Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Knack of Faith

There are some activities that seem to require a 'knack', it isn't enough to just follow a set of instructions or to have somebody demonstrate the procedure in order to get it. Nor is there necessarily a gradual improvement via practice until mastery is achieved. More often, we will be hopelessly bad at something like this until it suddenly seems to 'click'. Think of patting your head whilst rubbing your tummy. Practice is still required if you haven't learned how to do it yet, but I don't think progress is usually linear.

I wonder if perhaps faith is a knack. If so, it is one I lack even though I can see that to have faith in some circumstances can be very useful. This seems similar to the realisation that accuracy in appraising our abilities can be inversely correlated with a sense of well-being. In this context the phrase 'ignorance is bliss' is fitting, since those who are unskilled at self evaluation but unaware of it, are also less likely to be responsive to evidence that contradicts the basis of their high self esteem: namely that they think they are good at stuff.

Turning back to faith, the ability to take the Kirkegaardian leap in response to our absurd existence might be good for keeping our spirits up when life is difficult. But if the thought occurs that faith in this sense is a bit like the knack of being able to put your fingers in your ears and sing 'la la la' every time somebody is about to tell you bad news, then you might think it better not to have it.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Positive Discrimination

I think some people are against positive discrimination because they think it is incompatible with hiring people on merit. I'm not convinced that it is necessarily incompatible in a way that matters though.

Of course it is easy to think of ways in which positive discrimination would preclude a meritocratic outcome. I'm just sceptical that such thought experiments really reflect best practice in the real world.

There has been some debate recently regarding a popular uk television comedy programme called Mock the Week which has been criticised for mostly hiring all male panels. In their defense they argued that the percentage of  professional female comedians is low, so in demographic terms the percentage of women they hire is more than representative. They also said they were against positive discrimination because they believed in hiring on merit.

I think it is the last point there where a false dichotomy has crept in. In the real world it is just not the case that merit is the only criterion used and nor is it the case that assessment of merit is free from cultural bias. Instead I think it would be more useful to consider merit as a threshold criterion. That way, you can look at the pool of candidates you have who meet the threshhold and decide what other criteria to apply. If there are still sufficient numbers in your pool to choose from after all criteria have been met then it is not the case that merit has been trumped by other considerations.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Wave Machine

Wave Machine

Just getting to grips with soundcloud...

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Free Will: don't let false dichotomies lead you astray

A recent Horizon programme on the BBC in the uk considered the nature of the unconscious mind. As of the date of this post, it is still available on iPlayer. This was a very interesting account of recent evidence on our unconscious, but I found one aspect problematic. The narrator posed the question: "Are you in control of your unconscious, or is it in control of you?"

I think this is a false dichotomy. My subconscious is part of me, so if a lot of my cognition is handled by systems in my brain that are not accessible to conscious awareness that does not mean I am not in control. It is just that the majority of my control is not conscious, and that is probably just as well. The speed and efficiency of our unconsious mind is essential for our functioning in real time in a complex environment. If we had to consciously deliberate about every aspect of our behaviour, we would be overwhelmed by information, and the burden of decision making would preclude all but the simplest tasks.

I think the role of conscious control in our lives is small but important. We should not be unnerved too much if science reveals that our conscious rationalisations of our thought processes in the solution of real world problems are often inaccurate. We might just be bad at guessing the insides of our unconsious strategies, but they are still ours. I think the best way to defend our cherished notion of free will is to avoid overstating its importance in our daily lives. If we think of a small rider on a large stubborn elephant then that might help to get our measure of control in perspective, but I think it would be a mistake to identify with the rider alone rather than the elephant-rider pairing.

Perhaps some people found this programme disconcerting because they drew the inference that free will is a kind of user-illusion, that our experience of controlling what we do is just a fabrication in the service of another illusion- that of self. I think the science has been forcing a reassessment of the nature of self and free will for a while. It is now almost 30 years since Benjamin Libet did his famous experiment after all. However, even if some of our common sense ideas about consciousness and free will seem to be mistaken, I don't think science has rendered these concepts redundant so far.

Friday, February 03, 2012

The same god?

I was talking to a friend the other day who teaches young children, and she told me that one of her pupils had said that there were lots of gods. My friend corrected her, saying that we all worship the same god, but in different ways. As an atheist, I can see a sense in which this is true from my point of view, since all nothings are the same. On the other hand, if there is a god, does it make sense to say that Ganesh is the same as Allah? Perhaps this is a case of "Hesperus is Phosphorus", the sentence used to illustrate the distinction between 'sense' and 'reference' due to Frege.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

Here's a very short version of this Billy Taylor tune played by me on a Heritage semi solid guitar through a Rivera valve combo amp.