Some New Years Articles of Note

If you are a regular follower of this blog, you have probably noted that the last few months have not been particularly fruitful. Defending a dissertation and traveling around the country for job interviews make blogging difficult. However, I hope to return to the blogosphere in a few days, but until then, here are some recent articles I have read that you may find of interest:

1. Can’t Kick Bad Habits? Blame the Brain. This is a short and easy to read piece exploring the neural underpinnings of habit formation, which all virtue ethicists should be attentive to. In brief, dopamine is the neurotransmitter which seems to play the biggest role in habit formation by conditioning the brain to seek out certain pleasurable activities again and again (like a glass of wine after work). Breaking a bad habit seems to be less about imposing rational control over one’s emotional reaction to a source of pleasure and more about putting oneself in the right situation where the cause of the bad habit is not readily available: “What you want to be thinking about is, ‘What is it in my environment that is triggering this behavior?'” says Nordgren. “You have to guard yourself against it.” Here’s a great quote from the article:

“People have this self-control hubris, this belief they can handle more than they can,” says Nordgren, who studies the tug-of-war between willpower and temptation. In one experiment, he measured whether heavy smokers could watch a film that romanticizes the habit — called “Coffee and Cigarettes” — without taking a puff. Upping the ante, they’d be paid according to their level of temptation: Could they hold an unlit cigarette while watching? Keep the pack on the table? Or did they need to leave the pack in another room?

Smokers who’d predicted they could resist a lot of temptation tended to hold the unlit cigarette — and were more likely to light up than those who knew better than to hang onto the pack, says Nordgren. He now is beginning to study how recovering drug addicts deal with real-world temptations.

2. Searching for the Source of Our Fountains of Courage. This New York Times article outlines research which will also be important for ethicists. One of the most interesting parts of the article describes a woman with a rare congenital syndrome leaving her completely fearless, “raising the question of whether it’s better to conquer one’s fears, or to never feel them in the first place.”

As Justin Feinstein, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Iowa, and his colleagues describe in Current Biology, the otherwise normal SM is incapable of being spooked.

She claimed to fear snakes and spiders, and maybe she did in her pre-disease childhood, but when the researchers took her to an exotic pet store, they were astonished to see that not only did she not avoid the snakes and spiders, she was desperate to hold them close.

The researchers took SM to a haunted house, and she laughed at the scary parts and blithely made the monster-suited employees jump. She was shown clips from famous horror films like “The Silence of Lambs” and “Halloween,” and she showed no flickers of fright.

This fearlessness may be fine in the safety of one’s living room, but it turns out that SM makes her own horror films in real life. She walks through bad neighborhoods alone at night, approaches shady strangers without guile, and has been repeatedly threatened with death.

“We have an individual who’s constantly putting herself into harm’s way,” said Mr. Feinstein. “If we had a million SMs walking around, the world would be a total mess.”

Yet more scientific evidence for the importance of Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean.

3. The Unborn Paradox: “No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.” 20% of pregnancies end in abortion. Yet millions of women will spend tens of thousands of dollars on reproductive therapies this year. In the meantime, only 1% of pregnancies will end in adoption. A great basis for making an ethical argument on the adoption imperative.

4. Philosophy Lives: Who hasn’t seen the following quote from esteemed physicist Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (on yet another important topic I failed to blog about in the last few months) from their new book The Grand Design:

“[Just] as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit. Because there is a law of gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.”

While Hawking and Mlodinow argue that these newest developments in physics signal the final death knell for philosophy and natural theology, John Haldane argues that “at its most abstract, theoretical physics leaves ordinary empirical science behind and enters the sphere of philosophy, where it becomes vulnerable to refutation by reason.”

5. Changing Our Minds: An overview of the implications of digital technology for an ethic of virtue. Heavy attention is given to the vice of curiosity, which Paul Griffiths has brought back in vogue recently, but also an interesting treatment of the virtue of recollection. I love the conclusion:

The findings of science as to the effect of Internet use on the human brain should impel us to dust off some of these neglected ideas and see what they have to say about the problem, and maybe come up with some new ideas of our own in the process. As Lisa Fullam noted in these pages (“Thou Shalt,” April 24, 2009), long years of treating morality as a laundry list of mostly sexual shalt-nots has crippled authentic moral thinking, and moral thinking is exactly what is needed to navigate the dramatic transformations of the digital revolution without damaging our very selfhood. We need to identify and describe not only the shalt-nots of the age, but also the shalts: recollection, mindfulness, interiority, awareness. Whatever you prefer to call it, it’s what’s needed to keep Google from making us stupid. Not brain surgery, but virtue.

I hope to do a real blog soon but in the meantime, what articles have you been reading that everydaythomist should be attentive to?

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2 comments so far

  1. Charles on

    Two recommendations:

    1) “The Truth Wears Off” by Jonah Lehrer

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/13/101213fa_fact_lehrer

    “The Efficiency Dilemma” by David Owen (The New Yorker, December 20, 2010, p. 78 — sorry: no link available).

    The first article reports on a recently noted phenomenon:

    “…all sorts of well-established multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain, It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology. In the field of medicine the phenomenon seems extremely widespread, affecting not only antipsychotics but also therapies from cardiac stents to Vitamin E and antidepressants…a forthcoming analysis demonstrates that the efficacy of antidepressants has gone down as much as three-fold in recent decades.”

    The second article argues the validity of the common wisdom that increased efficiency leads to decreased consumption (a key green economic strategy) by introducing us to the mid-nineteenth century articulation of the “Jevson paradox”: increased efficiency leads to significantly greater consumption.

    This blog often cites scientific studies, and often looks questioningly at the common wisdom. But more significant to me, these two articles are reminders of our own under-appreciated finitude. We are, I more and more think, not so far advanced as we think we are from our fellow humans, the builders of the Tower of Babel.

  2. everydaythomist on

    Thanks, Charles. I haven’t read Owen’s article yet but will get right on it. The Lehrer article is excellent and I should have mentioned it, especially since David Brooks gave it a Sidney Award:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/28/opinion/28brooks.html?ref=davidbrooks

    I appreciate your comments on finitude, an important reminder for the new year.

    Another article of note came out today in the NYTimes on parental fear and fever:

    “Lifting a Veil of Fear to See a Few Benefits of Fever.” Another area of life where the virtue of courage is necessary in the pursuit of the good.


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