Thursday, September 24, 2009

In Combination

Somehow this article in Seed Magazine manages to combine almost every single one of my interests – remarkable. I can’t wait for more from Seed's design column.  As I try to write my personal statement for grad school and form a coherent narrative about my interests and my life, it’s a nice reminder that philosophy, science and design can all be connected!

More links:
Design and the Elastic Mind, 2008 MoMA exhibit
Core Principles, an earlier Seed article about the interface of science and design

Monday, September 14, 2009

Less corners, more conversation.

> aerial view of l'Eixample district

It took me a little while to figure it out. I was walking much more than seemed necessary, considering the market was only a few blocks away. But for each small advance I made in the straight line, there was a diagonal detour to get to the crosswalk. I must have had quite a puzzled look on my face as I passed by several elderly men, chatting outside on picturesque little coffee tables with their café amb llet (coffee with milk). That was another thing. How was it possible that every street corner was brimming with chairs, people and conversations?

And then I realized the two were connected. Each block was cut off at the corners, a rectangular octagon rather than a perfect square. This effectively created a lively, open space out of a congested intersection, with four beautiful facades facing towards the middle.

As I later found out, the man responsible for this genius idea of urban planning is Ildefons Cerdà, who designed a massive new expansion of the city in 1859. The Eixample district (where I live!) is the main achievement of his grand Project for the Extension of Barcelona, which laid out his visions of a city based on the values of functionality, equality, mobility, and communication. He was concerned with the crowded living conditions of Barcelona’s old town–unsanitary and isolating–as well as the unequal access to city services by different social classes. His new grid would allow for easier and more efficient transportation (by foot, carriages, and later, railways), and the beveled street corners were intended to provide ample room for public spaces, greenery, and dialogue. His plan even extended to legal and financial regulations, which encouraged mixed-income housing and enabled poor workers to live together in apartments with wealthy families.

Ironically, in a city that loves curves, Cerdà’s grid turned out to be immensely successful. While much of present-day Barcelona is very different from his original plan (for example, many of the green spaces were filled in to accommodate more people and more parking), his urban designs are, literally, around every corner. And his efforts to encourage communication have been quite successful–as evidenced by all the chatter.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


> El Parque Güell, Barcelona

For the next 3 months, I'll be in Barcelona (!) I'm posting all my photos here. Today involved a lot of walking. And some very pretty mosaics.

And so the adventures begin...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Science of Morality

This post is a continuation of my thoughts from a few weeks ago, on the Collins nomination and the scope of science. I’m finding myself coming back to this issue of what science can tell us about morality–and the sort of knowledge we can expect to get from science about human nature. To start, we know the type of knowledge we are likely not going to get from science: Alongside the electron and proton, scientists have discovered a new “moral” particle: the moron!* Instead, science will most likely describe our moral practices and possibly hint at how we came to acquire them. For example, a growing body of data shows that people with vastly different cultural practices will still show similarities in their moral judgments. Some scientists (I’ve mentioned Marc Hauser before) are attempting to give an evolutionary account of how we got this way; essentially trying to explain a moral universality through biology. With this and other scientific work we may begin to learn more about the evolution of pro-social or moral intuitions; perhaps we’ll discover that a sense of spirituality was evolutionarily beneficial, or we’ll uncover an underlying universal moral grammar (similar to Chomsky’s theory of language). Animal studies may reveal shared biological mechanisms that drive moral judgments. Brain damage studies may give us more information on how our moral capacities are affected by different parts of the brain and emotional processing. Surveys may tell us more about the types of principles we use to decide whether an act is morally permissible or not. In the past few years, in fact, there has been an explosion of empirical work in exactly these directions. From game theory to neurobiology, science can tell us a lot about morality.

What science cannot tell us is specifically what that morality ought to look like. Science is descriptive (it can tell us how we are) but not prescriptive (it can’t tell us how we should be). So just because our moral intuitions incline us to act a certain way, it doesn’t make it right to act this way. But I don’t think the discussion ends here. It doesn’t make it right, but can a greater knowledge of the science of morality have any implications for what shape that morality should take? I think so. A scientific theory of morality may give us some guidance as to what we, as humans in society, can achieve easily or even reasonably strive for. It could provide some information about to what sort of legal policies will be easier or harder to change, depending on whether they are in accord with our evolutionary intuitions or run counter to them. It may inform how we think about personal responsibility and how we carry out punishment. A notion of a shared morality may even ease some of the conflict between groups of people, who may be able to appreciate underlying similarities rather than differences (optimistic, I admit).

A scientific theory of morality could also help explain why our initial intuitions about particular moral scenarios are so strong, despite the fact that, upon reflection, the morality seems weak. An example from Peter Singer: most people would agree that walking past a child drowning in a pond and doing nothing, when you could easily reach in and save the child, is morally wrong. However, doing nothing to save a starving child in another country, when you could easily donate a few dollars, is arguably the moral equivalent. Yet intuitively these cases seem very different. The evolutionary reason for our making this distinction is not hard to imagine–we evolved in small, isolated groups and had no means of knowing about people hundreds of miles away, let alone helping them. But in our modern, global society, the distinction virtually disappears. If I reflect on these two cases and decide that, in fact, I am morally obligated to send aid to other countries, I will have proven my initial intuition wrong. In other words, moral intuitions might be explained through science, but there is no reason to think that they will necessarily point us in the right moral direction. The fact that we can revise our moral judgments means that we are able to use other human capacities, like reason and empathy, to guide our morality. A scientific understanding of morality cannot dictate how we ought to act, but it can tell us how we are likely to respond to certain moral arguments. Ultimately, it will take careful thinking and a concern for others to provide us with the reasons and motives to change our behavior.

*taken from an essay by Austin Dacey