Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

God and Man in Paris

November 16, 2015

We all must die.

imagesBut we don’t let that stop us enjoying life. Indeed, it makes it all the more precious. Those Parisians were out enjoying life – at restaurants, bars, concert halls, and taking pleasure in the company of others.

It is this that was targeted.

Not infrastructure, not government, not military, not cultural icons – no, they targeted just human beings in the act of joyful living. They attacked the very essence of living itself.

Ostensibly they did it for God. The true motivations are a vipers’ nest of psychopathology. But at its core this is anti-humanism: the antithesis between what makes life worth living and a bleak mentality that reviles it.

But it’s the essence of religion to embody seemingly transcendent ideas which, throughout history, have enflamed people to torture themselves (and others) in service thereto; ranging from Indian mystics sticking pins through their bodies, to Shakers abjuring sex and Russian Skoptsy going one better with castration, and now Muslim radicals aspiring to some sort of perverted purification through violence, cruelty, and the self-destruction of suicide bombing.

UnknownEnough. There is no god. Just us human beings, trying to make the best of our limited lives and to love one another.

(Acknowledgment: this was inspired by a posting from the British Humanist Association.)

What Is “Socialism?”

October 20, 2015

imagesBernie Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist.” The word “socialist” has gotten much use in the past century. “Nazi” was actually short for “National Socialist.” Not that Sanders uses the word in the same sense as Hitler.

There’s a lot of effort to sugar-coat it, to persuade voters it’s nothing to fear. Sanders says it means nothing more than economic fairness. UnknownHumpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” One caller on a radio forum chirped, “Do you like the fire department, the police, military, run by government? Why, that’s socialism!”

Well, no. That’s simply government. Not everything government does is “socialism,” so that if you like government doing anything then you must be a socialist.

Time for some Political Science 101.

Why was government invented in the first place? Philosopher Thomas Hobbes explained: in a “state of nature” your neighbor could bash your head in and grab your food, or wife. Unknown-2Imagine people getting together to discuss this predicament. The answer is for each to give up his* freedom to bash a neighbor in return for others giving up theirs. Now you can devote less time and effort on self-defense, and tending your wounds, and more on getting food or nookie. But this system of law (the “social contract”) needs an enforcer. That’s government.

But notice this is a faustian bargain. You give up your right to use violence, to government – which can now use it against you. That’s a terrible power, and you want to be very careful it’s limited. And while we have found many other worthy functions for government (like fire protection, mentioned by that caller), government doesn’t work by voluntary cooperation, but through its ultimate power to put non-cooperators in jail. Unknown-3With all the talk these days about “corporate power,” remember that no corporation can put you in jail.

What “socialism” really means is government performing not only its social contract function, via a legal system, and communal functions like fire protection, but also economic functions; in the lingo, “owning the means of production, distribution and exchange.” What, in a market economy, is done by people individually or, more commonly, grouped together in businesses. A purely socialist economy doesn’t even allow that.

Now, of course, just as we don’t have a purely market economy, and America actually is already partly socialist, so too one can imagine a socialist economy that isn’t pure but is still partly capitalist. But that doesn’t negate the basic dichotomy between the socialist and market economic concepts. Though you can have a mix, socialism means government taking the place of private business activity.**

images-1Sanders’s “democratic socialism” is really something of an oxymoron, because it is, once more, the essence of socialism to supplant private activity. And the more pervasive government becomes, in running society, the harder it is to be democratic. While a market economy entails numerous non-government institutions (importantly, businesses and corporations) as independent power centers, a counterweight to government power, a socialist economy undermines that power dispersal and concentrates power in government hands.

And so it has indeed been the experience that countries with basically socialist economies have not been what we would recognize as democratic. The two ideas are fundamentally incompatible. This is one key reason why the world so decisively turned away from socialism in the late twentieth century.

The other reason was that it just didn’t work. While the idea of socialism is purportedly to give ordinary people better economic outcomes, in practice it did the opposite. Government has proven itself incapable of creating wealth, as does a market economy of enterprises competing with each other to give consumers better products and services at better prices. You can redistribute till the cows come home, but without a market economy creating wealth in the first place, people will be poorer. Whine all you like about the unfairness, the “harshness” of capitalism fueled by greed, but the ordinary person is still better off than under socialism.

Unknown* One is supposed to use gender-neutral language nowadays. But of course women don’t bash anybody.

** Socialists talk of “common ownership.” However, in reality that means nobody except government owning anything.

Being Mortal

October 15, 2015

imagesHow would you like to spend your last days in a nursing home? In a tiny cubicle with no privacy, no autonomy, no possessions, everything gone that made life worth living, surrounded by people who . . . well, you know.

Dr. Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal, addresses such end-of-life issues. It’s very relevant for me. My mother-in-law, 86, was in “assisted living” but a recent series of falls messed her up. UnknownGawande notes that the gravest health threat for the elderly is simply falling. My mother, 94, continues living in her own home, fortunately able to afford a part-time nurse/caregiver. I’m 68.

At one point Gawande notes psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human motivations, crowned by mastery of knowledge and skills, gaining reward for achievement, and “self-actualization.” But he observed that aging people tend to narrow their concerns, concentrating more on family and friends. Why the change? Gawande acknowledged several theories – but I instantly knew the answer, because even while at 68 I remain very on-the-go, my perspective on life has changed.

Unknown-1In my 30s I was all Maslow, with the rest of my life stretching ahead almost limitlessly, or so it felt. Now I’m very conscious of having used up most of it. Now I know that not even some freak of fortune will resurrect my youthful dreams of literary or political triumph. To so many things now I react with a zen-like mantra: “it just doesn’t really matter.” Because when I’m gone, nothing will matter at all to me. And the time interval between now and then seems a mere detail.

So the pleasures of the moment are more important than Maslowian self-actualization. How many more cookies will I get to eat? images-1The thought makes each one more to be savored. How many more times will I get to jump in a pool? Or make love?

One thing that struck me – as it did Gawande – is the degree to which an exaggerated concern over safety dominates and constrains the circumstances in which elderly people exist. (I didn’t say “live” because, as Gawande shows, for too many it really isn’t living). And the safety concern is not so much on the part of the elderly themselves, as it is their children and caregivers (and of course the latter have a big concern to avoid blame for an adverse outcome).

The mentioned change of perspective is relevant. It’s tragic to die with “your whole life ahead of you.” At ninety, not so much. The concerns are different. But putting oldsters in a safe environment often means restricting what they can eat, what they can do, what activities they’re permitted, etc. They are made prisoners of safety. Gawande says they’re given “a life designed to be safe but empty of everything they care about.”

imagesWe all want to be “safe.” But what does that really mean? Zero risk? Some people today actually seem to think so, embracing a “precautionary principle” on issues like fracking that rule out anything not proven riskless – as if anything in life ever could be. But there is a constant trade-off between safety and other important concerns. A true “precautionary principle” would not allow us, for example, to drive cars. But we reckon that a trip is worth the risk, and that’s rational. After all, no matter how safe you try to be, life always entails an irreducible risk factor. images-2You can eschew cars but still get hit by one crossing the street. And for all your safety efforts, your risk of dying will still be not zero but, actually, 100%.

That perspective seems missing from eldercare. As though the safety obsession will keep folks from dying. When in fact, at best, it will only keep them alive for what is really a relatively short time. I daresay many elderly people would accept a small risk of dying a little sooner in exchange for more freedom and autonomy – more quality of life – while it lasts. There’s not much value in a longer life if it’s “lived” as described in my opening paragraph.

After all, the point of living is not just to not die. It certainly isn’t to not die tomorrow rather than the day after.

Things We’re Not Allowed to Say

October 7, 2015

imagesBlacks can say the N-word. Whites like me cannot. Not even in my own blog, nor even when talking of its offensiveness (as Christopher Hitchens once learned when a TV interview was abruptly terminated).

Issues of who can say what were a key topic at a 9/26 Skidmore College symposium with a panel packed with intellectual rock stars (Marilynne Robinson, Anthony Appiah, Orlando Patterson, Phillip Lopate, etc.).



The agenda was the interplay between ideology and belief. Patterson, a Harvard sociology professor, discussed the cultural legitimacy of beliefs, especially about groups. He noted that using group stereotypes is actually a biologically-wired survival tool – quick judgments could mean life or death for early peoples – but today, of course, it’s a no-no.

Patterson cited Lawrence Summers, whose words about women’s under-representation in science got him ousted as Harvard’s president – “rightly so,” Patterson said, to my surprise.



Because Summers was making an almost indisputable evidence-based point, about differences in how male and female brains work, that actually echoed claims by feminists who were lionized for it. Thus a perfect example of some being allowed to say what others aren’t.

This epitomized liberal censorship – their talk of “free expression,” “open inquiry,” and “academic freedom” is too often hypocrisy when they really mean freedom of expression only for themselves and views they favor.



Patterson discussed Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous 1965 report on black family breakdown (which Patterson, author of award-winning books on slavery, later blamed on slavery – even though black marriage rates through the Jim Crow era and even the Depression were no lower than for whites, and only plummeted a century after slavery’s end).

Anyhow, said Patterson, Moynihan-style attempts to connect behavior to cultural differences became seen as illegitimate – the “Typhoid Mary” of sociology.



Indeed, some denied that black single parenthood was even a problem, calling it not an inferior but merely a different family model (despite mountains of data showing how much better children do with two parents). Patterson labeled all of this “crippling” for sociology.

The 1980s finally saw a “slow, cautious return” to a more honest ethos. But you were still supposed to emphasize racism to explain sociological differences, with cultural explanations remaining suspect (except respecting racial IQ test disparities). More generally it was now okay to talk about culture, “but only what’s nice about people’s culture.”

Patterson ended by decrying what he sees as a “new victimism” (referring to police-versus-blacks issues), exemplified by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s much-discussed book addressed to his son, telling him his black body is an object of hate – “child abuse,” Patterson said.

Jim Sleeper (author of Liberal Racism) commented on the role here of “moral self-justification.” He made an analogy that while communism was bad, anti-communism also sometimes entailed bad things – and the same is true of anti-racism.



Epistemology (how and what one knows) loomed large in the discussion; in particular, what one chooses to know. Here again, liberal censorship. Patterson spoke of how information on black family breakdown was in effect whitewashed, and Jim Miller (former Director of Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research) told how, when surveyed, his certifiably politically enlightened students mostly said they would not want to know hypothetical scientific data showing a group’s cognitive disability.

Relevant to belief differences entwined with knowledge differences, David Steiner, former (2009-11) New York State Education Commissioner, talked of attitudes toward charter schools. In Harlem he saw “tears running down the cheeks” of parents whose kids lost out in lotteries to attend charter schools – knowing those schools meant a likelihood of getting to college seven times greater. But a different narrative is evident in Baltimore where no charter school alternative for comparison exists because teacher unions have succeeded in protecting their monopoly and demonizing charters. Steiner wondered whether black Baltimoreans are cognizant of how bad their public schools are.



(I got to chat with Steiner afterwards. He said that nationwide, public schools outperform charters – because the latter are dragged down by results in a proliferation of what he called “mom and pop” schools, while larger, more professionally run charters do much better. One might add that inner city public schools tend to do much worse than national averages.)

Again, the headline topic was the interplay of ideology and belief. Patterson alluded to the problem of what it really means to “believe” something. People can “believe” in Heaven yet cry at funerals. Self-interest and self-regard are also distorting factors. I suspect O.J. Simpson believed himself innocent. Then there’s politics and ideology. China has bitterly denounced Japan’s recent adjustment of its pacifist strictures as a “return to militarism” – while China bullies its neighbors over territorial claims and its military build-up way outstrips Japan’s. Yet do Chinese authorities believe their rhetoric? Possibly.

A second session began with a talk by Yale Professor Seyla Benhabib which I think was about public versus private selves (not the scheduled topic) but was so encrusted with academic-ese that I got little from it. She tossed in some irrelevant bombs denouncing “neoliberalism” (a derogatory term by lefties for what is really a return to classical liberal principles) and how everything today is all about money, yada, yada, yada.



So Rutgers Professor Jackson Lears chimed in with an equally off-topic anti-capitalist rant. I was glad Jim Miller (“Liberal Studies,” remember!) called him on it, saying such burblings are empty because their devotees have no alternative to the economic arrangements they condemn (save perhaps a Soviet style command system, and we know how great that worked).

Lears shot back calling Miller’s comments among the most bizarre he’d ever heard, and that in thirty years he’d never been associated with the Soviet Union (something I doubt). Lears said the alternative system is “social democracy – it’s that simple – social democracy.”

Social Democracy

The alternative to free market capitalism

A catch-phrase totally devoid of substantive content. Might as well say the alternative is pie-in-the-sky.

Muslims Killing Muslims

September 27, 2015

imagesIn the news: Over 700 killed in a human stampede at the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

A presidential candidate was recently asked whether something about Islam makes its adherents prone to violence. The politically correct answer, of course, is “no;” George W. Bush flattered Islam as a “religion of peace.” My answer is different.

A greatly disproportionate number of the world’s violent conflicts involve Muslims, and it’s not because non-Muslims are picking on them. Most victims too, of movements like Al Qaeda and ISIS, are Muslims.

thOne might say it’s a matter of culture, not religion, but the two are inextricably intertwined. It’s dangerous when a religion claims a huge cosmic truth, inspiring condemnation of anyone not with the program. Thus Christianity too has a blood-soaked history; but Christians have mellowed out, finally recognizing the desirability of coexisting with other opinions. That’s a maturity still eluding the Muslim world, much of which still holds the outrageous doctrine that apostasy gets the death penalty. And that can apply even to narrow doctrinal disagreements within Islam.

I refrained from using some of the stomach-churning images I found

I refrained from using some of the stomach-churning images I found

Quite simply, Muslim culture does not respect human autonomy. That’s a recipe for violence not only with other cultures but within Muslim communities themselves. Just one manifestation is “honor killings.” What else can we make of fathers killing daughters for (perceived) misbehavior? (And often by horrific methods.) Yes, there is indeed something about Islamic culture making people prone to violence; and if it’s not exactly a matter of religion, certainly religion does not inhibit it.

So now we see Muslims killing each other on a religious pilgrimage. Okay, yes, it was accidental, and similar things have occurred elsewhere. But over 700 deaths? And, I’m sorry, but “accidental” doesn’t quite cover it. For it to happen, many people in those crowds had to behave a certain way, they could not have been – in that moment at least – in a reverent, love-your-Muslim-brother state of mind. How easily they forgot their religion, even while on a pilgrimage.

images1This kind of thing is why religion, to me, is a cruel joke. People don’t need religion to be good. Human beings are naturally good, most of the time, and when they’re not, religion doesn’t help. It tends to be more an exacerbating factor than a mitigating factor.

Of Quantum Mechanics, Cabbages, Kings, and Carpets

September 8, 2015

imagesAstronomer Arthur Eddington said the universe is not just stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine. I’ve written about the biggest question: why does it exist at all? There’s no answer. (It isn’t God, since the same question applies to him.)

Lately I’ve been reading, in Brian Greene’s book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, about quantum mechanics, governing the submicroscopic realm – very different from the physics of our everyday world. And indeed stranger than we can imagine.

Bear with me here:

Unknown-1Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle says one can, for example, know an electron’s position, or its speed, but not both. Measuring the speed makes it impossible to determine its position. The explanation, physicists tell us, is that an electron can be understood as a “probability wave” – it doesn’t actually have a position, merely a sort of mist of possible ones ranging from more to less probable – across the entire universe. It’s likely nearby, but the probability of its being light years away, while exceedingly tiny, is not zero. Measurement causes the probability wave to collapse into a precise location.

Now, a certain experiment created two “entangled” particles, shot out in opposite directions, such that when a characteristic about one, something called “spin,” was measured, that inferentially revealed the spin of the other – seemingly avoiding the uncertainty principle, because with regard to that second particle, nothing has been done to cause its probability wave to collapse. Spin is random, indeterminate until measured – yet what is measured for Particle A will apply to its entangled partner B – instantaneously – even if it’s across the room (or the galaxy).

Unknown-6But in a famous 1935 paper, Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen posited that quantum mechanics cannot be a complete description of reality because notwithstanding the uncertainty principle, a particle must actually have a definite position and a definite speed at a given moment. They couldn’t accept that Particle A would somehow communicate its spin to Particle B, insisting instead that both, when created, must have been somehow pre-programmed to give the result they gave upon A’s measurement.

This seems intuitively reasonable. But guess what? The experiment (I won’t go into the details) says no – proving that the spins of entangled particles are not somehow baked in at their genesis but, rather, become reality – for both – only at the exact instant of measurement – no matter the distance between them.

This mind-bending result might seem to violate not just common sense but the cosmic speed limit (which is the speed of light). However, there is an explanation in Special Relativity: something appearing to be simultaneous from one vantage point may not be simultaneous from a different moving perspective (which I cannot claim to truly understand).

images-1Be that as it may – the described behavior of entangled particles might strike you as so esoteric that it has no relevance to our everyday existence. Yet it goes to the heart of our understanding of reality. Which is a version of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” – that is, what happens in one place is separate from what happens in another place – because there is such a thing as “a place.” Entangled particles belie that notion, and reveal that space – the space we inhabit – is not what our common sense intuition tells us it is. If those particles can do what they do, then what seems to be the space separating them is meaningless – or in effect nonexistent.

Unknown-2This computer and the desk on which it stands seem to be solid objects. But they are comprised of atoms which we know are virtually entirely empty space (or “space”). And the same is true even of the particles comprising atoms. And so on. The more one tries to drill down to the ultimate reality at the heart of existence – its nitty gritty structure at the sub-sub-microscopic level – there’s no there there. I have a sense that the ways in which physicists talk about it are really metaphors. Our grade-school picture of the atom looking like a miniature solar system is such a metaphorical construct.* It’s not reality. Unknown-3And I suspect that, imagining a “Fantastic Voyage” sending super-miniaturized observers down into that realm, they could never be small enough to penetrate to the ultimate substrate of existence.

Yet that literally inconceivable substrate somehow aggregates into the physical world of shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings. The mystery is vastly more profound than anything in religion.

To conclude, I will quote the philosopher Woody Allen: “What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”Unknown-5

* Might this also be true of the infinitesimally teensy vibrating strings that string theory posits as the ultimate constituents of matter?

Human Life, and Death

August 13, 2015

Laura Valenti decided to starve herself to death. It took two months.

Her mind was deteriorating, but her decision wasn’t crazy. She had Huntington’s disease, and was bound to get much, much worse. There’s no cure or treatment. Laws being what they are, Laura had no other real option. What she did was brave.

Laura and Danielle (Times-Union photo)

Laura and Danielle
(Times-Union photo)

With Laura through this ordeal was her daughter Danielle, around thirty. Huntington’s is hereditary, but until this, Danielle had no idea it was in her lineage; turns out Laura’s biological father was, well, not part of the family.

So Danielle’s chance of having the Huntington’s gene was 50-50. And if you have the gene, your chances for an eventual horrific decline and death are 100%; with nothing you can do except wait for it. Some with Huntington’s in their families eschew testing, preferring not to know for sure. But Danielle decided to be tested. This too was brave. She tested positive.

How much time she has, no one can say. But it’s a lot less than for others her age. Yet more than for the average person throughout history. And every one of us knows our time is limited. It’s the great fact of the human condition, and in spite of it, we live our lives. That’s what Danielle is doing. She’s moved in with her boyfriend and they’re talking of having children. “I’m going to live,” she said. “This is my time to live.”

So ended the article in the local paper about Laura and Danielle. It moved me deeply.

imagesThe story noted that proposed NY legislation would permit physician-assisted suicide, for mentally competent patients with less than six months left. But the Catch-22 for Huntington’s sufferers is that by the time you have only six months left, you won’t likely qualify as mentally competent. So in no state with assisted suicide would it have been available to Laura. That’s why she starved herself to death.

Our modern medical and health care system is great, except for the wee fact that it, in effect, sometimes tortures people to death. A big reason is because attitudes are still shaped by underlying religion-based shibboleths; that it’s God who should decide these things, and we humans shouldn’t presume to trump him; that life is God-given and should only be ended by God.

UnknownNever mind that our entire medical system, nay, our entire civilization, is all about taking control of our own fates, not leaving them to the not-so-tender mercies of a Nature that gave us – or was it that “loving” God? – the horror of Huntington’s Disease.

Christians, Gays, and Sin

July 5, 2015

UnknownEven before the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling, I wrote that gays (and the left in general), having basically won this fight, should ease up and be magnanimous, allowing their beaten foes some space for living their beliefs – just as, for years, gays begged for that themselves. The principles of tolerance and pluralism run both ways. But many on the left act as though only their freedoms matter.

On the other hand, some anti-gay and Christian advocates seem to have become unhinged. Listening to them you’d think anti-gayness is the very heart of their religion. As if the Bible’s main message is gay-bashing.

imagesMore generally, the Christian side in the “culture wars” of recent decades seems to exhibit an obsession with sex (as David Brooks discusses in an excellent recent column). These folks do a great disservice to their faith. No wonder younger people, with more relaxed attitudes, are abandoning traditional religion in droves.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I’m no fan of religion, but surely it has a better story to tell that is getting lost in all the noise about gay sex. This meshugass makes religion even more absurd than it was already.

The Obergefell gay marriage decision is not going to become another divisive Roe v. Wade. It wasn’t surprising that Roe provoked a huge backlash, since that ruling was legally, culturally, and morally weak. Legally, because its dicey “privacy” theory was not in the Constitution; culturally because the country wasn’t ready for it; and morally there were reasonable, deeply felt arguments against it.

Unknown-4In contrast, there are no good moral arguments against gay marriage. Just because the Bible says something is wrong doesn’t make it so. Christians choose to ignore many of the Bible’s outlandish, atavistic pronouncements (like gathering sticks on the Sabbath also being a sin punishable by death). The true moral criterion (rationally speaking) is whether anyone is harmed, and gay sex and marriage harm no one.

I do not dismiss the dissenters’ contention that this should have been decided by democratic processes, not judicial fiat; I so argued myself, a few years ago. However, I have come around to the Court majority’s view that “equal protection of the laws” properly applies here. Thus Obergefell has much stronger legal legitimacy than Roe did. As for democracy, it seems more like the court was bending to popular opinion than defying it. The nation was ready for this.

images-1The argument that it opens the door to polygamy and so forth is ridiculous. There are sound social policy reasons to ban polygamy (we wouldn’t want Donald Trump hogging all the women – though perhaps any who would join his harem are best left out of the marriage pool anyway). Gay marriage, in contrast, is a positive societal good, with no downsides. More child-friendly two-parent families will help counter the decline of traditional marriage and the resulting social dysfunction.

All this suggests that Christian resistance is not only a lost cause* but a very bad one. Surely religious believers can find better things to talk about than what married people do in bed. Aren’t there worse sins in the world to get upset about than (a small minority of) people loving the “wrong” partners?

Unknown-3I’ve never understood anyway why Christians get so manic about other people’s sins. If they truly are sinful, they’ll simply go to Hell, no? Why isn’t that the end of the story?

Worry about your own sins.

* Who are they kidding, talking of a constitutional amendment? Hello, it would need ratification by 38 states – whereas nationwide public opinion goes the other way.

Yosemite Rocks

June 15, 2015

IMG_5255California is full of exceptionally cheerful people – judging from our recent trip there. Store clerks, flight attendants, passers-by, etc., all over.

We visited my mom, a Costco fan, so we made the obligatory expedition. It’s fun because of all the free samples given out. One big promotion was for a line of health drinks. The colors looked like you might want to paint military vehicles with, but not put in your mouth. However, an attractive young black gal was so upbeat about it, assuring me the drinks are “really really good,” that I agreed to a sip. “’Really really good’ is not the phrase that comes to mind,” I said. “Maybe ‘barely palatable.’”

IMG_5212Even the woman behind us in line with children seemed cheery in saying, “Don’t ask about my troubles.”

So of course I asked, “What are your troubles?”

“Too many kids.”

“How many is that?”


“I agree, too many. How old are you?”

“That’s an inappropriate question!”

“Well, seems relevant to having five kids.”

“Thirty six.”

IMG_4949Maybe it’s the weather out there that makes people extra cheerful (despite all the problems, like a major drought, or five kids). But one reason I love America is that a positive attitude is a part of our culture. This includes black people who we’re told are (or should be) full of resentment against whites. Not in my experience; to the contrary, blacks (like that Costco gal) seem perfectly cordial and often smile at me. Maybe it’s my fuzzy beard.

IMG_5159Then we went to Yosemite; my wife made all the arrangements, booking a suite at the lodge so our daughter (this was our last trip with her before she goes up over Jordan) could have her own room. At check-in we were given a map to find our unit. Perusing it, I remarked, “This seems to show we have a private pool.” And we did – a beautiful full-size resort pool, with patio, deck chairs, umbrellas, hot tub, and even a barbecue installation. The house – our “suite” was a house – was as big as our home – and much nicer.

IMG_5040After oohing and aahing, I finally said to my wife, “Um – how much are we paying for this?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I guess I forgot to ask.”


Back at the front desk, I said, “Ahem, there seems to have been a wee misunderstanding . . . . ” Naturally, no other rooms were available just then. However, our luxury suite turned out to cost much less than I’d guessed, so we agreed to stay two nights there before switching to more plebeian digs.

Yosemite is basically just a valley that was reamed out by a giant glacier. But what a valley. And what an artistic glacier.

IMG_4913We didn’t see the companion park, Antisemite. Actually, the continuation is Hetch Hetchy which, controversially, was flooded a century ago to create a reservoir. John Muir fought it. Yet life is all about trade-offs. People need Yosemites; but also reservoirs. Now California has both, and I think Yosemite is big enough. In four days we didn’t nearly see it all.

IMG_4905We started with an excellent one-day van tour with Close-Up Tours. The guide, Ira Estin, was yet another cheerful fellow, and we liked him enough to hire him for two more days as our private guide. Ira was very knowledgeable about the best spots, especially for photography. (Check out his own beautiful work at his website.)

IMG_5071Yosemite has a lot of rocks. Big ones. Truly big, tossed about by that glacier. Gives you a real respect for glaciers. If you like rocks, this is the place for you.

There are also a lot of trees, and some of those are pretty humongous too. But as Ronald Reagan said (quoted by Ira, though I assured him Reagan was being facetious), “If you’ve seen one tree you’ve seen them all.” However, one spot Ira took us to was a recently burned forest, which was different, and very cool. (Cooled, at least.)

bearWe also saw waterfalls, deer, bears, a coyote, daredevil climbers (through Ira’s telescope), whitewater, squirrels, ducks, lots of Chinese tourists, and so forth.

I recently reviewed Sam Harris’s Waking Up; “mindfulness” and losing the self feature prominently. In Yosemite I overheard a woman tell her little boy, “ . . . I meant losing yourself in the scenery – not getting lost literally.” (She enjoyed my laughter.) But the scenic surroundings were indeed so awesome that it was just about possible at times to lose myself and just be “in the moment.” Our Vernal Fall hike was like that. But even while being “in the moment” there, I was still conscious of anticipating the cold coke I’d have afterwards.

IMG_5134Anyhow, it’s a spectacular place. We give Yosemite five stars.

(The Yosemite photos here were all by Elizabeth Robinson, except those with her in them, taken by Ira.)

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

April 20, 2015

UnknownDaniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow says there are two distinct systems operating inside your skull. “System 1” gives quick, intuitive answers to questions confronting us, utilizing thought algorithms rooted deeply in our evolutionary past. “System 2” is slower and more analytical, used when we actually (have to) think, as opposed to just reacting.

imagesBecause you utilize System 2 consciously, whereas System 1 works unconsciously, you tend to see yourself embodied in System 2. We do like to believe we do our own thinking, rather than having some black box, to which we have no access, just handing us answers. But the latter is closer to the truth, most of the time. In fact, as Kahneman stresses, System 2 is lazy, hence often glad to just accept System 1’s answers, not even realizing it.

This comports with Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor in The Righteous Mind: System 2 is a rider on the back of an elephant that is System 1. images-1We imagine the rider is in charge. But mostly the rider is really working for the elephant, rationalizing the elephant’s choices.

All this would be fine if System 1 were totally rational, but of course it’s not, and books like Kahneman’s have been taken as debunking the very idea of our being rational creatures. Unknown-1Kahneman uses the term “Econs” (perhaps short for homo economicus) for the hypothetical people who behave as economic theory says. As opposed to – well – “humans,” who do not.

One key example of how System 1’s decisional algorithms are irrationally biased is undue loss aversion, weighting potential losses more heavily than equal potential gains. Unknown-2If offered a coin flip bet paying $10 for heads but costing $6 for tails, most people will refuse; the 50% chance of winning $10 is not enough to compensate for the fear of the pain of losing $6! Lab experiments consistently confirm many permutations of this irrational bias.

We don’t often encounter coin flip bets, but this bias infects many aspects of human behavior – like investment decisions – as well as public policy. Case in point: GM food. Europeans in particular are so averse to potential risks (an extreme “precautionary principle”) that the truly small (indeed, mostly imaginary) risks of GM foods blind them to the truly large benefits.

Meanwhile, the idea that humans aren’t rational has entered political debate, as an argument against market economics, which supposedly is premised on rational economic behavior (homo economicus again).

Here’s what I (System 2) think. Obviously, we don’t behave with perfect rationality. But rationality isn’t either/or, it’s a spectrum, and on the continuum between perfect rationality and perfect irrationality, we’re far toward the rational end. Our entire civilization, with all its complex institutions and arrangements, is a supreme monument to rationality. Unknown-3And as individuals we behave rationally most of the time – overwhelmingly. If you want toast, you put bread in the toaster. That’s rational – as distinguished from, say, praying to a toast god. (And we’re getting ever better about this.) Furthermore, your preference for toast over cereal is a rational choice, based on your long experience of what is most likely to please you. You even know how toasted you like it.

And even when we default to System 1, that is not irrational. Let’s not forget that System 1 evolved over many eons not to lead us astray but, instead, to help us cope with life’s challenges (thus to survive and reproduce; for instance, a loss aversion bias made a lot of sense in an environment where “loss” could well translate as death). So – for all its biases and quirks, extensively explicated by Kahneman – System 1 also has a lot of virtues. In fact we simply could not function without it. If we had only System 2, forcing us to stop and consciously analyze every little thing in daily life, we’d be paralyzed. Thus, utilizing our System 1 – faults and all – is highly rational.

The same answer refutes the critique of market economics. We are far more rational than not, in our marketplace choices and decisions concerning goods and services. Market actors are fundamentally engaged in serving their desires, needs, and preferences, in as rational a manner as could reasonably be expected, even if imperfect. (See my review of Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist.) Allowing that to play out, as much as possible, is more likely to serve people’s true interests than overriding their choices in favor of some different (perforce more arbitrary) process.

Kahneman was informative about a topic of perennial interest – how people form and maintain beliefs.* Here again, while we fancy this is a System 2 function, System 1 is really calling the shots; and again is reactive rather than analytical. System 1 jumps to conclusions based on whatever limited information it has. Kahneman uses a clumsy acronym, WYSIATI – System 1 works as if “what you see is all there is” – i.e., there’s no additional information available – or needed. System 1 is “radically insensitive to both the quality and quantity of the information that gives rise to impressions and intuitions.”

Unknown-4What’s most important to System 1 is that the story it creates be coherent; it’s averse to the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, and hence hostile to any new information that doesn’t jibe with the story it has already created. Indeed, it is paradoxically easier to construct a coherent story the less you know – fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Experiments have shown that subjects exposed to only one-sided information – and who know that that’s so – nevertheless show greater confidence in their resulting judgments than do subjects getting both sides. We have a great ability to ignore our ignorance!

At the risk of sounding smug, I have always sort of recognized this and consciously try to avoid it, by adhering to what I call my ideology of reality. That is, I try to let my perceptions of reality dictate my beliefs, rather than letting my beliefs dictate my perceptions of reality. I am not a perfect “econ,” but I think I am one of the more econ-like humans around.

* An aside: humans are pre-programmed for belief. Is that a lion lurking? The believer loses nothing if he’s wrong. The skeptic, if he’s wrong, may be lunch. Thus belief is the preferred stance, and people readily believe in UFOs, homeopathy, and God.


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