Friday, 27 August 2010


I love the word perspective, it nicely sums up my interests. From the literal “the way that objects appear to the eye”, to the personal “one’s point of view” and the wise “to look at things accurately from a distance”. These uses carry with them a beautiful symmetry. Our eyes have a powerful and direct connection to our brain, still images, or less than a second of video, can communicate so much emotion and meaning (music helps too of course). From a tiny snatch of information we can relate to another person, imagine their life, their values and their character. The personal human motives that these images reveal lie at the heart of our sense of value. The importance we place on religions and other moral systems are at heart an extension and manipulation of our desire for parental approval, community and status. However, in order to disentangle this mass of causes and effects, it is useful to try to reduce our feelings and step back, to view the totality of the system and to attempt to acquire an accurate understanding. An understanding that at its purist seems beautiful, like the sensory inputs it is ultimately based on.

The question is how to use perspective to determine what is valuable? Is there a rock of reason, feelings or sensory experience on which to build a sense of value?

For many who are religious this rock is a ‘personal relationship’ with god. I can relate to this feeling, when I was young I was a christian, however, unlike many who no longer believe, I don’t feel embarrassed or naïve about feeling this way. It is no more reasonable to unquestioningly believe teachers in science class that it is to believe those who speak in church, indeed the priorities of a religious environment often seem much more human and relevant than the information being poured into children at school. I still use that feeling of internal faith and guidance that I once called god. Only now I view it as a form of communication with a part of my mind that doesn’t speak. A part that is, on the whole, much smarter than the bit that does. But I’m also aware that this part of me doesn’t have all the facts, it can still be surprised and can change its mind as it experiences unexpected consequences and opportunities.

That is where reason can be so valuable, it provides a tool to escape the narrow range of information our intuition is building on. It enables us to imagine scenarios we have not previously experienced and to consider their consequences. Of course reason is not infallible. Many scientists and mathematicians have embraced the methods of their fields with the fervour of a fundamentalist. However, this is not sensible, specifying problems formally does not guarantee that there is no mistake in the formalisation (how many proofs or pieces of code have you read that seemed free from error but weren’t). More significantly there is a statistical tendency to believe that events are more likely if they are easy to imagine (this is known as the availability heuristic). This kind of bias leads us to fixate on what we can fixate on, to only examine the problems that our tools are good at solving. Our sense of value tends to be restricted to what we can easily do, and what we can easily think about.

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