Thursday, August 19, 2010


Aside from nitpicking the difference between exponential growth and polynomial growth, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives is a good read that I enjoyed and a book that I will go on the record as recommending to others. Indeed, I think the book is a worthy, “soft” introduction to the top-down causal way of thinking that I like to espouse so often here at Just Enough Craig. The central theme of Connected is that much of what happens in our lives and much of who we are is predicated on who we hang around, who those people hang around, and who those people hang around. Much of self-choice is illusory. Undoubtedly, the whole of the system shoves its causes down upon its constituent pieces just as those pieces push up their causes onto the system, even when those pieces are conscious individuals such as ourselves.

I regret not having taken notes while reading Connected. I figured at the time that I agreed with the book's premise too much and would find the piece to be less engaging than books with which I somewhat disagree. (The least thought-provoking books are the ones I most agree or most disagree with. The most thought-provoking ones I somewhat agree and somewhat disagree with.) However, I wish that I had taken notes of the remarkable evidences the authors had for concluding that our social networks play such a dominant role in making us who we are. As it is, I didn't take notes, and so I don't have much remarking to do here. Read for yourself!

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A while ago I started a “pure” philosophy book, Reasons and Persons, by Derek Parfit. I was first introduced to Parfit in the introductory ethics class I took during my sophomore year in college, a class that has gifted me with more questions than answers in the eleven years since taking it. The class's format was for us students to read through a compilation book containing essays arguing various viewpoints on a range of ethical topics, from the classical (e.g., what constitutes the Good?) to the modern (e.g., is abortion acceptable?) to the futuristic (e.g., is the genetic engineering of humans acceptable?). In one essay provocatively titled Why We Should Not Be Biased Towards the Future, Parfit captured my imagination with an idea that continues to cause me to cast serious doubt on most mainstream ethical theories: how should we compare the moral valuation of a past event with a current event with a future event?

Since college, I have come across Parfit twice. First, in my study of peak oil and its ramifications, including the moral ones, I came across his mere additional paradox. Then, when reading I Am a Strange Loop, Hofstadter referenced a thought experiment by Parfit involving a clever use of a Star Trek-like transporter to raise questions about identity. And now I'm working through the seminal work that originates both these two ideas and the Timeless essay from my ethics class.

Parfit is a master of the thought experiment, especially to expose interdependencies and self-references within ethical systems. Here's such a one from the early pages of Reasons and Persons to engage your mind and celebrate the paradox.

Suppose that I am driving at midnight through some desert. My car breaks down. You are a stranger, and the only other driver in this desert. I manage to stop you, and I offer you a great reward if you drive me to my home. I cannot pay you now, but I promise to do so when we reach my home. Suppose next that I am transparent, unable to deceive others. I cannot lie convincingly. Either a blush, or my tone of voice, always gives me away. Suppose, finally, that I know myself to be never self-denying. If you drive me to my home, it would be worse for me if [I] pay you the promised reward. Since I know that I never do what will be worse for me, I know that I would break my promise. Given my inability to lie convincingly, you know this too. You do not believe my promise. I am stranded in the desert throughout the night. This happens to me because I am never self-denying. It would have been better for me if I was trustworthy, disposed to keep my promises even when doing so will be worse for me. You would then have driven me home.

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