Posted on September 17th, 2012 No comments
According to Wikipedia, Physical Review Letters’ “focus is rapid dissemination of significant, or notable, results of fundamental research on all topics related to all fields of physics. This is accomplished by rapid publication of short reports, called ‘Letters’”. That’s what I always thought, so I was somewhat taken aback to find an article in last week’s issue entitled, “Encouraging Moderation: Clues from a Simple Model of Ideological Conflict.” Unfortunately, you can’t see the whole thing without a subscription, but here’s the abstract:
Some of the most pivotal moments in intellectual history occur when a new ideology sweeps through a society, supplanting an established system of beliefs in a rapid revolution of thought. Yet in many cases the new ideology is as extreme as the old. Why is it then that moderate positions so rarely prevail? Here, in the context of a simple model of opinion spreading, we test seven plausible strategies for deradicalizing a society and find that only one of them significantly expands the moderate subpopulation without risking its extinction in the process.
That’s physics?! Not according to any of the definitions in my ancient copy of Webster’s Dictionary. Evidently some new ones have cropped up since it was published, and nobody bothered to inform me. In any case, tossing in this kind of stuff doesn’t exactly enhance the integrity of the field. If you don’t have access to the paper, I would not encourage you to visit your local university campus to have a look. I doubt the effort would be worth it.
Where should I start? In the first place, the authors simply assume that “moderate” is to be conflated with “good”, without bothering to offer a coherent definition of “moderate.” In the context of U.S. politics, for example, the term is practically useless. People with an ideological ax to grind tend to consider themselves “moderate,” and their opponents “extreme.” Conservatives refer to the mildest of their opponents as “extreme left wing,” and liberals refer to the most milque-toast of their opponents as “ultra right wing.” Consider, for example, a post about the Muhammad film flap that just appeared on a website with the moniker, “The Moderate Voice.” I don’t doubt that it might be termed “moderate” in the academic milieu from which papers such as the one we are discussing usually emanate, but it wouldn’t pass the smell test as such among mainstream conservatives, and has already been dismissed in those quarters as the fumings of the raving extremist hacks of the left. Back in the 30′s, it was a commonplace and decidedly ”moderate” opinion among the authors who contributed articles to The New Republic, the American Mercury, the Atlantic, and the other prestigious intellectual journals of the day was that capitalism was breathing its last, and should be replaced with a socialist system of one stripe or another as soon as possible. Obviously, what passes as ”moderate” isn’t constant, even over relatively short times. Is the Tea Party Movement moderate? Certainly not as far as most university professors are concerned, but decidedly so among mainstream conservatives.
According to the authors, the types of ideological swings they refer to occur in science as well as politics. One wonders what “moderation” would look like in such cases. Perhaps the textbooks would inform us that only half the species on earth evolved, and God created the rest, or that, while oxygen is necessary to keep a fire burning, phlogiston is necessary to start one, or that only the most visible stars are imbedded in a crystal ball surrounding the earth known as the “firmament,” while the other half are actually many light years away.
Undeterred by such considerations, the authors created a simple mathematical model that is supposed to reflect the dynamics of ideological change. Just as the economic models are all infallible for predicting the behavior of Homo economicus, it is similarly effective at predicting the behavior of what one might call Homo ideologicus. As for Homo sapiens, not so much. There is no attempt whatsoever to incorporate even the most elementary aspects of human nature in the model. It is inhabited by “speakers” and “listeners,” who are identified as either AB, the inhabitants of the moderate middle ground, or A and B, the extemists on either side of it. For good measure, there is also an Ac, inhabited by “committed” and intransigent followers of A. The subpopulations in these groups are, in turn, labeled nA, nB, nAB, and p. Only moderate listeners can be converted to one of the extremes, and vice versa, although we are reliably informed that, for example, the Nazis found some of their most fertile recruiting grounds among the Communists at the opposite extreme, and certainly not just among German moderates. With the assumptions noted above, and setting aside trivialities such as units of measure, the authors come up with “dynamic equations” such as,
nA = (p + nA)nAB – nAnB
nB = nBnAB – (p + nA)n
There are variations, complete with parameters to account for “stubbornness” and “evangelism.” There are any number of counterintuitive assumptions implicit in the models, such as that all speakers are equally effective at convincing others to change sides, opinions about given issues are held independently of opinions about other issues, although this is almost never the case among people who care about the issues one way or the other, that a metric for deciding what is the moderate “good” and what the extreme “evil” will always be available to the philosopher kings who apply the models, etc. The models were tested on “real social networks,” and (surprise, surprise) the curves derived from a judicious choice of nA, nB, etc., were in nice agreement with predictions.
According to the authors,
Since we present no formal evidence that the dynamics of (the equations noted above) do actually occur in practice, our work could alternatively be viewed as posing this model and its subsequent generalizations as interesting in their own right.
While I heartily concur with the first part of the sentence, I suggest that the model and its subsequent generalizations might be of more enduring interest to sociologists than physicists. Perhaps the editors of Phys Rev Letters and their reviewers will consider that possibility the next time a similar paper is submitted, and kindly direct the authors to a more appropriate journal.
Posted on March 18th, 2012 No comments
Freedom of religion in the United States has always been a matter of freedom for me, but not for thee. True, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, two of the most influential of our founding fathers, favored the complete separation of church and state, but they belonged to a minority. The majority went along with the language of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” but only as a form of armed truce. Most of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were hardly in favor of full religious liberty. They favored the First Amendment prohibition, not because of an altruistic desire to proclaim complete liberty of conscience as a human right, but of the great diversity of Protestant sects in the country at the time, and their desire to insure that there would be no interference with the one they happened to favor.
As may be seen in the records of both the Great Convention and the state ratifying conventions, the clause was accepted with mixed feelings. The fears of many others were expressed by a farmer at the Massachusetts convention, who “shuddered at the idea that Roman Catholics, Pagans and Papists might be introduced into office, and that Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.” Furthermore, at a time when State sovereignty was taken a great deal more seriously than it is now, the States did not consider the federal prohibition a barrier to their own establishment of any religion they happened to prefer. Several of them actually had State religions at the time the Constitution was ratified. There also existed support of the clergy by general taxation, provision for religious instruction, religious tests for office, and all the other traditional accompaniments of an established religion.
As one might expect from their strong religious tradition, Protestant Christianity was established in practically every one of the New England states. Legally binding tithes existed in Vermont until 1808, the more “liberal” constitution of Connecticut of 1818 provided, “No preference shall be given by law to any Christian sect or mode of worship… And each and every society of denominations of Christians in this State shall have and enjoy the same and equal powers, rights and privileges.” Maryland allowed taxation to support Christianity as long as no sect was favored, and no Jew could hold an office in the state until 1851. It was an idiosyncrasy of that State’s law that a Negro’s testimony was admissible in court against a Jew, but not against a Christian. Massachusetts confined the equal protection of the laws to Protestant Christians until 1833, a Pennsylvania court held that “Christianity, general Christianity, is and always has been a part of the Common Law of Pennsylvania,” and so on, and so on. Indeed, the disabilities applied to Catholics and Jews in this land of “religious freedom” remained in force in some states long after those sects had achieved full emancipation in Great Britain in spite of its established church.
As for atheists, the idea that freedom of religion applied to them in the United States has always been a myth. In most States they were incompetent to testify until the last decade of the 19th century. As for the guarantee of religious liberty in the Constitution, it was intended, according to one state court, “to prevent persecution by punishing anyone for his religious opinions, however erroneous they might be. But an atheist is without any religion, true or false. The disbelief in the existence of any God is not a religious but an anti-religious sentiment.”
And so it is that, at least in some sense, right wing evangelicals are quite right when they declare that the United States is a “Christian nation.” They are in fine company in that regard, as the “Christian nation” meme was also commonly found in the pamphlets of the Ku Klux Klan in its heyday. True freedom of religion has never existed in this country, and those who are most prone to make pious speeches about defending the ideal of Liberty are typically the first to deny its substance. It should therefore come as no surprise that atheists should still be fighting against their relegation to the status of second class citizens in the “under God” clause of the nation’s Pledge of Allegiance.
The justices of the Supreme Court used all the familiar specious arguments in upholding that blatant denial of full citizenship to atheists in 2004 that earlier courts had used to condone prayer in the public schools. As in that earlier battle, they claimed that children who objected could choose not to recite the pledge, completely ignoring the stigma such children would bear by segregating themselves in that way. Today we might say that, by so doing, they would publicly proclaim their adherence to an outgroup, deliberately inviting the hostility of the Christian ingroup. In view of the Supreme Court’s ruling that there is a de facto established church in this country after all, atheists have now turned to the states for relief. As noted in an article in The Atlantic,
So the American Humanist Association has mounted a state constitutional challenge to the pledge in Massachusetts state court. On behalf of an anonymous Godless couple (Jane and John Doe) and their three children, the AHA argues that mentioning God in the pledge violates guarantees of religious equality in the state constitution.
While I am not optimistic, I certainly hope Jane and John Doe win the day. I would cringe with shame for my species if aliens really did visit this planet and discover that, not only do a majority of its human inhabitants still believe in imaginary magical beings, but that belief in the same is actually still enshrined in the law of many of the states into which we are organized. Beyond that, as one who volunteered to serve this country in Vietnam at a time when it was anything but popular to do so, it would please me if soldiers of a later day, at least, could pledge their allegiance to their country according to the established formula without at the same time falsely declaring their belief in a fantasy.
Posted on March 1st, 2012 2 comments
The stuff you find in academic and professional journals runs the gamut. Sometimes it’s good science and sometimes it’s bad science. Occasionally, it’s abject drivel. A piece of the latter just turned up in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, supposedly one of the nation’s elite scientific journals. Entitled Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior, it claims, among other things, that “Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower class individuals,” and “Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.” Unfortunately, only the abstract is available online. PNAS is hiding the rest behind their copyright fence, but you can “rent” the article for a nominal fee at Deepdyve.
The title of the article gives a broad hint about the quality of the rest of the piece. It simply assumes the existence of something that doesn’t exist; an objective ethics. The authors don’t refer to “our ethics,” or, as Marx might have put it, “proletarian ethics,” or “the ethics currently prevailing among professors at the University of California at Berkeley,” the source of the “studies.” No, they simply make the bald assumption that Good and Evil exist as objective things. Perhaps it will finally start to dawn on you, dear reader, why I am always harping about the nature of morality in this blog. Among other things, understanding the distinction between subjective and objective “ethics” may prevent you from publicly making an ass of yourself in academic journals.
It is, of course, obvious that individuals of our species, like those of thousands of others, recognize differences in status, and that, in all these species, there are behavioral differences between high and low status individuals. However, authors of articles documenting these differences in, for example, European jackdaws or hamadryas baboons, don’t commonly coach their readers to distinguish which of the animals are Good and which Evil. Suppose, however, we ignore for the moment the author’s conflating of behavioral traits in Homo sapiens with their own subjective moral judgments, and consider the quality of the article aside from this rather glaring fault.
In one of the studies, the authors investigated whether upper-class drivers were more likely to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way intersection with stop signs on all sides. They began by making the rather dubious assumption that “upper-class drivers” are identical with those who drive nice cars. To ”prove” this assumption, they refer to a “pop sci” book entitled Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy In An Era of Excess, written by Robert Frank, a professor at Cornell whose subjective moral predispositions, if we can judge by the reviewer comments at the Amazon link, are entirely similar to their own. “Observers” stood near the intersection, “coded the status of approaching vehicles, and recorded whether the driver cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection before waiting their turn.” To add weight to the claim that such behavior is “unethical,” they helpfully note that, such behavior “defies the California Vehicle Code.” Sure enough, “A binary logistic regression indicated that upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles at the intersection, even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex and age, and amount of traffic, b = 0.36, SE b = 0.18, P < 0.05.” I will not cavil at the fact that such observations were made. After all, who would dare to doubt a binary logistic regression? One can, however, question the bias of the observers. What were their attitudes towards “high status individuals?” Was any attempt made to determine whether they were more likely to conclude that nice cars had cut them off than clunkers in identical situations? Do the authors give us any hint at all that they have ever heard of such a thing as a double blind procedure? None of the above.
There are similar rather obvious faults in the rest of the seven studies. One of them at least provides comic relief by measuring whether rich people are more likely (no kidding!) to steal candy from a baby, or, as the authors put it, “individually wrapped candies, ostensibly for children in a nearby laboratory.” All of them contain statements such as, “Greed, in turn, is a robust determinant of unethical behavior,” “These results suggest that upper-class individuals are more likely to exhibit tendencies to act unethically compared with lower-class individuals,” “These results further suggest that more favorable attitudes toward greed among members of the upper class explain, in part, their unethical tendencies,” etc., with the implicit assumption that “ethics” is some objective, scientifically quantifiable thing-in-itself, hovering out there in the ether independent of the subjective judgments of mere mortals.
One wonders about the quality of peer review of stuff like this. Far from any shred of intellectual honesty or scientific integrity, it appears the PNAS reviewers lacked even something as elementary as common sense. Did it never occur to them to consider such obvious indicators of the association of social class with “unethical behavior” as the population of our prisons? Presumably, most of the inmates have committed offenses even more serious than “defying the California Vehicle Code.” What is the distribution of “rich” and “poor” among them? Ah, but I forget! All those people are in prison to begin with because of the exploitation and injustices of rich people! We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we?
Apart from the wretched nature of the “science” in these articles, one wonders whether the authors ever considered the results of similar jihads against “rich people” in the past. They used to be called “bourgeoisie,” and mountains of similar “scientific studies” demonstrated that these “bourgeoisie” were also “unethical.” Once all was said and done, 100 million of the “bourgeoisie” had been murdered to atone for their lack of ethics. Do we really want to go there again? To judge from these “studies,” a good number of us do. It would certainly bring a smile to the faces of some of those earlier “scientists,” now no doubt ascended to that great Workers Paradise in the Sky.
Posted on February 20th, 2012 No comments
Rick Santorum threw the Left a meaty pitch right down the middle with his comments about “theology” to an audience in Columbus. Here’s what he said:
It’s not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your job. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology. But no less a theology.
The quote seems to lend credence to the “Santorum is a scary theocrat” meme, and the Left lost no time in flooding the media and the blogosphere with articles to that effect. The Right quickly fired back with the usual claims that the remarks were taken out of context. This time the Right has it right. For example, from Foxnews,
Rick Santorum said Sunday he wasn’t questioning whether President Obama is a Christian when he referred to his “phony theology” over the weekend, but was in fact challenging policies that he says place the stewardship of the Earth above the welfare of people living on it.
“I wasn’t suggesting the president’s not a Christian. I accept the fact that the president is a Christian,” Santorum said.
“I was talking about the radical environmentalist,” he said. “I was talking about energy, this idea that man is here to serve the Earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal.
I note in passing a surprising thing about almost all the articles about this story, whether they come from the Left or the Right. The part of Santorum’s speech that actually does put things in context is absent. Here it is:
I think that a lot of radical environmentalists have it backwards. This idea that man is here to serve the earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth. Man is here to use the resources and use them wisely. But man is not here to serve the earth.
I can understand its absence on the Left, but on the Right? Could it be that contrived controversies are good for the bottom line? Well, be that as it may, I’m not adding my two cents worth to this kerfluffle because I’m particularly fond of Santorum. However, he did touch on a matter that deserves serious consideration; the existence of secular religions.
In fact, there are secular religions, and they have dogmas, just like the more traditional kind. It’s inaccurate to call those dogmas “theologies,” because they don’t have a Theos, but otherwise they’re entirely similar. In both cases they describe elaborate systems of belief in things that either have not or cannot be demonstrated and proved. The reason for this is obvious in the case of traditional religions. They are based on claims of the existence of spiritual realms inaccessible to the human senses. Secular dogmas, on the other hand, commonly deal with events that can’t be fact-checked because they are to occur in the future.
Socialism in it’s heyday was probably the best example of a secular religion to date. While it lasted, millions were completely convinced that the complex social developments it predicted were the inevitable fate of mankind, absent any experimental demonstration or proof whatsoever. Not only did they believe it, they considered themselves superior in intellect and wisdom to other mere mortals by virtue of that knowledge. They were elitists in the truest sense of the word. Thousands and thousands of dreary tomes were written elaborating on the ramifications and details of the dogma, all based on the fundamental assumption that it was true. They were similar in every respect to the other thousands and thousands of dreary tomes of theology written to elaborate on conventional religious dogmas, except for the one very important distinction referred to above. Instead of describing an entirely different world, they described the future of this world.
That was their Achilles heal. The future eventually becomes the present. The imaginary worker’s paradise was eventually exchanged for the very real Gulag, mass executions, and exploitation by a New Class beyond anything ever imagined by the bourgeoisie. Few of the genuine zealots of the religion ever saw the light. They simply refused to believe what was happening before their very eyes, on the testimony of thousands of witnesses and victims. Eventually, they died, though, and their religion died with them. Socialism survives as an idea, but no longer as the mass delusion of cocksure intellectuals. For that we can all be grateful.
In a word, then, the kind of secular “theologies” Santorum was referring to really do exist. The question remains whether the specific one he referred to, radical environmentalism, rises to the level of such a religion. I think not. True, some of the telltale symptoms of a secular religion are certainly there. For example, like the socialists before them, environmental ideologues are characterized by a faith, free of any doubt, that a theoretically predicted future, e.g., global warming, will certainly happen, or at least will certainly happen unless they are allowed to “rescue” us. The physics justifies the surmise that severe global warming is possible. It does not, however, justify fanatical certainty. Probabilistic computer models that must deal with billions of ill-defined degrees of freedom cannot provide certainty about anything.
An additional indicator is the fact that radical environmentalists do not admit the possibility of honest differences of opinion. They have a term for those who disagree with them; “denialists.” Like the heretics of religions gone before, denialists are an outgroup. It cannot be admitted that members of an outgroup have honest and reasonable differences of opinion. Rather, they must be the dupes of dark political forces, or the evil corporations they serve, just as, in an earlier day, anyone who happened not to want to live under a socialist government was automatically perceived as a minion of the evil bourgeoisie.
However, to date, at least, environmentalism possesses nothing like the all encompassing world view, or “Theory of Everything,” if you will, that, in my opinion at least, would raise it to the level of a secular religion. For example, Christianity has its millennium, and the socialists had their worker’s paradise. The environmental movement has nothing of the sort. So far, at least, it also falls short of the pitch of zealotry that results in the spawning of warring internal sects, such as the Arians and the Athanasians within Christianity, or the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks within socialism.
In short, then, Santorum was right about the existence of secular religions. He was merely sloppy in according that honor to a sect that really doesn’t deserve it.
Posted on February 17th, 2012 No comments
There are enough rational arguments to convince anyone approaching the subject with an open mind that belief in magical supernatural beings is something we need to relegate to the childhood of our species and move on. Far from preventing illness, it is the illness. It is an illness because it is false, and the Twin Towers will ever be an icon of what happens when people base their actions on that which is false.
One wonders why, if the big man in the sky is really so worried about the behavior of creatures infinitely further below him than amoeba are to us that he devotes his time to continually monitoring the interactions of all seven billion of us, and is so subject to human emotions that he flies into a rage and tortures them with fire for quadrillions and quintillions of years if they don’t do what he wants, in spite of their ignorance, and yet is merciful and compassionate, and genuinely wants us to do good, he doesn’t just step out from behind the curtain, manifest himself to us in a way that could leave no doubt about his existence, and explain to us all clearly what he wants. Surely he’s capable of such an act, and, assuming he exists, it would be the obvious and reasonable thing to do. The problem is that he doesn’t exist, and the fact that he never has stepped out from behind the curtain in the manner described is an obvious demonstration of that fact for anyone willing and able to think rationally.
Of course, the religious have had hundreds of years to think up all sorts of specious replies to this and all of the other obvious arguments against the existence of their magical superheroes. You can find lots of them against the argument I’ve given above by typing in a few obvious search terms on Google. The problem is that none of them make the slightest sense to anyone who isn’t wearing religious blinders because they’re afraid of dying, is afraid life will have no “purpose” unless they believe in a pack of lies, agree with Victor Davis Hanson that societies become “ill” unless their citizens are all delusional, or is just simply too intellectual lazy to do other than blindly accept the “truths” he was indoctrinated with as a child.
Of course, it’s particularly difficult for people on the right of the political spectrum in the US today to give up their religious illusions because, on top of the reasons cited above, those illusions also happen to be an important board in the ideological box they live in. Sometimes the results are comical. For example, one constantly finds them harping on the mention of God in our Declaration of Independence. The only problem is that the God in the Declaration of Independence isn’t their God. It’s the God of its author, Thomas Jefferson, who was a deist, as was Voltaire, Thomas Paine and so many of the other great names of the 18th century Enlightenment. No matter, they just strap Jefferson down on the Procrustean bed of their faith and rack him and squeeze him until he becomes the best of Christians. I once ran into one of these worthies on another blog, who cited a bit from one of Jefferson’s letters approving of some of the teachings of Christ, rather than the faith itself, as “proof” that he was a Christian. Here is my reply:
Allow me to also remind you of some of the other things Jefferson said.
Thomas Jefferson also said,
“Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.”
Thomas Jefferson also said,
“Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”
Thomas Jefferson also said,
“I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians. (letter to Richard Price, Jan. 8, 1789. Richard Price had written to TJ on Oct. 26. about the harm done by religion and wrote “Would not Society be better without Such religions? Is Atheism less pernicious than Demonism?”)”
Thomas Jefferson also said,
“I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.”
Thomas Jefferson also said,
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
Thomas Jefferson also said,
“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”
Thomas Jefferson also said,
“Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.”
Thomas Jefferson also said,
“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
Thomas Jefferson also said,
“Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him [Jesus] by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being.”
Thomas Jefferson also said,
“And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerve in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.”
Does that sound like a “Christian” doctrine to you? Even his famous quote on the Jefferson memorial was taken from an attack on the Christian clergy of Philadelphia:
“The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they [the clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: & enough too in their opinion, & this is the cause of their printing lying pamphlets against me. . .”
He was a great man indeed. Would that we could find leaders like him today.
Posted on December 24th, 2011 No comments
Occasionally religious moralists, and especially those of a fundamentalist bent, can be more logical than their secular counterparts. The basis for the legitimacy of their moral systems is, of course, God. Things are Good, or not, because God wants it that way. Remove God and that ultimate sanction disappears. As they have never been diffident about pointing out, without a God secular moral systems are left floating in air with no visible means of support. The same logical and seemingly obvious conclusion has occurred to many outstanding thinkers in the past. They have included, for example, our own Benjamin Franklin, who alludes to it in his autobiography as a reason for promoting religious faith among the masses, lest they turn to evil for the lack of any reason to prefer the good.
Secular moralists typically counter such arguments by pointing out that their own moral systems promote the Good because it can be demonstrated that, if only everyone would act according as prescribed by these systems, some attractive goal, such as “human flourishing,” will be achieved. The problem with such arguments is that there is no essential connection whatsoever between the Good and whatever more or less attractive ideals or goals these people happen to be promoting. To credit them at all, it is necessary to simply ignore the evidence, increasingly weighty and compelling in light of recent research, that human moral behavior and perception of good and evil are the expression of evolved behavioral traits. If human morality is an expression of something evolved, then, like every other evolved trait, it exists because it happened to promote the survival and reproductive success of individual packets of genes. As such, it did not come into existence to serve any conscious purpose or goal. The attempt to connect it with such goals or purposes after the fact must inevitably be arbitrary and illogical, regardless of how many people happen to agree that those particular goals or purposes are attractive. It is also extremely dangerous, because human nature, of which human morality is a part, will stubbornly and persistently remain what it is, regardless of what we might happen to want it to be.
Why dangerous? Because no Good comes without its complementary Evil. Good Christians come with evil heretics and witches, good Moslems come with evil infidels, good proletarians come with evil bourgeoisie, and good Nazis come with evil Jews. For every ingroup there is an outgroup, and persecution of the outgroup has ever been as characteristic of every new moral system as promotion of the ingroup. Do you really believe the promoters of the latest secular moral systems have no outgroups? Just read their books! The more self-righteous these people are, the more they wear their hatreds and animosities on their sleeves.
I suggest that we finally recognize morality for what it really is and climb off this treadmill once and for all. I suggest it, not because I want to establish yet another new moral system, but because I would prefer not to suffer the potential inconvenience of dealing with people who are trying to kill me because I’ve been unfortunate enough to land in their outgroup.
Posted on November 13th, 2011 No comments
Before I leave the topic of Orwell, I’ll throw out a few more observations from his essays, not necessarily related or in any particular order. First on the list; his take on Gandhi. It was rather less flattering than the modern consensus. For example,
As an ex-Indian civil servant, it always makes me shout with laughter to hear, for instance, Gandhi named as an example of the success of non-violence. As long as twenty years ago it was cynically admitted in Anglo-Indian circles that Gandhi was very useful to the British Government. So he will be to the Japanese if they get there. Despotic governments can stand “moral force” till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force.
If you throw in a touch of oriental mysticism and Buchmanite raptures over Gandhi, you have everything that an disaffected intellectual needs. The life of an English gentleman and the moral attitudes of a saint can be enjoyed simultaneously.
Now, I do not know whether or not Gandhi will be a “flaming inspiration” in years to come. When one thinks of the creatures who are venerated by humanity it does not seem particularly unlikely.
The people at MI5 would have done well to read Orwell’s essays. It might have spared them from being caught flat-footed by the likes of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, and the rest of the British spies who worked for the Soviet Union for “idealistic” reasons. The psychological type was familiar to Orwell. For example,
In the last twenty years western civilisation has given the intellectual security without responsibility, and in England, in particular, it has educated him in scepticism while anchoring him almost immovably in the privileged class. He has been in the position of a young man living on an allowance from a father whom he hates. The result is a deep feeling of guilt and resentment, not combined with any genuine desire to escape. But some psychological escape, some form of self-justification there must be, and one of the most satisfactory is transferred nationalism. During the nineteen-thirties the normal transference was to Soviet Russia.
The type sounds familiar in our own day, doesn’t it? Another, similar bit:
The English left-wing intelligentsia worship Stalin because they have lost their patriotism and their religious belief without losing the need for a god and a fatherland.
The middle-class Communists, however, are a different proposition. They include most of the official and unofficial leaders of the party, and with them must be lumped the greater part of the younger literary intelligentsia, especially in the universities. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the “Communism” of these people amounts simply to nationalism and leader-worship in their most vulgar forms, transferred to the USSR.
Anti-Americanism has ebbed and flowed over time, but it has been a European fixture for many years. For whatever psychological reasons, we apparently make a much more satisfying outgroup for them than they do for us. It is hard to imagine any equivalent of the recent “bloom” in anti-American hate in Europe from about the last years of the Clinton Administration to the middle of the Bush Administration happening here. Orwell provides us with a few vignettes of the phenomenon in England during the first years of World War II.
Up till about 1930 nearly all “cultivated” people loathed the USA, which was regarded as the vulgariser of England and Europe. …But our new alliance has simply brought out the immense amount of anti-American feeling that exists in the ordinary lowbrow middle class.
People now blame the USA for every reactionary move, more even than is justified.
Sentimentally, the majority of people in this country would far rather be in a tie-up with Russia than with America, and it is possible to imagine situations in which the popular cause would become the anti-American cause.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Finally, we find some interesting presentiments of Orwell’s later work in Animal Farm and 1984 in his wartime essays.
The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, “It never happened” – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs – and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement.
Readers of 1984 will recall the iconic lines, “he who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past.” Similar themes appear in Animal Farm.
The war hits one a succession of blows in unexpected places. For a long time razor blades were unobtainable, now it is boot polish.
Recall that in 1984, Winston was looking for equally unobtainable razor blades when he discovered the curiosity shop that he and Julia made their love nest. Of course, it turned out to be a trap set by the “Thought Police.”
…and finally, the history behind the sudden transference of the citizens of Oceania’s hatred from Eurasia to Eastasia in 1984:
The peculiarity of the totalitarian state is that though it controls thought, it does not fix it. It sets up unquestionable dogmas, and it alters them from day to day. It needs the dogmas, because it needs absolute obedience from its subjects, but it cannot avoid the changes, which are dictated by the needs of power politics. It declares itself infallible, and at the same time it attacks the very concept of objective truth. To take a crude, obvious example, every German up to September, 1939, had to regard Russian Bolshevism with horror and aversion, and since September, 1939, he has had to regard it with admiration and affection. If Russia and Germany go to war, as they may well do within the next few years, another equally violent change will have to take place. The German’s emotional life, his loves and hatreds, are expected, when necessary, to reverse themselves overnight.
Of course, 1984 has come and gone, and Orwell’s nightmare didn’t happen after all. Still, it may have been a much nearer thing than any of us imagine.
Posted on October 30th, 2011 No comments
As I pointed out in my last post, “The outgroup have ye always with you.” Of all the very good reasons for mankind to give up the cobbling together of new moral systems once and for all, it’s probably the best. It’s more likely you’ll find a unicorn browsing in your back yard than one of the pathologically pious among us suffused with the milk of human kindness. One typically finds them in their “ground state,” frothing at the the mouth with virtuous indignation over the latest sins of their preferred outgroup.
So it is with Eugene Robinson, one of their number who happens to pen an occasional column in the Washington Post. He recently delivered himself of some observations concerning the phenomenon of global warming. As anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the last decade will be aware, no branch of the sciences has been more afflicted of late by the attentions of the professionally righteous than climatology. Robinson gives us a good example of how the neat separation of climate scientists into good guys and bad guys works in practice.
Hero of his piece is one Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley who, we learn, once dismissed “climate alarmism” as “shoddy science.” Not to worry. Though once lost, he is now found, and though once blind, he now sees. It turns out the scales fell from his eyes after he “launched his own comprehensive study (referred to as the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature, or BEST, study, ed.) to set the record straight,” and discovered that, lo and behold, “Global warming is real.” Well, perhaps it is and perhaps it isn’t. I happen to believe that the arguments as to why it should be real are plausible enough, but that’s beside the point as far as this post is concerned.
What is to the point is Robinson’s reaction to all this. For him, Muller’s study isn’t just another batch of data points relating to a very complex scientific issue. For him, global warming is an absolute and incontrovertable certainty, because it represents the “good.” Muller’s study is, therefore, not just a scientific study, but a victory in the eternal battle of good versus evil. In Robinson’s own words,
For the clueless or cynical diehards who deny global warming, it’s getting awfully cold out there.
Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and the rest of the neo-Luddites who are turning the GOP into the anti-science party should pay attention.
But Muller’s plain-spoken admonition that “you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer,” has reduced many deniers to incoherent grumbling or stunned silence.
and so on. As it happens, not all of the “skeptics” have been reduced to incoherent grumbling or stunned silence. Take, for example, Judith Curry, a distinguished climate researcher and Chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech. She was actually a member of Muller’s team, and so is presumably familiar with the copious data Robinson was so enthused about. However, in an interview for the Daily Mail, Curry accuses Muller of “trying to mislead the public by hiding the fact that BEST’s research shows global warming has stopped.” She also says that, “Prof. Muller’s claim that he has proven global warming sceptics wrong was also a ‘huge mistake’, with no scientific basis,” and goes so far as to compare the affair to “Climategate.” This is strong stuff, but Prof. Curry has the goods. She notes that, in carefully sifting through, as Robinson informs us, “1.6 billion records,” Muller somehow failed to mention that, according to BEST’s own data, “there has been no significant increase in world temperatures since the end of the 90′s.” The following two graphs from the website of the Global Warming Policy Foundation summarize that data:
Source: Global Warming Policy Foundation
It would seem that the good Prof. Muller, who had much to say about the first graph, complete with “hockey stick,” somehow forgot to mention the data in the second. In fact, as Prof. Curry put it, “…in the wake of the unexpected global warming standstill, many climate scientists who had previously rejected sceptics’ arguments were now taking them much more seriously.”
The Daily Mail article contains much else in the way of less than pleased reactions by a number of other climatologists at what was apparently a premature release of the BEST data before the peer review process was complete. Of course, all this fits very ill with the lurid picture of good triumphing over evil painted for us by Mr. Robinson. Predictably, while he was apparently observant enough to turn up any number of “grumbling and stunned” warming deniers, when it came to Prof. Curry and her equally chagrined colleagues, he didn’t notice a thing.
It should come as no surprise. Mr. Curry is merely acting as one might expect of a member of a species endowed with certain innate behavioral characteristics. Some of those traits give rise to what is commonly referred to as moral behavior, and none of us are free of their emotional grip. That’s why Hollywood still makes movies about good guys and bad guys. It is our subjective nature to perceive sublime good, but the yin of sublime good cannot exist without the yang of despicable evil. Every ingroup implies an outgroup. There is little we can do to change our nature, and we would probably be unwise to try given our current intellectual endowments. We can, however, while accepting it for what it is, seek to find ways of channeling its expression in ways less destructive than we have experienced in the past. At the very least we need to understand it and develop an awareness of how it affects our behavior. The results of failing to do so in the past have been destructive enough, and have certainly made a hash of the science of climatology. The results of failing to do so in the future are unlikely to be any more encouraging.
Posted on October 24th, 2011 1 comment
A recent commenter asked what basis I find in Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, for the claim that he is a “transcendental” moralist. I use the term in the same sense as John Stuart Mill in his essay, Utilitarianism, where he writes, for example,
There is, I am aware, a disposition to believe that a person who sees in moral obligation a transcendental fact, an objective reality belonging to the province of “Things in themselves”, is likely to be more obedient to it than one who believes it to be entirely subjective, having its seat in human consciousness only.
In other words, a “transcendental” morality is one with objective validity, legitimate in itself. It surprises me that anyone could question the fact that Harris believes in such a morality, particularly after reading The Moral Landscape. Quoting from that book,
Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.
The goal of this book is to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science.
I hope to show that when talking about values, we are actually talking about an interdependent world of facts.
…I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want – and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics.
and so on. Presumably, Harris isn’t suggesting that everyone else should act in accord with his moral system because that happens to be his personal whim. It follows that he perceives that moral system as a thing having an objective existence of its own, independent of his subjective feelings, or those of anyone else for that matter.
One wonders what rational basis there could be for belief in an objective morality in this day and age in which new indications of the evolutionary basis of morality and its analogs among other animals are being found all the time, and recognition of the fact that there actually is such a thing as human nature has penetrated even to the darkest corners of the most obscurantist anthropology and sociology departments. The arguments Harris provides are flimsy enough. He simply assumes a priori that actions are good or evil according to the extent to which they promote human “well-being” and “flourishing” or not, and tries to bludgeon anyone who questions the assertion into submission with lurid stories of female genital mutilation and the castration of young boys to better serve the state. It reminds me of the Far Side cartoon in which two mathematicians are discussing a proof. One of them says that he understands the whole thing very well except for step b, which is labeled, “miracle happens.”
In fact, what we call morality is the expression of evolved behavioral traits. Similar traits are found in other animal species. The expression of morality is a great deal more complex in humans than in other species because the emotional phenomena that give rise to it are interpreted through our highly evolved brains. However, as even Darwin realized, the fundamental neurological processes responsible for moral behavior are similar to those in other animals in spite of that. Moral behavior exists not because it promoted the “well-being” or “flourishing” of a particular collection of physical animals with finite lifetimes, but for the sole reason that it promoted the survival of the genes that gave rise to those animal bodies in the first place. There is no logical basis for associating it with any “purpose” beyond that whatsoever.
In spite of that, Harris suggests that morality has somehow transcended its lowly origins, and has now evolved, apparently quite recently, into something quite different, capable of completely disregarding the genes that gave rise to it in the first place and acquiring the “purpose” of promoting the “flourishing” of a population of a particular type of animal, namely, ourselves. It reminds one of Pinocchio, the wooden puppet that magically shed its strings and became a real boy. While Harris is fond of wrapping himself in the mantle of “science,” there is nothing rational about this proceding. It can best be described as the creation of yet another secular religion.
Given the horrific results of similar attempts to cobble together connections between human morality and various philosophical systems in the past, one wonders how anyone in their right mind can still suggest that trying it yet again in the future will promote “human flourishing.” Perhaps the most notorious recent example was “scientific” Marxism. It came complete with that inevitable accompaniment of any human morality, the out-group, in the form of the “bourgeoisie.” The extent to which it promoted “human flourishing” has been described quite well by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.
Human morality is not infinitely malleable, in spite of Harris’ fondest wishes. The out-group have ye always with you. Harris has already turned up a nascent one in The Moral Landscape in the form of the secular liberals who disagree with him. He describes one encounter in which he didn’t merely politely disagree with one of them. Rather, after a suitable expression of pious indignation, he tells us he wheeled about on his heal and stalked off. I fear this particular out-group will have more to fear than being cut at a cocktail party if Harris’ system ever gains the traction of “scientific” Marxism. After all, those who resist the Good must necessarily be Evil.
From my personal emotional point of view, I find much that is attractive in what Harris describes as human well-being. I just reject the idea that the best way to promote it is to force human morality to lie down in the Procrustean bed of yet another “scientific” system. We cannot dispense with our morality any more than a leopard can jump out of its spots. Neither can we change it at will to serve some whimsical purpose or other. Rather, we must understand its origins and accommodate ourselves to what it actually is. Let that, however, be the subject of a later post.
Posted on December 11th, 2010 1 comment
Morality is a set of human emotional traits. The emotional responses we associate with morality exist because they evolved. Morality is, by its very nature, subjective. It can exist only in the form of feelings in individual minds, and has no independent existence as a thing in itself outside of individual minds. Its existence in our minds does not depend on any rational thought process or series of logical deductions. Rather, it is fundamentally emotional in nature. We consider a thing good because we feel that it is good. Computers can execute rule-based logical algorithms and arrive at true conclusions. However, they do not experience emotions. Therefore, they are not moral beings. The perception that something is “really” good corresponds to a fundamentally emotional response. Without emotion, there can be no morality, and without it we would not make moral judgments. We do not perceive the good as a real, objective thing because it actually is real. We perceive the good as a real, objective thing, because perceiving it in that fashion made it more likely that our ancestors would survive and reproduce. Because the good is not a real, objective thing, it is not possible for moral judgments to be legitimate in themselves or in any way objectively valid.
The above conclusions are, in my opinion at least, the bottom line. In other words, they are true. We can reason about them and come to logical conclusions about whether they will have negative or positive consequences as they relate to some goal or aspiration we might have for ourselves, or for mankind in general, but the truth is indifferent to our goals and aspirations. It remains true regardless. In this post-”Blank Slate” world, as we sit on the shoulders of Darwin and gaze about us, it would seem these truths would be obvious. After all, if we see some rule violated that we associate with “the good,” our minds do not respond by executing a logical algorithm leading to the dispassionate conclusion that it is true that the rule has been violated. Rather, we respond emotionally. We may experience outrage, or become indignant. If we go to a movie, and see the bad guy bite the dust, our response is not limited to the rational observation that a human animal acted in a way that had a less than zero probability of leading to that outcome, and, as one of a set of potential outcomes, that outcome (biting the dust) actually did happen. Rather, we again respond emotionally. We may experience gratification, or, if we are really involved in the plot, exultation at the victory of “the good.” In claiming the objective legitimacy of moral judgments, we are really claiming that emotions that evolved in animals with large brains for perfectly understandable reasons, and that are analogous to similar emotions in other animals, have now, for no apparent reason at all, magically come to life on their own, and become objective things independent of the minds that experience them. Logically, that notion is absurd.
These truths, however, are not obvious. They are not obvious to most of the people on the planet, nor are they obvious to those to whom it would seem they should be self-evident; the evolutionary psychologists, neuroanthropologists, ethologists, and others whose research is daily adding to the overwhelming evidence that morality is the result of innate features that are hard wired in our brains. It’s not surprising, really. If we shed the illusion of objective, legitimate good, there is much to be lost along with it. We must free ourselves of the overwhelmingly powerful feeling that what we perceive as good is a real thing. With it we must give up once and for all any claim to a logical basis for the immensely satisfying feeling that we are morally superior to others. We must give up all the claims to wealth, status and power that claims to moral superiority or to a superior knowledge of the “real” good imply, whether as religious leaders, partisans of messianic ideologies, or recognition as ethics “experts.” No wonder then, that the delusion of objective good is so hard for us to give up. The problem is that it simply doesn’t exist. No matter how passionately we embrace this falsehood, it will not be transmuted into truth.
Allow me to suggest that it would be wise for us to throw aside our blinkers and embrace the truth instead. By doing so we will not suddenly plunge the world into chaos. We are moral creatures, and will continue to act as moral creatures because that is our nature. Understanding why we act as moral creatures, and the true nature of our moral emotions will not alter the fact. In our day-to-day interactions with each other, we must act as moral creatures, if only because we lack the cognitive capacity to carefully reason out the logical consequences of every move we make in real time. However, my personal opinion, and one which, it seems to me, follows logically from what I have stated above, is that we should stop trying to apply morality in politics, international relations, or any other modern form of collective interaction between large numbers of people that had no analog at the time our moral emotions evolved. We should also resist attempts by others to apply morality in such situations, other than to the extent that we must take our own nature, and with it our moral nature, into account in constructing a society that is suited to the kind of creatures we are. I suggest that this is a reasonable course of action, not because it is “really good,” but because I consider life a wonderful thing that I wish to savor while I have it, and because I cannot savor it if I am constantly threatened by other human beings.
How is it that I am threatened, or, for that matter, how is it that we are all threatened by continued attempts to apply morality in politics or to any of the other forms of mass social arrangements that have emerged in the modern world, and which are utterly different from anything that existed at the time morality evolved? In the first place, quite obviously, because morality evolved for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the goals that massive political and other organizations, such as modern states, set for themselves. Consequently, there is no apparent reason to expect that acting according to moral emotions will be an effective way of pursuing those goals. There is abundant evidence in the recent history of our species to confirm that they are not only ineffective in pursuing those goals, but potentially extremely dangerous.
Consider, for example, Communism. It was embraced by millions of the most intelligent and idealistic people on the planet as the path to “human flourishing,” confirmed as such by the most advanced “scientific” theories. It was a quintessential attempt to apply morality in the context of modern states. For its adherents it represented the incarnation of ”the good,” transcending the petty minds of individuals. It ended in disaster, after having caused the deaths of tens of millions of people. In many of the countries it controlled, those killed included a grossly disproportionate number of the most intelligent and productive members of society. These countries, for all practical purposes, beheaded themselves. How is it that this noble attempt to achieve a perfect state of human happiness via the revolutionary imposition of “the good” ended in a debacle? For the same reason that most such attempts always fail. Human morality is dual in nature. Where ever there is an ultimate ”good,” there is always an ultimate “evil” to go right along with it. In the case of Communism, the “evil” was the bourgeoisie. To insure the triumph of the “the good,” it was necessary to wipe out “the evil.” As a result, tens of millions who were unfortunate enough to have a little more than their neighbors, or whose clothes were a little too nice, or whose farms were a little too productive, were murdered. The lives of tens of millions of children were poisoned because their parents were supposed to have been in the wrong class. They were often brutally punished for not taking care to be born into the right social class.
The other obvious example that dominated the 20th century is Nazism. In this case, the German people and their welfare became “the good.” Hitler hardly considered himself an evil man whose goal in life was to deliberately make everyone else as miserable as possible. He passionately believed he represented the ultimate good, and that it was his destiny to lead the German people to a different version of “human flourishing,” thereby acting for the ultimate good of all mankind. In this case, too, the “good” implied an “evil.” The “evil” was the Jews, and the result was the Holocaust.
What about attempts to impose religious versions of morality on society? Ask the tens of millions of victims of religious wars. Ask the countless heretics who were burned. Ask the hundreds of thousands of innocent women who were hung outside the gates of European cities over the centuries as “witches.” Ask the miserable inhabitants of the Papal States in the 19th century. Ask anyone in Iran today who happens not to be a devout Muslim. Ask the victims of Islamic terrorism.
In spite of the monotonous repetition of these disasters, those of us who should know better still don’t get it. They are so devoted to the illusion of their own moral goodness that, instead of coming to the seemingly obvious conclusion that morality itself is the problem, or, more accurately, the attempt to apply it in situations that are utterly divorced from those in which it came into existence in the first place, for reasons that have nothing to do with the reasons that it evolved, they conclude, against all odds, that the solution is merely a matter of “getting it right.” They are cocksure that they are smarter than the myriads who have tried exactly the same nostrums for achieving “human flourishing” before them. Finally, at long last, they fondly believe they have discovered the “real good,” and it remains only to stuff it down the throats of the rest of us poor benighted souls. Open wide!
I have a better idea. Let’s stop playing with fire. What is the alternative to imposing some bright, new, freshly cobbled together version of morality on society? We have large brains. For starters, we might try using them.