Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Essential Thinkers #23 John Locke, the Empiricist, on the Nature of Human Understanding

In his day, John Locke (1632-1704) was an important political figure and author of the liberal exposition Two Treatises of Government. An associate of the Earl of Shaftesbury, Locke spent time in exile in Holland, returning to England after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. It is for his views on the nature of human knowledge, however, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding that he is remembered in modern philosophy. 20 years in the writing, the book was to exert such an influence on the next 100 years of Western though that its author is considered by many to be the greatest British philosopher of all time. The works of George Berkeley, Immanuel Kant, and David Hume are all direct successors of Locke’s Essay.

The subject of Locke’s Essay, as given in the title, is the nature of human understanding, that is, the very way in which the human mind collects, organises, classifies and ultimately makes judgements based on data received through the senses. Greatly influenced by the scientific turn of his day, and a personal friend of two renowned contemporary scientists, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, Locke’s intent was to set the foundations of human knowledge on a sound scientific footing. He had read with great interest Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, but rejected the rationalist philosophy that underpinned its conclusions.

For Locke, there could be no innate knowledge: rather, everything we know must be derived from experience, through the actions of the physical world on our sense organs. This is the view now known as empiricism, a view still central, in essence if not detail, to the philosophies of W.V.O. Quine and other modern thinkers. Locke’s detractors, the Rationalists (Rene Descartes, George Berkeley, Gottfried von Leibniz) with whom the Empiricists battled for ideological supremacy throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, have their modern counterparts in the supporters of Noam Chomsky and his philosophy of innate, or generative, grammar.

Locke states that the mind at birth is like a blank slate, or tabula rasa, waiting to be written on by the world of experience. All human knowledge is derived from ideas presented to the mind by the world of experience. However, these ideas can be classified into two general sorts. There are complex ideas and simple ideas. Simple ideas are the immediate products of sensory stimulation, examples would be ‘yellow,’ ‘bitter,’ ‘round,’ ‘hard,’ and so on. Complex ideas are constrictions out of simple ideas, and are the product of internal mental operations. These include all our ideas of familiar material objects, such as tables, chairs, cats, dogs and horses. But complex ideas need not represent anything real in the world. This accounts for ideas like that of a unicorn, a complex idea itself made up of other complex ideas, such as ‘horse’ and ‘horn.’

Among Locke’s simple ideas is a distinction between those that are primary qualities of objects and others that are secondary qualities. The distinction divides those qualities thought to be essential and inherent to all objects and those that are apparent only on account of the effect objects have on our sense. Primary qualities are those such as solidity, extension, shape, motion or rest, and number. Secondary qualities are those such as colour, scent and taste. These are secondary because, according to Locke, they do not inhere in objects themselves, but are causally produced only in our minds by the effect of an object’s primary qualities upon our senses. Another way of conceiving them is to say primary qualities are objective (really exist) and secondary ones subjective (only exist in the minds of observers).

In the popular conundrum of whether a falling tree makes a sound when there is no one to hear it, Locke’s view would be that the falling tree creates vibrations in the air, but that there is no ‘sound’ strictly speaking, since sound is not a ‘real’ or primary quality. This view, sometimes called ‘scientific essentialism,’ leads to the metaphysical conclusion, plausible to many modern thinkers, that without a perceiving mind, there is no such thing in the world as colour or sound, sweet or sour and so on; but there are really such things as shape, extension and solidity, independently of whether anyone perceives them or not.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012.]

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

7 Climate Facts You Need to Know #6 Wildlife is Already Hurting

Climate change spells trouble for far more than just the Arctic’s iconic predator, the polar bear. In 2016 scientists announced that the last Bramble Cay melomys, a ratlike rodent found on one low-lying island in Australia’s Torres Strait, had vanished, the victim of forces including rising seas. It’s being called the first documented case of mammal being driven to extinction by climate change. More will surely follow.

Rising temperatures are depressing some plant and animal populations, driving species toward the poles, shifting migrations and behaviour. Populations of Adelie penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula have plumed. An Arctic shorebird called the red knot is getting smaller. Ice loss is forcing walruses by the thousands onto land in Alaska. Entire regions are being transformed: Alpine ecosystems from the Rockies to the Swiss Alps are being squeezed off mountaintops. The exceptional ocean warmth of the past few years has triggered coral bleaching and die-offs at reefs around the world.

There will be winners. For now, humpback whales are striving in newly ice-free waters off Antarctica. Sea urchins too are proving to be resilient. But climate change isn’t the only threat that spreading human populations impose on other species; we’re also fragmenting and destroying natural habitats. Some species will adapt to the jarring changes in their world – but how many, and for how long?
(Summarized from National Geography Magazine, April 2017)

Verdict: Plants, animals and natural habitats are poorly affected by climate change
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7 Climate Facts You Need to Know #5 Weather is Getting Intense

In the crapshoot that is our weather, climate change loads the dice. It doesn’t cause a particular drought or storm, but it makes such events more or less likely – and in the case of heat waves, a lot more likely. The extraordinary heat wave that killed some 70,000 people in Europe in 2003 should have been a once-in-500-years event; at the current level of global warming, it has become a once-in-40-years event, according to a study published last year. In Paris alone, that analysis found, climate change caused 506 excess death in 2003. If it continues unchecked, another recent study said, by late this century people living along the Persian Gulf may face many days so hot that it will be unsafe to go outside.

It’s not just the heat: Global warming adds moisture to the air, removing it from land and ocean. Where rain is lacking, it makes the drought worse. When rain or snow falls, it’s more likely to be extreme; think of the 2016 floods in Paris or Houston. How climate change effects hurricanes and other tropical cyclones is less certain. But by heating the ocean – the storm’s energy source – it’s likely to make them more intense, if less frequent.
(Summarized from National Geography Magazine, April 2017)

Verdict: Most probably, climate change intense worldwide catastrophic events –
make it worse and frequently
Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

7 Climate Facts You Need to Know #4 Ice is Melting Fast

Last June-September 2016 the Crystal Serenity, a large cruise ship, sailed through the ice-free Northwest Passage. Days after it passed, researchers off King William Island found the long-lost wreck of H.M.S. Terror, of Britain’s Franklin expedition – which had gotten trapped in the ice in 1846 while searching for the passage. The Arctic has warmed dramatically, and its ice cover has thinned and shrunk (graph, below). That loss speeds the warming, as sunlight is absorbed by dark ocean instead of reflected into space by ice.

Click to Enlarge
Melting sea ice doesn’t raise sea level – it’s already in the water – but melting land ice does. Mountain glaciers are in global retreat. The total sea level rise of 8 to 9 inches since 1900 has contributed to a sharp increase in flooding along coasts. During Superstorm Sandy, for example, floods and winds cause $68 billion in damage on the U.S. East Coast.

The big treat is the ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica. The hold enough ice to raise seas more than 200 feet – and they’re losing it. When Earth was just a bit warmer, 125,000 years ago, they seem to have lost a lot: Sea levels were 20 to 30 feet higher. Such a rise today would swamp coastal cities.

How Fast Can Ice Sheets Fail?
Since 2002 Greenland has lost an average of 287 billion metric tons of ice a year, according to NASA satellites. Antarctica is losing less, but it’s vulnerable; much of the West Antarctica ice sheet sits on the seabed, and the floating ice shelves that buttress it are eroding in a warmer ocean – as the calving of a 44-square-mile iceberg into Pine Island Bay illustrates (above). A glacial collapse that would raise sea level several feet could take centuries. Or maybe just decades.
(Summarized from National Geography Magazine, April 2017)

Verdict: Ice is melting fast, so fast…
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7 Climate Facts You Need to Know: #1-3 The World is Warming


The heat in 2016 broke the historic record set in 2015, which broke the one from 2014. Last year’s average global surface temperature, compiled from measurements made by thousands of weather stations, buoys, and ships, was 1.69 degree Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th-century average. Satellites probing the atmosphere also have documented a clear warming trend.


El Nino added to last year’s record by temporarily releasing heat from the Pacific. But no natural cause explains the half-century warming trend. The sun’s output cycles up and down every 11 years; volcanic eruptions sporadically cool the planet. Meanwhile human-emitted greenhouse gases from a steadily thickening blanket that traps heat at Earth’s surface.


More than 9 out of 10 climate scientists agree; Carbon emissions cause global warming. We’ve known about the greenhouse effect since the 1800s. Swedish physicist Svante Arrthenius even predicted in 1896 that carbon dioxide from coal burning would warm the planet. He saw it as a good thing – and just how bad it will be is debatable. But it’s real, and it’s dangerous.
(Summarized from National Geography Magazine, April 2017)

Verdict: Climate change isn’t a hoax or a scientific conspiracy, it’s a grand challenge!
Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Is Technology Changing Our Brains #8 Navigation Skills, Grey Matter and GPS

In 2000, a study found that taxi drivers who acquire The Knowledge – which requires memorizing thousands of London streets – have a greater volume of grey matter in the posterior hippocampus but less in the anterior hippocampus, making them better at memory tasks involving landmarks but poorer at recalling complex visual information. This provided evidence for plasticity in the adult human brain.

Could our reliance on GPS also be changing the way our brains work? Researchers from McGill University in Canada used MRI scans to compare GPS users with non-GPS users. Those who navigated without GPS had higher activity and a greater volume of grey matter in the hippocampus than those who relied on GPS.

In another study, people who drove a route using sat-nav could not remember scenes from the journey as well as those without sat-nav, and were poorer at retracing their steps from memory alone.

It’s possible that reliance on technology could cause some brain areas to grow and others to shrink,” says University College London’s Dr Sam Gilbert. “Something similar was shown in the original taxi driver study. But occasional use of sat-nav probably won’t have as strong an effect as learning The Knowledge and relying on it as part of your job.
(Summarized from BBC Earth Magazine (Vol.9 Issue 1), page 34 by Jo Carlowe)

Verdict: Yes, technology may change our brains when it comes to navigation
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Is Technology Changing Our Brains #7 Better Multitasker at a Cost

Our ‘always-on’ culture has been dubbed ‘infomania’ by psychologist Dr Glenn Wilson, who tested the IQs of subjects in either a quiet room or one with mobiles ringing and emails arriving. The technological distractions diminished IQ by 10 points.

Similarly, a US study found that students who instant messaged with friends during a reading task took between 22% and 59% longer to complete their task, even accounting for the additional time spent messaging.

Brain-imaging reveals that multitasking uses different brain regions to focusing on one task. Learning while focusing on one task uses the hippocampus, which store ideas and creates rich and flexible memories. This area allows us to compare old ideas with incoming data to put what we learn into context, effectively leading to deeper understanding. Multitasking, on the other hand, uses the striatum – a brain region that stores procedures and skills. New information acquired using the striatum is less flexible and can’t be generalized in the same way. This suggest that knowledge acquired while multitasking is less deeply embedded in our memories.

Researchers from University College London recently linked frequent multitasking to smaller grey matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is the brain region that is involved in empathy and decision-making. However, it is unclear whether having a smaller ACC makes you more likely to multitask, or whether it’s multitasking that causes the ACC to shrink.

But some experts say technology has made us all more skilful at multitasking. Hong Kong researchers report multitaskers are better at multisensory integration, while a 2016 study from Microsoft found our ability to multitask has “improved drastically” since the turn of the millennium.
(Summarized from BBC Earth Magazine (Vol.9 Issue 1), page 33 by Jo Carlowe)

Verdict: Technology may make us more adept multitaskers, but perhaps at a cost
Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)

Is Technology Changing Our Brains #6 Deep Reading vs. Skim, Scan and Click!

When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in our minds, much as we do when we look at terrain and create a mental map in our heads. But experts warn that we read text on screens differently, preferring to skim, scan and click hyperlinks, rather than ‘deep reading’ in the old-fashioned sense.

Norwegian experts tested the theory by dividing students of comparable reading skills into a paper group and LCD monitor group. In a follow-up reading comprehension test, the group who’d read texts on computers performed a little worse than the traditional readers. And a Swedish study in which volunteers completed a reading test reported similar findings: those who took the test on a computer scored lower, and reported higher stress levels, than those who took the same test on paper.

Prof Ziming Liu, of the School of Information at San Jose State University in California, believes digital screen readers engage in greater use of shortcuts such as browsing for keywords. His research also reveals that screen users are more likely to read a document only once and expand less time on in-depth reading.
(Summarized from BBC Earth Magazine (Vol.9 Issue 1), page 33 by Jo Carlowe)

Verdict: More research needed, but technology may make us less thorough
Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)

Is Technology Changing Our Brains #5 Bedtime and Sleeping Patterns

We now spend more time on our devices than we do sleeping. According to an August 2015 Ofcom survey, we engage in media or communication activities such as texting or gaming, for 8 hours and 41 minutes daily, and sleep for 8 hours and 21 minutes.

Technology keeps us up for two reasons. First, we are stimulated by the content. Second, the LED screen emits blue light, which prevents the brain from producing the sleep hormone melatonin. The blue light is in a bandwidth one sees in everyday sunlight, explains health education expert Dr Aric Sigman. “The blue light from your phone or tablet informs your pineal gland that its morning and it should shut down production of melatonin.”

In the journal Preventive Medicine (2016) researchers found a strong association between social media use and sleep disturbance, and warned of a link between sleep deprivation and depression. Sleep deprivation has also been associated with obesity and poor academic performance.
(Summarized from BBC Earth Magazine (Vol.9 Issue 1), page 32 by Jo Carlowe)

Verdict: Screen use at bedtime will change your sleeping patterns
Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)

Is Technology Changing Our Brains #4 Hello, Social Skills Bro

Throughout the world – in caves, huts and houses – it was almost a reflex to turn your face to a returning parents,” explains health education expert Dr Aric Sigman. But, he says, kids are now so glued to their screens they no longer look up.

Though some parents might be glad of the respite that screen-time provides, research suggests that excessive screen use seems to damage our ability to interpret faces. “They [excessive internet users] find it more difficult to read faces in experiments,” explains Sigman.

In one study, children showed a significant improvement in reading facial emotions after spending 5 days away from all devices. In another experiment, Chinese psychologists scanned the brains of ‘normal’ versus ‘excessive’ internet users, while they viewed images of faces and objects. The internet junkies showered smaller brain wave responses to faces than their peers.

Sigman’s view is that technology use itself isn’t damaging – just like sweets, it’s simply a case of ensuring children don’t consume too much, too often. Prof Mizuko Ito of the University of California, meanwhile, believes that a reasonable serving of new media can actually be beneficial for the development of youngster’s brains.

Young people who are taking advantage of online tools like search, forums, open educational resources and complex games are learning at a more accelerated rate, and in specialties that they would never have had access to in earlier eras,” she argues.

However, she adds that for disengaged kids in distressed circumstances, digital media can be a distraction from positive learning and social engagement. “It’s not the availability of media that determines this, but whether they have life opportunities, positive peer influences and caring adults who support and guide them to positive media engagements.”
(Summarized from BBC Earth Magazine (Vol.9 Issue 1), page 32 by Jo Carlowe)

Verdict: New media is just a place to ‘hang out’, but for the socially disengaged there are risks
Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)

Is Technology Changing Our Brains #3 Bad Memory, Maybe

With phone numbers, routes and facts just a touch away, we’re becoming less reliant on our memory – and German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer warns this ‘cognitive offloading’ could be leading to a kind of ‘digital dementia.’

Studies on internet and gaming addicts has uncovered atrophy (shirking) in the brain’s grey matter, says the University of Bedfordshire’s Prof James Barnes. Overdosing on technology seems to cause the frontal lobe – a brain area that governs functions such as planning and organizing – to suffer in particular. However, he adds that more research is needed on ‘real’ as opposed to ‘addicted’ internet users.

Digital offloading may also make memories less vivid. A US study asked museum visitors to photograph exhibits and just look at others. The next day their memory was tested. Visitors were worse at recognizing objects they had photographed, and worse at recalling details about the objects they’d photographed.

But Dr Sam Gilbert, of University College London, says there are also positives. “Research shows that when you save information to an external store like a computer, this can help you to store new memories. Your mind is no longer cluttered with information that you don’t need.
(Summarized from BBC Earth Magazine (Vol.9 Issue 1), page 31 by Jo Carlowe)

Verdict: Short-term changes are likely but more research is needed on long-term impact
Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)

Is Technology Changing Our Brains #2 Moody Media-Users

Scientists have been reporting strong links between heavy internet use and depression, with a particular focus on social media. This came as no surprise to health education expert Dr Aric Sigman, who says high exposure to social media can leave people feeling inadequate. “There is a relationship between the amount of time you spend on social media and increased body dissatisfaction. High consumption of idealized images seems to activate neural networks in the brain like the amygdala, associated with fear and anxiety.”

Sigman cited a study in which girls who instant messaged their mothers released the stress hormone cortisol, rather than the feel-good hormone oxytocin associated with face-to-face interaction. “We may be hard-wired to need a certain amount of contact with people we care about. A deficit in human contact may result in health problems.”

Facebook, it seems, might not be giving us enough facetime.
(Summarized from BBC Earth Magazine (Vol.9 Issue 1), page 31 by Jo Carlowe)

Verdict: Technology can affect mood, but it depends how we use it
Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)

Is Technology Changing Our Brains #1 May I Have Your Attention Please!

Phones buzzing with text messages, Facebook notifications and news alerts continually tempt the world to distraction. Many experts believe that this incessant bombardment, and the need for instant answers, has eroded our ability to focus.

A 2015 study by Microsoft surveyed 2,000 Canadians and used electroencephalograms (EEGs) to watch the brain activity of a further 112 people. Their analysis found that the average human attention span had dropped from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to just eight seconds. Goldfish are thought to possess an impressive nine-second attention span.

This wasn’t just a company chasing a catchy headline. The research in the area is mostly anecdotal, but a number of surveys do back up the idea that attention spans are shrinking. In a 2012 Pew Research Center survey of more than 2,000 teachers in the US and Puerto Rico, 87% reported that their students had short attention spans and were easily distracted. The same year, UK poll from the learning company Pearson reached the same conclusion. Of 400 UK English teachers questioned, and 2,000 parents of preschool and primary-aged children, 7 out of 10 said that children’s attention spans were shorter than they used to be.

Meanwhile in the US, the Centers for Decease Control and Prevention has reported that 11% of school-age children have, at some point, been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Before 1990, the figure was less than 5%.

These studies shine a spotlight on our diminishing attention spans, with modern technology in the crosshairs as the culprit. More research is needed if we’re to be sure of a causal relationship, but experts feel certain they’ll find one. “I am personally convinced that technology has led to a decreased ability to focus and wait, and an increased need for immediate information,” says neuroscientist Prof Russell Poldrack, of Stanford University.
(Summarized from BBC Earth Magazine (Vol.9 Issue 1), page 30 by Jo Carlowe)

Verdict: Yes, the information age has shortened our attention span
Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)

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