Monday, September 30, 2013

Language is a Window into Human Nature

I just read The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, by Steven Pinker. When I finished it I was disappointed. I had heard so much about Pinker (this is the first book of his I’ve read), and I felt like I had learned very little about human nature. But as I reflected on it over the next few days, my opinion radically changed. I kept bumping into things that were illuminated by the insights in this book.

For example, I read an article about how robots are being programmed to follow some of the basic modes of human thought so they interface with humans better, and these basic modes are exactly what Pinker outlined.

The basic message of the book is that there are deep structures in our brains, evolved over countless millennia, which allow us to make sense of our sensory experience. These are very similar to the “categories of understanding” described by Immanuel Kant 225 years ago. Pinker lists space, time, substance, object, causation, force, possession, and goal as the basic concepts that form the scaffolding that constructs our mental model of the world.  

These models are very useful for helping us to navigate the physical world, but science has discovered that our evolved models don’t accurately match reality. Pinker writes, “They add up to a distinctively human model of reality, which differs in major ways from the objective understanding of reality eked out by our best science and logic.” In other words, the basic concepts box us in; they restrict how we can think about reality. This is why quantum physics is so hard to comprehend, and also why it is so difficult to put spiritual experiences into words.

Causation is one of the basic concepts, and it forms a big part of our worldview. We attribute causation whenever we see an action by an autonomous actor. Scientists have done studies where shapes move on a computer screen. If, for example, a yellow triangle moves towards a red circle and stops just when it touches the circle, and then the circle starts moving, subjects overwhelmingly say, “the triangle caused the circle to move.” There’s been research with shapes on computer screens in which the movements are so involved that the subjects start telling stories about the shapes as if they are living creatures, even imbuing them with emotions.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Creative Diplomacy on Syria

I am opposed to the idea of the United States bombing Syria because of the use of chemical weapons. I think it is completely absurd to respond in a situation like this with bombing. There should be some consequences to reinforce the global ban on use of chemical weapons, but it should be something other than killing people with our bombs.

Yesterday I listened to an interview with Andrew Bacevich on Bill Moyers (Phil Donahue did the interview) about Syria. Bacevich is a graduate of West Point, a Marine veteran (Vietnam), and is currently a professor of history at Boston University.

Bacevich argues against bombing Syria, and he points out the irony that our country's chief diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, is acting as the biggest cheerleader for war rather than the point man for creative alternatives.

Then today it looks like Kerry has come up with something creative, with the suggestion that Syria relinquish its chemical weapons. The news reports suggest that this was just an off-hand suggestion by Kerry but the Russians and Syrians are reacting positively. The American public does not support the bombing of Syria, and I hope that President Obama will take this opportunity for creative diplomacy and avoid military action.