Sunday, January 17, 2016

Under ancient Jewish law: Add Your Own Egg

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed...
 There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.
That message is simple:
When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.
Paul Kalanithi died in March of 2015, leaving behind When Breath Becomes Air — a ledger of precisely such enormity and a rare masterwork of duality in which the tragedy of death isn’t subverted or diluted but coexists, every bit as real, with the triumph of aliveness as the highest human potentiality. Complement it with Anne Lamott on grief and grace, Oliver Sacks on the dignity of dying alive, and these unusual children’s books about making sense of mortality.

Housewives have been declared boring, but novelists can't seem to get enough of them. What gives? Laura Miller has the answer ...

Reading online, are we mindless clickers racing against the onrush of published content? If so, it’s because of our expectations, not the dragon  »

Helfand The first thing any visitor to Pepperdine University’s Malibu campus is likely to see is a prominent, thin, 125-foot stucco tower inlaid with a cross. Probably not surprising for a school founded in the tradition of the Church of Christ.

Nakul Krishna, a graduate student at Oxford, has written a beautiful essay at The Point called “Add Your Own Egg.”

Under ancient Jewish law, if a suspect on trial was unanimously found guilty by all judges, then the suspect was acquitted. This reasoning sounds counterintuitive, but the legislators of the time had noticed that unanimous agreement often indicates the presence of systemic error in the judicial process, even if the exact nature of the error is yet to be discovered. They intuitively reasoned that when something seems too good to be true, most likely a mistake was made.
So begins a summary of a forthcoming paper in The Proceedings of The Royal Society A on the “paradox of unanimity.” One of the authors, physicist and electronic engineer Derek Abbott (Adelaide), says:
Unanimity is often assumed to be reliable. However, it turns out that the probability of a large number of people all agreeing is small, so our confidence in unanimity is ill-founded. This ‘paradox of unanimity’ shows that often we are far less certain than we think.
While widespread unanimous agreement may remain reliable in cases in which there is zero or near-zero bias, “the researchers say that this paradox crops up more often than we might think,” providing a number of examples. Here’s one from law enforcement:
the researchers showed that even a tiny bit of bias can have a very large impact on the results overall. Specifically, they show that when only 1% of the line-ups exhibit a bias toward a particular suspect, the probability that the witnesses are correct begins to decrease after only three unanimous identifications. Counterintuitively, if one of the many witnesses were to identify a different suspect, then the probability that the other witnesses were correct would substantially increase.
What’s the philosophical significance of this? Well besides a nod the authors make to the Duhem-Quine thesis, there’s the question of whether the paradox of unanimity could be used as a heuristic for determining questionable philosophical claims. One might say that we just need to look at where there’s (a) the possibility of bias and (b) widespread consensus.
Yet even where there is consensus, it is rarely (if ever) unanimous. Indeed, one of the ways in which the discipline is attacked is by pointing to the persistence of disagreement. Many find this disagreement embarrassing, or attempt to explain it away. But what if philosophical disagreement is instead, as this research suggests it might be, a sign that we should be confident in popular philosophical views?

The Confidence Game Maria Konnikova