Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Legitimate form of life

I tweeted this article about how Oliver Sacks conceives as difference not as a disability, but as a different set of abilities, but I wanted to share some more thoughts on it.

Maria Popova writes:

A voracious lifelong reader, Dr. Sacks had grown enchanted by the H.G. Wells short story “The Country of the Blind,” set in an isolated society where blindness prevailed for three centuries and where a lost Western traveller finds himself the aberrant one, afflicted with sight. Drawing on the Wells story, his own childhood experience of visual migraines that temporarily blunted his color perception, and his neurological work with a painter who had suddenly become colorblind, Dr. Sacks bridged two of his great literary and intellectual heroes — Wells and Darwin — and wondered whether there might exist, not in fiction but in geography, a real isolated culture where total colorblindness — or achromatopsia — had become a basic condition among the population.

Because such mutations are most easily contained in cultures isolated by sea, he reasoned that if such a society existed, it would have to be on an island. After tracking down the appropriate colleague to ask, he was surprised and thrilled to learn that one such island did indeed exist — Pingelap in the Caroline archipelago of Micronesia, where total colorblindness had been coloring the genetic pool for two centuries.
Like all genetic deviations from the mean, colorblindness on Pingelap had emerged due to a formidable brush with randomness. In 1775, a typhoon decimated 90% of the people living on the island. Most of the remaining survivors eventually succumbed to a slow death of starvation, so that of the one thousand islanders only twenty remained. Several centuries earlier, the original settlers had brought to Pingelap the recessive gene for colorblindness, but because the population had been large enough, the odds of two carriers marrying and the gene manifesting in their children had been fairly low. Now, with a tiny but fertile group left with no recourse but inbreeding to repopulate the island, the recessive gene suddenly flourished into growing domination and total colorblindness was soon a common condition.

Oliver Sacks writes:

Colorblindness had existed on both Fuur and Pingelap for a century or more, and though both islands had been the subject of extensive genetic studies, there had been no human (so to speak, Wellsian) explorations of them, of what it might be like to be an achromatope in an achromatopic community — to be not only totally colorblind oneself, but to have, perhaps, colorblind parents and grandparents, neighbors and teachers, to be part of a culture where the entire concept of color might be missing, but where, instead, other forms of perception, of attention, might be amplified in compensation. I had a vision, only half fantastic, of an entire achromatopic culture with its own singular tastes, arts, cooking, and clothing — a culture where the sensorium, the imagination, took quite different forms from our own, and where “color” was so totally devoid of referents or meaning that there were no color names, no color metaphors, no language to express it; but (perhaps) a heightened language for the subtlest variations of texture and tone, all that the rest of us dismiss as “grey.”

Sacks brings a colleague, Knut Nordby, who happens to also be colorblind, and experiences the island very differently than Sacks:

For us, as color-normals, it was at first just a confusion of greens, whereas to Knut it was a polyphony of brightnesses, tonalities, shapes, and textures, easily identified and distinguished from each other.

The world wasn't just tailored made for the colorblind, the colorblind people also seemed to have a unique advantage over their counterparts:

The achromatopic children seemed to have developed very acute auditory and factual memories… [They] were oddly knowledgeable too about the colors of people’s clothing, and various objects around them — and often seemed to know what colors “went” with what… We could already observe in these achromatopic children in Mand how a sort of theoretical knowledge and know-how, a compensatory hypertrophy of curiosity and memory, were rapidly developing in reaction to their perceptual problems. They were learning to compensate cognitively for what they could not directly perceive or comprehend.

The best part of the video is at 2:55 where he tells the story of them asking how the colorblind could even tell when a banana was ripe, since they couldn't distinguish between green and yellow. They brought a green banana, and they sort of contemptuously thought -- this illustrates our point, they can't tell this banana is green. But the banana turned out to be ripe. They explained -- you're narrow minded, you would have said this banana wasn't ripe because you would only be focused on color, but they were focused on everything else about the banana -- texture, smell, etc. Similarly, a lot of people who rely on empathy have a hard time understanding how those without it could make the same sorts of judgments or choices for which the empaths rely on it so heavily. Not only can we make the same judgments and choices, we sometimes can get there more accurately without the empathy, because the emotions are not clouding our moral judgment.

The video continues, we do stigmatize people because people have characteristics that put them in conflict with others, but once the population has a large percentage of that type of person, they just seem normal. I think of the debate I got in with someone about which is more dangerous -- maleness, or sociopathy. In my mind there's an easy argument to make for maleness. If you took a female empath and made her a sociopath, she would be much less statistically likely to be a violent criminal than if you made her into a man. That's just the statistical difference between males and females in terms of propensity towards violence. But of course no one seriously advocates for the elimination of men from the human race. Since they are so prevalent, we think of their violent tendencies as being rather normal.

Sacks puts it this way:

There is a sort of critical level, so that if a tenth or a quarter of the population have some condition, it has to be accepted as a legitimate form of life and won’t be marginalized and, sometimes, won’t even be noticed.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Virtues of Cold Blood

Sam Harris interviews famous anti-empathy researcher and author of the book "Against Empathy" Paul Bloom in his podcast. They start with the basic premise of Bloom's book, that most people see the benefits of empathy as being too obvious to even warrant any sort of justification, although the perceived value of empathy is highly suspect, and get into several other related areas.

The first hour or so goes into the limitations of empathy and our understanding of empathy. Bloom says that he is very careful to refer to what is essentially affective empathy, that is feeling the way someone else feels. He is also careful to distinguish between this and a general theory of mind (or the ability to imagine the feelings of others and why they would feel that way) and other sort of warm and fuzzy concepts like compassion, selflessness, social adroitness, sensitivity to the needs of others, etc. It turns out that when you isolate empathy as a concept and a personal characteristic, it actually doesn't do much at all. In fact, Bloom mentions at the end of the podcast that there have been meta analyses of studies done in which there is no apparent correlation between someone's degree of empathy and how nice or good of a person they are. In fact, they specifically mention someone's capacity for empathy and research done regarding the validity of the PCL-R which indicates that empathy does not really predict any sort of behavior, either good or bad behavior. Instead, other traits like past behavior and low or high impulse control do.

What empathy does accomplish is to make people susceptible to certain cognitive biases that lead them astray in their moral reasoning. This is discussed in probably the most relevant (and best) part of the discussion in the last 27 minutes or so, where Bloom addresses the question that many have raised to him -- ok, maybe empathy isn't the panacea that some claim it to be, but there's nothing wrong with it, is there? He mentions a few ways in which it can be very harmful. For instance, he argues that empathy is the reason why people will get so riled up over certain atrocities to the point where they want to commit other atrocities, e.g. a costly and violent war. Empathy is also the thing that will make those same people argue against the war that they voted as they hear stories of the collateral damage the war is causing. So essentially, high empathy people are just easily pushed from one extreme to the other with carefully selected personal stories that are designed to tug at heartstrings.

Empathy can also be highly irrational. For instance, he argues that in certain countries like India, the child beggars are almost all associated with huge criminal enterprises that exploit and even sometimes intentionally maim the children for financial gain. When people give money to these children, they're facilitating these efforts. Bloom tells the story of relating this to someone on a radio show, to which the woman responded essentially "but I like giving to children -- it makes me feel good. I feel connected to them". His rejoinder -- it depends on what you want, if you want these children's lives to be better, then don't give to them.

The first and last parts of the podcast are good. In the middle, they go off on this really random tangent in which Bloom seems to be contradicting his own argument. Specifically, Bloom argues that he wouldn't want to feel an expansive universal love, the type to which many buddhist meditation practitioners (such as Sam Harris) seek to achieve. Bloom explains that although love may not have limits, everyone has limited time and resources to spend, and if Bloom loved everyone, maybe he wouldn't spend as much time and effort on his own family. The argument is so odd because he is essentially arguing that the feelings of preferential love are necessary for him to behave in this way that he has prioritized for himself, i.e. preferential treatment of his family over starving orphans in Africa. But this is almost exactly the argument that empathy proponents make about empathy -- that it is a useful or necessary emotional tool in getting to a desired outcome of good behavior. Bloom's position is that empathy is not necessary or even that helpful because rational behavioral constructs and choices are much more efficient at achieving the desired outcome of moral behavior. But if one can just think their way to moral behavior, how couldn't one think their way to giving preferential treatment to their family, despite loving the whole of humanity equally? Oddly he doesn't seem to see any contradiction there. Am I just imagining one? Another odd thing, he basically kills his own argument by arguing that rational thinking (e.g., in this situation, utilitarianism) could easily come up with his desired outcome of preferential treatment to his family because it is more efficient for him to feed his own children than orphans in Africa. Still, he doesn't budge on his position. Does anyone have any insight into this? It truly makes me think less of him and his arguments and academia in general, so if someone has a better explanation for what he is trying to say, I'd love to hear it.
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