December 18, 2012

Two Types of Self-Interest

          Well, I haven't posted in a while, but that will change, as I've written a few essays for different classes that I will post soon. I recently was listening to Point of Inquiry and Richard Wiseman mentioned how people would come up to him and ask him how to write better, and he just asked them, "Have you written anything today?" To become a better writer...write! That was his message, and even if Gladwell was wrong about 10,000 hours, it still takes time doing something to become good at it. 

          Anyway onto the topic at hand, I was recently watching a presentation that first started talking about self-interest, and it threw the term around with really explaining what it meant, and in what sense he was using the term. More specifically, was talking about two different types of self-interest without ever distinguishing between the two different types.  There is a rational self-interest in an understanding of what would be the best for the individual in a given situation (if there was a plate of cookies it would be best for me to take them all and not share any) and a biological self-interest that isn’t a single calculation, but one ran over numerous generations (trimethylamine oxide is produced in cells of the Greenland Shark that stop its cells from being broken apart by forming ice crystals). The presentation talked about the self-interest of bee's and compared it to self-interest in people, but never took the time to explain the distinction made above.This led me to ask a question after the presentation, and I received a really strange response.

The question in question was, “There is a difference between biological self-interest that is calculated over thousands of generations and a rational self-interest in what you think would be best for yourself. People cannot make biologically self-interested choices, as they don’t have access to what would be successful in that way, so in what senses are what you talked about self-interested?”

The answer I received was a strange one, “First, I disagree with your premise that people don’t make biologically self-interested choices, and second I think that the poem on talks more about biological self-interest.”  Now this left me baffled, as it seemed apparent that this person thought that to make a moral decisions (it was a class is ethics) someone consciously weighted out all the evolutionary advantages to doing something, and acted on what was best, or they innately knew what was a good evolutionary decision and always acted on it.

The first way is easily shown to be flawed because, 1) even if someone made a calculation there is no way to be sure of what the future holds, so it necessarily has to be something that is determined over time and never at a single instance and 2) there is no way to way all the information needed to make the decision in the first place, or even consistently weigh a small portion of that sample in a timely fashion to make a quick decision.

The second way is also just as deeply flawed, as Dawkins shows when he talks about society and biology in The Selfish Gene when he points out the ‘unnaturalness’ of the desirable welfare state. He explains that, “What has happened in modern civilized man is that family sizes are no longer limited by the finite resources that the individual parents can provide. If a husband and wife have more children than they can feed, the state, which means the rest of the population, simply steps in and keeps the surplus children alive and healthy. There is, in fact, nothing to stop a couple with no material resources at all having and rearing precisely as many children as the woman can physically bear. But the welfare state is a very unnatural thing.”

This pretty much sums it up, if people innately knew what was naturally best for them then they would be acting in accordance with what Dawkins said and be completely abusing the welfare state, until it became a version of the tragedy of the commons.  There is a commonly understood ‘evolutionary lag’ where evolution is always a step behind changes to the environment, as it takes time to have the number of generations that adjust to it. Another phenomenon is that evolution is limited to what is available in genetic positive genetic changes, it can’t take backward steps meaning it can’t go in a different direction that would be better in the long run, if it would cause decreased fitness for an extended period. This means that even if evolution determined decision making with no evolutionary lag, it still wouldn’t necessarily make evolutionarily optimal decisions.   

All this reminds me of J. B. S. Haldane quote when asked if he would risk his life to save a drowning brother, he responded, “No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.” I think this quote alone is enough to point out the point out the absurdity of evolution directly controlling moral decision making, as no one thinks in this way and that’s why it’s funny. It doesn't have to micromanage each individual decision, as it can instill general principles that are effective. This is different than making evolution the decider of morality, and instead makes it create a general framework.
       Anyway, people can make decisions that they view as in their self-interest and this may or may not be in line with peoples biological self-interest, but if you’re talking about what self-interest is, especially when jumping back and forth between people and animals, it would be important to note the distinction.

July 28, 2012

Groundhog's Day Agian! Two Lessons from Phil Connors

Well for those of you dieing for the next installment here it is and I think there is some both interesting and valuable information.  Along with Camus and the implication of the ending Groundhog Day, which I wrote about in my last post, there is also is something to be learned about life, infinite loops and I even throw in a criticism of Murphy's Law. These things from the movie probably classify better as interesting bar room conversation than deep philosophy, but I guess that's kind of what this blog is about anyway. (If you want a summary of the movie so this makes sense here is a link to my last post)

1. Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence of the Same:

For those unfamiliar with Nietzsche and the idea of the eternal recurrence I'll give you how he explains it, fairly straightforwardly, in The Gay Science. A hypothetical situation is given, by a demon where,

"This life as you now live it have live it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence--even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and with you it..."

That is the paragraph that most clearly states the problem of the eternal recurrence, but the power and scope of the situation outlined in the paragraph above is created in its limitations. It is the finality and the lack of change that creates the real problem. Now the person stuck in a Groundhog's Day situation  is slightly different. Instead of living their life over and over again they are forced to re-live one day.

This can be used as a measuring stick for life with two different measures. The Eternal Recurrence measure where the balance of a whole life up to that moment must be measured and weighed, versus the Groundhog Day measure where each day could possibly be the one you are forced to relive, so each day must be weighed. If you wouldn't want to relive either one than it could be a statement that you aren't living your life in a way acceptable to yourself, but if you are alright with it than you are comfortable with what you have done.

It is clear that Phil Connors (Bill Murray's character) is not taking part in the eternal recurrence because he is able to change what he does each day and isn't forced to live through his choices again, but instead is able to make different choices.The eternal recurrence doesn't apply to Phil Connors, but it does to every other character with one difference.

Everyone else is tapped in a loop where the choices they made that day are the ones they have to relive over and over again, but Phil Connors has the special ability to change that and get them out of the loop. Phil Connors is a superhero in that movie situation where he and only he can save a person from being forced to relive a bad choice, like when he helps the couple that is going to get married get over their cold feet. Yet, his power is extremely limited as he much choose who to help each day and change what decisions were made, and he is limited by the laws of time and space...which brings up a peeve of mine about the infinite.

2) With the infinite anything is possible! 

The infinite causes may paradox's and strange things to be possible, like the hotel that is full, but always has room, but it doesn't make anything possible. Groundhog Day is a surprisingly good example of why that is that is. Groundhog's Day has a system in place where the same thing that happened on Groundhog's Day happens again and again, where only Phil Connors can create change. This is a system like our universe, a system built on rules.

In each system change can take place, right now events could take place differently than they had been before, just as Phil Connors can change what happens at any specific moment, but in each case there are rules that limit the possibility of the things that are able to happen. No matter how long time goes on  the speed of light will be a constant and a speed limit for the universe. The hypothetical situation in Groundhog's Day is also limited as Phil Connors can only do so much in a single day and only cause a limited amount of difference, so not everything is possible in that world either, no matter how long it goes on.

There is one slight difference in these two worlds thought, if this universe is eternal, than even some things that will likely to happen won't if something changes. It could be possible that I will win the Olympic gold in hurdling four years from now, but it is a race that is only run once, so after it is completed it falls into a category where it was something possible that still didn't happen in an infinite universe.

In a side note, this is also something that bothers me when people talk about Murphy's Law, as people often say, when something goes wrong, that "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." Yes, if a situation is left for an infinite amount of time with the possibility of it going wrong, than Murphy's Law works, but that's not the world in which we live, not everything that can go wrong does, and often doesn't. Stating it as it is, really just means, that what happened had a chance of happening, which is useless information that doesn't add any information at all. It's as if you are saying water is water, but in this case the person thinks they are saying something intelligent because they are referring to a law. 

Anyway, the situation isn't the same for Phil Connors, because he gets a chance to do things over again, making it so anything that is possible could be achieved in the Groundhog Day world if Phil Connors made the choice to do it. 

With the infinite not everything is possible, and not even a sure thing like me winning the gold medal is guaranteed to happen.

Thanks for reading,