Diana’s Naivety in “Wonder Woman” Is Our Own

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

One of the reasons I like the 2017 film “Wonder Woman” is that the protagonist’s struggles to understand the nature of good, evil and humanity reflect a common problem humanity has in understanding itself. Unfortunately, the point may be missed because the character seems much more naïve than we are. Psychologists have shown that we can be similarly naïve in a more subtle way. (Contains mild spoilers.)

At the beginning of Wonder Woman, it’s easy to see Diana, the protagonist, has a very naïve view of humanity. She believes the story that humans were created to be good and were corrupted by Ares, the god of war. When she hears of the horrors of the First World War, she expects that finding and destroying Ares would make it all stop instantly; the people would come back to their senses and stop doing such monstrous things. It’s easy to guess that, whatever the role of Ares may be, she’s in for a rude surprise.

When Diana finally encounters Ares, the Lasso of Truth can’t stop him from saying things about humanity that she finds hard to deny. They are certainly not good beings whose minds were taken over by an evil god. He has given them some ideas, but ultimately, they have chosen for themselves.

Ares believes that humans are destructive creatures who should be purged from the face of the Earth. Diana set out with the belief that humans were inherently good and Ares was the source of evil, but after seeing the truth about humanity, she finds that her way of thinking inevitably leads her to dark places – all too close to Ares for comfort.

Both characters share an underlying assumption: Beings who are good do good things, and only evil beings do evil things. In reality, it’s mostly not about being inherently good or evil, but about being inherently limited.

Diana’s journey prepares her to see both sides of things. She travels with people of the sort she’d consider dishonorable – a spy, a con-man, a sniper, a smuggler – and sees how they’re each trying to get by in a world that leaves little option to be perfectly good. Especially without superpowers.

Cynical as we may be, we have some of the naivety Diana starts out with. In his brilliant and startling book Evil, psychologist Roy Baumeister argues that we have an unrealistic tendency to suppose that, when someone does something that harms us, they must be driven by malicious motives that we ourselves could never share. He calls this the “myth of pure evil”, and it’s also related to the fundamental attribution error and banality of evil.

It’s no wonder, then, that we seek to answer the question of where evil comes from as if it’s an active power. But we don’t need a literal or metaphorical Satan when we have a world full of people with partly conflicting interests, who frequently don’t understand what harms another person or don’t care as much as they should.

Some of the greatest evil stems from the illusion that one is fighting evil, like Ares in the movie, or terrorists who think they’re Luke Skywalker and “enemy” civilians are the Death Star. Even when we don’t actively set out to harm others like that, if we want to avoid ever committing evil ourselves, we must see through the illusion that it’s a force outside of us.

 

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What Are We Looking for When Looking for Alien Life?

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

How exactly did life emerge here on Earth? Is there life anywhere else? If there is, how common is it? What kind of conditions make life possible at all? Can it only exist on a planet? An Earth-like planet?

We know much about life on Earth as it is now, and quite a few things about its past, so scientists have been able to make many educated guesses about what is possible for life to be like elsewhere. Nevertheless, we’re stuck in a difficult position where we’re missing the most important element for drawing scientific conclusions: empirical observations to test theories against.

So far, we have discovered no life out there in space. Claims of extraterrestrial life forms observed visiting us are, unfortunately, quite implausible; they can only teach us things about human psychology. (To anyone who sees reason to think otherwise, I apologize for making such a strong claim without arguing for it. I obviously have no space here to explain why this is my – and scientists’ – considered view.) All we have is the one case of life on this planet, and even here, we have a very clouded view of how exactly it began.

When looking for exoplanets that might harbor life, it makes sense to look for Earth-like conditions – to start with. We know for sure that such conditions can support life.

Yet, we mustn’t confuse this fact with the idea that life could possibly arise and thrive only in these conditions. The idea that life would have to be exactly as life is here is very interestingly criticized by biologist Jack Cohen and mathematician Ian Stewart in their book about the subject. (See also here for my review of it.)

Life on Earth evolved to thrive in the conditions that exist here. At the same time, it altered those conditions. The abundance of oxygen that allows us to breathe didn’t exist until photosynthesis emerged and that started to free it from carbon dioxide. Perhaps something like this could happen elsewhere, so it makes sense to look for planets with oxygen.

But could life emerge in entirely different kinds of conditions? Life as we know it couldn’t, but we can’t know it’s the only kind of life possible. Life is something that consumes energy to perpetuate itself; perhaps this universal pattern could emerge in something we’d never think of. All it takes for natural selection to develop proto-life into life and simple life into more complex life is the right combination of heritable characteristics, random variability, and non-random selection pressures. In principle, this could be realized by very different physical systems.

Perhaps there could be entirely foreign forms of life existing on a gas giant, or the surface of a neutron star. Of course, at this point, we simply can’t know. Science can never go out on pure extrapolation, and for all that observations show us so far, there might only be life in one place in the universe.

Review: What Does a Martian Look Like? by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart

what-does-a-martian-look-likeCreatures… that are born pregnant; with twenty different sexes; that eat their own children; that can survive without water for a quarter of a billion years. Absurd? Not at all.

These are creatures alive on planet Earth. And they show us just how different alien life could be from anything we know.

What does a Martian Look Like? The Science of Extraterrestrial Life (also known in other editions as Evolving the Alien) sets out to do something seemingly impossible: to scientifically describe something we have never seen. The question it asks is what we can know about extraterrestrial life. Of course, we have never found any of that. And yet, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart also argue against imagining it will be just like life on Earth. Continue reading

6 stupid things done by natural selection

When we think of evolution, guided by natural selection, we tend to think it leads to “better” organisms. And in some sense, it often does. Forget the idea of a ladder where you always get “higher” organisms as you go up. It’s way more complicated than that. But even putting that aside, even if we just consider organisms adapting to new environments rather than becoming “better”, it seems natural selection guides things in a purposeful direction.

That does happen, but it’s easy to get the wrong impression. If you look at some feature of an organism that’s well adapted to its environment, like a monkey’s hands and tail used for climbing or a flower’s colours that attract insects, you’ll get an explanation like this: In these circumstances, it was useful for the species to have that trait, so natural selection favoured that trait and the species developed in that direction. Those who had the trait could outcompete those who didn’t, so they had more descendants, and so natural selection gave the species that trait.

It seems like this is the very basis of evolution by natural selection. Well, kind of. But it’s oversimplified. The problem is that it often leads to the reasoning “If trait A is good for survival and its alternative trait B is not, then natural selection must end up choosing trait B.” But if you ask real evolutionary biologists, there are a number of ways in which it does the opposite, and those make perfect sense once you look at the details too… Continue reading

Three philosophies: Knowledge, wisdom and… money?

money-or-somethingI’ve talked before about Nicholas Maxwell’s criticism of current practice and philosophy of science. I’ve written about it in Finnish here and here; here is the website of the group dedicated to this idea.

To put it shortly, Maxwell’s idea is this: Science commonly takes the idea of objectivity too far and in the wrong direction. Its underlying philosophy is what he calls the philosophy of knowledge. This emphasizes that only empirically testable claims have a place in science, as opposed to metaphysics or values.

This may sound like a good idea, and it would be, given the right interpretation. But it’s being given the wrong interpretation. Values or ideologies must not affect the results obtained from science, but they should guide what resources are spent on. When you are not allowed to consider values even at this point, you often end up spending resources on something useless or harmful. So developing countries may have much more need for new technologies or researched solutions, but there’s more money in solving first-world problems. Similarly, metaphysics must not be more important than empirical results, but every theory has background metaphysics anyway, so acknowledging those would allow scientists to understand better what they’re doing. Continue reading

Review: Biocentrism by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman

Biocentrism

Wait, quoting Deepak Chopra? Who exactly is this being marketed to?

Biocentrism purports to outline a new scientific hypothesis strongly suggested by both the results and the blind alleys of current science. According to this theory, life and consciousness must be understood as not being merely emergent phenomena in a universe built of physics, but something fundamental that the physical universe depends on. The main arguments combine metaphysical idealism from philosophy and an interpretation of the “observer effect” in quantum mechanics to conclude that physical things do not exist (or do not exist in a definite state) other than when they’re observed. There are also other conclusions like the unreality of time and space at the fundamental level.

Apparently Robert Lanza is supposed to be some kind of a new superstar in science — someone such that if anyone was going to revolutionise things, it would be someone like him — and Berman also a notable scientist. Nevertheless, their presentation here gives little reason to be convinced.

Continue reading