Archive for September 13th, 2007
An interesting Web site with news and views from many countries. Could be invaluable to the insular US.
The essay is linked in this post:
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written a thought-provoking essay for Edge which charts the recent revolution in the psychology and neuroscience of moral reasoning and suggests that the current critiques of religion have mischaracterised its true nature, based on these new findings.
Haidt summarises the main tenants of the new science of morality as four main principles:
1) Intuitive primacy but not dictatorship. This is the idea, going back to Wilhelm Wundt and channeled through Robert Zajonc and John Bargh, that the mind is driven by constant flashes of affect in response to everything we see and hear.
2) Moral thinking is for social doing. This is a play on William James‘ pragmatist dictum that thinking is for doing, updated by newer work on Machiavellian intelligence. The basic idea is that we did not evolve language and reasoning because they helped us to find truth; we evolved these skills because they were useful to their bearers, and among their greatest benefits were reputation management and manipulation.
3) Morality binds and builds. This is the idea stated most forcefully by Emile Durkheim that morality is a set of constraints that binds people together into an emergent collective entity.
4) Morality is about more than harm and fairness. In moral psychology and moral philosophy, morality is almost always about how people treat each other. Here’s an influential definition from the Berkeley psychologist Elliot Turiel: morality refers to “prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other.”
The essay then goes on to discuss how the recent findings in then area apply to the ongoing debate between the ‘new atheists‘ (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and the like) and religion.
In particular, Haidt suggests that the recent criticisms of religion don’t always reflect the best psychological understanding of what are primarily social, rather than ideological, institutions, and notes research findings showing that religious people tend to be happier and more altruistic than others.
As a self-professed non-believer and high-profile social psychologist, Haidt makes some interesting points that are bound to cause controversy.
The first deals with a peculiar double standard endemic to the Right Wing of the GOP: strong support of the First Amendment to the US Constitution when applied to other countries, but a great distaste for the First Amendment when used in the US.
The second explores an odd contrary-to-observed-fact fantasy that’s not unusual on the Right, even though it’s easily contradicted by daily events.
Both are worth reading.
Millard Kaufman, a début novelist whose book “Bowl of Cherries” comes out this month, has been described by his publisher, McSweeney’s, as quite possibly “the best extant epic-comedic writer of his generation.” This is high praise, and would be higher still were it not for the fact that there are few, if any, epic-comedic writers extant from Kaufman’s generation. Kaufman, who turned ninety in March, is seventy-six years older than the hero of “Cherries,” who, through a number of compelling, if implausible, twists of fate, winds up in prison in the fictional southern Iraqi town of Coproliabad, so named for its specialization in turning human excrement into a kind of cheap, durable concrete.
“People seem to me to have a number of basic problems, and one of them is, What do you do with human waste?” Kaufman said the other day. “So I thought, What would happen if somebody took this stuff and did something positive with it?” The novel, which is equal parts “Catcher in the Rye” and “Die Hard,” is likely to offend Iraqis to the same degree that the work of Sacha Baron Cohen offends natives of Kazakhstan. “It seemed to me there was a lot of public interest in Iraq, which is why I set it there, but it could have been set in Oswego, New York, where I have also never been,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman grew up in Baltimore. After graduating from Johns Hopkins, he moved to New York and became a copyboy at the Daily News for thirteen dollars and seventy cents a week. When the Second World War broke out, he enlisted in the Marines, with whom he participated in the campaign to win Guadalcanal and landed at Guam and Okinawa. “I weighed a hundred and eighty-two pounds when I went overseas, and when my wife met me afterward she didn’t recognize me—I weighed a hundred and twenty-eight,” Kaufman said. “I had dengue fever and malaria, and I didn’t really feel like I could spend the heat of the summer or the cold of the winter in New York anymore.”
He moved to California, where he took up screenwriting, winning an Oscar nomination in 1953 for a movie called “Take the High Ground.” (He was nominated again two years later, for “Bad Day at Black Rock.”) He lent his name to Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted, for a movie called “Gun Crazy.” “The only time I ever met him was at a meeting of the Writers Guild,” Kaufman said. “It was such a bore, and I left and went into a bar at the hotel, and Trumbo was there. We met because some guy was standing between us who was fairly drunk, and he said, ‘What’s all that noise?’ One of us said, ‘It’s a writers’ meeting.’ He said, ‘What do they write?’ and we said, ‘Movies.’ He looked aghast and said, ‘You mean they write that stuff?’ ” Kaufman’s most enduring contribution to entertainment, at least thus far in his career, is as co-creator of Mr. Magoo, whom he modelled in part on an uncle. “That is what we thought the character was based on until, twenty years later, we were accused of being nasty about people with bad eyesight,” he said.
How we forget… I was obsessed with contract bridge for quite a while, and spent one trimester of my first year of graduate school playing more or less constantly, until I switched to Go. I even played some in high school and as an undergraduate. However, I’ve never played in a bridge club or at a bridge tournament. Still, it’s a mesmerizing game—from a recent article:
A passion for bridge is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t share it. One attraction is the sense of endlessly unfolding complexity: the more you learn, the less you feel you know. Computers have been able to beat the world’s best chess players for a decade, but—as Edward McPherson writes in a lively, somewhat haphazard new book, The Backwash Squeeze & Other Improbable Feats: A Newcomer’s Journey Into the World of Bridge (HarperCollins; $23.95 [$16.29 on Amazon - LG])—they “still stink at bridge.” There are 635,013,559,600 possible bridge hands, and a vast catalogue of approaches and techniques and stratagems for playing them. (A backwash squeeze, by the way, is an obscure offensive tactic whereby a player, facing a certain arrangement of cards, forces an opponent to make a certain kind of self-defeating discard.) The best players are able to visualize their opponents’ hands after just a few cards have been played and to imagine strategies that would never occur to the less skillful, yet even they find the game inexhaustible. One player told McPherson, “For people who enjoy puzzles, this is one they will never solve.”
Also from the article:
Edgar Allan Poe, the great ratiocinator, viewed a passion for whist as a sign of mental acumen; the opening pages of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” are almost a stand-alone essay on the game’s superiority to chess:
Whist has long been known for its influence upon what is termed the calculating power; and men of the highest order of intellect have been known to take an apparently unaccountable delight in it, while eschewing chess as frivolous. . . . The best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess; but proficiency in whist implies a capacity for success in all those more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind.
And it rouses the passions: