April 4, 2020

What Do We Do Now?

A friend called our new world ‘a ghost ship’ — and maybe she is right. She has recently lost someone dear to her and recognises acutely the premonitory feeling of a world about to be shattered — and that we will need to put ourselves back together again, not only personally, but societally. In time we will be given the opportunity to either contract around the old version of ourselves and our world — insular, self-interested and tribalistic — or understand the connectedness and commonality of all humans, everywhere. In isolation, we will be presented with our essence — of what we are personally and what we are as a society. We will be asked to decide what we want to preserve about our world and ourselves, and what we want to discard.

Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files, #89, March 2020

Prevalence-Induced Concept Change in Human Judgment

Why do some social problems seem so intractable? In a series of experiments, we show that people often respond to decreases in the prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their concept of it. When blue dots became rare, participants began to see purple dots as blue; when threatening faces became rare, participants began to see neutral faces as threatening; and when unethical requests became rare, participants began to see innocuous requests as unethical. This “prevalence-induced concept change” occurred even when participants were forewarned about it and even when they were instructed and paid to resist it. Social problems may seem intractable in part because reductions in their prevalence lead people to see more of them.

Science, June 2018

The Better Conversations Guide

This guide (download the print-optimized PDF) is intended to help ground and animate a gathering of friends or strangers in a conversation that might take place over weeks or months. It provides a flexible roadmap you can adapt for your group and intentions. We created it as producers, but more as citizens, out of what we’ve learned in more than 15 years of conversation on On Being.

The On Being Project, undated

Ted Chiang on Free Will, Time Travel, Many Worlds, Genetic Engineering, and Hard Science Fiction

Steve Hsu: I’ve always had trouble understanding what people mean when they say compatibilism. I think you’re saying that compatibilism is not the same thing as observing that we have merely the illusion of free will, is that it?
Corey Washington: Yes. I mean, I’m not an expert in this type of metaphysics, but as far as I know, people really want to say that there can be a robust concept of free will that’s fully consistent with a deterministic universe. Again, I’m very far removed from this literature, but as far as I understand, that’s what robust philosophical compatibilism holds. It’s not just an illusion of free will, it’s not just an epiphenomenon, it’s actually something that’s somehow consistent with a fully deterministic universe. Ted, where in the perspective of compatibilism does your position lie?
Ted Chiang: I am a compatibilist. My stance is largely based on Daniel Dennett’s arguments in favor of compatibilism, so the way I would phrase it is, what is it that you want from free will that you are not getting? If you try and nail down what it is that people want from free will when they use that phrase, what do they want from that? And what is it that they are not getting? It seems to me that, naively, people want the future to be completely unknown, in that there is no future. So there’s a future where they choose option A, and there’s a future where they choose option B, and they are both potentialities, and only when they make the decision does one actually obtain, and the other one ceases to be a possibility. The way I think about it is that, they’re imagining that there are these two scenarios. In the scenario where they choose option A, and the scenario where they choose option B, the entire history of the universe, the position and velocity of every atom was exactly the same up until the moment that they made their decision. And in one case they chose option A, and in the other case they chose option B. And if that’s what they want from free will, I don’t think that’s something that is meaningful. That’s not something that they actually want, because that scenario means that their choice of option A or option B depended on absolutely nothing that happened in the entire history of the universe prior to that point. It cannot have depended on it, because they’re exactly the same in both cases. That means choosing option A and option B was essentially kind of a quantum coin flip, and I don’t think that’s what people actually want. That’s no kind of decision at all.
Washington: My deep suspicion is that people who really want free will are kind of dualists. They think there’s a parallel level to the universe which is not physically determined, and their choice comes from this other layer of consciousness mind that can intervene in the physical world and drop down, and that’s what causes the universe to go towards option A or option B. It’s that causation of mind or consciousness that constitutes free will, and is not part of the previous physical structure of the universe.
Chiang: Yes, they are looking for a kind of dualism, even if they might not express it that way. They are looking for a kind of immaterial soul, although again, I think most of them would rather not phrase it that way. Then there’s the question of how does this immaterial soul work? And I don’t mean in a detailed physical sense, because it’s obviously non-physical, but when we think about what we want from free will, I think to some extent we want to deserve credit for the good decisions we make, and deserve the blame for the bad decisions we make. And some of that will arise out of our process of deliberation. The factors that go into our process of deliberation are everything that we have experienced in our life. Those are all physical things. Everything that happened to you in your life, those were all physical things. So the process of deliberation, by which you are, roughly speaking, taking all the experiences of your life as inputs, and then one of the outputs is your decision between option A and option B, that is something which I believe is entirely compatible with a materialist, physicalist universe. And I think a materialist, physicalist universe provides you with what you want, because your decision is the result of your life experience being processed through your cognition. That is what you want from free will, and I think that is what compatibilism, what a materialistic universe, actually gives you.

Manifold, #19, September 2019

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

The Blitz, as bad as it was, paled in comparison to what the Allies did. Dresden lost more people in one night than London did during the entire war. Firestorms engulfed whole neighborhoods and used up so much oxygen that people who were untouched by the blasts reportedly died of asphyxiation instead. Fully a third of the German population was subjected to bombardment, and around one million people were killed or wounded. American analysts based in England monitored the effects of the bombing to see if any cracks began to appear in the German resolve, and to their surprise found exactly the opposite: the more the Allies bombed, the more defiant the German population became. Industrial production actually rose in Germany during the war. And the cities with the highest morale were the ones—like Dresden—that were bombed the hardest. According to German psychologists who compared notes with their American counterparts after the war, it was the untouched cities where civilian morale suffered the most. Thirty years later, H.A. Lyons would document an almost identical phenomenon in riot-torn Belfast.
The United States Strategic Bombing Survey posted observers in England to evaluate the effectiveness of their strategy, and one of them, Charles Fritz, became an open critic of the rationale behind the bombing campaign. Intrigued by the fact that in both England and Germany, civilian resilience had risen in response to the air raids, Fritz went on to complete a more general study of how communities respond to calamity. After the war he turned his attention to natural disasters in the United States and formulated a broad theory about social resilience. He was unable to find a single instance where communities that had been hit by catastrophic events lapsed into sustained panic, much less anything approaching anarchy. If anything, he found that social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and that people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves.
In 1961, Fritz assembled his ideas into a lengthy paper that began with the startling sentence, “Why do large-scale disasters produce such mentally healthy conditions?” His data was compiled by a team of twenty-five researchers who worked for the National Opinion Research Center, based at the University of Chicago. Their job was to rush to disaster sites and interview the inhabitants about how they were adapting to their new circumstances; by 1959, NORC researchers had compiled roughly 9,000 survivor interviews. Fritz also scoured academic publications for anything related to natural or man-made disasters. His study was conducted during the height of the Cold War, when the Russian nuclear threat was foremost in the minds of civil defense planners. Never mentioned in the report—though impossible to ignore—is the possibility that the study was intended to assess whether the United States could continue to function after a nuclear exchange with Russia.
Fritz's theory was that modern society has gravely disrupted the social bonds that have always characterized the human experience, and that disasters thrust people back into a more ancient, organic way of relating. Disasters, he proposed, create a “community of sufferers” that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others. As people come together to face an existential threat, Fritz found, class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group. It is a kind of fleeting social utopia that, Fritz felt, is enormously gratifying to the average person and downright therapeutic to people suffering from mental illness.

Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Brian Leli

Hi. I'm Brian Leli.

I'm a writer and teacher from a suburb of Chicago. I currently live in northern Thailand. Subscribe to Think List. Send me an email.