1. The Complacent Class
Anyone who knows me well knows that one of my intellectual passions is economics. I studied it in school, and something about the subject, and the way it touches on so many aspects of our lives, satisfies the big-picture view of history and culture that I love, without getting too woolly or vague or losing intellectual rigor. Anyone who feels similarly will enjoy Tyler Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution. Cowen is an economist at George Mason University, but he is more than that. He is also a fascinating public intellectual with a lot to say about American and global culture. His new book, The Complacent Class, looks quite interesting, and while I have not yet read it, I do recommend these interesting videos (presumably covering material in the book), which are quite thought-provoking and cover themes of economics and American culture. Please understand that I recommend many thinkers in this blog, and none of it should be considered a full endorsement of everything they say. With that in mind, I highly recommend Tyler Cowan’s Marginal Revolution, and the following 5 videos on The Complacent Class.
2. The US Carbon Footprint Is Decreasing
We’ll start with good news—courtesy of the oil and gas industry. Fracking may be controversial, but it’s also been successful in helping clean up America’s power grid. A recent report by the international Energy Agency highlighted the reality that natural gas has radically changed the US energy mix, and carbon emissions are dropping as a result. US emissions have actually dropped to pre-1994 levels. And we’re exporting LNG (liquefied natural gas), which hopefully will help other nations clean up their energy mix as well. Even in China, emissions are falling. Over the long term, I hope and expect that solar and wind, which are becoming much cheaper (especially the former), will significantly increase as a percentage of overall energy usage, and the transportation sector will largely wean itself off of oil. However, natural gas (or even better, nuclear) may still be needed for base load power requirements. But that’s a mix that’s a heck of a lot cleaner than what we have had over the previous decades, and not just in terms of carbon. Coal is slowly going the way of the Dodo due to market forces (no matter what the President does). Imagine, decades from now, a smart energy grid with next-generation nuclear power providing clean energy (with maybe some legacy natural gas in the mix), combined with lots of solar and wind powering the grid, and massive battery farms. And along with that, millions of battery powered, self-driving cars zipping around. That’s a future where the air is clear, power is relatively cheap, and carbon emissions are close to zero. We can get there, but we can’t just get there overnight.
And while we’re on the subject of carbon emissions, it’s worth noting this report that changes in diet—notably the less beef that Americans are eating—has changed our carbon footprint as well. As a long-time vegetarian, I’m particularly happy about that.
3. No, Cancer Is not Random
Some readers may have noticed the flurry of news stories a couple of weeks ago announcing that cancer had been found to be a random occurrence, based on some research done at John Hopkins. When I saw the headlines, I looked deeper into the actual research, and as is often the case, I found little relationship between the study and the way it was being reported. The conclusions of the study certainly didn’t prove that cancer is random, and they looked to be much narrow than either news reports or the researchers themselves would have us believe. Cancer is one of those diseases that is complex and there are many different permutations of the disease, so is hard to paint with broad brushes. But don’t for a moment believe the hype about pure randomness. Of course, that doesn’t mean cause and effect is always easy to trace, but be sure that diet does play a role, as many top institutions and health organizations have pointed out in recent years. Luckily, the blogosphere sprang into action and several articles appeared pointing out the flaws in those headlines. Perhaps the best was published by Yale’s Dr. David Katz, one of the most esteemed nutritional minds in the country. His article “Of Course, Cancer Isn’t Random” is a powerful refutation of the painfully narrow and inaccurate headlines.
For the record, Katz is always good to read if you want to find clarity on the latest nutritional headlines
Read Katz’s article below.
4. Benjamin Libet and Free Will
One thing I’ve discovered over the years is that scientists don’t always make good philosophers. But they try, oh boy, do they try. And the results can be, well, less than inspiring, and sometimes serve their own ideological motives. The so-called “Libet” experiments by Benjamin Libet, which suggest that we are not freely making choices to perform certain actions but rather that other processes outside of our conscious awareness our making those decisions, are a case in point. Indeed, the parade of would be scientist-philosophers announcing the death of free will based on his research is an example of jumping to unwarranted conclusions. Of course, some of this depends on how you define the term “free will,” as the article below from The Irish Times points out.
So why would they want to put the final nail in the coffin of free will? That goes back to the background ideological battle between science and religion, the former attached to materialism and the latter hopeful that free will represents a truth that slips through the materialist’s explanatory net. Acknowledging free will, would be akin to acknowledging a kind of causation in the universe that isn’t easily explained by existing scientific frameworks. For theists, that’s a hole bing enough to put God into. On the other hand, killing that idea, for many scientists, would be one more step on the road to the the de-mystification of science and the eradication of “woo woo” religious notions. Luckily, philosophy will have a few things to say about the matter before either side achieves victory.
Libet’s experiments do not stand alone. There are reams of evidence confirming that the conscious mind is unaware of much that goes on under the hood, so to speak. Human action is driven by all types of unconscious motives, desires, and choices. No doubt that unseen world is a huge part of whatever this thing called a “self” actually is. In that sense, we are far from “free”– meaning fully conscious of the workings of our mind or fully in charge of the decision-making process. The burgeoning world of neuroscience research has added a lot of evidence to support that side of the ledger in recent years. But let’s not give neuroscience all the credit. Psychology has a century long head start in pointing out that the motives of the self are often driven by unconscious impulses, hidden drives, and psychological structures outside of our conscious awareness. But all of that can be true and still tell us little about the ultimate philosophical question of freedom, will, and human choice. For the record, I actually like neuroscientist David Eagleman’s conception of human conscious cognition as a CEO running a large corporation—some power over the overall direction of the company, some influence over the subsystems of the mind, but a heck of a lot going on without his or her input.
Here is a recent interview with philosopher Markus Schlosser discussing Libet and free will.
Finally, I’ll share this thought-provoking article from the London School of Economics and Political Science about transhumanism and capitalism. As with many of the predictions put forward transhumanist circles these days, I’m not exactly sure how I feel about them, or if they constitute sufficiently real scenarios at this point to warrant concern at all. But it’s worth raising them anyway, as the future is certainly barreling down the road, and the issues—legal, economic, and otherwise—involved in our increasing virtualization and digitization of our lives and selves are worth considering