Our morality may be a product of natural selection, but that doesn’t mean it's set in stone
For centuries now, conservative thinkers have argued that significant social reform is impossible, because human nature is inherently limited. The argument goes something like this: sure, it would be great to change the world, but it will never work, because people are too flawed, lacking the ability to see beyond their own interests and those of the groups to which they belong. They have permanent cognitive, motivational and emotional deficits that make any deliberate, systematic attempt to improve human society futile at best. Efforts to bring about social or moral progress are naive about the natural limits of the human animal and tend to have unintended consequences. They are likely to make things worse rather than better.
It’s tempting to nod along at this, and think humans are irredeemable, or at best, permanently flawed. But it’s not clear that such a view stands up to empirical scrutiny. For the conservative argument to prevail, it is not enough that humans exhibit tendencies toward selfishness, group-mindedness, partiality toward kin and kith, apathy toward strangers, and the like. It must also be the case that these tendencies are unalterable, either due to the inherent constraints of human psychology or to our inability to figure out how to modify these constraints without causing greater harms. The trouble is, these assumptions about human nature are largely based on anecdote or selective and controversial readings of history. A more thorough look at the historical record suggests they are due for revision.
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Mark Waser's insight:
Frontiers in Psychology 03/2014; DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00226#sthash.EWyajdFc.dpuf
ABSTRACT The importance of game theoretic models to evolutionary theory has been in formulating elegant equations that specify the strategies to be played and the conditions to be satisfied for particular traits to evolve. These models, in conjunction with experimental tests of their predictions, have successfully described and explained the costs and benefits of varying strategies and the dynamics for establishing equilibria in a number of evolutionary scenarios, including especially cooperation, mating, and aggression. Over the past decade or so, game theory has been applied to model the evolution of language. In contrast to the aforementioned scenarios, however, we argue that these models are problematic due to conceptual confusions and empirical difficiences. In particular, these models conflate the comptutations and representations of our language faculty (mechanism) with its utility in communication (function); model languages as having different fitness functions for which there is no evidence; depend on assumptions for the starting state of the system, thereby begging the question of how these systems evolved; and to date, have generated no empirical studies at all. Game theoretic models of language evolution have therefore failed to advance how or why language evolved, or why it has the particular representations and computations that it does. We conclude with some brief suggestions for how this situation might be ameliorated, enabling this important theoretical tool to make substantive empirical contributions. - See more at: http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00226/abstract#sthash.EWyajdFc.dpuf
The social motivation hypothesis for prosocial behavior (with Marion Godman and Mikko Salmela)
Abstract Existing economic models of prosociality have been rather silent interms of proximate psychological mechanisms. We nevertheless identifythe psychologically most informed accounts and offer a criticaldiscussion of their hypotheses for the proximate psychologicalexplanations. Based on convergent evidence from several fields ofresearch we argue that there nevertheless is a more plausiblealternative proximate account available: the social motivationhypothesis. The hypothesis represents a more basic explanation of theappeal of prosocial behavior, which is in terms of anticipated socialrewards. We also argue in favour of our own social motivation hypothesis over Robert Sugden’s fellow -feeling account (due originallyto Adam Smith). We suggest that the social motivation not only standsas a proximate account in its own right; it also provides a plausiblescaffold for other more sophisticated motivations (e.g. fellow-feelings).We conclude by discussing some possible implications the socialmotivation hypothesis has on existing modelling practice.
Typically, self-organisation (SO) is defined as the evolution of a system into an organised form in the absence of external pressures. SO within a system brings about several attractive properties, in particular, robustness, adaptability and scalability. In the face of perturbations caused by adverse external factors or internal component failures, a robust self-organising system continues to function. Moreover, an adaptive system may re-configure when required, degrading in performance “gracefully” rather than catastrophically. In certain circumstances, a system may need to be extended with new components and/or new connections among existing modules — without SO such scaling must be preoptimised in advance, overloading the traditional design process. In general, SO is a not a force that can be applied very naturally during a design process. In fact, one may argue that the notions of design and SO are contradictory: the former approach often assumes a methodical step-by-step planning process with predictable outcomes, while the latter involves non-deterministic spontaneous dynamics with emergent features. Thus, the main challenge faced by designers of self-organising systems is how to achieve and control the desired dynamics. Erring on the one side may result in over-engineering the system, completely eliminating emergent patterns and suppressing an increase in internal organisation with outside influence. Strongly favouring the other side may leave too much non-determinism in the system’s behaviour, making its verification and validation almost impossible. The balance between design and SO is the main theme of guided self-organisation (GSO). In short, GSO combines both task-independent objectives (e.g., information-theoretic and graph-theoretic utility functions) with task-dependent constraints.
DescriptionAgent-based computational economics (ACE) is the computational modeling of economic processes (including whole economies) as open-ended dynamic systems of interacting agents. Here "agent" refers broadly to a bundle of data and methods representing an entity residing within the dynamic system. Examples of possible agents include: individuals (e.g., consumers and producers); social groupings (e.g., families, firms, communities, and government agencies); institutions (e.g., markets and regulatory systems); biological entities (e.g., crops, livestock, and forests); and physical entities (e.g., infrastructure, weather, and geographical regions). Thus, agents can range from passive system features to active data-gathering decision makers capable of sophisticated social behaviors. Moreover, agents can be composed of other agents, permitting hierarchical constructions.
A cutting-edge corner of science is being wooed by Silicon Valley, to the dismay of some academics.
Mark Waser's insight:
There are so many aspects to this story - openness of scientific research vs. corporate ownership; whether deep learning really is "on the way" to true artificial intelligence or merely towards really awesome tools; and, of course, "what the first company in possession of a true AI would do with the power it provided." (not to mention today's other scoop on Google's proposed A.I. Ethics Board)
What kind of robots does an animator / jazz musician / roboticist make? Playful, reactive, curious ones. Guy Hoffman shows demo film of his family of unusual robots -- including two musical bots that like to jam with humans.
Mark Waser's insight:
Simply amazing as well as a reminder that sometimes we just need to get out of our own heads (and fearful planning modes) and just improvise, make errors, correct them and simply *live* and be human (except that robots can do all of that as well).
The folk history of psychology has it that the early efforts of folk such as Wundt and Titchener failed because they relied on introspection. Simply looking into your own mind and reporting what yo...
Mark Waser's insight:
Qualia are ineffable because they are influenced by every aspect of our unified mind — yet we try to explain them with our memory and mental model which are necessarily but a small (contained) part of that experiencing mind. Jackson’s Mary cannot possibly know because in order to do so her mental model would have to contain the entirety of her mind — which already contains her mental model and much, much more. I’ve written in more detail about this in Safe/Moral Autopoiesis & Consciousness – Int. J. Mach. Conscious. 5:1, pp. 59-74 (abstract at http://www.worldscientific.com/doi/abs/10.1142/S1793843013400052, PDF at http://becominggaia.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/waser-ijmc.pdf).
Our instincts don't always serve us well. Moral psychologist Joshua Greene explains why, in the modern world, we need to figure out when to put our sense of right and wrong in manual mode.
Tiffany O’Callaghan: You say morality is more than it evolved to be. What do you mean? Joshua Greene: Morality is essentially a suite of psychological mechanisms that enable us to cooperate. But, biologically at least, we only evolved to cooperate in a tribal way. Individuals who were more moral—more cooperative with those around them—could outcompete others who were not. However, we have the capacity to take a step back from this and ask what a more global morality would look like. Why are the lives of people on the other side of the world worth any less than those in my immediate community? Going through that reasoning process can allow our moral thinking to do something it never evolved to.
Called the world's most important psychologist, Daniel Kahneman inspired the trend for pop-psychology books, won a Nobel in economics and has devoted his life to studying the logic of irrationality ("Richard Thaler told an interviewer, Kahneman and...
Implications: These conclusions contribute to the debate on the possible autopoietic nature of some human social systems and to grasping the opportunity to shift focus to the more interesting issue of the “degrees of systemic autonomy” that human organizations could acquire (if needed) without imposing unbearable limitations on the autonomy of human actors. Also, the conceptual framework of this explanatory approach could be used in practical terms to assist the development of new dynamic modelling languages capable of simulating social systems.
Abstract: How does costly communication affect organizational coordination? This paper develops a model of costly communication based on the weakest-link game and boundedly rational agents. Solving for the stochastically stable states, we find that communication increases the possibilities for efficient coordination compared to a setting where agents cannot communicate. But as agents face a trade-off between lowering the strategic uncertainty for the group and the costs of communication, the least efficient state is still the unique stochastically stable one for many parameter values. Simulations show that this is not just a long run phenomena, the stochastically stable state is the most frequent outcome also in the short run. Making communication mandatory induces efficient coordination, whereas letting a team leader handle communication increases efficiency when the leader expects others to follow and has enough credibility. The results are broadly consistent with recent experimental evidence of communication in weakest-link games.
Empathy research is thriving these days. Several new books enthusiastically champion an increase in empathy as a cure for humanity’s ills. This enthusiasm may be misplaced, however. Empathy has some unfortunate features; it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.
Human ingenuity has created a world that the mind cannot master. Have we finally reached our limits?
Mark Waser's insight:
A good discussion piece. My question is "Why do we allow our tools to become incomprehensible/impenetrable (which is really far more about bad incoherent design than it is about complexity)?" I believe that far too many people relish (and use for selfish purposes) the intellectual surrender of statements like "chess, at least when played at the highest levels, is too complicated, with too many moving parts for a person — even a grandmaster — to understand." It's simply the newest incarnation of "Don't worry your pretty little head about that" and "Only God can truly know why".
Moralities of Everyday Life is a free online class taught by Paul Bloom of Yale University
Mark Waser's insight:
Even if you think you know the subject -- you *don't* know all the latest research and opinions (and how they're best summarized and conveyed) -- not to mention that it's worthwhile just spending time thinking about the subject. TAKE THE COURSE! It will be your contribution to the future (and fascinating, interesting and useful besides).
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