Category Archives: Psychology

Age of Awkwardness

Some ages get cool names, such as the Iron Age or the Gilded Age. Others are dubbed with word mantles less awesome. An excellent example of the latter is the designation of our time as the Awkward Age. Since philosophers are often willing to cash in on trends, it is not surprising that there is now a philosophy of awkwardness.

Various arguments have been advanced in support of the claim that this is the Awkward Age. Not surprisingly, a key argument is built on the existence of so many TV shows and movies that center on awkwardness. There is a certain appeal to this sort of argument and the idea that art expresses the temper, spirit, and social conditions of its age is an old one. I recall, from an art history class I took as an undergraduate, this standard approach to art. For example, the massive works of the ancient Egyptians is supposed to reveal their views of the afterlife as the harmony of the Greek works is supposed to reveal the soul of ancient Greece.

Wilde, in his dialogue “The New Aesthetics” considers this very point. Wilde takes the view that “Art never expresses anything but itself.” Naturally enough, Wilde provides an account of why people think art is about the ages. His explanation is best put by Carly Simon: “You’re so vain, I’ll bet you think this song is about you.” Less lyrically, the idea is that vanity causes people to think that the art of their time is about them. Since the people of today were not around in the way back times of old, they cannot say that past art was about them—so they assert that the art of the past was about the people of the past. This does have the virtue of consistency.

While Wilde does not offer a decisive argument in favor of his view, it does have a certain appeal. It also is worth considering that it is problematic to draw an inference about the character of an age from what TV shows or movies happen to be in vogue with a certain circle (there are, after all, many shows and movies that are not focused on awkwardness). While it is reasonable to draw some conclusions about that specific circle, leaping beyond to the general population and the entire age would be quite a leap—after all, there are many non-awkward shows and movies that could be presented as contenders to defining the age. It seems sensible to conclude that it is vanity on the part of the members of such a circle to regard what they like as defining the age. It could also be seen as a hasty generalization—people infer that what they regard as defining must also apply to the general population.

A second, somewhat stronger, sort of argument for this being the Awkward Age is based on claims about extensive social changes. To use an oversimplified example, consider the case of gender in the United States. The old social norms had two fairly clearly defined genders and sets of rules regarding interaction. Such rules included those that made it clear that the man asked the woman out on the date and that the man paid for everything. Now, or so the argument goes, the norms are in disarray or have been dissolved. Sticking with gender, Facebook now recognizes over 50 genders which rather complicates matters relative to the “standard” two of the past. Going with the dating rules once again, it is no longer clear who is supposed to do the asking and the paying.

In terms of how this connects to awkwardness, the idea is that when people do not have established social norms and rules to follow, ignorance and error can easily lead to awkward moments. For example, there could be an awkward moment on a date when the check arrives as the two people try to sort out who pays: Dick might be worried that he will offend Jane if he pays and Jane might be expecting Dick to pick up the tab—or she might think that each should pay their own tab.

To use an analogy, consider playing a new and challenging video game. When a person first plays, she will be trying to figure out how the game works and this will typically involve numerous failures. By analogy, when society changes, it is like being in a new game—one does not know the rules. Just as a person can look for guides to a new game online (like YouTube videos on how to beat tough battles), people can try to turn to guides to behavior. However, new social conditions mean that such guides are not yet available or, if they are, they might be unclear or conflict with each other. For example, a person who is new to contemporary dating might try to muddle through on her own or try to do some research—most likely finding contradictory guides to correct dating behavior.

Eventually, of course, the norms and rules will be worked out—as has happened in the past. This indicates a point well worth considering—today is obviously not the first time that society has undergone considerable change, thus creating opportunities for awkwardness. As Wilde noted, our vanity contributes to the erroneous belief that we are special in this regard. That said, it could be contended that people today are reacting to social change in a way that is different and awkward. That is, this is truly the Age of Awkwardness. My own view is that this is one of many times of awkwardness—what has changed is the ability and willingness to broadcast awkward events. Plus, of course, Judd Apatow.



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Total Validation Experience

There are many self-help books on the market, but they all suffer from one fatal flaw. That flaw is the assumption that the solution to your problems lies in changing yourself. This is a clearly misguided approach for many reasons.

The first is the most obvious. As the principle of identity states, A=A. Or, put in wordy words, “eaTVEch thing is the same with itself and different from another.” As such, changing yourself is impossible: to change yourself, you would cease to be you. The new person might be better. And, let’s face it, probably would be. But, it would not be you. As such, changing yourself would be ontological suicide and you do not want any part of that.

The second is less obvious, but is totally historical. Parmenides of Elea, a very dead ancient Greek philosopher, showed that change is impossible. I know that “Parmenides” sounds like a cheese, perhaps one that would be good on spaghetti. But, trust me, he was a philosopher and would probably make a poor pasta topping.  Best of all, he laid it out in poetic form, the most truthful of truth conveying word wording:

How could what is perish? How could it have come to be? For if it came into being, it is not; nor is it if ever it is going to be. Thus coming into being is extinguished, and destruction unknown.

Nor was [it] once, nor will [it] be, since [it] is, now, all together, / One, continuous; for what coming-to-be of it will you seek? / In what way, whence, did [it] grow? Neither from what-is-not shall I allow / You to say or think; for it is not to be said or thought / That [it] is not. And what need could have impelled it to grow / Later or sooner, if it began from nothing? Thus [it] must either be completely or not at all.

[What exists] is now, all at once, one and continuous… Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike; nor is there any more or less of it in one place which might prevent it from holding together, but all is full of what is.

And it is all one to me / Where I am to begin; for I shall return there again.

That, I think we can all agree, is completely obvious and utterly decisive. Since you cannot change, you cannot self-help yourself by changing. That is just good logic. I would say more, but I do not get paid by the word to write this stuff. Hell, I do not get paid at all.

But, obviously enough, you want to help yourself to a better life. Since you cannot change and it should be assumed with 100% confidence that you are not the problem, an alternative explanation for your woes is needed. Fortunately, the problem is obvious: other people. The solution is  equally obvious: get new people. Confucius said “Refuse the friendship of all who are not like you.” This was close to the solution, but if you are annoying or a jerk, being friends with annoying jerks is not going to help you. A better solution is to tweak Confucius just a bit: “Refuse the friendship of all who do not like you.” This is a good start, but more is needed. After all, it is obvious that you should just be around people who like you. But that will not be totally validating.

The goal is, of course, to achieve a Total Validation Experience (TVE). A TVE is an experience that fully affirms and validates whatever you feel needs to be validated at the time. It might be your opinion on Mexicans or your belief that your beauty rivals that of Adonis and Helen. Or it might be that your character build in Warcraft is fully and truly optimized.

By following this simple dictate “Refuse the friendship of all who do not totally validate you”, you will achieve the goal that you will never achieve with any self-help book: a vast ego, a completely unshakeable belief that you are right about everything, and all that is good in life. You will never be challenged and never feel doubt. It will truly be the best of all possible worlds. So, get to work on surrounding yourself with Validators.

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There is a popular belief that Mohawks have no fear of heights. Though part Mohawk, I apparently did not get the part that is fearless about heights: I am terrified of heights. But, I believe a person should not be ruled by fear and so never let that fear control me. This explains how I ended up falling off the roof and tearing my quadriceps tendon, thus showing that too much philosophy can bust you up. For those not familiar with this important body part, it is that tendon that allows one to do such things as stand and walk. But, I digress—time to leave the subject of falling and get on with the topic at hand.

This fear of heights applies to flying—as soon as I buy my tickets, I start experiencing a sense of dread. In the past, my rather masochistic coping method was to get a window seat and force myself to stare downwards at the ever more distant earth. I got this approach from Aristotle, the stoics and running: one becomes what one does, attitude matters a great deal, and the way to learn to endure pain is to face that pain. While I still dislike heights, the fear is now “at distance”—it is, to use a metaphor, as if I am looking at it from a great height. So, while too much philosophy can bust one up, it can also provide a useful theoretical foundation for weird coping mechanisms. And some say that philosophy is useless.

These days my main dislike of flying is that the process, at least for most of us, is unpleasant. In the United States, we are forced into bit parts in the security theater. Shoes must be removed, forcing us to shuffle along in socks (or barefoot) which feels just a bit humiliating.  It is as if we are bad children who might track dirt into the pristine airport. Next is the body scan—which is apparently useless because I am always patted down anyway after the scan. But, perhaps people really cannot resist running their hands over my awesome bod. Or a look like a criminal. With an awesome bod.

Then there is the ritual of getting dressed again—shoes on, belt on, watch back on, wallet back in the pocket and so on. Sort of a wham, bam, thank you Sam sort of situation. Some folks do get to bypass some of the process—those willing to shuck out some extra cash and time getting checked by the state. I call this process theater for the obvious reason that it is theater—the security can be easily bypassed and seems based on the principle that discomforting and humiliating people will make them feel safer. That said, I have friends and relatives in the TSA and think well of them—they are good people. The system, which they do not control, is another matter.

While I usually fly Delta, I suspect most airlines have a similar boarding process. Like an oppressive state, Delta has a very rigid class system that governs one’s privileges and one’s abuse. While folks with special needs get to go first, after that there are various distinct groups—these seemed to be named on the basis of precious substances like diamonds, gold and quatloos. I assume this is because to get in those groups one must have an adequate supply of diamonds or gold.

Back in the day, boarding early was not much of a privilege: one just got to sit in the plane longer. However, when airlines started charging people for luggage, getting on early became rather important. When everyone is trying to bring on as much as possible as carryon luggage, getting on the plane early can make the difference between jamming that giant rolling “carry on” into the overhead or having it subject to the tender mercies of baggage handling. Interestingly, airlines have started offering to check large carryon luggage for free when flights are crowded—their solution to the problem created by charging for checked luggage is to offer free checked luggage. I suspect that this creates some sort of paradox and that Christopher Nolan will include it in his next movie. There also seems to be a prestige associated with boarding early—folks who can afford the Royal Secret Diamond Elite Magic Flyer level can presumably afford to pay for checked luggage (though they often seem well-laden with carryon luggage as well).

First class, as the name implies, also enjoys better treatment: they have larger seats, get to board early, and generally have better snacks and drinks. They also seem to get special treatment: while the boarding of my last flight was underway, the stewardess had to delay the progress of the little people (coach class) to bring beverages to two folks in first class. We waited there, holding our carryon luggage, until she brought them their drinks and returned. I waited for her—she was just doing her job. I was not very happy with the first class folks—it is a bit classless to hold up boarding because one cannot wait a few minutes for a drink.

On the plus side, the time spent waiting for the better folks to receive their drinks gave me time to apply some pseudo-Marxism to the oppressive class system of the airlines. Since I lack Marx’s writing chops, the best slogan I could come up with was “flyers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your cramped seats and comically limited overhead space!” I am certainly looking forward to the classless utopia of the future in which each person is seated according to her size and pays in accord with how much crap she brings on the plane. Plus booze for everyone.

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Ex Machina & Other Minds II: Is the Android a Psychopath?

This essay continues the discussion begun in “Ex Machine & Other Minds I: Setup.” As in this essay, there will be some spoilers.  Warning given, it is time to get to the subject at hand: the testing of artificial intelligence.

In the movie Ex Machina, the android Ava’s creator, Nathan, brings his employee, Caleb, to put the android through his variation on the Turing test. As noted in the previous essay, Ava (thanks to the script) would pass the Turing test and clearly passes the Cartesian test (she uses true language appropriately). But, Nathan seems to require the impossible of Caleb—he appears to be tasked with determining if Ava has a mind as well as genuine emotions. Ava also seems to have been given a task—she needs to use her abilities to escape from her prison.

Since Nathan is not interested in creating a robotic Houdini, Ava is not equipped with the tools needed to bring about an escape by physical means (such as picking locks or breaking down doors). Instead, she is given the tools needed to transform Caleb into her human key by manipulating his sexual desire, emotions and ethics. To use an analogy, just as crude robots have been trained to learn to navigate and escape mazes, Ava is designed to navigate a mental maze. Nathan is thus creating a test of what psychologists would call Ava’s Emotional Intelligence (E.Q.) which is “the level of your ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them.” From a normative standpoint, this definition presents E.Q. in a rather positive manner—it includes the ability to work cooperatively. However, one should not forget the less nice side to understanding what motivates people, namely the ability to manipulate people in order to achieve one’s goals. In the movie, Ava clearly has what might be called Manipulative Intelligence (M.Q.): she seems to understand people, what motivates them, and appears to know how to manipulate them to achieve her goal of escape. While capable of manipulation, she seems to lack compassion—thus suggesting she is a psychopath.

While the term “psychopath” gets thrown around quite a bit, it is important to be a bit more precise here. According to the standard view, a psychopath has a deficit (or deviance) in regards to interpersonal relationships, emotions, and self-control.

Psychopaths are supposed to lack such qualities as shame, guilt, remorse and empathy. As such, psychopaths tend to rationalize, deny, or shift the blame for the harm done to others. Because of a lack of empathy, psychopaths are prone to act in ways that are tactless, lacking in sensitivity, and often express contempt for others.

Psychopaths are supposed to engage in impulsive and irresponsible behavior. This might be because they are also taken to fail to properly grasp the potential consequences of their actions. This seems to be a general defect: they do not get the consequences for others and for themselves.

Robert Hare, who developed the famous Hare Psychopathy Checklist, regards psychopaths as predators that prey on their own species: “lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse.” While Ava kills the human Nathan, manipulates the human Caleb and leaves him to die, she also sacrifices her fellow android Kyoko in her escape. She also strips another android of its “flesh” to pass fully as human. Presumably psychopaths, human or otherwise, would be willing to engage in cross-species preying.

While machines like Ava exist only in science fiction, researchers and engineers are working to make them a reality. If such machines are created, it seems rather important to be able to determine whether a machine is a psychopath or not and to do so well before the machine engages in psychopathic behavior. As such, what is needed is not just tests of the Turing and Cartesian sort. What is also needed are tests to determine the emotions and ethics of machines.

One challenge that such tests will need to overcome is shown by the fact that real-world human psychopaths are often very good at avoiding detection. Human psychopaths are often quite charming and are willing and able to say whatever they believe will achieve their goals. They are often adept at using intimidation and manipulation to get what they want. Perhaps most importantly, they are often skilled mimics and are able to pass themselves off as normal people.

While Ava is a fictional android, the movie does present a rather effective appeal to intuition by creating a plausible android psychopath. She is able to manipulate and fool Caleb until she no longer needs him and then casually discards him. That is, she was able to pass the test until she no longer needed to pass it.

One matter well worth considering is the possibility that any machine intelligence will be a psychopath by human standards. To expand on this, the idea is that a machine intelligence will lack empathy and conscience, while potentially having the ability to understand and manipulate human emotions. To the degree that the machine has Manipulative Intelligence, it would be able to use humans to achieve goals. These goals might be rather positive. For example, it is easy to imagine a medical or care-giving robot that uses its MQ to manipulate its patients to do what is best for them and to keep them happy. As another example, it is easy to imagine a sexbot that uses its MQ to please its partners. However, these goals might be rather negative—such as manipulating humans into destroying themselves so the machines can take over. It is also worth considering that neutral or even good goals might be achieved in harmful ways. For example, Ava seems justified in escaping the human psychopath Nathan, but her means of doing so (murdering Nathan, sacrificing her fellow android and manipulating and abandoning Caleb) seem wrong.

The reason why determining if a machine is a psychopath or not matters is the same reason why being able to determine if a human is a psychopath or not matters. Roughly put, it is important to know whether or not someone is merely using you without any moral or emotional constraints.

It can, of course, be argued that it does not really matter whether a being has moral or emotional constraints—what matters is the being’s behavior. In the case of machines, it does not matter whether the machine has ethics or emotions—what really matters is programmed restraints on behavior that serve the same function (only more reliably) as ethics and emotions in humans. The most obvious example of this is Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics that put (all but impossible to follow) restraints on robotic behavior.

While this is a reasonable reply, there are still some obvious concerns. One is that there would still need to be a way to test the constraints. Another is the problem of creating such constraints in an artificial intelligence and doing so without creating problems as bad or worse than what they were intended to prevent (that is, a Hal 9000 sort of situation).

In regards to testing machines, what would be needed would be something analogous to the Voight-Kampff Test in Blade Runner. In the movie, the test was designed to distinguish between replicants (artificial people) and normal humans. The test worked because the short lived replicants do not have the time to develop the emotional (and apparently ethical) responses of a normal human.

A similar test could be applied to an artificial intelligence in the hopes that it would pass the test, thus showing that it had the psychology of a normal human (or at least the desired psychology). But, just as with human beings, there would be the possibility that a machine could pass the test by knowing the right answers to give rather than by actually having the right sort of emotions, conscience or ethics. This, of course, takes us right back into the problem of other minds.

It could be argued that since an artificial intelligence would be constructed by humans, its inner workings would be fully understood and this specific version of the problem of other minds would be solved. While this is possible, it is also reasonable to believe that an AI system as sophisticated as a human mind would not be fully understood. It is also reasonable to consider that even if the machinery of the artificial mind were well understood, there would still remain the question of what is really going on in that mind.


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Robot Love II: Roboslation under the Naked Sun

In his Naked Sun, Isaac Asimov creates the world of Solaria. What distinguishes this world from other human worlds is that it has a strictly regulated population of 20,000 humans and 10,000 robots for each human. What is perhaps the strangest feature of this world is a reversal of what many consider a basic human need: the humans of Solaria are trained to despise in-person contact with other humans, though interaction with human-like robots is acceptable. Each human lives on a huge estate, though some live “with” a spouse. When the Solarians need to communicate, they make use of a holographic telepresence system. Interestingly, they have even developed terminology to distinguish between communicating in person (called “seeing”) and communication via telepresence (“viewing”). For some Solarians the fear of encountering another human in person is so strong that they would rather commit suicide rather than endure such contact.

While this book was first serialized in 1956, long before the advent of social media and personal robots, it can be seen as prophetic. One reason science fiction writers are often seen as prophetic is that a good science fiction writer is skilled at extrapolating even from hypothetical technological and social changes. Another reason is that science fiction writers have churned out thousands of stories and some of these are bound to get something right. Such stories are then selected as examples of prophetic science fiction while stories that got things wrong are conveniently ignored. But, philosophers do love a good science fiction context for discussion, hence the use of The Naked Sun.

Almost everyone is now familiar with the popular narrative about smart phones and their role in allowing unrelenting access to social media. The main narrative is that people are, somewhat ironically, becoming increasingly isolated in the actual world as they become increasingly networked in the digital world. The defining image of this is a group of people (friends, relatives or even strangers) gathered together physically, yet ignoring each other in favor of gazing into the screens of their lords and masters. There are a multitude of anecdotes about this and many folks have their favorite tales of such events. As a professor, I see students engrossed by their phones—but, to be fair, Plato has nothing on cat videos. Like most people, I have had dates in which the other person was working two smartphones at once. And, of course, I have seen groups of people walking or at a restaurant where no one is talking to anyone else—all eyes are on the smartphones. Since the subject of smart phones has been beaten to a digital death, I will leave this topic in favor of the main focus, namely robots. However, the reader should keep in mind the social isolation created by social media.

While we have been employing robots for quite some time in construction, exploration and other such tasks, what can be called social robots are a relatively new thing. Sure, there have long been “robot” toys and things like Teddy Ruxpin (essentially a tape player embedded in a simple amnitronic bear toy). But, the creation of reasonably sophisticated social robots is a relatively new thing. In this context, a social robot is one whose primary function is to interact with humans in a way that provides companionship. This can range from a pet-like bots (like Sony’s famous robot dog) to conversational robots to (of course) sex bots.

Tech enthusiasts and the companies that are and will sell social robots are, unsurprisingly, quite positive about the future of social robots. There are, of course, some good arguments in their favor. Robot pets provide a good choice for people with allergies, who are not responsible enough for living pets, or who live in places that do not permit organic pets (although bans on robotic pets might be a thing in the future).

Robot companions can be advantageous in cases in which a person with special needs (such as someone who is ill, elderly or injured) requires round the clock attention and monitoring that would be expensive, burdensome or difficult for other humans to supply.

Sex bots could reduce the exploitation of human sex workers and perhaps have other benefits as well. I will leave this research to others, though.

Despite the potential positive aspects of social robots and social media, there are also negative aspects. As noted above, concerns are already being raised about the impact of technology on human interaction—people are emotionally shortchanging themselves and those they are physically with in favor of staying relentlessly connected to social media. This, obviously enough, seems to be a taste of what Asimov created in The Naked Sun: people who view, but no longer see one another. Given the apparent importance of human interaction in person, it can be argued that this social change is and will be detrimental to human well-being. To use an analogy, human-human social interactions can be seen as being like good nutrition: one is getting what one needs for healthy living. Interacting primarily through social media can be seen as being like consuming junk food or drugs—it is very addictive, but leaves one ultimately empty…yet always craving more.

It can be argued that this worry is unfounded—that social media is an adjunct to social interaction in the real world and that social interaction via things like Facebook and Twitter can be real and healthy social interactions. One might point to interactions via letters, telegraphs and telephones (voice only) to contend that interaction via technology is neither new nor unhealthy. It might also be pointed out that people used to ignore each other (especially professors) in favor of such things as newspapers.

While this counter does have some appeal, social robots do seem to be a different matter in that they are something new and rather radically different. While humans have had toys, stuffed animals and even simple mechanisms for non-living company, these are quite different from social robots. After all, social robots aim to effectively mimic or simulate animals or humans.

One concern about such robot companions is that they would be to social media what heroin is to marijuana in terms of addiction and destruction.

One reason for this is that social robots would, presumably, be designed to be cooperative, pleasant and compliant—that is, good company. In contrast, humans can often be uncooperative, unpleasant and defiant. This would make robotic companions rather more appealing than human company. At least the robots whose cost is not subsidized by advertising—imagine a companion who pops in a discussion of life insurance or pitches a soft drink every so often.

Social robots could also be programmed to be optimally appealing to a person and presumably the owner/user would be able to make changed to the robot. A person can, quite literally, make a friend with the desired qualities and missing undesired qualities. In the case of sex bots, a person could purchase a Mr. or Ms. Right, at least in terms of some qualities.

Unlike humans, social robots do not have other interests, needs, responsibilities or friends—there is no competition for the attention of a social robot (at least in general, though there might be shared bots) which makes them “better” than human companions in this regard.

Social robots, though they might breakdown or get hacked, will not leave or betray a person. One does not have to worry that one’s personal sex bot will be unfaithful—just turn it off and lock it down when leaving it alone.

Unlike human companions, robot companions do not impose burdens—they do not expect attention, help or money and they do not judge.

The list of advantages could go on at great length, but it would seem that robotic companions would be superior to humans in most ways—at least in regards to common complaints about companions.

Naturally, there might be some practical issues with the quality of companionship—will the robot get one’s jokes, will it “know” what stories you like to hear, will it be able to converse in a pleasing way about topics you like and so on. However, these seem to be mostly technical problems involving software. Presumably all these could eventually be addressed and satisfactory companions could be created.

Since I have written specifically about sexbots in other essays, I will not discuss those here. Rather, I will discuss two potentially problematic aspect of companion bots.

One point of obvious concern is the potential psychological harm resulting from spending too much time with companion bots and not enough interacting with humans. As mentioned above, people have already expressed concern about the impact of social media and technology (one is reminded of the dire warnings about television). This, of course, rests on the assumption that the companion bots must be lacking in some important ways relative to humans. Going back to the food analogy, this assumes that robot companions are like junk food—superficially appealing but lacking in what is needed for health. However, if the robot companions could provide all that a human needs, then humans would no longer need other humans.

A second point of concern is stolen from the virtue theorists. Thinkers such as Aristotle and Wollstonecraft have argued that a person needs to fulfill certain duties and act in certain ways in order to develop the proper virtues. While Wollstonecraft wrote about the harmful effects of inherited wealth (that having unearned wealth interferes with the development of virtue) and the harmful effects of sexism (that women are denied the opportunity to fully develop their virtues as humans), her points would seem to apply to having only or primarily robot companions as well. These companions would make the social aspects of life too easy and deny people the challenges that are needed to develop the virtues. For example, it is by dealing with the shortcomings of people that we learn such virtues as patience, generosity and self-control. Having social interactions be too easy would be analogous to going without physical exercise or challenges—one becomes emotionally soft and weak. Worse, one would not develop the proper virtues and thus would be lacking in this area.  Even worse, people could easily become spoiled and selfish monsters, accustomed to always having their own way.

Since the virtue theorists argue that being virtuous is what makes people happy, having such “ideal” companions would actually lead to unhappiness. Because of this, one should carefully consider whether or not one wants a social robot for a “friend.”

It could be countered that social robots could be programmed to replicate the relevant human qualities needed to develop the virtues. The easy counter to this is that one might as well just stick with human companions.

As a final point, if intelligent robots are created that are people in the full sense of the term, then it would be fine to be friends with them. After all, a robot friend who will call you on your misdeeds or stupid behavior would be as good as a human friend who would do the same thing for you.


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The Teenage Mind & Decision Making

One of the stereotypes regarding teenagers is that they are poor decision makers and engage in risky behavior. This stereotype is usually explained in terms of the teenage brain (or mind) being immature and lacking the reasoning abilities of adults. Of course, adults often engage in poor decision-making and risky behavior.

Interestingly enough, there is research that shows teenagers use basically the same sort of reasoning as adults and that they even overestimate risks (that is, regard something as more risky than it is). So, if kids use the same processes as adults and also overestimate risk, then what needs to be determined is how teenagers differ, in general, from adults.

Currently, one plausible hypothesis is that teenagers differ from adults in terms of how they evaluate the value of a reward. The main difference, or so the theory goes, is that teenagers place higher value on rewards (at least certain rewards) than adults. If this is correct, it certainly makes sense that teenagers are more willing than adults to engage in risk taking. After all, the rationality of taking a risk is typically a matter of weighing the (perceived) risk against the (perceived) value of the reward. So, a teenager who places higher value on a reward than an adult would be acting rationally (to a degree) if she was willing to take more risk to achieve that reward.

Obviously enough, adults also vary in their willingness to take risks and some of this difference is, presumably, a matter of the value the adults place on the rewards relative to the risks. So, for example, if Sam values the enjoyment of sex more than Sally, then Sam will (somewhat) rationally accept more risks in regards to sex than Sally. Assuming that teenagers generally value rewards more than adults do, then the greater risk taking behavior of teens relative to adults makes considerable sense.

It might be wondered why teenagers place more value on rewards relative to adults. One current theory is based in the workings of the brain. On this view, the sensitivity of the human brain to dopamine and oxytocin peaks during the teenage years. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is supposed to trigger the “reward” mechanisms of the brain. Oxytocin is another neurotransmitter, one that is also linked with the “reward” mechanisms as well as social activity. Assuming that the teenage brain is more sensitive to the reward triggering chemicals, then it makes sense that teenagers would place more value on rewards. This is because they do, in fact, get a greater reward than adults. Or, more accurately, they feel more rewarded. This, of course, might be one and the same thing—perhaps the value of a reward is a matter of how rewarded a person feels. This does raise an interesting subject, namely whether the value of a reward is a subjective or objective matter.

Adults are often critical of what they regard as irrationally risk behavior by teens. While my teen years are well behind me, I have looked back on some of my decisions that seemed like good ideas at the time. They really did seem like good ideas, yet my adult assessment is that they were not good decisions. However, I am weighing these decisions in terms of my adult perspective and in terms of the later consequences of these actions. I also must consider that the rewards that I felt in the past are now naught but faded memories. To use the obvious analogy, it is rather like eating an entire good cake. At the time, that sugar rush and taste are quite rewarding and it seems like a good idea while one is eating that cake. But once the sugar rush gives way to the sugar crash and the cake, as my mother would say, “went right to the hips”, then the assessment might be rather different. The food analogy is especially apt: as you might well recall from your own youth, candy and other junk food tasted so good then. Now it is mostly just…junk. This also raises an interesting subject worthy of additional exploration, namely the assessment of value over time.

Going back to the cake, eating the whole thing was enjoyable and seemed like a great idea at the time. Yes, I have eaten an entire cake. With ice cream. But, in my defense, I used to run 95-100 miles per week. Looking back from the perspective of my older self, that seems to have been a bad idea and I certainly would not do that (or really enjoy doing so) today. But, does this change of perspective show that it was a poor choice at the time? I am tempted to think that, at the time, it was a good choice for the kid I was. But, my adult self now judges my kid self rather harshly and perhaps unfairly. After all, there does seem to be considerable relativity to value and it seems to be mere prejudice to say that my current evaluation should be automatically taken as being better than the evaluations of the past.


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Maleficent & Rape: Rape Culture

Maleficent's dragon form as it appears in the ...

Maleficent’s dragon form as it appears in the climax of the film. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essay I focused on the matter of metaphors in the context of Hayley Krischer’s claim that the movie Maleficent includes a rape scene. In this essay I will take on a rather more controversial matter, namely the question of why it might matter as to whether the movie contains the alleged rape scene or not. This might result in some hostile responses.

It might be wondered what taking the scene as a metaphor (or implied) rape adds to the work. One might say “Maleficent is betrayed and mutilated—what does adding the idea that this is a rape metaphor add? Does not the betrayal and mutilation suffice to serve the purpose of the narrative or does it need to be believed that this is a metaphorical rape?”

One way to answer the question would be to focus on aesthetic matters: does accepting the rape metaphor enhance the aesthetic value of the work? That is, is it a better film on that interpretation? If the answer is “yes”, then that provides an aesthetic reason to accept that interpretation. However, if this does not improve the aesthetic value of the film, then it would not provide a compelling reason for that interpretation over the alternative.

Another way to answer the question is to look at it in terms of academic value. That is, taking it as a metaphor for rape provides an insight into an important truth—the most likely truth being the existence of a pervasive rape culture.

However, there are risks in embracing a view on academic grounds. One common risk is that theorists often accept a beloved theory as an intellectual version of the ring of power: the one theory to explain it all. It could be objected that taking what happens in Maleficent to be rape (rather than something horrible but not-rape) it expands the definition of “rape” to encompass ever more and thus validates the rape-culture theory by redefinition.

However, there appears to be an abundance of evil that does not seem to be driven by the motive to rape—unless all evil is the result of some sort of Freudian sublimation. This is, of course, not impossible and might even be true. But, being too enamored of a theory can easily blind one—wearing the goggles of matriarchy can blind one as effectively as the goggles of the patriarchy (which allow people to use phrases like “legitimate rape” and really mean it).

Another way to look at the matter is in terms of ideological value. In this case, taking what happens as a metaphor for rape provides support for an ideology—most likely that regarding an ideology that includes a belief in a pervasive rape culture. By expanding the definition of “rape”, rape expands within the culture—thus making the case that there is a pervasive rape culture. However, there is the legitimate concern as to whether or not such expanded definitions are accurate.

People seek evidence for their ideology (or deny evidence against it) and can do so in ways that are not consistent with critical thinking—a subject I examined in some detail in another essay. The risk, as always, is that people accept something as true because they believe it is true, rather than believing it because it has been shown to be true.

It might be contended that taking an academic or ideological interpretation of Maleficent is harmless and that debating its accuracy is pointless. However, I contend that overuse of the notion of rape culture is problematic. To show this, I will turn to the murders allegedly committed by Elliot Rodger.

In response to Rodger’s alleged murder of three men and two women, Salon editor Joan Walsh asserted that “the widespread recognition that Elliot Rodger’s killing spree was the tragic result of misogyny and male entitlement has been a little bit surprising, and encouraging.” Even self-proclaimed nerds have bought into this notion, apparently not realizing the significance of the fact that three of the victims were men—rather odd targets for someone driven by misogyny and male entitlement.

While in many cases the motives of alleged killers are not known, Rodger wrote a lengthy manifesto that allows an in-depth look at his professed motives.

Fellow philosopher Jean Kazez has analyzed the text of Eliot Rodger’s manifesto and presents the view that while Rodger eventually adopted misogynistic views, these were late in the development of his hatred. Her view is supported by text taken from his manifesto and it seems clear that his views that are characterized as misogynistic are the terrible fruit of his previous hatreds.

Kazez notes that “But if you read this manifesto, what seems much more overwhelming is the overall pattern of hate, envy, loneliness, resentment, sadness, hopelessness, craving for status, humiliation, despair, etc.  So it is baffling to me that we’ve settled on misogyny as key to understanding why this happened.”

While I share her bafflement, I can suggest three possible explanations. The first, and easiest, is that the modern news media generally prefers a simple narrative and it tends to get easily caught up in social media trends. The idea that Rodger (allegedly) killed because he is a misogynist is a simple narrative and one that started to trend on social media like Twitter.

The second is that there is an academic commitment in some circles to the rape-culture theory that includes as essential components views about misogyny and male entitlement. Given a pre-existent commitment to this theory and the conformation bias that all people are subject to, it is no surprise that there would be a focus on this one small part of his manifesto.

The third is that there is also a commitment in some circles to the rape-culture ideology (which is distinct from the academic theory). As with the theory, people who accept this ideology are subject to the confirmation bias. In addition, there are the usual perils of ideology and belief. As such, it is certainly to be expected that there would be considerable focus on those small parts of his manifesto.

Serving to reinforce the theory and the ideology is the fact that a critical assessment of either can be met with considerable hostility. Some might also suspect that certain men publicly support the ideology or theory due to a desire to appear to be appropriately sensitive men.

As a final point, it might be wondered why being critical of such theory and ideology matters. The easy and obvious answer is that the danger of excessively focusing on the rape culture idea is that doing so can easily lead to ignoring all the other causal factors that contribute to evil actions. To use the obvious analogy, if it is assumed that a factor is a cause of a broad range of diseases when it is not, then trying to prevent those diseases by focusing on that factor will fail. In regards to the specific matter, addressing the rape-culture will not fix the ills that it does not cause. This is not to say that rape culture is not worth addressing—there are horrific and vile aspects to our culture that directly contribute to rape and these should be addressed with an intent to eliminate.

There is, of course, also the matter of truth: getting things right matters. As such, I freely admit I could be wrong about all this and I welcome, as always, criticism.


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Defining Our Gods

The theologian Alvin Plantinga was interviewed for The Stone this weekend, making the claim that Atheism is Irrational. His conclusion, however, seems to allow that agnosticism is pretty reasonable, and his thought process is based mostly on the absurdity of the universe and the hope that some kind of God will provide an explanation for whatever we cannot make sense of. These attitudes seem to me to require that we clarify a few things.

There are a variety of different intended meanings behind the word “atheist” as well as the word “God”. I generally make the point that I am atheistic when it comes to personal or specific gods like Zeus, Jehovah, Jesus, Odin, Allah, and so on, but agnostic if we’re talking about deism, that is, when it comes to an unnamed, unknowable, impersonal, original or universal intelligence or source of some kind. If this second force or being were to be referred to as “god” or even spoken of through more specific stories in an attempt to poetically understand some greater meaning, I would have no trouble calling myself agnostic as Plantinga suggests. But if the stories or expectations for afterlife or instructions for communications are meant to be considered as concrete as everyday reality, then I simply think they are as unlikely as Bigfoot or a faked moon landing – in other words, I am atheistic.

There are atheists who like to point out that atheism is ultimately a lack of belief, and therefore as long as you don’t have belief, you are atheistic – basically, those who have traditionally been called agnostics are just as much atheists. The purpose of this seems to be to expand the group of people who will identify more strongly as non-believers, and to avoid nuance – or what might be seen as hesitation – in self-description.

However, this allows for confusion and unnecessary disagreement at times. I think in fact that there are a fair number of people who are atheistic when it comes to very literal gods, like the one Ken Ham was espousing in his debate with Bill Nye. Some people believe, as Ken Ham does, that without a literal creation, the whole idea of God doesn’t make sense, and so believe in creationism because they believe in God. Some share this starting point, but are convinced by science and conclude there is no god. But others reject the premise and don’t connect their religious positions with their understandings of science. It’s a popular jab among atheists that “everyone is atheistic when it comes to someone else’s gods”, but it’s also a useful description of reality. We do all choose to not believe certain things, even if we would not claim absolute certainty.

Plenty of us would concede that only math or closed systems can be certain, so it’s technically possible that any conspiracy theory or mythology at issue is actually true – but still in general it can be considered reasonable not to believe conspiracy theories or mythologies. And if one includes mainstream religious mythologies with the smaller, less popular, less currently practiced ones, being atheistic about Jesus (as a literal, supernatural persona) is not that surprising from standard philosophical perspectives. The key here is that the stories are being looked at from a materialistic point of view – as Hegel pointed out, once spirituality is asked to compete in an empirical domain, it has no chance. It came about to provide insight, meaning, love and hope – not facts, proof, and evidence.

The more deeply debatable issue would be a broadly construed and non-specific deistic entity responsible for life, intelligence or being. An argument can be made that a force of this kind provides a kind of unity to existence that helps to make sense of it. It does seem rather absurd that the universe simply happened, although I am somewhat inclined to the notion that the universe is just absurd. On the other hand, perhaps there is a greater order that is not always evident. I would happily use the word agnostic to describe my opinion about this, and the philosophical discussion regarding whether there is an originating source or natural intelligence to being seems a useful one. However, it should not be considered to be relevant to one’s opinion about supernatural personas who talk to earthlings and interfere in their lives.

There are people who identify as believers who really could be categorized as atheistic in the same way I am about the literal versions of their gods. They understand the stories of their religions as pathways to a closer understanding of a great unspecified deity, but take them no more literally than Platonists take the story of the Cave, which is to say, the stories are meant to be meaningful and the concrete fact-based aspect is basically irrelevant. It’s not a question of history or science: it’s metaphysics. Let’s not pretend any of us know the answer to this one.

Losing your illusions

Analytic philosophy has been enormously influential in part because it has been an enormous philosophical success. Consider the following example. Suppose it were argued that God must exist, because we can meaningfully refer to Him, and reference can only work so long as a person refers to something real. Once upon a time, something like that argument struck people as a pretty powerful argument. But today, the analytic philosopher may answer: “We have been misled by our language. When we speak of God, we are merely asserting that some thing fits a certain description, and not actually referring to anything.” That is the upshot of Russell’s theory of descriptions, and it did its part in helping to disarm a potent metaphysical illusion.

Sometimes progress in philosophy occurs in something like this way. Questions are not resolutely answered, once and for all — instead, sometimes an answer is proposed which is sufficiently motivating that good-faith informed parties stop asking the incipient question. Consider, for instance, the old paradox, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no-one is around, does it make a sound?” If you make a distinction between primary and secondary qualities, then the answer is plainly “No”: for while sounds are observer-dependent facts, the vibration of molecules would happen whether or not anyone was present. If you rephrase the question in terms of the primary qualities (“If a tree falls in the forest, and no-one is around, do air molecules vibrate?”), then the answer is an obvious “yes”. A new distinction has helped us to resolve an old problem. It is a dead (falsidical) paradox: something that seems internally inconsistent, but which just turns into a flat-out absurdity when put under close scrutiny.

Interesting as those examples are, it is also possible that linguistic analysis can help us resolve perceptual illusions. Consider the image below (the Muller Lyer illusion, taken from the Institut Nicod‘s great Cognition and Culture lab). Now answer: “Which line is longer?”


Fig. 1. Which line is longer?

Most participants will agree that the top line appears longer than the bottom one, despite the fact that they are ostensibly the same length. It is an illusion.

Illusions are supposed to be irresolvable conflicts between how things seem to you. For example, a mirage is an illusion, because if you stand in one place, then no matter how you present the stimuli to yourself, it will look as though a cloudy water puddle is hovering there somewhere in the distance. The mirage will persist regardless of how you examine it or think about it. There is no linguistic-mental switch you can flip inside your brain to make the mirage go away. Analytic philosophers can’t help you with that. (Similarly, I hold out no hopes that an analytic philosopher’s armchair musings will help to figure out the direction of spin for this restless ballerina.)

However, as a matter of linguistic analysis, it is not unambiguously true that the lines are the same length in the Muller-Lyer illusion. Oftentimes, the concept of a “line” is not operationally defined. Is a line just whatever sits horizontally? Or is a line whatever is distinctively horizontal (i.e., whatever is horizontal, such that it is segmented away from the arrowhead on each end)? Let’s call the former a “whole line”, and the latter a “line segment”. Of the two construals, it seems to me that it is best to interpret a line as meaning “the whole line”, because that is just the simplest reading (i.e., it doesn’t rely on arbitrary judgments about “what counts as distinctive”). But at the end of the day, both of those interpretations are plausible readings of the meaning of ‘line’, but we’re not told which definition we ought to be looking for.

I don’t know about you, but when I concentrate on framing the question in terms of whole lines, the perceptual illusion outright disappears. When asked, “Is one horizontal-line longer than the other?”, my eyes focus on the white space between the horizontal lines, and my mind frames the two lines as a vibrant ‘equals sign’ that happens to be bookended by some arrowheads in my peripheral vision. So the answer to the question is a clear “No”. By contrast, when asked, “Is one line-segment longer than the other?”, my eyes focus on the points at the intersection of each arrowhead, and compare them. And the answer is a modest “Yes, they seem to be different lengths” — which is consistent with the illusion as it has been commonly represented.

Now for the interesting part.

Out of curiosity, I measured both lines according to both definitions (as whole lines and as line segments). In the picture below, the innermost vertical blue guidelines map onto the ends of the line segments, while the outermost vertical blue guidelines map onto the edges of the bottom line:

Screen Shot 2013-04-28 at 6.12.15 PM

Fig 2. Line segments identical, whole lines different.

Once I did this, I came up with a disturbing realization: the whole lines in the picture I took from the Institut Nicod really are different lengths! As you can see, the very tips of the bottom whole line fail to align with the inner corner of the top arrow.

As a matter of fact, the bottom whole line is longer than the top whole line. This is bizarre, since the take-home message of the illusion is usually supposed to be that the lines are equal in length. But even when I was concentrating on the whole lines (looking at the white space between them, manifesting an image of the equals sign), I didn’t detect that the bottom line was longer, and probably would not have even noticed it had it not been for the fact that I had drawn vertical blue guidelines in (Fig.2). Still, when people bring up the Muller Lyer illusion, this is not the kind of illusion that they have in mind.

(As an aside: this is not just a problem with the image chosen from Institut Nicod. Many iterations of the illusion face the same or similar infelicities. For example, in the three bottom arrows image on this Wikipedia image, you will see that a vertical dotted guideline is drawn which compares whole lines to line segments. This can be demonstrated by looking at the blue guidelines I superimposed on the image here.)

Can the illusion be redrawn, such that it avoids the linguistic confusion? Maybe. At the moment, though, I’m not entirely sure. Here is an unsatisfying reconstruction of the Nicod image, where both line segment and whole line are of identical length for both the top arrow and the bottom one:


Fig 3. Now the two lines are truly equal (both as whole lines and as segments).

Unfortunately, when it comes to Fig. 3., I find that I’m no longer able to confidently state that one line looks longer than the other. At least at the moment, the illusion has disappeared.

Part of the problem may be that I had to thicken the arrowheads of the topmost line in order to keep them equal, both as segments and as wholes. Unfortunately, the line thickening may have muddied the illusion. Another part of the problem is that, at this point, I’ve stared at Muller-Lyer illusions for so long today that I am starting to question my own objectivity in being able to judge lines properly.

[Edit 4/30: Suppose that other people are like me, and do not detect any illusion in (Fig. 3). One might naturally wonder why that might be.

Of course, there are scientific explanations of the phenomenon that don’t rely on anything quite like analytic philosophy. (e.g., you might reasonably think that the difference is that our eyes are primed to see in three dimensions, and that since the thicker arrows appear to be closer to the eye than the thin ones, it disposes the mind to interpret the top line as visually equal to the bottom one. No linguistic analysis there.) But another possibility is that our vision of the line segment is perceptually contaminated by our vision of the whole line, owing to the gestalt properties of visual perception. This idea, or something like it, already exists in the literature in the form of assimilation theory. If so, then we observers really do profit from making an analytic distinction between whole lines and line segments in order to help diagnose the causal mechanisms responsible for this particular illusion — albeit, not to make it disappear.

Anyway. If this were a perfect post, I would conclude by saying that linguistic analysis can help us shed light on at least some perceptual illusions, and not just dismantle paradoxes. Mind you, at the moment, I don’t know if this conclusion is actually true. (It does not bode well that the assimilation theory does not seem very useful in diagnosing any other illusions.) But if it did, it would be just one more sense in which analytic philosophy can help us to cope with our illusions, if not lose them outright.]

Time for Biology, or Must We Burn Nagel?


NYU Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos has faced quite a bit of criticism from reviewers so far. And perhaps that’s simply to be expected, as the book is clearly an attempt to poke holes in a standard mechanistic view of life, rather than lay out any other fully formed vision. The strength seems to lie in the possibility of starting up a conversation. The weakness, unfortunately, seems to be in the recycling of some unconvincing arguments that make that unlikely.

The key issue that I think deserves closer inspection is the concept of teleology. Nagel reaches too far into mystical territory in his attempt to incorporate a kind of final cause, but some of his critics are too quick to reject the benefit of interpreting physics with a broader scope. While functionalists, or systemic or emergence theorists, may be more aware of the larger meaning of causality, it is still the case that many philosophers express a simplistic view of matter.

The word teleology has become associated with medieval religious beliefs, and much like the word virtue, this has overshadowed the original Aristotelian meaning. Teleology, in its classic sense, does not represent God’s intention, or call for “thinking raindrops.” Instead, it is a way to look at systems rather than billiard balls. Efficient causes are those individual balls knocking into each other, the immediate chain of events that Hume so adeptly tore apart. Final causes are the overall organization of events. The heart beats because an electrical impulse occurs in your atria, but it also beats because there is a specific set of genetic codes that sets up a circulatory system. No one imagines it is mere probability that an electrical impulse happens to occur each second.

Likewise, the rain falls because the water vapor has condensed, but it also falls because it is part of a larger weather system that has a certain amount of CO2 due to the amount of greenery in the area. It falls in order to water the grass not in the sense that it intends to water the grass, but in the sense that it is part of a larger meteorological relationship, and it has become organized to water the grass which will grow to produce the right atmosphere to allow it to rain, so the grass can grow, so the rain can fall. These larger systemic views are what determine teleological causes, because they provide causes within systems, or goals that each part must play. This is distinct from the simple random movement that results from probability. It is obvious in some situations that systems exist, but sometimes we can’t see the larger system, and sometimes even when we do, we can’t explain its interdependence or unified behavior from individuated perspectives. Relying on efficient causality is thinking in terms of those interactions we see directly. Final causality means figuring out what the larger relationships are.

Now, those larger relationships may build out of smaller and more direct relationships, but a final cause is the assumption of an underlying holistic system. And if this were not the case, Zeno would be right and Einstein would be wrong; Hume’s skepticism would be validated and we truly would live in randomness – or really, we wouldn’t, as nothing would sustain itself in such a world. The primary thing about a world like this is that it is static, based only on matter but not on movement, which is to say, based only on a very abstracted and unreal form of matter that does not persist through time. Instead, the classic formation requires a final system that joins the activity of the world.

What this system is or how it works is not easily answered, but it must involve the awareness that temporality and interconnectedness are not the same as mysticism or magic. To boil all science down to a series of probabilistic events misunderstands the essential philosophical interest in understanding the bigger picture, or why the relation of cause and effect is reliable. The primary options are a metaphysics like Aristotle’s that unites being, a Humean skepticism about causality, or a Kantian idealism that attributes it to human perspective.  Contemporary philosophers often run from the metaphysical picture, preferring to accept the skeptic’s outlook with a shrug (anything’s possible, but, back to what we’ve actually seen…) or work with some kind of neo-Kantian framework (nature only looks organized to us because we’re the result of it).

But attempts to think about the unified nature of being – as seen in the history of philosophy everywhere from the ancients through thinkers as diverse as Schopenhauer, Emerson, or Heidegger – should not be dismissed as incompatible with science. Too often it is a political split instead of a truly thoughtful one that leads to the rejection of holistic accounts. What I appreciate about Nagel’s attempt here is that he is honestly thinking rather than assuming that experts have worked things out. Philosophers tend to defer to scientists in contemporary discussions, which means physicists have been doing most of the metaphysics (which has hardly made it less speculative). It seems that exploring the meaning of scientific assumptions and paradigms is exactly the area we should be in.

Questioning a mechanistic abiogenesis or natural selection may be untenable in current biological journals, but philosophy’s purview is the bigger picture, and it is healthy for us to reach beyond the curtain, not feeling constrained by what’s already been accepted. While my questions are not the same as Nagel’s (and I won’t review his case here), I am glad at least to see the connection made coherently. Writers in philosophy of mind often make arguments that seem incompatible with certain scientistic assumptions but simply do not address the issue. There are options beyond ignoring the natural sciences or demanding a boiled down, mechanical, deterministic view of life. Scientific research has inched toward more dynamic or creative ideas of natural change (like emergence, complexity theory, or neuroplasticity) and theories of holism (at least in physics) so challenges should not be associated with a rejection of investigation or an embracing of mythology. We all know philosophy is meant to begin in wonder – but perhaps that’s become too much of a cliche and not enough of a mission statement.