Tag Archives: Psychology

Is and ought

I have been watching some of the videos from the Edge seminar THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY. There will eventually be about 10 hours of talks and discussions posted on the Edge site. From the few presentations I have seen so far this looks to have been a fascinating seminar.

Partly because the science is relatively new – but also because there has been a lot of progress made. However, there are of course areas which promote intense discussion. I get the impression, for example, that several of the participants wish to challenge to dogma that one can’t determine an ought from an is. It’s going to be interesting to see that debate played out.

WEIRD culture and reasoning

Jonathon Haidt

Jonathon Haidt was the first speaker and made some interesting points about the relevance of a science centred largely around specialists from advanced western countries. He is using the acronym WIERD for the orientation around cultures in the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. This analysis comes from a recent paper The weirdest people in the world ? by J Henrich, SJ Heine and A Norenzayan. Those authors say “we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature, on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin and rather unusual slice of humanity.”

Haidt also discusses some fallacies about human reasoning. “The puzzle is, why are humans so amazingly bad at reasoning in some contexts, and so amazingly good in others?” Again he refers to a recent paper by Mercier and Sperber – Why do humans reason ? Arguments for an argumentative theory. This is an interesting paper discussing human problems like confirmation bias, the human problem of search for evidence to support an preconceived conclusion.

Obviously both these problems are very relevant to a seminar like this. Go to the Edge site for a video of Jonothan’s presentation or download and audio file (MP3 Audio Download — Jonathan Haidt Talk).

Sam Harris and a role for science

As Sam Harris was one of the participants the seminar will surely have also discussed his ideas on the role of science in determining right and wrong. He presented these ideas in two recent lectures and they resulted in a lot of discussion, and controversy, on a number of scientific blogs (see Can science answer moral questions? and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrA-8rTxXf0).


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The new science of morality

Edge's John Brockman and the nine speakers in the New Science of Morality Seminar

This last week saw the latest Edge Seminar – The New Science of Morality – held in the US. (see Edge: THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY).

This looks fascinating.  Nine leading researchers in the field gave presentations. Short abstracts are on the Edge site together with videos of the presentations. Transcripts of the presentations will be on line soon.

Morality is an area which religion has tried to ring fence, to claim a special role. But, as with anything else the “god did it” approach gets nowhere. Now the field is being actively researched and there is progress.

The nine researchers who gave presentations were Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, Joshua D. Greene, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, Marc D. Hauser, Joshua Knobe, Elizabeth Phelps, David Pizarro.

There is information on the work and background of these researchers below the fold:

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Distorting Darwin

Poor old Charles Darwin. In this year of celebration, when we mark the 200th year since his birth and the 150th year since the publication of his great work The Origin of Species, he is being subjected to a real deluge of misrepresentation. The ideological opponents of science, particularly evolutionary science, have been working overtime to quote him out of context, to cherry pick quotes, to “prove” he was a horrible person and that the “materialist” heart of science must be ripped out.

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Empathy’s origins

Book Review: The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal

Price: US$17.15
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Harmony (September 22, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0307407764
ISBN-13: 978-0307407764


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This book might ruffle the feathers of the biblical literalists. They will find themselves challenged on two grounds:

  1. We can explain human feelings of empathy, sympathy and the like naturally, without resort to divine causes;
  2. Ideas of a special or divinely ordained character for humans, of human exceptionalism, are not supported by the evidence.

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Depressed? Anxious? Aren’t we all?

I’m currently reading Zoltan Torey’s book The Crucible of Consciousness: An Integrated Theory of Mind and Brain. It’s fascinating and I will put up a review some time soon.

In the model he proposes for the self aware mind (consciousness) he deals with problems the mind has to confront.  Reflective awareness can lead to chronic anxiety, fretting and anticipation of danger. Human reflective awareness has given us unique and powerful abilities but they “are not altogether a blessing. Or at least blessing that have to be paid for very dearly indeed.”

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Evolution of human morality

Here’s a short clear article on the science of morality by Dick Swaab published in NRC Handlesbad. Swaab is a professor of neurobiology at the University of Amsterdam and is associated with the Nederlands Institute for Neuroscience. He writes a weekly column for NRC Handelsblad. (See the original at The evolution of human morality).

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