Links for October
A day late!
First some business:
I’m working on a new Church of Reality piece on Barbara McClintock, but struggling to find primary sources. All I’ve got so far is her Nobel acceptance lecture. Pointers appreciated—otherwise I’ll be relying heavily on her biography by Evelyn Fox Keller.
I published my first attempt at fiction, which was polarizing—it generated a handful of unsubscribes, but also lots of likes and positive comments on Reddit. Not sure what to make of that.
That’s all. Thanks for being here!
A drug for Parkinson’s, anxiety, and other illnesses is causing extreme personality changes in patients. This includes erratic, even criminal behavior—apparently due to reduced impulse control—as well as positive changes like enhanced creativity.
This article from The American Scholar paints a fascinating portrait of the changes that occurred in one patient, and raises some fascinating questions about moral agency and free will.
Do Mice Dream of Electric Sheep?
An article from The Atlantic describes a study on dreaming in animals. The authors managed to show that a mouse’s eye movements in REM correspond to neurological signals associated with navigation. The authors contend that this means mice are dreaming in the same sense that humans are—visually hallucinating and interacting with a 3D scene. Other scientists are skeptical.
I find the debate interesting, because it reflects some debates I’ve had recently about fundamental limits on our ability to know how other organisms perceive the world. I think this study comes about as close as possible to proving that mice do indeed hallucinate a dream world; I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that there are still skeptics. I can’t imagine what evidence would convince them.
Related: I wrote an article on the likelihood we will create AI that can feel pain without recognizing or accepting that fact.
Gallup runs worldwide surveys on happiness. The summary of their 2021 survey shows that things kind of suck in Afghanistan and Lebanon right now. I plan on using this information to guide the donations I’ll make at the end of the year—I hope the EA movement is listening.
(I can’t imagine the work that must go into Gallup’s methodologies. How do you collect an unbiased sample of people in a third world country? How do you build surveys that are comparable across languages and cultures? So many questions.)
Matthew Whiteley has written a great defense of metaphor and myth as modes of knowledge, and their ability to capture truth. A few choice quotes:
Arguments everywhere are mired in basic linguistic category errors about firstly how we relate the construct of our minds to our bodies and secondly how we use words as metaphors.
To say ‘time is a river’ opens a doorway into numerous, maybe unending perspectives on the concept of time, but to literalise it is to empty it of any meaning at all…The metaphor is unassailable in a conclusive way, it can be returned to for truth again and again, but it can’t be reduced to another form of language.
There are two enormous problems here. The first is that whatever reality is, it…can never be ‘reduced’ to a set of literal statements containing words as objective...symbols. And secondly literal statements cannot connect meaning and morality in a way that does not make the leap arbitrary.
CNN did a fantastic report on the kind of spiritual trauma that armageddon-obsessed religions can cause. I grew up vanilla-Catholic and still struggle to set aside the notion of an eternal hell. I can’t imagine what former evangelicals must feel.