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Friday, June 12, 2009

Intellectual Schmoozing

Lately I have been fairly bad about maintaining this blog, and I apologize for my lack of recent posting. A lot of that is due to a moderate degree of mental exhaustion; I spend long hours at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization (MPIDS) combined with the generally overwhelming feelings that accompany a move (even a temporary one) to a new country. However, I cannot complain too greatly about being tired, because the work is interesting and I am learning a lot. I am also coming to view neurons from a different perspective, and that is a fun and fascinating thing.

It is not just work and dealing with a different culture that has been keeping me from blogging, though. Academia is as much a social institution as any other human endeavour, and, while at a large university like the University of Toronto it is easy to keep your head down and coast along without ever really being aware of the academic community (aside, of course, from the people teaching your classes), at a small institution like MPIDS the sense of community is much more universal (in general atmosphere, MPIDS has much in common with UTIAS. For those who have forgotten, you can reread my fan-boyish fawning over UTIAS here). So, there have been a couple nights where I have been out late either enjoying food, wine, and beer with a few people from the Institute or at the Institute itself sharing the aforementioned victuals with a larger portion of the general Institute population.

Last night was one of those nights at the Institute, with the party sparked by the coincidence of a guest speaker (an American professor who I believe currently holds a post at an Italian university) and a birthday (one of the Ph.D. students, who, oddly enough, is also Italian). The guest speaker was particularly popular because his presentation was not so much a serious one but was rather a light-hearted application of visual computation algorithms in real-time. The motivation was ostensibly related to the motion tracking capabilities of the retina, but I found that connection tenuous as best (after all, the problem of motion tracking at a low processing level like the retina is highly dependent upon hardware, and the hardware of the eye and a computer differ greatly). Though posessing only a weak connection to visual perception, the talk was essentially an artistic presentation with a strong mathematical basis, and that can be fun too.

After the talk came the pizza, cake, wine, and beer. It also meant intellectual schmoozing in a whole smattering of languages (primarily German and English, of course, but there was also a little bit of Italian, Russian, and Farsi flying around). I got to meet a large number of people from the Institute that I had not yet had a chance to talk to, and we had some very interesting discussions ranging from politics, history, and languages to neuroscience, mathematics, and evolutionary theory. I will end this post with one of the more interesting classical psychological question series (which is fun to bandy about at parties), and the most tongue-in-cheek response I have yet heard to the query (of course coming, as you will see, from an evolutionary biologist).

The question series goes like this:
You are standing next to a branch in a rail line. A train is hurtling down the track without breaks, and the track it is currently set to go down has five workers on it oblivious to the danger. On the other track is a single worker. Do you throw the switch and kill the single worker or let the train continue on its original course where it will kill five workers?

You are now standing on a bridge overlooking a set of train tracks. Once again, there are five workers on the tracks below oblivious to a breakless train hurtling toward them. On the bridge with his back to you is a large man unaware of your presence. If you sneak up behind him and push him off the bridge onto the tracks below, he has sufficient mass to cause the train to dislodge from the tracks and come to a halt before it strikes the workers. Do you push the man off the bridge, or do you let the train continue on its path to kill the five workers?
The psychologically interesting thing is that the majority of people would throw the switch in the first formulation of the question but balk at the physical act of pushing the man in the second question off the bridge to his certain death. The snarky response I got from the evolutionary biologist was, "Am I related to any of them?" When I responded that he was not, he shrugged and said, "Oh, well, then it doesn't matter."

7 comments:

Robert said...

I love that question, about saving the lives of the people on the train. For me, as a philosophy major, I always approached it from an ethical point of view. Just about everyone I have studied would say it is ethical (or at least not morally wrong) to pull the switch and send the train killing the one person, to save the lives of the 5 on the train. However, I think someone that takes a Kantian view of ethics would find it immoral to push the large person over the ledge to save the 5 in the train. This is because you are using the large person as a means to an end, and not as an end-in-of-herself. Using the person as a means to an end violates the persons rationality and agency. (which is the most important thing)

Someone in a utilitarian position though would most likely say that pushing the person over would be the right thing to do, because of the numbers game.

Mozglubov said...

I have never actually thought of it in that way... I've only ever really thought of it from the utilitarian perspective combined with my own undefined emotional abhorrence of the second situation (pushing someone to his death to save five others just feels much worse than flipping a switch to kill one person and save five others). I never thought of it from the perspective of ethical violations and means to an end sorts of formulations...

I suppose my lack of philosophical study is thus made apparent (but that is the joy of collaboration!).

Assaf said...

The thing with the utilitarian approach is that it never really works. I think you'd feel the same amount of guilt regardless of your choice, assuming you're not a sociopath (in which case you'd might opt to kill the 5 workers altogether!). Without any other prior knowledge, I really don't know what I'd do, and I think anyone who answers this question without giving it serious thought is probably a liar or completely clueless as to what it means to send another person to his/her death.

In a real world situation I'd probably try to stop the train or wait for the people on it to jump or shout to the workers long before I'd even contemplate pulling any switches.

Mozglubov said...

Well, yes, you could always argue that you would not pull any switches but would instead jump and shout and otherwise try to get the attention of the workers... but the point of the question is not to be realistic, but to rather display a lack of consistency in our thought-processes (at least, as interpreted in the utilitarian point of view). As Robert pointed out, this 'lack of consistency' could instead be viewed as consistent within a given ethical framework, but I think that in and of itself helps to display that people do not operate as fully rational, utilitarian beings. Of course, there are both good and bad ramifications of that fact.

In actual fact, I would hope I would never find myself in the outlined situation.

Anonymous said...

When I read the puzzle, I wondered what the law would say about the person who made the choice. Would either choice lead to a charge of manslaughter (or even murder in the case of pushing the man over the parapet -- one in the law might even argue that it was pre-meditated) and if one were charged would a jury of peers find one guilty? And then one could look at the case of "doing nothing" in which case of what would one be guilty?

Anonymous said...

Your mom here: There is always the practical aspect - would I be strong enough to actually pull the switch or push the person over the edge? Those minor points may just make my mind up for me.

Robert said...

I think the point of the puzzle is to eliminate the extra concerns, such as is there another way to prevent the train crash, am I strong enough to push the guy over the ledge and onto the path of the train, etc. Best to put all that stuff to the side and just stick with the situation at hand. From my training, the question would be, which decision would be ethical.

You have got to think that the law would charge you with murder for pushing the guy over to stop the train. But just diverting the train, I cannot see that as murder, or even manslaughter.