Given that real fear can be scarring and unpleasant, there’s a temptation to believe that the best way to deal with it is to avoid it at all costs. But science and philosophy often suggest otherwise. Fear can be one of the great sources of personal improvement. In particular, fear can help people cultivate several classic virtues that religious figures, sages, and secular moral traditions have all seen as essential for living a well-ordered life.
“When scientists use medical scanners to repeatedly peer at the shapes and activities of the human brain, those brains tend to belong to wealthy and well-educated people. And unless researchers take steps to correct for that bias, what we get is an understanding of the brain that’s incomplete, skewed, and, well, a little weird.”
“When weird things happen, we still crave the sense of control we get from believing that there’s a reason, that they lay bare the good and evil in society. The human toll of natural disasters tells a story of collective apathy that allows a famine to unfold; corporate greed and unchecked development causes a flood. When nature throws something unexpected our way – as it did to us here in Houston, when I was writing this article from the island that used to be my neighbourhood – we are all apt to look, despite ourselves, for meaning in the madness.”
“Why are the carceral practices in the US so harsh? Part of the reason is the vestige of a Christian-inspired desire to reform the offender’s soul. Around the time of the Revolution, the penitentiary’s ‘unsocial manner of life’ based on order, obedience and silence could seem plausible only to those who thought that they could achieve a ‘new victory of mind over matter’. Today, prolonged solitary confinement is coming to be seen for what it is: torture.”
“When our survival is threatened, we are going to reach out and strengthen our connections with people around us. We show generosity. We show compassion. We show gratitude. These are all emotions that function to connect us with each other.”
“X is perhaps the only enterprise on the planet where regular investigation into the absurd is not just permitted but encouraged, and even required. X has quietly looked into space elevators and cold fusion. It has tried, and abandoned, projects to design hoverboards with magnetic levitation and to make affordable fuel from seawater. It has tried—and succeeded, in varying measures—to build self-driving cars, make drones that deliver aerodynamic packages, and design contact lenses that measure glucose levels in a diabetic person’s tears.”
John Tiffany “argued that it is a ‘social crime’ to deny children the arts, as this prevents them from reaching their full potential.”
“Artificial intelligence systems have the potential to change how humans do just about everything. Scientists, engineers, programmers and entrepreneurs need time to develop the technologies – and deliver their benefits. Their work should be free from concern that some AIs might be banned, and from the delays and costs associated with new AI-specific regulations.”
“Baseball is the most philosophical of games because, like philosophy at its best, it harmonizes meaning with meticulous analysis. There is no opposition between wonder at the double play, the home run, or the perfect game and the statistical dissection now known as “sabermetrics” (after SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research). In fact, it is the arithmetic and geometry of the game that best disclose its truth. The highest aspiration of philosophy is to be both rigorous and humanistic, to place analytical thought in the service of human values. Baseball shows us that it can be done.”
In his new book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford, endocrinologist and expert on baboons, sets out to ground morality in neurobiology as opposed to the pure reason of Kant’s “categorical imperative”. But unlike Kant (at least for me), Sapolsky is highly readable.
For the average 20-year-old in college or 40-year-old in an unfulfilling job, searching for the silver bullet to give life meaning is more likely to end in frustration than fulfillment.
Nowadays scientists tend to shun the ‘maverick’ label. If you’ve hung out in a lab lately, you’ll notice that scientific researchers are often terrible gossips. Being labelled a ‘maverick’, a ‘crank’ or a ‘little bit crazy’ can be career-killing. The result is what the philosopher Huw Price at the University of Cambridge calls ‘reputation traps’: if an area of study gets a bad smell, a waft of the illegitimate, serious scientists won’t go anywhere near it.
Marilynne Robinson: “There is an impulse behind the recent assaults on great institutions that is historically expressed as social engineering. The ideal worker will not have a head full of poetry, say the neo-Benthamites. It is assumed, of course, that he or she will be potentially omnicompetent in service to the ever-changing needs and demands of the new economy—highly trained, that is, to acquire some undescribed skill set that will be proof against obsolescence. We await particulars. But the object is clear — to create a virtual army out of the general population who will compete successfully against whomever for whatever into an endless future, at profound cost to themselves.”
Poverty is not a moral flaw, as anyone can see from Pygmalion, but that lie is like a vampire – it’s undead, and returning now, a century later. Perhaps it’s time to read Bernard Shaw again (and not just watch My Fair Lady).
In the mid-20th century, “‘Stat’ signalled something measurable, while ‘matic’ advertised free labour; but ‘tron,’ above all, indicated control. To gain the suffix was to acquire a proud and optimistic emblem of the electronic and atomic age.”
“Sidewalk Labs promises to embed all sorts of sensors everywhere possible, sucking up a constant stream of information about traffic flow, noise levels, air quality, energy usage, travel patterns, and waste output. Cameras will help the company nail down the more intangible: Are people enjoying this public furniture arrangement in that green space? Are residents using the popup clinic when flu season strikes? Is that corner the optimal spot for a grocery store? Are its shopper locals or people coming in from outside the neighborhood?”
This whole ‘knowing thyself’ business is not as simple as it seems. In fact, it might be a serious philosophical muddle – not to say bad advice.
Abdul Karim, sent to England as a gift to serve at Queen Victoria’s table, became one of her closest confidants. Though the relationship, says NPR, was “clearly maternal” on her side, the outcome of the friendship wasn’t simply that she learned some Urdu. “A spicier outcome of this friendship was the elevation of a dish already popular in England: curry.”
Why bother with moral philosophy when common sense serves most of us perfectly well? The simple answer is that, as history shows, commonsensical beliefs are very often wrong. Slavery, marital rape, and bans on interracial marriage were all widely accepted in the relatively recent past. Much like fish who, as the proverb goes, are the last to discover water, humans are so immersed in immorality that we can be entirely unaware of it.
“Today, the technical ability to produce a robot that truly looks and moves and speaks like a human remains well beyond our reach. Even further beyond our grasp is the capacity to imbue such a machine with humanness—that ineffable presence the Japanese call sonzai-kan. Because to re-create human presence we need to know more about ourselves than we do—about the accumulation of cues and micromovements that trigger our empathy, put us at ease, and earn our trust. Someday we may crack the problem of creating artificial general intelligence—a machine brain that can intuitively perform any human intellectual task—but why would we choose to interact with it?”
Google has announced that AutoML has beaten the human AI engineers at their own game by building machine-learning software that’s more efficient and powerful than the best human-designed systems.
“Historians have long been stumped at how people with relatively primitive tools managed to transport the estimated 800 tonnes of material every day from Aswan, 500 miles to the south. Now ancient papyrus, a ceremonial boat and a system of waterworks have revealed the complex infrastructure created by builders to complete the structure.”
As long as the idea persists that myth, purpose and meaning are things to be burned away by the acid of scientific reason, evolution and science will be silent about creativity.
“Wittgenstein was hostile to modern philosophy as he found it. He thought it the product of a culture that had come to model everything that matters about our lives on scientific explanation. In its ever-extending observance of the idea that knowledge, not wisdom, is our goal, that what matters is information rather than insight, and that we best address the problems that beset us, not with changes in our heart and spirit but with more data and better theories, our culture is pretty much exactly as Wittgenstein feared it would become.”
Ariel Dorfman, who knows a thing or two about what happens when anti-intellectualism overwhelms a country: “The resurgence of nationalism in our time has not yet reached the homicidal extremes it did when Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco misruled their lands, but the United States still faces an assault on rational discourse, scientific knowledge, and objective truth. And this war on intelligence, too, despite the edulcorated pieties that come from those who carry it out, will lead to many deaths.”
For one thing, “the evidence, she added, supported the theory that the Viking settlements in the Malar Valley of Sweden were, in fact, a western outpost of the Silk Road that stretched through Russia to silk-producing centers east of the Caspian Sea.” But was there a deeper cultural and religious exchange as well?
“Making it cheap to express unpopular opinions makes it easier for outsiders to gauge what the average viewpoint of a group of scholars might be. And when an article causes a controversy, calls to uphold a field’s standards should be met with some skepticism, especially when those standards would prohibit the publication of the unpopular opinion in the first instance. After all, if academic freedom doesn’t mean the protection of unpopular and disruptive minority views, what could it possibly be for?”
“One study revealed that people think they are better at comprehending information when they read it on a digital screen. This resulted in those readers reading the text much faster than those reading the text in paper format. Yet despite spending less time reading the text, the digital readers predicted they would perform better on a quiz about the text than the people who read the text on paper. Yet when the digital and paper groups were tested, the paper groups outperformed the digital groups on memory recall and comprehension of the text. They also were closer to their test result predictions than the digital group was.”
“A snake-robot designer, a balloon scientist, a liquid-crystals technologist, an extradimensional physicist, a psychology geek, an electronic-materials wrangler, and a journalist walk into a room. The journalist turns to the assembled crowd and asks: Should we build houses on the ocean?” Is this the set-up to a joke? No, it’s The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson proposing his own “moonshot idea” on a reporting trip to Google’s X, “perhaps the only enterprise on the planet where regular investigation into the absurd is not just permitted but encouraged, and even required.”
“I don’t mean to depict our sensorium — the entire range and capacity of our sensory experience — as a pure state that has been defiled by light, noise, flavor and scent pollution; that would just be another version of the original-sin-and-fall narrative. I would argue rather that we have managed to turn the senses against themselves by pitting overwhelming light against lights, overpowering sound against sounds, intense flavor against flavors, penetrating aroma against aromas. In each case, the result is a marked simplification in the field of possible experiences — one or two stimuli will outshine, outsmell or outshout the rest.”