The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Thursday 13 December 2018

At first I wasn't going to write about this book because I wasn't sure I could be objective about it. I have developed some theories about psychology and this book offers evidence for many of those theories. I loved the book, but was unsure if I could really say anything meaningful about it as the confirmation bias made it difficult for me to be objective. However, after repeatedly bringing up the book in conversation I decided I should write about it.

Ostensibly the book is about moral psychology, how and why people develop their moral beliefs and opinions. To answer these questions we need to go deeper into how the mind works, which is what I found most interesting. The common conception of the conscious vs unconscious mind holds that the conscious mind - the part of everyone that can think things through in words and logic - is in charge and the unconscious mind is mostly irrelevant. It may occassionally bubble some things up to the conscious, but it plays little to no role in making decisions.

I have written about my theory before, but basically I believe that the inverse is true. My previous metaphor had been that the conscious mind is like a sports announcer and the unconscious is the sports game. The announcer describes the action, but doesn't control it; viz the conscious mind is more about explaining and rationalizing the decisions made by the unconscious mind that actually participating in those decisions. Mr. Haidt provides a much better metaphor - he calls it the elephant and the rider. The elephant is the unconscious mind and the conscious is a person riding the elephant. The rider thinks the elephant does what he tells it to, but most of the time the elephant does what it wants. Haidt refers to the rider as a PR agent, who rationalizes the actions of the elephant and explains them to the rest of the world.

Looking at morality from this viewpoint offers a very different perspective. Typically one would say that ones beliefs and morality are arrived at by the conscious mind making decisions based on evidence. Mr. Haidt says that morality is instead decided by the elephant, independently of the conscious mind, which then goes about constructing post hoc explanations and arguments for it. This explains why it is so difficult to change people's opinions with facts, evidence or discussion. Attempting to convince someone that they are wrong assumes that the rider can change the opinion of the elephant. While this is possible, it tends to be rare - if the elephant doesn't have a strong opinion on a subject then the rider can maybe influence it; the rest of the time the rider has very little say.

The common misconception of a rational mind ruled by the conscious mind underlies a lot of important assumptions upon which our civilization is based. For example all modern economic theory is based on the idea that humans are rational actors who make all decisions based on maximizing their self-interest using the available information. If this was true then advertising as we know it wouldn't work - everyone would always choose whatever product offered the best value at the best price. The economic man is so far from reality that there is a joke that economics is based on an imaginary different species - homo economicus. Despite the fact that homo economicus doesn't behave anything like homo sapiens all economic theory is based on it, and the entire global neoliberal order is based on those economic theories.

The reason I feel so strongly about this subject is because you can't build theories on top of incorrect assumptions. Because these mistaken assumptions about psychology and how the mind words are so prevalent they corrupt an enormous amount of the theory of what our society is based on - from economics to criminal justice to psychology. Unfortunately I think these biases are inherent to all life forms with nervous systems. As I recently wrote about people's desire for immortality, I think that these biases are deeply ingrained in us by evolution. Just as no one can imagine being dead, most people can't imagine that their conscious mind is not in complete control. Because it is the conscious mind that does the imagining it is difficult to imagine itself out of the picture, and most people do not like to realize that they do not have as much control as they think they do over things. However until these illusions are dismissed, we are not going to be able to create social systems that are based on evidence and reality rather than wishful thinking.

Labels: books, psychology
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Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

Tuesday 11 December 2018

I was recently ill and when I am sick I tend to read a lot of fiction for some reason. This time I read quite a few books and this one was by far the standout. It is the story of Lea, a 100-year old woman living in NYC in an unspecified future where the government is using life extension technology to combat the shrinking population. At birth people have their DNA tested and are sorted into two groups - those that have good genes for longevity who will get all sorts of crazy life extension technology and everyone else, who will have the same lifespans as we currently do.

While this may sound good, in reality it plays out very differently - people get replacement hearts, blood and skin which can last hundreds of years, but if the different artificial components are "misaligned" you could end up with a heart that keeps you alive long after the rest of your body has decided to die. Also the government issues pretty strict recommendations on everything which are designed to squeeze every possible second of life out of your body. While I personally like most of these recommendations - such as no meat allowed, you have to take a break from work every hour to stretch, you are not allowed to work more than 8 hours in a day; many of them are rather onerous - like no open windows in your apartment, the only recommended music is Muzak, and sugar is treated much like we regard heroin today. Some people rebel against what they view as everything enjoyable being removed from life and form the titular "Suicide Club" where they protest against the system in the only way they can - by killing themselves.

This synposis doesn't do the book justice - it is a very thought provoking discussion on what makes life worth living and how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. As a very health conscious person who enjoys eating healthy and exercising I found most of the government issued "directives" in the book about what you could or should do to be pretty well in line with my opinions. Things like the mandatory hourly work break to stretch I thought were great ideas - I start to feel a bit crazy when I sit for too long in front of the computer. I was torn between agreeing with the principles of the various and sundry rules and seeing the negative impact that enforcing those rules had on the population. I haven't eaten meat in 27 years because that is my personal decision, but I don't try to force or even convince other people to not eat meat either, whereas the government in this book does enforce many ridiculous rules on people.

The main issue of this book was about immortality, and this is a subject I have strong feelings about. I often read about Silicon Valley executives getting blood transfusions from young people to try to extend their lives and about people who are obsessed with achieving physical immortality and I very strongly disagree with that. One of the most important instincts of every living thing is to try to stay alive, "survival of the fittest" implies that you need to survive, and I see this obsession with immortality as a manifestation of this instinct. If you can actually put this instinct aside enough to really think about it who would want to live forever? Certainly not me, and I suspect if they were really able to think through it not most people.

Labels: books
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New Dark Age - by James Bridle

Monday 12 November 2018

I had seen Mr Bridle's TED talk about YouTube videos for children, which I found interesting enough to get and read his book. Unfortunately, I was seriously underwhelmed by it. I usually wait a few weeks after finishing a book before I write about it to let it digest properly, but in this case I don't really remember much of what he said, which is probably not a good sign.

The book covers the downsides of technology, specifically AI, which is a subject I am extremely familiar with so it's possible I was already familiar with most of the points he made. It's also possible that I disagree with many of his opinions on the downside of AI given that my familiarity with the technology precludes me from buying into many of the fearful opinions many people have, which are more based in movies than in any actual aspects of the technology.

As of the state of the art today, AI or machine learning is just converting a real-world problem into a mathematical function which you then feed a lot of data into and hopefully it will result in a function which accurately predicts data it has not seen. Mr Bridle seems to think it a problem that many of these models are "black boxes" - meaning that we don't understand what happens inside, we just understand the input and the output. I personally don't understand why this is such a problem. I don't think anyone really understands quantum mechanics but that doesn't really matter so long as the predictions are accurate.

There were certain parts of the book which I thought were very interesting, but overall the book did not make much of an impression. However, as I said, I am very familiar with the topic covered and someone who is not may get more out of this book.

Labels: technical, books, data science, technology
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Milkman by Anna Burns

Friday 02 November 2018

I don't usually read much fiction but I am very glad I read this book. Milkman is a story of an 18 year old girl living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, during the Troubles. The main plot is about how a local paramilitary leader, referred to as "Milkman", sets his sights on her and how the community assumes they are having an affair despite the fact that they are not. The plot, however, is not really all that important to the book, which mostly describes the community she lives in in all of its absurdity and violence.

For the first 50 or so pages I had a difficult time getting into the book, but once I had gotten used to its style I couldn't pull myself out. Ms Burns writes in a style somewhat reminiscent of Joseph Heller, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon and at times I was even reminded of David Foster Wallace. The town and the people who live in it are so bizarre and absurd with all their petty rules about what names are allowed and which are not and what tea you can drink and which you can't that you want to take the book as a comedy. But the ever-present backdrop of violence, which has people killed for violating these rules, provides a counterweight reminding us that this is all deadly serious.

This is a difficult book to write about as it is not easily dissembled into pieces, but really needs to be taken in as a whole. Describing any of the characters or situations outside of their context is to do the book a huge disservice, so I will end here by saying that this is by far the best fiction I have read in several years, and I would encourage everyone that they should read it. Brava, Ms Burns.

Labels: books, fiction
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