Friday, July 29, 2022


Since I don't do "light summer reading," I am reading almost nothing at the moment and am beginning to accumulate some books for potential winter reading. I have become somewhat interested in the ideas of Martin Rees in recent years, and I just listened to this interview conducted by Lex Fridman. The impression I got is that Rees is approaching death, and that he is trying to inspire young scientists in their future work. On the whole, I thought that Fridman did an acceptable job, but there were instances during which he displayed extreme naïveté. I don't think that he was the right person to extract some of Rees's better thoughts, so it seemed that the discussion got a little off track at times.

I think that astronomy is the best field for understanding human existence in the context of the universe. Because Rees is less of an egomaniac than many other public intellectuals, he tends to provide more nuanced answers and doesn't waste time on professional self-aggrandizement. For example, he recognizes that physics is much easier than biology, while physics itself is increasingly becoming less intelligible. For this reason, he is one of the first scientists I've heard who supports the use of AI in future research, because it is already evident that intractable human cognitive limitations place an upper limit on what we can understand. In this vein, I noticed recently that serotonin has been found to have less influence on depression than was previously thought, indicating that Robert Sapolsky and many other biological researchers have been getting it wrong. Many of the widely-accepted ideas of today will be refuted in the future.

The overall view that I've developed over the years is that humans are essentially sociable primates, i.e., we have evolved to cooperate more than any other primate species, while also possessing the capacity to communicate through language, and have thereby become more evolutionarily successful, mainly in the sense of having the largest population of any primate. While this situation has been beneficial in relation to other species, as time passes, the population grows and the environment deteriorates, some of the advantages of cooperative behavior have become less relevant. For example, with the increasing complexity of daily life, we unconsciously tend to attribute greater competency to political leaders, academics and intellectuals in general than they actually possess. To understand this, one need only follow the news. Because politicians have little control over short-term economic conditions, when voters blame them for poor conditions they pretend that they can fix everything. In other words, the proper actions are not necessarily taken, and the public maintains a poor understanding of economics. In the U.S., the idea that voters ever have to make sacrifices has been eradicated: when conditions become bad, they can just vote for a politician who requires nothing of them.  It's actually worse than this, because economists themselves don't necessarily understand the economic problems either. Since there is no recent precedent for a pandemic followed by inflation, most economists are winging it: this brings to light the fact that their models are never completely accurate. The lessons learned since the Great Depression may be insufficient to ward off future economic downturns.

What I am finding is that even highly-educated, scientifically-minded people often hold unfounded ideas based largely on their social backgrounds. Thus, as Rees notes in the interview, some tech entrepreneurs are following a path in which they will gradually become immortal and perhaps explore the universe at their leisure. My view is that we have not evolved to become immortal, and that we wouldn't necessarily like it if we were. I have been retired for fifteen years, which I think is an adequate amount of time to relax and pursue various interests. I don't have the slightest idea what I'd do if I were alive for another million years. In order to do so, I would have to evolve in directions which are completely unfamiliar to me, to such an extent that I wouldn't be recognizably human. In all probability, I would just be an expensive robot, and robots don't necessarily care whether or not they are alive. Conceptually, I think the key is whether you want to be a biological object or a non-biological object. To me, being non-biological would be about as exciting as becoming a clock. Our evolutionary past has prepared us to devote our resources to survival, not to understanding the universe. In any case, there is probably an upper limit on how well the universe can be understood by any being. What do you do when you reach that limit?

On a more mundane level, the issue can be seen as whether we really want to expunge the irrational animal impulses that are built into our brains, as discussed by Vinod Goel in Reason and Less. On the surface, that might be appealing to some people, and the world might indeed be a better place if it were governed more rationally. But my current thinking is that the transition to evolutionarily post-human life would require a kind of death that I would find unappealing. That is why I prefer an AI-controlled environment for the benefit of mankind to an immediate transition to post-human life. Strictly speaking, this is a subject that could in theory be studied. It is possible that species on other planets have actually made a transition to a post-human equivalent, and it may someday be feasible to study them. On the other hand, if post-human-equivalent extraterrestrials are never found, that fact itself may be indicative of something.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Thoughts on Autism

Since starting this blog, I've been avoiding discussing close relatives and my current relationship. However, I have mentioned psychiatric disorders on several occasions, primarily in the context of people in the biographies that I've read. For example, Ludwig Wittgenstein was almost certainly autistic. I thought I'd make separate comments about autism, because, from my point of view, it is an emerging topic. During the 1940's, early studies concentrated on severely impaired autistic children, and it was not until the 1990's that high-functioning autistic children came under study. Since then, in the early 2000's, high-functioning autistic adults were studied, and now the topic is broadly discussed under autism spectrum disorder, which covers all ages and a wide variety of symptoms. The main symptom is social impairment, but there are many other symptoms, such as repetitive behavior, sensitivity to loud noises, learning disabilities and special intellectual talents. The same symptoms are not necessarily present in all autistic people. It appears that autism runs in families, but that aspect does not seem to have been studied much so far.

For the record, I don't think that I'm autistic. In my family background, I had an uncle who could have been autistic, but I have no way of finding out now. As a child, he became fascinated with watches, and as an adult he became an engineer and designed and made a clock that was used on one of the NASA missions to Mars. I hardly knew him, but one of his daughters thought that he could have been autistic. I think that he may only have been an introvert, and I've noticed myself that introversion can be confused with autism, though the two are neurologically unrelated. To an undiscerning observer, it may not be apparent that an introverted person prefers to be alone, whereas autistic people may prefer to socialize but lack the skills necessary for social acceptance. There is also a certain amount of confusion about autism and intelligence. Nerdy students probably have a good chance of being autistic, but many autistic people are poor students. I've noticed that autistic people tend to socialize with each other, since it is difficult for them to develop friendships with those who are more socially adept, but they may still have different intellectual abilities within their group. Because I am intelligent and introverted, some people may have thought that I'm autistic, but I'm not.

It is relevant to me to know something about autism, because I've spent about fifty years, some of which were hardly harmonious, among autistic people. My ex-wife is probably autistic, and so is my son. My current partner is autistic, and so are some of her relatives. Her immediate family is very high-functioning. Her ex-husband graduated from Yale and Yale Law School. She graduated from Cambridge and the University of Chicago Law School. One son also attended Yale and is a software engineer. Another son has a Ph.D. in mathematics and also works in the tech industry. The two children make so much money that they probably could retire in their early forties.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been intrigued about my ex-wife's family with respect to heritable mental illness. No one ever talks about this kind of thing, so, in the course of my genealogical research, I investigated her family background. On her father's side there was no sign of mental illness. However, both her mother and an aunt exhibited psychiatric symptoms. I found that her mother's grandmother had attempted suicide at 19, became pregnant at 20, before marriage, and proceeded to have four children. Her husband was a petty criminal who died in prison at the age of 45. She was born in 1875 and disappeared in about 1909, abandoning her four children. I think that she was probably the source of later mental illness in the family, though it is also possible that her husband contributed. Looking at four generations of her descendants, a variety of autistic symptoms have occurred right up to the present. My view of my ex-wife is that she is an average-functioning autistic person who may not know that she is autistic but has always been socially inept. High-functioning autistic people can be more interesting, but the same social impairment is still apparent.

On a more general level, I have been thinking about how the human brain works and how its resources are limited. Having good social skills demands far more brainpower than you might expect, so the brain makes tradeoffs. In a stable social setting, such as a homogeneous upper-middle-class environment, the social stability may obviate the need for social skills somewhat and leave room for the development of intellectual skills that are associated with greater social prestige, better career prospects, or both. This could explain some of the success of some high-achieving autistic people. In general, the rise of the tech industry has facilitated this process. It is possible that the genes for high-achieving autistic people have always been there, but the opportunity for their expression may have been more limited in the past.

I think that the Internet and digital technology have made the environment much more autism-friendly than it was a few decades ago. However, this isn't necessarily an entirely positive development. First of all, there is no advantage for low-functioning autistic people, and, more importantly, the high-functioning autistic people like Bill Gates and Elon Musk may be exceptionally talented in some areas, permitting them to make billions of dollars, while their social ineptitude probably makes it challenging for them to foster a cohesive society. For example, Bill Gates is never going to make a moving speech. Although there may be other causes, it is probably not a coincidence that social cohesion began to erode with the rise of the tech giants. Of course, some of the tech people don't seem particularly autistic, but I think that the net effect of the new technology has been to make the environment more autism-friendly than it was in the past. One area of recent social change that could be autism-related is the rise of political correctness. Autistic people, particularly the high-functioning ones, like rules, and they are often insensitive to social subtleties. Thus, robotic people seem to be becoming the norm, and, for better or for worse, we may be witnessing the death of humor. 

Saturday, July 9, 2022


I've been watching with some interest the news coverage of the shooting in Highland Park, since I used to live there not far from the parade route (though I never went). But for the most part it's just another routine shooting: a confused young male copycat event that is becoming a frequent occurrence. The Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has been more interesting. I like it not because it is producing evidence of a crime, but because it shows how Trump was enabled by unprincipled staff members who covered for him while he was in office and are reluctant to speak publicly about it even now. It has been obvious for several years that Trump has the mentality of an opportunistic criminal, and that his election in 2016 was probably the greatest mistake in American political history. I find it amazing that to this day only two prominent Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, have spoken out against him. Although the political system in the U.K. isn't functioning well either, at least Boris Johnson's cabinet resignations are forcing him out. In addition to these events, we have the recent rulings of the United States Supreme Court, which now contains a majority of religious fanatics. It's difficult to imagine that they all attended college, given some of their ideas.

To my readers who are tired of hearing my opinions about stupidity, I can only say that stupidity is the greatest underlying problem of this era. As I've been saying, the press holds some responsibility for this, because, unless an explicit crime such as a murder occurs, they tend to be idea-neutral in a misguided attempt to behave impartially. If they had ferreted out more information about Donald Trump before the 2016 election and actively publicized it, it may have been easier for Hillary Clinton to make a better case for herself as the most competent candidate. While Trump himself may not be directly responsible for all of the chaos that arose during and after his presidency, he is at least partially responsible for the rise of right-wing extremism and has ruined the Supreme Court by appointing three conservative justices. If Ruth Bader Ginsburg had retired under Obama and Merrick Garland had been rightfully installed, the Supreme Court would not have ruled against abortion and the EPA would still have the authority to protect the environment. These errors could be corrected over the next few years, or conditions could worsen if they are followed by new ones. Because the U.S. Constitution doesn't work and Congress and the Supreme Court aren't doing anything about it, dire outcomes are possible. Biden isn't much help either, and someone else could do a better job than he has. I don't think that Kamala Harris is ready for prime time.

From my point of view, although I believe that there is strength in numbers, a partial breakup of the U.S. might possibly be an improvement. After all, Texas and Vermont were once separate republics, and the consequences were not disastrous. It isn't hard to imagine at least three republics now: West Coast, Northeast, and everything else. Perhaps the Upper Midwest could also form a republic. While I generally prefer fewer countries and governments, some conflicts could be resolved by separating regions based on intractable ideological differences. Vermont probably couldn't survive alone as a nation-state, but Vermont + New York + Connecticut + Massachusetts + New Hampshire + Maine probably could. So could California + Oregon + Washington. If Texas + Oklahoma + Arkansas + Louisiana + Tennessee + Mississippi + Alabama became a country, I wouldn't care – or visit it. There would probably be a few straggler states, but a solution to that could be reached. Under a scenario like this, the West Coast and the Northeast might have the healthiest economies and the strongest alliances with the European Union. Many parts of the U.S. would probably prefer alliances with Russia and Saudi Arabia.

In other respects, I'm having a ho-hum summer. William has again been attacked by something and was bitten. He has had a minor limp since May, and when he went in for his annual shots on June 27 he had a temperature, for which the vet gave him antibiotics. He seems to have recovered, but the limp is still slightly visible. Recently, our neighbors started to raise chickens. I think that chickens attract predators, such as coyotes, bobcats, foxes and fishers, and, to a lesser extent, bears. Unless the predators succeed with the chickens, they probably won't stick around. I'm setting up my 18" Dobsonian telescope tonight, since it should be clear and somewhat dark for two days in a row.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Popular Nonfiction May Distract from Better Ideas

Recently, I temporarily switched from reading accessible nonfiction books that are popular among educated readers to newly-published books issued by academic presses. One was from Cambridge and two were from M.I.T. As a matter of curiosity, I've been following their reception to see what kind of reactions they've evoked. Understandably, Paleolithic Europe, by Jennifer C. French, isn't attracting much attention, because it costs a lot and is specifically intended for an academic audience. However, I am surprised by the tepid response to Born Knowing, by Giorgio Vallortigara, and Reason and Less, by Vinod Goel, because they are not directed exclusively toward academic readers, aren't as expensive and include important findings in scientific research that I think have significant applications in the field of human cognition, not on a purely theoretical basis, but regarding the workings of cognitive functions that are evident in everyone's daily life. Of course, this kind of reaction is to be expected and corresponds with what I've said about the publishing industry. You won't necessarily make much money from good ideas, but you can usually make a lot of money by carefully promoting mediocre or bad ones simply by using existing commercial channels.

Born Knowing, I think, is relevant to a wide range of disciplines. At the most basic level, it shows how the neurological systems of all animals, both simple and complex, are the product of evolution, and, as such, are related primarily to survival and reproductive success and do not necessarily mirror what we might think of as objective reality. Our neurological systems mediate between us and the world. Although Vallortigara does not focus on human cognition, I think that he goes a long way toward refuting some of the ideas that are still popular among some philosophers. He seems inadvertently to be reviving Kant's concept of phenomena and noumena. In particular, I think that his findings can be construed as a refutation of Plato's Theory of Forms, and, more generally, of the objectivity of mathematics. In a way, he dovetails with Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem, and I think that this has enormous implications for what we think counts as objective knowledge. The book also makes clear that language is not necessary for rudimentary thinking, specifically in arithmetic and geometry. I would go a step further than Vallortigara and say that the reason why mathematics currently seems inadequate for solving the fundamental problems of physics could be that mathematics is an aspect of our neurological makeup and not something fundamental to nature. Organisms like us did not evolve to perform such tasks, and our neurological features may limit our capacities in that respect.

Reason and Less, for me, is valuable in a less theoretical sense, because it discusses our actual brain function. As I said in my comments about it, it provides a practical basis for critiquing public decision-making processes so as to minimize cognitive errors. I found Goel's model more useful than Daniel Kahneman's, as presented in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Goel shows how irrationality is intractably linked to rationality in the structure of the human brain, whereas Kahneman mistakenly, I think, suggests that, with the proper rewards and coaching, poor decisions can be minimized. Kahneman does not seem to recognize how cognitive dysfunction is endemic to humans, and that there is no such thing as a quick fix for this problem. In my view, Goel's model is more appropriate than Kahneman's at the policy level, because it takes into account the fact that the policymakers themselves are subject to the same kinds of errors as the people whom they are attempting to assist.

The point of this post, then, is that important findings such as those published by Vallortigara and Goel can easily become buried in the media and never get the attention that they deserve. At the same time, less significant ideas such as those put forward by Daniel Kahneman and pundits like Steven Pinker get all of the attention. Of course, there is always the chance that, over time, the better ideas of obscure academics will be promoted in academia and make their way to public consciousness. However, as the publishing system currently works, this can hardly be considered an efficient process. Thinking, Fast and Slow became a bestseller and made Kahneman a household name, while no one has heard of Vinod Goel. Similarly, Steven Pinker is one of the best-known public intellectuals in the world, while Giorgio Vallortigara remains an obscure researcher. Unsurprisingly, Kahneman published with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Pinker with Penguin. These publishers have far larger production runs than the academic presses, and their purpose is to make money, not to promote good ideas. I suppose that this is just the way that the world works and is to be expected, but I still find it annoying that there are people out there who have good ideas which never make it into public consciousness, while lesser works dominate the media year after year. It is important to keep in mind that, at any given time, the ideas promoted by leading public intellectuals may be inferior to ones that are already circulating in smaller circles.