Ruth Chang: How to make hard choices

Speaker

Ruth Chang is a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. She is known for her research on the incommensurability of values and on practical reason and normativity.

Summary

Ruth discusses how to make hard choices – between 2 jobs or partners, or whether to have children. In an easy choice one is better than the other. In a hard choice each choice has better qualities, but neither is clearly better. We think of them as big choices, but the same dilemma can happen when choosing breakfast – do you want healthy food or tasty food? By realising that even these small choices are hard, we can make the big ones easier: if I managed to eat breakfast I should be able to choose a new job. We also shouldn’t think of ourselves as stupid for being unable to pick a best option – they may genuinely be equally good options.

When choosing between being a philosopher and a lawyer Ruth tried writing the pros and cons, agonised over her decision, wished she could see a DVD of her life after taking each option. She settled on lawyer out of fear – she didn’t think she could get a job as a philosopher, and lawyering seemed the safe route. Later she switched back, becoming a philosopher.

Looking at a hypothetical job choice between banking and artistry, you can list all the advantages of each but still be unable to choose one over the other. You can then start to imagine what it would take to make one better than the other – eg if you added an additional $500/month to the banker’s salary, is it suddenly clearly better than the artist? Not necessarily, and this may show that the 2 original options were not equal. If the original jobs were equal, then adding more salary to one should have made it clearly better.

Choices are difficult because they cannot be easily broken down into numbers. In comparing the weight of 2 suitcases, one could be heavier, lighter or equal in weight. All questions involving numbers can be broken down in this way. It is a mistake to think that these simple numerical comparisons have the same structure as the decisions between your future life. We need to make a 4th alternative – that things can be better, worse, equal, or ‘on a par’. When decisions are on a par, neither is better or worse than the other, and your lifestyle after the decision is not exactly the same, but you see both future lives as having a similar value.

We need to see hard choices as empowering. If life only consisted of easy choices, we would always pick the clearly better route. We would then be slaves to our own reason. It is the ‘on a par’ decisions where we get to create our own reasons for picking one over the other, and define who we are. We become the authors of our own lives. People who don’t exercise their own reasons on hard choices become drifters. They allow the world around them to dictate their lives – they follow the obvious rewards, punishments, and fears to define them. Ruth was drifting when she chose to be a lawyer and later regretted it.

When the ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ choices disappear, we have the power to create reasons for ourselves, and become the distinctive people we are. That is why hard choices are not a curse but a godsend.

Stephen Hawking: Questioning the universe

Speakers: Stephen Hawking – Physicist with University of Cambridge, known for the book “a brief history of time”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Hawking

Summary

Until 1920s, people thought universe was static and unchanging. We then discovered that distant galaxies were moving away from us, which suggested originally everything was extremely close before expanding, hinting at a big bang. We have made progress understanding Maxwell’s equation and general relativity to understand how the universe has evolved, but struggled to describe the initial state of the universe. Under certain conditions, general relativity allows time to behave as another dimension, removing the distinction between time and space and allowing the universe to spontaneously create itself from nothing. We can use probability to simulate a number of different initial states which agree with observations. In this way, we have solved the creation of the universe.

Looking at extraterrestrial life, we believe life appeared spontaneously on Earth so it should be able to appear elsewhere. Algae fossils imply that life appeared on Earth within half a billion years of it becoming possible, which is short in the earth’s history. This implies that life can form relatively easily, but on the flipside we have not seen any aliens. From searches such as SETI, we can imply that there are no civilisations of our level of development within a few hundred light years.

Looking at the future, if we are the only intelligent beings in the galaxy we should ensure we survive and continue. But we are in a dangerous phase of history – our consumption of finite resources is increasing exponentially, as is our ability to change the world for good or evil. Our genetic code still carries selfish and aggressive instincts that may steer us astray. It will be difficult to deal with these problems to survive 100 years, not to mention thousands or millions. To ensure our survival beyond a hundred years we must expand into space. Stephen was later asked if he believes we are the only civilisation in the Milky Way at our intelligence level. He responds (after 7 minutes to compose the speech, edited out of the video) that he believes this is true, we would have found them otherwise. The other possibility is that our civilisation is in a late phase, and previous races of our technology level have not lasted long before destroying themselves.

Throughout his life, Hawking has tried to answer these 3 questions. He is grateful his disability has not prevented this, and it has given him more time to answer these questions.

 

Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight

Speaker: Jill Bolte Taylor – a neuroanatomist interested in how the human brain relates to schizophrenia and severe mental illness. She is also an author, having published books on her stroke “My Stroke of Insight” and ranked by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Full Bio at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jill_Bolte_Taylor

Length: 20:11

Summary

Note this talk is an animated story of Jill’s experiences during a stroke – where one hemisphere of her brain was ‘switched off’. This summary cannot do the full talk justice – if it interests you, watch the full video.

Jill Bolte Taylor starts by trying to work out what makes her brain different from her brother’s – who is schizophrenic. She elaborates by bringing a real human brain to the stage – showing it is divided into 2 distinct halves, with minimal connection between the two. Each half functions differently:

  • Right Hemisphere is a parallel processor. It focusses on the current moment, using pictures and learns through kinaesthetic movement. It is well connected to senses to build an understanding of what is happening at the moment. It connects us with the world around it.
  • Left Hemisphere acts as a serial processor. It thinks linearly and methodically, looking at the past and future. It picks through the details of the current time – arranging and sorting these, and connecting them to the events of the past and future. It thinks in language and words. It looks as us as an individual, isolating us from the world.

Jill had a stroke which disabled the left side of her brain – waking up to a throbbing pain behind her eyes similar to ice cream headache. She used an exercise machine while on a stroke, and focussed on how strange her body looked – as if she was out of her body. She noticed that every movement was slower, laboriously focussing to execute every movement. She couldn’t work out where her body ended and the rest of the world began, thinking about the energy of the world around her. Soon her left hemisphere recovered and started to realise that she was in danger, before dropping out again. During the stroke, she was disconnected from her normal brain chatter – the stress and emotional baggage.

When she realised she was having a stroke, she decided to study her brain from the inside. She tried to read her business card, but her vision as broken to ‘pixels’ – and she couldn’t differentiate it from the background. She was having difficulty picking out objects in vision – couldn’t read the numbers, couldn’t keep track of the numbers she had dialled. When she eventually got the phone working, she couldn’t understand the other end, nor speak clearly herself. Eventually an ambulance was called, and she blacked out.

When she woke, she was alive and the stroke was over. She thought back on the stroke as a moment of Nirvana – where she felt connected to the world, and that her spirit was larger than her body. She started to wish everyone could have that moment where their left brain switched off.

Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?

Speaker: Ken Robinson

Length: 20:03

Summary

Ken thinks that creativity is as important in education as Literacy. However, children are being taught how not to be wrong. Ken argues that being creative means that you have to be willing to be wrong, and the education system treats being wrong as the worst thing possible. In doing this, education teaches away children’s natural urge to ‘give it a go’.

All education systems globally have a ‘hierarchy’, with math and language at the top, social sciences in the middle and arts at the bottom. This is because the childhood education system was developed to satisfy the industrial revolution of the 19th century, where math and science was essential for jobs, but times have changed. While once people just needed school for a good job, then a bachelor degree, and now that alone is no guarantee for a job. Degrees have had a form of inflation over time, and this shows it is shifting too quickly. Having children go to school just to attend university is not really equipping them to work any more.

We know 3 things about intelligence

  • It is diverse – we think in many ways – visually, in sound, movement, abstract
  • it is dynamic – original ideas come about from the interaction of many different ways of seeing things.
  • it is distinct – people have their way of doing things – Ken’s example is a ‘problem student’ who couldn’t sit still at school, but when moved to a dance school fit in fine – she needed to move to think. Her dance skills went on to give her immense fame and fortune, bringing value to millions of people. In modern times, she would probably have been given ADHD medication and been put told to calm down.

We need to redefine our education system – our current way is one of ‘strip mining’ our children for the most desired properties, in the same way we mined the Earth for ore. We now need to use our imaginations and creativity wisely, to face an uncertain and problematic future. We may not see this future, but need to equip our children to conquer it.

Alex Wissner-Gross: A new equation for intelligence

Speaker: Alex Wissner-Gross

Length: 11:48

Summary

“The question of whether machines can think is about as relevant as the question of whether submarines can swim” – Computer scientist Djikstra criticising early computer scientists obsessions with machines ‘thinking’.

Alex looked at developing a universal equation of intelligence. Many of the recent intelligent computer programs made actions to maximise future options – not to be ‘trapped’.

His equation is  F = T ∇ Sτ

  • F is Force of intelligence
  • T is strength to maintain future actions
  • With diversity of future options S over time horizon τ

Universes with more entropy are more conducive to intelligence. Alex discussed Entropica, a program that seems to make it’s own goals by maximising long term entropy. This naturally allows it to balance a pole upright, tool use, social networking, play the stock market – even without being instructed to do so. All these inherently human traits can be encouraged by this one equation.

From this experiment, the following conclusions can be drawn

  • The ability to take control of our universe is not a result of intelligence, but a requirement for intelligence.
  • Goal seeking is important to maximise future actions, even at the cost of today’s action
  • Intelligence is a physical process that maximises future freedom, and resists future confinement

A fascinating talk, with important implications in philosophy of intelligence and computer science in addition to the fields mentioned during the experiments. Strongly recommended.