Guy Kahane’s Posts

Anybody Out There?

By Guy Kahane

These days it seems as if every couple of weeks or so we get reports about newly discovered planets that are ever more similar to Earth. The most recent discovery, planet Proxima b, is the closest planet found so far; Scientific American called it ‘the Earth next door’. Last October, an amateur group of astronomers noticed that the star KIC8462852 was flickering in an odd way, its brightness changing by up to 22 per cent, a much larger change than could be explained by any familiar cause. Some science fiction fans speculated that this might be a ‘Dyson Sphere’—signs of a super-advanced civilization desperately trying to harness energy from their sun. No convincing explanation of this effect has been found so far, and another star, called EPIC 204278916, was recently spotted exhibiting the same mysterious flicker. Then it was reported that Russian radio astronomers recorded a two-second burst of mysteriously strong radio waves coming from a sun-like star in the Hercules constellation.

We know we shouldn’t get too excited. Even if there are numerous Earth-like planets out there, they may all be lifeless. And scientists will probably eventually find perfectly natural explanations for these strange flickers and signals (the Russian report already seems to be a false alarm, caused by terrestrial interference). But still: it’s hard not to anticipate the day—perhaps in the coming few years, perhaps later in our lifetime—when strong, perhaps undeniable evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe will emerge. It sure feels as if that will be an incredibly important discovery. Arthur C. Clarke once said that “there are two possibilities: either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” But it’s not that easy to explain why.

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A Wrong Turn, A Hundred Years Ago

Just over a hundred years ago, a car took a wrong turn. It happened to stop just in front of Gavrilo Princip, a would-be assassin. Princip took out his gun and shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife from point blank range. This triggered a chain of events that would soon lead to the Great War. Millions died in the trenches, and the map of Europe was redrawn. In those few breathless minutes, history had taken a different, more sinister turn. Continue reading

A Universal Moral Code?

Might there be a universal moral code? When we look around, we everywhere find bitter and seemingly interminable moral disagreements about abortion, or euthanasia, or animal rights, or social justice, and many other issues, not to mention the vast gulfs that separate the moral outlooks of different cultures. The idea that there is a universal moral code can thus sound farfetched. Yet the Harvard psychologists Marc Hauser, and several other scientists, have recently claimed that, contrary to appearances, there really is a universal moral code, and that this scientific discovery should change the way we think about ethics (see here, and here for a longer piece by John Mikhail. Hauser’s views are spelled out at length in his book Moral Minds.). Is this really so?

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What intelligent alien life can tell us about morality

Stephen Hawking made some headlines when he recently argued that although it’s highly probable that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, it would be a grave mistake to try to actively try to establish contact with other intelligent beings. Reflection on our own history, on how European explorers dealt with technologically less advanced cultures they encountered, suggests that an encounter with technologically superior alien is likely to lead to a catastrophic outcome to us humans. So we should keep a low profile: enthusiastically sending signals to outer space (including statements by Kurt Waldheim!) is fatally foolish, and is also embarrassing, as it casts some doubt on our claim to be an intelligent life form.

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‘Happiness is not the only thing’

Over at the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert discusses some new books on the policy implications of so-called 'positive psychology'. Positive psychologists set out to use scientific methods to study, not suffering, depression and psychopatholoy, but the good things in life: what makes people happy, and what doesn't. The most remarkable set of findings of this growing body of research is that many of the things that we expect would make us happy — or unhappy — don't really, or not in the way we believe. For example, winning the lottery has a very short lasting positive effect on people's happiness levels; being seriously handicapped in a car accident only a short lasting negative effect. And above a certain level, economic growth and material wealth do not seem to have much of an effect on people's happiness or 'subjective well-being'. What are the policy implications? In one of the books discussed, Derek Bok makes suggestions that would make people on both the left and right unhappy (though probably not for very long). He concludes that relentlessly aiming at economic growth is a waste of time — but similarly that we should not worry much about growing inequality. It does not make people at the bottom of the scale unhappier, so why care about it?

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Disagreement about value or about the facts?

Both within and outside ethics, people often worry about disagreements that are purely about value. Suppose that you and I completely agree about all the empirical facts about some case, yet you think that it’s absolutely forbidden to do something and I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. It can seem hard to see how we could ever resolve our disagreement. If after I have carefully considered the case, and still see nothing wrong, what could you possibly say that would make me see things in a different light?


Things are often a bit more complicated than this. For example, even if we agree on all the empirical facts, our moral disagreement might be due to disagreement about some metaphysical matter—say, about whether a foetus is a person. Metaphysical disagreements are also extremely hard to resolve. Then there is the old point that the way we frame factual matters, or the way we interpret some empirical evidence, might itself be shaped by our values.


Anyway, this is a common worry. But when it comes to many heated disagreements about scientific or technological advances, this worry seems to me to get the situation exactly backwards.

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The Great Botox Experiment in Mood Enhancement

Suppose that the people around repeatedly smile or shake their heads. Although you may not notice it, it is very likely that soon you too will begin to smile or shake your heard. And it is likely that this will affect how you feel and what you think. Or at least this is what social psychology tells us.

In one experiment that demonstrated this ‘chameleon effect’, subjects were recorded unconsciously imitating the movements of an experimenter. In another experiment, when subjects contorted their faces in a way that paralleled smiling, they felt happier. And when subjects were told to engage in tasks that required them to move their heads as if they nodding or shaking it, this affected how easy it was to persuade them of something—it was easier to persuade them if they were nodding their head, harder if they were shaking it! (though only if the argument was good—see here for details.) What’s all this got to do with botox?

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The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

Studies of the content of dreams confirm what most of us already suspect: dreams are more likely to be nasty than pleasant, or as the researchers put it, “negative dream contents are more frequent than corresponding positive dream contents”. A recent study reports that threatening experiences are more frequent and intense in dreams than in real life. All this is in line with the entertaining (and not implausible) ‘threat simulation theory’ of dreams, according to which the evolutionary function of dreams is to simulate threats so that our ancestors could spend their nights rehearsing attacks by enemies and predators.

So dreams have a serious negative bias. All of this might have been extremely useful back then. But an unwelcome consequence is that we spend a large portion of our life in pointless misery. Clinical depression is often understood as a disposition to obsessively accentuate the negative. It seems all of us are clinically depressed during certain hours of the night. Think of a human life and how many hours of sleep it contains. Of these, many are spent dreaming. And most of these dreams are unpleasant in different ways. If we add all this up, dreaming makes our lives significantly worse, on balance. Shouldn’t we do something about this?

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Peering into the mind and ‘new threats to privacy’

In recent studies, neuroscientists have been able to use brain imaging to reliably predict inner states such as lying or intention. In a groundbreaking study published in a recent issue of Nature (and briefly summarised here, here and here), Kay and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to make predictions about what subjects were seeing. Using a complex mathematical model based on decades of research into the human visual cortex, measured brain activity to estimate which grayscale natural image the subject was seeing at a given point in time. This goes beyond prior attempts at ‘brain reading’ in that the analysis did not merely use simple artificial stimuli or generic statistical signal-processing methods to identify neural patterns but employed data about the early stages of visual processing to develop a model that was then able to accurately predict which of a large number of novel and complex natural images was seen by the subject.

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Restoring Sensation to Amputees’ Lost Limbs

Scientists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University made two amputees ‘feel’ their lost arms by rerouting to their chest the key nerves that transfer sensations from hand to brain. After several months, stimulation to the area of the nerves would produce rich sensations experienced as if occurring in the missing limbs. Interestingly, the patients could still distinguish between sensory stimulation of chest nerves and that of the rerouted arm nerves.

For a summary, see Yahoo News

For the original paper, see PNAS paper

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