Friday in Santa Fe

02010-04-16 | Uncategorized | 21 comments

Thursdsay Morning I rode the Mariachi Bullitt to have breakfast with Jon. I use a New York-sized chain to lock it up. :-)

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NYC Tilt-Shift photography by Olivo Barbieri
(Via Cool Hunting)

Check out the index as he has phtographed quite a few cities around the world, inlcuding Shanghai, Beijing, Las Vegas, Rome. Check out the Pantheon here – since it is a flash site, you’ll have to navigate to photograph number 3 yourself. Some fine armchair travel!
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I watched a few TED talks this week. This one, by Sam Harris, is quite good. Some of what he is saying here echoes what Ken Wilber has been talking about for some time. Flatland is wrong, some opinions are of higher value than others. My opinion on what’s wrong with your car is so worthless compared to the opinion of a car mechanic!

Other talks I watched this week: a short talk about roundabouts and a new traffic sign: New Traffic Sign: Take Turns. Here is a screenshot I made on my phone while watching the talk:

A beautiful and heartfelt talk by Robert Gupta, violinist with the LA Philharmonic: Music is medicine, music is sanity. After his talk, Gupta plays his own transcription of the prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1! And The Danger of Science Denial.
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And, to balance the seriousness, check out this captivating hippo (((thanks Guy!)))!

21 Comments

  1. Matthew

    Love the Harris talk. Presented this in my class in the past couple of weeks. I believe the difference between humanism and neuroscience is minor. There is too much in common. Art and science have much to say to each other.

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  2. Guy

    Incredible! A rhino without horns looks like a hippo. Love how you talk about interesting issues then slap a bit of humor here and there…

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  3. Ottmar

    Matthew, agreed, and your comment befits Leonardo’s birthday this week.

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  4. steve

    The primary difference I detect between humanism and neuroscience is that humanism tends to be (unsurprisingly) overly optimistic regarding man’s capabilities and importance whereas neuroscience tends to be more neutral.

    We need to wean ourselves off of a human-centric view: there have been 22 known extinction events in the history of the earth (five of which were major).

    Obviously, the earth can discard us at any time. We have no say, no vote, and all our tools (technology) and analysis aren’t going to be able to change a thing when it’s time for us to disappear. We won’t be able to form a policy or institute laws enough to change anything, even if we have a lot of warning: look at the current climate change debate for evidence of this.

    Having said that I completely agree that art and science DO have much to say to AND about each other and the bridge is creativity.

    Both of which remind me of this: http://tinyurl.com/mluw5k

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  5. Brenda

    What I liked about Sam Harris TED Talk was how the different value system is protected in different cultures and the choices that we humans choose out of love of self first(flat) or the (Higher) love of others first. To take a rock and build a bridge to connect life and or to build a rock wall to protect life ; or to choose to throw a rock and destroy life. Moral Choice of life is within the science of all of us.

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  6. Adam Solomon

    The distinction between science and art is largely an artificial one :) Though you won’t find many science types (besides yours truly) willing to admit it out loud. The mathematicians are much more vocal about this sort of thing. Science needs its Hardys and Gödels – Einstein was really the last one, since then some sort of depressing positivism seems to have taken over…

    I found Sam Harris’s TED talk interesting too, but am still not sure what to make of it. The idea is clearly along the right path – there exists absolute morality and moral experts who are more suited to tell us about it than others – but something about his approach to it is off, and his argument seems to crumble in the last 30 seconds or so. I’m very skeptical of neuroscience’s ability to tell us with any certainty about human fulfillment, and Harris doesn’t make clear his latent metaphysics – namely, a rejection of metaphysics. His recourse to “delusion belief systems” in that final answer is, well, problematic.

    I’ve been finding some of my thought lately has echoes of Wilber’s spiral ideas by the way – or at least what my mind remembers of it. I’ll have to get back to him at some point, whenever I find the time…

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  7. steve

    Adam Solomon wrote: “I found Sam Harris’s TED talk interesting too, but am still not sure what to make of it.”

    Adam: I have written a number of attempts at comment on Sam’s TED talk for this forum and in each case I deleted it: I just didn’t know if I was responding to what I had seen and heard.

    I’m really not sure what Sam’s thesis is. He seems to have several parallel arguments going at once which alternate between convergence and divergence.

    (Although I agree with you that there exists absolute morality which could [in principle] be derived scientifically, I’m much more skeptical regarding moral experts: I just don’t know what that would look like.)

    I think you have expressed it quite well: “something about his approach … is off.”

    I think the problem may be that Sam is an erudite public speaker and the underlying sophistry and positivism in his argument is concealed by his smooth delivery.

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  8. Adam Solomon

    Yeah, your approach to Harris seems pretty spot-on. Frankly, it’s difficult to talk about absolute morality if you don’t have any metaphysics, and I don’t think Harris does. You can talk about scientific approaches but when you get down to it, science requires first principles which it can’t deliver.

    I’ve had trouble formulating a good response to his talk, too, especially because he said relatively little compared to the immense amount of dialogue it’s generated. For some reason it set the blogosphere abuzz about moral relativism! Which is always a good thing.

    As for moral expertise, well, that should be the point of philosophy (I’ve been reading just a bit too much Plato lately!). The moral expert would know the Good similarly to how a scientist knows physical Truth or a mechanic knows a car – glancingly, but better than most, and enough to say something meaningful about it.

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  9. steve

    Agreed, The moral expert would know “The Good” in the same way I know electrical/electronics engineering. Such an expert would be well trained in philosophy.

    But … whereas an auto mechanic works at the dealership and repairs a non/mal-functioning vehicle, or the particle physicist works at CERN LHC and tells us about the latest quest for the Higgs, where would the moral expert(s) work? How would the moral expert(s) derive authority? Under what imprimatur would moral expert(s) function?

    We can answer all these questions easily regarding auto mechanics, particle physicists, and electrical engineers. Not so with moral experts.

    As I say, I fully agree with the principle of scientifically derived moral facts as Harris indicated: I just don’t know where it goes from there, or IF it goes from there.

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  10. Adam Solomon

    Well, you’re running into the problem I think most scientists do (Sean Carroll, a Caltech cosmologist, had this issue in response to the Harris talk over at his blog, Cosmic Variance). I think it’s a matter of giving up when you run into a certain tricky epistemological barrier. There’s no a priori reason for us to believe in the existence of physical reality but not moral reality except that it’s a lot easier for us to accept the former. That is to say, it’s easy to be a moral relativist, but to be a solipsist (a “physical relativist” analogous to the moral case) is widely considered crazy talk – and rightly so! But even though it’s easier to believe in physical reality than moral reality, that’s not a restriction on the existence of the latter. In fact, since our major stumbling block isn’t necessarily the existence of moral reality but rather the existence of *any* abstract (i.e. non-physical) reality, I always like to point to mathematics as an example of something which is not physical and not spatiotemporal but clearly has an independent and objective reality. The jump to morality from there isn’t far; the biggest hurdle’s already been cleared.

    So the moral expert would have the same sort of knowledge of the Good that I have of cosmology, and it would require a trust in their “moral sense” (which I think largely involves reason) just as my doing cosmology requires a trust in my physical senses, the technology I use to analyze data, my mathematical abilities, the truth of mathematics, the coherence of physical laws, inductive reasoning, etc.

    Interestingly, most brands of mysticism – worldwide, developed largely or completely in isolation from each other – believe(d) in the accessibility of capital-T Truth to human reason, or some variation on that theme. Socrates, the prototype of the moral expert, did the same. Some of these philosophies do believe that a full understanding of Truth requires a god (usually as a kind of epistemic superior who can fill in the gaps left by reason’s incompleteness) but there are at least features of the Good which can be found through reason, and these many traditions seem to agree on quite a few.

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  11. Ottmar

    Guy, guys, guys, you are over-thinking this. First of all, I think Harris did not do well with the TED time restrictions. His talk needed to be about an hour long. (((side-note: a few years ago I tried to put a round table discussion together, with Sam Harris, Stephen Batchelor and Joan Halifax discussing a few questions at the Lensic in Santa Fe- could have been interesting, but didn’t happen))) I don’t think Harris wants to establish “moral experts” who decide matters for society (((that’s some slippery ground there))) – I think he wants to look at evidence in a more scientific manner – see my examples below.

    Anyway, I think we don’t need metaphysics or cosmology. We just need to look at issues and their moral solutions. The answers should be verifiable against, say a Wilberian grid of I, We, It, Its.

    I think it should be easy for us to agree that this is wrong, no matter what any old religious book might say. It’s wrong on a humanistic level, on a social level, on a medical level and so on. We can consult experts (medical, judicial, philosophical etc.), but it’s pretty much a slam-dunk.

    Or, take the Catholic prohibition against condom use. Shine a light on that using every kind of evidence available.

    This is not rocket-science and it is not some complicated metaphysical issue. It’s simple and verifiable.

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  12. dave

    Common sense.

    Reply
  13. Ottmar

    Yes, Dave. I wish, however, that common sense was a little more… common.

    And by that latter “common” I mean “widespread” and not “showing a lack of taste and refinement: vulgar”… :-)

    Reply
  14. marijose

    I enjoyed the Sam Harris talk, but thought he could have made the key points more strongly.

    I also vote for seny, which in Catalan means something like communal sensibleness.

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  15. steve

    What does Sam say at 16:21?

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  16. Ottmar

    Steve, I also enjoyed that Ken Robinson talk and have shown it to a lot of people.

    Thanks for the link to Sam Harris’ article on Project Reason. Love this:

    My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind. As the response to my TED talk indicates, it is taboo for a scientist to think such things, much less say them public.

    Right and wrong answers… this one from today is WRONG.

    Not sure how I feel about the quote you pulled,

    only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal wellbeing.

    but, am not necessarily against it.

    It would be interesting if universities started to look at morality as a field with right and wrong answers and used, and integrated (((pun intended))) some of the developmental research Wilber writes about.

    In the end t is all about development. How do we help a human being move from selfish to universal care? It is very important to find ways to do this well, because EVERY human has to move from selfish to universal. We are born selfish… it’s a process that repeats with every human born. Therefore it is very important to figure out what helps us along that path. Right now there are nine billion human beings struggling to move from selfish to universal care!! This is too important a development to leave it solely up to religious institutions or to families.

    Here is another quote from the Project Reason article:

    As it turns out, to denigrate the Taliban at a scientific meeting is to court controversy (after all, “Who decides what is a successful life?”) At the conclusion of my talk, I fell into debate with another invited speaker, who seemed, at first glance, to be very well positioned to reason effectively about the implications of science for our understanding of morality. She holds a degree in genetics from Dartmouth, a masters in biology from Harvard, and a law degree, another masters, and a Ph.D. in the philosophy of biology from Duke. This scholar is now a recognized authority on the intersection between criminal law, genetics, neuroscience and philosophy. Here is a snippet of our conversation, more or less verbatim:

    She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?

    Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing wellbeing—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.

    She: But that’s only your opinion.

    Me: Okay… Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human wellbeing?

    She: It would depend on why they were doing it.

    Me (slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head): Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, “Every third must walk in darkness.”

    She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.

    Wow! Flatland! Yes, we CAN say that it is wrong! Just as it was wrong to bind a Chinese woman’s feet, as it is wrong to break an Indian child’s limbs to s/he can be a more effective beggar, as it is wrong to marry a daughter off at twelve years of age, and so on and so on.

    Wilber might have simply talked her ear off and given her his quick two hour summary, complete with a gesture to his assistant to bring more coffee… :-)

    Reply
  17. steve

    Ottmar, I would like to read a book by Ken Wilber. Where should I start? What would you recommend as a starting point?

    Reply
  18. Brenda

    Ottmar, I understand you are speaking of Development as the Development of a CONSCIENCE?

    Reply
  19. Ottmar

    Steve, my first introduction to Wilber was “A Brief History of Everything”, which I read while on tour in 1999, I believe (((it isn’t really that brief – 544 pages))). I think “The Integral Vision: A Very Short Introduction to the Revolutionary Integral Approach” might be a good one to start with. “The Marriage of Sense and Soul” is another good start.

    Brenda, conscience, as I understand it, is certainly part of human development, but there are many other aspects that need to grow as well for the development to work.

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  20. Brenda

    Just reading the meeting notes of the female speaker enhanced with institutional paper framed worldly scientific titles saddens me (though I maybe incorrect in my thought process). Has she become so hard hearted along her path of climbing the food chain of prestige , leadership positioning, and influence to block out compassion? Happy Life is more then doing your job. Happiness does not need a title.

    Reply

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