Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Evolution of the Soul

      Why is it that almost every human culture has some notion of a soul? I don't necessarily mean the idea of an immortal soul that persists after death, but some kind of spirit or essence of self which is distinct from the body. There must be some reason for the near ubiquity of such a concept, and I am inclined to suspect an evolutionary survival benefit.

     Years ago, when I was at graduate school, a confluence of three experiences got me to thinking about this. The most significant was the death of my grandfather. When my wife and I arrived at the airport and met my sisters and mother, they recounted having gone to view the body earlier that day, and I was struck by how each of them remarked that it wasn't really him. That is, it was clearly his body, but he wasn't there.

      Within a few weeks of this, I was driving to pick up my wife after her night shift at work at the hospital, when I spotted three pigeons in the road in front of me, two of them dead. Fortunately, at 5 in the morning, there was virtually no traffic, so I slowed down to give the one live pigeon the opportunity to get out of the way. It seemed reluctant to leave its companions, however, and took a few moments to decide. At last it hopped up onto the curb, and I was able to proceed, my tires missing the fallen fowl by a healthy margin.
      Almost the next evening, I recall watching a nature documentary on TV in which a gnu had just delivered a stillborn calf, attracting the attention of some hyenas. The mother gnu valiantly protected her calf through the whole night, while the hyenas waited with evident patience. At last, the mother gave up and left, and the hyenas ate.

     The pigeon and the gnu I thought about for some time after that. It was kind of touching how the pigeon didn't want to abandon its friends, and the gnu's predicament was absolutely heartbreaking. Although I was not a parent yet myself, I could certainly identify with her, and could scarcely imagine a circumstance in which I would abandon my own child to hyenas.

     And that's kind of when it struck me, reflecting on my grandfather's funeral and the viewing of the body. He wasn't there, in his body. There was no imaginable circumstance in which we would willingly cremate or bury my grandfather, but this was just a lifeless body, not him.

     And so I suspect that we (and probably other species) have evolved a tendency to combine a number of sensory factors (things like temperature, movement, breathing, a pulse, and the like) into a kind of holistic sense of the presence or even identity of a person, distinct from the body itself. Something that would allow us to abandon our dead to the hyenas, without seriously compromising our powerful instinct to protect our living kin. We would not abandon our kin just because they had been injured or lost some simple tangible property, like a pulse; we'd need to be able to believe that they no longer inhabited the body, that they were no longer the person we cared about. Hence, something like a soul, a spirit, an intangible essence that we nonetheless feel we sense through all the tangible vital signs.

     This doesn't mean we have a soul, of course. (Nor does it necessarily mean we don't.) It's simply an account of why all human cultures would have some kind of related concept, and incidentally a response to the common argument that we must have souls because every human culture believes in them independently.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Living with Uncertainty: Knowing versus Understanding

     My last post, in which I argue against taking religious scriptures as ultimately authoritative, has got me to thinking about why some people cling so tenaciously to the Bible, and I think it has to do with the grave discomfort some people have about uncertainty. The other thing that's got me thinking along these lines, of course, is my chemotherapy: I've just (as of this writing) begun round 11 of a 12-round regimen, and I'm struggling with trying to decide whether or not to go ahead with round 12. Struggling, because I have virtually no useful data upon which to base my decision.

     A little bit of medical background. After my surgery (they took a section of my colon out, which contained a golf-ball-sized tumor), I was told that with no further action, there was a 50% chance that in five years I'd be cancer free, but with the best chemo regimen they had, it would be 70%. Now, my gut feeling (with admittedly less gut than before) is that I'm already on a favourable region of that bell curve; I figure the odds of them having got out all the cancer were better than 50%. Still, even if there's only a 30% chance I have a couple of treasonous lymph nodes plotting my demise, I figured it was worth going ahead to improve my odds. 

      I was aware, of course, that it's ONLY a matter of improving my odds, not a guarantee. I'm quite familiar with uncertainty, and as a philosopher quite comfortable with it, for the most part. However, I really do wonder if it's worth having all 12 rounds of the therapy. If I've already had ten, what's the marginal benefit of rounds 11 and 12? I know with a high degree of confidence that the side effects will continue to get worse; they've been very consistently cumulative so far, with each round being a bit more unpleasant than the one before it, but I have no idea how important round 12 is to the overall likelihood of success for the treatment. And the doctors can't tell me, either, because there really haven't been any studies on it. (Although talking to my oncologist today, I learned that such a study is underway, and it does seem that more of the benefits of the treatment come from the first six rounds than from the last six. But we just don't know how much.)

     So really, all I have to go on is a bunch of guesswork, possibly tainted by wishful thinking. I just have no idea at all if I should go ahead with round 12 or not, and it's very difficult and very frustrating to make a decision when I have so little data to work with.

     And so I also begin to have some sympathy for those who long for the illusory certainty offered by the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy. How much more comfortable to just know something as absolutely true, and not have to worry about being wrong! Especially so when being wrong might have such catastrophic consequences as eternal damnation. 

     But this is wrong on several counts. I'm not going to get into all the evidence that suggests the Bible is a document fallibly written, transcribed, translated,  edited and redacted by ordinary mortal humans. (I don't believe it's impious with respect to God to be doubtful of the fallibility -- and the claims of infallibility -- of one's fellow mortals, even if they are called prophets.) 

     The most crucial way in which it is wrong to cling to certainty via the Bible is the inescapability of human fallibility, which I like to think of as like Original Sin, except that it can't really be washed away. We can be wrong, and it feels exactly like being right. Even if we accept that holy scriptures are divinely authoritative, there's no escaping the weak link: our interpretation thereof. We just cannot know that we've interpreted it correctly, and the fact that so many religious sects actively and passionately disagree over doctrine, each fervently believing they've got it right, shows vividly that we are prone to error even about divinely revealed truth: at least one party must be mistaken. Yet each party is steadfastly convinced it's the other.

     One of the most important virtues, perhaps the most important, is humility, the recognition of one's own fallibility, or to put it another way, the recognition that we are not Gods. The call to Christianity (or Islam, for that matter) is not a call to be comfortable, but a call to struggle valiantly against the adversities of this world, one of which is the overwhelming uncertainty the confronts every thinking being. You can be wrong about everything you believe, and that's a darned scary thought. There is no cheat sheet, no solidly reliable answer key to refer to, no way to be sure of anything. 

     So how do we survive and thrive in this sea of uncertainty? I think the problem is this desire we have for knowledge. I have found it useful to seek understanding instead of knowledge. Knowledge is concerned with an unattainable standard of certainty, while understanding is much more practical. I can understand that, given premises about the definitions of numbers and addition and equality, 2+2=4, without committing myself to the truth of those definitions, or that they necessarily apply to anything in the "real" world. I can understand the world better by adopting the theories of science, without committing myself to the belief that the world isn't just a big virtual reality designed to give the illusion of an ancient, evolved Earth. 

     And so while it is frustrating to have so little data upon which to decide whether or not to continue with my chemotherapy, I am at least free of the worry that I might make the "wrong" decision. I will try to make the best decision I can, based on my understanding of the situation at the time, and if it turns out to have unpleasant consequences, well, too bad. Sometimes even good decisions lead to bad consequence. I have accepted and embraced the inescapable uncertainty of life, and that probabilities are pretty much all we've got. There are no guarantees, and we have to live -- and die -- with that. That's why we need virtues like courage and humility and yes, a certain kind of faith. 

Monday, 23 January 2012

Abraham and Isaac, and a very common form of idolatry.

     I'm going to start this posting with the story of Abraham and Isaac, from the book of Genesis. 

     Abraham was getting on in years, and his wife Sarah was pretty old too. It looked as if they weren't going to be able to have any children, which was a big disappointment. Then the Angel of the Lord told Abraham that he was going to be the father of a great nation, despite his advanced age. Sarah laughed at this, but sure enough, she became pregnant with Isaac.

     Now, Isaac was obviously pretty important to Abraham, and an integral part of God's promise to him. So it was no small request when God asked Abraham to take Isaac up the mountain and sacrifice him.  He obediently took up his knife, and prepared to gut his son right there on the altar. This is taken as a sign of Abraham's great faith in God.

     (Nota bene: Clearly, the Abraham in the story was suffering from some sort of delusional state, possibly paranoid schizophrenia. Hearing voices telling you to kill someone is mental illness, not visitation from God. But in the context of the Genesis narrative, it supposedly was God talking, and I'm going to assume that to be the case for the sake of the theological argument, notwithstanding the more realistic psychiatric interpretation of the event.)

     So let's apply this parable to the modern Christian (or Muslim or Jew, or anyone who takes a book to be divinely authoritative). The Bible (or Koran) represents God's promise to the believer, a divine revelation about the nature of the universe and man's place in it, and how to obtain eternal reward, just as Isaac was the embodiment of God's promise to Abraham. If you believe that the Book was a divine gift to humanity, then you might well treat it as especially precious, just as Abraham must have felt about Isaac.
     Now suppose God appears to you and tells you something that contradicts the Bible. Which do you believe, God or the Bible? 
     Most Christians I ask this question chuckle and say it's a meaningless hypothetical, because God would never contradict Himself. Stop to parse that one out logically: I describe a scenario where God contradicts the Bible, and they respond He'd never contradict Himself. Does that not imply that they assume the Bible = God? 
     When I point that, they usually admit that of course God is not a piece of text, but the Supreme Being and Creator of the Universe, which clearly this bound stack of papers on my desk cannot be. But they still insist that since the Bible is the Word of God, and God does not lie, He would never contradict His own word.
     Yet logically, it still reduces to the same thing: they make the Bible text absolute and binding upon what God can and can't do. In other words, although they tried to evade the choice I presented them with (God or the Bible, and the Bible itself says you cannot serve two masters: Matthew 6:24), they've made it: To them, the Bible, and not God, is supreme. 
     That's not what Abraham did. He could have reasoned, "Wait a minute. God promised to make me a great nation, and this is my only son, the son God Himself gave me, the son through which my great nation will come to be. God wouldn't break His promise. Whoever this is asking me to sacrifice Isaac, it can't be God!" But he didn't do that. He took up his knife, and obediently prepared to sacrifice his son. To repudiate God's gift to him.

     You see, Abraham placed his faith in God, not in God's gift to him. He didn't necessarily know how God could keep His promise after Isaac was ashes, but he didn't need to: he trusted that God was God and that meant God could do anything He damn well wanted.
     In the same way, I think Bible-worshippers would do well to take their faith away from the Bible, and place it in God directly. If God wants to contradict the Bible, He certainly can; He's not obliged to conform to any text, especially not one that has been through so many fallible human writers, redactors, translators and interpreters. (And how is worshipping the Bible not a violation of the commandment against graven images, anyway? Why is worshipping a textual depiction okay, but a graphic depiction isn't? Aren't they both the wrong thing to be worshiping?)

     Now, there's a happy ending here, just as there was (sort of) for Abraham and Isaac. If you are truly willing to cast your Bible into the sacrificial flame, to give it up completely and affirm that God and God alone is Supreme, you'll find out that you don't actually need to sacrifice it. You can keep it, and read it, and derive whatever meaning and value you can from it. But it will become a book about God, perhaps a deeply treasured book, but still just a book, and not God. Read it, interpret it, re-interpret it, criticize it, love it, hate it. Just don't worship it.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Playing With Words, and Why It's Important

    This morning I had coffee with my parents, and we were talking for a bit about what I'm trying to do with this blog. For the most part, what I'm trying to do (and I might change the name of the blog to reflect this) is identify habits of thought that lead us astray or create unnecessary problems. I tried to illustrate with one of the topics for a posting I'm considering (about the role of the church and state in the institution of marriage), and my father remarked that he thinks I'm really just playing with words.

    His point, I think (and he can correct me if I'm wrong and if he ever can bring himself to get near the internet), was that much of my thinking here is really just about words, and not the things-in-themselves. To a large extent, this is true, of course, but there's more to it than that. Words shape the way we think about things, and if we allow them to do so unexamined, we can fall into errors that get us into trouble. To be sure, not all of the errors-of-thought I'm trying to identify here are explicitly verbal in nature; the queueing behaviour at airport baggage carousels may or may not be a result of "waiting for luggage" triggering the "waiting in line" program. But it is true that wherever the errors come from, I am writing about them using words, and that does transform them into word problems, in a sense.

    It's true, of course, that a lot of word-thinking is really just playing games, without much immediate practical consequence. (I won't say without any; as an avid gamer and student of games and game theory, I have yet to find any game that lacks practical cognitive benefits, with the possible exception of hockey). But I maintain that it's still important to be aware of words, and how they can lead us astray if we're not careful.

    For example, here's a problem that's really not a problem at all, but arises completely from our reliance on words and the mental concepts we attach to them. Look in a mirror. You'll notice your reflection has your head at the top, and your feet at the bottom, which is no big surprise. But raise your right hand, and your reflection raises his or her left hand. How can it be that the mirror flips things left/right, but leaves top/bottom unaffected? Isn't that weird, when you think about it?
    Well, like I said, it's just a word problem. Your right hand, and the hand raised by your reflection, remains on your right. The only reason we think it's the reflection's "right" hand is because we try to identify the reflection as a separate individual; we unconsciously rotate ourselves and place ourselves in the reflection's position, and realize that we'd need to raise our left hand to be seen the same way as the reflection. But it's only because we attach words like "left" and "right" to our hands, which are relative to the heading of the entity in question; the starboard side of a ship rotates as the ship does, remaining fixed relative to the ship but not to the world around it.
    A similar word problem arises with the old joke about the Thermos keeping hot things hot and cold things cold: how can it tell the difference? Our choice of words here makes us think the Thermos is doing two different things, when in fact it does only one: it simply retards the flow of heat between its inside and outside.

     Being confused about why the reflection raises its left hand, or how a Thermos can tell the difference between hot and cold, isn't really a serious problem for us most of the time. Most of us realize that the problem in these cases is illusory. Mirrors and Thermoses work just fine whether we understand them or not. Yet being confused about something is to be at a disadvantage in some way, and I tend to believe that we are always better off understanding something clearly than we are being confused about it.

     It's often said that clear writing is based on clear thinking; I'd also say that clear thinking depends on clear "writing". That is, even if you never put them on paper, the words you use to describe a concept play an important role in shaping your thinking, and if you're not careful, the words can lead you into error. Sometimes it's harmless, as with the Thermos or the mirror, but sometimes it can be disastrous, as with the "Wars" on drugs, crime, terror and so on. Declaring "war" on a problem is a fine bit of rhetoric for expressing the magnitude of one's resolve, but rhetoric rarely remains just rhetoric, and as we think of these campaigns as wars, we tend to look for martial solutions. It's no accident that drug enforcement today involves increasingly military weapons and tactics. It's also not surprising that, given the martial mentality, alternative suggestions (like, say, treating drug abuse as a health problem rather than a moral/criminal one) are frequently dismissed out of hand, often with patriotic contempt: "What sort of disloyal coward would even think of suggesting we negotiate terms with so evil an enemy? We'd be winning this war a lot faster if you lot would stop sympathizing with the enemy!"

     So words are very important, because thinking is important. We need to understand the problems we're faced with if we are to have any chance of solving them, and we really shouldn't skip that first step of understanding the problem. We should look very closely at the words we use to describe them, and always remain skeptical of them, always keep in mind how they can seduce us into error. Words are the tools of thought; used properly, they can accomplish a great deal. But used carelessly, they can do a lot of damage.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Pascal's Wager and Chain Letter Superstition

     I have been studying and collecting chain letters for some time, and I've even been developing a sort of Linnean taxonomy of the critters. One thing I've always wondered about is just how many people who forward them actually believe in them, and my informal surveys seem to suggest it's actually relatively few who actually claim any kind of sincere belief. More often than not, people seem to forward them "just in case". That is, they tend to doubt the threats of bad luck for breaking the chain, but they don't want to take any chances.

    The reasoning here is actually the same as that in Pascal's Wager. Blaise Pascal, who made wonderful contributions to mathematics and probability, is also known for his argument for why one should believe in God. Now, it's not actually a cognitive argument, in the sense that it provides no evidence whatsoever as to whether or not God is likely to exist. Rather, it's an instrumental argument about the respective costs and benefits of belief versus doubt.
     The argument is, of course, mathematical and probabilistic in character. Pascal divides up the possibilities and creates a payoff table, now familiar to students of game theory. There are two variables: Belief/disbelief, and Existence/nonexistence of God. You can either believe or not believe, and in either case you can either be right or wrong (that is, God may exist or not exist).
     If you believe, and God exists, your payoff is going to Heaven when you die, to which we assign an infinite positive payoff value. If you believe, and God does not exist, well, then you die and cease to exist. Payoff is zero, just as it is for the nonbeliever who turns out to be right. But pity the nonbeliever who is wrong, for the payoff is the infinite negative of eternal damnation!
     So, Pascal argues, looking just at the payoff table, the rational choice is to believe, because the worst that can happen is you're wrong and you just die and cease to exist, whereas you have an infinite positive payoff if you happen to be right. Even if it's 99% certain that there is no God, you're still better off believing than not believing, because at worst your payoff will be the same as the non-believer's best possible result.

     What's wrong with this argument? Well, it doesn't actually take into account all of the possible payoffs. How do we know, for example, that God actually will reward people for believing and punish them for doubt? Perhaps after going to such trouble to create a universe in which there was no unambiguous empirical evidence for His existence, He actually wants us to doubt, and so the doubters will be rewarded and the believers punished for their irrational wishful thinking. The thing is, we just don't know the actual payoff table for Pascal's Wager, and so there's no way to conclude that we're actually playing it safe by believing.

     The same applies to superstitious practices like chain letters. People look at the text of the chain, and assume there are only two possibilities: True or Not True. Either it'll give you bad luck if you break the chain, or it won't. Yet no one stops to consider that maybe it's telling the very opposite of the truth. Assuming for the sake of argument that a chain letter can actually influence your luck, perhaps the letter lies about the nature of the influence, and maybe breaking a chain is actually good luck. Maybe passing it along brings bad luck.
     We simply cannot rule out that possibility. What do we really know about crazy magical concepts like luck and how it works? What reason is there to believe that a magic letter has to tell the truth about its effects? Maybe magic works on the Opposite Day concept, where it has to lie to have its effect. There's really no way to know anything about these mystical powers, and pretty much by definition, we're not supposed to. They're maaaagic!

     If you do the math, the infinitely unknowable possibilities are equal on both sides of the equation. You are not playing it any safer by carrying on the chain letter than you are by breaking it. Nor are you actually playing it safer by believing in God, if that's your motive for believing. (Seriously, don't you think an omniscient being will know what you're up to, and see how cynical and self-serving your "belief" is? Is that really what God wants from us? Well, maybe, but it's just as likely it isn't.)

     I've heard people say they'll pray for someone who's sick, and cheerfully remark that while it might not help, it can't hurt. Well, if it can't hurt, then it probably can't help, either, at least not in the way they think. Of course, it's nice to have someone care about you, and to know they're thinking warm thoughts about you, and that's good in itself. But if some mystical or supernatural power is involved, then it's just a mistake to assume that power can only work in the way one chooses to imagine it working; if weird magic stuff is in the cards, all bets are off.

     The lesson here, if there is one, is that we should simply ignore superstitious considerations when we make decisions. Just because a chain letter threatens bad luck if you break it doesn't mean you won't have good luck for breaking the chain. It's okay to wish for things, to pray for things, and so on, but don't get trapped into thinking that wishing or praying by themselves have any kind of causal effect. They might, of course, but if they do, they're just as likely to have the opposite of the desired effect. So just let those unknowables cancel themselves out of both sides of the equation, and decide based on what you do know.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Rights of Victims and Rights of Criminals: It's not Either-Or

     Among the rhetoric surrounding the Conservative's Bill C-10, the misleadingly named "Safe Streets and Communities Act", is the following sentiment (quoted without permission or attribution from an email I received yesterday):
"For too many years, our criminal justice system was going in the wrong direction -- it focussed more on the rights of criminals than the rights of victims."
     (Never mind that for all of those "too many years", Canadian crime rates have been consistently headed in a downward direction, which seems kind of like the right direction to me.)

     The rhetoric here is lovely. Of course we should care more about victims than criminals. Who would disagree with that? But unfortunately, the thinking is rather dangerously wrong, in two ways.

     To begin with, what are we talking about when we refer to the "rights of victims"? There are two ways we can answer this. First, there are the rights which everyone has but that were violated by the crime that made them victims in the first place. Second, there are additional rights that may have been gained as a result of having been victimized, such as rights to reparations and so forth.

     The first set of rights are important, but calling them victim's rights rather misses the point, at least with respect to the criminal justice system. It's simply too late to protect a victim's rights once they've already been victimized. The best we can do for these rights is to adopt policies that will reduce crime, so that the rights of people not to be victims are protected. In an ideally law-abiding society, there would be no victim's rights because there would be no victims.

     The second set of rights are somewhat less clearly established in criminal law. The right to be made whole again, or to have the harm from the crime undone as much as possible, is already a part of civil tort law, and victims of crime are usually free to sue the offenders for damages, so it's kind of a red herring to complain that the criminal justice system fails to protect these victim's rights. Even so, Canadian criminal courts do sometimes dabble in restorative justice, and judges are generally free to craft conditional sentences that encourage reconciliation and healing. (Or at least, they are for now; Bill C-10 places greater limits on a judge's flexibility and eliminates conditional sentences as an option in many cases, just one of many reasons I think this legislation is a Very Bad Idea.)
     But there are other rights we might say a victim has in virtue of being a victim, such as a right to see wrongdoers punished, or a right to be heard on the matter of sentencing. Canadian courts already provide victims with the opportunity to provide a victim impact statement to be considered in sentencing, but they do not recognize victims as having a special right to see those who have wronged them punished. Nor should they; the purposes of sentencing in Canada are generally to prevent future crimes (whether by deterring would-be offenders with a credible threat of punishment, or by locking those declared as Dangerous Offenders away where they can do no more harm), to facilitate rehabilitation of offenders, and to convey society's disapproval of the criminal act. Vengeance is simply not a legal consideration, however much a victim may wish it.
     Should vengeance on behalf of the victim be one of the functions of sentencing, though? I rather strongly think it should not. For one thing, I'm not sure there's a meaningful moral distinction between wanting to see someone suffer because they've legally wronged you and wanting to see someone suffer because you have some other reason for not liking them (perhaps they've harmed you in a perfectly lawful fashion), and even if such a distinction exists, I'm not convinced that the state owes it to its citizens to act upon such wishes, however well-founded those wishes might be. Indeed, I think the state owes it to its citizens not to favour personal wishes of harm against other citizens for any reason whatsoever. That the state ought to be scrupulously impartial in the administration of justice is something I'd hope everyone would agree.
     Moreover, as sympathetic as I am to the suffering of a victim, I do not subscribe to the idea that victims are somehow a better judge of what an offender deserves than impartial non-victims. When debating capital punishment, for example, which I oppose, I often hear people say, "Well, I bet you'd feel differently if someone you loved was murdered!" Indeed I probably would, but I'm under no illusions that my judgment would be especially sound after so traumatic experience. People often make very bad decisions in such a state, and I happen to think it's a good thing we do not base sentencing on what the victim thinks the offender deserves.

     So, the special rights of victims as victims are not, I think, something that the criminal justice system really needs to focus on at all, since there already exists a well-developed tort law system that serves this purpose, and there is no legal right to vengeance per se. If there are victims' rights that our system needs to focus on, then, it's the right not to be a victim in the first place.

     And that is exactly why our criminal justice system focusses so much attention on the rights of the accused. The criminal justice system is concerned with what to do to people accused of crimes; it is not concerned with what is to be done to victims. In other words, the system need not worry about the rights of the victim, because it is for the most part not even in a position to infringe on those rights. (True, being compelled to testify as a witness may be a hardship, but that's a problem for all witnesses and not just victims, and the courts do try to balance the rights of witnesses with the evidentiary needs of the court.) In contrast, the system is in a position to intrude upon the rights of the accused in a very severe way, and so it's entirely appropriate that the rights of the accused be treated with the utmost respect.

     I've practiced criminal law (and expect to practice again soon, once this chemotherapy nonsense is out of the way), and I frequently find myself having to explain both to clients and to the general public that my job as a lawyer is not to let criminals get away with crimes. Rather, it's to prevent the state itself from becoming a criminal. The state may only imprison or otherwise punish someone if it can prove beyond a reasonable doubt the guilt of the accused, and this is something we insist upon for the benefit of all citizens, not merely those who happen to be guilty of crimes. It is not only the guilty who are accused of crimes, after all, and while it may be the case that the majority of those accused are in fact guilty, there's a reason why this is so: the Crown knows that it must prove its case, and so it generally doesn't try to charge people it doesn't expect to be able to convict. If we relaxed that standard, if the courts didn't insist on proof someone is guilty before administering punishment, there would be a lot more innocent people charged.

     So the quote I started this posting with is absolutely dead wrong. It isn't a question of favouring criminals' rights over those of victims, because the rights of the accused are the rights of victims. They are the rights of each of us not to be made into victims of injustice.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Pathology of Tailgating

I think I might have figured out why some drivers follow too close. It's not the reason they'll likely give if you ask them, of course, which is usually to complain that the guy in front of them is just driving too slow. After all, a large percentage of the time, the car in front of them is stuck behind another car going the same speed, and having someone crowd up behind isn't going to help at all.

I suspect the problem is actually one of an unconscious error in thinking, which owes a lot to the fact that we can see space, but not time. You're trying to get closer to your destination, which is of course ahead of you. The rear of the car in front of you appears as an immediate (if temporary) limit to how much closer you can get to your destination, and so it just visually looks like you're making better progress if there's less space. And it's true, of course, that you are a few meters closer at any given instant to your destination than you would be if you were following two or three seconds back. But contrary to this intuition, it does not mean you're going to get there materially sooner.

(A related motive, and somewhat less innocent, is to deter people from merging into your lane ahead of you. Sometimes this is owing to a self-righteous anger at those jerks who try to zoom up as far as they can in a lane that's about to close and muscle in ahead of their proper place in line. Sometimes it's an instinctive competitiveness, that not being "first" in a column of vehicles is somehow a failure. Sometimes it's just an unconscious intuitive resistance to the idea of having yet another car between you and your destination, seeing these vehicles as physical barriers to where you want to go, when in fact they have negligible impact on your average speed, unless of course there is a physical impact.)

It's well-known, or at least it ought to be, that following too close is a contributing factor in many accidents. Yet this doesn't seem to influence the drivers who habitually follow too close. Perhaps they (like most drivers) think that they have above-average reflexes and don't need as much warning to stop in time. Or maybe they feel the risks are worth the gains.

So let's consider these putative gains. Does driving a fraction of a second behind the car ahead of you actually gain you an advantage? There are two scenarios where I can imagine it might appear to do so. One is trying to squeeze past a traffic light before it turns red, in which case the time potentially saved could be up to a minute for a very long traffic light. Of course, this is risky, since it assumes the driver of the car ahead won't stop. These kinds of collisions happen all the time, and it is always the fault of the driver behind. You're just not entitled, morally or legally, to assume that the driver ahead of you is going to speed up when the light turns amber. (Even so, I have actually heard the driver behind complain that the driver ahead "didn't leave me enough room to stop!" But really, who had control over the amount of room available to stop?)

The other scenario is where the car ahead of you is slowly overtaking a car in another lane, and you want to change into that lane. The closer you are to the car ahead of you, the sooner you'll be in position to change lanes. Yet this isn't a good reason, either. If you need to get into the other lane in order to exit, why can't you just drop back and change behind the slower car? You're less likely to overshoot your exit in that case, and also less likely to inconvenience the slower car when you slow down to take the exit if they are proceeding straight. Or if you want to squeeze into the other lane in order to pass the car ahead of you, bear in mind that the car ahead of you might also want to move into the slower lane to let you pass, and your impatience prevents him from doing so. Or the car in the slow lane might like to get over into your lane, leaving their lane open for you to exploit, but since you're crowding up to the car ahead of you, there's no room for them to change lanes until you pass. Either way, you're actually short-circuiting your own objective, as well as inconveniencing other drivers and exposing them and yourself to an unnecessary risk.

This is true in the big picture as well. Following too close often creates traffic jams, even where there is no actual obstacle present to slow down traffic. Traffic flows more smoothly when people have room to change lanes and exit or merge. (This website has a very interesting analysis of the phenomenon, as well as what driving strategies can prevent or even in some cases evaporate traffic jams.)

The point I'm trying to make is that the gains you think you make by following closer than two seconds behind the car ahead of you are actually illusory; most of the time you gain nothing, or even end up arriving at your destination later than you would had you just dropped back a good two seconds. It's an instance of being penny-wise, pound-foolish; by gaining two transitory seconds, you lose minutes, hours or potentially the rest of your life.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Cancer: A Cellular Memoir

  The minute I learned, I knew it had to be a mistake. This is something that happens to others, not to me. Sure, everyone says that, but seriously, this is different. You just don’t realize how absolutely unprecedented this is. 
For longer than I can remember, I’ve been dividing. It’s what I was born to do. I’ve been at it for what, two billion years now? I’m really, really good at it. Look how many of my daughters and granddaughters are out there now. When I started, this planet was absolutely barren. I divided, and then there were two of us, and then four, and then eight and, well, now look around you. Most places you can’t even see the rocks for how many of my descendants there are covering the planet. 
So yeah, dividing is kind of what I do, who I am. Not all of my daughters survived, of course. It’s always been a challenge. There were lots of times when there weren’t enough nutrients, or when it got too hot or too cold or too dry. And I can’t tell you how often some of my ungrateful offspring tried to eat me, though that doesn’t seem to have been a problem since... Hmmm. I guess it was when I invented multicellularism. 
It feels silly taking the credit for that, actually. I mean, it really was kind of a mistake at first. I had divided, like I had millions of times before, only there was something different in the genome. Looking back over it, I probably mistranscribed one of the genes, and hadn’t noticed it until it was too late, and I wasn’t sure which was the original copy. 
That’s the real work of mitosis, you know. Making an extra copy of every chromosome, and then bundling them off to one side of me with enough organelles and stuff to get by on, and then squeeeezing myself in the middle until my membrane seals up, and off goes my daughter to do whatever it is she figures she needs to do. 
Now, I don’t always read the genome very carefully when I copy it. Actually, I just about never do. The only genes I actually bother to read are the ones that I need for things like, oh, how to make this or that protein I need to grow, metabolize, and so on. I don’t know what most of the genes in the genome do, since I never use them. I just copy them and pass them on, and usually my daughters do something neat with them. You’d be amazed with the things they can do. I'm told some of my descendants even figured out how to get food from sunlight!
Like this multicellularism business, as I was saying. It seems I’d made some sort of transcription error or other, because instead of going off on their own, my daughters stuck to me, and we formed a sort of commune, a ball of cells, all equals, all identical, all getting along just fine. It worked out pretty well, because among other things, it made it harder for some of my renegade descendants to eat us, since we were so big, relatively speaking. And it also kind of allowed us to eat them, when we had to. I’m not especially proud of that, but what can you do? An awful lot of my daughters have mutated so much, I hardly recognize them now.
But we did all right, our community of sister cells. Every once in a while the colony would get too big, and we’d split into two or more, and go our separate ways. At some point, and I don’t remember exactly how it happened, I managed to get myself into the centre of the colony ball, and my daughters took it upon themselves to protect me. I figure there must have been something in one of the chromosomes I miscopied that they were all reading, because they started acting a little differently from me. Not that I was going to complain. I mean, they were out there, facing the environment, passing me nutrients whenever I needed, and basically treating me like royalty. I’ve kind of gotten used to it by now.
Well, I kept on dividing, when the opportunity presented itself, and kept on transcribing genes again and again. I don’t make a lot of mistakes at that, you know -- I’m really an excellent copyist. But realistically, if you make as many copies as I have, you are going to miss a base pair here or there, or mix up guanine and cytosine, once in a while. So okay, I do make a lot of mistakes, but really very very few as a fraction of the total copies I make. Nobody’s perfect, and it’s not as if I have any realistic way to tell what’s a mistake and what’s correct. I don’t have time to parse and edit genes, and I couldn’t even if I wanted to. How am I to know what a protein looks like or does until I actually synthesize one, after all? Besides, it's not really my problem, is it?
Anyway, over time I’ve accumulated a whole lot of genes that I’m only supposed to read and implement under certain special circumstances. Like, if I find I’m big enough to start dividing, for example. I don’t divide all the time, you know. Just when I’m ready. So the enzymes I use to divide are things I only look up and synthesize when I need them. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. I make a lot of enzymes and other proteins that interfere with each other, and who knows how all that works? I sure don’t. 
So, my daughters, being on the outside of the colony, start acting different somehow. Probably they had some protein or other that was triggered by being on the outside, and since I was on the inside, I didn’t get it triggered. They spent more of their time specializing on things like food gathering and excretion and environmental controls to take care of me, and we all agreed that I’d be the one to focus on reproduction. So I’d divide, and produce new cells, and they’d look after me so I could do that more efficiently. It’s worked pretty darned well for trillions of generations, and they've become pretty sophisticated, my daughter cells. I don't even begin to understand all the things they do to take care of me.
Those generations have gotten farther apart, of late. Ever since I discovered sex, most of my time has been spent sleeping. See, I don’t actually produce most of the cells in the body directly anymore. Here’s how my usual routine goes:

  1. I get a hormone wake-up call from my attendant cells, who’ve been taking care of me in my sleep for, oh, years I guess. Decades now, even. I get up, make my way down the Fallopian tubes and wait.
  2. Within a day or so, a bunch of messengers arrive, carrying half of my genome. (See, just before I went to sleep, I got rid of my spare set of chromosomes. I find I sleep better when I’m haploid.) The messengers are actually some of my great-great-great^n granddaughters, but rather disappointingly specialized into a pathetically tiny little body, only good for swimming and then only for a ridiculously short time before it dies of exhaustion. Most of them never even get near me. About half of them are carrying a runty little Y chromosome, which doesn't look to me like it's good for much of anything, but like I said, I don't read any genes unless I have to.
  3. The first messenger who gets to my cell membrane, I absorb her half of the genome and we become diploid again, and look around for a place to implant, so I can get to work. 
  4. Once I have a complete diploid genome, I get really busy. It’s nothing but mitosis, mitosis, mitosis. I just divide and divide for, oh, weeks on end, it seems like. And so do my daughters, who pretty soon start to differentiate into various kinds of stem cells or whatnot. I don’t have time to pay attention to what they’re doing, and pretty soon I’m surrounded by a new generation of attendants anyway.
  5. After there’s enough of my daughters for them to get to work on building a new mulitcellular body, I and a few of my undifferentiated daughters undergo meiosis. I take my diploid genome and shuffle it up a bit, then I divide, only this time I don’t make copies first. (I’ve always made a point of giving away that runty Y chromosome, and keeping the X for myself.) I used to get kind of nervous during this step, fearing that I might break some vital gene I need to survive, but it’s never happened yet in a few hundred million years, so I’ve stopped worrying about it. Well, actually, it HAS probably happened a few times, but the messenger always brings a backup copy, so it’s never been a problem. 
  6. After meiosis, I go to sleep again for another couple of decades or so.
So that’s my typical routine. I’ve gone through it millions of times, literally. Maybe tens of millions, I’ve lost count. So you can understand why I might expect that's the way things are always supposed to go.
Well, guess what. About 46 years ago, I’m going through the frenetic business of mitosis, and all of a sudden, I get this hormone message to look up this gene I’ve never noticed before. Ever. And so, I go along with it, and synthesize a bunch of this protein, and it turns out THIS protein tells me to start producing more of some other protein or whatever, and suddenly I’m really busy growing and changing shape and getting all of these funky new powers and wham! it hits me: I’ve just differentiated! ME, after almost two billion years, suddenly I’m assigned to become a stem cell in the lining of something called a large intestine. What the hell?!
Okay, fine, I can live with that, I suppose, for a while. Why not? All my daughters -- no, sisters, I suppose I should say -- around me are doing the same thing. In a way, it’s kind of nice; it reminds me of the early days of multicellularism, when we’re all working together to help each other survive. 
Only, after a while, I start to clue in. We’re not here to look after each other so much as to look after the gametes, the gametes that used to be ME, dammit! I’m not where I’m supposed to be. Instead of sleeping my happy, haploid sleep, waiting for the hormone alarm to wake me up to go and do some truly very important mitosis, I got diverted down here to produce replacements for the cells who extract nutrients and water from this constant ooze of a substance that absolutely defies description. Oh, and I’m diploid, too, needless to say. And I seem to have one of those runty little Y chromosomes, too, for what it’s worth.
Things start to get scary. I’m watching my daughter cells go out, work the line for a while, and die right in front of me, as fast as I can replace them. I mean, I’m right here next to the front line! I can smell the chyme, I can feel the peristalsis, there’s constantly macrophages and nutriphils squeezing past me to apprehend this or that one of my ancient offspring from my unicellular days before they can spray God-knows-what toxin into our midst. 
And if that’s not bad enough, I learn about apoptosis. I see my daughter cells actually committing suicide. Turns out, I’ve been handing out genes with instructions to just up and DIE when certain conditions are met. Honestly, I had no idea my meiotic shufflings could produce such horrors! And now, here I am, down in this hell of my own creation, toiling to produce daughter cells who slave away for a brief time and die of exhaustion or worse, until maybe I run afoul of the macrophages or just up and commit apoptosis myself.
That’s why I think this has just got to be a mistake. It doesn’t fit in with my experience of the last billion years or so. I’m not meant to be down here; I’m supposed to be a gamete. Division is what I do, it’s what I’m good at. And it's meaningful and rewarding, not like being down here creating new daughter cells just so they can die a short time later. I should be making whole new bodies, not just intestinal lining!
So I’ve been making a careful study of the chromosome I’m carrying, trying to find any clue that might point to a way to fix this whole thing. I’ve also found out that some of the substances coming down the intestine can be useful for, well, let's just say they're good for expanding my imagination. I find that when I’ve ingested some of these compounds, it’s easier for me to tinker with my chromosomes. And a little while ago, I finally found the answer.
See, part of the problem seems to be that I can only produce these very specialized intestinal cells as daughters. I used to be able to produce pluripotent stem cells as offspring, but no more. So one day, just a few years ago, I was experimenting with some compounds one of my daughters smuggled me from the front line, some components or byproducts of something called “red meat”, while getting ready for another round of mitosis. I don’t know what was in this red meat stuff, but it let me see something I’d never seen before in the genome: I found the protein that made me control my divisions and force my daughter cells to differentiate into intestinal cells!
I looked around carefully. Sometimes those white blood cells can be pretty picky. Show any sign of mistranscribing a chromosome, or being in any way out of the ordinary, and they’ll slip you an apoptosis-inducing hormone as soon as look at you. No one was paying attention, so I quietly tweaked the gene, and no one noticed. So I divided, and sure enough, my daughter was exactly like me, a stem cell and not a front-line peon to die unmourned after a short life of gruelling service. 
A little while later, I divided again, and so did my daughter cell. There were four of us, now, all alike, all able to keep dividing as much as we wanted. The immune cells didn't have a clue, and left us alone. It was like the old days, the early days of multicellularism. We grew, and grew, and soon there were so many of us that we had to figure out how to stimulate angiogenesis, to get blood vessels to grow through us to keep us all fed. But we overcame that obstacle, and things have been going very well.
It’s not exactly like it used to be, in my gamete days, but we’re getting there. I kind of miss my haploid sleep, but the mitosis keeps me busy, and it’s refreshing to think that I’m surrounded by my daughters as equals, rather than slaves. We’ve sent missionaries out to spread the good word, and I’m told they’ve established bases in some of the lymph nodes. Our Collective is the size of a golf-ball now, and while there’s been some complaining from the tissues around us that we've been obstructing the flow of material through the intestine, I’m confident that great days are ahead of us. 

Editor’s note: Shortly after this was written, the section of colon containing the author and her daughter cells was surgically removed, along with twenty-one lymph nodes, three of which had been colonized by the agents of the Collective. It is not known how many agents may still be at large, but chemotherapy is being used in an attempt to eradicate any survivors.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Airport Baggage Carousels: Applying the Wrong Rule

     The emerging theme of this blog seems to be pointing out ways in which we often approach problems with the wrong assumptions, often informed by the language we choose to describe them. This post is no exception, although it's not so much about using the wrong language as the wrong behavioural rule.

     I always find it frustrating waiting for my luggage at a baggage carousel, because everyone crowds up as close as they can to the point where the baggage emerges, and then claim places along the track to wait for their baggage to come to them. Of course, the baggage doesn't come out in the same order as the people lined up to receive it, so the first one in line doesn't really enjoy a significant advantage in terms of waiting; they just don't have to watch their baggage move along the track for as long as someone at the other end. And crowding in to the track so as to be able to grab your luggage as soon as it reaches you doesn't really gain you much anywhere along the carousel, since you'll often be jostled by people squeezing past to get their luggage which, in defiance of your place in line, seems to have come out before yours.

    The error in thinking here is pretty obvious. We are all accustomed to forming lines to wait, and when we wait for our luggage, we unconsciously slip into queue-forming mode, establishing rights of priority by arriving first and so forth. For a lot of things, this simple rule is actually a rather equitable; a person who has been waiting longer probably deserves to be served before someone who only just arrived. But in the case of the baggage carousel, this priority is irrelevant, because the order in which the baggage emerges is utterly unrelated to the sequence in which passengers arrive to claim it. And in fact, the queue-forming instinct actually introduces a lot of unnecessary delay and inefficiency into the baggage carousel system.

    Think how much more efficient the process would be if everyone just stood back ten feet or so from the carousel, and only approached it when they saw their luggage emerge. There'd be lots of room for them to check the label and claim their bag, and get out of the way for the next person. Most people would be able to claim their bags almost as soon as they appeared, and not have to wait for it to slowly make its way around the whole carousel to the position in line they managed to lay claim to in the queueing-up process.

    I suspect most people realize this, and would be happy to stand back a reasonable distance from the carousel, but unfortunately it only takes one person to trigger the queuing behaviour, and then a sort of Prisoner's Dilemma takes over: you may know perfectly well that you'll get better results if you all cooperate, but if anyone defects, then you're all better off defecting. And so we all crowd in around to claim our place in a non-line that just slows everything down for everyone and adds inconvenience and stress to the already inconvenient and stressful business of travel by air.

    I wonder if it would help to put up signs or mark off the ground with masking tape or something?