David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the Power of Persistence

The image below is probably the first color photo ever taken of a pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, and the first photo of a pair taken in more than 80 years. It comes from Project Principalis, a dedicated group of searchers who have been tirelessly working for well over 10 years to document this species. When many birders and ornithologists have given up on the bird, while others have been ostracized or kept quiet for fear of same, these determined souls have invested many hours, days, and years in their ongoing quest. No doubt better images are coming. This bird has been given up on many times before, only to prove its resilience. Congratulations to these conservation heroes. Especially to you Frank.


True Beauty

Right now I’m watching the Korean show True Beauty, about a high school girl who is bullied and discriminated against because she is perceived as physically ugly.  This got me thinking about something that I have wondered about for a long time.  One might think that after millions of years, natural and sexual selection would have produced humans that all look very much the same – to each other, that is.  If humans have mate preferences based on physical characteristics, we should expect that departure from those “norms” would have been selected out long ago.  But physical beauty, like so many things about humans, is not so simple.

Human beings are indeed very similar to one another physically.  But we are VERY good at distinguishing each other’s faces, and in every culture there are “standards” of physical beauty.  Those who are deemed beautiful have undeniable advantages.  Those who are deemed ugly receive undeniable punishments.

One of the surprising things about human faces is that newborn babies are not only equipped to recognize them, but show unmistakable preferences for faces that are widely deemed to be attractive.  Since very beautiful people are uncommon, and their features rather specific, one might assume that they represent one extreme as regards facial characteristics, with “ugly” at the other extreme.  This turns out to be quite wrong.

Digital technology allows us to construct average human faces from large numbers of individual faces.  When we do this, a surprising truth emerges.  Average faces are perceived as attractive, more attractive than the faces used to construct them.  Here, for example, are some country-by-country average male faces:

And here are some average female faces:

In fact, you can create average faces of your own at the website faceresearch.org.  The result is quite startling and instructive.  I think you will find that it is quite likely that most any average face, no matter what faces are used to construct it, is more attractive to you than its constituent faces.

It’s interesting to note how similar the country-by-country average faces are to each other.  Compare the Puerto Rican average male above to the Saudi Arabian average male.  Or the Polish average female to the Indian average female.  East Asians are pretty distinct because of the epicanthic folds on their eyes.  But it’s striking how little geographic variation exists among these average faces.  And how consistently beautiful they are.

It has long been understood that physical attractiveness is related to symmetry.  We tend to find symmetric faces attractive, and this is undoubtedly part of the reason that average faces tend to be attractive – they average out the lack of symmetry in individual faces.  Perfect symmetry, however, is not judged attractive, probably because our brains expect at least a slight asymmetry – beyond this, the face looks unnatural.  We can produce perfectly symmetric faces simply by mirroring each side of the face.  When we do this, the 2 results tend to look a bit strange.


One might conclude from all of this that the ultimate in facial attractiveness would be an average of as many faces as possible.  But again, it’s not that simple.  Research has shown that an average face constructed from 60 “random” faces is less attractive than an average face constructed from 15 faces already judged to be attractive.  The second face has higher cheekbones, a smaller jawline, and larger eyes than the first.  When these features are exaggerated digitally, the face is perceived as even more attractive.  This “hyper-attractive” face is the least average of the 3.

Nevertheless, if we try to deviate too far from the average, we will find that the face becomes unattractive.  We can get away with a lot of eye enlargement, as we see in the face of the digital character Alita, from the movie Alita:  Battle Angel.

But other features, such as high cheekbones and a small jawline will quickly start to look strange if we exaggerate them too much.  And even the eyes have their limit.  Our brains expect human faces to look a certain way.  Too much deviation gets us into the so-called “uncanny valley” – a face that is too close to looking human but clearly isn’t.

The admonition not to judge by appearances is quite old.  Beauty and the Beast is a story that goes back centuries and is told in many different versions in different cultures.  At the same time, there is a strong human tendency to do just that.  If even a newborn baby has a preference, can we hope to get past the superficialities?  I think so.  Just as with any human tendency, the solution is to be well aware of it and take steps accordingly.  Understanding the nature of our own preferences is an important first step.

How the Class War Ends

Recently, conservative columnist David Brooks authored an essay in The Atlantic entitled “How the Bobos Broke America.” Now, if you’re like me, the first thing that pops into your head when you read that title is “What the hell is a bobo?” And this kind of makes his point. Bobos are the so-called “creative class,” the educated elite. The journalists, the scientists, the information technology specialists, the architects. Brooks himself is one of them, and he can’t help but notice that the institutions these people frequent have lost a lot of the trust they once had. The bobos don’t connect with “ordinary” folks. Even the term bobo, which was created by a bobo, namely Brooks, is unfamiliar to working class Americans.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg 'survives' leadership vote - BBC News

The bobos, unlike the conservative elite that dominated the ruling class before them, seem to value justice, equality, and tolerance. The problem is that their actions only seem to amplify inequality and alienate the working class. They cluster together in high-tech communities and drive up housing costs. More than anything, they promote meritocracy. And it is becoming increasingly clear that meritocracy is tearing America apart.

On its face, meritocracy seems beneficial and logical. Martin Luther King famously said that he dreamed of the day when his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” Many of us have grown up believing that in an ideal society, discrimination would only be based on merit. That’s fair, right? Merit. If you win, fair and square, that’s good. If you lose, fair and square, that’s fine too.

When Martin Luther King Jr. visited Brandeis | BrandeisNOW

Only it’s not fine. The meritocracy merely becomes one more excuse to maintain, even amplify, injustice, inequality, and intolerance. Even if the criteria for inclusion and exclusion are “fair,” what does it matter if it increases human suffering? If meritocracy is the way to go, why doesn’t it apply to voting? Shouldn’t voting be a privilege that has to be earned? One person, one vote is imposed equality. Equality is imposed because each person should have an equal chance to control their own life. But when it comes to economics, which have just as big an influence on one’s life, we accept meritocracy.

Our gated communities and the black bogeyman that haunts us | Morgan Guyton

The result of America’s meritocracy is that one person gets a first class ticket and 10 others get lifetimes of struggle. As Brooks puts it, the meritocracy “determines who gets included in the upper echelons of society and who gets excluded; who gets an escalator ride to premier status and worldly success and who faces a wall.” The bobos ended up protecting their privilege just as assiduously, if not more so, than the WASP elites that preceded them. Working class America gets the shaft. “Some 60 years after its birth, the meritocracy seems more and more morally vacuous,” Brooks concedes. “Does the ability to take tests when you’re young make you a better person than others? Does a society built on that ability become more just and caring?”

F.D.R. Proposes a Second Bill of Rights: A Decent Job, Education & Health  Care Will Keep Us Free from Despotism (1944) | Open Culture

The last section of Brooks’ essay is entitled “How the Class War Ends.” His solution is partly economic: Close the income gap and provide good jobs to people without college degrees. But Brooks goes farther. He maintains that the meritocracy itself, the sorting mechanism that leaves so many behind, must change dramatically. I think he’s right. But this is really no different than what Franklin Roosevelt envisioned with his Second Bill of Rights. That every American would be guaranteed the basics so that they can strive for the privileges. A decent home. A decent job. Decent health care. A decent education. No one should have to have a college degree in order to have access to the basics.


Where Brooks and I probably differ is on what has been the real instigator of America’s vast inequality. The bobos may have played a big role in maintaining it, but it was Ronald Reagan who gave us the church of the almighty trickle-down. It was Ronald Reagan who led the country into a profound distrust of government and the degradation of public spaces. And only by breaking the back of Reaganomics will we be able to restore trust. Brooks speaks of a society in which people are rewarded for the ability to work in teams, to sacrifice for the common good, to be honest, kind, and trustworthy. It is precisely the public good that has been allowed to wither in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, and only a self-conscious national movement is going to restore it.

Sloan Science & Film

To me the meritocracy is much like eugenics, an idea that was once popular and seemed very reasonable to many smart people. Like eugenics, the meritocracy seeks to improve life by sorting people. And like eugenics, it ends up increasing human misery. I have to judge it by its results. It doesn’t work. People have to be able to trust their government, their schools, and their scientists. Exclusion and massive inequality create resentment. The meritocracy has to go.

Income Inequality - Inequality.org

I do not mean that privileges should be eradicated. As I have said before, I don’t really care how much wealth Jeff Bezos controls. What I care about, and what I think Brooks cares about, is that we have a healthy middle class in which people don’t have to struggle just for the basics. You can’t adequately compete for the privileges if you have to constantly struggle just for the basics. Everyone should be guaranteed the basics. That’s how the class war ends.

Rural America Continues to Hollow Out

The new census data are out, and they clearly show the continuation, if not the acceleration, of a trend that has been apparent for a few decades now: Rural America is slowly hollowing out. Although the vast majority of states saw population increases, in many cases these were quite modest. The population of my home state of Louisiana, for example, increased only 2.7% in 10 years. 22 states saw increases of less than 5%, and 3 states saw declines.

What is more significant is that the vast majority of the increases were concentrated in urban and suburban areas, with particular locations being focal points. Huge swaths of middle America are slowly losing population. 76% of the 105 counties in Kansas lost population, and almost half saw declines of more than 5%. In my home state of Louisiana, 72% of parishes lost population, and 42% lost more than 5%. Even in the Northeast, rural areas generally lost population.

Meanwhile, many cities saw increases, some quite dramatic. Florida and Texas were particularly noteworthy. Austin, Houston, the Orlando metro area, and the coastal cities of the Florida peninsula saw dramatic increases. Osceola County, just south of Orlando, increased 45%. Hays County, just south of Austin, increased 53%. Strikingly, Los Angeles County in California increased only 2%. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, containing the city of Cleveland, actually declined 2%.

A prevalent media narrative has it that Californians are abandoning the state in large numbers, while Texas is growing rapidly. But a closer look reveals that most of Texas is slowly depopulating. While the big cities in Texas grow rapidly, white rural Texas is losing population. Most rural Texas counties have seen population declines exceeding 5%. Many have declined more than 15% in just 10 years. Meanwhile, in California only 11 counties have seen population declines, and only 4 of these have exceeded 5%. These are concentrated in the northern, rural part of the state, which is overwhelmingly white.

In another 10 years, many baby boomers will be gone. The white population of America is already declining and this will accelerate. The rural/urban divide has largely become a partisan divide in America, and the increasing urbanization of the country means big trouble for Republicans. Texas is already majority non-white, and non-whites in Texas are overwhelmingly Democratic. Texas will soon gain 2 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and there will be a huge battle over redistricting in that state. Texas will likely be the focal point of a national shift in politics over the next 20 years. It is virtually inevitable that at some point Texas will turn blue, probably by 2030. When Texas turns blue, it will be over for the Republican party nationally.

Is History Inherently Ideological?

As I have said previously (here), the word history contains the word story, and history is just that. It is not a thorough recounting of past events. It is a story, a narrative that is built from conscious decisions about what to emphasize and what to exclude. It is a narrative with a purpose, which is why there are constant battles over it. What we emphasize and what we exclude shapes our understanding of how we got to where we are and where we might be headed.

The Best American History Movies - Learning Liftoff

A recent interview in Vox, Sean Illing asks Harvard historian Jarvis Givens about the ongoing controversy over Critical Race Theory. He says, “the complaint is that it’s not really an academic discipline or an approach to education — it’s a political ideology.” Givens points out, rightly so, that ALL history is ideological: “Any approach to framing history is going to have some political commitments baked into the narrative. The choices we make about what to highlight or omit, all of that reflects certain values and biases. It’s just that we often take these for granted when it’s the ‘preferred’ or ‘dominant’ history. In the end, I don’t see how you can completely remove politics from the work of education or the production of history. I don’t think it’s ever fully possible, and that’s something that isn’t usually acknowledged in these conversations.”

White Supremacy Has Always Been Mainstream | Boston Review

History has a PURPOSE. Givens more or less assumes that one of the most basic purposes of an educator in a democracy is to promote justice and equality. But this really gets at one of the most fundamental divides in America, between 2 very different visions of what America is and what it should be: 1) America is a culture. America looks a certain way, dresses a certain way, speaks a certain language, has a certain sexual preference, worships a certain god. To the extent that you do not conform, you do not deserve to be considered a genuine American. 2) America is not a culture. It is a set of values. The values of justice, equality, and tolerance. If you are willing to embrace these values, you deserve to be called an American. Everything else is irrelevant.

Photograph of the lynched bodies of four men | National Museum of African  American History and Culture

Many if not most of the ugly episodes in American history can be traced to the first of these visions. Slavery. Jim Crow. Lynchings. The genocide against Native Americans. The internment of Japanese Americans. The propping up of dictators during the Cold War. The suppression of America’s ugly past is all about cultural supremacy. This is precisely why those who want to expose the ugliness are branded “America-haters.”

Recently an article appeared on the site time.com entitled “We’ve Been Telling the Alamo Story Wrong for Nearly 200 Years. Now It’s Time to Correct the Record.” What is the “Alamo story”? That “settlers” moved into the northernmost province of Mexico, called Tejas, and faced oppression from the Mexican government. They revolted and demanded independence. The Mexican government tried to suppress the revolt. A small group of Texians and volunteers faced an overwhelming force of the Mexican army at the Alamo. They defended the fort bravely but were massacred to the last man, buying time for Sam Houston to marshall his forces and ultimately defeat the Mexican army in the Battle of San Jacinto, resulting in Texas independence.

Alamo workers discover 3 bodies during restoration efforts at the historic  Spanish mission - ABC News

Here is a different version. Anglo slave owners invaded a foreign country which threatened to outlaw slavery. Unwilling to give up their slaves, they instigated a rebellion. Supported by American money and volunteers, they shot Mexican soldiers who tried to collect taxes. Ignoring warnings that the Mexican army was on its way, a small group of rebels found themselves trapped at the Alamo. Most of them were killed there but a sizable number tried to flee and were hunted down. A small number surrendered but were executed. The delay was irrelevant to the subsequent victory of Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto.

The Battle of San Jacinto | Genealogy Roadshow | PBS LearningMedia

Both of these are stories. They are interpretations. There are documented facts associated with the Texas Revolution, but many things will probably never been known for certain. Did Davy Crockett die fighting at the Alamo? Written testimony from some of the Mexican soldiers tells us that he surrendered and was subsequently executed. This of course has been vehemently contested. Like so much historical “documentation,” it is subject to challenges about its authenticity and accuracy. Did the siege at the Alamo actually buy time for Sam Houston to raise an army? That is very much a matter of interpretation. After the attack on the Alamo, Sam Houston steadily retreated from the Mexican army’s advance and seemed to be losing the fight. The new Texas government now considered him a coward and was forced off the mainland with no way to communicate with him. At San Jacinto the tables were suddenly and unexpectedly turned. The Mexican army made a terrible blunder and were completely taken by surprise. Sam Houston’s men massacred them mercilessly.

Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion | History Teaching Institute

It could be argued that a slightly different scenario would have produced a very different result. The revolutionaries might well have failed. On the other hand, only 10 years later America was at war with Mexico over the disputed southern boundary of Texas. So it could be argued that Texas would have become part of America within fairly short order regardless of the events at the Alamo and San Jacinto. The particular historical facts are not mainly the point. There are 2 very different stories America tells itself about Texas. One is that America’s westward expansion was the bringing of civilization and freedom to an untamed wilderness. The other is that white Americans, often supported by slavery, shamelessly invaded other countries and Native American lands, driving their residents nearly to extinction.

Dr. King spoke out against the genocide of Native Americans

What is “the truth”? Well, history cannot be extricated from ideology. If you see America as a culture, you are going to justify westward expansion as a greater good. If you see America as a set of ideals, you will see the subjugation of African Americans, the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans, and the shameless invasion of other countries as ugly reminders that the country has never lived out the true meaning of its creed. The bottom line is that history is not merely the recitation of facts. Yes, facts are important, and any attempt to cover them up should be fiercely resisted. But we should never try to delude ourselves that history is an exercise in objectivity.

Free Will and the Cult of Personal Responsibility

America is full of contradictions. On the one hand it is built on notions of freedom and equality, yet its beginnings feature enslavement and exclusion. On the one hand it is a nation of immigrants, yet it often treats immigrants harshly. On the one hand it tries to spread democracy across the world, yet it often cozies up to brutal dictators. Some observers seem to think these contradictions are quaint and charming – although these observers are generally people in positions of profound privilege, who don’t have to worry much about how these contradictions impact their own lives.

Cornton Vale criticised for segregating mentally ill women - BBC News

One of the most obvious contradictions has to do with personal responsibility. On the one hand, Americans have this strong belief that individuals are in control of their own thoughts and behavior. UNLESS they can slap a label on them, like autistic, mentally disabled, senile, psychotic, the list goes on. In these cases the mindset totally changes, and there is wide acceptance that undesired behavior should be excused, that the person is incapable of control to a significant degree. Naturally, this approach assumes that only a small fraction of the population will “deserve” a label and thus get a dispensation.

Why is Autism called Autism Spectrum Disorder? - The Carmen B. Pingree  Autism Center of Learning

The problem, of course, is that labels often impose typologies on phenomena that follow a continuum. Psychologists have long recognized this. Autism is not an all or nothing, which is why it is actually called autism spectrum – a continuous spectrum of disability. It is the same with psychoses like schizophrenia, and of course, intellectual skill. Psychologists now recognize numerous disorders which exist along continuous spectra – narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder, melancholic depression, the list goes on and on. Whether a given person suffers from one or more of these disorders is a matter of degree. Ultimately they are based on one’s ability to integrate into the broader society, and this is always a matter of degree, not to mention a function of society’s expectations.

The Weekly Defensive Update: Don't think about pink elephants — Stormy Lake  Consulting

While psychologists are aware of all this, the average American strongly believes in the power of free will for most, and with it, the importance of personal responsibility. The human will is indeed capable of great power. But a moment’s consideration reveals that so-called “free” will is far from limitless. Human beings are not blank slates. We are all products of our genes and our experiences. All of us suffer from addictions, obsessions, delusions, and neuroses. None of us can completely control our thoughts, our emotions, or our actions. Yet I can almost hear the collective retort. “Sure I can! I have control!” Really? Try not thinking about a pink elephant for the next 10 seconds. Or watching something really funny without laughing. Or beating a grand master at chess. If you have free will, then you should be able to will yourself to understand quantum mechanics as well as Niels Bohr, or relativity as well as Einstein. You should be able to think whatever thought you want to and feel whatever emotion you want to, whenever you want. Pleasure, misery, ecstasy, rage, it should all be under your control. The things that really, really annoy you? Why, you should just be able to turn those emotions off. Who wants to feel annoyed? You should be able to suppress those emotions as you choose.

The Mentalist at 11! Remembering Patrick Jane and How Bruno Heller screwed  up with Red John Story! | by Sofiane Madani Merouani | Medium

The whole concept of free will was ludicrous from the start. Much of what we do is the product of subconscious motivations we aren’t even aware of. Neurological research clearly shows us that a large portion of decision making is subconscious, even when we are convinced that it isn’t. Freud himself used the analogy of an iceberg to describe the mind – the conscious mind being only the tip of the iceberg. We are easily manipulated to feel this or that emotion, to make this or that decision. It could be argued that the promotion of the idea of free will is itself a form of manipulation – it encourages the manipulated to believe that they are in complete control at all times. In the wonderful series The Mentalist, FBI consultant Patrick Jane explains, “The key to a good con is always making the mark feel that he is in control.”

New Diversion Program for Houston and Harris County Young Offenders |  Houston Criminal Defense Attorney Ned Barnett

Experiments have even shown that we can be fooled into thinking we made a decision we didn’t make, and will then try to rationalize it. In 2005, 4 psychologists published a paper describing experiments in which they presented subjects with photos of 2 faces, and asked them to choose the more attractive one. They then used sleight-of-hand to give the subjects the photo they DIDN’T choose, and asked them why they chose it. Only 13% of the subjects realized that this wasn’t the photo they chose. The other 87% proceeded to give reasons why they made a choice they didn’t make in the first place.

4 out of 10 American males have been arrested at least once by the time they’re 23. This doesn’t exactly encourage me to believe that an inability to cope is limited to only a small fraction of the population. Large numbers of Americans, particularly young American males, at one time or another seem to fall outside of our society’s requirements of personal responsibility.

Unlock Your Inner Psychopath: Kevin Dutton's 'The Wisdom of Psychopaths'

And what constitutes “disability,” anyway? What constitutes pathology? Kevin Dutton is a British psychologist who specializes in psychopaths. In 2011 he published his Great British Psychopath Survey, which examined the frequency of psychopathy in different occupations. His top 10 list, in decreasing order of psychopath prevalence, is as follows:

corporate CEO’s


media people

sales people



police officers



civil servants

Needless to say, most of these are positions of considerable authority. So is psychopathy a disability, or is it a virtue? Psychopathy is characterized by limited empathy, poor impulse control, and propensity for violence. Studies of domestic abusers have estimated that 15-30% are psychopaths. Yet some traits of the psychopath often seem to be rewarded in a workplace context, especially in positions of leadership. Dutton himself was asked by Scientific American in 2016 to rate some prominent leaders, including some infamous ones, on psychopathy. Not too surprisingly, Saddam Hussein received a very high score (189), and Adolph Hitler as well (169). George Washington rated much lower (132) and Abraham Lincoln lower still (123). Bernie Sanders rated a bit lower than Washington (129), while Hillary Clinton rated considerably higher (152). And Donald Trump? A little above Hitler at 171.

Of Psychopaths and Presidential Candidates - Scientific American Blog  Network

How can a pathology be an advantage? The apparent contradiction is resolved by realizing that the ability to manipulate and the ability to empathize are 2 entirely different things. Psychology does not give you points for your ability to manipulate nor dominate. Psychology considers a manipulative, domineering, unfeeling person to be unhealthy, regardless of how “successful” he is. There is always a fine line between white collar “success” and white collar criminality, as our previous moron-in-chief may soon painfully discover.

Henry Ford Biography - Childhood, Life Achievements & Timeline

The argument could be made that a society, any society, can no more tolerate a lot of “successful” psychopaths than it can a lot of criminal psychopaths. Psychopathic authorities are only tolerated because they are few in number. In this sense such people aren’t really coping, because they don’t “fit in” to the larger society. Admittedly they are more integrated into society than criminals are, but feigning sincerity and having genuine sincerity are not the same. People in positions of authority are often described as being of good character. Many of them are. But we tend to equate “success” with a high sense of personal responsibility, rather than merely an ability to play the social game, particularly in a system devoted to competition. What we call “success” in some contexts actually flows from an INABILITY to feel certain emotions. This may lead you to antisocial behavior – or it may lead you to a position of great authority.

Much of what's being sold as 'AI' today is snake oil says Princeton  professor

As always, the issue of “coping” is very much a function of how the particular society is organized. Behavior that was considered quite normal and desirable among participants in the People’s Crusade of 1096, namely mass murder, would quickly land you in jail in that very same part of the world today. Not so very long ago, lynchings were popular local gatherings, even the subject of postcards, in America. It must be difficult for psychopaths to understand why lying through your teeth will often get you to some of the most powerful positions on earth, while selling someone a worthless “cure” is criminalized as fraud. Behavior that is tolerated, even encouraged, among the “successful” in America today may find itself quite marginalized and even criminalized in the future.

It should not be surprising that our economic system encourages psychopaths to believe they can be “successful.” Many of them are. But they are always walking a fine line. Playing the game without feeling the emotions is tricky. Human beings are pretty good at spotting insincerity, and it is far too easy to make the leap from friendly competition to pathological competitiveness.

The Lesson of Hitler's Unlikely Rise to Power in Germany | Time

The argument could be made that a charming, manipulative, ruthless, domineering psychopath can create tremendous group cohesion, and that group cohesion has been the key to group success throughout most of human history (and likely prehistory as well). In any case, it is quite obvious that personal responsibility has very little to do with “success” in today’s America. Determination yes. Ruthlessness certainly. Honesty, integrity, sincerity, empathy, fairness, tolerance – the things that we associate with personal responsibility, and teach our children – not so much.

Clint Eastwood Is Not A Good Actor — And That's A Really Good Thing |  Decider

Does this mean that we should throw personal responsibility out the window? No, I don’t think so. It merely means that we have to have a more realistic, less caricatured view of human beings, one that accepts that we are not blank slates, nor are we in total control of ourselves. We should realize that “coping” is always a matter of degree, and that the ability to play the social game does not tell us much about a person’s character. We should realize that none of us, not a single one of us, is in total control of ourselves. The false dichotomy that separates “good guys” from “bad guys” is not grounded in reality. We should realize that we have been heavily propagandized for generations to encourage us to have one standard of personal responsibility for the impoverished and another for the “successful,” no matter how unprincipled they are.

Diverse Children - Cache Valley Family Magazine

In the field of addiction it seems that we are finally beginning to come to grips with this as a society. When addiction interferes with coping, it must be treated. But “coping,” in the sense of skill at playing the societal game, is not character. If winning is everything, human beings get hurt. As I have said before, capitalism has proven itself as a driver of human happiness. But not unbridled capitalism. Uncontrolled capitalism discourages empathy and tends to keep us atomized from each other. The notion that the almighty free market will somehow magically produce a greater good is nothing more than superstition.

Young Male Syndrome

In a previous post (here), I discussed the disconnect between Americans’ perception of trends in crime and the reality of same. Crime has decreased substantially since the early 1990’s, both property crime and violent crime. In recent years there has been a very modest increase in violent crime nationally, nothing approaching the levels seen 30 years ago.

US violent crime rate

There has been a rather sharp increase in murders in the last few years, fueled by an increase in certain cities, particularly Chicago. But again, nationally the levels are far below those of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

US murder rate

Why was there some much crime in America 30 years ago, compared to today? One factor that has been suggested is simply this. There were far more young people, as a percentage of the population, than today. Here is America’s age pyramid in 1990:

Population of United States of America 1990 - PopulationPyramid.net

Notice the large number of Americans between the ages of 15 and 40. At this time, 20% of the population was in this age range. By contrast, only 13% of the population was over the age of 50. Now compare this to today:

Population of United States of America 2020 - PopulationPyramid.net

Today, only 17% of the population is between the ages of 15 and 40, while 18% is over the age of 50. And the fact is, crime rates among Americans aged 15-40 are much higher than those for older Americans. Interestingly, as the American population has aged, the peak age for crime rates has shifted somewhat. In 1980, violent crime rates peaked at about 17 years of age. Today the peak rate is between the ages of 20 and 30. Nevertheless, crime remains concentrated in youth.

Uživatel Emily Mooney na Twitteru: „New brief from @OJPOJJDP shows rapid  decline in #JuvenileJustice #arrest rates Truly incredible how different  the age-crime curve for violent crime looks like now as compared to

But it isn’t just youth that exhibits a high crime rate, and especially a violent crime rate. It is specifically male youth. Males account for more than 73% of those arrested in America, and 80% of those arrested for violent crimes. 90% of those arrested for homicide are male. 99% of those arrested for rape. 83% of those arrested for arson. For less violent offenses, males still predominate, but far less so. 60% of those arrested for fraud are male. 51% of those arrested for embezzlement are male. Incredibly, by the age of 23, more than 4 out of 10 American males have been arrested for SOMETHING. About 58% of the men in America’s state prisons have been convicted of violent crimes. By contrast, about 62% of the women in these prisons have been convicted of non-violent crimes.

Why women swoon over men who take risks | News | University of Alaska  Anchorage

It isn’t just in the realm of crime that young males turn up more frequently. We have long known that they have a much greater propensity for risky behavior than other demographic groups. In practically all cultures, young males show these tendencies. Furthermore, risk taking is much more likely to occur when young males are in groups. It is also more likely in the presence of an attractive female. This is almost a cliche but it happens to be true. Interestingly, young males in stable romantic relationships tend to be more cautious than unattached young males. But even these “attached” young males tend to engage in risky behavior in the presence of an attractive female.

Aggressive Boys Become Strong Young Men - Pacific Standard

Young males exhibit higher levels of aggression than those in other demographic groups. This is particularly true of single males, and again, among groups of single males. Alcohol consumption is higher in men than women. A 2018 study of 8 countries found this to be true in every one of them. Higher-risk drinking is more prevalent in young men, and younger men tend to consume more alcohol than older men. Men are more likely than women to use almost all types of illicit drugs, and this usually begins at a young age. Even in more mundane areas of life, young males tend to take more risks. In gambling, finance, sports, travel, young males are more prone to risky behavior than other demographic groups.

FSI - Gun violence and suicide by firearm is a public health epidemic

Even when attempting to end their own lives, men tend to use more violent methods than women. 4 out of 10 American men own at least 1 firearm, compared to only 22% of American women. A firearm is by far the preferred method of suicide in American men. 56% of male suicides are by firearm. Only 8% are by poisoning. By contrast, only 32% of female suicides are by firearm. Poisoning accounts for 29% of suicides in women. The differences in preferred method explain why the suicide rate in men is much higher than that in women. Women actually attempt suicide more often than men, but since men tend to use much more lethal methods, their rate of suicide completion is higher. It should be noted that the suicide rate in men rises dramatically with age. Clearly, it isn’t that young males are more prone to straightforward self-destruction than older males, or for that matter, females. They don’t INTEND, as a rule, to cripple themselves or die in flaming cars. They do, however, tend to engage in behavior that puts them at risk.

king cobra at the Gladys Porter Zoo | cosgaara | Flickr

Naturally, psychologists have a name for the tendency of young males to engage in risky behavior and aggression: Young Male Syndrome. Remarkably, there is no Wikipedia page devoted to this. Risk-taking is something that is very familiar to me. At the age of 15 I caught my first venomous snake, with no tools. In my youth it was not unusual for me to simply take off on my own on a trip over hundreds of miles, in unfamiliar territory, without telling a soul. No one knew even what state I was in or far how long I would be gone.. I often trespassed on private land and journeyed in remote areas. For 12 years I worked in the reptile department of a major zoo, dealing with rattlesnakes, cobras, Komodo dragons, and crocodiles. I once made a trip to Veracruz, Mexico, all alone, when I spoke hardly any Spanish and knew virtually nothing about the area. I have done storm chasing on a number of occasions. I have worked completely alone from dawn to dusk in remote swamps surrounded by cottonmouths and feral hogs. I could cite other examples. Most of these activities were done when I was considerably younger. I am much more cautious now, not least because I am married.

Head Trauma with a Slip and Fall Accident

Young males are more prone to mental illness and self-inflicted injury than other demographic groups. Obviously, risk-taking and aggression are often self-destructive. Why, then, do young males have these tendencies? Evolutionary biologists have their answer, and it seems hard to deny – risk-taking for young males is a “winning” strategy, even though it is harmful to many of them. It has been selected for over evolutionary time because the rewards of successful risk-taking outweigh the risk. Natural selection does not care whether most individuals are harmed or helped. It does not even care whether the most “successful” individual is harmed, in the modern sense of the word. It only “sees” the RELATIVE DIFFERENCE in fitness between individuals.

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Human beings are social beings. Everything we do must be understood in that context. A woman cannot increase the number of her offspring by mating with more than one man. A man, by contrast, can greatly increase the number of his offspring by mating with multiple women. Ismail Ibn Sharif, the Sultan of Morocco 300 years ago, fathered at least 800 children. In various cultures at various times it has been considered perfectly acceptable for a man to have mistresses, harems, “second wives,” or simply multiple wives. Even today, polygyny is perfectly legal in most African and Middle Eastern countries, and is widely practiced. And throughout the world, wealthy, powerful men often expect to have multiple female sex partners. Throughout the existence of the human species, there has been selection for male behavior that tends to increase the number of surviving offspring, even if it increases the likelihood of death. This is especially true for young males, since most of their reproductive years are ahead of them.

The Rhythms That Make Elephant Seals Run or Fight - The New York Times

The most extreme examples of this kind of phenomenon occur in species (elephant seals for example) in which the females are crowded together at breeding time. A single male can control access to many females. As a result, competition between males is usually intense. Males are often much bigger and stronger than females, and engage in combat with other males, which is sometimes fatal. Even if they survive the combat, males are often badly injured. Natural selection doesn’t care that this behavior is “bad” for them. It only sees who produces the most surviving offspring, and will relentlessly favor behavior that produces that result. Human beings are a less extreme example of this, since it is much harder for a single male to control access to a large number of females. But natural selection only sees who produces the most surviving offspring, and will favor those who do.

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Cooperation, of course, can result in every single male in the group doing “better” by modern standards – being healthier, avoiding injury, having less stress, living longer. But merely encouraging cooperation without active measures to counter inherent tendencies is clearly not enough. It is now well established that young males are more prone to actions that harm their health and put them at risk of death. Given this, why don’t we take measures to counter their self-destructive propensities? Over time, I think we will, more and more. But we still live in a barbaric age, when those in power cling to outdated notions of how societies operate. Powerful people still believe that might makes right. In America we often give risky behavior and aggression a pass. “Boys will be boys.”

5 Card Stud (1968) Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum, Inger Stevens, Roddy  McDowall Movie Review

As I have said before, America is a young country, with a recent frontier. This has everything to do with our approach to society and especially competition. We still have a high tolerance for cheating, aggression, sexism, racism, and a lot of other -isms. We cling to the notion that what has made America great is aggressive, even pathological competition between a few powerful white men. But this is changing and will continue to do so.

Education and Ideology in America

In the American electorate as a whole, there are approximately 1.2 Democrats for every Republican. Large numbers of voters are Independents (about 40%). There are significant differences related to gender and ethnicity. 39% of women, but only 26% of men, are Democrats. The ratio of Democrats to Republicans among American women is about 1.4:1. 70% of African-Americans and 47% of Hispanic Americans are Democrats, but only 26% of white Americans. The Democrat:Republican ratio among African-Americans is about 23:1.

College Student Spending Habits for 2021 - Lexington Law

Among those with at least a Bachelor’s degree, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is 1.33:1. As college graduates have become more diverse, they have shifted toward the Democratic party. Not very long ago, Republicans outnumbered Democrats among college graduates. In 1994, there were 54 Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents for every 38 Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents among college graduates. Today that ratio is almost exactly reversed. There are 54 Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents for every 42 Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents.

Fourteen Yale faculty elected to American Academy of Arts & Sciences |  YaleNews

What is even more striking, however, is the partisan makeup of university professors. In a study published last year, 12,372 college professors were sampled. The Democrat:Republican ratio was found to be 8.5:1. Among biologists the ratio was found to be 9.4:1. Among anthropologists an incredible 42.2:1. Even among economists the ratio was 3.0:1. Not a single field was found to have a preponderance of Republicans, or even anything close to that.

Among male professors, the ratio was 6.4:1. 6 Democrats to every 1 Republican! Keep in mind that among men in America generally, there is a slight Republican advantage (about 1.2:1). Among female professors, the Democrat:Republican ratio is 16.4:1. As I have noted above for American women generally, the ratio is only about 1.4:1.

Department of Sociology

For highly ranked schools, the ratios are even more extreme. At Princeton, for example (ranked number 1), the ratio is 40:1. At Yale (ranked number 4), 31.3:1. At Harvard (ranked number 2), 88:1. At the highly influential Georgetown University in the nation’s capital, not one of the 75 professors surveyed was a Republican! The most extreme ratios tend to be in the Northeast, but even in the South, Democratic professors tend to greatly outnumber Republicans. At the University of Florida, the ratio is 10.7:1. At LSU, 8.7:1. At the University of North Carolina, 48:1. There is a unmistakable relationship between the ranking of schools and the prevalence of Democrats amongst their faculty. Ever heard of Augustana College? Me neither. It’s ranked number 96. Its ratio is 3.2:1. The prevalence of Democrats among highly-ranked schools is even higher than that among historically black schools, with predominantly African-American faculties. The faculty of Howard University, for example, is 57% African-American. Yet the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is only 29.5:1, less than that of Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. 68% of the faculty of Harvard is white. Nationally, well over 70% of college faculty are white. Why is it that college professors lean so strongly Democratic?

Analysis of '60s counterculture: The division of generations – HS Insider

The truth is that this is not a recent phenomenon. Since the Second World War, there has been a preponderance of liberal-leaners among college faculty. It is no accident that the countercultural movements of the 1960’s largely originated at universities. Prior to 1960, college was a destination for only a few privileged intellectuals. In 1960, only 7.7% of Americans 25 years and older had a least 4 years of college. A study published in 1958 argued that the academic mind is by nature critical and probing, a fact that leads professors to be suspicious of calls to preserve the current social order at all cost. A later study, published in 1976, argued that criticism is the natural posture of the intellectual. An attachment to tradition for its own sake is simply not compatible with this.

Shift Toward Greater Educational Attainment for Women Began 20 Years Ago

The baby boomer generation was the first to go to college in large numbers. By 1980, the percentage of Americans 25 years and older with at least 4 years of college had risen to 17%. By 2000 that number had risen to 26%. Today it stands at about 35%. College students and faculty have become much more diverse. Whereas white males constituted about 52% of all college students in 1970, today that number is only about 24%. A college student inevitably comes into contact with people of varying backgrounds and perspectives. This in itself is often enough to kill parochialism. American grade schools are hardly places where academic freedom reigns. They primarily engage in socialization and avoid controversy. Academic freedom is constantly under attack, often successfully, from conservative parents and organizations. Since college is not compulsory, colleges are largely shielded from such attacks.

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The argument has been made that intellectualism does not necessarily lead to liberalism. After all, many high-ranking Nazis were intellectuals. Some very conservative Americans are intellectuals. This is true as far as it goes. Human beings have an almost infinite capacity to rationalize. Ideology can blind you to inescapable realities. Yet the trajectory of history is unmistakable. Many universities, particularly the older ones, started their lives as religious institutions. College professors were expected to defend orthodox views on religious and political matters. In the late 19th century, the demand for research changed that. A rapid process of secularization began. Professors were increasingly expected to advance the pursuit of knowledge rather than spout religious doctrine. Clashes between these academics and those who controlled the purse strings lead to a mobilization in the early 20th century to demand academic freedom. The result of all of this has been increasing liberalization in the academic world, just as it has happened in America as a whole. There is greater religious tolerance, less racism, less sexism.

MIT and Frontiers form open access publishing agreement – Science &  research news | Frontiers

The thing is, getting things done in the real world requires an unflinching commitment to reality. And contrary to popular perception, high-powered universities are quite involved in solutions to real world problems. Real science and real engineering come out of them. The advanced technologies that most Americans take for granted come from them. The unwillingness of such institutions to tolerate ideology-based rationalization is exactly why a number of “think tanks” sprung into existence in the 1970’s, such as the Heritage Foundation, created by Paul Weyrich and Joseph Coors. These largely replaced thoughtful, non-partisan research (such as that conducted by much older organizations like the Brookings Institution) with thinly veiled ideological advocacy, and actively pursued connections to mass media. These think tanks are often well-funded and highly influential in American politics.

Answers to your questions for a better understanding of sexual orientation  and homosexuality

The contrast between the political positions of college professors and those of the average American is striking. In a study of 1417 American professors, at 927 institutions, published in 2007, 69% of college professors reported that homosexuality was “not wrong at all.” Only 17% considered it to be “always wrong.” In a 2021 Gallup poll, 30% of Americans reported that they considered homosexuality to be morally wrong. 18% said it should be illegal! 75% of professors agreed that it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain an abortion for any reason. In a Gallup poll in 2021, only 32% of Americans reported that abortion should be legal in all cases. 56% of professors strongly disagreed with this statement: “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” Another 31% disagreed but not strongly. Only 4% strongly agreed. In a Pew poll in 2012, 51% of Americans reported their belief that children are better off with their mother at home.

Laboratory Equipment - Lab Pro Inc

Of course, it is quite possible to conduct real science and real engineering without having any opinion on abortion, homosexuality, or gender roles. In fact the Democrat:Republican ratio among chemistry professors is relatively low (4.5:1). But the problem is that an unflinching commitment to be guided by evidence and reason is fundamentally incompatible with what American conservatism demands. It demands an attachment to tradition for its own sake. The Heritage Foundation does much more than advocate for the free market and low taxes. It sees itself as defending traditional Christian values in public spaces, and this inevitably translates into positions on abortion, homosexuality, and gender roles. American conservatism is much more about culture than ideas per se.

Paul Krugman: GOP's attacks on progressive policies fall flat

Recently, economist Paul Krugman authored a NY Times editorial entitled “Only the Incompetent Need Apply.” He points out that self-promoting “experts” with half-baked ideas and bad predictions often achieve positions of authority in conservative think tanks and media outlets. A case in point is Stephen Moore, who has only a Master’s degree in economics. Wikipedia does not even describe him as an economist, but rather a “writer,” and a “television commentator.” He has never published a peer-reviewed paper in economics. He is a climate change denier and has advocated for getting rid of prohibitions on child labor. In 2018 he stated that the 2017 tax cuts were paying for themselves in government revenue, when in fact tax receipts were down 31%. Despite all of this, he is CHIEF economist (!) at the Heritage Foundation, and has written many columns for the Wall Street Journal and National Review.


Krugman, who has a Ph.D. in economics from M.I.T. and won a Nobel Prize in 2008, points out that this kind of incompetence is rampant among conservative “experts,” and that conservative ideology by its nature excludes unflinching commitment to evidence and reason. “Accepting evidence and logic is a sort of universal value, and you can’t take it away in one area of inquiry without degrading it across the board,” he writes. I think he’s right, and this explains why Republicans become increasingly rare on the faculties of the highest-ranked universities. Conservatives insist that tax cuts promote long-term economic growth. But the evidence is clear that this isn’t so. Conservatives insist that higher taxes and higher government spending inhibit economic growth. But the Heritage Foundation’s OWN DATA tell us that countries with greater prosperity tend to have higher taxes and higher government spending. Conservatives insist that climate change can’t be happening. But the scientific consensus is overwhelming. When you deny unmistakable evidence, you shouldn’t be surprised that you have a hard time getting a position at Harvard or Yale.

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Even in the field of finance, where we would surely expect some economic conservatives at least, the faculties at colleges are dominated by Democrats. A recent study of 25 highly-ranked schools found an average Democrat:Republican ratio in finance of 4.62:1. At Harvard (ranked second in finance) the ratio was 10:1. At the University of Chicago (ranked third in finance), supposedly a bastion of conservative financial thought, the ratio was 9:1. What’s more, there are strong indications that the future will be even less hospitable to Republicans. Among faculty older than 65 years, the Democrat:Republican ratio was 3.1:1. As you move down the age brackets, the proportion of Republicans declines. For faculty aged 35 to 45, the ratio was 6.5:1. And for faculty 35 years old or less? Of 120 professors, not a single Republican was found. In finance!

Congress is more heavily female than at any point in history — thanks  solely to new Democrats - The Washington Post

America is becoming increasingly diverse and increasingly educated. The white population is expected to start declining within 3 years, and that decline will accelerate over the next 20 years as the baby boomers die out. Men will die out faster than women. Women, who tend to be considerably more liberal than men, have greatly increased their presence in the halls of power and will continue to do so. And higher education is increasingly devoid of conservatives. The Republican party seems to be relying on voter suppression to sustain itself. It won’t work.



A Time of Transition

American history consists of long periods of relative stability punctuated by troubled times of rapid transition. Slavery was the serpent sleeping under the table in the country’s early years, eventually springing to life in the American Civil War. Unbridled capitalism ran rampant for decades, until the Great Depression brought it to its knees, ushering in the New Deal. After decades of rising inequality in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, America is now facing another great transition.

A Guide to Statistics on Historical Trends in Income Inequality | Center on  Budget and Policy Priorities

Just recently, an article was posted by political scientist Lee Drutman on the web site FiveThirtyEight entitled “Why the Two-Party System is Wrecking American Democracy.” Pretty strong words, and of course hyperbole is no stranger to our media system. Still, on the same day, Thomas Edsall authored an editorial in the NY Times entitled “Trumpism Without Borders.” Both of these articles paint a rather grim picture of political trends, and not just in America. Edsall quotes a number of sociologists, economists, and political scientists, who share a view of democracy slipping away. Are things really that bad?

Data Wonk: Democracy In Retreat » Urban Milwaukee

Every year, the non-profit organization Freedom House publishes a report on the state of democracy worldwide, called Freedom in the World. During the late 20th century, democracy gained considerable ground. In 1975, Freedom House rated 41% of the countries of the world as “not free.” By 2000 that number had dropped to only 25%. But since then it has not dropped further. In fact it has risen slowly since 2013 and now stands at 28%.

Freedom House - Photos | Facebook

The Freedom in the World 2016 report was entitled “Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies: Global Freedom Under Pressure.” The 2017 report was called “Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy.” The 2018 report was entitled “Democracy in Crisis.” 2019? “Democracy in Retreat.” 2020? “A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy.” 2021? “Democracy Under Siege.” Not encouraging.

Global democracy has a very bad year | The Economist

The Economist Intelligence Unit also issues an annual report on the state of democracy worldwide, and produces a Democracy Index. Since 2005 this index has dropped rather steadily. A number of countries, including America, have lost their status as “full democracies,” and are now considered “flawed democracies.” America now ranks 25th in the world on the Democracy Index. Every region of the world except Asia/Australasia has seen its Democracy Index drop.

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These trends are alarming, but a 3% rise in the number of “not free” countries over 20 years, compared to a 15% drop over the previous 25, is not the end of democracy. The real question is why democracy is in retreat after such dramatic gains in the 20th century. Edsall points to a pervasive sense of loss within a certain segment of the population, which has been exploited by populists eager to point to other segments of the population as gaining from this loss. While big tech companies have become increasingly globalized, resource extraction and manufacturing have become increasingly automated. In Europe and America, white grievance has become a major political force. This is particularly strong in America, and has produced a Republican party that is quite sympathetic to white minority rule. America’s electoral system is quite conducive to this, and Republicans are now attempting to go full force with Democratic voter suppression.

Opinion | The GOP is now just the party of white grievance - The Washington  Post

How close did America come to losing its democracy last year? Well, there were challenges to the outcome of elections all over the place. But the courts rejected them and election officials, most of them Republican, refused to bend to political pressure. The U.S. Senate refused to overturn the results of the election, and when an insurrection was attempted, the police and the National Guard supported the Constitution. Large social media companies finally stepped in to cut off the bullhorns of those spreading lies about the election. All of this would seem to point to the resilience of American democracy. But the problem is that large numbers of grassroots Republicans still refuse to accept the results of the election, and Republican legislators are working to subvert election officials the next time around.

Voter Suppression in Georgia Again: Anti-Democracy, Anti-Science - Union of  Concerned Scientists

Are we heading toward another civil war? Edsall quotes George Mason University professor Jack Goldstone: “If Biden fails, God help us, we are headed back to the world of the 1930s, with steep political polarization, ethnic hatreds and cleansings, powerful anti-immigration sentiments and spreading fascism.” I don’t think we’re going to slide into civil war, but I do think things will get worse before they get better. Republican voter suppression laws are going to be challenged in the courts. They will almost certainly stimulate a grass roots backlash which will result in greater voter participation. When the situation gets bad enough, some Republicans will very likely switch parties. And every year, the number of white, rural, conservative Americans declines. The state of Georgia is already turning blue. When Texas turns blue, it will be the end of the road for the national Republican party.

Marjorie Taylor Greene's Holocaust Comments Condemned by Top Republicans -  WSJ

There is a world of difference between a shrewd politician and a conspiracy theorist. Those who seek to discredit election results have consistently been marginalized and ridiculed. The absurd Arizona “audit” is a case in point. America will not fall back into a Jim Crow-style minority rule scenario. What will happen is that partisan polarization will continue and the Republican party will try to challenge election results that don’t go its way. If it actually succeeds in overturning a national election there will be a fierce backlash from the media and establishment politicians. There will be likely be a peeling away of moderate Republicans from the party. We have already seen this on a very modest scale. The Republican party as an antidemocratic force will lose power one way or the other – either because it accepts the results of elections that will have increasingly blue results, or because it becomes a marginalized party of fringe conspiracy theorists and white nationalists.


In my opinion, a course in philosophy should be required in high school, and in college, regardless of major. Philosophy has been criticized as a lot of unfalsifiable, impractical self-indulgence. I couldn’t disagree more. Philosophy is very practical. Human beings require meaning in their lives. Without it we fall into self-destructive nihilism. Philosophy provides meaning without resorting to appeals to authority. Philosophy takes a lot of vague ideas about profound mysteries and provides us with tremendous clarity. It sharpens our focus and challenges our preconceptions. For example, most people have seen at least one of The Matrix series of movies, which introduced many to the philosophical concept of a brain in a vat. The basic idea is that if your brain were disembodied, sitting in a vat somewhere, with its inputs and outputs connected to the proper electrical signals, you would experience exactly what you are experiencing right now. There is absolutely no way to tell the difference.

David Chalmers - Towards a Science of Consciousness - YouTube

Philosophers have spent a lot of time pondering the mystery of consciousness, and to a great extent it remains a mystery. Even defining it is tricky. On the one hand there is panpsychism, the notion that every piece of matter has some degree of consciousness. At the other extreme are philosophers like John Searle, who assert that only an organic brain is capable of generating consciousness. And then there is the zombie issue.

A philosophical zombie is an entity that behaves exactly the way a conscious being behaves. But it lacks consciousness. The argument has been made that since we can conceive of such an entity, this in itself means that it is possible in principle. But of course many philosophers suggest that this is a flawed argument. The brilliant philosopher David Chalmers agrees that zombies are logically possible. But he rejects the idea that they are possible in our universe. Because something doesn’t raise any contradictions does not mean it can actually exist in our reality. The concept of infinite speed doesn’t raise any logical contradictions. (And in fact, in a sense there IS no cosmic speed limit – see here). But this does not change the fact that no human being (or any object) can travel faster than light.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness (Video Essay) - YouTube

The zombie thought experiment really revolves around the debate over physicalism. Physicalism asserts that nothing non-physical exists. Therefore consciousness, which clearly exists, must be physical. But Chalmers, among others, argues that when we remove the functional aspects of consciousness, we are still left with something – experience. Explaining consciousness in terms of function is what he calls the easy problem. Function can indeed be accounted for in physical terms. The hard problem is accounting for personal experience. A zombie is an entity that does everything a conscious being does, but does not have experiences. The subjective character of experience, in this view, cannot be accounted for by physicalism, which requires that everything be objectively real.

How Does the Brain Work? | Dana Foundation

It might seem obvious that there is a difference between the subjective and the objective. Objective reality, by definition, is something independent of the observer. But it is not at all obvious that thoughts, feelings, and experiences are not part of physical reality. The argument is made that these are merely higher-level ways of describing processes that are clearly physical. For example, take a chess-playing computer program. Hardly any thinking person believes that what it does cannot be described in physical terms. At one level, it is a matter of electrons moving through circuits. But it can also be described at a much higher level, in term of chess strategy – openings, sacrifices, and so on. Perhaps what we call subjective experience is just another way of describing physical processes – electrical impulses passing through the nervous system, neurotransmitters jumping across synapses, and so on.

Daniel Dennett's Intro to 'The Mind's I' | Dontdontoperate's Blog

Many philosophers reject the whole zombie idea. If you behave as if you can think, you are thinking. If you behave as if you are having experiences, you’re having them. There’s no such thing as simulated thinking. There’s no such thing as simulating having experiences. And all of it can be described in physical terms at some level. Keep in mind that a philosophical zombie version of Chalmers would behave EXACTLY as he does. It would laugh, cry, describe its dreams, and insist that it has experiences. It would carry on debates about philosophical zombies and the hard problem of consciousness. But it would be lying, to itself at least. It would just be simulating having experiences.

How to tell if AI or machine learning is real | InfoWorld

The issue arises all of the time in the field of artificial intelligence. Can a machine think? Can a machine have genuine emotions? Can a machine have experiences? There are those who insist that there is something about human consciousness that machines can never match. That the best they can do is give the APPEARANCE that they are matching it.

Alan Turing receives eulogy in New York Times 65 years after his death • GCN

More than 70 years ago, computer scientist Alan Turing suggested a simple test to determine whether a machine is thinking. Have it answer questions. If a human being cannot distinguish between the machine and thinking human being, based solely on the answers, the machine is thinking. Obviously, the Turing Test is built on the belief that thinking cannot be simulated. That you can judge whether something, or someone, is thinking by their behavior. You don’t have to cut them open and see what they’re made of. It doesn’t matter what they’re made of. You can’t fake thinking.

Gorilla | San Diego Zoo Safari Park

There are other philosophers who insist that philosophical zombies are possible in our universe. That it is possible for a machine to give the appearance of thinking and having experiences, without actually thinking or having experiences. As a biologist, I’m surprised that a consideration of the characteristics and abilities of animals does not appear more often in these discussions. Is personal experience such a special thing? Can something have experiences without the ability to abstract?

Computer Keyboarding Resources

Experiences, it seems to me, are, are intimately connected to the phenomenon of attention. Every moment we are awake, our senses are bombarded with lots of stimuli. Most of it does not get our attention. We are not CONSCIOUS of it. A lot of the reasoning performed by human beings is subconscious. In the process of solving a problem, many things just “come to us.” Often our brains are hard at work analyzing problems around us while our attention is elsewhere. There is the phenomenon of procedural memory; most of us have entered password or passcode while our attention was elsewhere. Our fingers “know” what buttons to push. Right now I am using procedural memory to type these words. Of course it isn’t our fingers that know, it’s our brains, but the information is being retrieved and utilized subconsciously.

7 Types of Dreams and Their Meanings - Moonbow by DubsLabs

And then there are dreams. Most of us dream, most of the time, without realizing we are dreaming. We are having “experiences,” but a big part of us is “not really there.” I am often struck by the fact that VERY unusual things happen in my dreams, yet it rarely seems to occur to me that I’m dreaming. It’s as if some part of my awareness has been turned off, and things that would never happen in my waking life are accepted as somehow normal. I’m not understanding the context. Yet the fact that I can usually remember at least some of my dreams demonstrates that I had some degree of awareness of what was happening. On the other hand, there is the phenomenon of lucid dreaming – dreaming with full awareness that one is dreaming. This has happened to me numerous times, and it’s as if a switch in my head suddenly turns on. Even in our waking lives, we sometimes daydream. If someone is talking to us and we are not paying attention, they might say, “You’re not really here.” It’s an interesting phrase, which acknowledges that a big part of who we are, or at least who we think we are, is our awareness, our attention.

If so much of what we do can be done at a subconscious level, doesn’t this argue that philosophical zombies are possible? Aren’t all of us “partial” zombies, limiting our conscious attention to specific things, while our subconscious minds are constantly taking in much more, analyzing problems, and even guiding some of our actions?

green praying mantis in close up photography photo – Free Cricket insect  Image on Unsplash

Many animals clearly show evidence of attention. Just watch the behavior of a mantid when a cricket walks nearby. It’s hard to believe that the insect isn’t having experiences. But is it conscious? My answer is yes and no. First of all, consciousness is not an all or nothing. It’s a matter of degree. Second, what we think of a consciousness really should be broken down into separate mental abilities – behavioral flexibility, personal experience, the ability to abstract. Perhaps the mantid is having an experience something like that we have in our dreams – giving its attention to stimuli, and responding to them, but not really understanding the context. The mantid doesn’t abstract. It doesn’t understand things like, “I am a predatory insect. The animal before me is also an insect. Insects include beetles, flies, and butterflies, among others. A caterpillar is an immature moth or butterfly. A spider is not an insect.” It doesn’t understand things like, “I am on the leaf of a tree, on the North American continent, on the planet earth, in a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy.” All of these things are about context, categories, relationships.

Infant vision development: Helping babies see their bright futures! - MSU  Extension

A human infant is probably much the same. It has experiences. It responds to stimuli. It can focus its attention on particular things. But its ability to abstract is quite limited. It doesn’t understand the big picture. It doesn’t understand very many categories or relationships. All of this comes about gradually, over time. The basic building blocks of consciousness are there, even in an earthworm. It responds to stimuli. It has rudimentary experiences. But its has very limited flexibility. It cannot abstract. A crocodile is more flexible. A gorilla more still. A gorilla has the ability to abstract in a limited way, much as a newborn human. The necessary basic elements are the ability to store and process information, and some kind of sensory system to acquire information about the environment. As these become more sophisticated, experiences become richer, and flexibility increases. Eventually a point is reached where the organism is able to abstract. The organism creates a mental model of itself. All of these are different abilities – mental flexibility, experiences, the ability to abstract. But they arise from the basic structure – the ability to acquire, store, and process information.

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There is one realm of human activity that does seem to give considerable credence to the idea of philosophical zombies. Acting. Actors can give responses and display emotions that do not reflect their internal thoughts and emotions. It is a simulation. Related to this is the phenomenon of the psychopath. Psychopaths do not seem to feel certain emotions that most of us feel, most notably empathy. But they are able to give the appearance of feeling these emotions, at least sufficiently to cope. They seem to do this by observing the behavior of others in specific contexts and imitating it. Does this demonstrate that philosophical zombies can exist in our reality? Well, yes and no. It does appear that human beings can behave in such a way as to simulate specific emotions and experiences. Presumably an intelligent being can learn to mimic human behaviors by studying humans carefully. But there remains a problem.

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In one of the episodes from the old Star Trek series, 4 of the officers get flung into a mirror universe, while their counterparts in that universe get thrown into ours. In the mirror universe, there is no United Federation of Planets. There is an empire filled with barbarians who routinely stab each other in the back and employ terror to keep individual planetary systems in line. The 4 officers are able to blend in, at least for a while. But their counterparts in our universe are discovered immediately. When the captain returns to his own universe, he asks Mr. Spock how he was able to identify his counterpart so quickly. “It was far easier for you, as civilized men, to behave as barbarians, than for them, as barbarians, to behave as civilized men,” Mr. Spock explains.

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The same principle applies to thinking, conscious experience, and the ability to abstract. A human being can behave in a robotic fashion, as some very talented mimes can demonstrate. For a robot to behave like a human, and do it without actually thinking, having experiences, or abstracting – well, that’s a good trick. Many of the cues we use to identify a thinking human being involve flexibility, the hallmark of intelligence. Human beings use what is called commonsense reasoning. This is the ability to make assumptions about how the real world operates and apply those assumptions to specific problems. Human minds are packed full of general knowledge and assumptions about the world, most of which turn out to be correct, and this enables us to navigate our surroundings with great ease. It gives us tremendous flexibility and the ability to quickly interpret novelties in the environment. Human beings use what are called heuristics – shortcuts that enable us to quickly generate solutions that are approximate, rather than trying to do a time-consuming analysis driving toward a “perfect” solution. Human beings are able to see the big picture – every time we examine a specific object or do a specific task, we have an idea of how it fits into a much broader context.

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Most animals are slaves to their behavioral programming. This is why a moth flies into a flame. It is why billions of animals are killed every year on roadways. Human beings are much better at avoiding cars than dogs are, even though dogs are faster. They often panic when a car approaches, darting out at the last moment. Panic is an ancient flight response, built into many species, including ours. But a human being understands that the car will very likely stay along a very specific path. A psychopath may not feel a particular emotion. But the argument could be made that only because the psychopath has tremendous mental flexibility AND experiences AND the ability to abstract is he able to convincingly simulate those emotions that he doesn’t feel.

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When we create systems of sufficient complexity, programmed with goals and the ability to learn, I think we will find that thinking, conscious experience, and the ability to abstract are inevitable results of what these systems do. That conscious experience and the “self” are merely virtual realities created by such systems, just as virtual realities can be created by computer systems today. I often think of a flight simulator. When a flight simulator is running, and we turn off the monitor, where is the plane? It is exactly where it was, in a virtual landscape. The simulator creates virtual space, virtual time, and virtual objects. If the plane were equipped with a sufficiently sophisticated brain and sense organs, it would have experiences within this virtual reality – a secondary virtual reality within the larger one. It would create a mental model of itself within this virtual reality in relation to its environment. It would have thoughts, experiences, and a sense of self regardless of whether we turned on the monitor. To the plane, its virtual reality and its sense of self would be as real as ours are to us.

The mere fact that we can create virtual realities should tell us that the basic elements are there. The next step is to create virtual “organisms” which respond to stimuli and use information processing to reach specific goals. This will lead to virtual beings that have experiences, and eventually, consciousness. None of this will require the construction of these objects in our physical reality, only the information processing systems to produce them in virtual reality.

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