Edge 2008

This year's Edge question is "What have you changed your mind about?" Among the respondents is Steven Pinker, who mentions something I've said before on this blog, that evolutionary psychology as understood by its mainstream popularizers makes an assumption that no major evolutionary changes have occurred in humans in the recent past. His answer to this year's Edge question is that perhaps this assumption is false.

New results from the labs of Jonathan Pritchard, Robert Moyzis, Pardis Sabeti, and others have suggested that thousands of genes, perhaps as much as ten percent of the human genome, have been under strong recent selection, and the selection may even have accelerated during the past several thousand years. The numbers are comparable to those for maize, which has been artificially selected beyond recognition during the past few millennia.

If these results hold up, and apply to psychologically relevant brain function (as opposed to disease resistance, skin color, and digestion, which we already know have evolved in recent millennia), then the field of evolutionary psychology might have to reconsider the simplifying assumption that biological evolution was pretty much over and done with 10-000 — 50,000 years ago.

And if so, the result could be evolutionary psychology on steroids. Humans might have evolutionary adaptations not just to the conditions that prevailed for hundreds of thousands of years, but also to some of the conditions that have prevailed only for millennia or even centuries. Currently, evolutionary psychology assumes that any adaptation to post-agricultural ways of life are 100% cultural.

My personal opinion based on reading between the lines of Pinker's recent articles and interviews is that he's reluctant to say what he really believes for fear of being Summersed.

This is probably an interesting question to ask our readers:

What have you changed your mind about?

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Other interesting answers

Other interesting answers include Dawkins' on handicap theory on Taleb's, which is characteristically austrian. There's also one called "the aspiration treadmill" with good libertarian implications.

I've changed my opinion: On

I've changed my opinion:

On abortion several times.  I don't quite remember what it is currently, but I'm sure half of you disagree with it.  I used to think it was wrong, then that it was ok, then that it was wrong again, and now, I'm unsure enough to simply side with individualism and a reluctant pro-choice.

I changed my mind about the issue of deontological ethics vs. consequentialism.  Most people believe the former, but are scared of boldly stating that for fear of controversy, and so lose themselves in the utilitarian fields of the latter, where positions are harder to state and thus harder to attack.  I choose to ignore the middleman and simply hold to my first instinct.  Chop away.

Religion.  Of course I was religious, but then I decided religion was ridiculous and took comfort in science.  Then I found out science is equally problematic, and so backed off my criticism.

The truth of materialism.  A year's immersion in critical legal studies convinced me that if I wanted to be a thoroughgoing materialist I'd have to give up nearly everything I thought was true.  So I chose to believe in spooky but necessary things--Platonic ideals, the reliability of intuition, all that jazz.

Mahler.  I've really come to love the first two symphonies, despite initial antipathy.

And global warming.  Back when I first started paying attention to politics, the circle of news I took in was small and biased.  Stupid me, I yelled about how all ecological threats are myths made up by the liberal elite, or some crap.  My bad!

Don't know

Early this morning after watching 10 episodes of Dog Whisperer I thought I was going to be using Cesar Millan's approach to dog obedience, and now (after reading criticism of his approach on the web) I'm a lot less sure (though I haven't decided against his approach either). I don't actually have a dog. Yet.

But that's about all I can think of. 

I've changed my mind about

- Politics. I used to believe in some sort of egalitarian (in 'opportunity') yet extremely elitist republican model, idealizing the French's 3rd Republic. I had this clockwork vision of society using a mix of markets and state social engineering. It stemmed from ill-guided individualism, a will to free the individual from social context by mean of the state to allow him to flourish. Then I understood that with individualism came an individualistic ethic and methodology. From that point, I embraced moral philosophy and concluded that anarcho-capitalism was the only morally acceptable political system.
- Cultural/social conservatism. Like many people, I used to identify law and values. Since I think such is a bad value, I think it should be outlawed. Since I instinctively opposed the outlawing of many victimless crimes or behaviors, I figured I had to oppose the values that condemned them. When I understood right as the logical consequence of property and justice, I was free to embrace conservative values.
- Saving. I believed that since interest rate are probably artificially low and since my wages were bound to increase dramatically, there was no point for me to save money, on the contrary, I should get in debt as much as I could. While I still think this makes financial sense, I also understood that cultivating a low time preference was necessary to have the right behavior when the time to save would come, and a useful behavior in life. Therefore, I began to save aggressively, for self-improvement rather than financial purposes.

My answer

1) I no longer believe my moral intuitions say anything objective about the world. The fact that I 'feel' them deeply does not lend credence to their veracity. That fact that others 'feel' morality 180 degrees in the direction away from me does not make their beliefs false. (Biggest influence wrt this view: Micha Ghertner)

Most likely, these intuitions are evolved drives that some people share and others don't, based on how they helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. (Biggest influence wrt this explanation: Matt Ridley)

2) I am an optimist wrt liberty. Knowledge, empiricism, and science are on our side, even if moral intuitions are not. Our best days lie ahead of us (as long as various technological doomsday scenarios don't come true).

On that topic and in light

On that topic and in light of the original post, I've changed my mind on how much it matters whether moral intuitions track something objective or subjective. If you are, like me, a moral realist, you believe the intuition tracks something external, some unseen right and wrong. If you are, like you, a moral skeptic, you believe the intuition tracks something internal, some evolutionarily-forged instinct. But, external or internal, it still tracks something and it's something that people hold quite tightly, and there's no reason that people should hold it less or more tightly depending on where it comes from.

1. I used to be a hardcore

1. I used to be a hardcore right-wing Christian conservative and slowly evolved into a free-market conservative, a libertarian, and then a market anarchist. My libertarianism has been shifting leftward for some time, and I find myself annoyed by corporations, although I think limited liability is defensible on libertarian grounds.
2. I usee to be an independent fundamental Baptist and evolved into an atheist, albeit not one particularly pleased with it. I find much of religion comforting and welcoming, but the part about it being untrue is bothersome.
3. I swear I was pro-choice for a week there, but abortion is awful and wrong and vile, and I changed back.
4. I became a hardcore low-carb supporter after decades of basic apathy.
5. I was once a man for blondes, but I've come to prefer the dark hair/fair skin combination. In light of Micha's recent post, I should note I mean women only.
6. I used to think homosexuality was wrong, now I don't.
7. I used to think minorities were whiners, but now I think they have valid complaints about racism and power.

Jesus, I wouldn't even know

Jesus, I wouldn't even know where to begin describing what I've changed my mind about. If 1998 Micha encountered 2008 Micha in some totally sweet Van Damme caper, the universe would explode into a giant bowl of pasta and anti-pasta, and his Noodly-Goodness, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, would be pleased. I can only hope the differential for 2018 Micha is just as awesome.

(I realized after writing this that "caper" was the perfect word choice; fuckin A!)

Two big things

  1. Natural Rights are a fiction. Micha and my wife (separately) convinced me of this, and I now even suspect that the concept of Natural Rights may be impossible to reconcile with the assumption that humans have volition. One day I'll write a post about this, but I've been saying that for three years now...
  2. We should not have escalated Iraq in 2003. I fell for a neo-libertarian argument that "All humans desire freedom. Removing a tyrant will allow Iraqis to be free. Saddam Hussein has been judged a tyrant by international law. Americans should come to the aid of others in need." I now believe the Paulian position that "War is too costly to enter into lightly, and checks and balances should be strong enough to effectively prevent us from entering anything but the most defensive of wars." I have to admit that the main reason I flip-flopped was looking at the people who held each position (and the other positions those people simultaneously held). I still am not sure it is black and white--I will probably continue to decide to enter each war on an individual cost/benefit analysis. I find it exactly equivalent to the moral question: "My neighbor appears to be beating his wife--do I intervene with force?"

Not equivalent

My neighboor appears to threaten his wife to kill her, do I throw a handgrenade that will kill the husband, but also their 5 year old daughter ?

I'd have had no qualms with the US taking out Saddam sniper style (well except for the taxes), so to me it's not about whether intervention is justified but rather whether it is moral, knowing innocent unwilling victims, "collateral damage" are inevitable in conventional warfare.

Better shot than I

Maybe you carry your sniper rifle with you and could make the shot safely without risk of rounds going astray and hitting innocents. But all of the situations I have been in were very spur-of-the-moment with imperfect knowledge when I had to simultaneously consider my safety, the safety of those I was trying to protect, and the safety of innocents.

Messiness occurs both with individual use of force and with national use of force. I still think the situation is equivalent.

Jeeze, all this talk of

Jeeze, all this talk of abandoning natural rights because of me...I'm inclined to start defending them again. They may be a fiction, but they are a useful fiction, and can (sort of) be justified on semi-objective grounds.

I started believing in

I started believing in natural rights after reading discussions between you and John T Kennedy, so there ...

I used to think stupendous

I used to think stupendous wealth was the goal in life, but I've met a lot of very happy non-rich people who lead full lives. 

Stupendous wealth

I although thought stupendous wealth was the goal in life, but I revised it to insane wealth, and then to obscene wealth.

then to obscene

then to obscene wealth.

Ah, you mean a closet full of porn. I don't know if it's a laudable goal in life, but there is a reason I'm always smiling.

You must be a very rich man

yep

Fooling myself

I'm coming around to the idea that it's OK to fool myself. A corollary would be that I'm no worse off for being ignorant of certain truths.

(My first post on the Distributed Republic!)

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I changed my mind

I've discussed my (relatively) recent loss of faith elsewhere. There are other issues I haven't made a clear break on, but have been shifting around. I discussed that here.

I never really bought into natural rights even when I was a Christian (and a Fred Phelps style ultra-calvinist at that). I thought utilitarianism was a useful way to frame things in order to have a discussion (I didn't know there were other forms of consequentialism), but I never believed in any "utils" and thought it all horribly subjective. When I first heard of "emotivism" (I read it here, and then looked it up) I recognized that was the position I held but had not yet articulated. I was reading Der Ego (and more importantly, Gene Expression) around the same time and losing my religion and it all sort of congealed into to who I am now.