2 June 2014

The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris

harris Sam Harris wrote a couple of excellent missives on the downsides of modern religious thinking and religious institutions in The End of Faith and the sequel which rebutted some of the U.S. criticism from it, called Letter to a Christian Nation.

He published a new major work in 2010, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. In this philosophical and scientific argument, Harris argues that the traditional dichotomy of scientific understanding and ethics is a false one, and that we can actually have a rational, empirical approach to human morality. What it boils down to is this: Harris thinks that morality is maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, and that that well-being is both (1) partially produced by and (2) totally experienced as states of the brain. Brain states can be measured, however crudely (MRI, etc.), and therefore are subject to empirical study. Ergo, science can study morality. Furthermore, this study can produce proscriptive advice about which actions are most likely to produce a positive shift in the well-being of the conscious creatures (e.g., people) under study, and which are likely to shift things in a negative direction. Though Harris acknowledges that some parsing of options may forever be out of reach of reason, we can at least say that some states of being are clearly better than others. He offers a harrowing comparison early on in the book between two lives, and it’s pretty clear that even a moral relativist would have no issues choosing the better of the two. So there is a distinction being made between broad-scale better-than/worse-than comparisons and fine-grained comparisons; only the former are really within current reach of empirical morality.

So: there are better and worse lives to live, and these are reflected in the states of conscious brains, and we can empirically evaluate (study) those brains. Ergo, we scientists can in fact evaluate moral issues – they are not “off limits” to science, which means that philosophers, priests, and popes no longer exclusively hold the keys to the moral engine. Furthermore, because scientific ideas are subject to falsification, and are data-driven, science is well positioned to “win” any arguments with contrary points of view. The Moral “Landscape” of the title is an imaginary surface, where the peaks correspond to the “good life” (more than one possible way to live the good life), and valleys correspond to the “bad life” (and there are also many different ways to be miserable). In general, Harris wants to find the ways to push more people up toward higher peaks – maximizing their well-being not merely over the short, hedonistic time span, but over the longer, multi-decade ‘satisfaction’/fulfilment time span.

There are several “tangents” Harris makes in the course of his argument, which I thought were (a) totally compelling as discrete essays, and (b) somewhat peripheral to his main argument, at least insofar as the scale of attention they warrant. One of these is the Catholic church’s horrific child sex abuse scandal. Another is the lamentable choice of Francis Collins as the director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the ludicrous conversion story through which Collins came to his faith. (Spoiler alert: It boils down to this: “Pretty waterfall, therefore Jesus”). Harris pulls no punches: his scathing critique of Collins’ sloppy non-scientific thinking is robust and compelling. There is also a protracted discussion of free will, which is more relevant to the main points of The Moral Landscape, but also less compelling. I get why people reject the notion of free will, but I’m not sure that Harris’ presentation of the topic was as convincing as I would have hoped it would be.

Much more compelling (in terms of exploring a biological basis for behavior vs. a dualistic independent soul) was an interesting exploration of “good vs. evil,” wherein Harris presents 6 or 7 hypothetical scenarios, each of which has a male killing a female with a gun. The details of each scenario vary to include various levels of mitigation factors such as the age of the person pulling the trigger (baby, boy, man), accidental/intentional firing, a childhood history of abuse, a brain tumor which affects behavior, etc. Which of them is acceptably “good”? Which qualifies as “evil”? The gradations between the actual situations are too fine to parse. So why do we have the concepts of “good” and “evil”? Harris argues that they are a vestigial trait, our culture’s inheritance from its religionist past (i.e., all moral authority flows from god/gods, and moral choices are like a light switch: the choice that gets you into paradise, and the one that damns you to torment for all of eternity). Even pyschopaths aren’t evil in some ultimate sense, he argues, it’s just that their brains are broken – a biological determinant. It should be noted that Harris pursues this line of argument while being very clear that psychopathic behavior is among the most awful in the world, causing horrific suffering. I’m haunted by one particular passage he quoted in the book to make this point. Be forewarned: it’s not for the faint of heart.

The Moral Landscape is put forward as a conversational catalyst, to encourage discussion and motivate investigation. A ‘science of morality’ doesn’t really exist yet in our intellectual culture, but Harris wants to make it happen. This book should be viewed as the start of that conversation. I find it a convincing start, and given the seriousness of the matters discussed, I think our intellectual community owes it to humanity to take a closer look at whether we can in fact use science to make moral judgements, and specifically rule out certain behaviors as more injurious than helpful.

I think it’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read. I encourage you to read it.

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30 May 2014

Friday fold: subthrust syncline in lower Helderberg limestones, Corridor H

fold_pano_WV_smallClick to enlarge

You owe it to yourself to click through and make this bigger. Check out the prominent lower left to upper right thrust fault, and the shattering in the shorter limb of the underlying syncline. Is that another one to the right?

Happy exploring, and happy Friday!

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29 May 2014

A new diamictite exposure (Devonian?) along Corridor H

While on Corridor H last week with Team “Border to Beltway” (and USGS research geologist Dan Doctor), we stopped at the putative mass transport deposit. We still haven’t figured out which unit this is (It’s not the Foreknobs), but as we approached it, Dan wondered aloud, “I wonder where the top of the Devonian is. Maybe we could find some of Dave Brezinski’s glacial deposits.”

If you’re not aware of this notion, it’s that there are widespread glaciogenic sediments (diamictites and dropstones) throughout the greater Appalachian basin. They are late Devonian in age, a time when there was glaciation in Gondwana, and a global mass extinction usually blamed on global cooling.

I discuss this notion on my Sideling Hill field trip, since there are decent diamictite outcrops exposed on the far western side of the mountain. One of the “Border to Beltway” participants had also been on the Sideling Hill trip this past spring, and it was she who walked up to me and asked, “I have something I’d like you to take a look at. Is this a diamictite?”

Lower (physically and stratigraphically) in the same outcrop, she had indeed found a gorgeous diamictite:


Internally, the matrix of this poorly-sorted sedimentary rock was massive. The “outsized” clasts were a variety of shapes, sizes, and lithologies.

This made me so happy – to have taught a student a concept in one context, and then to have her spontaneously and accurately and totally unprompted by me apply it in a new context. She had learned, and she had learned well!


Boy, I got excited over this new exposure… Check out some of its most outstanding clasts…




We removed some clasts for closer examination. Some were rounded, some could be called “faceted,” I suppose. None were noticeably striated.


This one was a quartzite:


Interestingly, we also found plant fragments in the diamictite, preserved as carbon films. Does this make a glaciogenic interpretation of this rock more or less plausible?


Man oh man, Corridor H is the gift that keeps on giving. What else will we find out there?

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28 May 2014

B2B Coastal Plain trip

Last week, the “Border to Beltway” field exchange team went to Dora Kelly Park in Alexandria, Virginia. There, a ravine reveals the boundary between the Coastal Plain and the underlying metamorphic rocks of the Piedmont…


My NOVA colleague Ken Rasmussen joined us for the day, leading us deep below the soil profile to examine the basal nonconformity beneath our youngest geologic province:


The ravine was dark, so the next few photos were taken with a flash, and thus don’t have color saturations that match reality…

Here are Cretaceous Potomac Formation gravel deposits, with differentially weathered cobbles. The 100% quartz cobbles stick out as three-dimensional features, while the granitoid cobbles have been thoroughly chemically weathered, and are planed off to a two-dimensional representation on the saprolitic outcrop surface:




Hark! What new feature is that, below the gravels?


Why, it’s the Piedmont! Specifically, the Indian Run Formation, a schisty unit:


Within the Indian Run Formation are exotic clasts, including this one with a pre-existing foliation (at an angle to the foliation of the surrounding schist):


Here’s another…


Are these clasts dropstones? Are they blocks within a tectonic melange? Such mysteries!

Downstream, at Holmes Run, Ernie examined a clean, non-saprolitic schist sample with his hand lens:


Next up: Henson Creek, in Oxon Hill, Maryland. There, we visited the Aquia Sandstone (Paleocene), a glauconitic sandstone that was chock full of fossils:


Here’s a nice Turitella in cross-section:


The big ones are Cucullaea gigantea, a massive bivalve.


Here’s a Cucullaea in cross section:


And here is one weathering out as a steinkern (internal mold) in the stream bed, catching organic debris in its umbo:


Two more, with deer tracks and a rock hammer for scale:


The students had a blast collecting these massive clam fossils:


We also saw another unconformity at this site – here’s the Aquia sandstone overlain by Pleistocene “Wicomico” gravels (reworked Potomac Formation cobbles):


And here, another layer appears in between them – this is the Marlboro Clay, a thin gray unit of probable late Paleocene or early Eocene age (this contact is therefore approximately centered on the PETM). It too has the Wicomico gravels on top of it, and some are pressed down into the mud:


Our final site was Scientists Cliffs, Maryland, on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where we saw Miocene Calvert Formation, which was also full of fossils, like this oddly asbestiform Pinna.


We spent several pleasant hours there, searching the beach for shark’s teeth, discussing coastal erosion, and imagining the violence of the Chesapeake Bay bolide’s impact 35 million years ago. As we wandered back toward the vans, I was struck by the verdant bluffs above the brackish water…


… A great day in the field, indeed. Thanks to Ken for leading us!

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18 May 2014

B2B 2: the mid-Atlantic phase

LoloFolks, I’m off to lead another field course – so don’t expect much on the blog this week. This is “phase 2″ of the Border to Beltway community college field exchange program. In March, over spring break, I took a dozen NOVA students to Texas to team up with a dozen students from El Paso Community College, and now it’s payback time. Our EPCC collaborators are on their way to DC. They arrive tonight, and for the next seven days, we will be traversing 6 different geologic provinces in the Mid-Atlantic region: (1) Coastal Plain, (2) Piedmont, (3) Culpeper Basin, (4) Blue Ridge, (5) Valley & Ridge, and we’ll even make it to (6) the lip of the Alleghany Plateau. It’s going to be an epic journey through more than a billion years of time, and two complete Wilson Cycles. Wish us luck!

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16 May 2014

Friday fold: Lyautey Syncline

Another guest Friday fold from Howard Allen:


View looking north at Mount Lyautey, on axis of the Lyautey Syncline, from Aster Lake trail, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Alberta. Rocks are carbonates of the upper Mount Head Formation, Carboniferous (Mississippian). Photo taken in 1981.

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12 May 2014

How About Never — Is Never Good For You? by Bob Mankoff

mankoffMy friend Joe Cancellare knows that I like cartoons, and that I even draw a few cartoons myself. He surprised me a couple weeks ago with a gift of a book – a new memoir by New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. This was a real treat – it explores (a) the idea of how cartoons work (or don’t), (b) Mankoff’s own journey as a cartoonist, entrepreneur, and eventual editor, and (c) the inside story of how The New Yorker magazine manages its cartoons and cartoonists. The unwieldy title of the book is the caption from one of Mankoff’s most popular cartoons, and while I don’t love that (I mean, look how long the title of this blog post is!), I’m glad to have read the book.

I’ve been a reader of The New Yorker for about a decade now, and I’m always interested in the cartoons, which are a diverse lot, some brilliant and incisive, others bizarre and head-spinning. I came to the magazine via the route of John McPhee, who has written some of the most lucid and evocative essays (and books) about geology ever written. Once I dipped into its pages, I found extraordinarily well-written profiles, criticism, and essays, as well as intelligent indulgences and about 40% stuff I didn’t care about. But the remaining 60% was good, really good.

Anyhow, each cartoon is a stand-alone (usually 1-panel) drawing, with (most of the time) a caption beneath it. The cartoonists who draw these images, who dream up the humorous situations, are a mix of regulars and “fresh blood.” The regulars get to you after a while – their drawing styles and their distinctive thought processes get to feel like old friends. Sampling their little boluses of humor is a great part of my weekly routine.

If you’re not into cartoons, or if you’re not into The New Yorker, there’s no way you’re going to like this book, but if you know what I’m talking about, then it is probably worth your time to read.

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9 May 2014

Friday fold: knuckling under in the Mesilla Valley shale

Here’s a fold I saw in Texas, in the Mesilla Valley shale, close to the contact with the Muleros Andesite at Cristo Rey:


This is a pretty wild looking fold. Let’s zoom in on the most deformed portion:


Annotation: white is top of the distinctive, blocky, buckled bed, and black is its bottom side. Red shows brittle fractures in that same bed:


Looks as if it rolled over on itself and snapped…

Hope you haven’t snapped this week. I’m looking forward to rolling over another semester – today’s the day for my final exams, and then it’s into the first part of the summer: “finishing up long-neglected projects” time.

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8 May 2014

Honey crystallization as an analogue for magma segregation and cumulate textures

Check this out:


Maybe I’ve got low blood sugar, but I think I see a magma chamber in that jar of honey.


There is clearly some crystal settling going on there, and it appears that the more crystals there are, the easier it is to trap bubbles. When the clots of crystals get too dense, they peel off (stope) and drop down to the floor of the jar. Similar sorting of minerals by (a) crystallization sequence and (b) density occurs within crystallizing magma chambers. I’m not sure where the bubbles fit into this analogy – perhaps they are low-density minerals, or miarolitic cavities?

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7 May 2014

Bedding / cleavage relationships in the Edinburg Formation

Here’s a little scene along Route 340 / 522, north of Front Royal and south of Double Tollgate, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley:


The rock here is limestone and shale of the Edinburg Formation, a late Ordovician unit that records the transition from passive margin sedimentation to the increasingly ‘dirty’ clastic influence of the Taconian Orogeny. Have a look:


I hope you’ll notice there are layers of two distinct lithologies there, and that not only are they different thicknesses and colors, but one is much more cleaved than the other.


Bedding (both shale and limestone) dips moderately to the right (east-southeast):


…But cleavage is close to vertical, though the exact angle depends on which lithology you look at:






Though these strata were originally deposited during the Ordovician, they were folded and cleaved during the late Paleozoic, whenancestral Africa and North America smashed into one another and made the Appalachian mountain belt running through the heart of Pangaea. To me, the best sorts of outcrops have this sort of duality to their stories. They tell about one thing happening at one time, and then something else happening at another time. In other words, this rock isn’t just one age, and it doesn’t represent just one process. It contains multitudes.

And, it’s beautiful:


Have you ever seen a more lovely example of cleavage refraction (and variation in spacing) across different strata?



To me, it doesn’t get too much better than that.

The fact that the redbuds (Cercus canadensis) were in full bloom that day was the icing on the cake:


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