Few things are as dangerous as economists with physics envy

Scientists are supposed to reach their conclusions after doing research and weighing the evidence but, in economics, conclusions can come first, with economists supporting a thesis that fits their moral worldview.

 

A trader rubs his face while working on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange October 7, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Two questions: is it good or bad that professional athletes earn 400 times what nurses do, and is string theory a dead end? Each question goes to the heart of its discipline. Yet while you probably answered the first, you’d hold an opinion on the prospects of string theory only if you’ve studied physics. 

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Is living really better than never being born at all?

Is life worse or better than non-existence? And if it is, who is judging? Welcome to anti-natalism, a small but lively corner of philosophy. 

Affebook, Wikicommons

Is being born worth it? If you weighed life’s pleasure against the suffering and sorrow, do you end up ahead? Gustave Flaubert claimed that he would have cursed himself if he became a father, as he desired to “transmit to no one the aggravations and the disgrace of existence.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky was even more bleak in The Brothers Karamazov, writing, “I'd have let them kill me in the womb, so as not to come out into the world at all.”

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There’s No Moral Difference between a Wall and a Migrant Visa

Coercion requires justification. How can we justify the invisible walls of our visa policies?  

A mural of U.S. President Donald Trump is displayed on the side of a home on January 27, 2017 in Tijuana, Mexico. U.S. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A large portion of the world’s population lives in conditions that are hard to fathom for people in developed countries. Many of those living in extreme poverty would gladly move to the United States, the European Union or Australia if given a chance. In light of this, how should rich countries design and enforce their immigration policies?

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Your brain makes moral judgements—and it may be making mistakes

Ever heard a story that made you sick to your stomach? There is neurological wizardry at work that makes our sense of morality so visceral—and flawed.

Have you ever witnessed something that made you sick to your stomach? Have you listened to a story so evil that you felt you might faint? Humans are different from other animals because we have a mind for symbolism. This knack for metaphor complicates our lives, and that is evident at a neurological level. Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, explains that our insular cortex evolved to teach us to feel disgusted by things that would harm us: the taste of rotten fruit, the smell of infection—those triggers set off a visceral reaction (like nausea, gagging, vomiting). Gradually, our societies developed a concept of moral transgression but evolution didn't keep pace. Rather than evolve a new brain region to process moral disgust, it was (and is) funneled through the insular cortex. Our bodies can't tell the difference between moral and visceral disgust, which is why we very often mistake things that are strange to us as things that are bad or immoral. This explains why people are so judgmental about alternative lifestyles, and feel confident labelling other people's decisions as "wrong" and theirs as "right". Awareness of this misattributed impulse reaction can hopefully help us pause and think beyond our faulty wiring. Our moral instincts may be seriously flawed. Robert Sapolsky is the author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

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AI Is Evolving on Its Own. Does That Make It Dangerous?

Philosopher Daniel Dennett believes AI should never become conscious — and no, it's not because of the robopocalypse.

If consciousness is ours to give, should we give it to AI? This is the question on the mind of the very sentient Daniel Dennett. The emerging trend in AI and AGI is to humanize our robot creations: they look ever more like us, emote as we do, and even imitate our flaws through machine learning. None of this makes the AI smarter, only more marketable. Dennett suggests remembering what AIs are: tools and systems built to organize our information and streamline our societies. He has no hesitation in saying that they are slaves built for us, and we can treat them as such because they have no feelings. If we eventually understand consciousness enough to install it into a robot, it would be unwise. It won't make them more intelligent, he says, only more anxious. Daniel Dennett's most recent book is From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.

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