this incessant kaleidoscope

these strange faces

23 Sep

(Source: spermbanker)

23 Sep

timelordtributedetectivewizard said: Can science answer moral questions?

science:

A wise man named David Hume once wrote that, in all the moral systems he had observed, at some point the author proceeds imperceptibly from “is” statements, statements about how things are, to “ought” statements, normative statements about how things ought to be. But they never seem to add the necessary logical step between—how one goes from those statements about the natural world as it is, to the statements about how it ought to be. In other words, morality. What has become known to some as Hume’s Law states that one cannot logically derive an “ought” statement from a series of “is” statements.

This is a philosophical question, and as philosophers are wont to do, they still argue about it, almost three hundred years later. Some claim that Hume’s Law is false. They subscribe to a theory called moral realism. Others claim that it holds, and they are called moral anti-realists. This whole philosophical field is called metaethics, and concerns questions such as what moral statements really mean, whether one can derive normative “oughts” from facts about the natural world, and related issues.

Science is in the business of describing the world as it is. As such, scientists are rarely interested in questions about how it ought to be. Or they might be interested, but they can only come with proposals, not actual, logically deduced demands about how people should treat one another. That is philosophy, not science. Science explores and teaches us about how the world works, not about how humans should behave towards one another.

In my personal opinion, science can certainly explore moral questions, but cannot conclusively answer them. We can do polls about what people think, but is it given that what the majority thinks is true? In any other field, one would say no. When people thought the world was flat, or that the Earth, not the Sun was the center of the universe—later, of course, we realized that the Sun isn’t even the center of the universe, which has no center, but merely the center of the solar system, but that’s a tangent—would that majority opinion make it true? No.

Game theorists and others try to model how one can optimally behave in various situations. But if taken as a moral theory, that could easily lead to egoism.

Some claim that what is natural is right, but they also skip the necessary logical step between “is” and “ought”. Rape happens in nature. Does that make it right? No. That is sometimes called the naturalistic fallacy.

This is a super complicated issue that has been debated since Socrates. If you are interested, you can read Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. Or you can read about the is-ought problem on Wikipedia. The best source, however, is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is a free encyclopedia peer-reviewed by philosophers. See hereherehere and here. But the Stanford Encyclopedia is rather dense and technical, and perhaps hard to read if you have no previous experience reading analytic philosophy.

Personally, I subscribe to a theory called moral quasi-realism, which was inspired by Hume and by Ludwig Wittgenstein and developed by Simon Blackburn. Blackburn has also written some books aimed at introducing people unfamiliar to philosophy to the field. Quasi-realism allows you to make moral statements without betraying Hume’s Law, but admittedly they have less force than if they could be claimed to be grounded in science.

In general, I have to say this is a very complex question to answer. It’s hard to answer properly without getting too technical, and I think most of the readers of this blog would lose track or patience or get bored quite quickly if I really got into it. Not because they’re dumb, just because this is Tumblr, they are unfamiliar, it’s technical and they might just want to look at pretty pictures or hear the latest in science explained in an understandable, but not dumbed-down way. That is my goal with this blog: to bring science to the people in a way that neither betrays the science by explaining it with half-baked metaphors or overhyping findings which are really just small developments in a field. But also to make it readable and enjoyable for as many people as possible.

Science is fantastic, people! It’s not just pretty pictures of galaxies or neurons or puppies transplanted with genes so they glow in the dark.

But to conclude: No, science can’t answer moral questions. Only explore them.

The Golden Rule, advocated by such luminaries as Jesus and Buddha, is still a good rule of thumb. It’s not scientific, it’s just a basic test to see if you’re being an asshole or not.

This is not scientific advice grounded in peer-reviewed journals, but it’s still damn important: be kind to one another, and as long as people are not hurting anyone else, tolerate them, whether they have the same skin color or the same politics or religion or musical tastes as you or not.

23 Sep science:

While we’re on the topic of quantum physics, here is a nifty illustration from Wikipedia of the elementary particles of the Standard Model. “Atom” means indivisible, as atoms were originally thought to be the smallest parts of the universe, the bits that compose everything else but are not themselves composed of smaller particles. As physics advanced, scientists found that atoms consisted of even smaller particles, and these are the smallest, atomic (indivisible) parts of reality as far as we know today, according to the most accurate and experimentally verified theory of physics as of 2014. Notably missing is the graviton, a particle hypothesized to be the carrier of the elementary force of gravitation, but as of today physicists have been unable to create a theory that unifies the three forces of the Standard Model—the electromagnetic force, the strong and the weak nuclear force—with gravity.
The fact that these particles are regarded as elementary doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t composed of even smaller particles. It could be that in the future, likely when we can study even higher energies than those in our most powerful particle accelerators—big machines that collide particles at enormous velocities, generating extreme energies in order, basically, to see what happens, what comes of the collision—we will discover that these particles are composed of even smaller constituents. But as it stands right now, these are the smallest things we know exist, and as of now, based on the information we possess from experiments and mathematical theories, we think they’re indivisible. Nothing, as far as we know, is smaller than those particles up there.
Many hypotheses have been put forth which bring further or smaller elementary particles into the fray, notably string theory, but these are so far only mathematical fantasies, hypotheses which have yet to be tested and verified. Science is a process, not an end goal.
If you’re missing the familiar protons and neutrons, they are composed of quarks, held together by the strong nuclear force, which is mediated by the gluon. The electron, however, swirling about the atomic nucleus, is believed to be elementary. Perhaps one day we’ll peek further into the depths of the quantum world and discover smaller things, but that’s where it stands right now.
The pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus is often credited as the father of atomism, the theory that everything is composed of tiny, tiny things that are themselves indivisible and indestructible. This view is, on the face of it, a lucky guess that hints at modern physics; on the other hand, Democritus imagined atoms as solids; some of them could lock together with hooks and become very durable, like iron, while others were slippery and constantly in motion, like water or air. Of course, the Ancient Greeks had no way of investigating this; modern technology and high energies are required to observe the atomic and subatomic world.

science:

While we’re on the topic of quantum physics, here is a nifty illustration from Wikipedia of the elementary particles of the Standard Model. “Atom” means indivisible, as atoms were originally thought to be the smallest parts of the universe, the bits that compose everything else but are not themselves composed of smaller particles. As physics advanced, scientists found that atoms consisted of even smaller particles, and these are the smallest, atomic (indivisible) parts of reality as far as we know today, according to the most accurate and experimentally verified theory of physics as of 2014. Notably missing is the graviton, a particle hypothesized to be the carrier of the elementary force of gravitation, but as of today physicists have been unable to create a theory that unifies the three forces of the Standard Model—the electromagnetic force, the strong and the weak nuclear force—with gravity.

The fact that these particles are regarded as elementary doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t composed of even smaller particles. It could be that in the future, likely when we can study even higher energies than those in our most powerful particle accelerators—big machines that collide particles at enormous velocities, generating extreme energies in order, basically, to see what happens, what comes of the collision—we will discover that these particles are composed of even smaller constituents. But as it stands right now, these are the smallest things we know exist, and as of now, based on the information we possess from experiments and mathematical theories, we think they’re indivisible. Nothing, as far as we know, is smaller than those particles up there.

Many hypotheses have been put forth which bring further or smaller elementary particles into the fray, notably string theory, but these are so far only mathematical fantasies, hypotheses which have yet to be tested and verified. Science is a process, not an end goal.

If you’re missing the familiar protons and neutrons, they are composed of quarks, held together by the strong nuclear force, which is mediated by the gluon. The electron, however, swirling about the atomic nucleus, is believed to be elementary. Perhaps one day we’ll peek further into the depths of the quantum world and discover smaller things, but that’s where it stands right now.

The pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus is often credited as the father of atomism, the theory that everything is composed of tiny, tiny things that are themselves indivisible and indestructible. This view is, on the face of it, a lucky guess that hints at modern physics; on the other hand, Democritus imagined atoms as solids; some of them could lock together with hooks and become very durable, like iron, while others were slippery and constantly in motion, like water or air. Of course, the Ancient Greeks had no way of investigating this; modern technology and high energies are required to observe the atomic and subatomic world.

23 Sep

A brave new world for psychology?

science:

It’s no secret that I and this blog are excited about the return of psychedelic drugs to academic study. After being shut out of the warmth, labelled as criminal and shunned for four decades, finally scientists are yet again investigating the effects of drugs such as LSD, magic mushrooms and DMT. Not only do these drugs hold great potential for helping us understand more about how the brain functions both in normal and altered states of consciousness, they also hold great promise as therapeutic aids in clinical psychiatry.

The Psychologist magazine currently has a free special issue on psychedelics in psychology. There’s lots of interesting stuff there, including an article on how psychedelics exert their effects in the brain. The classic psychedelics such as LSD and magic mushrooms in particular activate the serotonin 2A receptor, leading to a cascade of changes on many levels of the brain:

Much of brain activity is rhythmic or oscillatory in nature and electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG) and local field potential (LFP) recordings are techniques that measure the collective, synchronously oscillating activity of large populations of neurons. Studies in animals and humans have found decreases in oscillatory activity in the cortex after the administration of hallucinogens, and in one of our most recent and informative studies with psilocybin we observed a profound desynchronising influence on cortical activity (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013). (…)

To help illustrate this principle by analogy, the strength of cortical rhythms can be thought of as analogous to the rhythmic sound generated by a population of individuals clapping their hands in synchrony. The presence of an individual clapper among a population of clappers means that his/her rate of clapping becomes quickly entrained by the collective sound generated by the population as a whole. Now imagine that a number of mischievous ‘ticklers’ are introduced to the scene, inducing sporadic clapping by tickling individual clappers. Although the individuals targeted may be excited into clapping more often, there will be a disruptive effect on the regularity and volume of the sound generated by the population as a whole. The basic principle is that although hallucinogens excite certain excitatory neurons in the cortex to fire more readily, this has a disorganising influence on cortical activity as a whole.

And further, psychedelics have the potential to dissolve the ego, our perception of a continuous self. The mechanism for this seems to be screwing with the so-called “default mode network,” a network of neurons that is pretty much active in the background all the time, helping to maintain our regular sense of ourselves as unitary selves flowing through time:

Evidence has accumulated in recent years highlighting a relationship between a particular brain system and so-called ‘ego functions’ such as self-reflection (Carhart-Harris & Friston, 2010). This network is referred to as the ‘default mode network’ because it has a high level of ongoing activity that is only suspended or interrupted when one’s attention is taken up by something specific in the immediate environment, such as a cognitive task (Raichle et al., 2001).

It was a matter of great intrigue to us therefore that we observed a marked decrease in brain activity in the default mode network under psilocybin (Carhart-Harris et al., 2012) whilst participants described experiences such as: ‘Real ego-death stuff! I only existed as an idea or concept… I felt as though I was kneeling before God!’

The default-mode network is also called the “task-negative” network. It is anticorrelated with the so-called task-positive network. This is a brain network that is highly engaged when our attention is on goal-oriented activity. The anticorrelation means that when one system is highly active, the other is not, and vice versa. Thus we can, to put it in terms perhaps a little too much like pop psychology, literally “lose ourselves” in a task or activity. This comes about because the default mode or task-negative network that is largely responsible—as far as we understand the brain at this time—for introspection and maintaining our sense of self, while the task-positive network which is activated during goal-oriented activity intrinsically suppresses this introspective network.

Thus there are similarities between the psychedelic state and flow states, when we are so engaged in an activity that everything else, including our sense of self, seems to fade away into the background. That, of course, doesn’t mean that flow states and being on LSD are exactly alike—there are many differences too obvious to point out. However, it does indicate that we do in fact enter altered states of consciousness all the time: when we’re deeply engaged in an activity, when we’re asleep or half asleep, and so on. Not just when we’re taking mind-altering drugs or engaging in ritualistic religious rites.

There’s more interesting stuff in the issue, such as third- and first-person accounts of psychedelic treatment, and a look at what famous writers have had to say about being on hallucinogens. There’s also an article by Vaughan Bell on cultural views on chemically induced hallucinations:

The typical Western account of why ayahuasca is consumed usually focuses on ‘getting in contact with the spirit world’, but this fails to capture either the cultural worldviews in which ayahuasca consumption is situated or the motivations behind the ceremonies. The first thing to note is that Amazonian people can differ greatly in how they understand reality in relation to themselves. For example, the Cashinahua, Siona, and Schuar peoples all use ayahuasca as a tool for revelation but differ markedly in how they understand the experiences it produces. The Cashinahua understand ayahuasca as causing hallucinations that provide guidance (Kensinger, 1973), the Siona believe that it allows access to an alternative reality (Langdon, 1979), while the Schuar take all normal human experience to be a hallucination and take ayahuasca as a way of accessing true reality (Obiols-Llandrich, 2009).

Perhaps, then, it’s fitting to end with a quote from one of the most famous writers on psychedelics, Dr. Gonzo himself, Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson regarded himself and his reckless drug use as embodying something of a national archetype:

I am the prototype, the perfect American. Half out of control, violent, drunk, high on drugs, carrying a .44 Magnum. Rather than being strange, I may be the embodiment of the national character…all the twisted notions that have made this country the beast it is.
23 Sep
Romantically, you could say that we are all made of stardust, but the truth is also, that we’re all just nuclear waste.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili (via spaceplasma)

21 Sep strangelfreak:

"I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in."

strangelfreak:

"I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in."

21 Sep strangelfreak:

"I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in."

strangelfreak:

"I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in."

19 Sep
To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man’s life.

T.S. Eliot (via henretta84)

19 Sep
In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.

Albert Schweitzer (via henretta84)

19 Sep
The Wild still lingered in him and the wolf in him merely slept.

Jack London (via henretta84)