Freeman Dyson on the Problem of Evil

Freeman Dyson in the Scientific American

In Infinite In All Directions Dyson addressed, obliquely, the only theological issue that really matters, the problem of evil. If we were created by a loving, all-powerful God, why is life so painful and unfair? The answer, Dyson suggested, might have something to do with “the principle of maximum diversity.”

This principle, he explained, “Operates at both the physical and the mental level. It says that the laws of nature and the initial conditions are such as to make the universe as interesting as possible. As a result, life is possible but not too easy. Always when things are dull, something turns up to challenge us and to stop us from settling into a rut. Examples of things which made life difficult are all around us: comet impacts, ice ages, weapons, plagues, nuclear fission, computers, sex, sin and death. Not all challenges can be overcome, and so we have tragedy. Maximum diversity often leads to maximum stress. In the end we survive, but only by the skin of our teeth.”

When I asked Dyson about the principle of maximum diversity, he downplayed it. “I never think of this as a deep philosophical belief,” he said. “It’s simply, to me, just a poetic fancy.” Perhaps Dyson was being modest, but to my mind, the principle of maximum diversity has profound implications. It suggests that, even if the cosmos was designed for us, we will never figure it out, and we will never create a blissful paradise, in which all our problems are solved. Without hardship and suffering–without “challenges,” from the war between the sexes to World War II and the Holocaust–life would be too boring. This is a chilling answer to the problem of evil, but I haven’t found a better one.

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Cathy O’Neil on Responsible Algorithm Design

I know what a lot of you guys are thinking,especially the data scientists, the AI experts here.You’re thinking, “Well, I would never make an algorithm that inconsistent.”But algorithms can go wrong,even have deeply destructive effects with good intentions.And whereas an airplane that’s designed badly, crashes to the earth and everyone sees it,an algorithm designed badly can go on for a long time, silently wreaking havoc.

Playlist of the Week

The Game   —   Dreams
D12   —   How Come
Lil’ Kim   —   Lighters Up
Lupe Fiasco   —   Put You On Game
Mase   —   Welcome Back
Kanye West, Jay Z   —   Never Let Me Down
Eminem   —   Cleanin’ Out My Closet
Rick Ross, Akon   —  Cross That Line
Busta Rhymes   —  Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See
The Notorious B.I.G, Mase, Puff Daddy   —   Mo Money Mo Problems

This week’s playlist is available on iTunes and Spotify. I hope you enjoy it

An Analysis of the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

Caspar David Friedrich ‘s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog ca. 1817

Artwork description & Analysis: Wanderer above a Sea of Fog (sometimes also referred to as “Sea of Mist”) depicts a lone man, formally dressed and holding a walking cane, standing on an outcropping of rocks looking out at an inhospitable expanse. He stands perfectly still, only his hair ruffled by an unseen wind, against a tumultuous field that churns at his feet. In the background is a sky filled with white puffy clouds and the outline of mountaintops barely visible through the mist. As the man contemplates the vastness before him, the sublimity of nature is demonstrated not in a calm, serene view, but in the sheer power of what natural forces can accomplish. 

Friedrich is known to have made political statements in his painting, often coded in subtle ways. The costume the figure wears was worn by students and others during Germany’s Wars of Liberation; by the time of this painting, the clothing was forbidden by Germany’s new ruling government. By deliberately depicting the figure in this outfit, he made a visual, albeit understated, stand against the current government. The political nature of this work did not stop there however; his work (especially this painting) were adopted and abused by the Nazi regime as symbols of intense German nationalism. Because Friedrich replaced more literal illustration with merely suggestive messaging, his paintings were easily reinterpreted to fit new political intentions. It would take more than three decades, into the 1980s, for his work to be viewed and appreciated once again without the taint of Nazism.

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In a Word

n. a state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one’s position or condition in the world.

“If I didn’t care for fun and such,
I’d probably amount to much.
But I shall stay the way I am,
Because I do not give a damn.”  — Dorothy Parker

The Collar by George Herbert

I struck the board, and cried, “No more; 
                         I will abroad! 
What? shall I ever sigh and pine? 
My lines and life are free, free as the road, 
Loose as the wind, as large as store. 
          Shall I be still in suit? 
Have I no harvest but a thorn 
To let me blood, and not restore 
What I have lost with cordial fruit? 
          Sure there was wine 
Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn 
    Before my tears did drown it. 
      Is the year only lost to me? 
          Have I no bays to crown it, 
No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted? 
                  All wasted? 
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit, 
            And thou hast hands. 
Recover all thy sigh-blown age 
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute 
Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage, 
             Thy rope of sands, 
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee 
Good cable, to enforce and draw, 
          And be thy law, 
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see. 
          Away! take heed; 
          I will abroad. 
Call in thy death’s-head there; tie up thy fears; 
          He that forbears 
         To suit and serve his need 
          Deserves his load.” 
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild 
          At every word, 
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
          And I replied My Lord.

Robert J. Shiller on Capitalism and Human Nature

You’ve chosen a fascinating topic—‘capitalism and human nature’—but quite a tough one to get one’s head around.

It’s been the subject of discourse for centuries – or even millennia – so it’s very hard to summarise.

If you did try to summarize it, what would you say you’re trying to get at with these book choices?

I think that our economic system reflects our understanding of humankind, and that understanding has been developing, with especial rapidity lately. You have to understand people first before you can understand how to devise an economic system for them. And I think our understanding of people has been accelerating over the last century, or even half-century.

You’ve started off with Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Tell me why you chose it.

This is a remarkable book because, although in some cases it’s outdated, he has an interest in exposing human traits that are relevant to thinking about our daily lives. He has a surprisingly insightful ability to do that. He doesn’t have any of the research methods of the modern social sciences; it’s all casual observation, and reading, I suppose, of other people and literature. But there are observations and conclusions in there that I never had before. They’re focused on a purpose, which is understanding how our society works and how people get a sense of mission, of purpose, that somehow makes things work as well as they do.

Can you give a particular example of a trait where you thought, ‘Wow! I hadn’t thought of that before, but he’s so right’?

Well, if you put it that way, it’s going to be disappointing – because your readers will say, ‘Yes I had thought of that before!’ It’s a personal thing. But the thing he starts the book off with is sympathy. He uses the word sympathy and he’s really focused on selfishness versus social consciousness. He sees that sometimes people are completely selfish, and that’s the problem for any economic theory: how to make a society work when people are completely, unremittingly selfish.

But he also notes something else. He doesn’t use the word empathy, because empathy hadn’t been defined yet, but he makes a very important observation about human behaviour, which is that we are wired to feel each other’s emotions and to have a theory of other people’s minds (not that he would have used the words wired or theory of mind either). The English word empathy was coined around 1900, in a translation of the German word Einfühlung from a German book by psychologist Theodor Lipps. What it means is that it’s not that I feel bad because I observe that you are suffering, it means I actually feel your feelings. So people may often be selfish, but they also have empathy.

Smith also talks about a selfish passion, which is a desire for praise. He argues that people instinctively desire praise, but that, as they mature, this feeling develops into a desire for praiseworthiness. This is a little bit different, and I haven’t seen it written about anywhere else. He points out that, suppose you were praised for something that you knew you didn’t do: It was a mistake, people thought you did something, so they’re praising you, but in fact you didn’t do it. It wouldn’t be such a good feeling – even if you could keep the lie going, and continue to receive the praise. He uses that to show that what people really want is to be deservedly praised. And that turn of mind, which develops as people mature, is what makes us into people with integrity.

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Robert J. Shiller is an American economist (Nobel Laureate in 2013), academic, and best-selling author.

Playlist of the Week

Céline  Dion   —   Ordinaire
Scott Walker   —   The Seventh Seal
Carlos Santana   —   As the Years Go by
Albert King   —   Born Under a Bad Sign
B.B. King   —   The Thrill is Gone
Joe Bonamassa   —   Blue Deluxe
Danny Bryant’s Redeyeband   —   Days Like This
Walter Trout   —   Me, My Guitar and the Blues
No Sinner    —   Bad to the Bone
Ben Harper, Charlie Musselwhite   —   The Bottle Wins Again

This week’s playlist is available on iTunes and Spotify. I hope you enjoy it