Chad Perrin: SOB

18 September 2009

Animal Metacognition

Filed under: Cognition,Liberty — apotheon @ 10:46

The Wall Street Journal featured the article, Among Dolphins, Tool-Using Handymen Are Women. Its subheadline reads:

In a Sign of Animal Ingenuity, the Marine Mammals — and One Cross-Dresser — Are Seen Making Hunting Implements

The facts presented in the article seemed to strongly imply that we should rethink the notion that dolphins are “mere” animals. They certainly seem to address the question of whether dolphins are capable of abstract reasoning, which is a characteristic of humans in the general case that helps to distinguish us from most of the rest of the animal kingdom at least. My criteria for whether we should treat some creature (humanoid or otherwise) as having ethical significance, of being considered to have rights per se, are somewhat different from the usual “Is it intelligent?” question that probably comes to most people’s minds, however.

I would limit such consideration to those beings capable not just of abstract reasoning, but of ethical reasoning. If they cannot reason about right and wrong, they have no more ethical significance than a pet. Surely, we should not be cruel to our pets, but that doesn’t mean that killing one is worthy of the appellation “murder”. A fair number of humans don’t even meet such criteria for ethical significance, though, as an accident of birth or later acquired defect, thus making mine an unpopular set of criteria.

A while back, I remember an occasion where a friend and I debated the matter of whether any animals might meet the criteria of ethical significance. Considering I have a stricter set of criteria for ethical significance than most, it might seem surprising that in this discussion I was the one suggesting that a nonhuman species has shown strong evidence of such ethical significance. In particular, I argued that while dogs (for instance) have only shown, first, signs of evolutionary development of pack behaviors, and second, that they are trainable, dolphins have exhibited behaviors that seem strongly indicative of making decisions on ethical grounds.

The friend — I’ll call him “Justin” for purposes of this discussion, since he isn’t online often enough for me to ask his permission to “out” him as the other party in the discussion — disagreed that any observed dolphin behavior really provided a convincing case for ethical reasoning. It was a long time ago, so I don’t really recall for sure, but I think Justin may have disagreed with me on the subject of what constitutes ethical significance, too; I think he found it strange that I’d exempt a sufficiently mentally limited (but still nominally functional) human from ethical significance.

The kinds of behaviors to which I referred in my arguments included acts of obvious, wanton cruelty, and apparent vindictiveness, neither of which really seemed to derive from any evolutionary benefit other than perhaps intelligence. That alone is not enough, however. Coupled with that was the fact that many cases of dolphins choosing to risk themselves to preserve the life of a human, particularly a child, have been documented. They have also been known to disagree on such matters, just as humans do on whether dolphins should be preserved from the dangers of tuna nets. Alas, I don’t have any links for such instances right now, in part because I haven’t found the earlier online discussions I’ve had on this subject.

All of this came to mind today when I stumbled across an article in Science Daily, Evidence Points To Conscious ‘Metacognition’ In Some Nonhuman Animals. The term “metacognition” refers to not just abstract reasoning, but reasoning so abstract that it encompasses reasoning about the act of reasoning. From the article:

[J. David] Smith recounts the original animal-metacognition experiment with Natua the dolphin. “When uncertain, the dolphin clearly hesitated and wavered between his two possible responses,” he says, “but when certain, he swam toward his chosen response so fast that his bow wave would soak the researchers’ electronic switches.

This description of a dolphin’s behavior shows some sign that it was considering the relevance and trustworthiness of its own thoughts in determining a correct answer. I recognize that behavior in myself from time to time, such as when I’m driving and pull up to a stoplight, considering whether I should get in the turn lane at this intersection or go straight and turn at the next intersection when my destination is further down a parallel street. As long as I don’t have another car behind me that I would hold up unnecessarily, I might let off the accelerator and coast forward, giving me more time to decide on a course of action, and find myself questioning my own reasoning.

Smith explains that metacognition is a sophisticated human capacity linked to hierarchical structure in the mind (because the metacognitive executive control processes oversee lower-level cognition), to self-awareness (because uncertainty and doubt feel so personal and subjective) and to declarative consciousness (because humans are conscious of their states of knowing and can declare them to others).

Doctor Smith understates the importance of this kind of research:

In fact, he concludes, “Metacognition rivals language and tool use in its potential to establish important continuities or discontinuities between human and animal minds.”

It is much more important than that, at least for me, because it draws much closer to definitively proving a case for calling the unnecessary killing of a dolphin “murder”, rather than simply an unjustified act of callousness.

In somewhat unrelated news, it seems that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor may be showing evidence of ethical reasoning, too! I find this even more surprising. I had initially thought her merely well-trained by societal pressures. Of course, it’s still possible this is just a particularly extreme form of far-leftist trained behavior, but it’s still encouraging.

(Thanks to medullaoblongata for pointing out the Sotomayor article, and to a long-ago Chipping the Web for the tool-using dolphins article.)


  1. I think we’re going to find that there are a lot of shades of gray between having and not having metacognition. We’ll also have to get used to the fact that we kill and eat other beings that have some form of consciousness (plant or animal) — we can’t live on inanimate matter alone, and besides, even the distinction between animate and inanimate gets pretty fuzzy. For all we know, even rocks may have some form of consciousness — and the notion that our form is superior and therefore more worthy of preservation certainly doesn’t hold any absolute weight.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 18 September 2009 @ 01:21

  2. Lacking an alternate set of criteria for judging ethical significance, I stand by mine. I don’t really find much value in the “we don’t know for sure, so we can’t know for sure, so everything’s equally meaningless” line of thought.

    Comment by apotheon — 18 September 2009 @ 03:06

  3. I guess I don’t see a value in “value” here.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 18 September 2009 @ 03:31

  4. I wish to lead an ethical life. To do so, I must have some notion of what’s “ethical”. Toward that end, I engage in ethical reasoning.

    Looking for excuses to take a postmodernist approach to ethics — basically saying there’s no meaning to anything because proof is difficult to identify — undermines that effort. I instead choose to identify the questions that are great fodder for idle pontification, but essentially meaningless for purposes of reasoning about ethics, and save them for idle pontification. Questions that have something more concrete to offer to a logical analysis of ethics get a more serious treatment.

    The first meaningless (within the context of ethical reasoning) question I ignore when deriving ethical principles from initial axioms is that of solipsism. After all, solipsism is an interesting subject for debate, but until it’s a question we can definitively answer I still need to know whether I’m a bad person if I choose to eat a chicken pesto sandwich, so for purposes of pragmatic ethical reasoning I ignore it.

    Comment by apotheon — 18 September 2009 @ 05:03

  5. I guess I just don’t worry about the ethics of eating my fellow creatures. I do it, and if they have a problem with it then let them see if they can find a higher authority to whom to appeal. I don’t eat dolphin because I like dolphins, but the definition of “like” might change if I were starving.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 18 September 2009 @ 05:38

  6. Peter Singer has some interesting “food for thought” on this topic. His basic argument uses the intelligence as a determining factor. In a nutshell, he follows the logic like so:

    1. We do not eat people because they are intelligent.
    2. Pigs are smart; some are as smart as an infant or a severely mentally handicapped adult.
    3. We do not eat infants or mentally handicapped people.
    4. Therefore, we should not eat pigs.

    My response to my professor was, that in Singer’s viewpoint, eating pigs would be fine, so long as we were ethically OK with eating infants and mentally handicapped adults, too. I may note, the professor concurred.

    I have come to learn that there are some topics that, for the sake of being able to move on with my life, I had to stop worrying about them, and make a decision on non-logical grounds. The fact is, there are topics which have been argued about for literally thousands of years, with successive waves of “accepted thinking” which are later overturned for good reasons. No one can “prove” anything in certain realms of thought, or at least, they have not been able to prove anything at a level approaching scientific rigor for 2,000 – 3,000 years.

    I can get myself wrapped up in worrying about some things until the cows come home and I am blue in the face (there’s a potent mixture of metaphors). But that leads to “analysis paralysis”. Ethically speaking, if I have a choice between doing A and not doing A, and I think that doing A might be ethically wrong, but I need further investigation, then it would be unethical for me to do A until I can prove that it is OK. After all, doing something that I know could be wrong be definitely be wrong retroactively once I know for sure, so to “hedge my bets” I shouldn’t do it. But there are so many questions of right and wrong in the world, that I would effectively be unable to do much of anything like this!

    Or, I can choose to grit my teeth, accept the idea that some things I may choose to do will be wrong, and move on.

    Going vegan is one of those things. I have periodic moments where I regret eating meat. Part of me has always been uncomfortable with it. Cows are innocent creatures, hardly offensive. Ditto for pigs; heck, some pigs are even kind of nice, to the point where people keep them as pets. Same for fish, chickens, etc. I never understood how someone can eat fish but not cows, or eat eggs but not chickens. To me, you either go “whole hog” with eating meat or fully vegan. I used to date a girl who would wear leather but not eat meat, basically under the premise that cows get killed for their meat and the leather is a side effect of that, so if others are going to eat meat, she might as well wear leather. I do not think that anyone can put together a bulletproof arguement for why others should not eat meat, other than health-related reasons. That being said, I’ve heard plenty of people give some good reasons why they choose to not eat meat (other than health-related reasons), all of which boil down to “personal opinion” and “emotions”.

    And that’s just how these things are. So my recommendation to you, is to do what you “feel comfortable” with (even though I know that you as a person feel most comfortable when you can prove that what you are doing is the right thing), and move on. Because you know what? You can spend dozens or hundreds of hours of your life worrying about this, reading scientific studies, poring over essays from learned writers, etc. Or you can spend that time really doing something good for yourself or for others, whatever it may be.


    Comment by Justin James — 19 September 2009 @ 07:33

  7. RE: “hedging your bets” — that’s what some of the early rabbis promoted. “Let us build a hedge around the Torah”, they said — which resulted in the severely legalistic ideas of the Pharisees which provided so much fun for Jesus’s snarky hole-punching.

    I used to be very hard on myself in many areas. I still am in some, but I’ve l;earned to give myself a break in most. We aren’t perfect, we never will be, and we need to get comfortable with that.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 19 September 2009 @ 08:14

  8. 1. We do not eat people because they are intelligent. 2. Pigs are smart; some are as smart as an infant or a severely mentally handicapped adult. 3. We do not eat infants or mentally handicapped people. 4. Therefore, we should not eat pigs.

    The conclusions for this are drawn from a false premise, are they not? It seems to me they are.

    Also, I don’t eat people because disease is easily transferable within the species then without. That’s pretty much my only reason (aside from the legality).

    Comment by Joseph A Nagy Jr — 19 September 2009 @ 08:27

  9. Yeah, Joseph. And I don’t think that cannibalism is illegal because of any reasoning about intelligence. Evolutionary pressure (the diseases you mentioned) have bred a detestation of cannibalism into our biology — that’s why we think it’s wrong, because it “feels” wrong. Many other species have come to the same “conclusion”. And I think the main reason why we think that eating dolphins is wrong doesn’t have so much to do with intelligence per se as it does with our perception that they’re “like us” — and therefore eating them would be similar in feeling to cannibalism.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 19 September 2009 @ 08:52

  10. “The conclusions for this are drawn from a false premise, are they not? It seems to me they are.”

    He spends a lot of time in his essay building up that premise. I gave a four bullet point summary of a lengthy item. I wish I could remember the name of the essay. Unfortunately, it was provided by our professor as a handout, so I do not have it on my bookshelf any more. I beleive that there was more to that initial, “why we don’t eat babies” argument as well, like the fact that infants cannot defend themselves. Basically, he equated children to animals, and says, “we don’t eat children, animals are equivalent to children, we shouldn’t eat animals”. The big issue with his thesis is really that if we just start eating children, eating animals becomes OK too, and that’s a road few people really want to be arguing in favor of. Again, totally unprovable why should shouldn’t eat children, other than the “yuck factor” which is hardly going to meet the level of proof some folks demand in these kinds of discussions. :)


    Comment by Justin James — 19 September 2009 @ 08:53

  11. The “yuck factor” is precisely the case, in my view. And that “yuck factor” comes from evolutionary pressure. Our species survives better when we don’t eat babies, or other members of our own species. Kindness to others is an extension of that same motivation. Love, on the other hand, is some of that mixed with a lot of desire to satisfy one’s own appetites — no wonder it’s so confusing.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 19 September 2009 @ 09:09

  12. I don’t actually have an ethical problem with eating humans — as long as you’re not killing humans for meat. You may notice, in fact, that not once in the original SOB essay did I say anything about eating. Do a text search of the page, starting at the top; the first time the word “eat” is used is in Sterling’s comment, and I don’t even use it until my off-hand mention of a chicken pesto sandwich (because I had actually eaten one that day).

    The ethical dilemma is about killing something — not eating it once it’s dead.

    I’ll eat pig meat because I have no evidence suggesting that pigs qualify as ethically significant beings. I do have such evidence regarding dolphins, and some non-human primates seem potentially possessed of similar characteristics. It’s not particularly related to being “like humans”, considering how many humans there are that don’t betray much capacity for even metacognition, let alone ethical reasoning.

    I don’t second-guess my eating habits on a daily basis because of this matter, either. I’m not paralyzed by indecision. I’m more indecisive about whether to turn left at this intersection or the next, sometimes, than I am about what foods to eat. Potbellied pigs can be taught tricks fairly well, and might even be able to figure out how to open a locked cabinet to get at the pig feed inside for all I care, but if they don’t show any capacity for ethical reasoning (or even metacognition) they’re still “animal” rather than “person” in the sense of ethical significance, in my book. Bacon will continue to be yummy as long as that’s the case, especially if it comes from wild boar.

    It’s not just about intelligence. See above. It’s about levels of abstraction in cognition, which is certainly enabled by intelligence, but not synonymous with it.

    . . . and it’s essentially a decided subject, a decision that came about as a side-effect of reasoning about ethics in general.

    I’m constantly frustrated by the unwillingness of humans to try to do the right thing in life. Refusing to think about what is the right thing, then taking action based on some unexamined assumptions, is not trying to do the right thing; it’s trying to convince oneself that what one feels like doing is the right thing so that further thought isn’t necessary to avoid feeling guilty. Assuaging one’s own guilt has nothing at all to do with living an ethical life much of the time, and often leads to terrible atrocities being committed, falsely in the name of doing good.

    In short, I fucking hate that people vote based on an attempt to convince themselves that some pissant knee-jerk reaction is an act of goodness so they don’t have to go to the trouble of thinking. I refuse to be that person.

    This SOB entry is a combination of that ethical standard combined with a personal fascination with cognitive science.

    Comment by apotheon — 19 September 2009 @ 09:24

  13. 11.The “yuck factor” is precisely the case, in my view. And that “yuck factor” comes from evolutionary pressure.

    There are a few problems with making decisions on this basis, though:

    • It becomes difficult to determine if the “yuck factor” comes from purely evolutionary impulses, or socially instilled impulses in many cases. For example, the disdain that many people have towards Jews or blacks or Latinos… is that truly something “baked in” to their psyches? Possibly. Fear of “The Other” is a well documented phenonmenon. At the same time, not everyone has those predjudices even without the exposure to diversity, simply because of how they were raised.

    • Trying to formalize ethics (particularly when laws are involved) based on trying to determined what came about from evolutionary pressures is downright dangerous. That’s how you get to conclusions like “homosexuality is wrong” based on the “obvious fact” that if every member of the species were homosexual, the species would die out.

    • Many more, along the same lines.

    Basically, “yuck factor” is “good enough” for personal decisions, but not really good enough past that, and even then, it’s not enough. For example, I bet that only a minority of people who support gay rights would be willing to engage in gay sex. No one questions that, though. :)

    You may notice, in fact, that not once in the original SOB essay did I say anything about eating.

    Yes, well aware. I brought it up because Singer’s arguement, while it was about eating on the surface, was about the equality of animals and humans, based on issues such as intelligence, cognition, consciousness, etc.

    I’m constantly frustrated by the unwillingness of humans to try to do the right thing in life. Refusing to think about what is the right thing, then taking action based on some unexamined assumptions, is not trying to do the right thing; it’s trying to convince oneself that what one feels like doing is the right thing so that further thought isn’t necessary to avoid feeling guilty. Assuaging one’s own guilt has nothing at all to do with living an ethical life much of the time, and often leads to terrible atrocities being committed, falsely in the name of doing good.

    I could not agree more. If you haven’t, I suggest you read a book called “Influence: Science and Practice” by Robert Cialdini. It is a fascinating book about how people make decisions, and how the decision making process built into most people can be taken advantage of by marketers, salespeople, etc. One of the central ideas in the book, is the idea that people build up mental shortcuts to decision making over time. Things like “if a little of something is good, more is better” or “expensive = better” and so on. Most of the time, these shortcuts serve us well, and save us a ton of time and stress while making decisions. The problem is, they are optimized for speed, not for quality of results. For example, some predatory species have the “shortcut” of targeted the weak or sickly victims from a group, so some of the prey species developed the ability to pretend to be hurt, to sucker the predator and give the rest time to escape, and at the last moment get away themselves. The predator’s shortcut is being abused.

    In this case, I think that the shortcut that people develop, is the shortcut that “if everyone thinks this way, it must be OK” or “this is what I was taught, so it is what I will stick with”. And you know what? Overall, it actually works out pretty darned well. I know that it is a lot easier to tell my son that something is “wrong” and leave it at that, then to try to explain why it is wrong (especially since he is only 2 right now). While I encourage children to be curious, and I always try to be patient with him, I’d prefer to not have to spend dozens of hours going into in-depth proofs of why, say, shoplifting is wrong. Especially since I can’t prove it. I can give some darned good reasons why it might be wrong. But if he is anything like me, he’ll ask questions like:

    • Is stealing wrong if you have no money but need to feed your family?
    • In a Hobbesian “state of nature”, would stealing be wrong?
    • What is the fundamental difference between modern society and a Hobbesian “state of nature” that means that “might makes right” is no longer a valid moral argument, especially in light of the fact that so much of even the “civilized world” still functions on the “might makes right” principle?
    • Why is it “stealing” when I take something that I didn’t earn, but it is called a “tax” or a “fee” when the government or a bank does it (that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms there…)?
    • Is stealing truly “wrong”, or is it simply the case that society runs a lot more smoothly when people don’t steal?
    • Etc.

    Those are pretty tough questions to answer.

    Regarding the original topic, killing, well, I think most people have the mental shortcut answer of: “Killing is wrong, except in self-defense, which includes killing that you do to defend your country as a soldier in a formal military capacity in a state of war, done to other soldiers.”

    The era of artillery, and later, bombers and airplanes has forced people to expand that a bit, to allow the pilots of bomber planes and operators of Predator drones to sleep at night. Fact is, civilian casualties are now common, and often outnumber actual military deaths in many wars. Granted, the state of war itself has always caused civilian deaths, due to things like burning crops, razing towns, and such, but it is much more common now, I beleive. Some people also include the death penalty as an “ethical killing”, some don’t. And you know what? It’s a heck of a shortcut. I can think of all sorts of arguments against it (not that I beleive these arguments, just kind of throwing them out there):

    • People should all be considered equal, so even killing in self-defense puts me in the wrong.
    • A piece of land or an idea is not worth nearly as much as a person, so even killing in a state of war is wrong.
    • Some people lack conciousness, and therefore, are not truly “human”, and can be freely killed. The severely handicapped and possibly highly drug addicted may fall into this category, for example.
    • Some people voluntarily give up their rights as human being through some explicit or implicit action that they have taken (such as killing a little old lady). These people can, and maybe even should be freely killed.

    And so on and so on. So while off the top of my head, I can think of four decent (not well thought out or supported, but definitely supportable) ideas that contradict the socially instilled shortcut, is that to say the the shortcut is really bad? Maybe not. After all, think of the number of hours you’ve put into getting to your level of knowledge and understanding with the topic of ethics. It would be fairly inefficient for everyone on the planet to put that same level of time and energy into becoming able to think about these kinds of things. In some ways, it is much more efficient for people to just “go with the flow” as a few “thought leaders” slowly influence social conceptions over time. My father, for example, has been studying Plato in a small class for as long as I can remember. They’re on their second trip through the Dialogs now, and I am sure that they have been doing this for something like 10 years. An hour or more of class a week, plus the readings and such outside of class. That is a massive investment of time and energy, just to examine the works of one author! I also think that Plato is a special case, because I am convinced that his work was either satire or disguised skepticism, making pulling meaning out of it impossible. All the same, there are a million things that time could have been spent doing. He could have been volunteering at a shelter for battered women, for example.

    Indeed, given the way the average person’s mind works, it could be argued that someone who spends significant time thinking about these issues is actually an unnatural abberation! That thought has some interesting implications as well. Phillip K. Dick wrote a clever short story called “Null-O” about a group of people who act purely on reason without accounting for emotions, good for a ten minute read at the very least.


    Comment by Justin James — 19 September 2009 @ 12:58

  14. I didn’t say that the “yuck factor” is a good motivation — just that it’s the usual motivation, and often the only one in the end. Evolutionary pressure is not in itself a “good”. Neither is survival. It just happens that way. We think survival is desirable merely because those who desired survival in the past have survived, and we are their genetic heirs. Extinction might be just as “good” in the absolute sense or merely from another point of view, but you won’t hear from those who achieved it.

    I’ve read Plato, and I’m afraid that I don’t think much of his ideas. Our world-views are inverted.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 19 September 2009 @ 01:24

  15. Justin James (not the “Justin” mentioned in the SOB entry):

    In some ways, it is much more efficient for people to just “go with the flow” as a few “thought leaders” slowly influence social conceptions over time.

    That’s true if, and only if, people take the time to consider whether the argument put forward by the “thought leader” isn’t obviously full of crap.

    It’s true that we can’t all think about everything, reasoning from first principles independently on every single subject that comes up. With the important topics, though, we should at least give the leading thoughts a critical eye when we first encounter them, and again every time we encounter a new way of thinking about it that contradicts them. “Hm, this is a new idea. How does it stack up against what I’ve already accepted?” It needn’t even take up much time, if you don’t see any logical inconsistencies in one set of ideas but do in the other.

    Simply sticking to what one has already accepted because it came up first, though, can be stupid, irresponsible, or both. In the case of an ethical argument, it’s definitely irresponsible, if that particular ethical quandary bears on one’s own life at all (such as the matter of killing a dolphin). The stubborn insistence people have on ignoring new ethical arguments is one of my pet peeves.

    Indeed, given the way the average person’s mind works, it could be argued that someone who spends significant time thinking about these issues is actually an unnatural abberation!

    That doesn’t mean there’s necessarily anything wrong with it. My prescription glasses are an “unnatural aberration” too, but I don’t consider them a moral or ethical faux pas.

    Phillip K. Dick wrote a clever short story called “Null-O” about a group of people who act purely on reason without accounting for emotions, good for a ten minute read at the very least.

    I should see if that one’s in one of the anthologies I’ve been neglecting in favor of the Black Company novels.

    Comment by apotheon — 19 September 2009 @ 02:01

  16. I’ve read Plato, and I’m afraid that I don’t think much of his ideas. Our world-views are inverted.

    Yeah, that’s why I am convinced that he is satire, and if you really examine him, he is quite a Skeptic:

    • The Socrates character is great at demolishing other people’s “common wisdom” arguments, but never presents any of his own.
    • The other characters are always pointing this out, yet he never responds.
    • The few idea that are put forward are utterly rediculous and self contradictory. “The Republic”‘s ideas of “philosopher kings”, raised from birth to be so wise that they don’t want to rule, but I forced at spearpoint to be dictators? There is no way to think that someone as smart as Plato could have been taking that idea seriously, LSD hadn’t been invented yet.
    • In the “allegory of the cave”, Plato basically comes right out and says, “few can actually see the truth, and those that do are instantly blinded, and need to abandon society to do it.” In other words, “good luck with that.”
    • Plato portrays Socrates (who represents intellectualism) as a pompous butthead, more or less. If Socrates was like that in real life, it’s no surprised that the leading citizens would trump up some charges and take him to court.
    • In “The Republic”, Socrates discusses the three routes to happiness: fortune, virtue, and seeking the truth. He states that the quest for virtue makes you twice as happy as the quest for money, since it is harder to be virtuous than rich. He then states that the search for truth makes you infinitely happy. The implication? Truth is impossible to find.

    Heck, even in “The Apology”, Plato doesn’t really defend Socrates, he basically has Socrates ignore some of the charges against him, sort of admit to some of them, and offer weak arguments against the others. Ironically (in the context of this conversation), one of the charges against Socrates was that he was inventing his own gods, and Socrates said that he was just speaking with his personal daimon, which he meant to mean, “following my own conscious on matters”.

    I think nearly everyone who reads Plato is nearly offended by it. Plato does a great job at making a lot of “common wisdom” ideas look really rediculous. That is actually what I enjoy about Plato, is the many layers of depth to it. It reminds me of “Dune” or the New Testament, in that there are many different interpretations that are in there, depending on your willingness and ability to dig deep into it.


    Comment by Justin James — 19 September 2009 @ 02:03

  17. I found Plato very sympathetic to Socrates, especially in the Apology. But now I’ll have to go back and re-read them to see if I can pick up this latent sarcasm you’ve discovered.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 19 September 2009 @ 02:09

  18. By similar standards, the New Testament kinda comes off like satire as well, for that matter.

    Comment by apotheon — 19 September 2009 @ 02:11

  19. That’s true if, and only if, people take the time to consider whether the argument put forward by the “thought leader” isn’t obviously full of crap.

    Bingo. That’s the problem with the mental shortcuts, they get abused. In “Influence”, the author discusses a jewelry retailer who discovers through a mistake that marking slow-moving items up in price actually made them sell faster, because the ignorant customers (after all, how many people truly know jewelry when they buy it?) equate prive with quality. In politics, you see politicians getting people to vote for them by focusing on a fairly irrelevant issue, despite the fact that the rest of his platform actively acts against those voters’ best interests. Movie theaters know that people will see a movie starring a popular actor, even if the movie actually stinks. Unfortunately, the mind is not very good at knowing if its shortcuts will merely result in wasting $8 and 2 hours seeing “Gigli”, or if it will result is widespread slaughter and disaster by supporting Idi Amin.

    The stubborn insistence people have on ignoring new ethical arguments is one of my pet peeves.

    People definitely do not seem to be wired to be open minded. I think the reason is, is that for them to accept that they were mistaken would be to invalidate years of their history. It’s one thing to admit that you ordered the wrong dish at a restaurant, it’s another to admit that you were doing something ethically wrong for 20 years because you were raised with some bad ideas, or didn’t question the bad ideas you had. It’s been a struggle for me personally to set my pride and ego aside and consider new ideas, and that is something I have been working hard on. As I’ve heard it said, “would you rather be right or happy?” I can fight till I’m blue in the face that I am “right”, or I can consider another, better idea and be happy. :)

    I should see if that one’s in one of the anthologies I’ve been neglecting in favor of the Black Company novels.

    It’s definitely in “The Phillip K. Dick Reader” (which is where I read it). He’s one of my favorite authors. He’s not a particularly good sci-fi writer, his stuff tends to be a bit formulaic and bland. You can tell that he was fighting an editor who wanted him to stick with standard sci-fi fare, while he really wanted to get into his weird stuff. “Time Out Of Joint” is one of his first novels where he starts to really push through that editorial wall, and as a result, it’s probably his earliest book that isn’t really awful. Some stuff is starting to come onto the market now, his reall early novels that aren’t even sci-fi, and have a lot of the ideas that you see in stuff like VALIS, A Scanner Darkly, etc. As an author, he does a great job damning social norms while emphasizing the risks of straying too far from those norms.

    By similar standards, the New Testament kinda comes off like satire as well, for that matter.

    That’s the basis of Gnostic Christianity (which Phillip K. Dick talks about a lot too, oddly enough). The idea that the teachings of Jesus are meant to not be understood except for a few elites. “The Gospel of Judas” talks about this a lot, that Jesus had a special message for him, and that the “betrayal” was actually Judas doing Jesus a favor, by helping him be freed of his mortal shackles and move on to the next stage of existence. The Gnostics also beleive that the Old Testament God is actually a blind (the insistence on him being the only God), insane (the Jacon/Isaac situation, for example) demiurge, and because that demiurge is imperfect, it created an imperfect world, and that the true God sends Jesus to the Earth to try to clean up the mess (which explains the wide gap between the the OT’s vision of a wrathful God, and the NT’s vision of a God of salvation). Also of an interesting note, is the connection in ideas between Plato and Gnosticism.


    Comment by Justin James — 19 September 2009 @ 02:29

  20. New Testament as satire: “They’ve got to be kidding, right?”

    The Gnostics are even further out for me than Plato, but you’re right that they’re related. Total sublimation of ideas as ultimate knowledge and salvation. I’m the opposite — I think ideas are largely an unfortunate side-effect of our evolution.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 19 September 2009 @ 02:42

  21. The Gnostic viewpoint (like many, if not most, branches of Christianity) hinge heavily on a few scraps of text in the NT, particularly when Jesus says that he is talking in parables and few will understand his message. Then again, a lot of people forget that about 2/3rds of the NT are letters from Paul, which are, for all intents and purposes, one man’s personal opinion; they never even claim to be the word of God (in direct contract to the OT and the Gospels, which are either positioned as statements of historical fact, or prophesy direct from God), and indeed, they highlight the theocratic differences within the early Christian movement (like in Acts, when they get together to argue about whether or not Gentiles can become Christians).

    Total sublimation of ideas as ultimate knowledge and salvation.

    It’s an interesting contrast to the Rabbinic Judaic tradition (which you described well earlier), where following the letter of the law is considered much more important than the spirit. If anything, it can be considered a direct antithesis, by saying that the overt “letter of the law” is for the marks, and it’s the hidden message that is much more important. If I recall properly (and I may very well not be…), the Gnostics hark back to Kabbalistic sects, which makes sense.


    Comment by Justin James — 19 September 2009 @ 05:44

  22. And both the Gnostics and most of the Rabbinic tradition differ from the early Christian belief in the efficacy of faith that transcends any knowledge or rules. The latter became the basis for the orthodox Catholic view, as well as the later Reformation — though how they each interpreted and applied that concept differed markedly.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 20 September 2009 @ 09:24

  23. Yup. If anything, the early Christian Church was as much a reaction against the Rabbinic tradition as anything else. The whole scene where Jesus is saying that divorce is Moses’ law, not God’s law is a great example of that. Jesus was essentially a fundamentalist Jew, which is one reason why the mainstream Jews were eager to get him out of the way, he was advocating an end to their way of life. I’ve always found it interesting (wow, another Socrates/Plato comparison!) that the main legal arguement against Jesus was a claim that he personally never made, and he never really defends himself against. He never claimed to be the Son of God (from what I can tell), he always says that he is the “Son of Man”; it was his followers who hung the “Son of God” label on Jesus. he never claimed to be the King of Jews either (which is why the Romans were worried about him, they were afraid that he’d lead the Jews in rebellion), from what I can tell. I may be missing some of these claims, as they could be tied up in language that I don’t get.

    Along the faith/knowledge issue, one of the most overlooked parts of the NT, is how in Acts, after the Apostles see the vision of Jesus, that’s when they suddenly have faith. And after that, they are running around performing the same miracles as Jesus did. My interpretation of this has always been that the powers that Jesus had were granted not by his “Son of God” status, but by his faith which allowed him to act as a channel for God’s power. This jives with the “Son of Man” statements too. In my opinion, Jesus’ message is that the only difference between him and the rest of us is the strength of his faith.

    I always have wondered if, as he was dying on the cross, it was a lack of faith (“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” – Matthew 27.46, NKJV) which caused his final demise. Others have suggested that Jesus was inhabited by the spirit of Elijah, and that as he was dying, he felt that Elijah was leaving him. Another interpretation (a very Platonic one, at that) could be that his message is that God’s spirit inhabits all of us when we are born, and departs when we die, to return to be with God.

    Something that has always bothered me, is that the typical, mainstream Christian (regardless of denomination) is filled with all sorts of ideas about what “Christianity” is, when really, what they are filled with are various attempts to “fill in the blanks” of the Bible. People will create an entire ideology based on one scrap of a 500 year old translation of a 2,000 year old book that is subject to misinterpretation even by its contemporaries who spoke the same dialects natively that it was written in. Meanwhile, they ignore the overall broad picture, and are not even aware of many of the standout details.

    For me, I’m not a Christian per se, and I wasn’t raised in any kind of church. My mother had a breif Catholic kick when I was a kid, which lasted for a few years, but every time we went to church, I spent the Mass in the hallways watching my brother who wouldn’t stay quiet through the service. So I have very few preconceived notions of the contents of the Bible. Indeed, all I have done is read it, cover to cover, and only once at that. But just that experience seems to be much more than the “true beleivers” that I’ve met. It’s astounding to me, and much like Chad’s annoyance with people. :) To me, picking a religion or set of spiritual beleifs should be one of the top, say, 5 most important decisions in someone’s life. To not only cede that decision to one’s parents, but not even to read the basic source material that even your own thought leaders say you must read… that’s negligent, to put it nicely.


    Comment by Justin James — 20 September 2009 @ 10:35

  24. You may know that I majored in Biblical Literature, so I can sympathize with your disdain for those who quote the Bible without even having read all of it.

    From the NT texts we could gather that the Romans weren’t worried about Jesus at all — his enemies in the priesthood and the Pharisees trumped up that charge against him in order to get the Romans to do their dirty work. However, there is a branch of NT scholarship that believe that Jesus actually was a Zealot (a guerrilla warrior against the Romans), and that that was covered up in the NT because of the sublimation of his teachings by his followers after his death. That’s not out of the question — religious followers have been able to completely transform the character of their leader post mortem on more than one occasion (e.g., the Druse), especially if he didn’t write anything himself. But if you take the NT at face value, Jesus specifically denies being political (“my kingdom is not of this world”, “render unto Caesar”, etc.).

    The “My God, why hast thou forsaken me” is a direct quote of one of the Psalms. The gospels indicate that Jesus quoted from the OT so often that it comprised a framework for his entire thought. The reason why the onlookers thought that he was calling Elijah is because “My God” in Hebrew is “Eli”, and the name “Elijah” even means “My God Yah(weh)”.

    Re: “Son of God” — when Jesus was confronted with that claim, he again quotes the OT “You are all sons of God” — which seems to put an entirely different light on the idea. In the OT, “Son of God” can refer to angels (originally lesser gods) or more usually the King of Israel, starting with David. Calling himself “Son of God” might therefore constitute a political claim — one that is confirmed by his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. All good points in favor of the Zealot hypothesis.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 20 September 2009 @ 11:28

  25. No clue you majored in that, neat! I majored in History & Philosophy, and along the way I took a brutal course called “Christian Mysticism”. My paper for that class was “The Neo Platonism of St. Augustine’s ‘Confessions'”. I really, REALLY wish I could find that paper! But it seems to have been lost in the ether, unfortunately. It’s odd, because I have the other papers I worked on from that era still.

    It’s odd about the idea of Jesus being a rebel (or possible rebel). There seems to be some evidence for it, but at the same time, Pilus seems perfectly happy to let Jesus go. He’s like, “I don’t want to be the one ordering an execution of an innocent man” and passing the buck on to someone else (“I find no fault in this man”, if I recall), and then eventually offers up Barabbas, kind of telling the crowd, “hey, wouldn’t you rather I execute this guy instead?”

    What you say about “Son of God”, that makes sense too. I beleive that the NT lays out Jesus’ lineage (too tired to get my copy off the shelf again) at the beginning to show that he was descended from David.


    Comment by Justin James — 20 September 2009 @ 01:54

  26. Yes, it does — Matthew gives a full genealogy, and Luke states that he was descended from David (that’s the supposed reason why they had to go to Bethlehem to pay their taxes, although no other Roman or Jewish history records that event or even the governor’s name that’s mentioned).

    Comment by Chip Camden — 20 September 2009 @ 02:05

  27. Augustine definitely had Platonic leanings. He was also influenced by his earlier Manichaeism, though ostensibly he reacts against it.

    Comment by Chip Camden — 20 September 2009 @ 02:09

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