Saturday, March 26, 2016

What idea, commonly regarded as a profound truth, would you most like to see exposed as false, misguided or nonsensical?


Dan Weijers:  Seeking happiness willl only get you less of it.
Many philosophers, including some sympathetic to hedonism seem to endorse an edict of what might be called “sages’ common sense for the ages”: the direct pursuit of happiness leads to unhappiness. Some, with a penchant for speaking loosely, refer to this as the paradox of happiness; even if you think happiness is the greatest good, you should, on pain of unhappiness, act as if some other thing, such as beneficence, is in fact the holder of that lofty title. So, hedonist or not, happiness should not be the foremost conscious goal of activity. 
Research on happiness, both empirical and conducted solely from within the oft-toured hallways of a beautiful mind, has borne out reasons in support of the paradox of happiness. Happiness, it seems, is fleeting, fragile, and facile – all of which decrease the value of striving for, and reveling in, happiness. 
But, as is plain as day to this unenlightened soul, the more sophisticated, specific, contextually embedded, and accurate happiness research becomes, the more we will learn how to pursue happiness effectively while holding it as our greatest and most immediate goal. Sometimes pursuing immediate pleasure will lead to the most happiness overall, such as when seemingly minor pleasurable happenstances make us momentarily more satisfied with our whole lives, and more likely to help a stranger in need. With a practical wisdom based on happiness research and personal experience, we will be able to pursue happiness in a way that increases it, both in the short and long term.

Kyle Swan: We must apply ethics.
The way many philosophers apply ethics is deeply misguided.

Don't get me wrong. Ethics is inherently practical (or normative) and so moral principles are always relevant for questions about what to do. But I see a pretense and false precision in the way philosophers often do or teach it.
Here’s the procedure: 1) think really, really hard about what’s really good or right (donning a pained, squinty face seems to help). 2) Apply it. That’s (usually) it. 
So they identify the value or principle that provides the basis for judgments of right and wrong, followed by the behavior, rules or policies to discourage people from doing the bad things. They apply the ethics. They tell us how to make things right.

But this tends to run roughshod over reasonable disagreements in people’s beliefs and values. Moral rules should be authoritative, but this smacks of authoritarianism. It ignores the wisdom of local, evolved customary rules that reflect the negotiated settlements and practices people have hit upon to lubricate social interaction. These are the rules that have currency in the sense that the relevant people have internalized them and acknowledge them to be authoritative. If the philosopher’s recommended application of the ethics is too different from local custom, it will fail and may even make things worse. The top-down imposition of rules that conflict with the values and commitments of people who are expected to implement and follow them are likely to meet with resistance and inventive, unforeseen ways around those rules.

Brad Dowden:  There is a force of gravity.
People say there is a gravitational force, and that it makes apples fall to the ground and the moon go round. It does not. There is no force of gravity. There are many forces, but gravity is not one of them. When an apple falls to the ground, it is not pulled by a force that acts in a straight line. Instead, all objects are following the shortest path they can through curved spacetime, and our space is radically curved near massive objects such as the Earth. 
Gravity does exist, but it’s not a force. It is the curvature of the field of spacetime itself. Thanks to the curvature of this field, apples fall and the moon orbits the Earth. Last month we discovered gravitational waves produced by the nasty collision of two massive black holes. The collision produced more power by a factor of 50 than all the power of all the stars in that galaxy of 100 billion stars plus the power of all the other 100 billion galaxies in our universe, but the gravitational waves of that collision didn’t travel through space to Earth. Instead they were ripples in space itself. Thankfully the ripples were very weak by the time they arrived. If we’d been near the collision, our bodies would have been stretched back and forth from 12 feet to 3 feet every thousandth of a second, but this change in height would not have been due to any force on us.

Saray Ayala: Humans are the most advanced species on earth.
The idea I would like to see exposed as false is that humans are the most advanced species on the planet. Both religion and science tell us that humans are superior to any other living thing: humans exceed all other beings on Earth in cognitive skills; humans stand out in their capacity to feel many complex emotions, their success at developing advanced technologies, their need to seek meaning in life and the ability to create it, their moral status and intrinsic value, etc. Some of these properties are sometimes predicated of other species, but humans are always at the top. Either we are the only ones who have these properties, or we have more of them, or have them in a way that matters more. 
Unfortunately, this (false) sense of superiority is combined with the sense of entitlement to subdue what we take to be inferior to us. For many, our aim on this planet is to control nature. This need to control what surrounds us is destroying the planet, exhausting its resources, annihilating biodiversity, making life impossible for other species (and many fellow humans, too). And the more we think we control nature, the more reassured we feel in our superiority, creating a vicious cycle. If we were to realize that we are not at the top, perhaps we would reconsider our relationship with other living beings and the environment. Perhaps we would change from “need to control” mode to “need to collaborate” mode. 

Thomas Pyne:  Only science can tell us what's real.

According to the best current computational theory of vision, the visual system takes retinal stimulation and produces a ‘primal sketch’ sensitive to ‘blobs,’ ‘edges,’ and ‘boundaries’. 
Then comes a ‘2 ½ D sketch’, presenting boundaries, discontinuities, and distance as of surfaces. 
Then comes a 3-D model of surfaces and volumes. Now we’re no longer working on ‘proximal stimuli’ (stuff hitting the nerve endings) but ‘distal stimuli’: representing stuff in the real world.

Finally our cognitive system presents us a full visual experience: a barmaid behind a counter. 
If the distal stimuli were caused by a barmaid, we would be seeing the barmaid.
But there’s no barmaid.

There’s only a painting, Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergere.

Two descriptions:
1. Manet has exploited his artist’s intuitive understanding of computational theory in order:
a. to get us to see a distribution of paint on a canvas as a picture of a barmaid.
b. to put a picture of a barmaid in the painting.
2. In turn, the computational theory explains:
a. how we see a distribution of paint on a canvas as a picture of a barmaid
b. how we see the picture of the barmaid in the painting
The science of the first paragraph is, it seems to me, utterly neutral between (a) and (b) in each. Yet the question remains:  Is there a picture of a barmaid or not?

Russell DiSilvestro: God only helps those who help themselves.
Chances are you have heard or even thought this one. I first heard it, thought it, and repeated it as a kid. But Wikipedia recently taught me that Jay Leno gets folks in NYC to list it on tape more than any other idea as one of the Ten Commandments; that about 75% of teenagers recently polled claimed it was the main message of the Bible; that Ben Franklin wrote it in his Poor Richard's Almanac; and that it has precursors as ancient as Aesop’s fables and as diverse as the Quran (“Trust in God but tie your camel.”). 
Perhaps what makes it widespread is that it echoes a ring of truth. Even theists who profess to believe in divine intervention in the affairs of this life know that they must still work by the sweat of their brow for many things, even many quintessentially religious things (like prayer, and memorizing scripture, and practicing the pipe organ before Sunday morning). 
What makes this phrase pernicious, in my view, is the cluster of things that it often really conveys or implies in context: that God only helps those who help themselves; that those who are helpless (say, poor, homeless, and/or addicted to something that wrecks their life) have only themselves to blame; and that God, for lack of anything better to do, actively enjoys sitting back and watching them suffer for their laziness. Fortunately, this theological picture is as truthless as it is ruthless.

Christina Bellon: Training in ethics will make you a better person.
Philosophers like this idea because we believe it highlights the value of philosophical inquiry. Relying on common or folk ethics risks reinforcing the suspect heritage and often contradictory guidance it provides. The value of ethics training comes as clarity in reasoning about moral principles, enhanced ability to derive right action from them, and refined justification and evaluation of one’s own and others’ actions. In short – analytic skills. But do these make us better people – better friends, citizens, employees, soldiers, bankers, researchers, etc.?

Recent evidence indicates that ethics training, at least as philosophers have been conducting it, does not work. It makes us very good at arguing about ethics. But, it does not make us better at doing what is right. What these studies show is improved analytic skills and enhanced positive attitudes toward ethical behavior, but this does not translate into action. Self-reporting surveys indicate that we are no more inclined to act rightly AFTER ethics training than before. That is, we know what we ought to do, but still cannot bring ourselves to do it.

What does correlate with improved ethical behavior is modification of the action-environment – improving the responsibility practices within which individuals must act. When people not only know what they ought to do, but are enabled and encouraged to do it, then confidence and commitment come along for the ride. Confidence and commitment aren’t demonstrated in a sit down test or an essay. They are lived.

G. Randolph Mayes: People are fundamentally selfish.
This view is most commonly held by informed realists who see through the bullshit that clouds the judgment of peope who remain innocent of logic and science. At least that is how they seem to see themselves. 
Their usual argument runs as follows: At a biological level, people's actions are motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Take any example of apparently unselfish, altruistic behavior- Susan works three nights a week helping adults learn to read; George compromises his ability to get an A in helping Kevin to pass. In each case, if you look closely, you will find that they are only doing it because they are getting something out of it for themselves
Let's give them that. The clear implicit assumption here is that if I expect to derive any utility from an action, then it is purely selfishly motivated. That doesn't sound like science to me. 
For concepts like altruism and selfishness to be scientifically interesting they have to admit of degrees. If you like, you can define a purely altruistic action as one in which an agent provides benefits to others while deriving no benefit herself. Then your view amounts to the startling claim that nobody is perfect. 
Truth: Real people engage in actions that benefit others more than they benefit themselves on a day to day basis. All but the ickiest of defectors on the social contract have a strong instinctive impulse to treat others decent even at their own expense

1 comment: