Brain hacking

In “The Mind’s Biology,” Amy Ellis Nutt reports that some doctors are reaching past the symptoms of mental illness to identify and fix the brain circuits underlie the problems. One of those doctors is Hasan Asif. “Asif says that a person’s mental makeup is a kind of hierarchy, with personality on top, which is created by brain states that arise from circuits firing in a certain pattern below. With psychotherapy, you tweak the brain from the top down, dealing first with a patient’s personality and temperament. But with neurofeedback, combined with qEEG, he said, he tweaks his patients from the bottom up, identifying the brain areas involved and then retraining those circuits to fire differently, resulting in changed moods or mental outlooks.”

Improving morality through robots

In “Can we trust robots to make moral decisions?” Olivia Goldhill describes research by philosophers and computer scientists to program robots to make ethical decisions. One big reason for asking how to build an ethical machine is that “work on robotic ethics is advancing our own understanding of morality.”

Ought implies can … or not

In “The Data against Kant,” Vlad Chituc discusses psychological research challenging Kant’s principle that ought implies can. This is the principle that “it would be absurd to suggest that we should do what we couldn’t possibly do.” The research shows that there are common situations in which nonphilosophers do think it makes sense to say someone ought to do something that it is impossible for them to do it. In these situations “ought” has more to do with “blame” than with “can.” This in turn raises questions about “experimental philosophy” and the role the intuitions of nonphilosophers ought to play in philosophical analysis. Can we draw conclusions about what we ought to think from data about what some people actually think?

Free will and neuroscience

Which happens first … a conscious decision to do something or the brain activity associated with doing it? Thanks to experiments Benjamin Libet conducted in the 1980s, it seemed that “the timing of … conscious decisions was consistently preceded by several hundred milliseconds of background preparatory brain activity.” It seemed, that is, that our brains had already acted to carry out what we only later consciously decided to do.  But in “Neuroscience and Free Will Are Rethinking Their Divorce,” Christian Jarrett says that may be changing. As researcher Dr. John-Dylan Haynes puts it, neuroscience may actually show that “a person’s decisions are not at the mercy of unconscious and early brain waves.”

Superintelligence or superstupidity?

In “The A. I. Anxiety,” Joel Achenbach discusses the ideas of philosopher Nick Bostrom, physicist Max Tegmark, and others about A. I. or artificial intelligence. “Big-name scientists worry that runaway artificial intelligence could pose a threat to humanity. Beyond the speculation is a simple question:  Are we fully in control of our technology?” Which is the greater threat … that machines will become superintelligent or superstupid?

How we talk about passing

Daniel Silvermint’s “On How We Talk About Passing” won the 2015 second place prize awarded by 3 Quarks Daily for a philosophy blog post.

John Collins, the final judge for the contest, wrote of this post: “Silvermint’s piece, occasioned by last summer’s Rachel Dolezal incident, avoids the thorny issue of why, exactly, self-identification might be taken to be authoritative in the case of gender though not race, and asks us instead to hesitate and reconsider what we are doing when we rush to police the trespass of socially constructed categories that are tracked by highly unreliable markers. There is a valuable discussion here of the varieties of passing, though I found myself unsure as to whether to accept Silvermint’s suggestion that we apply the concept even to cases where there is neither misidentification nor intent. Can, for example, a white cisgender man, who, through privilege has had the luxury of never giving these matters a moment’s thought, really be said to be ‘passing’ as white and male? Silvermint comments that ‘a trans woman that passes isn’t a man pretending to be a woman – she is a woman’. I agree wholeheartedly with the main point there, but I’d be inclined to add that her being a woman means that she isn’t simply passing as a woman either. (Whether a trans person might be said to—or want to?—pass as cisgender is another matter.)”

The winning blog posts were selected from these nine finalists.

App addiction

Is it your fault you’re addicted to Facebook, Candy Crush Saga, or whatever? Or are the web and all those apps scientifically designed to break your will? If so, shouldn’t they be regulated? These are questions Michael Schulson addresses in “User Behaviour”: “‘Much as a user might need to exercise willpower, responsibility and self-control, and that’s great, we also have to acknowledge the other side of the street,’ said Tristan Harris, an ethical design proponent who works at Google. (He spoke outside his role at the search giant.) Major tech companies, Harris told me, ‘have 100 of the smartest statisticians and computer scientists, who went to top schools, whose job it is to break your willpower.’”