Friday, January 29, 2010

Nuclear Power: Obama Calls It Right

As is reported about everywhere, President Obama has announced real support for a nuclear power infrastructure redux in the United States. Here in the past [1] [2] [3], I've been an advocate of nuclear power. My position has not changed. Skimming thru some of the recent articles, I have found some select, encouraging remarks about nuclear power. For example,
The US Department of Energy says that coal-fired power plants (burning anthracite, bituminous, subbituminous, lignite, waste coal, and coal synfuel) generated 1,787,669,000 megawatthours in the rolling 12-months ended October 2009, while natural gas-fired plants accounted for 906,217,000 megawatthours, and petroleum liquids (distillate fuel oil, residual fuel oil, jet fuel, kerosene, and waste oil) generated 28,216,000 megawatthours. Nuclear plants generated 906,217,000 megawatthours in the same period. [Amir Adnani, an energy industry executive] says, "These figures are astonishing because, if the US were to use as much nuclear energy as France, which relies on nuclear power for 80% of its electricity, we could shut down virtually every coal, natural gas-fired and oil-burning power plant. Our greenhouse gas emissions would plummet, our national security would be enhanced, and our balance of payments situation would improve."[4]
The U.S. has no shortage of Uranium either, as the stuff is "literally under our feet." Although we import approximately 95% of the uranium we use, the US has the fourth largest deposits of uranium in the world.[4]

Although I think the Democrats have been both wise and prudent to emphasize and pursue other sources of energy, I've always felt that nuclear power is the most efficient, immediate, and global-warming friendly solution to world energy needs. It also heartens me that well-informed scientists think this too.[5][6] Politically, as the both-isle standing and clapping ritual showed during Obama's speech, the Republicans can support this. Solid science, correct technology, presidential priority,and bi-partisan agreement makes this the best news I've heard in a long time about the U.S.'s energy future.



[1] "Nuclear Power's Hour is Now" November 30, 2008.

[2] "Coal Plants and U.S. Electricity" May 16, 2009

[3] "Steven Chu, the right choice for secretary of energy" December 11, 2008 (Chu is supportive of the nuclear option too. Obama can finally turn him loose on the problem he's been desperately wanting to attack.)

[4] "Obama: Nuclear Power Part of America's Energy Future" Zibb -- Business Wire (Accessed Jan 28, 2009)

[5] "Can nuclear power compete?" Scientific American Dec. 9, 2008 (Accessed Jan. 28, 2010)

[6] John M. Deutch and Ernest J. Moniz "The Nuclear Option (.PDF)" Scientific American. (Accessed Jan 28, 2010)

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Philosophy of Action Speculations III

Separating actions from behaviors requires some sort of baseline comparison, a determination on what counts as the default bodily state. Here's an argument which might suggest some analysis:
1. Any state of our body which is its default behavioral state is not to be be counted as an action.
2. A limp body is our default behavioral state.
3. .:. A limp body is not to be counted as an action.
Premise 2 raises a troublesome issue. Consider when one is asleep. The vast majority of the time when I am asleep, I am not moving. (i) Sometimes I turn over from my left side to my right. But when I do so, I awake for just a second or so, make the adjustment, and then go back to sleep. In this case, I am initiating a short action. (ii) But in dreams, I sometimes turn over too. I those cases I am not awake, so I am not initiating an action. In dreams I have a bodily behavior, but that behavior is not an action, since I form no intention to turn over. (iii) Sometimes I am not awake, and I am not dreaming; I am "dead asleep" as the saying goes. Still, a muscle might twitch, or my diaphragm might go through a single, inhale/exhale respiration cycle. Yet these things too count only as behaviors and not actions -- again, since I form no intention to do such behaviors.

Is that the default state of my body -- what it's doing (the vast majority of the time) when I am asleep? The problem here is that I'm not asleep that vast majority of the time. I'm only asleep (at most) a third of the time of a full 24-hour day. This problem arises for singular parts of our bodies too. Here's a related argument (now supposing I'm awake):
4. Any state of our body which is its default behavioral state is not to be be counted as an action.
5. A relaxed vestigial ear muscle is in its default state.
6. .:. A relaxed vestigial ear muscle is not to be counted as an action.
Premise (5) just considers a part of our body. This ear muscle case is easier than the sleeping case, since in the sleeping case I am forming no intentions at all, but in the ear muscle case I just happen not to be forming intentions (or even thinking about) my ear. Furthermore, the vestigial ear muscle[1] case is uncontroversially accurate as a description of our default bodily state, unlike the sleep state case.

Perhaps the error here is thinking that the default state is established merely by how often a body(or body part) is in a state. In addition, the default state should also be assessed as the state of behavior when there is no intention directed upon it. It is important to get clear on the default state issue in order to analyze both 'negative actions' and non-action causal consequences of actions.



[1] "Human vestigiality" Wikipedia (Accessed Jan. 28, 2010)

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Philosophy of Action Speculations II

[ I've been thinking about when somebody is properly said to act. For example, if an Oklahoma tornado blows me bodily into you, and injures you, I didn't act to injure you, even if I did cause injury to you. Or again, the wind causes irritation to my eye, so without even noticing it, I blink my eye. I had behaviors of blinking my eye, but I didn't act to blink my eye. Causes and behaviors are different than actions. Here's another in the series -- B ]

Suppose a policeman, officer Oscar, fires a warning shot to halt the actions of a wayward citizen, Mr. Kane. Unfortunately, the bullet ricochets, subsequently striking and killing Kane. Immediately, Oscar wonders if it was his actions which killed Kane. So, did Oscar act to kill Kane?

Well, there certainly were some antecedent thoughts by Oscar -- he wanted to pull his gun; he wanted to squeeze the trigger, etc. -- and these thoughts resulted in Oscar behaving in ways to carry out those thoughts -- he held his wrist steady, exercised the muscle on his index finger, etc. But the consequences seem all wrong; the death of Kane was not intended (i.e. premeditated) by Oscar. Well, it was not premeditated in any strong sense, though Oscar would have admitted that there was always a small (say .05%) chance of the death of Kane (or anybody) getting killed by a ricochet in such circumstances. We could see this as weak premeditation.

But suppose, contrary to fact, bullets ricochet with 95% probability, and this was commonly known. Let the shooting case be re-adjusted accordingly. Still, the knowledge of the consequent isn't a sure thing, even if the chance of death is very high. Indeed, stipulate Oscar didn't plan ahead, or even think about the killing consequences to Kane. Still, with such knowledge of high odds, does the notion of premeditation even matter as regards whether Oscar acted? in this 95% case, it somehow seems right to say Oscar did act to kill Kane.

But maybe one could take both cases into account in the same way:
1. An act occurs only if somebody premeditates the consequences of their chosen behaviors.
2. Oscar didn't premeditate Kane's death in the .05% case
3. Oscar didn't premeditate Kane's death in the 95% case.
4. So, Oscar didn't act to kill Kane in either case.
In cases of negligence, we say things like, "He should have thought it through." But that just evaluates whether Oscar is morally responsible, not whether he acted. Yet the moral evaluation seems to smuggle in the hidden assumption (without giving evidence for it) that he indeed acted. Yes, we say somebody is morally responsible for some consequence only if s/he acted to bring that consequence about. Fine, but did or did not Oscar so act?


[image] by Scot Olsen in

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Philosophy of Action Speculations

Suppose Albert plants a bomb to kill Bill. Perhaps he hides it under Bill's house. But Albert suddenly dies. Two days later, the bomb explodes and kills Bill. Did Albert act to kill Bill?

Common sense quickly says yes. But sometimes common sense is fantastically wrong, as physicists and psychologist take great delight in showing. The burden of proof would require some argument against common sense. An argument against Albert killing Bill might go this way:
1. Something (in this case, a killing) can be considered an 'act' of somebody only if there is an operating intention behind that act.
2. But there is an operating intention behind an act only if the (alleged) actor is alive at the time.
3. Albert was not alive at the time the bomb exploded.

4. So, Albert had no operating intention at the time the bomb exploded (by 3 & 2)
5. Thus, the killing of Bill can't be considered an act of Albert (by 4 & 1)
Premise (3) is stipulated by the story. (2) might be assailable, but it would take some work. (1) seems easiest to rebut. Are there cases where something is an act, but nobody is intending anything?

Suppose, when they kids, Albert bought one of those spring-loaded, fake peanut cans where a snake pops out. He placed it on Bill's kitchen shelf, so as to startle him. Weeks went buy, and Albert forgot all about the peanut can joke. One day Bill opened the can, and was greatly startled. Did Albert act to startle Bill?

Yes, Albert did. Here, it's an easier case, since Albert is still alive. Upon being reminded of the can, young Albert would say he still wants to startle Bill, so the intention is once again operant. Or, suppose Albert had forgotten about the can for only 2 seconds, but the can then springs the fake snake on Bill at the next moment. In the normal course of conversation, no one would reasonably doubt that Albert (successfully) acted to startle Bill.

Intention, therefore, is "gappy." It's like knowledge. A person doesn't know what they know every conscious moment, but if asked what the carpet or floorboards looked like in one's childhood home, a person might bring the hithertofore long-forgotten knowledge immediately to consciousness.



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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Would you take gene therapy for monogamy?

Eventually, gene therapy might be perfected as a mechanism of modifying people's courtship and mating behaviors, but "can do" and "should do" questions remain.

Behold, the humble vole. It mostly looks like an extra plump, longer-haired field mouse; but, in its different varieties, it has begun revealing that there might be a genetic basis for different styles of mating and family rearing among mammals.

First, consider the prairie vole, common to North America's grasslands
What makes it unusual among mammals is that it is both sociable and monogamous. Prairie voles groom each other, nest with one another, collaborate to guard their territory and are affectionate and attentive parents who form, for the most part, devoted couples.[1]
This behavior is in contrast to its relative, the meadow vole, which "prefers a solitary, promiscuous existence."[1] But the meadow vole can be modified: "it is possible to inject a viral vector for the vasopressin receptor into the brains of the fickle meadow voles and make them better partners and parents."[1]

The differences in behaviors between these two species of vole are due only to a small set of genetic differences:
a hormone called vasopressin and the protein molecule that acts as its receptor. Prairie voles have many vasopressin receptors in the reward centres of their brains. It seems as though these are wired up in a way that causes the animal to take pleasure from monogamy.[1]
Vasopressin receptor variations in people have been linked to problems in marriages as well. So now arises a bioethics issue:

Suppose you find yourself dating a high quality person: she or he is intelligent, healthy, physically attractive, and from a very stable family environment. As these things go, you both declare your love to one another, solely and forever, and your intentions to have a family together. One day, the partner of your dreams says s/he has a really serious question to ask you.

S/he reminds you that s/he has worked for some time at a major research center for mammalian genetics, and that there is now no doubt about the tripartite vasopressin to brain function to monogamy behavioral link. In fact, even mammals that do not usually exhibit monogamous or child-labor sharing behaviors can be induced to do so by a simple injection of a viral-implanting vector. Your partner (rightly, it turns out) says that your mutual declarations of eternal love and commitments to family participation could now rely upon more than just the too often unreliable, existential exercise of the will, but upon the assurance of a strong, undeniable natural urge (likeunto the strong, undeniable natural desire for sex or food). It would only be a one-time, simple injection.

"My love," s/he asks, "shouldn't we guarantee our commitment forever?"




[1] "Monogamouse" The Economist Dec. 30, 2009.

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