In Defense of Moral Investigation

by MTGandP7 min read4th Nov 201278 comments


Personal Blog

Cross-posted from my blog.

Some argue that certain claims about the nature of reality could cause people to become more immoral. Examples of such suppositions include:

1. People should follow Christianity because we will be more moral if we have to avoid eternal damnation.
2. The theory of evolution says that since people evolved from bacteria and have no immortal souls, human lives are worthless. Therefore, we can rape and kill each other and there’s nothing wrong with that.
3. The theory of evolution says that people should act selfishly all the time.
4. If free will doesn’t exist, people will be free to hurt and kill each other and won’t be held responsible.

Such arguments are bogus. Any new information about reality, if properly understood (that part is important), can only cause people to become more ethical. Morality is contingent upon the nature of the universe; the better we understand the universe, the better we understand morality.

Some people fear that if we investigate reality, we will discover truths that cause us to behave unethically. In some cases, people even wish to discount discoveries that already have been made—such as natural selection or the nonexistence of free will [1]—on the basis that these discoveries may lead to immoral behavior.

Someone may take the theory of evolution and use that as evidence that it is morally justified to behave selfishly at the expense of others. However, such a person would be misinterpreting evolution. Nowhere does the theory of evolution say that we should attempt to propagate our genes at the expense of every other living being; it merely explains that beings that do do that tend to survive and reproduce. Evolution tells us nothing about what we ought to value.

On the other hand, evolution (and, in fact, all branches of science) does tell us something about how to achieve what we do value. Once we understand how the world works, we can take it into account and more effectively work towards our goals. (This is Sam Harris’ thesis in The Moral Landscape.) For example, positive psychology provides insights into how best to make ourselves happy; and biology tells us which animals can feel pain and therefore deserve moral consideration.

It is possible to make a discovery that changes our conceptions about what is or is not moral. If such a discovery is made, what was previously thought to be immoral may be found to be moral, or vice versa. Some Europeans justified slavery by claiming that Africans were stupid or unable to take care of themselves, and that having a master was good for them; when science proved such claims to be false, it was impossible to scientifically support slavery.

Race and Intelligence

When anthropologist Samuel Morton found that Africans had smaller craniums than Europeans, he stirred up considerable controversy. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that Morton’s findings were the result of bias, but later studies affirmed Morton’s results and concluded that Gould had in fact been biased by his desire to affirm racial equality.

As modern neuroscience has shown, there is no correlation between cranial size and intelligence (at least between individuals of the same species). But imagine that it were discovered that Africans and those of African descent are indeed less intelligent on average than Europeans. What would that say about how we should treat them?

It certainly would not justify slavery: a person’s moral worth has nothing to do with her intelligence. If people took an enlightened perspective about this new discovery, it could only serve to improve the world. There would be no question that people of African descent could still be happy and contribute to society. If brains truly functioned differently for different races, a strong understanding of those differences could empower us to improve the education system by teaching in different and more appropriate learning styles. An outcome where a particular race becomes less happy could only arise because the science was not properly understood.

As I write this, I feel some stigma attached to discussing the possibility that people of African descent are less intelligent. I see three main reasons for this. The first is that, not so long ago, African-Americans were considered unintelligent by the large portion of Western society and currently it is taboo even to raise a hypothetical scenario in which they are less intelligent. The second reason is that they are probably not. Races tend to score differently on IQ tests (with Asians scoring the highest), but (a) this could be the result of environmental influences and biases (including stereotype threat) and (b) IQ is a very limited measure of intelligence (I find myself continually surprised when news articles use the terms “IQ” and “intelligence” interchangeably). No robust evidence has ever demonstrated that one race is more or less intelligent than another. If we treated black people as though they were less intelligent than other races, that would clearly be a problem. The third reason is that even if some races are more or less intelligent on average, there would still be a large amount of overlap. Africans tend to be taller than Asians, for example, but there are plenty of tall Asians and plenty of short Africans. Therefore, it would be unfair to treat all Asians as though they are short and all Africans as though they are tall. (Obviously this example is a bit silly since one can immediately assess how tall a person is, but it is meant only as an illustrative analogy.)

But when people are truly different, treating them differently is not a bad thing. Consider dyslexia. People with dyslexia generally perform more poorly on certain tasks than people without dyslexia. However, they are not stigmatized or oppressed (for the most part, at least); instead, they are given specialized education programs designed to help them learn more effectively. Such programs help dyslexics more easily perform certain tasks that they would otherwise have difficulty performing. And although dyslexics are treated differently, it would not make sense to create separate bathrooms for them or require them to sit at the back of the bus. People with dyslexia are normal in every way, and where they are not, society does not stigmatize but helps them (for the most part, anyway). And where society does fail to help them, it is not because we know too much about them; indeed, it is often because we know too little.


Sometimes knowing the truth makes things worse, but only if one holds irrational beliefs. For example, one may believe that the theory of evolution dictates that people should act selfishly all the time. If one held such a belief, it may be better to ignore the evidence in favor of evolution. Of course, such a belief has no rational basis.

Unfortunately, even mostly-rational people may have difficulty avoiding irrational emotional reactions to facts [2]. A rational person can sometimes override an emotional response, but even the best of us cannot behave completely rationally. Given what we know about human irrationality, how should we adjust our behavior?

Even if we acknowledge that humans behave in predictably irrational ways, we should still err on the side of investigating truth too much rather than too little. Knowing the truth rarely hurts; when it does, it is because we are behaving irrationally; when we are, we can often overcome our irrationality. Indeed, uncovering the truth may actually help us overcome our irrationality.

A particular truth can only hurt someone if he holds a false belief. For example, if he believes that if African-Americans are less intelligent then slavery is justified, it is better for him to believe that black people are not less intelligent. However, the best solution is to rectify the false premise: even if African-Americans are less intelligent, slavery is not justified.

As Eliezer Yudkowsky put it, “Doing worse with more knowledge means you are doing something very wrong.”

To close, here is a quote by Richard Feynman:

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is ‘mere’. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination—stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern—of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?


[1] Free will is a persistent illusion, and many readers may doubt me when I claim that it does not exist. Sam Harris offers an eloquent and accessible explanation of free will, found here and continued here. I have also written on the subject.

[2] This is not to say that emotions are always irrational, or that rationality is opposed to emotion. Rather, some particular emotional responses can arise for irrational reasons. See Eliezer Yudkowsky, “Feeling Rational”.


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Any new information about reality, if properly understood... can only cause people to become more ethical

Whether this is true depends on your definition of "ethical." In any case, your claim here doesn't weigh against the idea "that certain claims about the nature of reality could cause people to become more immoral" because people do not, in fact, always "properly understand" new information about reality.

Eliezer did say "Doing worse with more knowledge means you are doing something very wrong," but check what he said in the very next paragraph: "On the other hand, if you are only half-a-rationalist, you can easily do worse with more knowledge." The trouble is that current people are indeed only half-rational, or worse.

A particular truth can only hurt someone if he holds a false belief.

A counterexample: Suppose that a human-level AI, Ralph, holds only true beliefs. But Ralph doesn't yet know that Petunia exists. The superintelligent Omega tortures everyone who knows that Petunia exists. Now, Ralph learns that Petunia exists. But this truth hurts him, even though he doesn't hold a false belief.

5CarlShulman9yWas there any need for AIs in the example?

I did it for clarity. I'm not sure what a human with only true beliefs looks like, or whether "a human with only true beliefs" will be a sensible phrase after we leave folk psychology behind.

4Larks9yWe have even better counterexamples against Suppose Alice is a hates tall people with a passion. Then, she learns about a gathering of vulnerable tall people. She properly understands all the relevant consequences of this fact. Including that now she can act on her hatred!
0Eugine_Nier9yThe solution to this problem is do something Eliezer always argues against for some reason, namely, to compartmentalize. Also it's likely that becoming more rational won't necessarily help the reasons you mentioned here [].
0BarbaraB8yDoes Eliezer really do that ? I got the impression, than compartmentalization is, at least at some cases, perceived as a functional model to avoid big mistakes. (Just as You suggest).
[-][anonymous]9y 11

"As I write this, I feel some stigma attached to discussing the possibility that people of African descent are less intelligent. I see three main reasons for this. The first is that, not so long ago, African-Americans were treated unfairly "

If you think that racism was only a problem 'not so long ago' rather than being an ongoing, major problem, then you probably just shouldn't discuss race at all.

On top of this, see . Your post didn't need to discuss race at all, and you chose a needlessly emotive example.

As for the rest of the post, what isn't obvious is wrong -- see lukeprog's response.

8Eugine_Nier9yAny example of this phenomenon would be emotive to those who believe it's immoral to investigate it. Furthermore, this example is useful since otherwise readers would be left with the impression that this is only something the "other side" does.
3MTGandP9yI'm not sure exactly what you mean by that. Are you saying I have an incorrect impression of contemporary racism and therefore shouldn't discuss it? If so, how do I know that my impression is incorrect if I don't discuss it? Perhaps I did not word my comment as well as I could have. Racism still exists, but my point was that in most circles it is not acceptable to assert that one race is more intelligent than another—and respectable scientists will go out of their way to prove that different races are equally intelligent, even skewing the evidence to do so. I was trying to demonstrate how people often skew their perception of truth to avoid coming to beliefs that appear socially unacceptable. This effect is especially pronounced when it comes to emotive issues, so I thought race and intelligence made for a good example. It was the best example I could come up with. If you have a non-politically charged example, I'd be interested to hear it. What's obvious to you isn't necessarily obvious to all readers.

You said "not so long ago, African-Americans were treated unfairly". The implication is that this is not currently the case. If you believe that, then you are quite misinformed, and while I wouldn't say you should avoid discussing race, you should probably avoid telling people anything about it.

8mwengler9yNot so long ago, black people in the US were legally assaulted if they drank from certain water fountains, sat in certain bus seats. They were taxed but not allowed to attend many tax-supported facilities including schools and universities. A black man walking with a white woman on a public street risked death from lynching. White's who spoke in favor of blacks were also at risk and had crosses burned on their lawns to illustrate the threat. For all intents and purposes, everything in my previous paragraph is either non-existent or attenuated by well more than a factor of 100 in the current united states. WHO is being pedantic arguing over a compact expression of this change which is a tangential point to another point the post was primarily about? And WHY do so many other lesswrongers jump on that particular pedantic bandwagon? The mindkiller isn't an excuse to jump on a bandwagon, it is something that the rational might wish to practicing resisting.
-3MTGandP9yPerhaps I did not word my comment as well as I could have. Racism still exists, but my point was that in most circles it is not acceptable to assert that one race is more intelligent than another—and respectable scientists will go out of their way to prove that different races are equally intelligent, even skewing the evidence to do so.
9TorqueDrifter9yYes, I read that when you posted it in the great-grandparent. You seem to start addressing the point in the first sentence-plus-a-few-words, but the rest is an unexplained digression. What you wrote strongly implies that African-Americans are no longer treated unfairly, and this seems like the most reasonable interpretation of your words. Regardless of what your other points in the post may or may not be, I suggest you either reword the sentence to reflect your intent (or, if it already reflected your intent, take the advice of AndrewHickey and myself and become more informed on racial issues before commenting on them further).
-2MTGandP9yI copied and pasted that paragraph because it seemed to respond to your criticism. I did not mean to imply that racism does not exist. Rather, I meant that it is no longer commonly accepted that black people are less intelligent.
6[anonymous]9yI'm saying that a statement that black people 'were treated unfairly' 'not so long ago' implies a basic ignorance of the way black people still are treated, that in general it is better not to make statements about things one knows nothing about, and that especially one shouldn't make blanket statements about subjects one is ignorant of when those subjects are hugely emotive ones. "I was trying to demonstrate how people often skew their perception of truth to avoid coming to beliefs that appear socially unacceptable." Except that firstly, that was a side-issue to your main point (such as it was), that knowing the truth won't cause us to become immoral. Secondly, it doesn't make that point because, as you point out yourself, the truth in this case is that there doesn't appear to be a link between race and intelligence. Thirdly, the point you claim to have been trying to demonstrate is only really made in the paragraph about Gould, not in the rest of the paragraphs on race, which come from the premise "what if black people were intellectually inferior -- how should we treat them?", and go back to your main point. All those paragraphs about race relating to your main point could have had any other example to make the point, and the point about Gould could equally well have used any of a thousand other obvious examples of people (consciously or otherwise) distorting results. And, of course, your hypothetical "what if the racists are right?" question doesn't even lead to the conclusions you draw from it. If it could be shown, for example, that black people could never understand basic political questions, it would be entirely rational to at least consider removing the right to vote from them. Saying "An outcome where a particular race becomes less happy could only arise because the science was not properly understood" would be outright false, in that case. And as for "What's obvious to you isn't necessarily obvious to all readers", I think that the obvious parts of t
3Eugine_Nier9yUm, the particular argument MTGandP makes doesn't provide much evidence of a link between race and intelligence. There is definitely other evidence for a link, such as the fact that just about any proxy measure of intelligence, from SAT scores, to results of IQ tests, to crime rates, will correlate with race. Of course, that still leaves the question of whether this is genetic or cultural. Here I haven't seen much evidence either way so there's still a reasonable chance that it's genetic.
3mwengler9yCan you see how your mind has been killed, AndrewHickey? To be clear: 1) Anybody who doesn't recognize a gigantic improvement in how blacks are treated in the western world measured over 20 years, 50 years, 100 years, and 200 years seems to me to be either ignorant or deliberately obtuse. 2) Saying something happend in the past is hardly the same as saying it never happens at all in the present. 3) You write "in general it is better not to make statements about things one knows nothing about..." which I think on its face is so obvious a falsehood, that the original poster knew nothing about what he was saying. He obviously knows quite a bit about what he is saying, even if there are things you know that he doesn't know, which I certainly wouldn't cede but is not needed to make the point that your over-the-top exaggeration is more evidence your mind is DOA. You have successfully demonstrated how this topic kills YOUR mind, by example. We can infer that it kills other minds. THe point of not talking about mindkillers is not that "once you have talked about a mindkiller, you are just wrong," but rather that "to be maximally readable by the largest number of readers, it is useful to learn of many topics you should avoid unless they are really needed for the discussion." If a rationalist board is not the place to discuss the interaction between emotional reaction and rationality, where is that place? If one can't illustrate such a discussion with things that cause emotional reactions that impact the rational reactions, how can one discuss it? Of course we can spin off into a meta discussion of whether it was good rhetoric to talk about race in this post or whether only 50 angels can dance on the head of a pin. I'd prefer to have a discussion of the interaction between rationality, emotional responses, information, and morality myself. That is my preference.
0BarbaraB8yHow did You come to such conclusion ? There is a wikipedia article [] on that. (Warning: it keeps changing all the time). This battlefield of arguments failed to convince me either way so far. I may have some preliminary preferences as to what sounds more probable, but untill the mechanism underlying the genetic component of intelligence is properly explained, I say I do not know.
-1MTGandP9yPerhaps you should not be so quick to assume my ignorance. If I say something that can be interpreted multiple ways, interpret it in the most charitable way possible. Racism was certainly worse fifty or a hundred years ago than it is today. And, more specifically, it used to be commonly accepted that black people weren't as intelligent as white people. Today, many people (e.g. Gould) specifically try to avoid any facts that might give credence to this belief. I did not mean to imply that racism is entirely eliminated. On Saying the Obvious [] And if you downvote my comment, please explain why. I am just trying to clarify my position and I do not understand why that merits a downvote.

Communication is a two-way road (to a first approximation). You have chosen a particularly poor way to word this sentence. It is, except in the most pedantic sense, incorrect. Likewise, I would not say "women shouldn't have the right to vote" if I meant that I opposed democratic government in general, and if I did say this it would be my fault if I were 'misinterpreted'.

-4[anonymous]9yYour statement "not so long ago, African-Americans were treated unfairly" can't sensibly be interpreted multiple ways. What you meant to say might have multiple interpretations, but what you actually said can only be interpreted one way, unless one is to distort the words past all reason. "more specifically, it used to be commonly accepted that black people weren't as intelligent as white people." I'm unfortunately unable to find any surveys which show to what extent this is still believed by people today, but my impression is that this is still a far more commonly-held belief than you think. "And if you downvote my comment, please explain why." Well, in this case, I'm downvoting because you're whining, because you made an assumption about who downvoted you based on little evidence, and because you've written a post that doesn't say what you now claim you intended it to say and are now blaming the readers for your own mistake.
1MTGandP9yHow so? I thought my comments were sufficiently polite and formal. By "you" I didn't mean AndrewHickey, I just meant anyone reading the comment. I never blamed the readers. I admit that I worded it poorly. I didn't effectively communicate my meaning, so I posted comments to clarify. I'll try to rewrite my original post to more effectively express my intent. Edit: I don't see how to edit my post—I do not see any "edit" button like the one on my comments. So I won't be editing it unless I figure out how.
0pragmatist9yAt the bottom of your post you should see an icon that looks like a piece of paper with a pencil on it. Click that to edit your post. EDIT: Oops. Just realized that you already know how to edit comments, so you probably know about the icon. The fact that it isn't appearing on your post might be a glitch then.
0MTGandP9yI looked for that button earlier and didn't see it, but I see it now. So either I missed it, or it disappeared for some reason. But it looks like I still can't edit it because I no longer have permission to post in Main. I guess I'll move it to Discussion....
-1mwengler9yYou definitely can edit your posts. Hover over buttons one will say edit. Make sure you are logged in to the site when doing it.
-3[anonymous]9y"Perhaps you should not be so quick to assume my ignorance." "I never blamed the readers."
0MTGandP9yI guess you're right, I did blame the readers. Sorry about that. I don't think it's your fault, really. It's primarily my fault for writing a sentence that did not effectively express my intention. Edit: I was just thinking about why I said I wasn't blaming anyone, and I think the reason is that I didn't feel like I was blaming anyone, even though I really was. I thought (only semi-consciously) that since I know what I meant, you should also know what I meant. Of course, the only way for that to work is if I express myself clearly, which I obviously didn't.
-1mwengler9yFor every one hickey, what do you suppose is the number of readers who have no problem understanding what you wrote? Lesswrong is far from monolithic, and it is a mistake to think AndrewHIckey speaks for the whole of it.
0MTGandP9yI don't know. If I thought the sentence would lead to confusion, I would have written it differently. It's hard to judge how much other people will understand my own writing because I understand it perfectly, and I don't know how much common background I share with most others. Did you understand it?

Any new information about reality, if properly understood (that part is important), can only cause people to become more ethical. Morality is contingent upon the nature of the universe; the better we understand the universe, the better we understand morality.

I think this paragraph is a bit muddled, in more than one way. First, the claim that morality is contingent upon the nature of the universe is ambiguous. The claim may mean, rather trivially, that the rightness or wrongness of an act depends on whether certain ordinary facts obtain (e.g., whether i... (read more)

My own story about my own trajectory in knowing more as I got older is that I have more and more abandoned beliefs in morality. At the age of 10 or 12 or so, I abandoned Roman Catholic morality because the source of that morality, a God who spoke through an infallible Pope who spoke through nuns and priests to me, collapsed in my mind. In my 20s I picked up a bit of a belief in conventional morality as a set of guidelines for simplifying life when an adulterous affair I was having turned out to be fraught with pain and frustration. Since then, I have mo... (read more)

"As modern neuroscience has shown, there is no correlation between cranial size and intelligence (at least between individuals of the same species). "

Not true.

The whole race and intelligence thing seems dopey to me. Let me say why.

If I want to help black people because more of them are poor than are white people, wouldn't it make more sense just to have a program that helps poor people?

If I won't hire black people because, on average (I believe) they are not quite as smart as white people, wouldn't I be better off just not hiring the individuals who seem dull to me? Wouldn't I be better off talking to each prospective applicant for a few minutes and hiring the individuals who seem smart regardless of their... (read more)

Rather the opposite, I think the statements of inferiority are a result of the racism, part of the mechanism one group uses to gain advantage over another in a social setting.

I grew up in Hawaii, where at the time, whites were disliked. I am white. We were called "Haoles". Particularly when young, that made you a target of general low level harassment. Growing up, I was always looking forward to moving out to the "mainland" - continental US, and getting away from that crap.

So, I went away to college on the mainland. A whole new harassment free world. How sweet it was. But I'm at a bar one day, and some guy is getting in my face. Some white guy. It just seemed so odd. I don't think I'd ever had some random white guy trying to give me crap before.

People assert themselves by putting down other people. In Group vs. Out Group is one of the handier ways to do it, but there are plenty of other ways. Race is just convenient.

Another learning experience came from watching the Ginger episodes on South Park. I thought it was a big joke. Still do, but apparently it's a real prejudice in Britain. Really? Gingers? They're all just a bunch of Haoles to me.

6Eugine_Nier9yThe problem is that someone else will notice that you've hired more white people than black people and accuse you of racism and at least in the US the law will back them up [].
4drethelin9ya few minutes times thousands of prospective applicants is a lot of time. Depending on where you believe the averages lie it could easily make economic sense to use the race heuristic for hiring.
3Emile9yWouldn't most group-based heuristics be useless when self-selection is involved? Let's assume we care about strength, and that men are significantly stronger than women (I'm cutting corners for simplicity's sake). If you're looking for people to mug in the street, and all else being equal prefer a weak victim, then you're better off targeting women than men - it's a useful heuristic. However, if you're hiring people for a job that requires strength, people will only apply if they think they have a chance, then you should expect about the same distribution of strength among the man and women who apply - any sex-based heuristic is useless.
2drethelin9yYou'd think so, but from my experience screening resumes tons and tons of people who are not qualified or obviously don't fit very simple criteria still apply to jobs. I wasted time reading resumes of people who shouldn't have even applied, and I wasn't even doing any interviewing. Strength is also a lot less fuzzy than intelligence/capability in general. Warehouse jobs can say "Must be able to lift x pounds to y height regularly" or whatever so it's obvious what the job requires and easy for the person to know if they can do it. It's harder to quantify being smart, or having knowledge of certain fields, or ability to sell products. This means that it's more effort on the part of people applying to know whether they should (which means they'll probably just apply because you might as well) AND more effort on the part of the hirer to figure out who is qualified.
-4Eugine_Nier9yLess useful, not necessarily entirely useless. Depends on who rational the people doing the self-selection are.
2mwengler9yIn theory, yes. If I am hiring a nanny and I have 300 applicants, I can walk down the line and keep only the 20 best groomed of the applicants, and while I can be virtually sure to have sent home the "best" applicant on many very sensible but detailed and difficult to measure criteria, I can also be sure that many of the 20 I kept will perform very well, and that a more intensive look at the remaining 20 than I could have afforded applying to the 300 will reliably identify a few very good candidates. But these are empirical questions about what practices actually dominated, not theoretical questions about how it might have been. In actual practice, there were broad job classifications for which a black person would not be hired because they were black. In actual practice, the strike against them was that many white people wouldn't work with them. You would lose many more qualified white person from you hiring pool than you would gain in qualified black people, and so your average hiring and wage costs would go up. That is, most whites would highly value not working with blacks and that would have to be figured in your hiring costs. Certainly, the reasons given for this social judgement against black people were things like they were lazy, dishonest, stupid, ignorant, dirty, among other things. And indeed, given their exclusion from schools, many social institutions, and their lack of income from the existing social equilibrium, there was much truth to these generalizations. In this case, in the U.S., the situation was massively changed by the imposition of federal laws on the states, industries, and institutions where this occurred. Armed militia were deployed to protect a small number of very bright and very brave black students who attended government funded but previously closed to them universities. Courts ordered the mixing of the races in public schools. Over the decades, the real differences between the races arising from the real differences in opport
0Eugine_Nier9yThis seems dubious. If you look at intelligence (as measured by say SAT scores) or crime rate, you will find that there's still a very large difference between the races.
4TimS9yIs there an accessible publicly available explanation on the argument that crime rate is linked to poor intelligence? The argument for a correlation between poverty and intelligence is quite straightforward, and it is clear that crime rate (especially violent crime and trade in illicit substances) is correlated with poverty, which is also correlated with race. But the reason that race continues to be correlated with poverty is exactly the question that is under dispute, so use of the correlation between crime rate and race that rely on the correlation between poverty and race assumes the conclusion that is under dispute.
4Eugine_Nier9yHere [].
2TimS9yThanks. For those who did not click the link, the article asserts that (1) crime is often caused by irrational cognitive bias, (2) people with less intelligence show more cognitive bias. (2) is an empirical claim that makes quite a bit of sense. I'm not sure that (1) is a more important effect than classical economics accounts of crime. If you will starve unless you eat the seed corn [], achieving goals that don't involve starving eventually are out of your reach regardless of how rational you are.

No, Sam Harris has not disproved free will.

"Philosophers debating free will have long understood that the term can be used in many ways, most of which are incoherent. Thus, advocates of "libertarian free will" (founded on the belief that free will requires indeterminism) have had to face the objection that indeterminate events in the brain would be expected to produce randomness, not freedom. And advocates of "compatibilist free will" (founded on the belief that some kinds of free will are compatible with determinism) have had to f... (read more)

0Ben Pace9yHarris attacks a fairly strong current in modern society, of treating people who have broken rules or the law with hatred and anger. When a person wrongs another, people react with anger and hatred, rather than stopping and thinking about what they could best do to help a situation where person who has acted wrongly (or at least, this has happened in every directly social confrontation I have witnessed). This is what Harris is combatting, not what modern philosophers are currently discussing (which often doesn't reach outside of their seemingly ivory towers). Harris is a mainly political speaker, not philosophical, and he works at changing the status quo. He isn't trying to disprove the common beliefs, and take credit for it by publishing it in a philosophy journal. He's writing accessibly to all, because all over the world people aren't getting the basic ideas, which can really make a difference (he certainly opened my mind).
0Peterdjones9yModern US society? Modern Danish society? Harris mentions Libet's research. I can't see how that is socio-politcal. It is surely concerned with whether our brains can actually "do" volition. What basic ideas? That FW is defintiely an illusion? But Harris's critics from within the academy [] take issue with that. They say they (whether scientists or philosophers) have made not such definitive discovery, and that Harris is cherry-picking and otherwise misrepresenting their results.
0Ben Pace9yYes, I made too many generalisations in my reply. I found that last article very interesting. I do feel as though people argue over definitions (which he has a chapter on, arguing for his definition). But, I see he has not combatted a great deal of the modern debate over that-which-is-called 'Free Will'. I think he has made a very strong case against the idea of punishment for punishment's sake (against those that do 'wrong') that I don't see any future conception of 'Free Will' resurrecting. This is what I have taken from the book, which I think is what it does brilliantly, but I do see he unhelpfully conflates definitions. The main thing that everyone I know who has read the book has taken, is the idea that people aren't the sole causes of their evil acts, and we can still act morally following this truth. That's the 'Free Will' that has been demolished in my mind, which is why I defend his book. It feels now as though he's not straw-manned the argument, as much as called it the wrong thing, so I'll go revise my definitions. I do like the book a lot, though. :)
0Peterdjones9yI don't see how that has very much to do with FW at all. There are harsher and more liberla justice systems, and the differnce is that the harsher ones have agendas that are driven by the popular media, whereas the liberal ones are driven by evidence and expert opinion.

I feel some stigma attached to discussing the possibility that people of African descent are less intelligent.

Does that only hold for people of African descent?

No robust evidence has ever demonstrated that one race is more or less intelligent than another.

Could you describe what you would consider robust evidence?

0Eugine_Nier9yNo, but for most others the result can be disproved by pointing to test results.
-2MTGandP9yI think it's especially true in that case for historical reasons, but you're right, I think it does apply for any race. Any sort of evidence that demonstrates a genetic difference in intelligence (putting aside difficulties in accurately measuring intelligence—IQ is not intelligence). AFAIK, all evidence to date can be explained by environmental differences.
5Emile9yThe strongest evidence I know on the heritability of intelligence is from the comparisons of identical twins to fraternal twins [] - if intelligence was only a function of the environment (and of randomness), identical twins would be as similar as fraternal twins are.
0[anonymous]8yIdentical twins shared the same environment throughout their pre-natal development.
2Emile8yYes, and ... ? (So do fraternal twins)
0[anonymous]8yOops. Reading comprehension fail. Comment retracted.
-1MTGandP9yThe chart doesn't say how general intelligence was measured. I think that's important.
0Emile9yThat's far less of a problem than the fact that it's unsourced! (some guy on Wikipedia copied it from a textbook, without saying which one) I'm assuming the "general intelligence" is from some modern IQ test, but I don't think the conclusions drawn hinge on the specific details.
-1MTGandP9yI think they do, because an IQ test is a pretty poor measure of general intelligence.
2Emile9yWhy do you believe that? And what, specifically, do you mean by "general intelligence"? Do you mean the same thing that psychometricians do? (i.e. is this a semantic dispute over how to use the english word "Intelligence"?)
0MTGandP9yI haven't seriously studied intelligence tests or psychometrics, but from what I understand, the best IQ tests only measure certain limited forms of intelligence such as spatial reasoning, working memory, and vocabulary. And I'm afraid I can't give a very good definition of general intelligence. I have an intuition as to its definition which is hard to describe.
9Emile9yThe fact that you haven't studied the topic seriously makes it even more surprising that you hold a position that goes against expert opinion! People are wrong all the time on topics they have studied for years, that should make us even more wary of holding strong opinions on topics we have studied for mere hours! If you think that intelligence covers A, B, C and D, but that IQ tests only test A and B, find out why! Maybe C is hard to measure directly, but so strongly correlated with A and B that it can be predicted anyway! Maybe after reflection, C doesn't fit in a meaningful definition of intelligence, and is grouped under another heading (like "emotional intelligence"). Maybe the tests actually cover D, but you don't know it because you're basing yourself off tests from the fifties or lame internet tests. Maybe C varies too strongly with time even within the same individual to be worth measuring. The point is, if an expert believes X, but you wouldn't believe X out of hand, it's more likely that there's a surprising reason for X rather than the expert is wrong.
3JoshuaZ9yThere's a high correlation between many different intelligence tests. That's the point of Spearman's g factor [\]), and why the US army uses things like the ASVAB [].
4buybuydandavis9yCould you describe a specific set of hypothetical evidence that you would consider robust?
-1MTGandP9yYou'd have to have some sort of test that correlates highly with general intelligence—that is, people who score highly on the test also score highly on many different intelligence-based tasks. To create a really good test, you'd have to have a really good definition of intelligence, and not everyone agrees on a single definition. In short, I can't describe a specific set of hypothetical evidence because doing so requires having a sturdy definition of intelligence, which I don't have.
8buybuydandavis9yThat's what I'm getting at. Your rejection of racial differences seemed to be unfalsifiable, so I kept on asking for you to identify some hypothetical evidence where you would accept that there are differences. You had previously said Now you say that you don't have a sturdy definition of intelligence. It seems like a cop out. If intelligence is too ineffable to be measured, then any comparison between groups is meaningless, whether equal, less than, or greater than, and you should equally reject any of these propositions as meaningless. Are you equally reticent to say that groups have equal intelligence?
0MTGandP9yI don't have to have a sturdy definition of intelligence to know that IQ is not intelligence, in much the same way that I know that the capacity to identify paperclips is not intelligence. I don't know enough about psychometrics to adequately define intelligence in a way that can be measured. I do believe that there exists some sturdy definition that can be measured and adequately reflects most people's intuitions of what "intelligence" means, but I do not know what that definition is.
6drethelin9yWhether or not IQ is intelligence however you define it, you have to explain why it has such strong correlation with success.
0MTGandP9yWhat do you mean by success?
4drethelin9y []
0MTGandP9yThat's strong evidence that IQ is correlated with intelligence, yes. Does that mean that IQ is intelligence? Not necessarily.
8Emile9yYep, that's the case for modern IQ tests.
2Eugine_Nier9yIt seems like you may be privileging the hypothesis [] that the cause are non-genetic.
6wedrifid9yAnd also priveleging the hypothesis that the distribution of the trait we call 'intelligence' happened to develop exactly in proportion among the various spatially isolated populations while most other traits diverged.
0MTGandP9yI don't necessarily believe that all races are equally intelligent. I just don't think we have enough evidence to say either way.