of the creative and useful arts. Note that there seems to be just a bit of culture being produced on the Internet these days, so the burden of proof is on those who want to lock the Internet down.
  • The costs and unintended consequences of reorganizing society in the ways that he prefers — so that service providers must implement comprehensive preemptive review of what is posted, or so that it would be dramatically easier for people to issue takedown notices on content published on the Internet. For example, Lowery's blog is hosted on; comprehensively applied human review as a mandatory requirement for hosting service providers would have made Wordpress impossible in its current form; and dramatically easier takedown would make it trivial for a random troll to censor Lowery's blog post in a fit of pique.

...among other things.

Note that I buy or rent all my music and movies.  Almost nobody else I know does this consistently.  I did not illegally download the second season of Game of Thrones; I am waiting for it to come out on disc.  Mostly, the people I know seem to view me as sort of a sucker, but I do this because I view copyright infringement on entertainment media as beneath my dignity, like shoplifting.*  If my reaction to Lowery is to get extremely pissed off at his cavalier disregard for the truth, perhaps he should consider changing tactics.

*Of course, purely as a matter of utilitarian ethics, there is a huge difference between copyright infringement and shoplifting physical goods, but never mind that; this is just how it makes me feel, in this particular case.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

B. Caplan on Presidential nullification

Obama recently announced that he would stop deporting illegal immigrants, thus effectively nullifying parts of immigration law through non-enforcement. The injustice of immigration law today is so gross that we may well applaud this particular move. However, in response, B. Caplan writes:

I say the laws on the books are so overwhelmingly wrong that even random Presidential nullification would be a huge expected improvement.

In the year 2012, Caplan argues that an even more imperial Presidency would be a good thing, not in this one instance, but as a general rule. He has surveyed the landscape of the American government and decided that the big problem is that Presidents don't have enough unaccountable power. Yes, let's bring back the days of Worcester v. Georgia, when the Supreme Court failed to order federal marshals to enforce the ruling, for fear that Andrew Jackson would not comply!

Furthermore, the statement has a ridiculous premise. Laws will not, of course, be nullified at random. They will be nullified in the exact ways that Presidents find most politically advantageous or ideologically compelling. I suggest you ponder on your own whether you think that will be a good thing in general. At best, I think it is a mixed bag. Certainly, cravenly seeking political advantage can sometimes (as with Obama's strategic courting of the Latino population here) lead to policy outcomes that improve the welfare of many people, simply because politics is the art of getting many people to vote for you. And the dominant ideologies of American politics are not entirely malign (although a libertarian like Caplan should perhaps feel some unease at the thought that Presidents from the very parties which, allegedly, have been passing so many terrible, liberty-destroying laws will wield nullification as a liberty-enhancing tool).

It is remarkable how ideology can impair the thinking of extremely intelligent people. The points I make above are not the product of any profound thinking. Had Caplan focused his mind on his own statement in a similarly critical way, he might well have ended up feeling uneasy as well. But he did not, or he overcame that unease anyway.

I blame his ideology because I see this error as one common to a lot of libertarian thinking. Libertarians often embrace the wrong measures of the intrusiveness of government. Caplan thinks that less law will lead to greater liberty. (This is a cousin of the fallacious notions that lower tax rates lead to less government interference in the economy[0], or that private governments whose edicts are backed by the force of property law are not governments.) But of course that is an error. We should seek to have the right laws, and, perhaps equally importantly, just mechanisms for establishing the right laws. To focus on whether there are more of them, or fewer, is rather akin to King Philip in Amadeus criticizing Mozart's compositions for having "too many notes — just cut a few".

Now, our laws are hardly Mozart operas, but the point is it's a silly way of measuring things. Just so with a typical libertarian's ways of measuring government.

[0] This is an error in at least two ways. First, lower taxes without lower spending merely time-shift interference into the future. Second, a simple, universal tax injects less entropy into the market mechanism than a large number of narrowly targeted taxes applied inconsistently; if we view markets as information-gathering mechanisms then this information-theoretic view of taxation may be a better measure of government interference than tax rates.