Monthly Archives: August 2013

Barry Schwartz, Paradox of Choice

Anyone who has ever walked down the aisles of a supermarket in the United States knows a little something of the Paradox of Choice. A multitude of options call to us from every shelf, from dozens of styles of toothbrush to varying breeds of apples. When faced with so many options, how can we come to an educated and rational decision about which is best for us? And in the end, does having all these options enable us to be happier?

In this TED talk, psychologist Barry Schwartz begins to address these questions.

One of the interesting things that he points out is that with the technologies we have today – smart phones, laptops, etc. – it is possible to always be working, or to at least always have the potential to do work. This means that we must always be making a choice between working (or, more broadly speaking, engaging with the online world), and participating in the immediate events of our life. I imagine that this is a very different state of affairs than existed 50 years ago.

Schwartz gives two negative effects that all this choice has on people: 1 – that ‘it produces paralysis, rather than liberation’, and 2 – we end up less satisfied than if we had fewer options.

The talk brings up a lot of interesting ideas, though in the end he gives very little guidance as to how to avoid the effects of the paradox of choice, other than to suggest that we might be better off if we artificially limit ourselves. Still, definitely worth a look.


Science deeply informs our cultural outlook

I’ve been slowly working my way through a dense but interesting book called Modern Science and Human Values, by William Lowrance. A snippet:

Science deeply informs our cultural outlook. Science has transmuted quite a few major cultural myths; negated many superstitions; left us living in a “dis-enchanted” world; imparted substance to a host of miasmas, humours, auras, scourges, and vital forces; recast the mind-body, nature-nurture, and othe classic mysteries; and conspicuously revealed the hand of Man where none was seen before but Fortune’s.

Thomas Nagel, The Core of ‘Mind and Cosmos’

Philosopher Thomas Nagel has a recent book called ‘Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False’. The book has apparently drawn enough criticism that he felt it was necessary to put together a short of summary of the main arguments of the book, an outline of its core ideas.

In the piece, he argues that any current attempts to describe the realms of the mind, like consciousness and subjective experience, will fall short.

There can be a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behavior that is typically associated with it, but such a description, however complete, will leave out the subjective essence of the experience – how it is from the point of view of its subject — without which it would not be a conscious experience at all.

The scientific outlook, if it aspires to a more complete understanding of nature, must expand to include theories capable of explaining the appearance in the universe of mental phenomena and the subjective points of view in which they occur – theories of a different type from any we have seen so far.

He says that the physical sciences are incapable of describing the mind’s processes, but it’s a little hard to understand what he suggests to replace them. Apparently something natural, yet not based in the physical world. That seems a little contradictory.

(via 3quarksdaily)

Robin Ince on Science Versus Wonder

Comedian and radio host Robin Ince explains how science enhances the wonder he feels towards the world and argues against the idea that “you bring in science and it ruins the magic.” He goes on to give many examples of how “all the magic that may be taken away by science is then replaced by something as wonderful.”

(via The Generalist)

Replies to Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s essay from last week on ‘scientism’ obviously stirred some pots, and there have been a couple of thoughtful replies, from both scientists and humanities scholars. For the most part, people argue that he spent too much time defending science itself (which few people recognize has a bad thing) and not enough time discussing what the limits of science are (an open and interesting question).

One reply is from philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci on his blog Rationally Speaking: Steven Pinker embraces scientism. Bad move, I think. (via 3quarksdaily). For one thing, he disagrees with Pinker’s rebranding of the word ‘scientism’ as some good thing, and instead prefers to reserve it for the circumstances when science over steps its bounds.

I have begun to think of scientism as in a sense the opposite extreme of pseudoscience: while pseudoscientific notions arise from science badly done (or non-science masquerading as science), scientism is about science overreaching (or science trying to expand into non scientific domains).

Most of the response is about how Pinker did too much to drive a wedge between science and the humanities, and not enough to bring them together. He summarizes

Pinker really wasted a good chance here. He has the intellectual stature and public visibility to nudge the debate forward in a positive direction. Instead of embracing scientism as a positive label, he should have acknowledged that some criticism of science is well founded and sorely needed. Instead of telling us again platitudes about the benefits of science (while ignoring its darker side) and chastising the humanities for not embracing it whole heartedly, he could have presented a nuanced examination of where science really is useful to the humanities and where the latter are useful to the sciences – not to mention those several areas where the two can safely ignore each other in pursuit of different goals.

And physicist Sean Carroll says that a lot of this argument is just semantics (see his post Let’s Stop Using the Word “Scientism”)

The working definition of “scientism” is “the belief that science is the right approach to use in situations where science actually isn’t the right approach at all.” Nobody actually quotes this definition, but it accurately matches how the word is used. The problem should be obvious — the areas in which science is the right approach are not universally agreed upon. So instead of having an interesting substantive discussion about a real question (“For what kinds of problems is a scientific approach the best one?”) we instead have a dopey and boring definitional one (“What does the word `scientism’ mean?”).