Philosophical Multicore

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Archive for the ‘Article of the Day’ Category

Article of the Day: Consequentialism FAQ

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 3, 2012

Today’s article is an excellent piece that explains consequentialism and why it makes sense, and explains some of its implications. It is probably the best introduction to consequentialism that I have ever read.

Here’s an excerpt:

In the deep jungles of Clamzoria across the Freptane Sea is a tall and snow-capped mountain. Within this mountain is a cave which is the lair of the dreaded Hrogmorph, Slayer of Men. Encased within the chest of Hrogmorph is a massive ruby called the Heartstone, a ruby with legendary magic powers. The stories say that whoever wears the Heartstone is immune from the moral law, and may commit any actions he desires without them being even the mildest of venial sins.

Lured by the legend of the stone, you sail the Freptane Sea and trek through the Clamzorian jungle. You defeat the dreaded Hrogmorph, Slayer of Men, in single combat, take the Heartstone from his body, and place it around your neck as an amulet. Upon returning home, you decide to test its powers, so you adopt a kitten from the local shelter, then kill it.

You feel absolutely awful. You just want to curl up in a ball and never show your face again. “Well, what did you expect?” asks the ghost of Hrogmorph, who has decided to haunt you. “The power of the Heartstone isn’t to prevent you from feeling guilty. Guilt comes from chemicals in the brain, chemicals that live in the world like everything else – not from the metaphysical essence of morality. Look, if it makes you feel better, you didn’t actually do anything wrong, since you do have the amulet. You just feel like you did.”

Then Animal Control Services knocks on your door. They’ve gotten an anonymous tip – probably that darned ghost of Hrogmorph again – that you’ve drowned a kitten. They bring you to court for animal cruelty. The judge admits, since you’re wearing the Heartstone, that you technically didn’t commit an immoral act – but you did break the law, so he’s going to have to fine you and sentence you to a few months of community service.

While you’re on your community service, you meet a young girl who is looking for her lost kitten. She describes the cat to you, and it sounds exactly like the one you adopted from the shelter. You tell her she should stop looking, because the cat was taken to the animal shelter and then you killed it. She starts crying, telling you that she loved that cat and it was the only bright spot in her otherwise sad life and now she doesn’t know how she can go on. Despite still having the Heartstone on, you feel really bad for her and wish you could make her stop crying.

If morality is just some kind of metaphysical rule, the magic powers of the Heartstone should be sufficient to cancel that rule and make morality irrelevant. But the Heartstone, for all its legendary powers, is utterly worthless and in fact totally indistinguishable, by any possible or conceivable experiment, from a fake. Whatever metaphysical effects it produces have nothing to do with the sort of things that make us consider morality important.

This article was written by Scott Alexander Siskind. He has written a number of excellent pieces and frequently contributes to Less Wrong.

Posted in Article of the Day, Ethics, Utilitarianism | 2 Comments »

Article of the Day: Jonah Lehrer on How to Be Creative

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 15, 2012

In this article, Jonah Lehrer explains that creativity is not some seemingly-magical ability that people either have or don’t, but a skill that can be trained. He explains how the creative process works and offers practical suggestions for how to improve one’s creative thinking skills.

This article got me thinking about meditation. I am by no means an expert on meditation—I do it only occasionally—but from what I understand, it greatly improves one’s ability to concentrate. Much recent research has demonstrated that meditation improves focus and discipline.

Common sense tells me that meditation should help unlock one’s creative capacities. But according to Lehrer, the key to creativity is often a lack of focus, and the act of concentration actually impedes divergent thinking. This makes me wonder, Does meditation increase or decrease one’s creative thinking ability?

Posted in Article of the Day, Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Article of the Day: Nuclear power—Why the panic?

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 19, 2011

Today’s article is about the reactions to the recent meltdown in Fukushima. It discusses how people react too strongly to rare accidents, which is a widely observed phenomenon. People worry more about dying from a shark attack than about drowning, even though sharks only kill about five people per year while about ten people drown per day. Sensational or outlandish events have a tendency to stick in our minds, while more mundane occurrences are forgotten.

When it comes to power plants, human psychology works no differently. Pollution from coal causes more deaths than nuclear radiation and nuclear meltdowns put together. But on the rare occasion when there is a meltdown, it is spectacular. It’s on every news channel and quickly gains international attention. This is a serious problem because it actually causes people to make seriously poor decisions. Policymakers who decide to shut down nuclear power plants are wasting huge amounts of money. Nuclear power is quite safe and one of the cheapest alternatives to fossil fuels. We should probably be building more nuclear power plants, and we certainly should not be shutting them down.

Posted in Article of the Day, Psychology, Science | 5 Comments »

RE: Why Nerds are Unpopular

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 7, 2010

One of Paul Graham’s greatest essays, and most thought-provoking. The thesis is profound, and the details are fascinating. I don’t have much to say about it, simply because I agree so much with what is said. You should read it, especially if you are in education or are an educator.

Posted in Article of the Day, Education | 3 Comments »

Article of the Day: The Age of the Essay

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 4, 2010

Another wonderful Paul Graham essay. This one is about high school essays.

Remember the essays you had to write in high school? Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure.

Graham explains that the reason why high schoolers write essays about literature is because, a few hundred years ago, literature and essays got merged into one subject. And the reason that all essays must take a position and defend it is that essays were originally written in law school.

If we step outside of these restraints, what is the ideal essay like? What kinds of essays should teachers assign? First, there’s nothing wrong with assigning essays where one analyzes a piece of literature. Considering how students are frequently already studying literature, it’s a rather convenient topic. But there are certainly other topics out there. In addition, not all essays need to take a side and defend it. (Read Graham’s essay for more about this.) Essays could be explorations of the literature; the student would learn just as much, if not more.

Students should be given the opportunity to write essays about exploration. I have rarely gotten these sorts of chances in school. But if you read some of the longer essays on my blog, you may notice that I propose something, play around with it, maybe reject it and expand on it more. Then I go on to the next idea. This is because I am not planning these essays out in advance. I just write as I go; and I get my thoughts organized in a nice, convenient format. My school essays are completely different: focused, rigorously organized, and, if you ask me, a lot more boring.

Not that there is a problem with persuasive essays. They’re great. But, as Graham pointed out, being right is more important than being able to argue well (at least in school). So why do we learn how to take a strong with-us-or-against-us position and defend it to the death, but we don’t write essays where we explore the answers in a much more open way?

I propose that traditional English classes spend one month per semester working on writing essays. Perhaps throughout the year there are essays written about the literature being read, but during these blocks, there is a greater focus on writing quality essays. And to better enrich the minds of the students, these essays should be more about searching for the truth than about arguing a point. Perhaps the teacher can come with a list of widely varied topics, or let the students choose their own topics, or both. Students can write essays in response to other essays. (Which happens to be what I’m doing right now.)

I haven’t been writing essays on my blog for all that long. Before my blog, I practically never wrote essays outside of school. Now, I write them all the time; I’m still relatively new at it, though. Yet I keep doing it. Probably the reason I keep doing it is that writing essays gets thoughts into writing and helps me to thing more thoughts. When I write essays, I think of ideas as I go. Just sitting and thinking does not work quite so well.

Another aspect of writing essays that may seems trivial — but definitely is not — is that when I write essays, I stay focused on the essay. Simply sitting and thinking is not enough for some sorts of things, because I will get too distracted. But when I’m writing an essay I can focus on the topic at hand and actually come up with some pretty good ideas.

I want other students to feel this. School is about learning, right? It’s about the development of ideas? What better way to develop one’s ideas than to write essays? But I fear that the current restrictions placed on essays will leave many students dissatisfied, and they will leave school disliking essays, never realizing how useful and fun they can be.

I never truly appreciated essays until I started reading Paul Graham. This man writes about topics that I actually care about. When I read his essays, I learn something. That may be a lot of the problem with essay-reading: students read essays about topics that they don’t care about, or they read essays that don’t teach them anything. This is not how a good essay should go. A good essay should be informative and fun; also, as Graham pointed out in his own essay about essays, when you read an essay you should be surprised. A good essay is one that teaches you something, or makes you think in a new way.

If there’s one piece of advice I would give about writing essays, it would be: don’t do as you’re told. Don’t believe what you’re supposed to. Don’t write the essay readers expect; one learns nothing from what one expects. And don’t write the way they taught you to in school.

I certainly can get behind that advice. The problem with school is that you’re supposed to do what you’re told, pretty much by definition, which makes it hard to write truly good essays. I know that I have never written a truly good essay for any school assignment (by my personal standards); probably the best school essay I’ve ever written is one at the beginning of this year where we had to turn in some sort of writing sample so that the teacher could get to know our writing styles, and I turned in an essay that I had written for my blog. So even that one wasn’t really written for school.

To add on to Graham’s advice: when you write an essay, don’t write it because someone else told you to. Write for yourself. Other people may learn something by reading your essay, but the person who learns the most is you. I find that you can come up with much better ideas by writing essays than simply by thinking, and this is what can really make the art of essay-writing a fruitful one.

Posted in Article of the Day, Education | 1 Comment »

Article of the Day: Sam Harris on Sarah Palin and Elitism

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 7, 2010

This political article is from a couple of years ago, but it is still relevant, and I quite like it. I don’t have a lot to say about it, but I do agree with much of what is said. Elitism is underrated.

Posted in Article of the Day, Politics | 1 Comment »

A Very Confused National Geographic Article

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 5, 2010

Whoever wrote this article apparently wants to feel smart, and wants the readership to feel smart, but is doing some serious muddling of ideas.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Article of the Day, Rant, Science | 3 Comments »

Article of the Day: It’s Charisma, Stupid

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 1, 2010

Yet another Paul Graham essay.

In this episode, Graham proposes that the factor in getting Presidents elected is not their policies, but their charisma.

As I looked further back, I kept finding the same pattern. Pundits said Carter beat Ford because the country distrusted the Republicans after Watergate. And yet it also happened that Carter was famous for his big grin and folksy ways, and Ford for being a boring klutz. Four years later, pundits said the country had lurched to the right. But Reagan, a former actor, also happened to be even more charismatic than Carter (whose grin was somewhat less cheery after four stressful years in office). In 1984 the charisma gap between Reagan and Mondale was like that between Clinton and Dole, with similar results. The first George Bush managed to win in 1988, though he would later be vanquished by one of the most charismatic presidents ever, because in 1988 he was up against the notoriously uncharismatic Michael Dukakis.

This is an interesting point. Also, though, it is worth noting that charisma cannot be the only factor. In terms of popular vote, elections are not often won by more than 10%, and the widest margin ever recorded was 26% (source). People sometimes disagree on who is charismatic, but in general people will agree. Therefore the entire election cannot be based on charisma. Graham is not saying that it is; rather, he is saying that it is the deciding factor. I agree. Perhaps 70-90% of the vote is based on policy; only the other 10-30% is based on charisma. But on policy, the country is quite evenly split. Because of this, the relatively small percentage of the vote that is based on charisma is still enough to affect the outcome of the election.

Posted in Article of the Day | Leave a Comment »

Article(s) of the Day: Sleep

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 21, 2010

I found this article (it’s a download, but only PDF so you don’t have to be afraid of viruses) about adolescent sleep patterns to be fascinating.

There is also this article about how sleeping is contagious.

Posted in Article of the Day | Leave a Comment »

Article of the Day: In Praise of the Devil

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 3, 2010

This is a lovely article about why Lucifer is an admirable character. No, it is not the lunatic ravings of an ego-maniacal madman. In truth, it’s a very interesting article. The author proposes that Lucifer is not an immoral character; on the contrary:

Lucifer is the embodiment of reason, of intelligence, of critical thought. He stands against the dogma of God and all other dogmas. He stands for the exploration of new ideas and new perspectives in the pursuit of truth.

Lucifer was a rational fellow who was willing to question God’s word. This is something to be admired, but it is understandable how God would, well, demonize such activity.

They call Lucifer the Prince of Lies. A lie is defined by the Christian as anything which contradicts the Word of God – as told to us by the Bible and God’s representatives on Earth. If we accept this definition of a lie then we should praise lies. A “lie” is then a questioning of blind dogma.

Praise Lucifer!

Posted in Article of the Day | Leave a Comment »

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