Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Human social virtues in a time of crisis

April 1, 2020

Garrison Keillor once said, if the purpose of one’s life is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others? This actually poses a deep philosophical issue. John Donne wrote that no man is an island. Yet each of us experiences existence only within the confines of our own skulls. Experiencing only one’s own feelings, not those of others.

It can be argued that we only ever do seemingly selfless deeds when it rewards us with good feelings. Evolution programmed us to have such feelings — and with empathy for the feelings of others, even if we cannot experience them directly — to make us do things for the common good. Hence even if pure selfishness might seem strictly logical, a degree of selflessness is a fundamental part of our human nature (barring sociopaths who failed to get that software installed). And we measure our virtue largely in terms of our interactions with others. Summed up pretty well by the golden rule. Nobody is perfect but most of us try.

And not just because of our programming. Your rational brain tells you that if you want to live in a society where people treat each other well, it behooves you to behave that way yourself. And if everybody does this, it’s good for everybody. We do what’s right mainly because we know it’s right, and why.

Holding fast to these standards of conduct is especially vital in a crisis like today’s, where the temptations for selfishness are heightened, and so is its ill effect. Where social solidarity is more needful than ever. Americans are largely meeting the test.

Acting rightly does make one feel good about oneself. But that may not be enough. We all have egos, greedy for such feelings, and one way to pump them up is through validation from others. This may seem strange because, again, you don’t have direct access to what others feel. But you’re affected by their behavior, which in turn is affected by their feelings toward you. And our social programming makes our position in society important to us. All this makes us crave the good opinion of others, and suckers for flattery.

Thus if we do good or are successful, we want others to know it. One way is to tell them. But that actually contravenes the golden rule. How so? Well, do you enjoy hearing others’ boasts? Saying “Look how great I am” implicitly tells the hearer, “and you’re not.” Even if unintentionally, self-aggrandizement forces the hearer to ponder the comparison. It’s not nice. That’s why bragging has a negative connotation, and modesty and humility are virtues.* A basic rule of living in society.

Much human behavior seeks to evade that rule. Successful, rich people cannot wear a badge announcing their net worth. But a lot of what they do (and buy) is mainly to advertise to others about their success. Boastfulness by other means.

But some are boastful by boasting. “I am very rich,” Trump has said. “I am very smart.” He’s even boasted of being the most modest person ever. And he tells us he’s doing a great job. Thus his coronavirus briefings (whose TV ratings he’s bragged about). Recently the word of the day, repeated like a verbal tic, was “tremendous.” Then he switched to “incredible.” Maybe tomorrow it will be “fantastic.” And not content to trumpet his wonderfulness himself, he trots out sycophantic flatterers to bubble about it.

What’s truly incredible is a president using a horrific crisis, with thousands dying, and millions suffering deprivation, as an occasion for sickening orgies of self-congratulation.

And contemptible as such braggadocio is, worse yet if the boasts are lies. It’s been factually documented how his failure of leadership delayed forceful action on testing to contain the virus. Doing what other countries did would have saved many thousands of lives and trillions in economic devastation. This reality might have brought forth some humility. A different reality can only be constructed out of lies. Like the simply false claim that we’re testing more than any other nation. (Our per-capita testing rate is certainly way below.)

I have pilloried Governor Cuomo in the past, but his coronavirus briefings are models of what Trump’s are not. No self-praise extravaganzas. No bashing the press and other critics, no demanding obsequious flattery. No lying. Cuomo gives us the unvarnished truth. He takes responsibility. He brings the situation home to us in a very human way we can all relate to. He tells us what needs to be done, what we all must do.

Knowing he’s being unfavorably compared to Cuomo infuriates Trump. But, incapable of learning from Cuomo, he resorts to pot-shots at him: “He had a chance to buy, in 2015, 16,000 ventilators at a very low price . . . he shouldn’t be talking about us. He should be buying his own ventilators.” But instead, said Trump, Cuomo goes for “death panels and lotteries.”

Albany Times-Union columnist Chris Churchill has deconstructed exactly how vile this Trump cheap shot is. It came (surprise) from the internet, a right-wing website, based on a 2015 state task force report on pandemic planning. Churchill read it and interviewed the task force leader — concluding that the attack on Cuomo was “blatantly dishonest.” The report discussed strategies for dealing with a ventilator shortage, but did not recommend buying thousands just in case. Let alone somehow present an option to buy 16,000 “at a very low price.”

But Trump’s gross distortion of the facts is kind of beside the point. He’s repeatedly shown he needs no facts at all to slime somebody. And keeping up such divisive dishonesty, even in this time of national trauma, is just ghastly.

Here is the real point, that all this leads up to. I started out talking about our most fundamental human precepts for living among others. How normal people have that software pre-installed, and how crucial it is in a crisis like we face now. When the leadership we choose is someone who has not had that software installed, we are in very deep trouble as a society.

* Certain commenters will jump to sneer about my own modesty. I was tempted to actually talk about it here. But that would be immodest.

As the virus goes viral

March 30, 2020

My first 3/9 post on coronavirus was mocked for underestimating it. That’s a misreading. But I was over-estimating the government’s response. Which could have greatly limited the damage, but failed to.

An in-depth 3/29 New York Times report* details how the Trump administration squandered the opportunity to identify hot spots by testing, and to confine the disease through targeted quarantines — avoiding what became a need for a nationwide lockdown with unfathomable human and economic costs. While other countries were already testing tens of thousands daily, we were still doing fewer than a hundred. We effectively lost an entire, critical month.

Trump’s claim that we’re testing more than any other nation is simply false. Even today, many Americans with symptoms cannot get tested. A Brooklyn ER doctor, in a radio interview Saturday, said her hospital was turning away hundreds daily. While many coming in for unrelated problems are actually testing positive for COVID-19. So it’s likely our count of known cases is just the tip of an iceberg.

The Times documents the leadership failure. The NSC’s pandemic response team, established under Obama, was disbanded under Trump. Bureaucracies acted like bureaucracies. As the crisis metastasized, the FDA was actually tightening restrictions on testing; we were using a test both slow and faulty; were slow to fix that; while refusing a better test on offer from the World Health Organization. (Trump disdains such international bodies.)

The Times report is sickening (no pun here), and makes a mockery of Trump’s daily self-congratulatory briefings. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We now need megatons of cure because we didn’t test swiftly and widely. Even now, a massive crash testing program — which would cost a tiny fraction of the price tag for our economic shutdown — could pay off hugely in limiting the damage. We should test everybody. (At last we seem to have a test that’s cheap & quick.) Then quarantine those infected, and everybody else could resume normal life, knowing they’ll be safe.

We’re still doing nothing like that. The death toll is now projected to exceed 100,000. Trump tells us he’s a hero because it would have been 2 million if nothing at all had been done. But the whole story would have been very different with true, responsible, sensible leadership.

* * *

The Bible tells us those who have will get more, and for those who have not, even what they have will be taken away. (Biblical morality.) Coronavirus is taking from everyone; perhaps reducing inequality by shredding the investments of the rich; but the poorest are suffering most. They’re not the ones with jobs suitable for working from home. It’s mainly lower wage workers losing paychecks. The giant bail-out legislation indiscriminately spews cash, but won’t make whole those thrown out of work.

Our biggest inequality is in education. Born into a poor family in a poor neighborhood, your chances of surmounting are slim because your school likely stinks. Now even those schools are closed. Distance learning may help affluent kids in stable homes. Poor kids in dysfunctional ones, often without computers or even web access, will fall further behind.

* * *

Almost forgotten in the midst of this cataclysm is that we’re supposed to be conducting a national census right now. It isn’t postponed. The Trump administration was already trying to skew it for political advantage, by undercounting people in Democrat-leaning areas, to reduce their congressional representation and electoral votes. One way was to simply underfund the census, making it harder to count people on the margins. They tried to particularly target Hispanics by including a citizenship question to scare them off from participating. The Supreme Court slapped down this proposal, literally ruling it was based on lies.

Trump said the census should count only citizens. The (“phony”) Constitution actually says all persons must be counted. That includes even the undocumented. But despite the Court ruling, the “citizenship” gambit probably succeeded in scaring off a lot of them.

The virus surely makes a full accurate count even harder, with census workers confined to quarters and practicing social distancing.

* * *

Almost forgotten too is that we’re supposed to be conducting a national election. Many primaries are postponed. That might have been a mess had the Democratic race not already been effectively decided. Especially now, Bernie should end his candidacy and urge uniting behind Biden.

Some say Biden’s invisible. Actually he’s not silent, is acting very responsibly, and quite reasonably the media is currently giving little attention to the election. That’s fine. Our campaigns are too long anyway. Biden will be on the ballot in November. Is anybody still “undecided?”

Now, more than ever — now that Trump’s fecklessness has really and truly fucked this nation up — we need that vote.

* https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/28/us/testing-coronavirus-pandemic.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200329&instance_id=17169&nl=morning-briefing&regi_id=60449143&segment_id=23230&te=1&user_id=0588054855cd59fb97458c82182d229e

COVID-19: How much is a life worth?

March 22, 2020

Watching news reports about the economic devastation, my wife said the unsayable: “This isn’t worth it.”

The economic disaster is not from people falling ill, but the aversive measures. They’re hurting huge numbers very badly. Is this worth it? Would it entail less suffering to just let COVID-19 run its course? Many millions would get sick, but for the vast majority it would be minor. Only a fairly small percentage would die. Common flu annually sickens tens of millions and kills tens of thousands.

Dr. Fauci (a real hero) was asked why we’re taking extreme measures for COVID-19, but not for common flu. He didn’t have much of an answer — basically that common flu is, well, common, and COVID-19 is not. It’s also called “novel coronavirus.” Novelty grabs attention that the familiar doesn’t.

Suppose, if unchecked, COVID-19 would kill a million Americans, even several million. Fighting it costs many trillions. Governments will lose tax revenues and spend several trillion on bailouts and economic aid. Individuals, collectively, will lose even more in reduced incomes; personal wealth is already shredded. A trillion is a million million. So the fight is costing us quite a few million for every life saved.

How much is a life worth? That might sound like a crass question, or an unanswerable one. But in reality we answer it all the time, in many contexts. For example, when juries decide what dollar damages to award in “wrongful death” lawsuits. More pertinent here, public policy is forced to answer it when weighing the costs of any health and safety measures against the benefits.

Take pollutants. We might be able to remove 99% of a pollutant at a cost that’s pretty reasonable for every resulting life saved. But to get the last 1% out might cost a lot more — too much in relation to the few additional lives that would save. We recognize that lives have value, but not infinite value.

That’s not callous but rational simply because resources are not infinite either. The money spent to eradicate that last 1% of a pollutant would mean less money for other things — which could save more lives. Imperfect humans don’t always make these choices with perfect rationality, but we intuitively grasp the point and act accordingly in at least a general way.*

Economists can analyze all these instances in which, explicitly or implicitly, we put a value on a human life, and calculate a number. It’s been done. The answer seems to be somewhere in the range of a million or two.

But are some lives worth more than others? One could note that most COVID-19 deaths are elderly and frail, not long for this world anyway, so the loss is arguably much less than for a youngster with many years ahead. Wrongful death cases often entail estimating what the deceased might have gone on to earn. This was taken into account by the 9/11 compensation fund. But for all the logic of trying to put a number on a life’s value, such an earnings-based approach seems faulty. That views lives as economic assets for others. Whereas the value of people’s lives is primarily to themselves.

A homeless person’s life is not worth less to them than a billionaire’s. And don’t be quick to say the latter derives more enjoyment from living. Many homeless people are happier than many billionaires.

What I’ve written here is shaped by my humanist philosophy. Which tells us to apply reason to human problems. And that human life (as Vince Lombardi said of winning) “is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing.”

Those two precepts might seem to clash in a dilemma like COVID-19. That’s far from unique in human affairs. The value of human life — of any single human life — is ultimately an ineffable thing. But respect for it is the cornerstone of humanism. That is why we are doing what we are doing to contain COVID-19. We cannot do otherwise, even if the cost seems disproportionate.

With common flu (and all other normal threats to life), we’re set up to provide medical care to those who need it; recognizing that some will die even with everything done for them. We’re not similarly equipped to deal with a spike of COVID-19 victims in the millions. Hospitals and medical personnel would be overwhelmed, unable to cope. Great numbers of people would die simply for lack of care. A horrific scenario that would sear all our souls. To avoid that is why we’re trying to “flatten the curve,” so everyone will at least get proper medical help. We may yet actually fail.

This is about who we are as a society, as human beings. We cannot let ourselves say that the lives of some people — frail aged people — are of lesser value, and we can just kiss them off. That would put us on a road whose destination we know all too well.

* Economist Robert Frank has said there’s actually an optimal amount of dirt in your house. Up to a point, cleaning is worth it, but the effort to banish the last speck of dirt is not.

Artificial Intelligence and our ethical responsibility

March 16, 2020

(A virus-free and Trump-free post. (At least until I added this.))

Artificial Intelligence (AI) was originally conceived as replicating human intelligence. That turns out to be harder than once thought. What is rapidly progressing is deep machine learning, with resulting artificial systems able to perform specific tasks (like medical diagnosis) better than humans. That’s far from the integrated general intelligence we have. Nevertheless, an artificial system for the latter may yet be inevitable in the future. Some foresee a coming “singularity” when AI surpasses human intelligence and then takes over its own further evolution. Which changes everything.

Much AI fearmongering warns this could be a mortal threat to us. That superior AI beings could enslave or even eliminate us. I’m extremely skeptical toward such doomsaying; mainly because AI would still be imprisoned under human control. (“HAL” in 2001 did get unplugged.) Nevertheless, AI’s vast implications raise many ethical issues, much written about too.

One such article, with a unique slant, was by Paul Conrad Samuelsson in Philosophy Now magazine. He addresses our ethical obligations toward AI.

Start from the question of whether any artificial system could ever possess a humanlike conscious self. I’ve had that debate with David Gelernter, who answered no. Samuelsson echoes my position, saying “those who argue against even the theoretical possibility of digital consciousness [disregard] that human consciousness somehow arises from configurations of unconscious atoms.” While Gelernter held that our neurons can’t be replicated artificially, I countered that their functional equivalent surely can be. Samuelsson says that while such “artificial networks are still comparatively primitive,” eventually “they will surpass our own neural nets in capacity, creativity, scope and efficiency.”

And thus attain consciousness with selves like ours. Having the ability to feel — including to suffer.

I was reminded of Jeremy Bentham’s argument against animal cruelty: regardless of whatever else might be said of animal mentation, the dispositive fact is their capacity for suffering.

Samuelsson considers the potential for AI suffering a very serious concern. Because, indeed, with AI capabilities outstripping the human, the pain could likewise be more intense. He hypothesizes a program putting an AI being into a concentration camp, but on a loop with a thousand reiterations per second. Why, one might ask, would anyone do that? But Samuelsson then says, “Picture a bored teenager finding bootlegged AI software online and using it to double the amount of pain ever suffered in the history of the world.”

That may still be far-fetched. Yet the next passage really caught my attention. “If this description does not stir you,” Samuelsson writes, “it may be because the concept of a trillion subjects suffering limitlessly inside a computer is so abstract to us that it does not entice our empathy. But this itself shows us” the problem. We do indeed have a hard time conceptualizing an AI’s pain as remotely resembling human pain. However, says Samuelsson, this is a failure of imagination.

Art can help here. Remember the movie “Her?” (See my recap: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/her-a-love-story/)

Samantha, in the film, is a person, with all the feelings people have (maybe more). The fact that her substrate is a network of circuits inside a computer rather than a network of neurons inside a skull is immaterial. If anything, her aliveness did finally outstrip that of her human lover. And surely any suffering she’s made to experience would carry at least equal moral concern.

I suspect our failure of imagination regarding Samuelsson’s hypotheticals is because none of us has ever actually met a Samantha. That will change, and with it, our moral intuitions.

AI rights are human rights.

The sky is falling! The sky is falling! And the chickens come home to roost

March 13, 2020

 

The end of the world. Everything shut down, cancelled, locked down.

This is what we get when we elect a government of clowns. Trump’s response has been largely the usual: keep out foreigners. Tax cuts. Self-congratulation. Demonizing Democrats. And of course lies. He said everyone could get tested when that was blatantly false. He’s blamed Obama for disbanding our pandemic response team, when it was Trump himself who disbanded it.

He did give a scripted teleprompter speech. But written by the likes of Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller, so it was a misleading mush of misinformation that required swift correction. Thus, intended to reassure, it fueled the panic, financial markets collapsing the next day.

Nothing in Trump’s speech called upon Americans to join together, and to shoulder some sacrifices, in a national effort to confront this crisis. (He said about three such words today.)

My previous post on coronavirus was read by some as belittling the problem. No. I did discuss how humans often aren’t rational about threats and dangers, and questioned why we don’t go nuts like this every flu season which sickens 30+ million Americans and kills tens of thousands. Coronavirus could get that bad, or worse. But, so far at least, it has not. We should act strongly to prevent it.

Cancelling and closing down everything looks like the wrong response. In terms of bang-for-the-buck it seems very inefficient and wasteful, because the societal and economic cost is huge, while (again, so far) it appears only one person out of thousands is infected. We don’t handle seasonal flu this way, despite a far higher percentage of carriers among us.

The emphasis should instead be on targeting those likeliest to harbor the virus, by testing them, and quarantining people testing positive. Testing not only ones with symptoms but anyone having had contact with known carriers.* This means a massive crash program to manufacture and distribute test kits and organize a testing infrastructure. Yesterday.

The Trump administration started off way behind the curve on testing, and didn’t (appear to) finally get serious about it until the press conference just hours ago. (Even there Trump seemed to actually discourage people from getting tested.) It’s because we weren’t prepared to deploy that preferred testing method for containing the illness that forces resorting to the very second-best alternative of closing and cancelling myriad public events.

It’s said that when the tide goes out, you see who’s been swimming naked. We always knew there’d be some crisis showing up what Trump is.

Cocksure Trumpers have long sneered at Democrats’ chances of beating him, banging on about how the wonderful economy assures his re-election. I generally wouldn’t respond; what will be will be. Well, the economy is now shot.

This was before Coronavirus. Trump’s campaign fired its pollster

Yet at least one comment as late as Thursday still jeered at Biden. Such divorcement from reality seems greater than ever. America can’t be so deranged as to re-elect Trump now.

* One of whom is Trump. He dodges and resists being tested. What a terrible personal example.

Coronavirus/Covid19: Don’t panic, it’s just flu

March 9, 2020

It may or may not be a pandemic, but it is certainly a panic. A huge chunk of Italy, including Milan and Venice, is locked down, as is much of Washington State. Financial markets have freaked out, anticipating economic damage (mostly not from disease but from measures combating it).

Our federal government’s response so far is shambolic. Test kits: too little too late. Moronic Trump spews misinformation and utilizes the occasion to bash enemies.

China’s draconian restrictions on freedom seem to have gotten the spread under control. One worries about countries with governments even less competent than Trump’s. (Yes, there are many.)

A problem is that an infected person is symptomless for a while, so can infect many others before detection.

Okay. Now let’s please get a grip.

So far, coronavirus has caused something over 100,000 illnesses and 3000 deaths worldwide. It’s an ailment much like ordinary flu, so most cases are relatively mild and clear up by themselves. Both illnesses kill mostly people already in frail health.

In the U.S. alone, ordinary common flu this season has thus far caused at least 32 million illnesses, 310,000 hospitalizations, and 20,000 deaths.

Coronavirus does seem to have a somewhat higher death rate, but it’s still a very small percentage and the vast majority of victims recover. Coronavirus also does seem somewhat more infectious. On both measures, researchers are still trying to get an accurate fix. But it’s clear that though, on a case-by-case basis, coronavirus is more dangerous, it is not dramatically more dangerous.

And even if coronavirus is more contagious than ordinary flu, your chances of catching the latter, in the U.S., are hundreds of times greater simply because there are vastly more carriers. That could conceivably change, but coronavirus would have to metastasize humongously before it would actually be a U.S. health threat rivaling ordinary flu.

So why the panic over coronavirus, but not ordinary flu?*

As ever, human psychology is very bad at rationally gauging threats. After 9/11, millions felt safer driving than flying, though the risk on the roads was hugely greater (even counting the terrorism factor). People feel safer driving because they imagine they have control, unlike on an airplane. In the case of flu, the control factor is represented by vaccines, though in reality their effectiveness is limited. Another factor is familiarity. Driving, and seasonal flu, are thoroughly familiar. Unfamiliarity makes airplane terrorism, and coronavirus, seem more scary.

So we have TSA, and drastic efforts to contain coronavirus. Similarly strong measures could prevent tens of thousands of deaths annually from car crashes and ordinary flu, not to mention guns, but most Americans just yawn.

Government might do better at calming the coronavirus panic by calling it just “flu.”

* Actually, measures combating coronvirus will probably prevent larger numbers of flu deaths as a side effect.

Is inequality really worsening?

February 28, 2020

Rising inequality is a fixture of left-wing polemics. Sanders harps on it. Lamenting a widening gap between the richest and the rest. A lot of numbers are invoked — the top X%’s wealth share has grown from Y% to Z% over such-and-such a time span. As if such numbers are simple facts.

They never are. A recent in-depth lead article in The Economist explored all the assumptions and difficulties behind any such calculations. It casts much doubt on the “rising inequality” narrative, at least within rich countries.

Globally, inequality has indisputably been falling. That’s because economic growth rates in developing countries have greatly exceeded those in mature economies, narrowing that gap.

We keep hearing about “exporting jobs.” When we then import the goods produced from, say, China, cheaper than we can make them ourselves, that savings actually makes Americans collectively better off, even while some Americans who lose jobs are worse off. That job shift is a wealth transfer from richer nations to poorer ones — again, decreasing global inequality. Indeed, the numbers of people in extreme poverty have plummeted. Which progressives should welcome, no?

The Economist addresses four pillars of the “rising inequality” narrative: top earners snare a greater share of income; middle class incomes have stagnated; this is because labor’s share of rising productivity has fallen relative to capital’s; thus wealth has been concentrating at the top.

In each respect, you get very different results depending on how the numbers are parsed. It’s complicated: you must take into account not just raw income data but also taxes and government transfer programs, and fringe benefits, especially increasingly valuable medical benefits. And demographic factors — “household income” is often the focus, yet households grow smaller as marriage rates fall, with more single parenthood, thus income is divided among more “households.”

Results also greatly depend on how you adjust for past inflation. It’s widely acknowledged that government inflation numbers are too high, failing to properly account for, among other things, technological changes. For example, they actually disregard the valuable benefits from smartphones. When you chart pay levels over time using overstated inflation estimates, you can show pay falling even while the quality of life people get from it is rising.

The Economist also notes that while “returns to capital” (that is, to owners of corporate shares) have grown, a lot of that actually flows to the middle class because an increasing chunk of the stock market is owned by pension funds. Furthermore, as far as wealth is concerned, the effect of shareholding is actually eclipsed by the long-term rise in the value of home ownership, again mostly benefiting the middle class. This is another (usually overlooked) counter to the idea of rising wealth concentration at the top.

But on the other hand — showing how complex all this is — at the bottom of the income scale, educational inequality looms large. Kids born poor tend to stay poor because of lousy education. That’s largely because of where they live. Rising home values tend to lock them out of better locales. Moreover, higher house prices go with areas where good jobs concentrate. Everything is interconnected.

Meantime, when we say the top 10% or 1% of Americans’ wealth share has risen, we imagine we’re talking about the same people in Year X as in Year Y. Life doesn’t work that way. Those in the top groups in 2020 often differ from those who comprised those groups in 1990 or 2000. At the beginning, your income and wealth may be low because you’re a student or just starting out. The picture changes greatly in your peak earning years. So people move in and out among income groups at different stages of life. Students will of course appear very unequal vis-a-vis middle agers. Differences like that are a huge part of “inequality.”

So where does all this leave us? “Inequality” is almost surely not growing in the way many scream about. That doesn’t mean all is fine. A dynamic complex economy — and society— like ours will always have inequities of one sort or another, and we must constantly seek to diagnose and combat them.

I’ve mentioned one big example, educational inequity. Another factor is our allowing some businesses to be protected against competition. But we have to be clear on what the problems really are, and what they are not.

One thing that’s not a problem is people being rich. They’re not the cause of others being poor. Our focus should be not bashing the rich but lifting up the poor, giving more people opportunities to earn enough to live decently. And worldwide, thanks to globalization, capitalism, and free trade, that’s been happening a lot. A real social justice revolution.

God and meaning

February 20, 2020

Core claims of religion are that God gives us morality, and gives our lives meaning. An essay by Daniel Farrell, in Louise Antony’s book Philosophers Without Gods, has no trouble disposing of the first, based on Socrates’s Euthyphro question: is something moral because God says so, or does God say so because it is moral? If the latter, we can figure it out without God. If the former it’s just arbitrary and we can do better.

But Farrell has more trouble with the problem of meaning. The idea that things are worth doing or have value because God imparts that value. Even given Socrates’s insight, Farrell still posits that God is our best source for knowing what is right, hence losing God from the picture is a big loss. And without God, isn’t everything futility and meaninglessness?

What this really shows is how religious concepts stuck in our heads mess up thinking. Farrell’s problem is a problem only if you start from a paradigm with God at the center as the source of all meaning. Subtract God and there is a big hole. But what if you start from a paradigm that was never confused by that false idea? That is, a paradigm of reality as it actually is.

Then it’s clear we must make our own meaning. And it’s actually easier. Trying to ground the meaning of your life in the context of a supernatural concept full of logical absurdities (like, where did God come from in the first place, anyway?) is a fool’s errand. Far better to ground it in reality.

The reality that life has value to us, who live it, as individuals. Living it as a story, from a beginning to an end; living it through sensory experience, through pleasure and pain. Such feelings, experienced by beings capable of them, are ultimately the only things in the cosmos that matter, or can matter. Nothing you might posit, not even the existence of the Universe itself, can matter except insofar as it impacts those sentient feelings. And that is the only conceivable source of meaning — our strivings to optimize feelings, to enhance pleasure and combat suffering, for ourselves and our fellow sentient beings. Meaning aplenty for us, with no need for any god.

This is truth. A concept of God only muddles things with falsity.

Farrell talks about important decisions, like a career choice, saying they’re based on ultimately subjective mental modeling of how we’ll feel under different scenarios. He says many non-believers don’t find this as problematic as he does, because they’re satisfied to make such decisions based on their feelings without a need to (somehow) know they’re right. With that rightness being grounded in some notion of a “special significance” to one’s life. A concept in turn that comes from God — even if one no longer believes in him!

Is this messed up or what? Farrell actually confesses his inability to really explain it himself. Yet he goes on to talk about wanting one’s decisions to embody some sort of “rightness” above and beyond one’s (mere?) feelings. And about God supplying that rightness. Which, after all, can only be pure delusion — even if God exists (he doesn’t), nobody could know what he thinks about anything.

Contrary to Farrell, overcoming superstition is not a loss, but a benefit, in making meaningful sense of our lives, to live them authentically. We can do that only by eschewing delusions and coming to grips with reality. The rightness of our decisions can only come from within us.

The End of Blogging?

February 17, 2020

I started blogging in May 2008. It seemed cutting edge then. Now it seems passé.

My wife blogged first, and encouraged me to do it, mainly to promote my book. But I’ve loved having this vehicle for self-expression. I enjoy the craft of writing; the mental stimulation of putting ideas into words; my blog posts are always quite carefully composed. It’s also fun finding cute amusing illustrations. And I try to offer perspectives others don’t. Hoping to provide real value to readers.

After five years, my blog had attained a lordly followership of 70. Then one of my more brilliant posts, “America on meds,” was picked to be featured on the host WordPress site. This attracted a flood of hits, and my follower numbers rapidly zoomed up to 3,000. This seemed pretty cool, till I checked out one of their blogs, with a slew of comments — nearly all saying, “thanks for subscribing to my blog.” So evidently many of my new “followers” were just angling to promote their own sites.

Well, few ever bothered to unsubscribe. Meantime, in the nearly seven years since, I’ve gradually gained a further thousand followers. And WordPress stats say I’ve had visitors from over 162 countries.*

My daily hits also gradually rose, till I was averaging over 200 in late 2017 and early 2018. A lot of that traffic comes because google search terms bring up links to my posts. All my past ones of course remain available. Now numbering around a thousand. So as I keep writing more, on different topics, one should naturally expect more links to pop up in searches, and thus ever rising traffic.

But the opposite has happened. In fact, daily average peaked at 244 during February 2018, and has since inexorably declined. The last two months’ daily average of 65 was actually the lowest since 2012 — before the “America on meds” big bang.

Why the fall? I really don’t think the quality has declined. And even if it did — again, most hits are on stuff written years ago, which is all still out there. While much of my more recent activity has been political “red meat” which might be expected to attract flies.

But what has changed is the world. All those legions of people fixated on their phones. What are they looking at? Not earnest blogs like mine. Instead, small discrete brain hits; snippets; quick little connects to others; videos watched for a few minutes, at most; photos viewed for seconds, or nano-seconds. Political jolts packed into just a few lines. Who, today, wants to read a 700-word essay?

That may itself be a sad commentary on our modern world. Certainly the social/cultural transformations wrought by technology have been endlessly discussed; especially the downsides. But as (still) an optimist, I think it remains to be seen whether those downsides are outweighed by the ultimate upsides. Even if one of the downsides is the demise of blogging like mine.

In any case, I will continue writing for, if no one else, my one most appreciative reader — me.

* All numbers here are for WordPress. I don’t get stats for my Times-Union blog which has the same posts (and gets far more comments).

When the monster in the nightmare is you

February 11, 2020

Monsters are a staple of nightmares.

Recently I dreamed I surreptitiously listened in to a phone call between my wife and our dentist. The hushed conversation was frustratingly hard to make out. But I got the gist: he was commiserating about her husband being a monster. One with no clue. I did hear the phrases “repulsive personality” and “pain in the ass.”

Was it true? Should I confront my wife about what I’d heard? How could I deal with this at all? My life was shattered!

I was jolted awake.

The trigger for this nightmare was immediately obvious. I’d just been reading Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave, a scientific examination of all the factors influencing human behavior. Specifically, the chapter discussing the famous Milgram and Zimbardo experiments.

In Milgram’s, most subjects complied with orders to administer to others what they thought were increasingly severe electric shocks. Zimbardo’s was the “Stanford Prison Experiment” with students role-playing as prisoners and guards. Here too the behavior was appalling.

We know some people are monsters. But does everyone have a monster lurking just below the surface? Sapolsky quotes Solzhenitsyn that the line between good and evil runs through every heart.

The apparent lesson of both experiments is that human behavior is very much shaped by context and circumstances. Put us in extreme circumstances, and extreme behavior will often be forthcoming. Though not always; some people have the self-possession to rise above circumstances. But most of us are not saints or angels.

Naturally, reading such stuff causes soul-searching. Hence my nightmare. Maybe, contrary to that nightmare, I’ve lived my life admirably. But if so, perhaps it’s thanks less to my character than my circumstances. It’s easy being Mister Nice Guy when everything is going nicely. I’ve never really been tested. Would I press the button to deliver severe pain in Milgram’s experiment? Would I brutalize “prisoners” in Zimbardo’s? I’d like to think not. But one can’t feel sure.

We also know that people in groups can be influenced to do things they individually never would. Thus lynch mobs. But a much greater phenomenon is people in groups creating civilization. Its purpose is to make our lives better — mainly by curtailing the kinds of circumstances that cause people to behave badly toward each other, and expand those like I’ve experienced, increasing the likelihood that even a non-saintly person can go through life rarely behaving Zimbardoic or Milgramy.

This isn’t just a matter of affluence (though it helps; poverty can confront people with rotten choices). I don’t think the propensity to push Milgram’s shocker button correlated with income. What civilized society does is to create the structures wherein people can trust each other, with a basic bargain that you don’t harm others and they don’t harm you. In contrast to the Hobbesian “state of nature” with its “war of all against all.”

Of course it’s not perfection. Civilization, in all its complexity, does create some individual roles conducive to bad behavior. Some people are in fact tasked as prison guards. More generally, any sort of power can be problematic. And sometimes an entire society can become Nazi Germany. But that’s never been true of human civilization as a whole. It defeated the Nazis. And while the line between good and evil may go through every heart, they’re not equally partitioned. For most of us, the bad side of the line is dwarfed by the good.

And civilization’s big picture is an upward climb, organized ever better to achieve that. A slow fitful climb through most of history, but accelerating in modern times, with ever more people enjoying the benign circumstances of life that enable us to expand the good sides of our hearts and confine the bad to ever smaller precincts. So the “better angels of our nature” prevail.

But the climb does not go in a straight line. There was Nazi Germany. And there is Trump’s America where, for too many people, the better angels of their nature are succumbing to their demons. Whether our own downward spiral can be reversed remains to be seen.