On the Utility of the Apparently Useless (Part I)

Would you believe me if I said the object you see below made me question the decisions and priorities of my species, in not just one way but two?

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I received this geeky apparatus as a gift earlier this year. Known as a Galileo thermometer, it uses the physics of density to display the approximate temperature of the environment. That’s neat and all, and every now and then I can derive from it a sense of awe at its scientific elegance, but the question I have to ask when I observe it is this: Was it worth the investment?

No, seriously — was it at all sensible for the givers of this present, good-willed though the gesture was, to spend on it dozens of dollars they surely could have directed towards more worthy ends? I don’t need my own thermometer, and so far this device hasn’t inspired any scientific epiphanies in me or anyone else (much less done so in a way that would require its physical presence in my room). I realize this isn’t a popular or comfortable idea, especially around this time of year in the United States. Surely it’s the thought that counts. Splurging helps the economy, right? People have the right to “waste” money on things with no secondary use, after all.

I wouldn’t endorse all these notions, and although it’s trivially true that we have that right, no one ever said rights were called rights because any exercise of them is right (that is, most wise or most helpful to the altruistic goals we tend to hold in the abstract). Whether it’s possible or desirable to mold our laws into actualizing such a definition of rights is its own interesting question, but the trouble remains. The costs (financial and social) of seemingly innocuous actions like giving a gift could very well outweigh the benefits.

And yes, the worst of these futile attempts to buy happiness (which some possessions can do indirectly, to be sure — without someone buying a typewriter, Stephen King would not have found the joy of publishing his novels — but not most) surface around the holidays. The thermometer was actually a birthday present, yet when I consider the mass of Christmas possessions I’ve found no use for that could not be performed by something better, the absurdity of this system becomes all too obvious.

How exactly have we convinced ourselves that this is sane? Expecting total commercial detachment from people is unrealistic, of course, and maybe even fortunately so, but ours is hardly a happy medium. I doubt this is a phenomenon unique to my history. Perhaps a degree of trivial distraction in our lives is psychologically healthy, but if it is, I’ll need more than just the bald hypothesis to accept that this is, in fact, the case.

I’ll be on the lookout for more satisfying answers and may post about them, but for now, this is all really quite mad.

To be clear, I don’t mean by any of this questioning to merely tear down the fun of the blue pill. My suspicion, rather, is that the blue pill isn’t even as fun in the first place as the more useful options we skip over constantly. If we admit this, we just might find ways of pursuing and producing more of what we value, than that which we accept as cheap substitutes for the best the world has to offer.

If your response to this is to point to science’s curious ability to become useful when we least expect it, you’ll want to stick around for my follow-up to this, in Part II.

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Common Mistakes — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5c)

(Part XII of this series)

Recall that in Chapter 5, Locke has so far been attempting a defense of the right to property. Now, he is describing how it is both in the nature of humans to, in his terms, “cultivate” land and property from the common, and in our best interests to do so. Evidently, Locke distinguishes between two kinds of a “common.” In one sense, there is land that has not been marked as a part of any particular society’s dominion, which, therefore, there seems no apparent harm in letting people utilize at their leisure. The other sense is of property already designated the community’s common land, which an individual requires the direct consent of the society to claim for private purposes (which ideally don’t pose any threat to that society).

One major question arises at this consideration. Although the separation makes sense initially, we would do well to ask how much we actually apply such a philosophy in our manner of dealing with the land — obviously Native American tribes throughout two whole continents had their territories treated as if they were examples of the first, rather than the second, but there’s another, more modern-applicable case. Taking a “my right to extend my fist ends where your nose begins” approach is fair enough, but particularly in the realm of using natural resources wisely, it’s important not to let this principle become a caricature of itself. We mustn’t ignore the ways our fists reach to extents we can’t see merely with the naked eye.

Consider, for instance, the far-reaching effects of the Industrial Revolution. Sure, Locke didn’t live even to see this age start up, but supposing a hypothetical society abiding by his principles contemplated the beginning of the revolution ethically, how would they have dealt with this? Perhaps the most important and disturbing query is this: Would anyone have known — much less had no excuse not to know — that industrialization could have potentially hazardous implications for the lower class, child labor, and our ecological stability? Was this anything resembling a moral question for some observers of the time, or was it an error that could only manifest its ugly head in hindsight, like our past failure to save countless lives through rudimentary hygienic practices in infant delivery?

I wish these could be more than rhetorical questions at the moment. Please share your thoughts, if you’re so inclined.

As a side note, readers who are following along doubtlessly notice Locke’s affinity for justifying his claims as reflections of the will of God. While those who say they speak for God have the unfortunate habit of projecting their own desires on a being they hardly comprehend, Locke’s contentions are generally (certainly not always, as we’ve seen) difficult to reject so far, provided we translate this tactic into “a perfectly rational being with our society’s collective well-being at heart would prescribe X.”

Looking at them this way, we may engage his arguments on their own merits. Though it’s the prerogative of any given believer in infallible scripture to consult it for ethical information, he or she can only hope to shape public policy around ideas that the majority can support independent of private beliefs; in practice, most religious social activists acknowledge this.

Teach a Kid to Fish (for Truth) …

Does this look like a familiar picture to you?

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Granted, those educators guilty of this error tend to be honest enough to not claim they are teaching critical thinking, but the image’s message remains.  Evidently the artist is criticizing the educational status quo for its emphasis on teaching students to search for the “right answer,” from sources they are expected to trust unquestionably.  This is in contrast to teaching how to distinguish right answers from wrong ones using widely applicable mental skills, as is surely necessary in the sea of ambiguous information we find on the Internet (and more traditional sources as well).

I may do a more extensive post on the state of standard education in the U.S., but for now I’d like to hear your thoughts on this cartoon’s premise.  Is this a fair critique, or is there an effectiveness to the current educational system the artist is missing here? Even if you agree with it, do you think any clear, feasible alternatives present themselves?  I’m curious, because the many debates that rage on over educational structures fascinate me in their massive relevance to this blog’s focus.  Few social institutions could have greater influence over society’s well-being than the means by which new generations learn (or learn how to learn) information.

Questions on My Mind

This post will be somewhat more informal today, folks. The same reasons for last article’s delay (sheer business) have restricted my freedom to write developed theses for this blog at the moment, so for now, I’d like to stop pretending I have answers to simply raise some questions. Hopefully this will spark some thought in you and me, and even if not, consider this a preview or syllabus of the sorts of topics we may explore here in weeks to come.

1.) To what extent is the good of society dependent on our understanding of the human mind, particularly of how it can be prone to error or destructive behavior due to biases and psychopathologies? What steps can we take towards acting upon this knowledge properly?

2.) Do accusations of “political correctness” and oversensitivity carry merit, or are these labels little more than excuses not to use the power of words wisely?

3.) What are some effective and evidentially supported methods of distributing charity? Is our problem in combatting world hunger and disease one merely of quantity, or are we approaching this the wrong way entirely?

4.) What are the ethical, economic, and social implications of the impending artificial intelligence explosion (this is one you’d be better off just web searching to get the idea; I recommend Goodsearch, a search engine that gradually raises money for a charity of your choice)? As far-fetched as the idea of a sci-fi-esque robot takeover seems, is the probability that artificial intelligence might work against human interests in more subtle ways one worth taking seriously?

5.) Regardless of the more personal ethical quandaries, is there any consistent legal case that can be made for the rights of certain nonhuman animals? If so, how far do these rights extend, and how does this relate to our food industry, scientific practices, and manufacture of other animal products?

I’d be delighted if you could comment with your thoughts on any of these questions, and if you have some of your own you’d like to raise (within reason), please share them!

What’s It All About, Alfie?

I expect the name of this blog to elicit one of three reactions. The first is scoffing dismissal at its audacity: “Gee, here’s another naive kid thinking he can make a difference. What a hack! Moving on…” The second is curiosity: “Gee, I was just wondering how one might go about the massive task of saving the world. What a potentially valuable resource, my cynical doubts notwithstanding! Moving on to the actual website…”

The last is outrage at the idea that I might actually be selling snake-oil to dummies, who think reading my patented manifesto on world peace (endorsed by the Dalai Lama) could protect the Amazon rainforest.

Suffice it to say, if you fall into the first niche of people, feel free to spend your time more wisely, as I am sure your life includes priorities above reading the word-vomit of a teenager on social justice. Seriously. For those of you more gullible hopeful folk who sincerely share my goal of at least trying to make sense of this complex, imperfect world, and who figure you might as well embark on your journey of stupid idealism with a soul-buddy on the Internet, welcome!

Naturally, you will have your reservations. Really, what do I know about improving society? The most honest answer I can muster is, not much more than the average person. Yet. The first warning I can give you to make this project more worthwhile for all of us is that you ought never take this blog to be the web edition of Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save. I am not Gandhi. You will doubtless find people more valuable to the world than I am. If you feel so inclined, read my updates as if they were journal entries from the pen of a young person, aiming for nothing more or less than the expansion of his scope and depth of social consciousness.

That said, I can promise you, most patient reader who I am amazed has stayed with me this long, that in the annals of this blog you will never hear echoes of Lisa Simpson. I intend zero condescension, judgmentalism, self-righteousness, or pretension to know or do things I do not actually know or do. One virtue of this blog that I hope shines through is that it will never propose anything impractical for the majority of people with a shred of desire to make the world a better place. As one of the laziest people I know, I assure you that if, over the course of this endeavor, I find myself capable of saving a tree, then you most certainly can do so too. Chances are I will not get that far, thus I refuse to demand that everyone else match my imaginary moral superiority, lest you appear a despicable apathetic pig in my eyes.

If this sounds pessimistic of me, note that never in this essay have I stated that I will not try, or that no one else should try. Success in this project looks something like this: regardless of whether I earn the Nobel Peace Prize, I will have made the most authentic effort possible to think critically about the issues surrounding the extent to which I, you, and society can actualize the values we share (at least, that I hope we share). Bonus points if someone else finds these musings of mine somewhat thought-provoking.

So, now that we have dispelled any unreasonable expectations for this blog’s content — both positive and negative — let me explain what sorts of topics I may cover throughout my blogger’s career, before you leave thinking this site is pointless. “Saving the world” is basically the same in my mind as in anyone else’s; it’s the details that need sorting out. Most of us desire a society, or multiple coexisting societies, in which every person’s potential to pursue happiness with liberty is maximized. The debates over the means to that end could fill a nation’s worth of libraries, encompassing everything from personal ethics to large-scale politics.

To keep this blog ever on track, I swear to abide by this constant principle: If it has little relevance to the well-being of you or other conscious creatures, it has no right to any bandwidth here. Within the limits of that maxim, be you a passionate feminist or an enemy of malaria, there’s bound to be something of interest to you here if you are still reading this. The most powerful asset in our hands, as people discontent with the status quo, is determination. Apathy tends to shrink when you purposefully hold yourself accountable to others who keep ubiquitous tabs on you, saying to their fellows, “Who wants to start the bidding on how long this New Year’s Resolution will last?” That is the main reason I chose to start this blog.

Are you in?