Posted on February 18th, 2017 2 comments
A few years ago I moved into an almost entirely Mormon neighborhood. It turns out that Mormons are a great deal more tolerant than the average atheist Social Justice Warrior. As a result I was able to learn some things about them that certainly won’t be news to other Mormons, but may interest the readers of this blog.
One day, shortly after my arrival, I was chatting with my next door neighbor, and she mentioned that some of the neighbors in our age group were in the habit of getting together socially every other week, and wondered if I would like to tag along. I said, “Sure.” She suggested I ride along with her and her husband, as the group rotated from house to house, and they knew the neighborhood. Well, when we were underway, she casually slipped me a large Bible. It turns out that the “social gathering” was what the Mormons call Family Home Evening, or FHE. The host is responsible for coming up with a program that relates to the church in some way. This time around it involved each guest reading passages from the Bible with a common theme, which the group would then discuss. At other times the Book of Mormon or other Mormon religious books might be substituted for the Bible. Once we were to act out different parables, and the others would try to guess what they were. On another occasion there was a presentation about the Mormon system of indexing genealogical records, and how volunteers might help with the process. I wasn’t particularly uncomfortable with any of this, as I attended Sunday School regularly and went to church camps as a child, and still know my Bible fairly well.
After the first meeting I e-mailed my neighbor to thank her for taking me to FHE, but told her that I had no intention of changing my religion. I quoted my favorite Bible passage, Ephesians 2: 8-9 in self defense. It goes like this:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: It is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
I strongly recommend it to my fellow atheists. It’s great for warding off pesky proselytizers. After all, if you’ve read the Bible and have an open mind, then nothing more can be done for you by human agency. The rest depends on God, “lest any man should boast.” It usually works, but not this time. It turns out my neighbor was something of an activist in the Mormon community, and was bound and determined to make sure that when “grace” came, I would be standing close enough to the source to notice it. She said that I’d made a very favorable impression on the other neighbors, and they would be very disappointed if I stopped coming to FHE. They knew I wasn’t a Mormon, but it didn’t matter.
Well, my curiosity got the best of me, and I agreed to keep coming. I must admit with a certain degree of shame that I never flat out said I was an atheist. I mentioned that an ancestor had been a Baptist preacher, and I think they took me for some kind of a hard core Protestant, probably with a distinct Calvinist bent. As an extenuating circumstance I might mention that I’m not much of a cook, and delicious snacks were served at the end of each meeting. I’m not talking potato chips. I’m not sure if “my” FHE was typical, but these people were real gourmets. They laid out some goodies that gladdened my heart, and were a welcome relief from the hamburgers and bologna sandwiches that were my usual fare. It’s possible my FHE was an outlier in things other than food as well. My boss was a Mormon, and seemed surprised when he heard that I attended. He said I’d better watch out. I was getting pretty close to the fire!
In the meetings that followed I always felt accepted by the group, and never “othered” for not being a Mormon. None of them ever came to my door to engage in spiritual arm twisting (that was limited to the local Jehovah’s Witnesses), nor was I ever subjected to any heavy-handed attempts at conversion. They did let me know on occasion that, if I had any questions about the church, they would be glad to answer them. They also encouraged me to come to church to see what it was like, and always invited me to other Mormon social affairs. These included a barn dance, “Trick or Trunk,” a convenient substitute for trick or treating on Halloween at which candy is passed out from the trunks of cars parked side by side, Christmas dinner at the church, a Christmas pageant, etc. The atmosphere at these affairs always reminded me of the church I grew up in during the 50’s and 60’s. Now it is a typical mainstream Protestant church, attended mainly by people who appear to be well over 70, but in those days it was a great deal more vibrant, with a big congregation that included many children. So it was in the Mormon church. There were members of all ages, and there must have been 50 boys and girls in the children’s choir. In a word, you didn’t get the feeling that the church was dying.
I did attend church on one occasion, and it was quite different from a typical Protestant service. To begin, there are no regular pastors. Everything is done by lay people. The church services last about three hours. Ours was divided into a general service, another lesson delivered by one of the lay people, and another period in which the men and women were divided into separate groups. Of course, there’s also Sunday school for the children.
Each church is attended by one or more “wards,” and there are several wards in a “stake.” Each ward has a lay “Bishop,” who is appointed for a period of five years, give or take. The stake is headed by a lay “President,” also appointed for a limited time. These part time clergymen aren’t paid, don’t get to wear any gorgeous vestments, and certainly nothing like the Pope’s Gucci slippers, but they still have all the counseling, visiting, and other duties of more conventional clergy. I was familiar with both my ward Bishop and stake President. Both were intelligent and capable professional men. They were respected by the rest of the congregation, but the ones I knew weren’t patronizing or in any way “stuck up.” They were just members of the congregation at the service I attended, but perhaps they occasionally play a more active role.
Hard core Mormons give ten percent of their gross income to the church. I’m not sure what percentage is “hard core,” and I’m also not sure what the church does with all the money. That question has probably been asked ever since the days of Joseph Smith. I suspect the IRS is reasonably well informed, but otherwise they keep financial matters pretty close to the vest. In any case, only members who tithe are allowed to attend services at or be married in a Mormon Temple.
Mormons are a great deal more “moral” when it comes to reproduction than the average atheist. In other words, their behavior in such matters is consistent with what the relevant predispositions accomplished at the time they evolved. For example, the lady who tossed the Bible in my lap had 11 children and 37 grandchildren. Large families were the rule in our neighborhood. I can’t really understand the objections of the “anti-breeders” to such behavior in a country where the population would be declining if it weren’t for massive illegal immigration. In any case, all those grandchildren and great grandchildren will have inherited the earth long after the mouths of those who criticized their ancestors have been stopped with dust.
The people in my ward included some who were brought up in the Mormon faith, and some, including my zealous neighbor lady, who had been converted later in life. Among the former there were some older people who still had a lively memory of the days when polygamy was a great deal more common than it is now. They recall that there were federal “revenuers” who were on the lookout for such arrangements just as their more familiar peers were snooping after moonshine stills. A neighbor, aged about 80, recounted a story of one such family she had heard as a child. A baby had been born to a man with several wives, but died soon after birth. The “revenuers” were aware of the fact. Soon, however, the stork arrived again, and this time delivered a healthy baby. Shortly thereafter the man was sitting at the dinner table holding the new arrival when he was warned that inspectors were on the way to pay him a visit. He took it on the lam out the back door, and hid in the family cemetery were the first child was buried. When the inspectors arrived, they asked the wife who happened to be in the house where they could find her husband. With a downcast look she replied, “He’s up in the cemetery with the baby.” That statement was, of course, perfectly true. The embarrassed “revenuers” muttered their condolences and left!
I must say I had to clench my teeth occasionally on listening to some of the passages from the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, there’s really nothing there that’s any more fantastic than the similar stories you can read in the Bible, or the lives of the saints. In any case, what they believe strikes me as a great deal less dangerous than the equally fantastic belief held by the “men of science” for half a century that there is no such thing as human nature, not to mention “scientific” Marxism-Leninism. According to some atheists, indoctrinating children with stories from the Bible and the Book of Mormon constitutes “child abuse.” I have my doubts given the fact that they seem to accomplish those most “moral” of all goals, survival and reproduction, a great deal better than most of my fellow infidels. Many of my fellow atheists have managed to convince themselves that they’ve swallowed the “red pill,” but in reality they’re just as delusional as the Mormons, and their delusions are arguably more destructive. I personally would rather see my children become Mormons than dour, barren, intolerant, and ultra-Puritanical Social Justice Warriors, striding down the path to genetic suicide with a self-righteous scowl. I would also much rather live among spiritual Mormons than secular Communists.
As one might expect, there were many non-Mormons in the local community who “othered” the Mormons, and vice versa. Nothing is more natural for our species than to relegate those who are in any way different to the outgroup. For example, Mormons, were supposed to stick together and favor each other in business dealings, government appointments, etc. Unfortunately, there has never been a population of humans who consider themselves members of the same group that has not done precisely the same, at least to some extent. Mormon religious beliefs were considered “crazy,” as opposed, apparently, to such “perfectly sane” stories as Noah’s ark, the loaves and the fishes, the magical conversion of bread and wine to flesh and blood, etc. Mormons were supposed to imagine that they wore “magic clothes.” In reality the Mormons don’t consider such garments any more “magical” than a nun’s habit or a Jew’s yarmulke.
In general, I would prefer that people believe the truth. I am an atheist, and don’t believe in the existence of any God or gods. I’m not an “accommodationist,” and I don’t buy Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” On the other hand, when people treat me with kindness and generosity, as I was treated in the Mormon community, I’m not in the habit of responding with stones and brickbats, either. The hard core Hobbesians out there will claim that all that kindness sprang from selfish motives, but hard core Hobbesians must also perforce admit that neither they nor anyone else acts any differently.
If you want to get a fictional “taste” of what Mormons are like, I recommend the film “Once I was a Beehive.” You can rent it at Amazon. It’s about a teenage girl whose mom remarries to a Mormon. The flavor of the Mormon community pictured in the film reflects my own impressions pretty accurately. The Mormon Bishop, in particular, is very typical and true to life.
As for me, in the fullness of time I left the land of the Mormons and now live among the heathen once again. None of them has seen fit to follow me and pull me back from the fiery furnace by the scruff of my neck. It may be that they finally realized I was a hopeless case, doomed to sizzle over the coals in the hereafter for the edification of the elect. I’m afraid they’re right about that. If they do come after me they’ll find me armed with my copy of Ephesians, as stubborn as ever.
Posted on February 12th, 2017 3 comments
In our last episode I pointed out that, while some of the most noteworthy public intellectuals of the day occasionally pay lip service to the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection, they act and speak as if they believed the opposite. If morality is an expression of evolved traits, it is necessarily subjective. The individuals mentioned speak as if, and probably believe, that it is objective. What do I mean by that? As the Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck put it,
The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise (his Ethical Relativity, ed.) implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong. It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true.
All of the individuals mentioned in my last post are aware that there is a connection between morality and its evolutionary roots. If pressed, some of them will even admit the obvious consequence of this fact; that morality must be subjective. However, neither they nor any other public intellectual that I am aware of actually behaves or speaks as if that consequence meant anything or, indeed, as if it were even true. One can find abundant evidence that this is true simply by reading their own statements, some of which I quoted. For example, according the Daniel Dennett, Trump supporters are “guilty.” Richard Dawkins speaks of the man in pejorative terms that imply a moral judgment rather than rational analysis of his actions. Sam Harris claims that Trump is “unethical,” and Jonathan Haidt says that he is “morally wrong,” without any qualification to the effect that they are just making subjective judgments, and that the subjective judgments of others may be different and, for that matter, just as “legitimate” as theirs.
A commenter suggested that I was merely quoting tweets, and that the statements may have been taken out of context, or would have reflected the above qualifications if more space had been allowed. Unfortunately, I have never seen a single example of an instance where one of the quoted individuals made a similar statement, and then qualified it as suggested. They invariably speak as if they were stating objective facts when making such moral judgments, with the implied assumption that individuals who don’t agree with them are “bad.”
A quick check of the Internet will reveal that there are legions of writers out there commenting on the subjective nature of morality. Not a single one I am aware of seems to realize that, if morality is subjective, their moral judgments lack any objective normative power or legitimacy whatsoever when applied to others. Indeed, one commonly finds them claiming that morality is subjective, and as a consequence one is “morally obligated” to do one thing, and “morally obligated” not to do another, in the very same article, apparently oblivious to the fact that they are stating a glaring non sequitur.
None of this should be too surprising. We are not a particularly rational species. We give ourselves far more credit for being “wise” than is really due. Most of us simply react to atavistic urges, and seek to satisfy them. Our imaginations portray Good and Evil to us as real, objective things, and so we thoughtlessly assume that they are. It is in our nature to be judgmental, and we take great joy in applying these imagined standards to others. Unfortunately, this willy-nilly assigning of others to the above imaginary categories is very unlikely to accomplish the same thing today as it did when the responsible behavioral predispositions evolved. I would go further. I would claim that this kind of behavior is not only not “adaptive.” In fact, it has become extremely dangerous.
The source of the danger is what I call “ideophobia.” So far, at least, it hasn’t had a commonly recognized name, but it is by far the most dangerous form of all the different flavors of “bigotry” that afflict us today. By “bigotry” I really mean outgroup identification. We all do it, without exception. Some of the most dangerous manifestations of it exist in just those individuals who imagine they are immune to it. All of us hate, despise, and are disgusted by the individuals in whatever outgroup happens to suit our fancy. The outgroup may be defined by race, religion, ethnic group, nationality, and even sex. I suspect, however, that by far the most common form of outgroup (and ingroup) identification today is by ideology.
Members of ideologically defined ingroups have certain ideas and beliefs in common. Taken together, they form the intellectual shack the ingroup in question lives in. The outgroup consists of those who disagree with these core beliefs, and especially those who define their own ingroup by opposing beliefs. Ideophobes hate and despise such individuals. They indulge in a form of bigotry that is all the more dangerous because it has gone so long without a name. Occasionally they will imagine that they advocate universal human brotherhood, and “human flourishing.” In reality, “brotherhood” is the last thing ideophobes want when it comes to “thought crime.” They do not disagree rationally and calmly. They hate the “other,” to the point of reacting with satisfaction and even glee if the “other” suffers physical harm. They often imagine themselves to be great advocates of diversity, and yet are blithely unaware of the utter lack of it in the educational, media, entertainment, and other institutions they control when it comes to diversity of opinion. As for the ideological memes of the ingroup, they expect rigid uniformity. What Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Haidt thought they were doing was upholding virtue. What they were really doing is better called “virtue signaling.” They were assuring the other members of their ingroup that they “think right” about some of its defining “correct thoughts,” and registering the appropriate allergic reaction to the outgroup.
I cannot claim that ideophobia is objectively immoral. I do believe, however, that it is extremely dangerous, not only to me, but to everyone else on the planet. I propose that it’s high time that we recognized the phenomenon as a manifestation of human nature that has long outlived its usefulness. We need to recognize that ideophobia is essentially the same thing as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, or what have you. The only difference is in the identifying characteristics of the outgroup. The kind of behavior described is a part of what we are, and will remain a part of what we are. That does not mean that it can’t be controlled.
What evidence do I have that this type of behavior is dangerous? There were two outstanding examples in the 20th century. The Communists murdered 100 million people, give or take, weighted in the direction of the most intelligent and capable members of society, because they belonged to their outgroup, commonly referred to as the “bourgeoisie.” The Nazis murdered tens of millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies, and members of any other ethnicity that they didn’t recognize as belonging to their own “Aryan” ingroup. There are countless examples of similar mayhem, going back to the beginnings of recorded history, and ample evidence that the same thing was going on much earlier. As many of the Communists and Nazis discovered, what goes around comes around. Millions of them became victims of their own irrational hatred.
No doubt Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, Haidt and legions of others like them see themselves as paragons of morality and rationality. I have my doubts. With the exception of Haidt, they have made no attempt to determine why those they consider “deplorables” think the way they do, or to calmly analyze what might be their desires and goals, and to search for common ground and understanding. As for Haidt, his declaration that the goals of his outgroup are “morally wrong” flies in the face of all the fine theories he recently discussed in his The Righteous Mind. I would be very interested to learn how he thinks he can square this circle. Neither he nor any of the others have given much thought to whether the predispositions that inspire their own desires and goals will accomplish the same thing now as when they evolved, and appear unconcerned about the real chance that they will accomplish the opposite. They have not bothered to consider whether it even matters, and why, or whether the members of their outgroup may be acting a great deal more consistently in that respect than they do. Instead, they have relegated those who disagree with them to the outgroup, slamming shut the door on rational discussion.
In short, they have chosen ideophobia. It is a dangerous choice, and may turn out to be a very dangerous one, assuming we value survival. I personally would prefer that we all learn to understand and seek to control the worst manifestations of our dual system of morality; our tendency to recognize ingroups and outgroups and apply different standards of good and evil to individuals depending on the category to which they belong. I doubt that anything of the sort will happen any time soon, though. Meanwhile, we are already witnessing the first violent manifestations of this latest version of outgroup identification. It’s hard to say how extreme it will become before the intellectual fashions change again. Perhaps the best we can do is sit back and collect the data.
Posted on January 30th, 2017 11 comments
In Ephesians 2:2 we read,
Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.
Now we behold the “atheist” ideologues of the Left channeling Saint Paul. They are not atheists after all. They, too, believe in “the power of the air.” It hovers over our heads like the Holy Ghost in the guise of a “Moral Law.” It is a powerful spirit indeed, able to dictate to us all what we ought and ought not to do. Trump has had the interested effect of exposing this latest mutation of religious belief with crystal clarity. Consider the recent pronouncements of some of the lead actors. According to Daniel Dennett,
Regretfull Trump voters: It’s not to late to apologize, join the lawful resistance and pass it on. Act now. Every day you wait adds guilt.
Richard Dawkins chimes in:
“Make America great again?” Obama’s America already WAS great. And now look what you’ve got! A childishly vain, ignorant, petulant wrecker.
Sam Harris piles on:
I think Trump’s “Muslim Ban” is a terrible policy. Not only is it unethical with respect to the plight of refugees, it is bound to be ineffective in stopping the spread of Islamism.
Finally, “pro-conservative” Jonathan Haidt lays his cards on the table:
Presidents can revise immigration policies. But to close the door on refugees and lock out legal residents is in-American and morally wrong.
I have added italics and bolding to some key phrases. Absent a spirit, a ghost, a “power of the air” in the form of an objective Moral Law, none of these statements makes the least sense. Is evolution by natural selection capable of “adding guilt?” Do random processes in nature determine what is “ethical” and “unethical?” Did nascent behavioral traits evolving in the mind of Homo erectus suddenly jump over some imaginary line and magically acquire the power to determine what is “morally right” and “morally wrong?” I think not. Only a “power of the air” can make objective decisions about what “adds guilt,” or is “unethical,” or is “morally wrong.”
What we are witnessing is a remarkable demonstration of the power of evolved mental traits among the self-appointed “rational” members of our species. Our ubiquitous tendency to identify with an ingroup and hate and despise an outgroup? It’s there in all its glory. Start plucking away at the ideological bits and pieces that define the intellectual shack these “atheists” live in like so many patches of tar paper, and they react with mindless fury. Forget about a rational consideration of alternatives. The ingroup has been assaulted by “the others!” It is not merely a question of “the others” being potentially wrong. No! By the “power of the air” they are objectively and absolutely evil, disgusting, and deplorable, not to mention “like Hitler.”
This, my friends, is what moral chaos looks like. Instead of accepting the evolutionary genesis of moral behavior and considering even the most elementary implications of this fundamental truth, we are witnessing the invention of yet another God. This “power of the air” comes in the form of an animal known as “objective moral law” with the ability to change its spots and colors with disconcerting speed. It spews out “Goods” and “Evils,” which somehow exist independently of the minds that perceive them. We are left in ignorance of what substance these wraiths consist. None of the learned philosophers mentioned above has ever succeeded in plucking one out of the air and mounting it on a board for the rest of us to admire. They are “spirits,” and of course we are all familiar with the nature of “spirits.”
In a word, we live among “intelligent” animals endowed with strange delusions, courtesy of Mother Nature. Shockingly enough, we belong to the same species. How much smarter than the rest can we really be? The Puritans of old used to wrack their brains to expose the “sins” lurking in their minds. We would be better advised to wrack our brains to expose our own delusions. One such delusion is likely the vain hope that we will find a path out of the prevailing moral chaos anytime soon. At best, it may behoove us to be aware of the behavioral idiosyncrasies of our fellow creatures and to take some elementary precautions to protect ourselves from the more dangerous manifestations thereof.
Posted on January 15th, 2017 No comments
I’ve just read the unclassified version of the U.S. Intelligence community’s report on “Russian hacking,” entitled, “Background to ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution.” A pdf version is available online, and I hope my readers will have a look at it. It is almost unbelievably lame.
The document begins with the assurance that it is an unclassified version of a “highly classified assessment.” This, of course, begs the question of how some of this “highly classified” information was leaked to the press. I personally think this is the most important take-away from the whole “Russian hacking” flap. Our intelligence community in general and the CIA in particular are still infested with leakers who apparently had their fingers crossed behind their backs when they swore to protect this “highly classified information.” Any potential human intelligence source who seriously expects them to protect his or her identity must have a death wish.
As we read on, we learn about the “analytic process” that was used to produce the report, its scope, the sources of information used, etc. Eventually, we come to a section entitled “Key Judgments.” We shudder as we learn that,
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.
If the goal of the document was really to inform our political leaders, it’s odd that no attempt was made to put the above in context. By “context” I mean the “clear preferences” of other government leaders. For example, French President Hollande revealed his “clear preference” by announcing that Trump gave him a “retching feeling.” Then British Prime Minister David Cameron publicly announced his opinion that Trump is “divisive, stupid, and wrong.” The British Parliament seriously debated banning Trump from travel to the UK because of his “hate speech.” The President of the EU Parliament, Martin Schulz, declared that “Trump is a problem for the whole world.” Germany’s Economy Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, called Trump a threat, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel openly praised Hillary Clinton. Mexico’s President Nieto didn’t stick at violating Godwin’s Law, comparing Trump to Hitler. Apparently, these expressions of “clear preferences” by other government leaders are not considered a threat by the people who run our intelligence agencies, because their “clear preferences” were for the correct candidate. In short, then, such a preference was only deemed objectionable if it happened to be for Trump.
As far as actual “hacking” is concerned, the content of the document is of the flimsiest. Basically, it was supposed to have consisted of “intrusions into US state and local electoral boards,” which were apparently conducted for the purpose of collecting information and had no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the election. In addition to that, as we all know, the Russians were supposed to have gained access to the DNC emails, and have passed damaging information therein to WikiLeaks. According to the document, “Disclosures through WikiLeaks did not contain any evident forgeries.” In other words, the “hacked” information was true, and should have been reported by our own media, but wasn’t, because it didn’t fit the narrative. Apparently the message here is that the U.S. voting public should have been “protected” from the truth, but was “unfairly” subjected to it by those nefarious Russians.
Beyond that we have the assurances of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks that the information involved was so poorly protected that it could have been hacked by a 14-year old; no Russian meddling was necessary. Given Hillary’s adventures with classified State Department information on her personal server, I suspect there’s little reason to doubt the WikiLeaks version. I note in passing that the “progressive Left” considered Assange such a hero that they saw fit to release a movie about his exploits (Underground; The Julian Assange Story – 2012), and another in which he played a major role (The Fifth Estate – 2013). No doubt they’re feeling very ill-used at this point. They never suspected that Assange would be capable of divulging information that didn’t fit the “correct” narrative. In any case, paltry as it is, that’s the extent of the actual “hacking” alluded to in the document.
Reading on, we finally discover the identity of the “real culprit.” It turns out to be none other than RT America, a Russian funded news channel. Much of the document proper and a whole, five page appendix are devoted almost entirely to RT! We shudder to learn that “RT’s coverage of Secretary Clinton throughout the US presidential campaign was consistently negative.” It devoted extensive coverage to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, that known bastion of right wing conservatives and Trump deplorables. It dared to mention the existence of election fraud and voting machine vulnerabilities in the U.S. Even more damning is the document’s assurance that RT ran “anti-fracking programming highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health.” As we all know, Hillary and the “progressive Left” have always been “yuge” supporters of fracking. NOT!!!
No kidding, dear reader, the meat of this “assessment” is nothing but a rant about RT’s vile criminal act of exercising its right to freedom of speech. When I was done reading it I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The entire mainstream media in the U.S. was utterly in the tank for Hillary from the start. I have never come across a single article about Trump therein that couldn’t be characterized as “negative.” The same can be said of another “state-funded news channel,” the BBC. There was a negative article about Trump on the BBC website every single day I happened to look for the last three months before the election. The same can certainly also be said of both the English and German versions of the German media. I follow it daily, and never found anything therein about Trump that could not be characterized as “negative.” What can I say? To outweigh all that, RT America must be a more effective propaganda tool than anything ever heard of since the days of Barnum and Bailey! Hitler himself would have been green with envy!
Apparently this is the sort of drivel we’ve been getting for the $80 billion we invest in our intelligence services every year. It would seem they’ve degenerated into hidebound bureaucracies that are no longer even capable of being embarrassed by the transparent stupidity of such “highly classified” assessments. It could hardly hurt to start over from scratch. We might ask the Russians for help with that. I suggest we take the 1918 Cheka as a model. I’ve heard that their methods were somewhat harsh, but by all accounts they were able to collect intelligence that was actually worthy of the name, and at bargain basement prices. We could use a man like Felix Dzerzhinsky again! Someone should tell Trump.
UPDATE: Mild-mannered Czech physicist Lubos Motl has a similar take at The Reference Frame.
Posted on January 9th, 2017 2 comments
Judging by the amount of space devoted to him on Wikipedia, Edvard Westermarck was little regarded as a moral philosopher. Contemporaries such as G. E. Moore and W. D. Ross, not to mention such immediate predecessors as John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick, made a much bigger splash. For all that, Westermarck was aware of some simple but very significant truths about morality, and the rest were blind to them. Apparently you don’t get a lot of space in Wikipedia for being right, or at least not for being right about morality. When it comes to that subject, people tend to listen only when you say what they want to hear. Westermarck most definitely did not.
It was no secret to Westermarck that he was stepping on some toes. He told the legions of moral philosophers and experts on ethics that they were superfluous because they were experts about something that didn’t exist. He told the legions of religious zealots that the source of their moral dogmas was imaginary. He told all the rest of us that the “facts” about morality that we “feel in our bones” are illusions.
It is natural for us to perceive Good and Evil as absolute facts. Morality is a manifestation of evolved traits, and traits evolve because they happen to improve the odds that the genes responsible for them will survive and reproduce. Obviously, morality is most effective at improving the odds when we perceive Good and Evil, not as subjective entities that we can change from day to day according to our whims of the moment, but as objective things-in-themselves that have a “real existence apart from any reference to a human mind,” as Westermarck put it. If someone tells us it just ain’t so, our reaction is predictably negative. He addressed the objections of one such critic, the utilitarian Dr. H. Rashdall in his Ethical Relativity, published in 1932. According to Dr. Rashdall, the denial of the objective validity of moral judgments,
…is fatal to the deepest spiritual convictions and to the highest spiritual aspirations of the human race.
to which Westermarck replies,
It is needless to say that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief… Another question is whether the ethical subjectivism I am here advocating really is a danger to morality… My moral judgments spring from my own moral consciousness; they judge of the conduct of other men not from their point of view but from mine, not in accordance with their feelings and opinions about right and wrong but according to my own. And these are not arbitrary. We approve and disapprove because we cannot do otherwise; our moral consciousness belongs to our mental constitution, which we cannot change as we please. Can we help feeling pain when the fire burns us? Can we help sympathizing with our friends? Are these facts less necessary or less powerful in their consequences, because they fall within the subjective sphere of our experience? So also, why should the moral law command less obedience because it forms a part of ourselves?
I think this is an excellent response to those who warn that accepting the truth about morality will lead to nihilism and moral chaos. The subjective nature of moral judgments will hardly alter our tendency to make them. Westermarck adds,
…it seems to me that ethical subjectivism, instead of being a danger, is more likely to be an advantage to morality. Could it be brought home to people that there is no absolute standard in morality, they would perhaps be on the one hand more tolerant and on the other hand more critical in their judgments.
It would be hard to overestimate the significance of this last quote. When it comes to morality, we live in an age of gross intolerance, particularly on the part of the “progressive Left.” These people pull new “absolute moral truths” out of thin air on a regular basis, and then proceed to stuff them down the throats of the rest of us. I may not be able to say that such behavior is absolutely “Good,” or absolutely “Evil,” but I personally find it extremely disagreeable. I think many others would agree with me on that point. The truth about morality hardly encourages this type of moral bullying. Rather, it pulls the rug out from under the feet of the bullies. In fact, they have not the faintest basis for their moral claims. They can in no way justify elevating what amount to personal whims to the status of absolute moral laws and then insisting that the rest of us respect them. They manage to get away with it by appealing to subjective moral emotions. This will only work as long as they can maintain the fantasy, cherished by so many of us, that these emotions somehow relate to real, objective things. That fantasy is hardly a barrier between us and moral chaos. It is the reason for moral chaos. We will never escape the prevailing “moral nihilism” until we accept the truth.
Westermarck had it right in the above quotes. If all of us were aware of the truth, we would also be aware of the real provenance of moral judgments, and would be more tolerant of the similar judgments of others as a result. It might finally be possible for us to take a critical look at those judgments, as Westermarck suggests, and come up with a system of morality that best suits the needs of all of us, instead of enabling the moral tyranny of a minority.
So much for the “danger” of Westermarck’s ideas. If we look at some of the other objections posed by his contemporaries, their claims to “expertise” in matters of morality grow increasingly dubious. For example, Danish philosopher Harald Höffding argued that, “the subjectivity of our moral valuations does not prevent ethics from being a science any more than the subjectivity of our sensations renders a science of physics impossible, because both are concerned with finding the external facts that correspond to the subjective processes.” According to this “Höffding’s fallacy,” anything we can imagine must relate to some “external fact.” Unfortunately, Professor Höffding completely missed the point. In this case the “external facts” don’t exist. They are a figment of his imagination. Westermarck adds,
It may, of course, be a subject for scientific inquiry to investigate the means which are conducive to human happiness or welfare, and the results of such a study may also be usefully applied by moralists, but it forms no more a part of ethics than physics is a part of psychology. If the word “ethics” is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.
My personal favorite among the critics of Westermarck is G. E. Moore, who became far more highly regarded as an “expert on ethics” by debunking all previous practitioners of the trade as victims of the “naturalistic fallacy,” and being extremely coy about the nature of morality himself. No one could ever pin him down as to whether Good and Evil were animal, vegetable, or mineral. From the few broad hints he gave us, it appears that the Good has a remarkable resemblance to what a Victorian rent seeker would consider “nice things,” or at least the ones that they admitted to openly. In any case, here is Westermarck’s account of Moore’s criticism:
He argues that if one person says “this action is wrong,” and another says of the very same action that it is not wrong, and each of them merely makes a judgment about his own feelings towards it, they are not differing in opinion about it at all, and, generally speaking, there is absolutely no such thing as a difference of opinion upon moral questions. “If two persons think they differ in opinion on a moral question (and it certainly seems as if they sometimes think so), they are always on this view, making a mistake, and a mistake so gross that it seems hardly possible that they should make it: a mistake as gross as that which would be involved in thinking that when you say, ‘I did not come from Cambridge today’ you are denying what I say when I say ‘I did.'” This seems to Professor Moore to be a very serious objection to my view. But let me choose another, analogous case, to illustrate the nature of his argument. One person says, “This food is disagreeable,” and another says of the very same food that it is not disagreeable. We should undoubtedly assert that they have different opinions about it. On Professor Moore’s view this shows that the two persons do not merely judge about their feelings but state that the food really is, or is not, disagreeable, and if they admitted that they only expressed their own feelings – as they most probably would if their statements were challenged – and yet thought that they differed in opinion, they would make a mistake almost too great to be possible. For my own part I venture to believe that most people would find it absurd if they denied that they had different opinions about the food.
It seems to me that Westermarck could have had a lot more fun with Moore if he had been so inclined. After all, the point of this flimsy argument, which was taken quite seriously by several other “experts on ethics” at the time, was that moral judgments are not purely subjective in nature. If it really made any sense, we could magically transform anything we pleased into a real thing. One could, for example, resurrect the Greek gods out of thin air simply by virtue of believing in them. If one were merely making a judgment about his own feelings, than, according to Moore, a difference of opinion on the matter would become impossible. The only alternative is that the Greek gods actually do exist. To deny it would be tantamount to denying the objective existence of Good and Evil! I note in passing that Moore’s argument was considered “unanswerable” by W. D. Ross, who added some objections of his own based on a similar conflating of objective facts with subjective feelings. If you’re interested in more detail, it’s all there in Westermarck’s Ethical Relativity.
When it comes to moral philosophy, fame doesn’t depend on the truth of what you say, but on how well it fits the prevailing narrative. Then and now, too many people have too much to lose by admitting that Westermarck was right. Their tedious reading of many dry tomes of moral philosophy would have been for nothing, and their claims to “expertise,” would vanish like the morning fog. Hence the few lines devoted to him on Wikipedia and elsewhere. He was right where so many have been wrong, but I doubt that he will get the recognition he deserves anytime soon. Perhaps, in view of the mountains of bilge that somehow are published as “moral philosophy” these days, it might at least be possible to put his two major books on the subject, Ethical Relativity and The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, back into print. I would certainly be willing to contribute my widow’s mite to the cause. I’m not holding my breath, though.
Posted on January 2nd, 2017 2 comments
Morality evolved. More precisely, the emotional and behavioral traits that are the reason morality exists evolved. Darwin was perfectly well aware of this fact and its implications. For example, he wrote,
If . . . men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless the bee, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience. . . . In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong.
The moral implications of his great theory Darwin alluded to in the above passage seem obvious. It shouldn’t take a man as brilliant as him to grasp them, and yet I know of only one published author after Darwin who clearly understood what he was saying; Edvard Westermarck.
Westermarck wrote two great books about morality; The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, published in 1906, and Ethical Relativity, in 1932. In them he elaborated on the ideas Darwin only mentioned in passing, following them to their logical conclusions. In the process he avoided the error made by a myriad other authors who wrote before and after him about the connection between evolution by natural selection and morality. That error was the conclusion that this connection somehow established the legitimacy of some old or new versions of Good and Evil, or that it implied some kind of an objective “ought.” Westermarck got it right, and yet he is nearly forgotten today. Apparently his message was something mankind didn’t want to hear. He also happened along at the wrong time, writing some very inconvenient truths just as the behavioral sciences were in the process of being hijacked by the ideological narrative that we know as the Blank Slate.
Westermarck realized that if morality exists as a result of natural selection, it can have no purpose in itself. If something has a purpose, then it must have been created by a conscious entity. Morality wasn’t. It exists as a result of natural processes that occurred unguided by any conscious mind. It follows that Good and Evil describe subjective impressions in the minds of individuals, and not objective things that exist independently thereof. As subjective entities they cannot possibly acquire a legitimate right to prescribe what anyone ought or ought not to do.
Recording and explaining such simple truths requires neither a great deal of space nor the lavish application of philosophical jargon. Westermarck accomplished the task in the first chapter of The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas. It seems to me that if you read that chapter, you either get it or you don’t. From a logical point of view the subject just isn’t that complicated. It’s only “hard” because it flies in the face of what we “feel,” and isn’t compatible with the way most of us want things to be. There’s no subject in the world more difficult to keep an open mind about than morality, but unless you do, you’ll never “get it.” However, if you can clear that hurdle, the rest is obvious. In his Ethical Relativity, written more than a quarter of a century later, Westermarck elaborated on the chapter referred to above, and answered some of the critics who had attacked his ideas in the intervening years. Here is a taste of what he had to say:
In spite of the fervor with which the objectivity of moral judgments has been advocated by the exponents of normative ethics there is much diversity of opinion with regard to the principles underlying the various systems. This discord is as old as ethics itself. But while the evolution of other sciences has shown a tendency to increasing agreement on points of fundamental importance, the same can hardly be said to have been the case in the history of ethics, where the spirit of controversy has been much more conspicuous than the endeavor to add new truths to results already reached. Of course, if moral values are objective, only one of the conflicting theories can possibly be true. Each founder of a new theory hopes that it is he who has discovered the unique jewel of moral truth, and is naturally anxious to show that other theories are only false stones. But he must also by positive reasons make good his claim to the precious find.
None of the various theories of normative science can be said to have proved its case; none of them has proved that moral judgments possess objective validity, that there is anything truly good or bad, right or wrong, that moral principles express anything more than the opinions of those who believe in them.
The quantitative differences of moral estimates are plainly due to the emotional origin of all moral concepts… After what has been said above the answer to the all-important question, so frequently ignored by writers on ethics, why moral judgments are passed on conduct and character is not far to seek. These judgments spring from moral emotions.
and, regarding the moral philosophy of Kant,
But with the deepest regard for the tremendous earnestness of his purpose, I cannot but think that his struggle to harmonize the moral experience of mankind with his own rational deductions has been a colossal failure. I have tried to show that in his alleged dictates of reason the emotional background is transparent throughout, and if I have succeeded in such a attempt in the case of the greatest of all moral rationalists, I flatter myself with the belief that I have, in no small measure, given additional strength to the main contentions in this book: that the moral consciousness is ultimately based on emotions, that the moral judgment lacks objective validity, that the moral values are not absolute but relative to the emotions they express.
Regarding the “experts on ethics,” both modern and ancient, Westermarck wrote,
If there are no moral truths it cannot be the object of a science of ethics to lay down rules for human conduct, since the aim of all science is the discovery of some truth… If the word “ethics” is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.
There are some surprisingly “modern” ideas in his later book. Consider, for example, what Jonathan Haidt wrote about The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail. In a paper of that name and in his book, The Righteous Mind, Haidt presented “…the hypothesis that moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post-hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.” Here is what Westermarck had to say on the subject:
I have thus arrived at the conclusion that neither the attempts of moral philosophers or theologians to prove the objective validity of moral judgments, nor the common sense assumption to the same effect, give us any right at all to accept such a validity as a fact. So far, however, I have only tried to show that it has not been proved; now I am prepared to take a step further and assert that it cannot exist. The reason for this is that in my opinion the predicates of all moral judgments, all moral concepts, are ultimately based on emotions, and that, as is very commonly admitted, no objectivity can come from an emotion.
It is, perhaps, unfortunate that Westermarck chose the title “Ethical Relativity” for his second book on the subject. It is perfectly clear what he meant. However, while moral rules may be relative from an objective point of view, it is not our nature to perceive them that way. We perceive them as absolutes, just as one might expect given their evolutionary origin. They are most effective in enhancing the odds that we will survive and reproduce when we perceive them in that way. Human beings can come up with a great variety of moral systems in spite of the common evolutionary origin of them all. However, whatever that “relative” system happens to be, we will perceive its rules as absolutes. The idea that our societies will collapse into moral nihilism and anarchy because of the scribblings of philosophers is nonsense. As Westermarck put it,
I think that ethical writers are often inclined to overrate the influence of moral theory upon moral practice.
It is needless to say that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief. The unfortunate circumstance that there do exist dangerous things in the world, proves that something may be dangerous and yet true.
However, he cited some very good reasons for believing that knowing the truth about ourselves is a great deal less dangerous than preserving our ignorance. I agree with him. If our species ever existed in a period of moral anarchy and nihilism, it is now. Accepting the truth about morality and acting on it are the way out of the chaos, not into it.
Some authors pay lip service to the influence of evolution on morality, but haven’t been able to shed the illusion that somehow, somewhere out there, objective morality exists. Others admit that, as a manifestation of evolved traits, morality must be subjective, but in the very next paragraph or the very next breathe they lapse back into full Social Justice Warrior mode. With a wink and a nod they use time-honored virtue signaling techniques to assure us that they belong to the right ingroup. They leave us in no doubt that they understand the difference between mere subjective morality and the “real thing.” Some have even gone so far as to advocate a program of eugenics, or perhaps adventures with CRISPR, to “adjust” morality so that it agrees with the “real thing.”
At least to the extent that it’s possible for morally obsessed creatures like ourselves, Westermarck avoided these pitfalls. He didn’t try to hide from the implications of his own thought, nor did he write them down and then hide his head and flee from them in the very next paragraph. He was honest. He was a light in the darkness. I hope that someday we will find our way back to the light.
Posted on December 22nd, 2016 1 comment
I know. You think I’m too obsessed with Robert Ardrey. Perhaps, but when I stumble across little historical artifacts of his existence, I can’t resist recording them. Who else will? Besides, I have moral emotions, too. I’m not sure where I sit on the spectrum of Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations, but when I consider Ardrey’s shabby treatment in the “official” histories, they all start howling at once. Ardrey shouldn’t be forgotten. He was the most significant player in the events that come to mind when one hears the term “Blank Slate.”
What was the “Blank Slate?” I’d call it the greatest scientific debacle of all time. The behavioral sciences were derailed for fifty years and more by the ideologically motivated denial of human nature. Unfortunately, its history will probably never be written, or at least not in a form that bears some resemblance to the truth. Perhaps the most important truth that will be redacted from future accounts of the Blank Slate is the seminal role of Robert Ardrey in dismantling it. That role was certainly recognized by the high priests of the Blank Slate themselves. Their obsession with Ardrey can be easily documented. In spite of that he is treated as an unperson today, and his historical role has been denied or suppressed. I have discussed reasons for this remarkable instance of historical amnesia elsewhere. They usually have something to do with the amour-propre of the academic tribe. See, for example, here, here and here.
If there are grounds for optimism that the real story will ever see the light of day, it lies in the ease with which the elaborate fairy tale that currently passes as the “history” of the Blank Slate can be exposed. According to this official “history,” the Blank Slate prevailed virtually unchallenged until the mid-70’s. Then, suddenly, E. O. Wilson appeared on the scene as the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon almost single-handedly with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there’s a great deal of source material in both the academic and popular literature whose existence is very difficult to account for if one takes this sanitized version of the affair seriously. I’ve occasionally cited some of the numerous examples of articles about or by Ardrey, both pro and con, in popular magazines including the highbrow Encounter, the more professionally oriented Saturday Review, the once popular Life, the “recreational” Penthouse, and many others, all of which appeared long before the publication of Sociobiology. I recently stumbled across another amusing example in one of Jack Nicholson’s earlier flicks, and probably one of his best; Five Easy Pieces.
I hadn’t watched the film since 1970, the year it was released. I thought it was entertaining at the time, especially the iconic restaurant scene with the uncooperative waitress. However, I certainly didn’t notice any connection to the Blank Slate. It was a bit early for that. However, I happened to watch the film again a couple of days ago. This time I noticed something. There was the ghost of Robert Ardrey, with an amused look on his face, waving at me right out of the screen.
The great debunker of the Blank Slate turns up around 1:20:25 into the film. Bobby (Jack Nicholson), his somewhat trashy girlfriend, Rayette, and a few other family members and guests are gathered in the living room of Bobby’s childhood home. A pompous, insufferable woman by the name of Samia Glavia is holding forth about the nature of man. The dialogue goes like this:
Samia Glavia/Irene Dailey: But you see, man is born into the world with his existent adversary from the first. It is his historic, lithic inheritance. So, is it startling? Aggression is prehistoric. An organism behaves according to its nature, and its nature derives from the circumstances of its inheritance. The fact remains that primitive man took absolute delight in tearing his adversary apart. And there is where I think the core of the problem resides.
John Ryan/Spicer: Doesn’t that seem unnecessarily apocalyptic?
Glavia: I do not make poetry.
Rayette: Is there a TV in the house?
Glavia: I remarked to John, that rationality is not a device to alter facts. But moreover I think of it as an extraneous tool, a gadget, somewhat like… the television. To look at it any other way is ridiculous.
Rayette:There’s some good things on it, though.
Glavia: I beg your pardon? (Condescendingly)
Rayette: There’s some good things on it sometimes.
Glavia: I have strong doubts. Nevertheless, I am not discussing media. (Icy, condescending smile)
Susan Anspach/Catherine van Oost: I think these cold, objective discussions are aggressive.
As Catherine leaves the room, Glavia rants on: There seems to be less aggression, or violence, if you like, among the higher classes, and loftier natures.
Nicholson/Bobby Dupea: You pompous celibate. You’re totally full of shit.
Great shades of Raymond Dart! “Aggression” was a key buzzword at the time in any discussion of innate human nature. Naturalist Konrad Lorenz had published the English version of his On Aggression a few years earlier. Ardrey had highlighted the theories of Dart, according to which Australopithecus africanus was an aggressive hunting ape, in his African Genesis, published in 1961. The scientific establishment, firmly in the grip of the Blank Slate ideologues, had been furiously blasting back, condemning Ardrey, Lorenz, and anyone else who dared to suggest the existence of anything as heretical as human nature as a fascist and a Nazi, not to mention very right wing. (sound familiar?) See, for example, the Blank Slate tract Man and Aggression, published in 1968.
I’m not sure whether producer Bob Rafelson or screenwriter Carole Eastman or both were responsible for the lines in question, but there’s no doubt about one thing – whoever wrote them had been well coached by the Blank Slaters. Their favorite memes were all there. The grotesque, exaggerated “Killer Ape Theory?” Check! The socially objectionable nature of the messenger? Check! Their association with the “exploiting classes, or, as Samia Glavia put it, “the higher classes and loftier natures?” Check! As a final subtle touch, the very name “Glavia” is Latin for a type of sword or spear, a weapon of “aggression.”
I’m sure there are many more of these artifacts of reality out there, awaiting discovery by some future historian bold enough to dispute the “orthodox” account of the Blank Slate. According to that account, nothing much happened to disturb the hegemony of the Blank Slaters until E. O. Wilson turned up. Then, as noted above, the whole charade supposedly popped like a soap bubble. Well, as the song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.” Ardrey and friends had already reduced the Blank Slate to a laughing stock among the lay public long before Wilson happened along. The “Men of Science” knew the game was up. Still, they couldn’t bear to admit that a “mere playwright” like Ardrey had forced them to admit that the elaborate Blank Slate fairy tale they had been propping up for the last 50 years with thousands of “scientific” papers in hundreds of learned academic and professional journals was a hoax. They needed some “graceful” way to rejoin the real world. They seized on Wilson as the “way.” Any port in a storm. As a member of the academic tribe himself, he made it respectable for other “Men of Science” to disengage themselves from the Blank Slate dogmas. Be that as it may, as anyone who was around at the time and was paying attention was aware, the man who was the real nemesis of the Blank Slate was Robert Ardrey. If you’re looking for proof, I recommend Five Easy Pieces as both a revealing and entertaining place to start your search.
Why is all this important? Because the Blank Slate affair was a disfiguring and corruption of the integrity of science on an unprecedented scale. It clearly demonstrated what can happen when ideological imperatives are allowed to trump the scientific method. For half a century and more it blocked our path to self-understanding, and with it out ability to understand and cope with some of the more destructive aspects of our nature. Under the circumstances it might behoove us to at least get the history right.
Posted on December 4th, 2016 2 comments
Ask anyone who voted in the recent election why they voted the way they did, and they are sure to have some answer. They will give you some reason why they considered one candidate good, and/or the other candidate bad. Generally, these answers will be understandable in the context of the culture in which they were made, even if you don’t agree with them. The question is, how much sense do they really make when you peel off all the obscuring layers of culture and penetrate to the emotions that are the ultimate source of all these “logical” explanations. There are those who are convinced that their answer to this question is so far superior to that of the average voter that they should have more votes, or even that the average voter should have no vote at all. Coincidentally, the “average voter” is almost always one who doesn’t vote the same way they do.
Claire Lehman recently wrote an interesting essay on the subject at the Quillette website. Her description of these self-appointed “superior voters” might have been lifted from the pages of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. In that book Haidt uses his parable of the elephant and its rider to describe the process of moral judgment. It begins with a split-second positive or negative moral intuition, which Haidt describes as the “elephant” suddenly leaning to the left or the right. Instead of initiating or guiding this snap judgment, the “rider” uses “reason” to justify it. In other words, he serves as an “inner lawyer,” rationalizing whatever path the elephant happened to take. Here’s how Lehman describes these “riders”:
This is one reason why charges of wholesale ignorance are so obtuse. “High information” people ignore evidence if it conflicts with their preferred narrative all the time. And while it may be naïve for voters to believe the promises of Trump and the Brexit campaigners — it has also been profoundly naïve for the cosmopolitan classes to believe that years of forced internationalism and forced political correctness were never going to end with a large scale backlash.
In fact, high information people are likely to be much better at coming up with rationalisations as to why their preferred ideology is not only best, but in the national interest. And high information rationalisers are probably more likely to put forward theories about how everyone who disagrees with them is stupid, and is not deserving of the right to vote.
As a representative example of how these people think, she quotes the philosopher John Brennan:
And while I no doubt suffer from some degree of confirmation bias and self-serving bias, perhaps I justifiably believe that I — a chaired professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at an elite research university, with a Ph.D. from the top-ranked political philosophy program in the English-speaking world, and with a strong record of peer-reviewed publications in top journals and academic presses — have superior political judgment on a great many political matters to many of my fellow citizens, including to many large groups of them.
It would seem “some degree of confirmation bias” is something of an understatement. What, exactly, does “superior political judgment” consist of. In the end it must amount to a superior ability to recognize and realize that which is “Good” for society at large. The problem is that this “Good” is a fantasy. All it really describes is the direction in which the elephant is leaning in the minds of individuals.
There can be no rational or legitimate basis for things that don’t exist. It is instructive to consider the response of secular philosophers like Brennan if you ask them to supply this nonexistent basis for the claim that their version of “Good” is really good. The most common one will be familiar to readers of secular moralist Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape. Whatever political or social nostrum they happen to propose is good because it will lead to human flourishing. Human flourishing is good because it will lead to the end of war. The end of war is good because it will result in the end of pain and suffering. And so on. In other words, the response will consist of circular logic. What they consider good is good because it is good. Question any of the steps in this logical syllogism, and their response will typically be to bury you under a heap of negative moral intuitions, again, exactly as described by Haidt. How can you be so vile as to favor the mass slaughter of innocent civilians? How can you be so ruthless and uncaring as to favor female genital mutilation? How can you be so evil as to oppose the brotherhood of all mankind? Such “logic” hardly demonstrates the existence of the “Good” as an objective thing-in-itself. It merely confirms the eminently predictable fact that, at least within a given culture, most elephants will tend to lean the same way.
Philosophers like Brennan either do not realize or do not grasp the significance of the fact that, in the end, their “superior political judgment” is nothing more sublime than an artifact of evolution by natural selection. They epitomize the truth of the Japanese proverb, “Knowledge without wisdom is a load of books on the back of an ass.” In the end such judgments invariably boil down to the moral intuitions that lie at their source, and it is quite impossible for the moral intuitions of one individual to be superior to those of another in any objective sense. The universe at large doesn’t care in the slightest whether humans “flourish” or not. That hardly means that it is objectively “bad” to act on, passionately care about, or seek to realize ones individual moral whims. It can be useful, however, to keep the source of those whims in perspective.
One can consider, for example, whether the “rational” manner in which one goes about satisfying a particular whim is consistent with the reasons the whim exists to begin with. The “intuitions” Haidt speaks of exist because they evolved, and they evolved because they happened to increase the odds that the genes responsible for programming them would survive and reproduce. This fundamental fact is ignored by the Brennans of the world. What they call “superior political judgment” really amounts to nothing more than blindly seeking to satisfy these “intuitional” artifacts of evolution. However, the environment in which they are acting is radically different from the one in which the intuitions in question evolved. As a result, their “judgments” often seem less suited to insuring the survival and reproduction of the responsible genes than to accomplishing precisely the opposite.
For example, the question of whether international borders should exist and be taken seriously or not was fundamental to the decision of many to vote one way or the other in the recent U.S. presidential election. Lehman quotes Sumantra Maitra on this issue as follows:
[T]his revolutionary anti-elitism one can see, is not against the rich or upper classes per se, it is against the liberal elites, who just “know better” about immigration, about intervention and about social values. What we have seen is a “burn it all down” revenge vote, against sententious, forced internationalism, aided with near incessant smug lecturing from the cocooned pink haired urban bubbles. Whether it’s good or bad, is for time to decide. But it’s a fact and it might as well be acknowledged.
It is quite true that “forced internationalism” has been experienced by the populations of many so-called democracies without the formality of a vote. However, it is hardly an unquestionable fact that this policy will increase the odds that the genes responsible for the moral whims of the populations affected, or any of their other genes, will survive and reproduce. In fact, it seems far more likely that it will accomplish precisely the opposite.
A fundamental reason for the above conclusion is the existence of another artifact of evolution that the Brennans of the world commonly ignore; the universal human tendency to categorize others into ingroup and outgroups. I doubt that there are many human individuals on the planet whose mental equipment doesn’t include recognition of an outgroup. Outgroups are typically despised. They are considered disgusting, unclean, immoral, etc. In a word, they are hated. For the Brennans of the world, hatred is “bad.” As a result, they are very reticent about recognizing and confronting their own hatreds. However, they are perfectly obvious to anyone who takes the trouble to look for them. As it happens, they can be easily found in Lehman’s essay. For example,
She quotes the following passage which appeared in Haaertz:
But there is one overarching factor that everyone knows contributed most of all to the Trump sensation. There is one sine qua non without which none of this would have been possible. There is one standalone reason that, like a big dodo in the room, no one dares mention, ironically, because of political correctness. You know what I’m talking about: Stupidity. Dumbness. Idiocy. Whatever you want to call it: Dufusness Supreme.
In other words, the hatreds of the “superior voters” are quite healthy and robust. The only difference between their outgroup and some of the others to which familiar names have been attached is that, instead of being defined based on race, ethnicity, or religion, it is defined based on ideology. They hate those who disagree with their ideological narrative. Outgroup identification is usually based on easily recognizable differences. Just as ideological differences are easily recognized, so are cultural and ethnic differences. As a result, multi-culturalism does not promote either human brotherhood or human flourishing. It is far more likely to promote social unrest and, eventually, civil war. In fact, it has done just that countless times in the past, as anyone who has at least a superficial knowledge of the history of our species is aware. Civil war is unlikely to promote the survival of the human beings effected, nor of the genes they carry. “Low information voters” appear to be far more capable of appreciating this fundamental fact than the Brennans of the world who despise them. The predictable result of the “superior judgments” of self-appointed “high information voters” is likely to be the exact opposite of those that resulted in the existence of the fundamental whims that account for the existence of the “superior judgments” to begin with.
It is useless to argue that human beings “ought” not to hate. They will hate whether they “ought” to or not. We will be incapable of avoiding in the future the disastrous outcomes that have so often been the result of this salient characteristic of our species in the past if we are not even capable of admitting its existence. When Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz insisted half a century ago that the existence of ingroups and outgroups, what Ardrey called the “Amity-Enmity Complex,” is real, and made a few suggestions about what we might do to mitigate the threat this aspect of our behavior now poses to our species in a world full of nuclear weapons, they were shouted down as “fascists.” In the ensuing years the “experts” have finally managed to accept the fundamental theme of their work; the existence and significance of human nature. They have not, however, been capable of looking closely enough in the mirror to recognize their own outgroups. Those who spout slogans like “Love Trumps Hate” are often the biggest, most uncontrolled and most dangerous haters of all, for the simple reason that their ideology renders them incapable of recognizing their own hatreds.
There is nothing objectively good about one version or another of “human flourishing,” and there is nothing objectively bad about social unrest and civil war. However I, for one, would prefer to avoid the latter. Call it a whim if you will, but at least it isn’t 180 degrees out of step with the reason for the whim’s existence. We are often assured that flooding our countries with unassimilable aliens will be “good for the economy.” It seems to me that the “good of the economy” can be taken with a grain of salt when compared with the “bad of civil war.” It is hard to imagine what can be fundamentally “good” about a “good economy” that threatens the genetic survival of the existing population of a country. I would prefer to dispense with the “good of the economy” and avoid rocking the boat. By all means, call the “low information voters” racist, bigoted, misogynistic and xenophobic until you’re blue in the face. The fact that one was “good” rather than “bad” in these matters will make very little difference to the rest of the universe if one fails to survive.
I have no idea what the final outcome of the Trump Presidency will be. However, I think “low information voters” had reasons for voting for him that make a great deal more sense than those given by their “superiors.” One does not necessarily become more rational or more intelligent by virtue of having a Ph.D. or reading a lot of books.
Posted on November 6th, 2016 6 comments
There are moral emotions. There is no such thing as moral truth.
The above are fundamental facts. We live in a world of moral chaos because of our failure to accept them and grasp their significance.
Eighteenth century British philosophers demonstrated that emotions are the source of all moral judgments. “Pure reason” is incapable of anything but chasing its own tail. Darwin revealed the origin of the emotions as the result of evolution by natural selection. It was left for the Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck to draw the obvious conclusion; that there is no such thing as moral truth.
David Hume is often given the credit for identifying emotions or, as he put it, “passions,” as the source of moral judgments. According to Hume,
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
However, when he wrote the above, Hume was really just repeating the earlier work of Francis Hutcheson. It was Hutcheson who demonstrated the emotional origin of moral judgments beyond any serious doubt. I encourage modern readers who are interested in the subject to read his books on the subject. I have quoted him at length in earlier posts, and I will do so again here. Here is what he had to say about the power of “pure reason” to isolate moral truth:
If conformity to truth, or reasonable, denote nothing else but that “an action is the object of a true proposition,” ‘tis plain, that all actions should be approved equally, since as many truths may be made about the worst, as can be made about the best.
There is one sort of conformity to truth which neither determines to the one or the other; viz. that conformity which is between every true proposition and its object. This sort of conformity can never make us choose or approve one action more than its contrary, for it is found in all actions alike: Whatever attribute can be ascribed to a generous kind action, the contrary attribute may as truly be ascribed to a selfish cruel action: Both propositions are equally true.
But as to the ultimate ends, to suppose exciting reasons for them, would infer, that there is no ultimate end, but that we desire one thing for another in an infinite series.
Hutcheson followed up this critique of reason with some comments about the role of “human nature” as the origin and inspiration of all moral judgment that might almost have come from a modern textbook on evolutionary psychology, and that are truly stunning considering that they were written early in the 18th century. Again quoting the Ulster Scots/British philosopher as well as my own comments from an earlier post:
Now we shall find that all exciting reasons presuppose instincts and affections; and the justifying presuppose a moral sense.
If we assume the existence of human nature, the “reasons” fall easily into place:
Let us once suppose affections, instincts or desires previously implanted in our nature: and we shall easily understand the exciting reasons for actions, viz. “These truths which show them to be conducive toward some ultimate end, or toward the greatest end of that kind in our power.” He acts reasonably, who considers the various actions in his power, and forms true opinions of the tendencies; and then chooses to do that which will obtain the highest degree of that, to which the instincts of his nature incline him, with the smallest degree of those things to which the affections in his nature make him averse.
Of course, versions of the Blank Slate have been around since the days of the ancient Greek philosophers, and “updated” versions were current in Hutcheson’s own time. As he points out, they were as irrational then as they are now:
Some elaborate Treatises of great philosophers about innate ideas, or principles practical or speculative, amount to no more than this, “That in the beginning of our existence we have no ideas or judgments;” they might have added too, no sight, taste, smell, hearing, desire, volition. Such dissertations are just as useful for understanding human nature, as it would be in explaining the animal oeconomy, to prove that the faetus is animated before it has teeth, nails, hair, or before it can eat, drink, digest, or breathe: Or in a natural history of vegetables, to prove that trees begin to grow before they have branches, leaves, flower, fruit, or seed: And consequently that all these things were adventitious or the effect of art.
Now we endeavored to show, that “no reason can excite to action previously to some end, and that no end can be proposed without some instinct or affection.” What then can be meant by being excited by reason, as distinct from all motion of instincts or affections? …Then let any man consider whether he ever acts in this manner by mere election, without any previous desire? And again, let him consult his own breast, whether such kind of action gains his approbation. A little reflection will show, that none of these sensations depend upon our choice, but arise from the very frame of our nature, however we may regulate or moderate them.
The fact that Hutcheson believed that God was the origin of the emotions in question in no way detracts from the power of his logic about the essential role of the emotions themselves. No modern philosopher sitting on the shoulders of Darwin has ever spoken more brilliantly or more clearly.
In considering the relevance of the above to the human condition, one must keep in mind the fact that any boundary between moral emotions and other emotions is artificial. Nature created no such boundaries, and they are an artifact of the human tendency to categorize. Of all the emotions not normally included in the category of moral emotions, the most significant may well be our tendency to perceive others of our species in terms of ingroups and outgroups. Our outgroup includes people we consider “deplorable.” They are commonly perceived as evil, and are usually associated with other negative qualities. For example, they may be considered impure, disgusting, contemptible, infidels, etc. Outgroup identification is universal, although the degree to which it is present may vary significantly from one individual to the next, like any other subjective mental predisposition. If one would explore and learn to understand his moral consciousness, he would do well to begin by asking the question, “What is my outgroup?” The “deplorables” will always be there.
Consider the implications of the above. Follow the abstruse reasoning of the “experts on ethics,” to its source, and you will find the whole façade is built on a foundation of emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.
Follow the arcane logic of theologians touching on the moral implications of this or that excerpt from the holy scriptures, and you will find the whole façade is built on a foundation of emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.
When bathroom warriors, or anti-culture appropriators, or the unmaskers of inappropriate Halloween costumes rain down their anathemas on anyone who happens to disagree with them, consider what motivates their behavior, and yet again you will find emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Look a little further, and you’ll find the outgroup.
Stand in a crowd of Communists as they sing the Internationale, or of Nazis dreaming noble dreams of the liberation of Aryans everywhere from the powers of darkness as they sing the Horst Wessel Song, and you will find that the emotions those songs evoke evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. You won’t have to look very far to find the outgroup, either of Communists or Nazis. Millions of them were murdered in the name of these two manifestations of higher morality.
We live in a time of moral chaos because these truths have been too hard for us to bear. As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in his The Righteous Mind, we tend to invoke our inner moral lawyer whenever we happen to disagree with someone else about what ought to be. We consult our moral emotions, and seek to justify ourselves by evoking similar moral emotions in others. In the process we bamboozle ourselves and others into believing that those emotions relate to real things that we commonly refer to as good and evil, that are imagined to have an independent existence of their own. They don’t. They are merely illusions spawned by emotions that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.
In a word, what we are doing is blindly following and reacting to emotional whims, even though it is questionable whether doing so will have the same result as it did when those whims evolved. For that matter, we don’t even care. As long as we can satisfy whims that evolved in the Pleistocene, it matters not at all to us that they will accomplish precisely the opposite in the 21st century to what they did then. The result is what I have referred to as a morality inversion. Instead of promoting our survival, the emotions in question promote behavior that accomplishes the opposite in the radically different environment we live in today. It matters not a bit. As long as we “feel in our bones” that the actions in question are “Good,” we cheerfully commit suicide, whether by donning a suicide belt or deciding that it must be “immoral” to have children. We imagine that these actions are “noble” and “morally pure” even though all we have really done is satisfy atavistic whims without the least regard for why those whims exist to begin with, and whether responding to them is likely to accomplish the same thing now as it did millions of years ago or not.
Again, we live in a world of moral chaos because we have been unable to face the truth, simple and obvious as it is. There is nothing “bad” about that, nor is there anything “good” about it. It is just the way things are. I personally would prefer that we face the truth. Perhaps then it would occur to us that, since we can hardly do without morality, we would be well advised to come up with a simple moral system that maximizes the ability of each of us to pursue whatever whims we happen to find important with as little fear of possible of being threatened, vilified, or otherwise subjected to the penalties that are typically the lot of outgroups. If we faced the truth about the real subjective origins of what have seemed objective moral certainties to so many of us in the past, perhaps at least some of us would be more reticent about seeking to impose their own versions of morality on those around them. If we faced the truth, perhaps we would realize that our universal tendency to blindly vilify and condemn outgroups represents an existential threat to us all, and that the threat must be recognized and controlled.
These are things that I would like to see. Of course, they represent nothing more significant than my own whims.
Posted on October 17th, 2016 No comments
At the moment the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is in a class by itself when it comes to inertial confinement fusion (ICF) facilities. That may change before too long. A paper by a group of Chinese authors describing a novel 3-axis cylindrical hohlraum design recently appeared in the prestigious journal Nature. In ICF jargon, a “hohlraum” is a container, typically cylindrical in form. Powerful laser beams are aimed through two or more entrance holes to illuminate the inner wall of the hohlraum, producing a burst of x-rays. These strike a target mounted inside the hohlraum containing fusion fuel, typically consisting of heavy isotopes of hydrogen, causing it to implode. At maximum compression, a series of shocks driven into the target are supposed to converge in the center, heating a small “hot spot” to fusion conditions. Unfortunately, such “indirect drive” experiments haven’t worked so far on the NIF. The 1.8 megajoules delivered by NIF’s 192 laser beams haven’t been enough to achieve fusion with current target designs, even though the beams are very clean and uniform, and the facility itself is working as designed. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Chinese paper is not their novel three axis hohlraum design, but the fact that they are still interested in ICF at all in spite of the failure of the NIF to achieve ignition to date. To the best of my knowledge, they are still planning to build SG-IV, a 1.5 megajoule facility, with ignition experiments slated for the early 2020’s.
Why would the Chinese want to continue building a 1.5 megajoule facility in spite of the fact that U.S. scientists have failed to achieve ignition with the 1.8 megajoule NIF? For the answer, one need only look at who paid for the NIF, and why. The project was paid for by the people at the Department of Energy (DOE) responsible for maintaining the nuclear stockpile. Many of our weapons designers were ambivalent about the value of achieving ignition before the facility was built, and were more interested in the facility’s ability to access physical conditions relevant to those in exploding nuclear weapons for studying key aspects of nuclear weapon physics such as equation of state (EOS) and opacity of materials under extreme conditions. I suspect that’s why the Chinese are pressing ahead as well. Meanwhile, the Russians have also announced a super-laser project of their own that they claim will deliver energies of 2.8 megajoules.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the failed indirect drive experiments on the NIF, scientists in favor of the direct drive approach have been pleading their case. In direct drive experiments the laser beams are shot directly at the fusion target instead of at the inner walls of a hohlraum. The default approach for the NIF has always been indirect drive, but the alternative approach may be possible using an approach called “polar direct drive.” In recent experiments at the OMEGA laser facility at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, the nation’s premier direct drive facility, scientists claim to have achieved results that, if scaled up to energies available on the NIF would produce five times more fusion energy output than has been achieved with indirect drive to date.
Meanwhile, construction continues on ITER, a fusion facility designed purely for energy applications. ITER will rely on magnetic plasma confinement, the other “mainstream” approach to harnessing fusion energy. The project is a white elephant that continues to devour ever increasing amounts of scarce scientific funding in spite of the fact that the chances that magnetic fusion will ever be a viable source of electric power are virtually nil. That fact should be obvious by now, and yet the project staggers forward, seemingly with a life of its own. Watching its progress is something like watching the Titanic’s progress towards the iceberg. Within the last decade the projected cost of ITER has metastasized from the original 6 billion euros to 15 billion euros in 2010, and finally to the latest estimate of 20 billion euros. There are no plans to even fuel the facility for full power fusion until 2035! It boggles the mind.
Magnetic fusion of the type envisioned for ITER will never come close to being an economically competitive source of power. It would already be a stretch if it were merely a question of controlling an unruly plasma and figuring out a viable way to extract the fusion energy. Unfortunately, there’s another problem. Remember all those yarns you’ve been told about how an unlimited supply of fuel is supposed to be on hand in the form of sea water? In fact, reactors like ITER won’t work without a heavy isotope of hydrogen known as tritium. A tritium nucleus contains a proton and two neutrons, and, for all practical purposes, the isotope doesn’t occur in nature, in sea water or anywhere else. It is highly radioactive, with a very short half-life of a bit over 12 years, and the only way to get it is to breed it. We are told that fast neutrons from the fusion reactions will breed sufficient tritium in lithium blankets surrounding the reaction chamber. That may work on paper, but breeding enough of the isotope and then somehow extracting it will be an engineering nightmare. There is virtually no chance that such reactors will ever be economically competitive with renewable power sources combined with baseline power supplied by proven fission breeder reactor technologies. Such reactors can consume most of the long-lived transuranic waste they produce.
In short, ITER should be stopped dead in its tracks and abandoned. It won’t be, because too many reputations and too much money are on the line. It’s too bad. Scientific projects that are far worthier of funding will go begging as a result. At best my descendants will be able to say, “See, my grandpa told you so!”