Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 93

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Are informal fallacies useful or not?

What is a meaningful life, anyway?

How consciousness works, and why we believe in ghosts. Okay, I’m sold!

The cultish pseudoscience of “clean eating.”

Atheists clearly have an image problem. Even among themselves.

Anger & hatred can make us feel happy, study says. Yeah, but so can drugs. The question is: should they?

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Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Thanks!

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Categories: Plato's Suggestions

105 replies

  1. Socratic

    “Per Massimo to Saph: From what I understand, some sociopaths can fake empathy fairly well.”

    There are always outlier cases, some outliers more common than others. Using that as a standard for understanding normative judgment is slightly more realistic than the thought experiments Sam Harris comes up with to say there are situations where torture is justified.

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  2. Saphsin,

    “Selfish emotions are much easier to manipulate”

    You keep contrasting empathy with selfishness, while none of the authors critical of empathy do that. The contrast is with sympathy, i.e., the reasoned version of empathy.

    “So is empathy to a certain extent, though in real life circumstances, I don’t think it’s as common”

    I beg to disagree. The US started a war against Iraq (the first one) after people’s empathy had been shrewdly manipulated by propaganda talking about Iraqi soldiers throwing babies off incubators and on the floor of hospitals in Kuwait. Which never happened.

    Moreover, the empirical fact is that empathy doesn’t scale up (fortunately). I can (and should) be empathic toward the homeless guy next door. But I simply cannot be empathic toward the displacement and poverty of millions of people in Syria or Sudan. That’s where sympathy — empathy mediated by reason — comes in. Sympathy makes sense of big numbers, empathy can’t.

    Synred,

    “haven’t seen any study where they react to unfairness to others.”

    That has been done too, by Frans de Waal among others. I believe one of our weekly readings suggestions was about this not long ago, but I don’t have time right now to look up studies.

    “I doubt the people in Houston taking out their boats to rescue the neighbors and strangers are thinking about it rationally or whether their having too much empathy”

    First, nobody is saying that we should not have empathy. Only that we shouldn’t rely on it for large societal decisions. Second, a lot of first responders actually work hard to suppress their empathy, precisely because it gets in the way of their ability to do their job, for instance through proper triage. I know doctors in ER environments who do that, as well as people who work for disaster relief agencies.

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  3. Massimo

    You know about the Iraqi people, it’s funny that once you start talking about casualties from US bombing or inflicted torture camps, many people no longer act empathetic anymore. I think it’s a lot of talk and self-deception.

    Also I never said empathy couldn’t be manipulated, and the example you gave may be one of those cases (especially when it comes to Foreign Policy propaganda, people lack so much knowledge and totally clueless in their judgment and easily manipulatable. I see that much less with empathy for domestic poverty & discrimination for instance.) I’m just saying that in many real life circumstances, they more commonly serve as counter to selfish impulses than vulnerability to irrationality, it’s not the only guideline and certainly far from perfect. I agree with much of your last comment and still consider it mostly consistent with what I mentioned in the conversation with Eric Schwitzgebel.

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  4. Also just from personal experience, I’m not saying there weren’t people who were motivated by empathy, but I think they’re mostly just false justifications and people weren’t really motivated by empathy. I talk to war crazy liberals & conservatives all the time and they use those moral justifications for why need to keep military bases here and there or intervene and it’s transparent they don’t feel anything. You can spin a moral justification for anything as if you really cared about the people you’re affecting and the hollowness is apparent.

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  5. Speaking of Houston, per Cousin Arthur, since that’s in my corner of the world, Harvey, still a tropical depression, is expected to have a DEAD HIT with the storm center on Houston Wednesday afternoon. https://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2017/08/houston-vs-harvey.html

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  6. Massimo

    One last thing:

    “First, nobody is saying that we should not have empathy. Only that we shouldn’t rely on it for large societal decisions. Second, a lot of first responders actually work hard to suppress their empathy, precisely because it gets in the way of their ability to do their job, for instance through proper triage. I know doctors in ER environments who do that, as well as people who work for disaster relief agencies.”

    I find this clarifying and helpful, thanks for this. I’ll look into it and consider how it relates to what I said before.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Massimo,

    Before the conversation closes, I was looking for an answer to one point on the whole Graziano thing. If you want to save it for the conversation on Jesse Prinz’s attention stuff, then fair enough.

    That point is that without a functionalist interpretation, Graziano’s argument would seem to be empty. As you said yourself, attention is impossible on your view without consciousness. If so, how can attention explain consciousness? Isn’t this a circular argument?

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  8. DM,

    Prinz certainly doesn’t think it’s a circular argument, so let’s wait until I get to his paper…

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  9. Only that we shouldn’t rely on it [empathy] for large societal decisions

    Huh? It certainly should contribute! Resource being limited some triage is needed..you can only help those who can be helped and to help the hopeless cases does damage to those who can be helped.

    Yes, even empathy has to be tempered by rationality…but it seems to me it should compose a major component of public policy and individual behavior.

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  10. attention is impossible on your view without consciousness

    A rather simple computer program that nobody would all AI (well may be Coel) can be designed to ‘pay attention’

    Say a roomba:

    if(dirt collected/length > x in last move) then
    repeat path last path;
    endif;

    I don’t know if a roomba is that ‘smart’, but it easily could be.

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  11. Cousin — empathy has to be tempered to avoid burnout. In the psychiatric / psychological / sociological world, it’s a biggie.

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  12. Hi Arthur,

    Say a roomba:

    Right. So on my view, a roomba could be deemed to be paying attention to its environment. It is not conscious because it is not paying attention to its own internal states and constructing a model of its own thinking processes. If it did, I would regard it to be somewhere on the consciousness spectrum, though presumably nowhere near human beings.

    Of course, what Massimo is saying is just that this is wrong — that the roomba is not paying attention to anything because attention requires consciousness.

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  13. Socratic,

    “empathy has to be tempered to avoid burnout.”

    Like not looking at bright light, or hearing loud music too much. It’s just the nature of being finite. Staying local in a world that loves excess is going against the crowd, though.

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  14. Synred,

    “Yes, even empathy has to be tempered by rationality…but it seems to me it should compose a major component of public policy and individual behavior.”

    But when empathy is moderated by reason it becomes indistinguishable from sympathy:

    Empathy = “the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself”

    Sympathy = “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

    (btw, as I point out in my post on How to Be a Stoic, the current usage is actually the reverse of the etymology; i.e., originally sympathy meant empathy and vice versa, which surely confuses things!)

    DM,

    “Of course, what Massimo is saying is just that this is wrong — that the roomba is not paying attention to anything because attention requires consciousness”

    No, Massimo is not saying that at all, since we have clear evidence of unconscious attention. As I said, let’s talk about it when my post on Prinz comes out.

    Liked by 1 person

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