PHILOMADRID

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Are we the creation of our own mind?

Dear friends,


This Sunday we are discussing: Are we the creation of our own mind?


An although this question is not the same ask whether we are self made
millionaires, I am sure we can get as excited discussing our topic as
depositing such a large sum of money. However, on Sunday the banks are
closed, but the pub is open.


See you Sunday and take care


Lawrence

IF YOU DON'T GET AN EMAIL BY FRIDAY PLEASE LET ME KNOW

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

TINA Flat http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/photosphilo/TINAFLAT

**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAY_FLAT_mayte_AlmerAVillaDeNJar

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAYFLAT_Paloma_MarbellaNearElviria
*************************************

+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
-Yahoo group >> philomadridgroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk <
-Old essays: www.geocities.com/philomadrid
- Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/
-Group photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo
-My tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Are we the creation of our own mind?


As human beings we feel justified in believing that these two
propositions are true:


- We are different from other creatures.
- We identify ourselves with our mind*.


It is quite reasonable to assume that we are different from other
creatures. Not only do we have a sense of ourselves in our environment,
but we are also able to change and dominate our environment. We can do
this in a very spectacular way and, moreover, we are the only creatures
who can reshape our environment with such success. The fact that you are
reading this essay on a screen is proof of this claim.


Even the use of the word creature offends some people when we refer to
human beings. Although it is now accepted that we are none other than a
biological extension in the tree of evolutionary life, some do not like
the idea that we are even animals.


No doubt this idea of superiority must partly come from our ability to
construct and reconstruct structures and biological entities to suit our
needs. We build houses to shelter us from the elements, we build dams to
manage water supplies and we can build roads to make travelling over
distances much easier. We also selectively breed animals for food and in
the past as beasts of burden. We can say that control is equated with
superiority.


However, we also understand the concept of creation. We design a house
on paper and then build it with our hands and the technology we humans
have invented and put together. For example, captured wild horses and
bred them into machines for all sorts of tasks: to fight, pull wagons or
buggies, ride for entertainment and so on. We can say that superiority
gives us the power to create.


But having a sense of superiority and a sense of power to create do not
in themselves explain our supposedly unique position. One thing we also
understand well is that we seem to have a hold on the chaotic
environment around us to the extent that we can indeed control it and
create things, including living creatures. Think, for example, of the
philosophy of Thomas Hobbes or the doctrines of Social Contract. These
philosophers and philosophies recognise that nature is nasty and it is
our capacity to enter into an agreement of cooperation amongst ourselves
that stops us from destroying ourselves. Not only can we control and
create when we are put to the test, but we also rise to the occasion
with exceptional grace. In other words, we are also moral agents, and
not just barbarians manipulating our environment. We have the capacity
to know what is right and what is wrong; what is good and what is bad.
We have the capacity, for example, to enter into a social contract; in
reality we adopt win-win strategies, but this is not important for us now.


This is important for our question at hand because the mind is regarded
as the source of who we are. And we are rational and reasonable beings
guided by some moral rules or principles. This, we have been told over
the centuries, is what makes us human. Given all this background and
happy turn of affairs, it also makes sense to ask ourselves: who created us?


Of course, this is a very difficult question, especially if humans
started asking this question some 50,000 years ago. Until recently,
1953, to be precise, we had a good understanding of the "big" bringing
about or creating the "small" and I don't just mean in size but also in
status. The builders of the pyramids were sending a message that they
were superior than those who built small temples for their gods. We
believe that children (small) are different from adults (big) not to
mention that adults beget children and not the other way round. In a way
we clearly understand that small is followed by big which is usually
more powerful.


Newton confirmed this for us by showing us how big celestial bodies
attract smaller celestial bodies. Furthermore, Newton also confirmed our
belief in causality and that everything worked this way. The big causing
the small, the superior causing that which is inferior to it. Once
again, the adults causing children analogy. So the question, who created
us?, can only be answered by assuming that someone more superior more
powerful than us must have created us. Not forgetting that we already
believed that we were quite superior and powerful ourselves. We clearly
understood the principle that better and superior went all the way up.


The new world of quantum mechanics was quite a shock to this well
ordered system. Of course, many philosophers before had postulated the
existence of microscopic entities. For example, Democritus (other
cultures had their own ideas) believed in atoms, which he used to
explain the dispute between change and change being an illusion.
Democritus, believed that the atoms where the smallest thing to exist;
according to the Wikipedia article the word atom means "uncuttable".
However, the idea that there are entities smaller than us with equal
importance was never too welcomed in philosophical circles: consider the
hostilities shown towards reductionism. Although we reluctantly accepted
the atom of Quantum physics our superiority was never challenged even if
we recognised that it needed explaining. Today we would say that
philosophers were in denial about accepting smaller entities being as
important as us.


As we know Descartes was the first, in modern times, to try and explain,
or rather reconcile, this problem of our superior position in nature and
the fact that we have many characteristics in common with other
creatures. The question that humans might have asked themselves and
probably did, was, how can we be different from other creatures when we
have so much in common with them?


Descartes' approach was to split the problem into a mind question and a
body question. Sure, we had all these things in common with other
creatures, but we had this mind that was something these other creatures
do not have. At the time some believed, and today some still do, that
our mind was much closer to the idea we have of god, than our idea of
our body. Once again we find the superior inferior argument as proof,
not only our mind but also, maybe god.


Later on, Newtonian physics confirmed the important position physical
bodies have in our universe. The fall out from all this was to start
marginalising the concept of the soul in favour of the mind. After this
revolution, philosophers could now study the mind without the hazards,
maybe in the form of the Inquisition, they faced when studying the soul.
Eventually the mind would become the centre point for such philosophers
as Kant (rational moralist) or scientists, such as Freud (the mind that
can be fixed). Ironically, by making the mind the centre point of our
existence and exclude the soul we unwittingly played the
superior-inferior game and elected to come down a rung or two on the
ladder of perfect superiority. Today we still, more or less, believe
that the mind is our unique selling feature.


But how can we today speak of the mind given our knowledge about
evolution and genetics? Of course, successful memes, such as soul and
mind are very hard to purge from our collective social knowledge . That
these have survived for so long is prima facie evidence that they are
very powerful memes.


The mind-body problem has certainly established in our psyche that, at
the very least, what we call the mind is something different from the
brain. We indeed feel that when we speak of our mind we are not
referring to the brain. Even today we believe that an fMRI image of our
brain is not an image of our mind. And that such images do not tell us
what the mind is, what it is composed of, or where it is seated.
However, those who argue that the mind is indeed some independent entity
from the brain do have some seemingly good models to argue from. Apart,
that is, from the inferior-superior model.


We can think of the mind in the same way that modern astronomers today
speak of black matter. They still haven't found any hard evidence of
black matter, they certainly can explain a few things if it did exist.
However, there is at least one problem for us with this model. Black
matter can still be explained by using our understanding of Newtonian
physics, Quantum Mechanics, and or the Theory of Relativity and so on.
And even if astronomers needed to create a new physics I am confident
that this new physics would not be incompatible with the other physics I
have just mentioned. QM did not oust Newtonian physics, it just helped
us understand some phenomena which the old physics could not explain.
Thus, any black matter analogy or model would fail to describe the mind
unless it can accommodate the body or the brain.


We can also revisit the inferior-superior argument by considering
mathematics as a variant of this argument. A two dimension mathematical
model can be said to be inferior to a three dimension model and so on.
Maybe the mind functions in a similar fashion. A sort of dimensional
ferris wheel where we can go up or down dimensions, the same way we can
draw a square on sheet of paper and then build a three dimension cube
from balsa wood.


Unfortunately, apart from the mathematical complexities involved in this
model, not to mention we might be involved in an infinite projection by
having to deal with Gödel's incompleteness theorems, there is an
immediate problem for us. It does not make sense to speak of inferior or
superior in mathematics, these are value judgments which supposedly
pertain to our mind and not mathematics. So mathematics might tell us
something about dimensions, but not about superiority values.


In 1953, Crick, Watson and Wilkins discovered the structure of DNA
molecule. In a way, this was a symbolic biological blow to the idea that
the mind was somehow an independent entity from the brain. But this, in
my opinion, was not the philosophical blow to our belief that the mind
is somehow an entity with an independent identity. The philosophical
blow, in my opinion, came with Darwin's theory of evolution or survival
of the fittest. For the first time Evolution gave us a new model to
understand the mind not as an independent entity existing at a higher
level, but maybe as an entity that changes at the same plane or
dimension as the body or the brain. Not superior or inferior, but maybe
different.


With hindsight, the evolutionary model had been staring humanity in the
face for millennia. Apart from grand parents, numbers are themselves a
form of evolutionary process with larger numbers being different from
smaller numbers. But being different does not mean that numbers have
somehow changed their numberness: 2, 3, and 23 are all numbers even
though 2 is an even number and three an odd number. And their unique
property of being prime numbers does not in any way change their numberness.


In a way, lots of things can be done with numbers but no matter what we
do with numbers they still remain numbers. Genes seem to follow a
similar process by being flexible with what happens to them, evolve,
change have different functions but they still remain genes. This should
not come as a surprise since both genes and numbers are information
holding systems. Moreover, like the Greek atom or the atom in physics
the mathematical constant "1" is as ubiquitous as the atom in physics.
This opens, in my opinion, the possibility of understanding the mind not
as an independent and superior entity, but maybe as some evolution of
the same entity.


I have tried to show so far that the mind cannot be some entity that
exists at a superior level to the brain or body. But the key issue to
our question is whether minds can be a causal systems. By appealing to
numbers and dimensional mathematics I tried to show that although things
can be different there still needs to be a direct causal line between
one entity and an other if one is to cause the other. Thus if 23 is to
be a prime number we need to have a causal line from somewhere to have
23: for example, 22 + 1 do add up to 23. And of course, 23 is a prime
number which 22 is not so, 23 is different, but no matter how different
it is we can still trace back the causal line to 1. We must be able to
perform the same causal trick if our mind is to create us since we are
not only mind but also body. I don't believe such a causal trick will be
found.


I do not think that minds are causal systems or entities and therefore
they cannot possibly create us. Incidentally nor do I believe that
brains or bodies create minds, but I will show why later on in the essay.


It is today accepted that if we are to find the mind we have to look
directly at the brain. The brain is either involved or implied in the
mind, the question is which and how? Those who want to argue, as I want
to do, that the brain is the cause of the mind, but not create the mind,
must answer the question, why is it that we do not see structures in
images of the brain which we can identify as the mind?


But this question makes the same mistake as the Cartesian argument by
assuming that the mind is something we can point at on an image or a
scan of the brain. In my opinion, by asking such a question one would be
missing the point. The point is that the mind is the state of the brain
at a given time. And if there is something missing from an image of the
brain it is probably because there is nothing to scan or because our
technology cannot scan the whole brain in detail; not to mention the
issue of the uncertainty principle.


Thus my attempt to answer the question what is the mind?, I would point
at two specific things about the brain. The first is that the brain is
very good at ordering perceptions from highly entropic data into
meaningful sets of coordinated perceptions. And secondly, the brain is
very good at naming coordinated perceptions for recall later.


If we take sight as an example, the raw data that reaches the brain from
our eyes is very entropic, meaning that it is full of imperfections and
information that needs interpreting before it means anything. Visual
images reach the brain up side down which the brain has to orient it in
the right direction to make them representations of the real world. At
the same time it is doing this the brain also has to fill in the details
left out by our blind spot. This is an incredible feat of information
processing not only because it is done in real time but also because it
is constantly doing this during our conscious states and under all
possible conditions we can find ourselves in.


The recall system is equally impressive because it is an efficient way
of interpreting entropic data. Seeing our face in the mirror in the
morning we immediately recall what the image we see is all about.
However, should we happen to see a spot on our face one morning, the
system will go into action stations and tries to deal with the intruder
on our face (put some cream or go to the doctor). Being able to compare
two sets of data is therefore very useful. Naming things is also
efficient because we need very little information to recall the entire
information of the item in question. By naming things I do not
necessarily mean giving something a language tag, but only an
identifying mark or marks such as red colour and spottiness type of
relief on our face. Thus, a few well placed data bits can recall a huge
amount of meaningful information.


My conclusion is that what the brain calls mind, is the singularity
event (and I intentionally use this term from astrophysics) when this
entropic data arriving at the brain becomes meaningful information. Thus
it is not that the minds creates us, but that we are the brain when it
is making sense of the world around it. We are a state of the brain;
caused but not created.


But I am not about to jettison the concept of the mind just because I
believe that what is really going on here is the brain doing some very
serious data processing. Incidentally, I do not believe that the brain
is anything comparable to a computer system, at most computer systems
are bad imitations of what we believe to be the functions of the brain.
But I do not feel this is a useful argument for us.


The concept we call "mind" is none other than the brain celebrating its
incredible facility to bring order out of a disordered collection of
data perceptions coming to it from the world around it. Maybe Descartes
was the first brain in the history of life to permanently record its own
discovery. "I think, therefore I am", is maybe none other than the brain
telling itself that it is capable of bringing about its own order from a
stream of disordered data collections.


Maybe, my attempt at explaining the mind is another feeble attempt to
keep the brain without having to give up the mind. However, my account
clearly shows that there is a direct causal line between what the brain
receives from the world and who we are. Let's, therefore, just hope that
it is not a case of garbage in, garbage out.


Take care


Lawrence

*The debate on the Mind-Body problem has been exhaustively studied and
there are huge amounts of information available on the internet. I have
tried to keep away from the standard historical thinking on the subject,
if only not to repeat what we already know. All the terms and Names I
refer to in the essay can be found in Wikipedia, and for a good
historical introduction to the mind-body debate you can start with the
article in Wikipedia on the Philosophy of Mind.

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Are we the creation
of our own mind?

Friday, May 23, 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Do Religions help people?

Dear friends,


This Sunday we are discussing Do Religions help people? Since we have
discussed religion in various forms and I wrote essays for two of the
meetings on religion in the past I decided not to write another essay on
the topic.


Religion and Education
http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/2004/12/religion-and-education.html

Symbolism in Religion [symbols in religion]
http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/2006/12/symbolism-in-religion-symbols-in.html


I look forward to meeting you on Sunday.

Take care

Lawrence

IF YOU DON'T GET AN EMAIL BY FRIDAY PLEASE LET ME KNOW

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

TINA Flat http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/photosphilo/TINAFLAT

**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAY_FLAT_mayte_AlmerAVillaDeNJar

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAYFLAT_Paloma_MarbellaNearElviria
*************************************

+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
-Yahoo group >> philomadridgroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk <
-Old essays: www.geocities.com/philomadrid
- Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/
-Group photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo
-My tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Do Religions help
people?

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Do Religions help people?

Dear friends,


This Sunday we are discussing Do Religions help people? Since we have
discussed religion in various forms and I wrote essays for two of the
meetings on religion in the past I decided not to write another essay on
the topic.


Religion and Education
http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/2004/12/religion-and-education.html

Symbolism in Religion [symbols in religion]
http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/2006/12/symbolism-in-religion-symbols-in.html


I look forward to meeting you on Sunday.

Take care

Lawrence

IF YOU DON'T GET AN EMAIL BY FRIDAY PLEASE LET ME KNOW

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

TINA Flat http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/photosphilo/TINAFLAT

**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAY_FLAT_mayte_AlmerAVillaDeNJar

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAYFLAT_Paloma_MarbellaNearElviria
*************************************

+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
-Yahoo group >> philomadridgroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk <
-Old essays: www.geocities.com/philomadrid
- Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/
-Group photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo
-My tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Do Religions help
people?

Friday, May 16, 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: How much time should we spend on altruism?

Dear friends,


This week we are discussing this question: How much time should be spend
on altruism?


Because of the time element, it is quite an interesting question, but is
this the way to approach altruism?


See you at six on Sunday,


Take care


Lawrence


IF YOU DON'T GET AN EMAIL BY FRIDAY PLEASE LET ME KNOW

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

TINA Flat http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/photosphilo/TINAFLAT

**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAY_FLAT_mayte_AlmerAVillaDeNJar

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAYFLAT_Paloma_MarbellaNearElviria
*************************************

+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
-Yahoo group >> philomadridgroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk <
-Old essays: www.geocities.com/philomadrid
- Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/
-Group photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo
-My tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


How much time should we spend on altruism?


I think this questions needs further clarification. "We spend on
altruism" can be re-interpreted to mean "spend being altruists." We also
need to clarify what we mean by altruism. And then there is the feature,
"time"; what should we make of this factor?


My philosophical instinct is to think that any issues about the meaning
of altruism are not necessarily due to the complexity of the concept,
but the fact that so many people and disciplines have used and abused
the concept of altruism beyond recognition.


It is clear that most meanings of altruism focus on the "selfless
concern for the welfare of others."* Most religions promote altruism by,
proposing some form of the Golden Rule (categorical imperative) or
disinterested love. As the Wikipedia article points outs, some religions
advocate altruism as a moral value (Christianity, Buddhism) or as moral
behaviour (Islam, Judaism). In modern times, altruism has attracted the
attention of evolutionary biologist and psychologists. Thus for a
biologist, "altruism of an individual would be a behaviour that increase
the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the
actor." Fitness here means the ability to pass on one's genes.


Irrespective of our point of view we all recognise that there is a
dilemma or a paradox with altruism: why should we help others at our
expense? And it is this idea of "at our expense" that seems to make
altruism so special. Therefore, is altruism a class of special acts or
kinds of acts? Is it the type of act that makes an act altruistic and
the actor an altruist? Or it is some other criteria?


Of course, we do recognise that some acts are special and of a kind that
they do, by definition, attract the label or tag of altruism. Donating
an organ, adopting a needy child, helping the infirm. But the act does
not seem to be enough for some. The act might be laudable, but we are
also told to look at the motivation and intention. Is as altruistic act
the result of selflessness or does the actor expects some kind of reward
or return in the future. This consideration has attracted the attention
of many scholars and not surprisingly it has been given various names
and labels: reciprocity, mutualism, tit-for-tat strategy and so on.


An other problem that concerns altruism is that altruistic acts might be
exploited by cheats or selfish people. Altruism is even more open to
abuse in a group where altruistic acts are "pooled" together and then
shared around. Paying taxes is a common example to illustrate the point.
Those who cheat on their taxes are doing it at the expense of those who
do pay their taxes. A more striking example of this problem is the
criminal judicial systems. Judicial systems, at least in principle, go
to great lengths to clear innocent people and punish the guilty.
However, the high standards that a judicial system requires to prove
guilt means that some people are not convicted even when in fact they
did commit the crime.


The received position, and as the question seems also seems to assume,
is that altruistic acts are desirable and that for these acts to qualify
as altruistic acts they have to have an element of intention. Thus when
the question asks, how much time should we spend..? it assumes two
things. The first is that it is within our will to perform altruistic
acts and secondly it is within our powers to perform altruistic acts and
non altruistic acts.


I do not believe that acts, per se, can be classified in advance as
being altruistic or non-altruistic. There are many problems in
attempting to do this. Even if we knew what an altruistic act is in
advance, we still cannot guarantee that we can bring about the desired
effects. Nor can we assume that everyone knows which are altruistic and
non altruistic acts. There isn't a table we can consult. Moreover, not
everyone is able to perform the same act, in the same way that not
everyone can run a race. But most important of all, by having a
predefined list of acts is contrary to the belief that altruistic acts
must have an intentional selfless act. How can we tell what is an
intentional selfless act in advance? But even when intention is
considered, it is of arbitrary value: what matters is the benefit we
convey to the person we help.


However, altruistic acts are usually associated with acts that are
uncommon or unusual. Unusual either in the sense of the benefit bestowed
on the recipient or unusual in the nature of the act. Thus an organ
donor would qualify on both counts, but not necessarily someone donating
ten Euros to a cause.


But just because altruistic acts are of a special kind, I don't think
that they are also conceptually different from acts that involve others.
For example, helping others, sharing tasks with others, teaching, and so
on. These are some of the things we do with others or for others.


This is important because here we have the foundations of an answer for
the next question: how did we become altruists in the first place, or at
least some people have? I prefer to start with the study referred in the
Wikipedia article by Samuel Bowles. Bowles studied tribes in Africa and
found that "hunter-gatherer bands of up to 30 individuals" were more
closely related. The size of the these modern hunter gatherers are
assumed to be the same as prehistoric groups. These conditions made it
much easier to be altruistic towards other group members thus improving
the fitness of the group. This study is regarded as evidence of altruism
benefitting the model of group selection. Helping the individual would
also be helping the group and vice versa. Incidentally, the average
attendance count for our meetings is between 25 and 35. I wonder if
there are any Sabre tooth tigers lurking in the grass!


The value of this study is not so much that it gives credence to the
group benefit theory of altruism, but that this closed group makes it
more probably for the altruistic gene to get a strong hold in the human
biological system. Moreover, with such a small group and such dangerous
conditions, there would be more opportunities to invoke the altruistic
gene. But this still leaves the unanswered question, how do we account
for altruistic acts towards those who are not kin? Some of the quick and
ready answers are these:


1) Common ancestry. Two people today might not be next of kin or kin,
but back in time they stand a good chance of having a common ancestor.
And if we go back enough we will all find a common ancestor. So it
should not come as a surprise that the kin theory is super efficient and
applied beyond immediate relatives.


2) The altruistic gene might have been so successful that it has spread
to a large part of the population, in the same way that blood group O
(O-) (see Wikipedia or National Blood Service for England & North
Wales**) can be donated to others. The National Blood Service, in fact
say that the blood type O is the oldest group going back to the stone
age and that other groups are derived from this ancient group. Is it too
far fetched to think that the altruistic gene might have evolved in a
similar trajectory?


3) We might mimic those who are altruistic because it might be more
advantageous to so. If we can do this, it surely means that the
altruistic gene is more successful than the Group O gene because we can
mimic altruism but we cannot mimic group O blood.


But the kin theory or the group theory or the ancestor theory still
might not answer the biologist's concern of why should someone help
someone else be better off. Don't forget that being better off here
means better off at passing one's genes to the next generation. Once
again there might be a number of possible answers:


1) The altruist might have already successfully passed on their genes.


2) The risk is worth taking. For example, the risk of giving childbirth
is worth taking for a first time mother to be. (at least Biologically
speaking)


3) We have some control of the situation and therefore can bring about
the desired outcome.


4) We already have a fully functioning innate altruistic gene which
makes behaving or being altruistic much easier, although, of course, the
gene does not determine the behaviour.


The problem for the biologist is that a biologist can test and falsify
the hypothesis that there is an altruistic gene and we can inherit it,
but they cannot falsify a hypothesis that says a bunch of people, a few
thousand years ago, acted altruistically because they thought it was
worth the risk. Which is of course quite a reasonable issue for the
biologist but as Gödel pointed out, no formal system can prove all the
reasonable theories it postulates. Admittedly, Gödel was thinking of
mathematics and not everyone thinks that incompleteness theory applies
to everything. (See Gödel's first incompleteness theorem).


The next big issue is whether an altruist ought to benefit from their
acts. This problems has taxed the minds of philosophers and theologian,
plus everyone else for a long time. My approach would be, not that the
altruist should not benefit from his or her act but to ask, why
shouldn't they? As long as there is a net gain for the beneficiary, why not?


Maybe it is because altruists do get something for their efforts, that:
a) makes altruism more widespread, b) makes more people act altruistic,
c) we are better off as a society. For me the real problem is not
whether altruists get something for their actions, but whether cheats
get something at the expense of others.


Why should we concern ourselves with cheats and not with whether
altruistic acts must not benefit the actor? As has been done so far.
Apart from common sense and getting our thinking in order, the answer is
quite simple. If we look at altruism as a form of a game in game theory,
as some do, altruism would be a case where someone gains and another may
or may not lose. However, the more efficient game is the win-win
strategy. If everyone wins then by definition not only is the sum total
of benefit increases but is even more efficient; for example because the
costs are covered by more benefit. Saving a life costs the same whether
the altruist gets a benefit or not, but if the altruist was compensated
then the cost to benefit ratio would be more efficient.


In reality altruists do get compensated. Doctors who dedicate their
lives investigating cures for diseases are more likely to be respected
by their peers and society than if they just did their job from nine to
five. Some of these investigators go on to be awarded Nobel prizes or
other recognitions within their community. Patients who consent to
medical trials might even help their kin in the future, especially when
inherited diseases are involved.


So the idea that altruists should not benefit for their acts is just not
supported by the evidence. Of course, this does not mean that altruists
will always be compensated nor that this compensation can be quantified
immediately, if at all. What I am postulating is that altruism is not
incompatible with the altruist accruing a benefit.


However, whether an altruist accrues a benefit or not does not really
depend on any moral system, but probably more on whether the altruist
lives in a society populated by other altruists or cheats. Thus, an
altruist who does something to benefit someone else is more likely to
benefit themselves if they live in a society of altruists. And benefit
whether they like it or not. Which brings me back to the real issue of
altruism, the cheats.


The reason why we should concern ourselves with cheats is the following.
Altruists do not create positive effects to others by increasing
disadvantages (although I prefer to use negative effects) to themselves.
It is true that some altruists sometimes get killed or suffer greatly,
but this does not always happen and some altruistic acts are not in
themselves very risky. As I said before, altruism is at least a game
when one party wins and an other party may or may not lose. And when
altruists benefits the positive effects increase. However, cheats
actually create negative effects.


First of all cheats take something for nothing or at the very least not
deserved. But when a cheats benefits (in certain situations) they do it
at the expense of others who might need that benefit more than the
cheat. For example, cheating on social security means that others have
to pay more taxes. But more than that, cheats actually create negative
effects by teaching (or being an example) for others to cheat, displace
altruists in a society, and so on.


Acting altruistically might bring about the death of the altruist so how
can the altruist benefit is such situations? Of course, kin theory
already partially answers this, we derive a benefit by saving our kin.
But kin need not be an immediate relative; we can invoke the common
ancestor theory which answers another part of the problem. Maybe it is
extreme but I think very plausible.


Another reason why we ask the question of "how can someone who dies in
an act of altruism can also benefit?", is maybe because we are limiting
ourselves as to the meaning of positive effect or benefit. In other
words, a benefit might not necessarily be in kind (longer life),
economic (money) or psychological (feeling proud). The reward might be
what Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), and many others, call a meme. A meme is
a piece of "cultural information" that evolves in the same way as genes
evolve, they go through a natural selection process. Thus a meme, such
as a religious belief, can survive and if it is a strong meme it will
survive for a long time, in the same way that strong genes survive.
Don't forget that both a gene and a meme are physical pieces of
information: one resides in our sells the other in our brain.


Thus, some altruists might be rewarded by tuning their life, character,
act into a meme and therefore survive in our culture: that is in the
brains of those who know about the altruist. Not only do we now
understand how important information is, but we also know that this is
what actually happens. Mother Theresa may or may not be with god in
heaven, and we many or may not know whether there is a god or heaven,
but we know for a fact that she is in the minds of many millions of
people on this Earth. People who probably are themselves doing good
things because they have heard of Mother Theresa or beneficiaries of
someone behaving altruistically because they know about Mother Theresa.


Another example, is Marie Curie, who certainly died from radiation
poising, but here discovers in radioactive isotopes and early x-ray
machines have greatly benefited human kind. Sure, she was rewarded with
foreign peer recognition and even won the Nobel Prize twice, but maybe
it is her meme that lives on with even greater recognition. Not only
many people know about Marie Curie, but the European Union has named an
important scientific fellowship*** for young scientists after her: The
Marie Curie Actions. A question we can ask ourselves in passing is
whether the influence of altruistic acts can propagate themselves ad
infinitum (or until the end of the species)?


Our original question asks, how much time should we spend being
altruist? Probably this is the wrong question to ask. Altruistic acts
are opportunistic acts, not planned acts. We now have the opportunity to
save a drowning child. We now have the opportunity to carry a organ
donor's card. We now have the opportunity to help a friend.


Thus, how much time should we spend on altruism, ought to be changed to
how many opportunities should we try and find to be altruists? Maybe in
our search to perform altruistic acts we might care to consider some
useful criteria. I propose the following more as guidelines rather than
a prescription:


1) What can we positively influence positively with our abilities? For
example, there is no point trying to save someone drowning if we cannot
swim, but maybe call the relevant authorities might be more useful.


2) Who can we possibly help so that they receive the maximum assistance
they need? If someone who lives alone needs someone to go with them to
the hospital maybe this is something we can do.


3) Will our altruistic act increase the benefit to society or humanity?
Are we being efficient altruist by contributing a hundred Euros to an
aid relief charity or are we better off actively canvassing against
corrupt dictators in some counties?


Let us take a simple example to test this criteria: carrying an organ
donor card. Would contributing an organ be influencing a positive effect
with our abilities. Yes, we have full authority to what happens to our
organs after we die. Are we offering maximum help to those who need it?
If our organs are suitable then surely yes. Are we increasing the
benefit to society? Yes, we are an example to others and therefore
teaching and influencing others to carry donor cards. And as for
compensation, at the very least we are not worse off or better off, we
are dead. But maybe one of our kin or friends might one day benefit from
someone carrying a donor's card. Isn't that a risk worth taking?


Maybe, except for one minor objection. The three criteria sound all well
and good, but strictly speaking we associate altruism with substantial
acts: helping the poor in India; sharing an organ with someone when we
are still alive; helping to diagnose SARS and then help the victims of
SARS, but later die from the disease itself as Dr Carlo Urbani**** did.
But the issue about altruism is not necessarily whether our acts are big
or not. Remember, I rejected the idea that altruistic acts can be
classified, but we should consider whether an altruistic act has the
desired effect.


Dr Urbani was not and will not be the first doctor to contract and die
from the disease his patients had. what his acts have done is to
establish a practical culture in dealing with pandemic infections that
goes beyond political borders and political paranoia.


But nature has already taken care of this little problem (pardon the
pun) of whether small acts matter? The solution is very simple: chaos.
This is nature's way of having small causes have big effects: remember
the butterfly in China and the tornado in America? Chaos works, as you
know, by making small causes have big effects. This, I would suggest,
solves the problem of how big our acts must be. In the case of altruism
I would hypothesise that: big is no always better than small but small
is always better than nothing.


Take care


Lawrence

* Altruism. (2008, May 12). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 18:21, May 14, 2008, from

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Altruism&oldid=211830162
* Biological Altruism
First published Tue 3 Jun, 2003
Samir Okasha
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/


** National Blood Service for England & North Wales
http://www.blood.co.uk/pages/world_blood.html


*** The Marie Curie Actions
http://ec.europa.eu/research/fp6/mariecurie-actions/indexhtm_en.html


**** SARS and Carlo Urbani
By Brigg Reilley, M.P.H., Michel Van Herp, M.D., M.P.H., Dan Sermand,
Ph.D.,and Nicoletta Dentico, M.P.H.
http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/348/20/1951
n engl j med 348;20
www.nejm.org
may 15, 2003


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: How much time
should we spend on altruism?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Common sense

LET ME KNOW IF YOU DON'T GET AN EMAIL BY FRIDAY.


Dear friends,


This Sunday we are talking about Common Sense. Let's hope there won't be
any more football games.


The essay I wrote is rather on the short side and not very detailed, but
it covers more or less my ideas. This is / was a big subject in the past
so there is a lot of literature on the subject. There was even a
Scottish school of Common Sense (school as in philosophical movement).
Of course, apologies for any typos and silly mistakes.


Take care


Lawrence


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Common sense


Whilst I get on with the essay , you might wish to consider this
question: can we give a common sense definition of common sense?


John Locke* used the term common sense to describe a situation where we
accept an innate moral principle, for example, the categorical
imperative and then to question its validity. If we did accept such a
principle it would be contrary to common sense if we then asked why
should we accept this principle. It is not common sense to believe of a
thing that "... the same thing to be and not to be." Thomas
Reid(1710-1796), who was born soon after Locke (1632-1704) died was a
great advocate of common sense and was one of the influential Scottish
Common Sense movement in philosophy. ** Reid believed that our common
sense structures were reflected in our ordinary language.


There is a brief article on common sense in Wikipedia*** which gives a
very rough and ready history of the term common sense. In a way, the
evolution of common sense must have reached a plateau with the
attributed opinion of Einstein who it is claimed said: "Common sense is
the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen."


In spite of the prominence and fall of the term common sense today we
can safely say that common sense is not a methodology to equal for
example the scientific method. Maybe it is true that our language does
reflect what we take as being obvious, but there are many obvious things
that not factually correct.


However, there is no doubt that we still use the term common sense in
our daily life. I searched the term in Google news and randomly picked
three stories with the term common sense in them. (see ref below for
details****)

1) The Alzheimer's Society says: "It defies common sense that people
with the disease have to get worse before they are offered drugs."
2) .......Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen tells us that
investment in human rights results in major returns in social cohesion
and economic participation. Of course, we don't need studies to tell us
this, just common sense.
3) Americans could use about 10-15% less gasoline just by adopting these
common sense measures.


One of the most important aspect of these stories is the capacity to
link common sense with value judgements. Although we can identify a
moral implication or angle in all three stories, can we conclude that
all common sense judgements are also moral judgements?


That patients ought to be treated immediately when their disease is
discovered is not just a common sense judgement but also a moral
judgment. It is reasonable to assume that someone with a disease that
can be treated ought to be treated.


But clinical judgements might not always follow our common sense
judgments. And if we accept this premise we also have to accept that
common sense not moral judgments. They might sometimes be, but they are
not necessarily always moral judgements. If common sense judgements were
also moral judgments we would be in the same position as the physician
making a clinical judgment. Since most of us are not physicians but we
are all moral agents. Which would be perfectly ridiculous and absurd as
Locke might have said.


The example of Americans saving on their gasoline is more a case of
prescription rather than moral judgment. An argument based on saving the
planet or humanity might not be as persuasive as saving a few bucks. In
fact I do not see these type of common sense moral judgement. Polluting
our environment with poisons and toxins is not a moral issue but a
matter of simple cause and effect. Which is why I say that this form of
common sense is more prescriptive than anything else. If "x" causes "y"
and we want "y" then we better make sure that "x" takes place.


Even prescriptive judgements are not necessarily reasonable judgements.
If we want to be generous we can interpret the 10-15% savings as fuel
that is not polluting the environment plus the bonus of having 10-15%
more fuel in the future. But if we are conspiracy theorists we might
interpret the 10-15% saving as gasoline that will be made available in
the future at a higher price. Especially when we consider that petroleum
stocks are not infinite.


Thus common sense may or may not be moral judgments or prescriptive
judgements. However, the three examples have another factor in common.
The three of them appeal to our emotional feeling. The use of "just" and
"defies" are supposed to make us feel that there is no time to waste or
that we should spring into action now: there is nothing more we can need
before we act.


And it is this need to act that makes these common sense judgments as
emotional judgements. If we were indifferent we would not have any
reason to act, but emotions are the driving force to action. Maybe too
driving for the likes or comfort of some people. For example in the
statement by Alzheimer's Society we can just about feel the anger if not
ire of the speaker. And the second reference which is from the Herald
Sun, Australia, we can feel the frustration of the writer at the
injustice experienced by the poor.


Maybe the emotional content is the factor which Reid linked common sense
with language. It is not that we have common sense in common but maybe
we have emotions in common. Even if emotions are present in common
sense, does this make common sense judgements also universal judgements?
Given, of course, that we all have emotions.


Let us consider a situation which might involve all the three elements
of common sense: moral, prescriptive and emotional. A situation that
might involve all three is our relationship with friends and colleagues.
Our relationship with our colleagues involves us in all three elements
by virtue of our rights and duties at work. The emotional bonding or
relationship we have with friends, in a way, imposes on us a sort of
moral and prescriptive duty. For example, we want to help our friends.


So how should we deal with a colleague who is interfering with our work
because of their behaviour? Or what are we to do if a friend of ours is
behaving in an unfriendly way? Ignoring both people might be a way out.
Hoping that in time they will realise the error of their ways and start
behaving in a "normal" fashion. Of course doing nothing as a strategy is
different from being indifferent to the situation. Indifference as I
indicated earlier is the absence of emotion consequence or feeling. But
doing nothing might send the wrong signal, maybe our doing nothing might
be interpreted as everything is fine.


But it is also true that being indifferent towards a colleague or a
friend is not the normal thing to do. When we have a problem with a
friend or colleague we do feel we ought to do something about it. We
feel we ought to tell our colleague or our boss about our colleague's
behaviour. Or we feel we ought to tell our friend or our other friends
about our friend's behaviour. Thus not only does the emotional factor
seems to give common sense a universal element but also an impetuous to
act morally or express prescriptive opinions.


However, indifference is a challenge to the emotional element in common
sense thus making it difficult for emotions to be the universal element
of common sense. It seems that although common sense has a number of
virtues none seem to be either innate nor universally binding. The fact
that each of us can interpret a situation differently denies common
sense a universal element. Someone might feel enraged at a colleague,
but some others might feel indifferent.


There might of course be other reasons why common sense is not
necessarily universal. Common sense might not be a methodology to
process sense perceptions or sense data as Aristotle seemed to have
believed (see Wikipedia), but a function of our already existing
epistemic state. Thus we do not processes events from the world outside
us and come to some sort of conclusion as to what to do; for example
drive slower to save gas, administer the drug to fight the disease. But
we incorporate these new sense data into our exiting knowledge and
information and process this new state of knowledge to its logical or
inductive conclusion.


We do not look at the patient and say it is common sense to give them
the drug because that is what is morally right to do. On the contrary,
it is common sense for the Society to say that these patients ought to
get the drug early because they know very well why patients are not
getting the drug early. It was a decision by the UK drugs advisory body
(NICE) who claimed that the relevant drugs are only cost effective in
patients with advanced disease. Fortunately for patients with Alzheimer
disease the Court of Appeal disagreed with NICE and now it is hoped the
drug will be available to all those who need it. We can safely assume
that both the Society and the Court of Appeal, by implication, did not
reach this common sense position on a whim or an emotional reaction.


Maybe something to be common sense because we know it is a relevant
conclusion based on knowledge or experience. This might explain why
common sense judgements are not as common as other judgements. When we
say something is common sense it is because we reach that conclusion
after a rational process. The dilemma is that those who lack the
necessary background knowledge might not be able to reach the same
conclusion as those who do. And this is for me the weakness of common
sense. Common sense judgements have very little to do with sense
perception, morality or even emotion, but have more connection with our
epistemic state of mind. More connection with the knowledge, experience
and information we have. This would immediately exclude common sense
form being an objective process, function or methodology.


So can we give a common sense definition of common sense? I think I have
just done that. But your common sense might be better than my common sense.


Take care


Lawrence


*The Project Gutenberg EBook of An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding,
Volume I., by John Locke
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10615/10615.txt

** Yaffe, Gideon, "Thomas Reid", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(Winter 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2005/entries/reid/>.


*** Wikipedia, common sense


****
1) Dear Miriam - Health topic of the day: Take the fight to Alzheimer's
5/05/2008

http://www.mirror.co.uk/showbiz/yourlife/drmiriam/2008/05/05/dear-miriam-health-topic-of-the-day-take-the-fight-to-alzheimer-s-89520-20406141/
What's the treatment?

Last year the government's drugs advisory body Nice decided they aren't
cost-effective for early-stage sufferers and should only be available on
the NHS for advanced cases.

But last week the Court of Appeal ruled the process Nice used to make
that decision was unfair - raising hopes the drugs may soon be made
available for all sufferers.

The Alzheimer's Society says: "It defies common sense that people with
the disease have to get worse before they are offered drugs."

Patients can buy them privately, but this costs at least £100 month.


--------------------

2) Listen to home truths
Article from: Herald Sun (Australia)
http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,23644155-5000117,00.html

Philip Lynch, May 05, 2008 12:00am

In the area of income support, social security payments remain pegged
below the Henderson Poverty Line.

The cost of inaction in these areas far exceeds the cost of action.

The work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen tells us that
investment in human rights results in major returns in social cohesion
and economic participation.

Of course, we don't need studies to tell us this, just common sense.

The UN committee commences its review of Australia in just a few weeks.


----------------------

3) The Oil & Gas Journal,
Bingaman lashes at Bush for oil, gas supply inaction
Nick Snow, Washington Editor
WASHINGTON, DC, May 5
Copyright © 2008: PennWell Corporation, Tulsa, OK; All Rights Reserved.

Consumers also need to understand that they increase their motor
vehicle's fuel efficiency by about 7.5% for every 5-mph reduction in
speed, by about 4% when the vehicle's tires are properly inflated, and
by about 2% with regular maintenance, according to Bingaman.

"Americans could use about 10-15% less gasoline just by adopting these
common sense measures. But they won't ever do so unless there is a lot
of publicity that makes clear that they can save the equivalent of
50¢/gal by taking these simple steps," he said.


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Common sense

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