Saturday, September 22, 2012

Moral Bioenhancement and the Social Nature of Research

Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Perrson have an article in Philosophy Now in which they argue for artificial moral bioenchancement. It has the tendency to baffling leaps of reasoning and to science-fictionism that Savulescu's work generally seems to exhibit, but the question raised is interesting. As Savulescu and Perrson note, the notion of artificial moral enhancement is itself unexceptionable; education, culture, and law are all things that could be considered artificial moral enhancement. They argue, however, that we should go beyond this:

Our knowledge of human biology – in particular of genetics and neurobiology – is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or through genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process. We could use these techniques to overcome the moral and psychological shortcomings that imperil the human species.

The first thing to keep in mind is that this is not a unified category of things. We already use drugs in a limited way for moral enhancement -- caffeine to keep alert so that we can do our jobs, pychiatric treatments to compensate for various problems that can make a good human life more difficult, and so forth. It is completely unclear how we would go about engaging in moral enhancement on the basis of genetic engineering, however, and people have already tried the genetic selection or eugenics route and discovered that, even if, like Savulescu, you can get over the historical associations, there is no clear way to make it work in practice. Its influence over actual moral choices is obviously going to be as a general matter extremely indirect, and thus liable to be swamped out by other factors; voluntary genetic selection is quite slow and would require sustained effort over centuries; coercive genetic selection is obviously illiberal and leads to a completely understandable widespread resentment; and since there are a vast number of very different dimensions along with which one's moral life may be enhanced, and since we cannot select for them all simultaneously, it will necessarily be highly arbitrary and the choice in constant danger of political and social manipulation.

Savulescu and Perrson consider three facets of the case against putting much emphasis on this approach: that it is too slow, that it is subject to immoral capture, and that liberal democracy is a better approach. None of their responses to these are entirely adequate. To the first they say:

We do not dispute this. The relevant research is in its inception, and there is no guarantee that it will deliver in time, or at all. Our claim is merely that the requisite moral enhancement is theoretically possible – in other words, that we are not biologically or genetically doomed to cause our own destruction – and that we should do what we can to achieve it.

I'm not sure who holds that we are biologically or genetically self-destructive as a species. But this response massively underestimates everything across the board -- the sheer variety of things that fall into the category of 'moral bioenhancement' and thus our ability to make general claims here; our ability to know what moral enhancement would actually be required to give reasonable guarantee of "the basic ethical skills we need to ensure our own survival is not jeopardised" (which is not even necessarily possible, given that conditions of survival constantly change); and the ability of a something that is merely "theoretically possible" and future to lay much of a claim on our resources given that practically possible solutions to practical problems now are often already laying claim to those same resources here and now; and our ability to engage in the sort of massive multi-generational research that would be required for some of the moral bioenhancements Savulescu and Perrson have in mind. Far from providing even a gesture at an answer, their response to the problem really just underlines how serious it is for their position.

Likewise, their supposed answer to the bootstrapping problem -- how can we reasonably guarantee proper research and application, so that we actually enhance rather than deteriorate our moral abilities, especially given that the defects we are supposed to be eliminating will themselves be found throughout the whole phase of research and application? -- is simply to state it again in different words.

The problem is intensified, in fact, when we consider their response to the liberal democracy issue. They argue that, given "our parochial altruism and bias towards the near future," "there is good reason to believe that voters are more likely to get it wrong than right". This may be so, but the same biases will be operative throughout any sort of enhancement research, and the bigger the scale of the enhancement research, the more extensive their influence could become. Even if this weren't so, liberal democracy does not consist merely of voters voting; voting is itself merely one of the institutional processes of negotiation and deliberation by which things get accomplished in a free society. These very same institutional processes of negotiation and deliberation will necessarily be involved, often directly, in any extensive form of research.

It is a point that is worth emphasizing: large-scale scientific research is a social process depending heavily on other social processes for resources, and the only systems of processes that have any promise of being sufficiently stable for research on the scale that Savulescu and Perrson clearly have in mind and yet sufficiently resilient to resist domination by political interests are all liberal-democratic. You can organize large-scale research technocratically without dependence on the processes of a liberal democracy, but large-scale research of any kind is by its very size vulnerable to the interests that control the resources on which it depends. Technocracy without liberal democracy merely simplifies the processes of control -- it makes it easier for factions to dominate the whole by dominating certain key decision-making parts. If liberal democracy, then, cannot be reasonably trusted to deliver this sort of bioenhancement research, and to deliver it in a reasonably ethical way, then it simply cannot be done -- we know of no other way to maintain the social processes of research that could possibly provide a serious alternative. Scientific inquiry does not occur in a social void.

Poem a Day XXII


"Why, my son, is it I see
the red of blood upon your sleeve?
Son, my son, come speak to me."
"It is some dye, some dye you see,
red as blood upon my sleeve,
bloody red upon my sleeve."

"Too rusty-dark, my son, to be
some dye you've spilled upon your sleeve!
Son, my son, come speak to me."
"It is the bulldog's blood you see,
red as blood upon my sleeve,
bloody red upon my sleeve."

"Too human-red, my son to be
the bulldog's blood upon your sleeve!
Son, my son, come speak to me."
"It is your youngest son you see,
red as blood upon my sleeve,
bloody red upon my sleeve."

"And how, my son, could this thing be,
your brother's blood upon your sleeve!
Son, my son, come speak to me."
"We struggled by the willow tree;
his blood was red upon my sleeve,
bloody red upon my sleeve."

"What shall you do, now that we see
your brother's blood upon your sleeve?
Son, my son, come speak to me."
"Nothing's left but to rise and flee
with brother's blood upon my sleeve,
bloody red upon my sleeve."

"Where shall you go, where shall you flee
so marked with death upon your sleeve?
Son, my son, come speak to me."
"In a ship I'll flee across the sea
though brother's blood be on my sleeve,
bloody red upon my sleeve."

"What of your own son, age of three;
must he be marked with your bloody sleeve?
Son, my son, come speak to me."
"Care for him, let him be free
of shame of blood upon my sleeve,
bloody red upon my sleeve."

"Will you return or ever be free
of stigma and shame from the bloody sleeve?
Son, my son, come speak to me."
"On Judgment Day I might be free
of shame of blood upon my sleeve,
bloody red upon my sleeve."

You Never Can Tell

This happened right next to my apartment building today; although the first I knew of it was my sister texting me about an hour and a half afterward. Fortunately nobody was seriously harmed. It just goes to show that you never can tell.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Music on My Mind

Rajaton, "Väinämöisen Veneretki." The song, "Väinämöinen's Boat-Journey," tells a story: Väinämöinen, the great Finnish hero and god of music, builds a boat and goes out on the ocean. There he catches a great fish and from it makes the first kantele.


But what is intolerable is that the created being should be thus violently stripped of its own precious personality. The violence is none the less odious to the creator, for the ingratiating smirk with which it is offered. Nor is the offence any more excusable when it takes the form of endowing the creature with qualities, however amiable, which run contrary to the law of its being:

"I am sure Lord Peter will end up as a convinced Christian."
"From what I know of him, nothing is more unlikely."
"But as a Christian yourself, you must want him to be one."
"He would be horribly embarrassed by any such suggestion."
"But he's far too intelligent and far too nice, not to be a Christian."
"My dear lady, Peter is not the Ideal Man; he is an eighteenth-century Whig gentleman, born a little out of his time, and doubtful whether any claim to possess a soul is not a rather vulgar piece of presumption."
"I am disappointed."
"I'm afraid I can't help that."

(No; you shall not impose either your will or mine upon my creature. He is what he is, I will work no irrelevant miracles upon him, either for propaganda, or to curry favour, or to establish the consistency of my own principles. He exists in his own right and not to please you. Hands off.)

[Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, Chapter 9]

I've been thinking about this recently, for reasons that are too long and complicated to make sense here. But in general anyone who does a lot of writing that other people see, whether the writing itself is good or bad or, as is more usually the case, somewhere in a mediocre in-between, will discover two kinds of critics. The first kind is the good kind; they may be gentle, they may be harsh, but their criticism is entirely about the internal logic of the work. It is a fact that should be better known that every author fails, or, rather, the only authors who completely succeed are those who cannot think of anything really worth writing. It is always possible, by closely following the structure of the work, this thread or that, to come up with something that would be more in keeping with the inner law of the work than the author could quite manage to achieve. This is true of even those authors who often come as close to perfection as any human author in this life is likely to come, the Virgils and the Austens and the Shakespeares. Every author is a little short. And so the good kind of criticism is that which, respecting the inner work, opens at least the possibility -- not all criticisms pan out, and in fact many turn out to be dead ends, but the good ones at least raise the possibility -- of making the work more what it should be.

A great many people who read and criticize manage to do this -- an impressive number, actually. But a great many people are bad critics. Their criticism is not about the internal logic of the story at all. They do not provide criticisms that help the author write in a better way what he or she is trying to write; they criticize the author for writing the author's story or poem, and not the story or poem that they want written. They want the author to do the work they are too lazy to do themselves, and presume to pronounce on a story they can't be bothered to think through on its own terms. Or, for that matter, can't be bothered to consider whether the story they want is really the story that the author could conceivably write with any integrity, given the way the author writes.

It is notable that this is quite a universal thing. It's easier for them to hide, but one encounters them in nonfiction as much as fiction. And no one is safe from them. Jane Austen was continually harrassed by them. She was once asked to write a romance story, and she replied that she could no more write a serious romance than she could write an epic poem because she would never be able to get very far unless she were allowed to relax into laughing at herself and at others. The most famous instance, however, was the Reverend James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent's own librarian. It probably did not help at the time that Austen did not like the Prince Regent, but as it happened the Prince Regent enjoyed her books, and on learning that Austen was the author, arranged to Clarke give her a tour of his estate. Clark spent the entire time suggesting various elements of a story to her, one about a character remarkably like himself. She politely replied that she could certainly not do justice to such a story, and that to write it properly would require a classical education she did not have. And Clarke replied in a letter by suggesting another story, equally suspiciously like something out of Clarke's own life. And she ended by insisting that she must be allowed to go her own way, with her own style. To Clarke himself she was polite, but she could not help writing up a "Plan of a Novel" for her family, based on Clarke's irritatingly useless suggestions. As it happened, she made lemonade of that lemon, because the Plan is one of the best short pieces in Austen's oeuvre. But the exasperation of such things should not be underestimated.

In any case, I should hasten to note that my commenters here have in general been quite excellent; this is in mind for other sorts of reasons.

Poem a Day XXI


Of many discords
the world is made; it seethes
with strife, and yet still breathes
with love, with union's weld,
that makes discordance meld
into a budding concord.
And shall this cosmos born
from out a chaos torn
without a cause transpire?
Like art but from within
each youthful thing begins,
is forged with glory's fire,
and ventures forth by laws
from out its source and cause.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Poem a Day XX

Doggerel Protest

A poet may poetize a pound
but God help the man
who has to ram
into a poem a kilogram;
nor can a man be ever found
to make a liter
just enough neater
to fit into the ideal meter.
And we'll find it worse,
do what we can,
to give a gram
to a word that merely slams;
it sounds like a foolish curse.
All good sense they cast from hence
in decimal drear
which cost us dear
in the pursuit of something clear
which lost us shilling and pence.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Poem a Day XIX


The foggy air upon the breeze
curls and wisps and hides and flees;
it mocks the eye with changeling sight
like ghosts of ages in the night.

The wind like voices not quite clear
speaks the words of yesteryear;
They whisper, curling clouds of white
like ghosts of ages in the night.

And memories! They walk the streets
with fog around their soundless feet
as wraiths and phantoms, seely wights,
like ghosts of ages in the night.

'Seely wights', for those who are curious, is an old name for the fairy-folk, or perhaps more exactly for the fairy aristocracy, the oldest and noblest kind-- which makes it a term of respect. There's an old folk verse about it that was once especially popular:

Gin ye ca' me imp or elf,
I rede ye well, look to yoursel';
Gin ye ca' me fairy,
I'll work ye meikle tarry;
Gin gude neiber ye ca' me
Then gude neiber I'll be;
But gin ye ca' me seely wight,
I'll be your friend baith day an' night.

'Seely' is the original word from which 'silly' comes, through a long series of transformations; but you probably should not mention that to Oberon, if you meet him.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Vision Stays

She Came and Went
by James Russell Lowell

As a twig trembles, which a bird
Lights on to sing, then leaves unbent,
So is my memory thrilled and stirred;--
I only know she came and went.

As clasps some lake, by gusts unriven,
The blue dome's measureless content,
So my soul held that moment's heaven;--
I only know she came and went.

As, at one bound, our swift spring heaps
The orchards full of bloom and scent,
So clove her May my wintry sleeps;--
I only know she came and went.

An angel stood and met my gaze,
Through the low doorway of my tent;
The tent is struck, the vision stays;--
I only know she came and went.

Oh, when the room grows slowly dim,
And life's last oil is nearly spent,
One gush of light these eyes will brim,
Only to think she came and went.

Probabilities as Analogies

All that follows is just crude jotting, quite incomplete, and barely a start at anything.

C. S. Peirce remarks somewhere that every probability is in fact the ratio of a species to its genus. Since we usually think of probabilities as numbers, we have to say that we have a probability when the relation of a species to its genus corresponds in some way to the ratio of one number to another. Or, to put it in other words, probabilities are analogies, in the sense of 'A is to B as C is to D'.

If you think about it, mathematical analogies of this sort are not uncommon. To say that there are twelve inches to a foot, for instance, is to say:

inch : foot :: 12 : 1

Probabilities are of exactly this sort, except that to be probabilities they have to be analogies of a certain kind. To say that the probability of rolling a 1 on a six-sided die is to say something like:

rolling a one : dice rolls :: 1 : 6

If we take 's' to be whatever number we associate with species S and 'g' to be whatever number we associate with genus G, then, all probabilities have the following analogical form:

S: G :: s : g

We take the relation of a species of event to its genus and say that this relation corresponds to the relation between one number and another. Note that I say 'all probabilities have this analogical form', not 'all things of this analogical form are probabilities'; the analogy is constrained by the axioms of probability. Rather, my point is that every probability can be put in the form of an analogy.

If A and B are species, and MRG is the 'maximal relevant genus' including them both (in what follows I am treating each line as simply separate from the others):

P(A) = [A : MRG :: a : mrg]
P(B) = [B : MRG :: b : mrg]
P(A&B) = [AB : MRG :: a&b : mrg]
P(A|B) = [(AB : MRG :: a&b : mrg) ::: (B : MRG :: b : mrg)]

(Having both the expanding colons ::: and the parentheses is redundant; they're just ways to group which analogies are being analogized to which.)

Bayes Theorem is then the following analogy (assuming I haven't made any errors, which I may have):

(((AB : MRG :: a&b : mrg) ::: (B : MRG :: b : mrg)) :::: ((AB : MRG :: a&b : mrg) ::: (A : MRG :: a : mrg))) ::::: (((A : MRG :: a : mrg) :::: (B : MRG :: b : mrg))

Or, as an alternative (again assuming that I haven't made any stupid mistakes, for which I will not vouch):

(((AB : MRG :: B : MRG) ::: (AB : MRG :: A : MRG)) :::: (A: MRG :: B : MRG))) ::::: (((a&b : mrg :: b : mrg) ::: (a&b : mrg :: a : mrg)) :::: (a : mrg :: b : mrg)))

By assuming the MRG as always given, and mrg thus = 1, this particular analogy could be simplified, of course, as something like

((AB : B :: AB : A) ::: (A : B)) :::: ((a&b : b :: a&b : a) ::: (a : b))

None of this is particularly interesting in itself. But if probabilities are analogies, then probabilistic reasoning can be treated as a form of analogical reasoning, which would have implications for how we understand analogical reasoning.

Poem a Day Bonus

Nursery Rhyme

Beat-up pick-up on the road,
Why'd you make the traffic slow?
The sign says seventy we may go,
but you go fifty and break the flow.

Poem a Day XVIII

Caught in the Rain

It rains. The puddles my poor shoes
cover with squish and Sunday blues,
and on my head drops dripping down
make merry with my freezing grief.
Pelted by both dark cloud and leaf,
I am a sailor who is drowned
and now has fish for lively crew.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Polemicist Who Wouldn't Hurt a Fly

Today is the feast of St. Roberto Bellarmino, polemical theologian and Doctor of the Church. Even if you didn't know he was a Jesuit you could figure it out by the fact that so many legends, apocryphal stories, and outright falsehoods have collected around him.

David Hume has an interesting comment about Bellarmine in The Natural History of Religion:

Bellarmine patiently and humbly allowed the fleas and other odious vermin to prey upon him. "We shall have heaven," said he, "to reward us for our sufferings; but these poor creatures have nothing but the enjoyment of the present life."

Like a number of Hume's weirder claims this comes from Pierre Bayle, who as a Calvinist is not wholly the most reliable source for information about Catholic saints. The advantage of Bayle, though, is that he tells us where he's getting these things. Bayle is drawing the story from Jacopo Fuligatti's life of Bellarmine. Fuligatti gives three stories about insects and Bellarmine's patience: first, it's said he counted gnats and other minor vexations to be from God, so he wouldn't drive them away, but simply endured them patiently; second, that he was once bitten by insects at Mass and turned to the statue of Christ to pray; and third, that Cardinal Crescentius told the story that in Rome, where flies are a problem, he wouldn't drive them away, and when asked why said, "It is unjust to disturb those little creatures whose only paradise is the freedom of flying and landing where they wish." Bayle sums it up by saying that he was said to be so patient that he allowed flies and other small insects to be troublesome to him; and being a sarcastic Calvinist, he insists on explicitly saying that shooing away bugs is consistent with the teachings of Christ. It should not need to be said, but unfortunately probably does, that there is nothing whatsoever in Bellarmine to suggest that he would not agree to this; that the stories are second-hand (third-hand by the time we get to Bayle) and, except for the third, which alone is sourced, they are vague and generic moral tales about patience and suffering which have parallels elsewhere in hagiographical convention (the first story explicitly links the bugs to minor vexations of life; the second links them to hell); that if Bellarmine actually did make the comment in the third story, it might well have been at least half-joking, because Bellarmine was notoriously fond of jokes and puns; and that, if true, the whole thing may for all we know have grown out of one single incident in the Cardinal's nearly eighty years of life. Bayle is telling the story from a popular source, and he is telling it as scholarly gossip and with a little malice.

It's noteworthy how Hume, who now gives the story at fourth-hand, embellishes on Bayle's story. We move from gnats and flies to "fleas and other odious vermin." Conceivably the vague reference to biting insects in the second story could be taken as meaning fleas; but it's a different story than the one that involves the comment. Hume takes the figurative reference to paradise and turns the whole saying into a comment about the afterlife, which is actually crucial to how it is used in context. Either he is telling the story from memory -- which is possible -- or he is reworking it to make it fit its context, which is the difference between the nobility of Greek heroes (representing polytheism) and the abasement of Catholic saints (representing monotheism).

Many more people in the English-speaking world read Hume now than read Bayle, so it's Hume's story that has spread since; and you can regularly find people stating as fact that Bellarmine let fleas drink his blood because they can't go to heaven. The thing of it is, this is hardly unusual with Bellarmine; half the stories you come across about him are just like this one. Actually, this one is better than a lot of the stories that are told about him, since Bayle's version, at least, is not provably false and has (unlike most such stories) some sort of provenance.

Poem a Day XVII

Drinking Tea

Drinking tea
you find the way,
world within,
since you stop,
savor moments,
let the world
go its own way,
with calm grace
fall into a warm cup
and let the taste
carry you.

Scent and taste
join together
to make peace,
to touch with joy,
to give hope;
the mind is calmed
in the cup
and is restored.
A small thing,
but the world is in it.
Here you may glimpse

Drinking tea
you find the way,
journey home,
come to insight,
for the cup
reflects the mind
in stillness,
the liquid soothes,
steam rises
with the freshness of dawn:
for one moment
you are here.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fortnightly Book, September 16

Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in 'Deerslayer,' and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction—some say twenty-two. In Deerslayer Cooper violated eighteen of them.

So says Mark Twain in Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, which is in great measure an attack on James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer, or The First Warpath, which is the next fortnightly book.

The Deerslayer is part of Cooper's Leatherstocking Pentalogy. Putting the books in the order published, they are:

The Pioneers (1823)
The Last of the Mohicans (1826)
The Prairie (1827)
The Pathfinder (1840)
The Deerslayer (1841)

However, in the order of internal chronology:

The Deerslayer (up to 1745)
The Last of the Mohicans (1757)
The Pathfinder (late 1750s)
The Pioneers (1793)
The Prairie (1804)

(There seems to be some doubt about the date of The Pathfinder. It's almost always listed as number three, but at least one source I've seen puts its internal date at 1756, which puts it before The Last of the Mohicans, which certainly occurs in 1757.) So The Deerslayer was the last book published, but is the prequel of them all. By this point, Cooper's reputation was solid, and it was an instant hit; two editions appeared virtually simultaneously both in the United States and in England, both claimed by their respective publishing houses as the actual first edition. A French and a German version followed shortly.

Cooper himself was an extaordinarily combative person. He wrote his first novel, Precaution, simply to prove that he could write one. He made many enemies in his lifetime, and was famously litigious, slapping a libel lawsuit on practically anyone who criticized him (he generally won).

He became known as America's version of Sir Walter Scott, which is probably what made him a target for Twain, and was one of the things that James Russell Lowell tweaked Cooper about in his notoroius A Fable for Critics:

But he need take no pains to convince us he's not
(As his enemies say) the American Scott.

His characterization also comes in for sharp criticism by Lowell:

All his other men-figures are clothes upon sticks
The derniere chemise of a man in a fix,
(As a captain besieged, when his garrison's small,
bets up caps upon poles to be seen o'er the wall;)
And the women he draws from one model don't vary,
All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.

Nonetheless, this should not be the last word, because part of all this is that Lowell and Twain had to deal with the extraordinary length of Cooper's shadow. For many European authors and critics, British and continental alike, James Fenimore Cooper was the serious American author, the one on whom American claim to have literary talent primarily rested. Nor is the list of his fans small or slight in name: Balzac, Victor Hugo, Rudolf Drescher, Wilkie Collins, and more. With Cooper, American literature entered the world stage as a major contender. And, perhaps more importantly, the Leatherstocking Tales, of which The Deerslayer is the first, have continued to be read and enjoyed through generations.

Poem a Day XVI


Shall life be but a minor thing? Let it never be!
The world is not so mean, nor shall it ever be.

The fruit is one moment on the vine, then fades;
to seize it one must be keen, and thus shall it ever be.

The days go by with swiftness, but do not fail:
their fulfillments are always seen, and they shall forever be.

One must grasp them with full heart, hold them fast,
and all their glory glean; thus must it ever be.

In life is always some glorious end, like a dawn:
it has never been capped with a keen, nor shall it ever be.