Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Can't Buy Me Love

Nicholas Kristoff at the New York Times sees a lot of positives arising out of the current financial distress. For example:

Income doesn't have much to do with happiness. Americans haven't become any happier as they have prospered in the last half-century. And winning the lottery doesn't make people happier in the long term.

This is called the Easterlin Paradox: Once they have met their basic needs, people don't become happier as they become richer. In recent years, new research has undermined the Easterlin Paradox, yet it's still true that happiness has less to do with money than with friendships and finding meaning in a cause larger than oneself.

"There's pretty good evidence that money doesn't matter much for how you feel moment to moment," said Alan Krueger, a Princeton University economist who is conducting extensive research on happiness. "What seems to matter much more is having good friends and family, and time to spend on social activities."

There's lots else for which to be grateful that we're headed into a recession (I'm kidding). Read Kristoff's column to find out what some of the other "benefits" are.


Childhood Dualism

Paul Bloom is a developmental psychologist and an atheistic materialist. In a fine essay at Edge he tackles the question of whether we have a soul, and although he believes we don't he says some fascinating things about that topic as well as the development of such beliefs in children.

He writes, for instance, that:

I think children are dualists from the start. Even babies start off with this sort of body-soul split. To put it somewhat differently, they start off with two distinct modes of construal, or systems of core-knowledge, one corresponding to bodies, the other to souls. Because these systems are distinct, common-sense dualism emerges as a natural by-product.

For much of our recent intellectual history, in philosophy and psychology, this claim about babies would be thought to be utterly ludicrous. Total madness. It was said that babies and young children know nothing about bodies, and know nothing about souls. They are blank slates. Rousseau called the baby a perfect idiot. And Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist who got developmental psychology going in the last century, was adamant that babies have no notion of what an object is, and no notion of what a person is.

But over the last two decades there is decisive evidence showing that this minimalist perspective is wrong. In fact, babies, before they hit their first birthday, have a rich and intricate understanding of bodies and of souls.

First, there is a lot of research from psychologists like Elizabeth Spelke, Renee Baillargeon and Karen Wynn showing that young babies have a powerful understanding of physical objects. They understand that physical objects obey gravity. If you put an object on a table and remove the table, and an object just stays there - because there's a hidden wire - babies are surprised, they expect the object to fall. They also expect objects to be solid, and that objects should move on continuous paths over space, And, contrary to Piaget, they don't think that once you look away objects go out of existence. They understand that objects persist over time even when they aren't being observed. Show a baby an object, and then put it behind a screen. Wait a little while and then remove the screen. If the object is gone, babies will be surprised.

Karen Wynn showed that babies can even do addition and subtraction, of a rudimentary sort. You put an object down, a screen rises to hide it, and then you put another object behind the screen. Then the screen drops, and there is one object, two objects, or three objects. If there's one object there, babies are surprised. If there are three objects, babies are surprised. They know one plus one equals two.

I wonder what the implications of all this are for the belief that we are hard-wired with certain kinds of knowledge, knowledge that we have a priori. Discoveries like those Bloom adumbrates would seem to be fatal all by themselves to an empiricist epistemology.

Second, even young babies are social creatures. They prefer to look at faces over just about anything else. They quickly come to recognize different emotions-anger, fear, happiness. They imitate people. As soon as they begin to move their bodies in different ways, they can do clever things to manipulate emotions and behaviors of other people.

Then there's a lot of recent work from people like David Premack and Gyorgy Gergely and also from my own lab, that before children learn how to talk, they can make sense of social interaction. A typical experiment involves showing them movies where a character moves in a way that makes sense from an adult perspective-pursuing a goal, moving away from something-or in a way that doesn't make sense from an adult perspective. What we find is that even children before their first birthday get it. They expect people to act in certain ways. They expect people to pursue goals.

Bloom goes on to explain why he thinks we are predisposed to believe in substance dualism (the belief that the world is comprised of at least two disparate essences, matter and mind, or soul)and that this belief appears early on in childhood.

It's a fascinating essay, but it suffers from one drawback. it seems to me that the problem that must be settled before we can even begin to talk about whether we have a soul is the problem of what exactly the soul is. Until we know what it is that we either have or don't have we can't say much about whether we have it or not.

Unfortunately, Bloom doesn't see fit to define what he means by the soul except to say that it's an immaterial substance. he does seem to imply that the soul is, in his view, identical to what most people call a mind. In any event, Bloom, being a materialist doesn't believe there is anything immaterial about us, yet he seems enchanted by the universal belief, present from birth, evidently, that there is more to us than just the matter that makes up our bodies.

For my admittedly speculative view of what the soul might be see this post.