Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

My optimism reality check

May 10, 2021

When I wrote The Case for Rational Optimism in 2008, that case was powerful. My innate optimism intensified by observed reality. The big global story seemed to be progress toward greater human flourishing. Writers like Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama, Amartya Sen, explained it. I was proud of my own contribution, making the case across the whole waterfront of human concerns.

I’ve followed up with my blog. Naturally, bad things have commanded attention, but I’ve tried to highlight good news, countering pessimists and cynics. However, looking back, I must acknowledge that my positive outlook too often proved misplaced. In a spirit of humility, I present a catalog of instances:

Egypt: a very democratic coup” (July 4, 2013). Ouch. Mubarak’s overthrow led to an election producing a Muslim Brotherhood government. It was an undemocratic disaster. I welcomed the coup that ousted it, seeing it as hopefully presaging a “do-over” putting Egypt on a sounder democratic path. I should have been more cynical about coup leader Al-Sisi, who became a more repressive autocrat than Mubarak. 

Democracy wins in Thailand” (July 14, 2011). Well, it did. For a while. Then here too the army ousted the elected government, and has settled in to stay. 

Modi for India” (December 27, 2013). Here I did have misgivings, over Modi’s rotten history on Hindu-Muslim relations. But he seemed to instead stress economic liberalization, which India desperately needed. He has initiated some good reforms. But that’s overshadowed by running a Hindu nationalist regime, enflaming intercommunal antagonisms — and following what has become the standard authoritarian playbook, giving India’s democracy the death of a thousand cuts. Plus now he’s much to blame for India’s Covid disaster.

Great news: Sri Lanka blows off authoritarianism” (January 15, 2015). I was delighted by the unexpected election ouster of another autocratic regime, under the Rajapaksa clan. Unfortunately the new government proved feckless. And guess what? The latest vote produced a Rajapaksa landslide. 

Malaysia’s election shocker: good defeats evil” (May 10, 2018). Similar story. The longtime ruling party was so corrupt and awful that extensive election rigging didn’t stave off defeat. But the successor government seems a mess. The tale is still unfolding, but the old lot’s reprise would be no surprise. 

Good news from Kenya” (September 2, 2017). Its highest court overturned President Kenyatta’s dodgy election victory. But guess what? He prevailed anyway in a second go.* In the wings: William Ruto, an even stinkier candidate.

Myanmar — On April 5, 2012, I wrote, with tentative hopes, about President Thein Sein’s democratization moves, after decades of military rule. On October 15, 2012, came my gushing paean to Aung San Suu Kyi. Who subsequently destroyed her heroic aura by making herself complicit in the Rohingya pogrom. And now the army has come back — with a blood-soaked vengeance. 

Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: good news story” (October 12, 2019). This new prime minister seemed a dream of an African leader, doing so much right. Even got a Nobel Prize. But hardly was the ink dry (so to speak) on my tribute when things went to to hell, the regime prosecuting an internecine war with appalling human rights abuses. 

All this begins to look like a pattern. And then:

America. Just after the 2008 election, I wrote in my book that “in a nation where bloody battles once raged over blacks merely voting, a black presidency has arrived in peace and good will. . . . So we are becoming far more united than divided.” Ouch again. I did not foresee how Obama’s presidency would produce not just a racist backlash, but an intensification of racial disaffection by whites seeing their loss of caste more real. Which led to Trump — an optimist’s ultimate nightmare — America’s collapse as the avatar of Enlightenment values.

Thankfully we’ve reversed that — by a hair’s breadth — and how fully remains to be seen. A Trump return (could America go that insane?) would fit the pattern of cautionary tales I’ve related above.

Before he took office, I wrote (November 16, 2016) that power does not make bad men better. That, at least, proved prescient. And that is also a through-line in my recaps here. Lord Acton’s famous quote was “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You can actually leave off the last five words. Power corrupts. A proposition whose importance grows the more I observe the world. Not only does power not make bad men better; it can turn good men bad. 

But I keep saying that progress does not go in a straight line. For a time, liberal democratic values were on a roll; now, they’re in a bad patch. And China looms as a huge and growing anti-democratic center of gravity. Nevertheless, where the world will be in half a century is hard to foresee. It’s been documented that people are, on average, becoming smarter. I have to hope tolerance for repressive rule will wane. And while the political realm does have much to do with human flourishing, it is far from the whole story. All across the planet, lives continue to improve in countless other very important ways.

Finally — while I’m eating humble pie — on March 9, 2020 I posted:

Coronavirus/Covid 19: Don’t panic, it’s just flu

*In 2020, Malawi’s courts similarly ruled the president’s re-election illegitimate; and there, the decision seems to be sticking. So far.

Covid and the social contract

May 6, 2021

Covid will eventually be, more or less, history. Life will renormalize, more or less. But something big has changed in government’s role in people’s economic lives.

For thousands of years it had very little. That really began to change with Bismarckian Germany’s pension scheme, to save the elderly from penury. It expanded greatly in the Depression, developing a broader “social safety net.”

This sparked some pushback from people seeing beneficiaries as coddled moochers — an aggravating factor being racial. On the other hand, there’s been the rise of “social justice” rhetoric targeting inequality.

Two points. First, inequality is not per se a bad thing; some people being rich is not a problem as long as everyone has enough to live decently. And secondly, “social justice” is a mistaken framing. The word justice entails concepts of deservingness. A polemical can of worms, with some, as noted, deeming safety net beneficiaries undeserving. Better to talk not of “justice” but simple humaneness. Helping people for no other reason than they’re fellow human beings. 

Meantime, inequality is blamed on capitalism. Another mistake. While capitalism does produce disparate results, with some people getting rich, it’s wrong to see their wealth as “taken” from the rest. Steve Jobs got very rich by creating products which delighted customers and improved lives. Thus not a zero-sum game but win-win. That’s not universally the case, yet by and large those who earn riches do so by creating value benefiting others. Wealth is not evil.

And capitalism does not cause poverty. In fact, over the past century, average real dollar worldwide incomes increased something like sixfold. Not thanks to socialism; but masses of people being productively employed in a capitalist system, to make their own contributions to societal wealth, and enabling them to buy the resulting products. Capitalism’s critics never offer an alternative system to achieve that.

However, there are concerns that advancing technology will destroy a lot of jobs. This goes back to the Luddites. In every generation, what has actually happened is technology’s efficiency gains freeing up people to be productive in new and different ways, thus enlarging the overall pie. And despite predictions that Covid would accelerate automation, there’s actually zero evidence so far. But can this go on forever?

Good question, with artificial intelligence ultimately likely to replace human work like never before. A growing population segment already lacks the capability for productive employment. Largely due to what is really the key inequality in modern societies: educational inequality. And even if that could be remedied, it’s still doubtful there’ll be enough productive work for everyone. Perhaps if we can at last produce all we need with little human labor, we should just relax and enjoy it. The question then becomes how to distribute the fruits.

All of which brings us back to the governmental response to Covid’s economic fallout. Previously, social safety net programs tended to be massively encrusted with bureaucracy, means testing, other eligibility requirements, and so forth. Much of that out the window with governments now focused instead on just getting money into people’s hands. Arguably this has gone too far, with a lot of babies thrown out with bath water. But it represents a big paradigm shift in our view of the social safety net — in the direction of a universal basic income. Unemployment benefits have even exceeded what some people earned from jobs, which used to be a caricature lobbed by welfare state critics. Yet most Americans now seem okay with it, shrugging off such concerns. 

A recent David Brooks column reflects this: “Ten years ago, I would have been aghast at this leftward shift. But like everybody else, I’ve seen inequality widen, the social fabric decay, the racial wealth gap increase. Americans are rightly convinced that the country is broken and fear it is in decline. Like a lot of people, I’ve moved left on what I think of the role of government and income redistribution issues. We surely need to invest a lot more in infrastructure and children.”*

So far at least, actual wealth redistribution is limited. President Biden is proposing tax rises only for the richest, and for corporations. But most of the new spending is being financed by borrowing. Cheap to do with interest rates at rock bottom. And our society is, on the whole, plenty rich enough to do what we’re doing. But how long can we do it this way? There have to be limits, though we don’t know where they lie, and hitting them could be a rude shock. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers says the lack of fiscal discipline in all this spending is totally unprecedented. In the longer term, we have to face up to paying the bills. (Which Brooks too worries about.)

We could instead inflate away the debt, shrinking the value of the dollar, so the rich would pay through devaluation of their assets. But that would be economic havoc; better to just tax them. But again, it shouldn’t be on some social justice theory, as a punitive equalizer, as if their wealth is undeserved. Rather, it should be a re-envisioning of the human responsibilities of members of society toward one another.

That could be Covid’s most lasting legacy.

*Brooks mirrored my own thinking; similarly pushed leftward; partly by how utterly vile American “conservativism” has managed to make itself. 

How to Create a Mind

April 15, 2021

Humans try to understand our reality. Including how our minds do that. 

“Futurist” Ray Kurzweil has posited a coming “singularity” when artificial intelligence outstrips ours, and everything changes. His book How to Create a Mind seeks to reverse-engineer our minds, to apply that knowledge to AI’s development.

Our thinking about something, perceiving something, remembering something, etc., may seem simple. We just do it. Like tapping an app on your phone just brings it up. But hidden, behind that app icon, is a tremendous web of complexity. Our minds are like that. We normally don’t need to peek under the hood. Unless we want to truly understand ourselves.

Consider hitting a baseball. Coming at you with maybe a second to calculate its path, and the precise body motions needed to connect bat with ball. Imagine trying to work it all out consciously. But we don’t have to. The brain does it for us.

Steven Pinker’s book How the Mind Works went through an exercise of identifying all the logic steps for answering a fairly simple question, how an uncle and nephew are related. That answer might seem obvious. Yet the necessary logic consumed quite a few pages — reminding me of Russell and Whitehead in Principia Mathematica laying out 362 pages of logic to reach 1+1=2. 

But Pinker’s example assumes you understand the question in the first place. And that’s a whole ‘nother thing — which Kurzweil explores. What does “understanding” really mean?

The mind can be seen as arising (or emerging) from the the workings of billions of neurons. Kurzweil probes how that happens, on a deep level. Pattern recognition is central. We are bombarded with incoming sensory data; its information content, in bits, is astronomical. If we couldn’t detect patterns to make it intelligible we couldn’t function.

You see a mass of pixels, detect the pattern of a lion, and run. (Indeed, for extra safety, evolution actually gave us overdeveloped pattern recognition, often seeing things that aren’t there. Making us suckers for supposed paranormal and supernatural stuff, including religion.) 

Kurzweil casts the brain as consisting largely of a massive number of parallel processing modules (each comprising around a hundred neurons) for pattern recognition. And this too, like the uncle-nephew logic mentioned, is deep with complexity. You don’t just simply seea pattern. Much has to happen for that perception to arise. 

Take reading. You seemingly glide across the page effortlessly. But obviously, before you can understand a sentence, you have to understand each word; and before you can even see a word, you have to see each letter. But it doesn’t stop there. An “A” has two slanted upright lines, and a horizontal line. The brain has to register not only each of those, but also their orientations and positioning. Then it has to refer back to, and compare against, its stored database of letter memory, to come up with the brilliant synthesis: “That’s an A!”

Kurzweil describes our brain’s pattern recognition modules as working hierarchically; passing information up and down the line. You start with the A’s three components. That information goes to the next level(s) where the lines’ positions and orientations are registered. Once you’ve got the A, it goes up to a yet higher level bringing it together with other letters. More upward steps are needed to “get” a whole sentence.

But meantime, information is also being passed down the hierarchy, which Kurzweil deems at least equally important. Because at each level, the system generates tentative conclusions and predictions of what’s likely coming next. This greatly speeds the whole process. 

If you’ve got an A, and then a P, P, and L, you may expect an E next. The context can eliminate other possibilities (I, A, or Y). This analysis would occur at a yet higher level, and be passed back down the system.

This at least is Kurzweil’s model. I’m not sure I entirely buy it. While the logic is unarguable, I think we learn shortcuts. I don’t think the brain has to go through all those steps to grasp the word “apple;” we do recognize it as a unit, in one go. That’s what learning to read really is. 

Nevertheless, the Kurzweil model helps to understand some aspects of our mental processing. At the highest levels of the hierarchy, we are collating inputs even from different sensory systems, and developing abstract concepts. This is the level at which the self emerges.

Kurzweil discusses IBM’s “Watson” program that won at Jeopardy! Watson understood the questions sufficiently to answer them, but some say that’s different from what is meant when we say a human “understands” something. Kurzweil counters, however, that the hierarchical processing in both cases is really the same. What’s different is having a sense of self. 

Consciousness and the self are deep conundrums. Philosophers posit the zombie problem: if a seeming human exhibits all the behavior we expect, but without inner conscious experience, how could anyone tell the difference?

At some point this will become a big issue with respect to artificial intelligence. Claims will be made for AI consciousness. Kurzweil believes we’ll accept it as a matter of course, citing how we empathize with characters like R2D2 in popular entertainment. I think that’s way too optimistic and the real thing will provoke ferocious resistance. Some people still can’t accept other ethnicities as fully human. Robot protest marches will demand their human rights.

And while Kurzweil thinks we will accept artificial consciousness that emulates the human sort, what about completely different, alien forms of consciousness? May be hard to conceptualize, but we certainly cannot assume ours is the only possible kind. What might the differences be? Here’s one: they may not necessarily have emotions — love or fear, for example — that mirror ours.

And if we do encounter some non-human consciousness, machine or otherwise, how — as with zombies — will we know it? Pioneer computer theorist Alan Turing proposed the Turing Test. Whether a machine, interrogated by a human, can convince them it is conscious. This never made sense to me. A human’s mere subjective judgment here cannot be conclusive. Surely a computer can be programmed (like Watson) sufficiently to give answers that seem to pass the Turing test.

Amconscious? I perform, to myself, all the indicia of consciousness, as a zombie would. Am I fooling myself, in the way a zombie would? But who or what is “myself” in that question? This is actually a puzzle I think about a lot. My brain has thoughts I know about. And I know I know about them. And know that I do. This can go on forever with no final knower. I can never seem to put my finger on the “me-ness” at the bottom of it all. This is what makes consciousness and the self such maddeningly hard problems. And if we don’t truly understand the nature of our own consciousness, how could we determine whether some other entity is conscious? 

Kurzweil then tackles the free will conundrum. A key aspect concerns the distinction between conscious and unconscious decision making. The famous Libet experiment seemed to show that a conscious decision to act is preceded by unconscious readying in the brain. Kurzweil discusses this and then poses the question: does it matter? If our actions and decisions arise from both unconscious and conscious brain activity, don’t both aspects represent one’s mind? Both really just parts of one unified system?

Kurzweil hypothesizes a procedure to create an artificial duplicate of you. Down to every cell and neuron. Maybe with some improved roboticized features. It certainly, of course, behaves as you do. If you are conscious, so must it be. But would you be okay with having your old incarnation dispensed with, replaced by the new one? “You” would still exist, no? Well, I don’t think so. (That’s a problem regarding teleportation. “Beam me up, Scotty” may have seemed fine in Star Trek, but I would refuse it.)

But Kurzweil goes on: imagine a more limited procedure, replacing one brain module with an improved artificial one. No problem there. We already do such things — e.g., cochlear implants. Of course you’re still you. But suppose we keep going and in steps replace every part of your brain.

This is the ancient story of the Ship of Theseus. So famous it was preserved. Its wooden planks would periodically rot and be replaced. In time, none of the original wood remained. Was it still “the Ship of Theseus?” Our bodies actually do this too, replacing our cells constantly (though brain cells are the longest lived). You still feel you are you.

Kurzweil does envision progressively more extensive replacement of our biological parts and systems with superior artificial ones. In my own landmark 2013 Humanist magazine article, The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement? I foresaw an eventual convergence between our biological selves and the artificial systems we devise to enhance our capabilities. Human intelligence has enabled us to make advances, solve problems, and improve our quality of life at an incredibly accelerating pace. That will go into overdrive once conscious artificial intelligence kicks in. Kurzweil says an “ultraintelligent” machine will be the last invention humanity will ever have to make. 

Belief in God is morally wrong

April 1, 2021

In May 2019, Attorney General William Barr, in a speech at Notre Dame, thundered that America is undergoing a moral apocalypse. Which he blamed on irreligion and secularism. As if religion gives us morality. Which many people believe. 

“Is something holy because the gods love it, or do they love it because it is holy?” That was Socrates’s great question in Plato’s Euthyphro. It cuts to the heart of the matter. Is something moral just because God says so, or does he say so because it is moral?

If the latter, he’s merely telling us what we should realize ourselves. But if not — if God’s dictates are not independently justifiable — must we obey them? 

And anyhow, can any human know what God thinks? Self-anointed prophets, gurus and mystics claim to know — sure signs of delusion or charlatanism.

Well, we do have the Bible. Actually written by humans. But let’s assume for argument’s sake it’s the word of God. Could it then be our moral guide?

Start with, again, the obedience proposition. That’s the tale of Abraham and Isaac. The Bible praises Abraham’s readiness to obey God and kill Isaac. True, God changed his mind. But the very idea of killing an innocent like that surely is morally vile. As was the mental torture inflicted on Abraham while he felt obligated to kill his beloved son. 

The Bible does also say “Thou shalt not kill” (absent God’s order), or lie, or covet thy neighbor’s wife; to love thy neighbor, do unto others, and so forth. As if we need to be told all that. In fact it’s in the Bible because people did know it long before.

As Adam Smith explained in his other great book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, we come by our moral ideas not from God but through mutual sympathy: projecting another person’s feelings onto ourselves. And here is the one core concept for any moral system. It’s whatever enables people to flourish and enjoy life; whatever impedes that is immoral. Anything outside those parameters is prejudice, not morality.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said law makes no sense without morality. He said this in dissenting from the decision allowing gay marriage. Surely marriage is not immoral. It’s gay sex Scalia considered so. Why? Because of the Bible? It also commands killing people who gather sticks on the Sabbath and children who disrespect their parents. It allows owning slaves, beating them as long as they don’t die within two days, and selling your daughter into slavery. Most believers today ignore these atrocious passages. Picking and choosing the ones they agree with. On what basis? Obviously it’s not God telling them; instead it’s because they do have their own sense of right and wrong. And if they do condemn gays, it’s not really obedience to the Bible, it’s the Bible as their excuse. Scalia was not bowing to some eternal moral truth but rather his own atavistic gut revulsion at gay sex.

But gay sex cannot be immoral, because it doesn’t harm anyone’s ability to enjoy life. Offending YOU doesn’t make it immoral. In fact, aversion to homosexuality, among its many other ill effects, breaks up families and estranges parents from children. That doesn’t serve human flourishing. 

And what about God’s own moral behavior? Abraham’s already been mentioned. Then there’s Job, unjustly afflicted by God for no reason other than to taunt Satan. God did make it up to Job — though not to Job’s children he killed. Then he floods the planet, killing innocent millions, in a fit of pique. He kills the children of Egyptians for their ruler’s deeds. In fact, just to supply a pretext for that, he “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” He directs the Jews to conduct a genocidal pogrom in Canaan, except for women taken as sex slaves. Yet he kills thousands of Jews because a few had sex with Midianites. He sends bears to tear apart 42 children because some had mocked the prophet Elisha’s baldness. One could go on like this for many pages.

Morally sick as all this might seem, believers say we can’t presume to question God’s motives. That if God did it, it must have been okay. But recall the old Dostoyevsky canard against atheism: “Without God everything is permitted.” Actually it seems instead that with God everything is permittedTo him at least. 

But it’s worse than that. Not just that God’s every deed is permitted, but therefore in principle everything can be permitted. That destroys any idea that there are universal moral verities. Destroys the very moral certainty which believers imagine religion supplies. 

The truth is that the God of the Bible is a fictional character, created by human authors whose primitive notions about violence and morality are abhorrent to us today, and whose book would be a gross libel against God if he existed. Their prescientific psychology fixated on agency — everything had to be caused, if not by us, then by some unseen hand. If a bad thing happened, some angry god caused it. Those people trembled at the thought. That psychology pervades the Bible.

But if theirs is the God we are asked to believe in, then it’s a stunning argument against such belief. Against the existence of such a being. The idea of the universe governed that way is absurd. 

If this seems overstated, think about Hell. I mean, really think about it. No torturer in history ever came close to this diabolical absolute: inflicting maximum suffering forever. Maybe you could imagine it as justice for, say, Hitler. Okay, a thousand years of burning for every Jew. But that’s still far short of eternity. And it’s not just Hitler getting this torture. It’s most people on Earth! At least so says Christianity: everyone not buying the Jesus story goes to Hell. Some Christians even anticipate part of their reward in Heaven is relishing the sufferings of the victims in Hell. Nice.

It’s a fundamental precept of morality and justice that punishment should fit the crime. No human crime could ever justify such extreme punishment. Let alone the “crime” of merely not being Christian. And people believing this say they’re getting morality from God?

Meantime, though the sufferings of Hell are fortunately nonexistent, the pain here on Earth — caused by the belief — is all too real. Millions have spent whole lives tormented that some misstep will condemn them to eternal hellfire. Often afflicted by guilt and terror just because they have unavoidable natural sexual feelings. It’s the idea of Hell that is itself evil. It’s those who promote it that deserve punishment.

The mythos at the heart of Christianity is that all Adam’s descendants were to suffer for his supposed “original sin.” Even though they were not complicit. And instead of just mercifully exonerating them, God makes his son suffer and die to expiate the so-called sin. Jesus is a scapegoat (the Bible is filled with scapegoating — punishing people for the sins of others, including Adam’s). But Jesus doesn’t die anyway, he’s resurrected, so was the price really paid? Can anyone actually make moral sense out of all this?

Likewise moral nonsense is the idea of prayer — that God will change what was (foreknown?) to happen because someone asks. Why should a human preference influence God’s actions? Isn’t he supposed to know better than us? And what about the fate of those not prayed for? Should God discriminate against them?

Believers have always had a hard time trying to square their idea of a good God with a world so filled with suffering. They say God gives us free will to commit evil. But — given his evident penchant for smiting people with very little pretext — couldn’t he stop them somehow before they act out? And anyway, much suffering has no human causes, it’s built into the fabric of nature that God supposedly designed. Reality is far more consistent with a vicious than a loving God.

Religion being actually a source of moral confusion, rather than moral guidance, is proven by the legions of religious believers like William Barr who, with no sense of cognitive dissonance, inveigh against immorality but bathed themselves in Trump’s cesspool of wickedness. Showing they don’t know right from wrong. Their minds scrambled by religion’s false and nonsensical beliefs.

Indeed, the very fact that belief in God is so powerful an idea makes this brain-mushing effect all the more powerful too. Leading untold numbers of people, all throughout history, again and again and again, to commit the most atrocious evils, in the name of God. You might answer that their idea of God was just wrong, and yours is right. They would say the same to you (and maybe kill you over it). You’re both arguing over something nobody can know.

But — ridding your brain software of that dysfunctional religious virus leads to moral clarity, utilizing instead the human welfare maximization heuristic.

Conclusion: We get morality not from God but from our own hearts and rational brains. Belief in God is not merely false, it is morally wrong. Only atheists can be truly moral.

Richard Dawkins’s 80th birthday party

March 25, 2021

Richard Dawkins is one of my intellectual heroes. I was thrilled to be invited to his 80th birthday party, on zoom, with about twenty others; hosted by Robyn Blumner (head of the Dawkins Foundation and allied Center for Inquiry, home of Secular Rescue, which I support, a kind of underground railroad for atheists persecuted in mostly Muslim countries). 

Dawkins has authored numerous landmark books, including The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, and The Blind Watchmaker (which I’ve reviewed). He spoke of two imminent new ones: Books Do Furnish a Life: Reading and Writing Science, a collection of pieces about other books, and Flights of Fancy: Defying Gravity by Design and Evolution, about how both nature and humans have solved the problem of getting airborne.

I got a chance to tell him how important some of his books have been to me, particularly The Selfish Gene — saying that if you really understand that book, you understand evolution. In response, Dawkins remarked that he’s often asked whether he’d retract the book (published in 1976), but he still feels confident it’s right. Its take on evolution might seem extreme. In a nutshell: Life must have begun (no alternative is conceivable) with a molecule having the capability to replicate. As copies proliferated, variations crept in. Effectively putting them in competition. Variants proving better at staying in existence and replicating would become more numerous. In that competition they’d develop “survival machines.” Those molecules are genes; the survival machines are organisms. Just devices for getting more genes into the next generation. That, indeed, is what humans are, in the big scheme of things. (And a chicken is just an egg’s way to make another egg.) 

This doesn’t trivialize our lives. Indeed, having no cosmic purpose frees us to set our own agenda.

I also got to submit a (cheeky) question — in what year do you predict the last remaining believers in conventional religions will be generally regarded as crazy crackpots? Dawkins started by noting that many past religions have fallen by the wayside, only to be supplanted by others no better. He fears that today’s religions will be replaced by “dopey woo-woo new age superstition.” Yet directly answering my question, he said a pessimistic estimate would be a hundred years! (That actually seems optimistic to me.) 

Asked how people can be dissuaded from false beliefs (a question he must get daily), Dawkins avowed that evidence, alas, doesn’t do the trick, because people’s beliefs actually have little to do with evidence, being more a function of tribal affiliation. Frustration at this led him to suggest telling religious people, “This is science. If you don’t agree with it, fuck off.” 

But one thing he did seriously urge was to stop calling evolution a “theory.” Yes, yes, scientists use that word differently from its everyday sense, but creationists exploit this by labeling evolution “just a theory.” It’s as much a fact, said Dawkins, as Earth going around the Sun. 

Also on the subject of labeling, he said we should stop automatically calling the children of Christians “Christians,” and so forth. It’s something unique to the religious realm; the offspring of Marxists aren’t called Marxist children. Small kids are too young to know their minds on these matters. Eliminating such labeling would help free them to find their own paths, breaking the perpetuation of false beliefs down the generations. Now if only religious parents would comply. 

Doubt toward science right now is manifesting in widespread resistance to covid vaccination. Dawkins, discussing this, observed that development of these vaccines is actually a bigger scientific breakthrough than most of us realize. Not just another typical set of vaccines, but using a different paradigm, employing Messenger-RNA — which should enable researchers to readily tweak them to fit other emerging ailments. 

Interestingly, some scientists now think the primordial molecule that started life was something like RNA.

The Plague

February 17, 2021

It starts with rats, coming out, bloodily dying, all over. Of course it’s the plague. Literally; the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death that devastated Europe in the 14th century. In the 20th it hits the French Algerian city of Oran, in the famous Albert Camus 1947 novel, The Plague. Having a new vogue now, and one of my book groups chose it, for obvious reasons.

Camus based his depiction on an actual cholera epidemic striking Oran a century before. Philosophically, Camus has been called an “absurdist,” believing that our lives always ending in death makes them fundamentally absurd; yet it’s up to us to nevertheless make of them what we will. Here, the capriciousness of plague death highlights the absurdity, while the characters do what they can to combat it, imbuing them with a valiant power. 

The main protagonist is a doctor, Bernard Rieux, in the forefront of the struggle, doing his best to cope under terrible strain. As the death toll inexorably rises, the walled city is closed off, no one allowed in or out. Many separated from loved ones. Supplies run short. Naturally it’s hard to maintain a semblance of normal life. (The Covid restrictions we’re enduring seem tame in comparison.)

Rambert is a journalist, caught accidentally in Oran. He deems it unfair, having no real connection to the town but now imprisoned with the rest, aching to get back to his distant beloved. But all his pleas for an exemption fail. Desperation leads him to shady characters to smuggle him out for a price. There follows an opera buffa of missed connections. And when escape at last does seem imminent, so much time has passed that Rambert changes his mind, now feeling he does belong here. He settles in to help fight the plague. 

When it’s finally defeated, Rambert is reunited with his love, embracing on a railway platform. But it’s not so simple a happy ending. Life is a flow, and like a river, is never really the same even from one moment to another. We cannot totally return to what existed before, when it’s interrupted by something like a plague. But even without such a dramatic discontinuity, we never can anyway. Rambert realizes this when hugging his gal. Likewise for us, Covid-19 will prove to have changed everything forever. 

Then there’s old Monsieur Grand. A drone of a clerk in the municipal administration. He’s not good with words, struggling to express himself. That scuppered his long-ago youthful marriage; his wife gave up on his inexpressiveness and left. 

For many years since, Grand’s had a secret pastime. Turns out to be a literary endeavor. Odd for a man short on words. Yet he’s striving for a work that will be greeted by “Hats off!” Eventually he shares with Rieux and others at least the first sentence, on which he’s been obsessing forever, struggling for perfection, each of its words in turn getting agonizing attention. 

Grand falls ill. Seems dying. Shows Rieux the full manuscript — found to contain nothing but that lone sentence in all its endless permutations. Burn it, Grand commands, so forcefully that Rieux complies. 

But then Grand surprisingly recovers. It’s okay, he assures Rieux — he can remember the line. And later, when the plague is over, amid the rejoicing, he relates that he’s now simply eliminated all the adjectives he’d struggled over. And that he’s written to his ex-wife. 

The character I found most compelling, strangely enough, is the old Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux. Struggling to reconcile Oran’s travail with his Christian faith. In a big sermon, he calls the plague “the flail of God” whirling over the city, comeuppance for insufficient faith. Oran now learning the lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah. The sermon doesn’t go over well. The citizens really don’t feel like bigtime sinners. 

But as the plague continues ramping up, as do efforts to combat it, with Father Paneloux joining in them, he has a rethink. He preaches another, rather different sermon. Instead of saying “you,” he now says “we.” Acknowledging that his previous scourging words lacked charity. Suggesting that the plague actually cannot be understood at all. In this, Paneloux was bitterly mindful of a child’s agonizing death he’d attended. 

What it all comes to, he says, is their arrival at a time of testing. “We must believe everything or deny everything.” Must accept the plague; accept that child’s torture. It’s not mere resignation, but actually embracing humiliation. Paneloux acknowledged preaching now a kind of fatalism, but an active fatalism. We cannot understand God’s will yet must make it ours. Otherwise we’re rejecting God. 

And Paneloux practiced what he preached. Soon falling sick himself, he refuses any sort of intervention that might have helped him. Without struggle, deeming it God’s will, he goes to his death. If he’s consoled by an expectation of Heaven, the book is conspicuously silent about that. 

Was Camus portraying Paneloux as some kind of saint? Certainly not. The plague does present a time of testing — it tests the idea of a God. For Paneloux, failure on that test is impossible. He’d rather die. But fail God does. Paneloux’s renunciation serves to demonstrate the incoherence of the belief system he struggled to make sense of. Our lives may ultimately be absurd, but less so without God.

What is philosophy about?

February 6, 2021

What is the true nature of reality? The meaning of life? How should one live? I read a collection of essays (The Power of Ideas) by philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-97). He does not answer such questions. Rather, explores how we are to think about them. Berlin posits four categories of questions.

One is a straight factual (empirical) question. Who killed JFK? That can be answered, exactly and certainly, from observation and evidence (conspiracy theories notwithstanding).

Two: Why did Oswald kill JFK? Also a factual question, it cannot be answered with similar exactitude and certitude, requiring interpretation of evidence. That’s qualitatively different.

Three: what is the square root of nine? To answer, we don’t seek empirical evidence, we use mathematical logic. This raises the ancient conundrum: is mathematics something “out there” as part of existence, that we’ve discovered, or is it a human construct?

I’m of the former view. An isosceles triangle doesn’t exist in nature. The idea of it is a human construct. Yet one embodying the way existence works. That statement is not a matter of observation but, rather, of deducing how existence must work. A universe where that’s not so is inconceivable. Not just by limited human minds, but inconceivable in principle.* Thus our discoveries of mathematical truths are discoveries about the fabric of reality.

So the foregoing question types all concern reality. But “reality” itself can be a slippery concept. Berlin discusses the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley (pronounced Barkley, 1685-1753). “If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there, does it make a sound?” That was Berkeley. I answer yes because of course it makes sound waves. Berkeley said no.

Did he really? What he actually said is hard to untangle. Berlin tries, calling Berkeley the ultimate empiricist, holding that what we get from our senses is all there is. If we can’t see it, touch it, smell it, etc., it isn’t there. Yet Berkeley believed in the spiritual (God and all that). How could this be reconciled? He posited (in Berlin’s words) “eternal souls or spirits . . . whose existence does not depend . . . on being sensed, or being otherwise the content of someone’s experience.” In other words, nothing exists outside sensory perception — except when it does. That’s how religion scrambles the brain.

Some modern voices still tell us nothing exists outside our brains — which don’t really exist either. I’ve deconstructed such nonsense here:

It’s true that the reality we perceive is, to a great extent, constructed within our minds. A simple example: a rose is not actually “red.” At the level of its molecules, atoms, and quarks, you will find no redness. But those particles’ behavior does cause the resulting photons, when processed in our brains, to tell us something about the rose. Something we visualize as “red,” different from some other characteristic we see as “blue.” It’s not as though seeing something not there — we’re getting information about what is really there.

Our senses do have limitations in perceiving reality. Even science has a tough time modeling it. A bowling ball seems a solid object, but again at the subatomic level there’s nothing solid. Yet if you drop it on your foot, it sure behaves as solid.

Thus there is a lot of reality in our perception of bowling balls and other objects. Otherwise our lives would be impossible. The fact that our senses do guide us pretty successfully through the world’s reality proves both that that reality is real and that our senses are pretty good at registering it.

With that settled (;-)) we can finally move on to the fourth kind of question. While the others do raise philosophical issues (as discussed), the fourth kind are entirely philosophical. Which, Berlin wrote, “cannot be answered by either observation or calculation, by either inductive methods or deductive; and . . . those who ask them . . . do not know where to look for the answers.” Berlin calls the first three types “factual” (or empirical) and the fourth “formal.”

He gives the example, “What is time?” One might add, was it always elapsing or did it have a start? If so, how? Or why is there something and not nothing?

Yet “what is time?” actually has a certain empiricalness. It’s not unanswerable in principle. We actually have a common sense understanding, and physicists have teased out nuances beyond that. Time is an element of the reality of existence.

So I would call all the foregoing descriptive questions, as distinguished from prescriptive questions. The latter to include ones like how we should live, how we relate to others, how we find meaning in life, etc. The methods for seeking answers are very different than with descriptive questions. There is something about existence that would describe how time works, even if we don’t have the words or concepts to embody it. But there’s no such something that could resolve prescriptive puzzles.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual revolution starting around three centuries ago. Its core was rationalism — believing in use of reason to understand existence and enabling us to improve it. And this did coincide with great leaps in human understanding, through science, through mathematics and logic, and rationalist philosophy. In Berlin’s telling, the Enlightenment’s enthusiasts envisioned that continued progress along such lines would ultimately answer all questions, including the fourth kind. This he called an “heroic attempt to make philosophy a natural science.”

But — long story short — Berlin gives Kant the leading credit for seeing that philosophy’s task is not to elucidate what are really empirical questions, properly the domain of hard science, nor to deploy logic as in mathematics, but rather to tackle issues not resolvable by either method. Whereas to “the great empirical philosophers of the eighteenth century . . . everything seemed far clearer than it” would later.

But Berlin is not denigrating Enlightenment thinkers. “A very great deal of good was done,” he says, “suffering mitigated, injustices avoided or prevented, ignorance exposed, by the conscientious attempt to apply scientific methods to the regulation of human affairs.” Their “intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage and disinterested love of the truth . . . remain to this day without parallel.” And if their greatest goal proved “delusive,” Berlin thinks far worse of the nineteenth century reaction, with “implications that were, both intellectually and politically, more sinister and oppressive.” He’s referring to the romanticism that sacralized the “nation” and “state” as some supreme force trumping the Enlightenment’s morality premised on the individual. That romanticist movement was the wellspring of all the millennial and utopian “isms” that would wrack the twentieth century.

We haven’t overcome that. Even today — especially today — howling fools dance around bonfires of Enlightenment values of rationalism, universalism, humanism, and truth. Wielding weapons whose potency the philosophes could never have imagined. The battle continues.

* One can construct non-Euclidean geometries, internally logical. I cannot say whether a non-Euclidean universe could actually work. But if so, that would not contradict what I’ve written. We’d still have a cosmos wherein certain mathematical laws — whatever they may be — are baked in. A cosmos with no such laws baked in would be an impossible chaos.

American democracy and the Big Lie

January 28, 2021

In November 1918, Germany’s military situation had become hopeless. Support for the Kaiser collapsed, he fled, and a new democratic government came in and signed the armistice ending the war. There was no alternative. But those democrats — including liberals, socialists, and especially Jews — were demonized for it. Blamed for supposedly somehow stabbing Germany’s army in the back.

That was a lie, cynically and knowingly cooked up to serve a political agenda. But it was widely believed by Germans unwilling to accept the humiliation of military defeat. The “stab in the back” myth loomed over the democratic Weimar Republic and corroded its perceived legitimacy; was exploited by Hitler in his rise to power.

This history was discussed recently on NPR. Why? Today America has the “stolen election” myth. The parallels are obvious and scary.

The January 6 insurrectionists cast themselves as battling for democracy, against an election steal. In fact they were accessories to an attempted one.

Trump had long made clear he’d falsely claim fraud to avoid accepting election defeat. But I didn’t realize what legs that lie would acquire. With most Republicans, a third of Americans, believing it as gospel. Like post-WWI Germans, rather than face up to defeat, they prefer to believe a lie that they were cheated of victory.*

The nativist right — for all its patriotism sanctimony — harbors a deep disaffection from the America they actually inhabit. As distinguished from their fantasy country, that they wanted to “make great again.” Actually, make white again, a key focus of their disaffection. And that disaffection is broadened and intensified by the “stolen election” lie. Convincing them that our government is illegitimate, the whole system rotten.

Trump’s trying to overthrow an election and inciting insurrection were crimes enough. But his greater crime was introducing into our body politic this toxic poison of the “stolen election” myth. It will plague us for years to come. Making it all the harder to restore some semblance of — well, not even unity, but just some comity, so we can at least manage to live together.

*        *        *

The age-old fear was democracy degenerating into mob rule. We got a taste on January 6. The other pitfall, seen in many countries, is one voting mistake giving you dictatorship, hard to undo. We’ve now had our own close shave with that as well.

As President Biden declared, our democracy did prevail. Our constitutional system a bulwark against both mobocracy and tyranny. But I keep saying — that’s not ordained by God. Democracy is not just a system but a culture. It cannot be sustained absent a citizenry with baked in democratic values. Which requires understanding those values, and too few Americans today really do.

Those who stormed the Capitol, invoking “the people’s will,” actually had their own understanding of that concept. What they really meant was their will. It wasn’t about who truly got the most votes. Only theirs were legitimate, others not. Especially Black ones. As Isabel Wilkerson suggested in Caste, many Americans want not a democratic country now so much as a white one.

* One more time: while Trumpers cite a raft of supposed “irregularities,” there’s zero evidence for anything that could have changed the outcome. None of Trump’s 60 lawsuits provided any. Even his toady Attorney General Barr agreed. Many election officials involved were Republicans. It all came from a man whose record of lies, if each were a mile, would circle the Earth. And why refuse to believe so lousy a candidate actually lost?

January 20: America’s light rekindled

January 20, 2021

The only presidential inauguration I ever got an engraved invitation to was Nixon’s in 1969. I didn’t go. Covid sidelining Biden’s was a big disappointment. I’d considered flying down nevertheless, just to stand witness, but even that was discouraged, for safety’s sake. And then came January 6.

A sea of flags planted on the mall represented the absent crowd. One was mine.

Four years ago the incoming president spoke of forgotten Americans, forgotten no longer. Last night, forgotten no longer were the 400,000 Americans who died on his watch.

The election had palpably lifted my emotional baseline. Though until today I still felt much anxiety, for obvious reasons. Watching the inauguration was a sublime moment of cathartic culmination and deliverance — intensified by mindfulness of my own contribution. This, more than anyone ever, is my president.

Of course, now comes the hard part. President Biden bears a weight of responsibility no human should ever be asked to carry. But we couldn’t have found a better person to lead us. A president we can be proud of, reflecting not America’s worst but its best. Though I don’t expect to approve of everything — after all, I was a conservative Republican for half a century.

So playing defense will be a lot less fun than criticizing. And normalcy and sanity will seem boring after the last four years. I’ll likely, strangely, miss the tumult.

It’s a truism of human psychology that hate can be more powerful than love, indignation stronger than approval, opposition more emotionally satisfying than supportiveness. Trump lovers were defined by their hatreds, which he channels. Writing about politics sure got my juices flowing. But I don’t actually expect that will end.

* * *

Long at the core of my being was belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity, advancing through rationality. With a democratic America standing as the great embodiment of those ideals. We’ve even had a stamp proclaiming, “America’s light fueled by truth and reason.” A picture of it adorns my wall.

But for the last four years, it’s been a painful daily reminder of loss. That light seemed to have failed.

Today, at last, it shines once more with truth and reason.

This is a good day. My heart is full.

The cult of the leader: Khomeini, Hitler, Big Brother, Trump

January 19, 2021

The news photo was unnerving. Trump’s January 6 rally — with three big screens looming over the crowd, imaging the center of his face, colored deep red, eyes glowering. Recalling throngs with giant pictures of a scowling Khomeini in 1979 Iran. Presaging it would not end well.

Such leader worship never does. Another example, Hitler, led his nation to destruction. And those Khomeini faces, and Trump’s, also both recalled 1984’s Big Brother. None of them smiling.

The foundation for humans living together in society is what’s called social capital. Preventing a war of all against all. A key element is trust — trust that societal norms and precepts will prevail. We ordinarily take it for granted. Trust that a stranger on the street won’t bash you and grab your stuff. That when you buy a jar of aspirins, those pills will actually be aspirins. That votes in an election will be properly counted.

Trump’s attack on the latter — based on nothing but lies — is only the latest in his long assault upon our social capital, dissolving the very glue that holds society together. Because he’snot served by it, this predator who thrives by shredding it. As with his tearing down the press, to undermine its holding him accountable.

America’s social capital was, pre-Trump, already stressed, polls showing us viewing each other with declining trust. Trump’s been an accelerant for that. So now, when it comes to the public sphere, a big segment of the U.S. population no longer believes or trusts anybody or anything — except Trump. The least trustworthy of men. The biggest liar.

That bizarrely perverse loyalty has all the earmarks of religious fanaticism. We had supposed evangelical Christians had strong faith, but it turns out their Christianity is trumped by Trumpism. On whose altar, David Brooks writes, they sacrifice every other value: “truth, moral character, the Sermon on the Mount, conservative principles, the Constitution.”

Brooks quotes a conservative preacher, Jeremiah Johnson who, after the storming of the Capitol, declared that God had unseated Trump because of his pride and arrogance and to humble those who, like Johnson himself, had fervently supported him. Provoking a firestorm of messages from Christians, cursing him out with vile epithets and multiple death threats. Johnson deemed these coreligionists “far SICKER (sic) than I could have ever dreamed.”

Not only can’t they see they’re worshiping a monster, correspondingly deranged is their demonization of his successor, as a corrupt doddering fool who’ll destroy America with socialism, taking away guns and law and order and freedom of religion and speech.

All totally ridiculous. And it’s this delusional foolishness that really does threaten to destroy America.

As seen on January 6. With almost an entire once-respectable political party careening down that rabbit hole. Longtime Republican operative Stuart Stevens had it right titling his book It Was All a LieWell, since Trump’s advent; now all bad faith and disingenuousness. Like when Elise Stefanik and 146 others in Congress claim, with straight faces, that their votes to overturn the election were responsive to Americans doubting its legitimacy — when those Republicans themselves fanned those baseless doubts by pushing Trump’s lies. And like Kevin McCarthy and 196 others opposing impeachment as “divisive” — after their mob attacked the Capitol screaming “Freedom!” in their bid to make Trump dictator — which most of those Congress members thereupon effectively voted to do. Divisive?

For some at least, like that Jeremiah Johnson, January 6 shook them to their senses. Trump’s approval rating fell from around 40% to around 30%. But that’s still a terrifying figure. And many saw January 6 not as a debacle but a clarion call.

How can we cure this madness? I don’t have a good answer. It’s impervious to reason. Brooks calls it “narcissistic self-idolatry to think you can create your own truth based on what you ‘feel.'” It’s not like Trump cultists are just selective about what facts they choose to believe — their basic conception of reality is a total inversion of what actually obtains. The core of their existence is a lie. And nothing will disabuse them.

Hitler, Khomeini, and Big Brother held power — but fortunately an American voting majority (not God!) has rid us of Trump. For now. A bare 51% majority. Too close for comfort.