Sunday, June 30, 2013

Idea-ism: a rational basis for morality

In an earlier essay I proposed a moral principle, namely, that the interests of memes (or ideas) can form a rational basis for morality whose results coincide well with our intuitions.  In this essay, in response to some welcome prodding from occasional Ramblings contributor Don Geddis, I want to explore and expand on this idea.

Let me start by restating the problem I am trying to address: humans have a moral intuition produced by Darwinian evolution in response to the fact that life is a game in the game-theoretical sense.  Evolution optimizes for the survival of replicators.  Humans are hosts for two kinds of replicators: genes, which are encoded in DNA, and memes, which were encoded originally in human brains and then in various artifacts: clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, and now digital media.  Our genes and our memes have a mostly symbiotic relationship: our genes build brains capable of hosting memes, and our memes in turn invent things like agriculture and antibiotics, which in turn help to propagate our genes.  But occasionally the interests of genes and memes are in conflict, such as when our memes invent birth control or weapons of mass destruction.

One particularly interesting side-effect of the invention of brains capable of hosting memes is the development of self-awareness and consciousness.  Because we are conscious, we tend to assign a great deal of importance to consciousness, even going so far as to postulate that the fact that we are conscious is evidence of some sort of transcendent connection with the divine.  Even non-religious people put a lot of stock in consciousness.  For example, the comment that Don made that inspired this essay was:

[M]y genes want my body to die, but I choose not to adopt those same goals, on my individual level.  My intuition suggests that there should be similar conflicts with memes. Things that memes "want", which I may choose (on an individual level), not to adopt as my own personal goals.

Note the phraseology: "my individual level" and "my own personal goals" as distinct from the goals of both one's genes and memes.  This assumes that there is an entity that is distinct from one's genes and memes but is nonetheless an actor in the drama of life.  This hypothetical entity is often called the soul, but the modern fashion is to eschew dualism and call it the mind or the self.

Much ink has been spilled on the question of whether or not this entity exists, and if it does, whether it is actually a player on the universal stage.  But to talk about morality at all one must make this assumption.  The questions of moral behavior are, by definition, the questions of how to resolve conflicts between the desires of the self and the (possible) interests of other entities in the universe.  Moreover, in order to have even the prospect of resolving such a conflict one must assume that there is some sort of moral agency at work.  If we don't have free will then there is nothing to decide and hence nothing to discuss.  I am not taking a position over whether or not free will is actually metaphysically real.  All I'm saying is that in order to talk about morality at all you have to take free will as a working assumption, even if it turns out that the ultimate truth is that free will is an illusion.

The problem, then, is this: there is a part of our brain that produces the sensation of consciousness, rationality, and moral agency, and we wish to elucidate a principle by which the activities of this part of ourselves ought to be conducted.  Furthermore, we wish this principle to have the following properties: first and foremost, we want it to be useful, by which I simply mean that it should not be vacuous, not that it should score highly according to some quality metric.  Indeed, that would simply beg the question.  The whole point of this exercise is to describe a quality metric by which to measure moral decisions.  Second, the principle should be consistent with what is known about the nature of the universe.  And third, to the extent possible it should be consistent with our moral intuition.  Note that this property can never be fully met because there is a great deal of variation among people's moral intuitions (which is to be expected given that it is the product of Darwinian evolution).  Indeed, much of what I am proposing here hangs on the meaning of the word "our" in the phrase "our moral intuition."

All the moral systems that I know of fail to exhibit one or more of these properties.  For example, the ethical culture movement is based on the idea that one should live according to "ethical principles".  But this is vacuous, and hence not useful: it simply replaces the word "moral" with the word "ethical", which gets us exactly nowhere.  Moral relativism is, likewise, vacuous and hence unacceptable.  Religions based on divine revelation are not vacuous, but they fail on the second count: they are not consistent with what we know about how the universe really is.  Humanism is neither vacuous nor inconsistent with science, but it fails because it is not consistent with intuition.  It is species-ist, placing the interests of humans axiomatically above the interests of all non-human entities, which most people find unacceptable once they actually pause to reflect on what this actually entails.

It is worth digressing for a bit to talk about Sam Harris's moral premise as described in his book The Moral Landscape.  Sam's position is that, "morality is that which advances the interests of conscious beings," a premise that I actually do accept (but as a constraint, not a definition).  The problem is that Sam's elucidation shows that what he really means by "conscious beings" is "Western liberal intellectual members of academia who think like Sam Harris."  In particular, religious people somehow abdicate their claim to being conscious merely by virtue of being religious.  This is the fundamental problem with any humanistic premise: like it or not, religious people, even religious fundamentalists, are still human, still conscious beings.  There is no principled way to start with "the interests of conscious beings" as your premise and not accept the possibility that standing on the street corner screaming "God hates fags" might be moral.

So what I propose instead as a moral premise is: moral behavior is that which advances the interests of memes.

Before I go into a detailed analysis, let me point out that this is still a humanistic worldview.  The difference between humanism and meme-ism (actually, I think a better name might be idea-ism) is that idea-ism is humanistic as a consequence rather than a premise.  In the current state of the world, memes can only survive in human brains and artifacts.  Accordingly, humans have value, not axiomatically, but because they provide -- and produce -- habitat for memes.  Notice that this provides a principled way to resolve some very thorny dilemmas for the axiomatic humanist.  For example, as Bertrand Russell famously lamented:
I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it.
On the idea-istic view, wanton cruelty is wrong because it destroys habitat for memes.  Likewise, it is immoral to (say) withhold education from women because education is a prime conduit for the replication of memes.  Withholding education is tantamount to forced sterilization with respect to the interests of memes.  (So is censorship.)

So let us evaluate this proposal with respect to my three criteria.  It's pretty evident that idea-ism is non-vacuous.  The mere fact that someone could potentially disagree with it is proof of that.  Likewise, it is consistent with science.  But is it consistent with intuition?

As mentioned earlier, no moral principle can ever be consistent with everyone's moral intuition.  That's actually a feature: any principle consistent with every human's moral intuition would be tantamount to moral relativism and hence vacuous.  And most people really do want to be able to distance themselves from the more distasteful behaviors exhibited by members of their own species.  So the consequences of idea-ism are likely to conflict with the moral intuitions of fundamentalists.  That is not in and of itself a failure.

Of course, idea-ism is first and foremost consistent with my own moral intuitions, and, I believe, consistent with the moral intuitions of western liberal intellectuals, a group of which I am (not coincidentally) a member.  But I think there's an argument to be made that idea-ism is not just a thinly disguised form of bigotry in favor of my own kind.  Ideas are special in a way that national identity, skin color, and even species-identity are not.  Ideas, and more fundamentally information, is woven into the fabric of life at the very deepest levels.  Life, at root, is the process of replicating information.  That this information has been predominantly encoded in DNA is a detail.  DNA just happened to be handy given the chemical inventory of this planet. but there's no reason to believe that life based on some other chemistry would be any less worthy.  But once you've made this leap and stopped being a DNA-ist, it is not a big leap from there to the realization that there's nothing particularly special about chemistry.  We are not that far away from having purely mechanical self-replicating systems.  Artificial intelligence is a bit further off, and artificial self-awareness probably further still, but there's no indication that these things are inherently impossible.  If and when it happens why not have a set of future-proof moral principles handy?

But you don't have to delve into the realms of science fiction to find plausible intuitive justification for idea-ism.  We are, in our present states, a symbiotic collection of both genes and memes.  At the moment, neither can survive without the other.  This basic fact of our present existence manifests itself in our yearning to connect with other meme-hosting entities.  This desire goes beyond our need to gather in physical groups in order to survive.  The exchange of memes is as fundamental to our nature as eating or sex.  We tell stories.  We engage in chitchat.  We write blogs.  As children we jump up and down and shout "look at me!" in the unconscious hope that something in our brain will escape and find a home in another.

And when we die, we want to be remembered.

All of these traits are fundamental to human nature.  I will go further: these traits are what define human nature.  We are not our bodies, we are our minds.  We can lose our arms and legs, our hearts, our lungs, even our ability to biologically reproduce and no one would question that we are still human.  But if we lose our minds we are dead, even our bodies are otherwise healthy.

Idea-ism is not an arbitrary premise.  It is a recognition of our true nature.  But more than that, it is a choice to take that nature and make it (or view it as) a purpose and hence a guide for making decisions.  Beyond being useful, rational, and intuitive, it's also noble.  It is an embrace of life in the broadest possible reading.

I hope you'll help me spread the Word.

Confirmed: the NSA can listen to live conversations

The Washington Post has published more leaked slides about the NSA surveillance program.  The latest revelation is that:
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.
Why am I not surprised?

Travelogue: Galapagos geology

The Galapagos are rightly famous for their wildlife, but I found the geology to be just as fascinating as the fauna.  The islands are formed by a volcanic hotspot, much like Hawaii, but the Galapagos are generally younger, so the evidence for ongoing geological processes is easier to see.  For example:

The white "rock" is actually a piece of coral.  Unusually for coral, it's several hundred yards from the nearest water.  You might want to see if you can figure out how it got here before reading on.

The reason there is coral here on dry land is that it wasn't always dry land.  This part of the island was once underwater.  It was pushed up above sea level by a volcanic uplift event.  A big pool of magma formed under the ocean floor and literally pushed the whole earth's crust up by several meters, taking several acres of ocean floor with it.

This particular uplift even happened very recently, in 1954.  The results are even more dramatic in areas that were not underwater to begin with:

That's a pahoehoe lava flow.  Before the uplift event it was solid, and more or less level.  The cracks go down about ten feet or so in places.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Travelogue: Galapagos, day 3

The most surprising thing about the Galapagos, other than the fact that they're inhabited, is that they have seasons. Being as they are at sea level on the equator I figured they'd have a tropical climate year-round, but they don't.  In fact, when we were there, it was shockingly cold, and the water was downright frigid.  We had to wear wetsuits to go snorkeling, and even then it was often uncomfortably cold.

It was worth it, though, to see things like this:

I can't take credit for that shot, it was taken by one of my fellow passengers who had an underwater camera.  But the sea lions did come out to play with us for the better part of an hour.  It was an amazing experience.

Oh, something I forgot to mention last time: when a giant tortoise gets in the way of your vehicle on a one-lane road you have to just sit there and wait for it to go away.  If you try to shoo it away, it will just retract into its shell.

Another fun tortoise fact: when they do retract, they have to exhale to make room inside their shells for their arms and head, and when they do it makes a loud hissing sound.  It's the only sound giant tortoises make.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Travelogue: Galapagos day 2

Our flight from Quito to the Galapagos left at 7AM, which doesn't sound too unreasonable except that we had to be there two hours ahead of time, and it takes an hour to get from Quito to the new airport.  So we had to get up at 3 to catch our ride to the airport at 4 to be there by 5.  We're not morning people, so by the time we boarded our flight we felt like walking zombies.

Then our flight was delayed.  Problems with the lavatory.  Great, I thought, we're about to be stuffed into a cramped, broken-down regional jet without working plumbing.  But when we actually boarded about 30 minutes later it was a brand-spanking-new Airbus A320.  There were only about 20 of us on board.  I thought that the airline was going to lose a lot of money on this flight, but we made a stop in Guayaquil where we picked up about 100 more, which filled the plane.  Still, it was a very pleasant flight.  We even got lunch!

I was surprised to learn that the Galapagos are actually inhabited.  I thought the entire archipelago was a national park, but it turns out there is a resident population of about 20,000 occupying about 3% of the land spread out over three of the islands.  The largest town is Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz island.  Ironically, the main airport is not on Santa Cruz, but rather on nearby Baltra island, which is not inhabited.  Baltra is separated from Santa Cruz by a narrow channel which can only be crossed by ferry.  There is a small port on Baltra, but for reasons I was never entirely clear on our boat was not docked there.  In fact, our boat wasn't docked anywhere.  It was moored in Puerto Ayora.  (As far as I can tell there are no actual docks in the Galapagos.  The only way to get back and forth is by zodiac.)  So once we landed on Baltra, we had to take a bus to the ferry, then another bus to Puerto Ayora (by way of a detour to look at giant tortoises), then a zodiac to the boat.  And our bags had to make the same odyssey of course.  It was by far the most complicated set of transfers I have ever made in a single day.

But we made it.  And so did our bags.

This was our home for the next week, the Cormorant.  By the time we got on board it was 3PM, too late to do any tours but too early for dinner, so they gave us a couple of hours to wander around Puerto Ayora.  It's a charming town.  It takes all of about 15 minutes to walk the central district from one end to the other.  Even here in the center of town it was teeming with wildlife.  There were pelicans roosting in the trees, and sea lions snoozing on the zodiac docks.

We visited an internet cafe where we checked on our email for the last time, and took in a beautiful sunset.

Then we headed back to the boat and slept like bricks.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Travelogue: Galapagos, day 1, Quito

The Galapagos Islands are about 500 miles due west of Ecuador.  To get to them, you have to fly into Quito, Ecuador's capital.  Until very recently that involved one of the mot hair-raising approaches to landing at any major airport in the world.  This is because Quito, at 9000 feet elevation, is the world's highest capital city.  It is surrounded by the Andes mountains.  And its old airport was right smack dab in the middle of the city, cheek-by-jowl with shops and apartments.

This photo of Quito was taken from a cable car that takes you up one of the nearby mountains.  You can see the runway of the old airport about a third of the way up from the bottom of the image.  Part of me regrets never having experienced going in and out of the old airport, but part of me is relieved.  The new airport has a lot more breathing room around the runway (though not necessarily in the terminal).

Quito is almost smack-dab on the equator (the city center is about 0.2 degrees south) so you might expect that it would be warm there, but it is also at 9000 feet and that helps keep the temperatures moderate.  The day we arrived it was overcast and downright cool.  Quito has been experiencing an oil-money-driven revival recently, and the town is bustling.  Unfortunately, the renovations have not yet extended to the city's fleet of diesel-powered busses, which spew incredibly thick black smoke out their tailpipes.  When walking the streets, breathing is not recommended.  But the people are friendly, the mountains are beautiful, and there's a lot to do and see.

We were only in Quito for one day before we moved on to the Galapagos, so all we got to do was to walk around and visit the national basilica before we just couldn't take breathing diesel exhaust any more.  But the basilica visit was quite worthwhile.  You can go up into the towers, which involves climbing spiral staircases and ladders.

That's Nancy, standing in the space between the basilica's ceiling and roof.  Behind her you can see one of the ladders that leads up to the towers themselves.  OSHA inspectors would have conniptions.  It is ironic that in a supposedly "free" country like the United States you could never have an experience like this, at least not without filling out a waiver, because of liability concerns.

The view from the top was breathtaking.

This photo doesn't really do the experience justice, but all I had with me was my iPhone (for reasons I can no longer recall I decided to leave my camera in the hotel).  To give you some idea of how high up I am, the roof that you see at the bottom of this photo is the same roof that Nancy is standing under in the previous photo.

Here's a shot of the place where the previous photo was taken:

This photo was taken from just underneath one of the clock faces.  (If you look very closely you can see people standing there in the previous photo.)

Oh for three

My prophetical abilities have taken a big hit lately.  I predicted, somewhat cynically, that the supreme court would strike down Obamacare, uphold human gene patents, and uphold DOMA.  I was wrong on all counts.  I would like to say that I couldn't be happier -- and I am glad of all three outcomes -- but my enthusiasm is tempered by the at best muddled and at worst utterly hypocritical legal reasoning behind at least the DOMA decision, and the voting rights act decision (which, needless to say, I am not nearly as happy about).

The most blatant example is Antonin Scalia's "paean to the democratic process" in the DOMA decision:
We have no power to decide this case. And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation.
The hypocrisy of this statement is rendered all the more striking by the fact that this decision was issued one day after Scalia voted to do exactly what he claims here that the court has no power to do, namely, to "invalidate... democratically adopted legislation," specifically, the voting rights act.

But this is not the time to rant about Scalia's hypocrisy.  Today is a day to celebrate a significant victory in the fight for marriage equality and freedom.  The battle isn't over.  It might not even be the beginning of the end.  But it is surely the best outcome one could reasonably have hoped for.  Indeed, it is a better outcome than I would have thought possible just a few short years ago.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Back from radio silence

For the past week or so I've been totally off the grid, on a small boat cruising the Galapagos islands.  No internet, no cell coverage.  Just a lot of sea lions, tortoises, and a ton of birds, including this disarming fellow:

(Larger version)

That's a Nazca booby, and yes, I took that photo with a point-and-shoot camera (a Panasonic DMC-TZ5 to be precise).  There's hardly any sport in getting awesome bird shots in the Galapagos.  They are utterly unafraid of humans, so they'll pretty much pose for you, and with an 8GB memory card you can shoot first and ask questions later.

I'm digging out from under a mountain of accumulated laundry and email, but I'll write up a retroactive travelogue in the next few days, along with the promised followup to the kitten-torture series.

In the meantime, Jerry DeWitt's book is out.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Grow up, Libertarians!

I'm on the road so I can't give this the attention it deserves right now, but Michael Lind has a splendid followup to his earlier piece deconstructing libertarianism.

I was wrong. Hooray!

Over three years ago I made a cynical prediction that the Supreme Court would uphold human gene patents.  I'm happy to report that I was wrong.  The court's decision is shockingly sensible: naturally occurring genes are not patentable.  Synthetic genes with novel sequences that do not occur in nature are.  The Washington Post has a nice summary.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Joe Biden: vice hypocrite in chief

Watch Joe Biden criticize the Bush administration in 2006 for doing exactly what the Obama administration is doing now.

Here's a transcript.

Some choice excerpts:

I don't think it passes the [Constitutional] test, but it clearly doesn't pass the test of two existing statutes that say you can't do these kinds of things, forgetting the Fourth Amendment. 
It's a little bit like what would happen if the banks turned over all your checking records without your name but gave the checking account number and every single purchase you made and pattern of your behavior and then you were told, "Don't worry, that's not invasion of your privacy." 
I don't have to listen to your phone calls to know what you're doing. If I know every single phone call you made, I'm able to determine every single person you talked to; I can get a pattern about your life that is very, very intrusive.
I guess Republicans don't have a monopoly on hypocrisy.

Lies, damn lies, and red herrings

On June 7, president Obama said, referring to the then-breaking news about the NSA wiretapping program, that "every member of Congress has been briefed on this program [emphasis added]."  Turns out this was not true.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told reporters in the Capitol Monday that as the top-ranking Republican on last year's Homeland Security Committee, she expected she would have been briefed on the National Security Agency's PRISM surveillance program, but was not. Even as a member of this session's intelligence committee, she said, she had not been briefed before the panoramic snooping program run by the NSA was revealed by The Guardian last week. 
Collins said the Obama administration's argument that she could have requested a briefing falls short, because she had no knowledge on which to base a request. "How can you ask when you don't know the program exists?" Collins wondered, chuckling at the absurdity. 
As Collins said she understands it, Senate leaders and the top intelligence committee members got briefings [but] "The rest of us did not..."
Now, Collins is a Republican.  Republicans will say anything to make the president look bad, so she may be lying.  But there's something else the president said that is also (almost certainly) untrue:
With respect to the Internet and emails, this does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States.
There is simply no way to tell in general who an email account belongs to, so there's no way to know whether a particular email account belongs to a U.S. citizen or not, or whether the owner of the account lives in the U.S.  If you think about it, the idea that the government does not spy on "people living in the U.S." is absurd on its face.  If a known terrorist is living in the U.S. do you really believe that the NSA would refuse to spy on that person just because they happen to be here instead of overseas?

To be fair, I don't think Obama consciously lied about this.  He was probably told that this is true by someone that he trusts, and he repeated that information.  But this is not an excuse.  The responsibility is still ultimately his to hire people who will provide him with accurate information, and to educate himself enough so that he can tell when someone is bald-facedly lying to him.  This is the perfect example of why everyone needs at least a basic understanding of how the internet works.  Otherwise we're sitting ducks for flim-flammery like this.

But all this is really beside the point.  The most important part of this debate seems to have gotten completely lost: this is not about spying.  This is about warrants.  The government should be allowed to spy on U.S. citizens and residents, but they should have to get a warrant first.  From a real judge, not a FISA sock puppet.

Monday, June 10, 2013

As long as I'm writing about kittens

I'll just leave this here.

Kitten torture part 3: a scientific theory of morality

(Third in a series)

In this third and final post I want to tackle head on this problem that Bertrand Russell described in 1960:
I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it.
Russell can surely be forgiven for not finding the answer to this problem because it relies on scientific advances that were not made until after his death in 1970.  Specifically, I believe that Richard Dawkins's theory of memes (1976) and Robert Axelrod's theory of the evolution of cooperation (1981) are both necessary and sufficient to produce a theory of morality that is both scientifically valid (which is to say, based on evidence) and consistent with most people's moral intuition.  In particular, it provides a principled argument against wanton cruelty, while still allowing the infliction of pain for a higher purpose.  It is similar to the theory Sam Harris describes in The Moral Landscape, but without some of the problems that his theory has.

Note that what I'm proposing here is different from what I wrote about back in 2008.  Back then I was just describing Axelrod's work on how moral intuition can evolve.  Here I am going further, proposing an affirmative theory of morality that is consistent with Axelrod (and Dawkins) but goes beyond merely observing that our moral intuition is generally reliable (because sometimes it isn't).

Let me start by being explicit about my premises.  If you don't accept these premises, you probably won't accept my hypothesis.

Premise 1: We (by which I mean humans) are alive, that is, we are the products of Darwinian evolution.  Our bodies are the direct phenotype of a collection of genes, but it is those genes, not our bodies, that are the reproductive unit on which natural selection acts.

Premise 2: In addition to our bodies, our genes also produce an extended phenotype, or indirect phenotype, comprising all of the effects that our bodies have on our environment: our clothing, our houses, our artwork.  All of these are products of our genes no less than our bodies.  The only difference is that there is additional steps in the process of producing the indirect phenotype than the direct one.

Premise 3: We humans are also hosts for a new (in evolutionary time scales) kind of replicator, called a meme.  Like genes, memes are self-replicating units of information that undergo a process of Darwinian evolution.  Unlike genes, memes are encoded in the synapses of the neurons of our brains, and more recently, in our extended phenotype: on stone tables, papyrus scrolls, paper, hard drives, and in the design of our artifacts.

Premise 4: Darwinian evolution is amoral (neither moral nor immoral).  It doesn't "care" about anything in the sense that we humans do.  It simply obeys the laws of physics to optimize a particular quality metric: the ability to reproduce.  But (and this is key) what Darwinian evolution optimizes is not the ability to reproduce bodies, but rather the ability to reproduce information.

Premise 5: It is fundamental to the nature of life that it draws boundaries around itself to separate itself from its environment.  One of the very first tricks that the earliest self-replicating molecules learned was how to make a cell wall.  Distinguishing between "us" and "them" is intrinsic to being alive.

Premise 6: Despite the fact that boundaries are fundamental to life, the nature of those boundaries is extremely flexible.  The direct phenotype of a single genome can include multiple discontinuous entities (as in an ant colony).  A single physical boundary can include multiple distinct genomes (as in the case of symbionts).

Premise 7: The information that reproduces and undergoes biological Darwinian evolution on earth is encoded in DNA, but that is merely an "implementation detail".  It doesn't matter to the evolutionary process how the information is encoded, only that it replicates, mutates, and undergoes a process of selection.

Those are all the premises.  Now a few key observations:

Observation 1: Humans are not autonomous from the perspective of the process of life.  A single human in isolation cannot reproduce, and even a mating pair would probably have trouble surviving in the absence of some kind of support structure.  At a minimum, to have a robust shot at long term survival requires a tribe or a village at a minimum.  In this regard, we have more in common with ants than is generally appreciated.

Observation 2: Even a single human body is not an autonomous whole.  We contain symbiotic microorganisms (mainly in our digestive tracts) without which we could not survive.

Observation 3: Unlike most other creatures, we humans can make conscious choices about where we draw the line between "us" and "them."  We can even draw multiple lines for different purposes, around our immediate family, our tribe, our race, our country, our species, even around all living things.

Observation 4: Our memes are also symbiotic entities.  They can't live without our brains (because our brains form the ecosystem in which they exist) and in turn they provide our genes with significant reproductive advantages relative to species without brains, or whose brains are not hosts for memes.

Observation 5: Usually the reproductive interests of genes and memes coincide, but not always.  For example, the meme for birth control is potentially disastrous for our genes.  So it should not be too surprising that there exist human brains with an instinctive revulsion towards birth control.  Such an instinctive revulsion would be a defense mechanism evolved by genes to combat the deleterious effects (from the point of view of our genes) of the birth control meme.

This last observation is the key.  I believe that this occasional conflict between the interests of genes and memes is responsible for most if not all of the genuine disagreements over morality.  They all come down in the end to a conflict between the reproductive interests of memes and those of our genes.

So my theory of morality is simply this: where there is conflict, the interests of memes should trump the interests of genes.

This is a humanist (with a small "h") theory, at least for the moment, because at the moment only the (extended) human phenotype can be the host for memes (as far as we know).  But it has two significant advantages over the Humanist (big "H") theory of morality, at least as it is stated in the Humanist Manifesto.  First, it is humanist, but it is not axiomatically humanist.  It is not species-ist.  It is axiomatically meme-ist.  It just so happens that we humans are the only species that can be hosts for memes, but that is only true as far as we know at the moment.  It could change.  When and if it does, we won't have to struggle with whether or not some alien species or a conscious computer "is human" because "human" is not part of the definition, just an observation about the current state of our knowledge about the world, a circumstance which we should expect to change.

The second advantage that my theory has is that it offers an answer to Russell's problem: a principled account of why wanton cruelty is immoral: it's bad for memes.  The kind of mindset that allows one to take pleasure in torturing kittens is generally not the kind of mindset that is conducive to thinking deep thoughts.  Propagating memes is not easy.  It requires that one's basic physical needs be met.  It requires a certain level of physical security.  It is advanced by certain kinds of technology (like computers and the internet, not so much by nuclear weapons) and, in many cases, by the presence of companions who might be members of other species.

It's a positive, uplifting message.  It is, essentially, a pro-life position, but one which broadens the definition of life to include memes, and resolves gene-meme conflicts in their favor.  I think it's the Right Answer.  There's just one minor problem that still needs to be resolved, and that is that calling oneself a "meme-ist" sounds really weird.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Court finds NSA surveillance unconstitutional. Administration's response: keep the ruling secret and carry on

It turns out that Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2011 found that the NSA's surveillance under the FISA Amendments Act to be unconstitutional.  Why doesn't anyone know this? Because the decision was kept secret:
In a rare public filing in the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the Justice Department today urged continued secrecy for a 2011 FISC opinion that found the National Security Agency's surveillance under the FISA Amendments Act to be unconstitutional. Significantly, the surveillance at issue [then] was carried out under the same controversial legal authority that underlies the NSA’s recently-revealed PRISM program.
It gets worse:
The government’s argument is guaranteed to make heads spin. DOJ earlier argued that it lacks discretion to release the FISC opinion without the FISC's consent, but DOJ now argues that if the FISC were to agree with EFF, “the consequence would be that the Government could release the opinion or any portion of it in its discretion.” But FISC material is classified solely because the Executive Branch demands that it be, so release of the opinion has always been a matter of Executive discretion.
In other words, the FISC should rule against the EFF because to do otherwise would require the release of this secret ruling.  But the ruling is only secret because the administration insisted that it be kept secret!  I can hardly conceive of a more twisted and cynical manipulation of the law.

This is not what the American people signed up for.

The morality of kitten torture, part 2

(Second in a series)

Back when I used to debate Christians for sport one of my favorite plays was the cannibalism maneuver: Is cannibalism immoral?  Most Christians would say it is.  And yet there is no support for this in the Bible.  To the contrary, in Jeremiah 19:9 God Himself threatens to force the Jews to eat their own children as punishment for something or other.
And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend in the siege and straitness, wherewith their enemies, and they that seek their lives, shall straiten them.
Logically, then, cannibalism cannot be a sin because if it were then either 1) God would force people to sin, which means that He is not Perfect, 2) God makes empty threats, which means that His Word is not trustworthy.

It is, of course, not fair to pick on Christians.  It isn't easy to come up with a codification of our moral intuition, and secularists fail as often as people of faith.  There is no shame in failure, only in not trying.  That is what drives me to take my best shot at this problem.

Let me start by defining the problem with a little more precision and a little less lulz.  It is, of course, not about kitten torture, it's about how do we decide what is moral.  It is indisputable that we have intuitions about morality. For proof we need look no further than the fact that Jeremiah 19:9 causes Christians serious cognitive dissonance.  If Christians were really serious about their theology there should be no problem: the whole point of the Bible is that our moral intuition is unreliable, so we need the Word of God to set us straight.  Disconnects between what we intuitively think is moral and what God says is moral is exactly what we should expect under such circumstances.  And yet, the Christian reaction to Jeremiah 19:9 is almost never to concede that cannibalism is moral but rather to invent all kinds of excuses why the meaning of this verse is something other than what it plainly says.

Relying on our moral intuition is actually not such a bad plan.  It has, after all, gotten us this far.  Flawed as we are, humanity has nonetheless racked up some impressive and laudable accomplishments, and so far we have managed to avoid incinerating the planet.  Somehow, despite the fact that we have not found a way to agree on a principle for deciding moral behavior, we nonetheless manage to behave morally more often than not.

No one can deny, however, that there is room for improvement.  But can we do better?  I believe that we can.  But it's not easy.  To illustrate the difficulty, let's look at a few ideas that don't work.

One proposal is that because moral intuition seems to be pragmatically effective as a guide to moral behavior that we adopt that as a principle: what is morally correct is what we intuitively feel to be morally correct.  The problem with this is that it leads to moral relativism, and no way to resolve disputes when our intuitions happen not to coincide.  For example, people who oppose gay marriage generally don't do it out of wanton cruelty, they do it out of a sincere, visceral, and deeply held belief that homosexual conduct is immoral and therefore should not be endorsed by society.  Moral relativism offers no possibility of reconciling such opposing views, and is therefore unsuitable as a principle.  At best, it is a concession of defeat.

A second possibility is utilitarianism or consequentialism: actions are judged by the desirability of their effects.  Utilitarian arguments are commonly raised in moral debates, e.g. gay marriage should be banned because it is bad for children to be brought up by gay parents.  The problem with consequentialism is that it begs the question.  Instead of deciding what is moral, we now have to decide what is desirable, and different people desire different things.

Notwithstanding, consequentialism does represent some progress.  We have mechanisms (like the free market) for resolving differences in desires in ways that everyone feels like they've come out ahead, and so adopting a consequentialist position at least has the potential for transforming the world in a way that everyone agrees is better even if we can't agree on what "better" actually means.  This is the white magic of trade.  It nevertheless grates on most people's moral intuitions to apply free market principles to questions of morality.  The answer to the question of whether it is morally wrong to torture kittens should be independent of how much one might be willing to pay for the privilege.  On the other hand, one can concoct consequentialist scenarios where kitten torture is arguably moral.  We (humanity) actually have tortured kittens in the name of scientific research, so this is not just an academic question.  (Here's a link.  WARNING:  This video contains some very disturbing images.  Do NOT watch it unless you are prepared for that.)

One can attempt to rescue consequentialism by postulating some universal quality metric, like the minimization of pain or the maximization of pleasure.  The problem is that either of these in isolation leads to absurd conclusions.  If the moral quality metric is the minimization of pain, then the most moral thing one can do is to euthanize every sentient living creature.  If the moral quality metric is the maximization of pleasure, then you have to deal with the problem of the hedonic treadmill.  If you try to combine the two somehow then you have to deal with the fact that pain and pleasure are incommensurate quantities.  If causing a kitten a tiny bit of pain gives someone enormously greater pleasure, does that make it moral?

One can adopt the Golden Rule, but this has the same problem: different people want to be treated in different ways.  For example, I like it when people challenge my beliefs, but apparently most people don't (a hard life lesson that took me many years to learn).

One can postulate some other basis for morality, like the Humanist credo that "ethics are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience" (whatever that might mean).  But why should species-ism provide any sounder a basis for morality than (say) class-ism (in either the biological or the economic sense) or racism?

It's a very hard problem.  I think science actually does provide an answer.  I'll describe how in the next installment.

Friday, June 07, 2013

The government is almost certainly recording your phone calls

How do I know?  By listening to what the president says (and more importantly, what he isn't saying), and doing some simple math.

President Obama said today:
"When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program is about. ... What the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers, and durations of calls; they are not looking at people's names and they're not looking at content. ... If the intelligence committee actually wants to listen to a phone call they have to go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation."
If you parse this carefully you will see that he doesn't actually deny that calls are being recorded.  All he says is that no one is listening to the recordings without "go[ing] back to a federal judge" (but, of course, we have to take his word for that).

The more compelling evidence that something beyond mere "phone numbers, and durations of calls" is being recorded is this.
The Utah Data Center, also known as the Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center,[1] is adata storage facility for the United States Intelligence Community that is designed to store data on the scale of yottabytes (1 yottabyte = 1 trillion terabytes, or 1 quadrillion gigabytes)
What is all that storage for?  It can't possibly be merely for "phone numbers, and durations of calls".  A year's worth of call data for the entire country would easily fit on a single modern hard drive.  The only possible reason to have yottabytes of storage is to record content, and specifically to record voice content.  Email just doesn't take up that much space.  Think about it: a yottabyte is 10^24 bytes.  That's 10^14=100 terabytes for every human on the planet.  What could they possibly be storing that would take up that much space if not content?

Kudos to Obama for taking on patent trolls

In the interest of balance and giving credit where it's due I have to give a shout-out to the Obama administration for tackling the problem of patent trolls.  The administration's report isn't perfect. It fails to address the root problem, which is the PTO issuing too many bogus patents. But it's a heck of a lot better than nothing.

I'm still pissed about the NSA surveillance thing though.

What part of "No warrants shall issue but upon probable cause" do you not understand?

President Obama defended the use of warrantless surveillance against American citizens at a news conference this morning.
The programs that have been discussed over the last couple days in the press are secret in the sense that they are classified but they are not secret in the sense that when it comes to phone calls every member of Congress has been briefed on this program. With respect to all these programs the relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs. These are programs that have been authorized by broad bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006. So I think it's important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed about exactly what we're doing.
OK, so my other elected representatives have been complicit with you in undermining our civil liberties.  Was that supposed to make me feel better?

With respect to the Internet and emails, this does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States.
How exactly do you distinguish the email accounts of U.S. citizens and residents from those of non-citizens and non-residents?
When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program is about. ... What the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers, and durations of calls; they are not looking at people's names and they're not looking at content. ... If the intelligence committee actually wants to listen to a phone call they have to go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation.
So you're only snooping on part of my private life instead of all of my private life. Again, is that supposed to make me feel better?
One of the things we're going to have to discuss and debate is how are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy. Because there are some trade-offs involved. I welcome this debate, and I think it's healthy for our democracy.
Here's the problem, Mr. President: we already had this debate.  We had it in 2008 when you ran for president.  Back then you said that if we voted for you we would "leave behind the era of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and 'wiretaps without warrants'.
You can't have 100-percent security and also have 100-percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a society.
That's right.  And in 2008 and 2012 the American People made that choice based on the promises you made.  We chose freedom and the rule of law.
I don't welcome leaks. There's a reason why these programs are classified.
Indeed, because if it were known that you were doing this, the American People would rise up in righteous indignation.  You have betrayed us.  You have betrayed your campaign promises and your oath to uphold the Constitution.  Like George Bush before you, you have twisted the law and the political process to turn the United States of America into a surveillance state in the name of national security.  The Constitution is very clear:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
There is no exception for national security.  The possibility that someone might plan a terrorist attack under the protection of the fourth amendment is the price we pay for freedom.  Anyone who isn't willing to pay that price should go live in North Korea.

It's not the leaks that are reprehensible

From the New York Times:
The top intelligence official in the United States condemned as “reprehensible” leaks revealing a secret program to collect information from leading Internet companies and said a separate disclosure about an effort to sweep up records of telephone calls threatens “irreversible harm” to the nation’s national security.
Funny how times change.  I can remember when the fashion was to consider it reprehensible for governments to spy on their own people.  That the Soviets did this and we didn't was one of the things that made Us better than Them back in the day.  That the North Korean government does this and ours doesn't is one of the things that... oh, wait.

You know what I consider reprehensible?  Hypocrisy.  Bald-faced lies.  A blatant disregard for the rule of law in the name of national security.  Forgetting that government is supposed to serve the people and not the other way around.

Way back in 2009 I wrote that Barack Obama is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from George Bush.  Today the transformation is complete.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The question libertarians just can’t answer

Michael Lind has the best takedown of libertarianism ever: If [libertarianism] is so great, why hasn’t any country anywhere in the world ever tried it? 

Why are there no libertarian countries? If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?
It’s not as though there were a shortage of countries to experiment with libertarianism. There are 193 sovereign state members of the United Nations—195, if you count the Vatican and Palestine, which have been granted observer status by the world organization. If libertarianism was a good idea, wouldn’t at least one country have tried it? Wouldn’t there be at least one country, out of nearly two hundred, with minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state and no public education system?
To be clear, I sympathize with the libertarian cause.  I want to maximize freedom, but not just for myself.  I want to maximize freedom also for my fellow man and, to the extent possible, my fellow non-homo-sapien creatures.  But the moment you decide to extend freedom beyond yourself you run headlong into the problem of externalities.  If I want the freedom to sleep and my neighbor wants the freedom to crank their stereo up to 11 (or keep a pit bull) then at least one of us will be forced to give up one some of our freedom not by the government, but by the laws of physics.

This is the fundamental problem of libertarians.  They are political alchemists, committed to a tacit definition of freedom that is tantamount to perpetual motion.  
Freedom cannot possibly mean that everyone gets to do whatever the fuck they want.  Externalities and conflicts have to be resolved somehow.  Government and the rule of law are the best mechanisms mankind has yet been able to come up with to solve this problem.  This is not to say that the situation couldn't be improved -- of course it could.  But it won't be improved by libertarians sticking their fingers in their ears and hoping the problem will just go away if they ignore it hard enough.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

On the morality of kitten torture, part 1

I was going to title this post "Why I am not a humanist" but I thought the kitten-torture angle had more panache.  I've also been looking at my traffic stats lately, and it seems that sensational titles are very effective.  This post has been getting a huge amount of traffic lately.  One of these days I'm going to write a series of completely bogus posts whose titles are all of the form "The shocking truth about X" and see what happens.

But back to kitten torture.  My recent encounter with Richard Dawkins has led to a lot of discussions with members of the secular community about religion, community, morals, and nomenclature.  I believe that I am entitled to be fully franchised as a human being despite the fact that I don't believe in the existence (in the narrow sense) of the supernatural.  One of the things I believe I'm entitled to is a noun.  And not just any old noun, but one that adequately captures my core beliefs.  Religious people have these: "Christian", "Muslim", "Episcopalian." Why shouldn't I?

The obvious noun for me to adopt would be "atheist".  But I don't like to self-identify as an atheist despite the fact that I am one.  It's partly because of the baggage that this term has been saddled with by both believers and unbelievers, but more because I would prefer to self-identify with what I *do* believe rather than what I don't.  I am, in point of fact, an a-unicornian in addition to being an atheist, but I don't want to self-identify as one of those either.

A possibility that has been suggested to me is to self-identify as a Humanist.  The problem with that is that I'm actually not a humanist.  Humanist doctrine (to the extent that a secular movement can be said to have a doctrine) is set out in a document called the Humanist Manifesto, of which there are three versions.  There is a lot to like in all three versions, but, in my opinion, a fatal flaw in the most recent revision:
Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.
Or, to put it more bluntly, man is the measure of all things.

The problem with this view of morality is that it fails in my view to adequately answer the following question: if I have an intellectual curiosity about what happens when I torture a kitten, is it morally acceptable for me to conduct this experiment?  [UPDATE: I am specifically stipulating that no greater good will be served.  This is not scientific research, it is satisfying a personal whim.]

On a straightforward reading of the morals clause of the Manifesto the answer is an unambiguous "yes" because my interests as a human axiomatically trump the kitten's interests as a non-human.  And yet this grates heavily on my moral intuition, and, I suspect, on the moral intuition of most of my fellow humans, and even most of those who self-identify as humanists.

The mere fact that most humanists choose not to torture kittens does not give them license to sweep this issue under the rug.  Most Muslims choose not to engage in violent Jihad, but that does not stop the secular community from pointing out (rightly IMHO) that what they assert to be the Word of God does in fact endorse violent jihad.  It is no less justified to point out that what humanists hold up as their defining document doe not provide any principled way to reject kitten torture as immoral.  A humanist might reject kitten torture as personally distasteful, but there are no grounds on humanist doctrine for me to condemn your personal choice to torture kittens.

And yet, I do condemn it.  Torturing kittens is absolutely, unequivocally immoral.  And I believe that my moral condemnation of kitten torture can be justified on scientific grounds.  (Exactly how that is done will have to wait for another post.  It's not obvious.)  But I don't see any way to condemn kitten torture on the basis of Humanist Manifesto III, or even on the more general notion that man is the measure of all things.  That is why not only can I not self-identify as a humanist, I actively reject the label (unlike my attitude towards the term "atheist" which I reluctantly adopt as an accurate though incomplete description of my core beliefs).

Figuring out a principled way to make the argument that torturing kitten is immoral makes a challenging intellectual exercise.  If you, like me, believe that kitten torture is wrong, you might want to give it a shot. You should keep in mind that one doesn't have to go very far back in human history to find societies where the idea that it is immoral to torture animals for sport was the minority opinion, and that "it's wrong because I believe it is wrong" doesn't count as a principled argument.

Shame on you, Michelle Rhee

Michelle Rhee's apparently inaptly named organization "Students First" has refused to rescind an award to homophobic Tennessee state representative John Ragan as "reformer of the year" in 2012 despite Ragan's ongoing sponsorship of anti-gay legislation that would effectively enshrine in law people's ability to bully and harass gay students.  MoveOn has a petition demanding Rhee's group (I can't bring myself to write the name again because of the manifest hypocrisy) reconsider their decision.  I urge you to take a moment to look at it and consider signing it.

[UPDATE:] We won!

It's time to end the war on marijuana

The ACLU is calling for an end to the war on marijuana.  This has seemed like such a no-brainer to me for such a long time that I can hardly think what to say about it.  It's like trying to convince someone that the sky is blue.  It is just so obvious that marijuana is a benign drug (at least by comparison to tobacco and alcohol), that prohibition doesn't work and never has, and that the war on drugs is a thinly veiled excuse for oppressing racial minorities and protecting moneyed interests (specifically the prison-industrial complex).

Oh, and in case there was any doubt, the sky is blue.