Big Data, or Big Brother?

I don’t know what you think of the recent revelations about the extreme-seeming scope of the U. S. anti-terror people’s telephone data collection. I’m of two minds, which is an uncomfortable position at the best of times.

It seems that “impending real attacks” have been thwarted by the surveillance. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? But do we really need to let the government into every detail of our lives? I say “our” even though I’m in Canada, for I have no illusions that Stephen Harper has ever hesitated to share and share alike with the Americans. He’s a natural control freak in the first place, and a sycophantic neighbour into the bargain.

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Do we misunderstand our selves?

In a recent series of articles, New Scientist magazine explored what their lead article called “The Great Illusion of the Self.”

The article gave more space to why we don’t know much of anything about our selves than to what we do know, or think that we know, for “While it seems irrefutable that we must exist in some sense, things get a lot more puzzling once we try to get a better grip of what having a self actually amounts to.”

According to the article, we are sure of three things about our selves. We are continuous. We are unified. And we are agents.

“All of these beliefs appear to be blindingly obvious and as certain as can be” ; yet “as we look at them more closely, they become less and less self-evident.”

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New evidence that the self is a mental construct

What does it say about the reality of the outside world if we can be fooled even about the state and composition of parts of our own bodies? And what does it say about the reality of our sense of self if we can’t trust our senses even when they report our apparent body states?

More evidence that the world, including us, is a construct, a mental representation of an otherwise un-experienced world “out there,” crops up in reports of a new study that fools subjects into believing that they have a phantom limb.
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Small evidence for the primacy of co-operation

I share with many others the view that one of the best ways to understand human behaviour is to observe other animals in similar circumstances.

More often than not, this approach is applied to “higher” animals such as our chimpanzee cousins. But if our individual and social traits are products of evolution — and what else could they be? — then we should be able to find some pretty basic understanding from looking at older, “simpler” animals.

Ants, for example.

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Accommodating religion doesn’t require adopting its trappings

I tried very hard to read A. C. Grayling’s The Good Book: A Secular Bible. I really did. I started the book three times, and the last two times I skipped the soporific beginning and started to read from a random point somewhere in the middle of the book. I couldn’t do it. The Good Book is just not a very good book.

It’s not that Grayling’s prose is particular bad, although it’s not particularly good. It’s not that many of the things he writes are little more than self-help nostrums, although many of them are certainly that.

The problem is that Grayling’s imitation of the style of the old English bible makes his “new bible” seem more a parody than a transformation. He hasn’t so much updated the old bible as he has backdated his new ideas.

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Challenging anthropomorphic physics

Everyone in the social sciences is now aware of the “WEIRD problem,” the built-in sampling bias that permeates the vast majority of psychological studies, the subjects of which are overwhelmingly Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

Are the physical sciences also biased? In particular, is the way we typically explain the physics of the universe fundamentally anthropomorphic, with the assumption from Newton to the present that the universe functions the same way that our minds function?

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