Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Archive for December, 2010

Rationality Is Not Self-Interest

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 23, 2010

People often talk about rationality as though it refers to self-interest. Acting to ensure one’s own survival is considered rational. But it’s not rational any more or less than acting to ensure one’s own demise is rational. Rationality cannot properly assess ethical assumptions; rather, it can only apply assumptions to situations and determine if the situations are appropriate.

Rationality is the ability to logically deduce conclusions from premises. If one presumes that survival is paramount, the rational thing to do is to take actions that will likely aid survival. If one assumes that eating hamburgers is paramount, the rational thing to do is to take actions that will lead to the eating of hamburgers. Rationality does not tell you the right result; it only tells you how to get there once you already know what it is. (At least, no one for the last two and a half millennia has been able to rationally derive a basis for all action.)

Posted in Ethics | 1 Comment »

RE: Is It Just Us, Or Are Kids Getting Really Stupid?

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 13, 2010

Yes, this is going to be one of those posts.

So some parent named Sandy Hingston has written yet another article about how kids these days are so stupid and education just isn’t like the good old days anymore. And, as you might expect, her arguments are contrived, silly, and just plain ridiculous. It must be just another crazy blogger, right? Oh, wait, she’s a columnist for Philadelphia magazine.

She starts out with an anecdote about how her son’s AP English class doesn’t actually read any books, they just watch the movie versions. (This supposedly proves that kids are dumb and don’t ever read anymore.) I’d be interested to know how well those kids do on the AP test. Oh wait, I wouldn’t because I already know they’re all going to fail it. Any legitimate English class will involve the reading of books, and I don’t know why in heck this English class is spending all its time on watching movies.

And then Hingston criticizes schools for not teaching the same pointless facts that she learned when she was in school:

They may be taking every AP and Honors course their schools offer, but they can’t tell you who invented pasteurization. (They do know who invented Facebook, because they saw the movie The Social Network.)

I for one would much rather know who invented Facebook than who invented pasteurization. Knowing about pasteurization may be useful but knowing who invented it certainly isn’t, and the name Mark Zuckerburg comes up in real life a hell of a lot more than Louis Pasteur. It’s a more interesting name to know and definitely more useful in the modern world.

They spend an average of eight and a half hours a day in front of screens — computer screens, TV screens, iPhone screens.

[citation needed] Oh wait I forgot, journalists don’t have to cite their sources because everyone is supposed to believe them anyway.

Technology was supposed to set us free, to liberate us from mundane, time-consuming tasks so we could do great things, think great thoughts, solve humanity’s most pressing problems.

And it has, even for school-age people. I personally have used the web to read philosophy, improve my computer programming ability, and learn about Milton Friedman’s economics, among myriad other things. Yes, technology has its Facebooks and Myspaces which arguably do not offer any profound sense of happiness, but to focus on that is to ignore the Wikipedias and the Project Gutenbergs.

But Western civilization is built on literacy. . .

Therefore Facebook is bad and our kids are wasting their time and not learning anything? Let’s read on and see if Hingston has a serious point here.

Reading is highly unnatural in that it requires us to filter out distractions and focus our attention on a single task.

I actually have to give Hingston some credit here — not that her point is valid, but that she is pointing out reading as unnatural without saying that it’s a bad thing. In fact, she is talking about how reading is a good thing. Unnatural doesn’t necessarily mean bad. (This point is irrelevant to the main subject but I think it’s worth saying.)

Her next point seems to boil down to this: modern technology is distracting which reduces attention spans and makes it harder for kids to absorb information more deeply. This is true. But it is not nearly as bad as Hingston seems to think it is. Focusing is more difficult now than it was back when everything was boring, but it’s far from impossible. The problem of distractions is far outweighed by the benefit of all the resources at our fingertips.

And that explains why my son doesn’t know the days of the week.

If your son doesn’t know the days of the week then any reasonable person would have to assume that you are to blame, not the internet.

There are certain things my kid — any kid — should know by the time he’s a high-school grad — that Wednesday follows Tuesday, and his nine-times tables, say. That Jake can use his cell phone to retrieve this information — can use it, for that matter, to learn how to refine weapons-grade plutonium — is beside the point.

Explain exactly why it is more useful to know your nine-times tables (which you use maybe once every few days) than it is to know how to use your cell phone (which you use several — even dozens — of times every day).

I would argue that kids read more now than they did at any other point in history. Sure, a lot of what they’re reading is shorter and probably less meaningful. But a lot of it is good old literature. Teenagers definitely read books — just ask J. K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. Sure, these books are no Crime and Punishment; but just try telling me that Crime and Punishment is what kids were reading for fun back in your day.

Isn’t it self-evident that my son would be a better student, better future employee, better human being, if he spent six hours a day reading Tolstoy and listening to Bach instead of playing [World of Warcraft]?

No. Tolstoy may have merits but it just won’t equip you with the sort of interpersonal problem-solving skills you’ll get from World of Warcraft. And I don’t see how listening to music — even Bach — is even remotely comparable to actually developing useful skills.

And let’s not forget one important thing. War and Peace is infamously dry. World of Warcraft provides a rich and fun experience. Even assuming that Tolstoy is more beneficial in the long run than playing World of Warcraft for a comparable length of time, is it really worth it if every moment of it you find yourself completely bored out of your mind? There is certainly something to be said for enjoying yourself.

Maybe I’m just crotchety because I had to read dead white men’s books instead of playing games. Maybe kids aren’t stupider at all; maybe the new ways of learning really are just different, not inherently worse. Maybe — oh, God — I should be on Facebook.

I need to talk to more kids Jake’s age before I can decide.

Not that that’s going to help anything. Most high schoolers don’t come across as very intelligent. But what do you expect? They’re in high school. They have limited knowledge and experiences. Go back in time and talk to your high school self and see if you don’t start wondering how anyone could live with you.

And then she goes to a football game to talk to some real life high schoolers.

“What kinds of Skittles do you have?” a customer asks Danielle.

While we’re talking about journalism in general, I rather dislike journalists’ tendency to make everything into a story. Yes it makes it more interesting, but if you’re writing an editorial then it just detracts from your point. It seems at least a teensy bit ironic that you’re talking about how kids don’t have any attention span these days while writing an article that includes completely irrelevant and distracting details. You want to see a short attention span? Look at all the tangential comments in this article.

I see it in myself. I’m trying to write this article, but at the foot of my computer screen, the AOL icon is bouncing up and down. I know — I can be 99 percent sure — that whatever has popped into my inbox is useless spam. (Hey, I’m still on AOL.) And I’m trying my damnedest to ignore the bouncing symbol, to get my important work done … and I. Just. Can’t. I have to click. I have to see. I have to bite the apple.

Wait, I thought it was just our kids who were getting stupider. This paragraph has thrown the purpose of the entire article into question.

If kids would tune out the white noise of the virtual world, they could plow through Moby-Dick in no time.

So you turn off the internet and you can magically do boring things? Sorry, that’s not how it works. I wish it were because I would get a lot more reading done, but it’s not. Boring things are boring with or without the internet. If you try to do something boring and you have absolutely no distractions, you end up lying on the floor doing nothing because that’s more interesting than the boring activity. (Well, at least that’s what I do. That’s normal, right?)

Here’s the thing, though, as we fret about our kids’ online lives: It’s already their world, not ours. Young people have always rebelled against their elders, whether they were wearing zoot suits or listening to grunge. But a hallmark of civilization was that eventually, the kids gave up their rebel ways and folded, more or less quietly, into the adult world. That’s not going to happen with our kids, because their superior technical skills mean they’re already in charge. We’re being forced to adapt. We’re the followers; they’re the leaders. And it’s hard to imagine where they’re leading us, because they’re unlike us on such a fundamental level:

Their brains are different from ours.

What is there to say about this? It’s just unsubstantiated absurdity. It’s an attempt to draw intense emotions out of the reader and create a division between generations: notice the repeated usage of “us versus them” language. This is possibly the most aggressive paragraph in the article and also the most wrong. It serves to give fire to the feelings of people of the older generation who feel unable to keep up with modern technology. I find this paragraph difficult to even talk about because it’s so outrageous.

When you sat at a school desk and recited your times tables over and over, when you wrote out the periodic table of elements, when you practiced cursive penmanship, you were reinforcing memories, creating familiar paths for synapses, literally rewiring your brain for top-down attention. Your children’s neural networks are very different. Thanks to their Internet exposure, in place of steady repetition, they’re confronted, daily, by a barrage of novelty. There’s no pattern, no order, in either the input or the pathways it carves. “You have kids today who start on computers at three, four, five,” says Penn’s Chatterjee. “The younger you’re exposed, the more influence that has on the final configuration of the brain.”

Once again, Hingston is guilty of failing to provide any evidence at all. Since when is there no pattern or order to the internet? Video games are the very opposite: they provide virtually the best learning environment possible by creating a series of similar but progressively more difficult challenges. Patterns in video games are abundantly clear. Elsewhere on the internet patterns are less obvious but they’re still there.

Hingston seems to be arguing that the only thing worth doing is memorizing. You could read War and Peace a single time, and Hingston would say that you’d learn something from it. Knowledge does not have to be repeated to be learned.

LAST JANUARY, a young Florida mother was trying to play FarmVille on Facebook, but her three-month-old son kept crying. So she shook him to death.

Show me a single instance of someone doing something harmful and I’ll show you an outlier. A single instance is no better than anecdotal evidence (in fact, it is anecdotal evidence). There’s a reason why scientists disregard anecdotal evidence.

Jake can look at his cell phone to see what day it is, but where can he go online to find out what being human means?

The internet. He can read articles, stories, philosophy, even novels. He can talk to friends and make new friends who he would never be able to meet otherwise. As Hingston has emphasized, much of the internet is based on social networking. If you can’t learn what being human means from social networking, and you can’t learn it from the vast resources that the internet provides, then where exactly can you learn it? “Real life”? And where exactly do you draw the line between “real life” and life over technology?

The hours he spends on his computer result in less time studying with friends, or playing pickup basketball, or hanging at the football game.

Facebook is with people. World of Warcraft is with people. What’s the difference? Both have real-time interaction with one person or a group of people. The only real difference is that with Facebook and World of Warcraft you can’t see the person’s face, and Skype solves that problem.

Kids today are less and less able to inscribe ownership boundaries; they hand in papers that are pastiches of plagiarism, steal artwork, words, ideas.

So . . . the internet causes short attention spans which cause plagiarism? That seems like a bit of a stretch.

With Facebook, their cell phones, their laptops, our kids don’t ever have to be alone … and yet they’re always alone. The more they use the Internet to connect, research has shown, the more vulnerable they are to depression, whose incidence has doubled in the past decade.

Okay, now we’re talking about serious problems. Except — wait a minute! Did you just jump from “people use the internet more” and “people suffer from depression more” to “internet causes depression”? That material is covered in Logical Fallacies 101 (a class I took, by the way, over the internet).

A quarter of all Americans report not having even one person they can confide in.

I said this already but I’m going to say it again, because it’s important: CITATION NEEDED.

Some people have short attention spans, yes. But this can hardly be blamed on the internet. Distractions are omnipresent with or without modern technology. What modern technology (especially the internet) does give us is a connection to our peers across multiple media; a greater access to society’s knowledge; more efficient ways to do what we all want to do; in short, any problems it may cause are far outweighed by how it compounds so many of life’s greatest things.

So, to answer your question: Yes. It’s just you.

Posted in Education, Rant | 4 Comments »

A Brief Utilitarian Defense of Suffering

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 10, 2010

The Greatest Happiness Principle states that happiness should be increased to the greatest extent possible while suffering should be decreased to the greatest extent possible. Paradoxically, this principle may be used to justify suffering.

It is a common cultural concept that a life without suffering is a life without meaning. This could naively be posited as a refutation of Utilitarianism (how could happiness be the greatest end if suffering is necessary?). A deeper look reveals that the very reason that a life without suffering is meaningless is because a life without suffering is a life without happiness. Without suffering as a reference point, happiness is impossible to identify. Suffering, even pointless suffering, heightens one’s appreciation for true happiness. Someone who truly never suffers has no appreciation for happiness. Thus, for the man who does not suffer, there is no such thing as happiness.

Furthermore, suffering is often a conduit to a greater sense of happiness. One must pass through suffering to achieve more potent happiness. Consider education (a rather mundane example). It is often unpleasant and boring, even painful (intellectually); but most people are willing to endure this for the sake of education’s benefits. An educated person is capable of much higher pleasures than an uneducated one. An uneducated person will never know the delight of scientific discovery; an illiterate will never read a profoundly moving book; those who do not know mathematics will never understand the beauty of an elegant theorem.

For perhaps a more exciting example, consider the archetypal hero’s journey. The hero goes through a tremendous struggle and suffers greatly along the way. But in the end he becomes the most happy: he is capable of a much higher sense of pleasure, and he has a reference of true suffering through which to find true happiness.

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | Leave a Comment »

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