Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

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?”

“Five.”

“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.”

Uh-oh.

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.

Spiritual But Not Religious – Sam Harris’s “Waking Up”

April 11, 2015

Unknown-5The phrase “spiritual but not religious” irks believers and atheists alike. Sam Harris’s latest book Waking Up is subtitled A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. He gained fame with books bashing faith and promises he won’t do it in this one (but is unable to refrain).

Harris says most of us see life in terms of pleasure versus pain – but there can be more – a deeper contentment grounded not in transitory well-being but rising above that. The key is that the self is an illusion, and only by getting out of it can one access that more fundamental state. Unknown-1We must break from “being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves”* and wake up from the dream of being a separate self.

How? By mindfulness meditation. Harris says that “how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes.” Recently I similarly discussed how happiness is shaped by how you choose to allocate your attention and contextualize experiences. Harris goes further and prescribes “overcoming the illusion of the self by paying close attention to our experience in the present moment.” In other words: not just choosing which aspects of experience to focus upon, but stepping out of the whole web of experience as mediated by a seeming self.

images-1Despite calling the self an illusion, Harris is emphatic that consciousness is not illusory; even thinking about the question proves the reality of the conscious experience. (Cogito ergo sum!) But it’s hard to see how the one can be deemed illusory and the other not. Our (present) inability to understand how consciousness arises, Harris insists, does not gainsay the phenomenon’s reality. (Consciousness must arise somehow from the information processing among the brain’s neurons; there is no other possibility that makes any sense.) We know consciousness is a real phenomenon because we all experience it. Why wouldn’t that apply to the self as well?

But I do recognize how problematic the concept of the self is, and have written about this. Harris argues that one can be conscious without a sense of self, and that while consciousness is undeniable, any penetrating effort to put one’s finger on the self ultimately fails. He strangely omits quoting philosopher David Hume that introspection could never enable him to catch hold of his self. The problem is that he was using the self to search for the self. Similarly, one can’t see one’s own eyes (except in a mirror). But we know they’re there because of the perceptions we get through them. And such perceptions must of course somehow be registered. Consciousness enables that. And a sense of self is a kind of meta-consciousness enabling us to perceive and experience that which is registered.

Unknown-3After all, we evolved a self for logical adaptive reasons. A self that cares about what happens to it is more motivated to act for its survival than a bare consciousness more neutral toward its existence and experience.

And the sense of self, the internal chatter, is not as continuous as Harris says. In fact, it disappears in many circumstances, not just meditation – when one is absorbed in a book, or drama, or task. Indeed, we even speak of “losing oneself” in them!

Furthermore, when Harris asks you to step out of your normal mode and view your experiences from a place apart, as it were, what actor would be doing that if not your self? What “you” is he talking about? This is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of Harris’s book: the contradiction between the idea that “an egoic self doesn’t exist” and the idea that we can attain some desirable state (“happiness,” “contentment”) by grasping this – when it can only be the egoic self that does the grasping and, moreover, experiences the desirable state. If the self is an illusion, wouldn’t the contentment be equally illusory? If there is really no self, why does it even matter whether that illusion feels good or bad? The very idea of happiness or contentment makes no sense without a self.

Unknown-2Harris acknowledges that no human being can actually achieve the detachment from self that he prescribes except, at best, on a fleeting, momentary basis. Thus he says the goal “is not some permanent state of enlightenment . . . but a capacity to be free in this moment.” Do that, he asserts, and “you have already solved most of the problems you will encounter in life.” Really? I don’t think so. Nirvana for a brief moment might be nice, even eye-opening, but what about the zillions of other moments during which one remains trapped in what Harris reckons to be an unsatisfactory state? He acknowledges this problem but seems to think that even momentary glimpses of the alleged deeper reality somehow change everything.

But in any case, I don’t see the basic point. Even if Harris is right about the self being an illusion, I don’t understand how grasping this helps us live better. I’m not rejecting the evidence Harris presents that meditation somehow can make practitioners feel good. But I question whether something is happening other than the changed understanding he stresses. How, exactly, does seeing the self as an illusion, and (briefly) experiencing consciousness without it, enhance the experience of life? Harris keeps saying it’s so, but never actually explains why and how. Frankly, I very much like having a self.images

And as for spirituality without religion, I quite simply prefer life without religion.

* Harris questions why we’re always announcing our thoughts to ourselves. Reading that at an airport, I looked up from the page and saw a pretty girl. “She’s cute,” I duly told myself. Why, indeed? Obviously I already knew it before putting it in words. But words are the medium by which we register and process thoughts. That’s just how our brains work.

John Gray versus Pinker on Violence: “The Sorcery of Numbers”

April 1, 2015

UnknownSteven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argued that declines in all kinds of violence, including war, reflect moral progress. I reviewed it enthusiastically (and not just because it cited my own book). But, unarguably, Pinker’s thesis has had a bad few years.

Hardly was his ink dry when violent conflict engulfed the Arab world. Russia has resurrected, zombie-like, a kind of big power military aggression we had thought gone forever. And whereas expanding democratization was a key explanatory pillar for Pinker’s thesis, democracy too has had setbacks, in countries from Venezuela to Thailand, with Egypt’s revolution producing a regime even worse than before,* while China’s authoritarianism looks better (in some eyes) than America’s democratic paralysis.

imagesWell. As I’ve often argued, human affairs are complex, and their path is never linear. We’ve had some years going in the wrong direction; but it’s way too soon to read the last rites for far longer and larger trends in the right direction.

Comes now John Gray in The Guardian** with an essay boldly headed, “Pinker is Wrong About Violence and War.” The subhead asserts, “[t]he stats are misleading . . . and the idea of moral progress is wishful thinking and just plain wrong.” (My daughter Elizabeth challenged me to respond.)

images-4I was expecting to find, in this lengthy essay, some substantive grappling with Pinker’s arguments and his exhaustive analysis of data, in the light of latterly developments. Not so. Indeed, the essay’s verbosity is inversely proportional to its substance. As Texans say, all hat and no cattle; revealing less about Pinker than about Gray’s pretentious cynicism masquerading as intellectual depth.

Gray does perfunctorily argue that data here “involves complex questions of cause and effect,” citing some ambiguities whose disregard, he says, renders Pinker’s statistics “morally dubious if not meaningless.” images-1But what Gray completely disregards (did he read the book?) is the vast depth in which Pinker examined just such issues (for example, what counts as “war” and how you count casualties), always probing for the reasons and explanations behind the data, to arrive at true understanding.

Rather than get into such nitty-gritty, Gray offers a string of non sequiturs. images-5For instance, unable to rebut Pinker’s analysis of actual history, he invokes counter-factual history – what might have happened, but did not (e.g., Nazis winning WWII). And, after enumerating a few recent violent episodes (yes, it’s no revelation they still occur), Gray says, “Whether they accept the fact or not, advanced societies have become terrains of violent conflict. Rather than war declining, the difference between peace and war has been fatally blurred.”

Fatally! This hyperbolic twaddle is belied by Pinker’s comprehensive exegesis of just how different modern advanced societies are, from earlier ones, in terms of the violence ordinary people encounter in everyday life. Thus Pinker addresses not just war, but every other class of violence – something Gray totally ignores.

Part of Pinker’s explanation for the improvement is the influence of Enlightenment values (just one example: Beccaria’s battle against pervasive torture). But Gray makes the customary shallow and cynical attack on the very idea of Enlightenment values. He cites a few backward views held by Locke, Bentham, and Kant. Which proves what, exactly? And Gray alleges (without specifying) “links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism,” dismissing any denial as “childish simplicity.” Call me childish, but I don’t consider Hitler, Stalin and Mao avatars of Voltairean humanism.

But, again, none of this nonsense represents any serious effort to engage with the analysis Pinker laid out in such depth. images-6And it’s all just a lead-up to Gray’s main point, which is to simply ridicule the whole project of elucidating these matters through statistical evaluation – which he likens to a 16th century magician’s use of a “scrying glass” to access occult messages, or spinning Tibetan prayer wheels. He sees Pinkerites as similarly trying to assuage some existential angst by fetishizing data, reading into it meaning that isn’t there. “Lacking any deeper faith and incapable of living with doubt,” Gray writes, “it is only natural that believers in reason should turn to the sorcery of numbers.”

There you have it. “The sorcery of numbers.” The postmodernist mentality at its worst: there’s no such thing as truth. images-2Don’t even try to understand reality by examining evidence for what’s actually happening. Instead, place reliance on – what? – John Gray’s deeper wisdom, uncontaminated by data? Magicians and sorcery indeed!

True, statistics can be misused, but surely that doesn’t tell us to eschew their use. Pinker recognized that his book challenged conventional wisdom and would be met with a wall of cynicism like Gray’s. Thus he knew he had to build a powerful battering ram of facts and data – accompanied by thoroughgoing and persuasive interpretive analysis – to break through that wall. Unknown-1Pinker’s success is evidenced by Gray’s bemoaning that “the book has established something akin to a contemporary orthodoxy.” If so, that orthodoxy is in no danger of overthrow from such a disgracefully foolish effort as John Gray’s.

* Though there’s been good news in Sri Lanka, and now Nigeria, where voters transcended traditional divisions to oust the ruling party.

** It had also published a similarly cynical and stupid review (by George Monbiot) of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist.

 

Dalai Lama Reincarnation: Who Gets to Decide?

March 23, 2015

imagesTibet has had 14 Dalai Lamas. Heretofore, when one died, the leading lamas went out to find a small child who is deemed to be the reincarnated Dalai Lama. But the current one (Tenzin Gyatso) now says he may not be reincarnated.

China disagrees, considering this something for its government to decide. Ruling Tibet by repression, China has always ferociously demonized the Dalai Lama (who left Tibet in 1959); and, when he dies, plans to dredge up some pliant toady as his supposed reincarnation (something China imagines will help solve its Tibet problem). This is what led the current Dalai Lama to get off the reincarnation train. “There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next,” he said.

China’s satrap governor of Tibet declared that in saying such things, the Dalai Lama is “profaning religion and Tibetan Buddhism.” It is good to know that China’s rulers are so protective of such religious values; instructing the Dalai Lama himself on how to be a good Buddhist. And here we thought the Communist regime was a bunch of atheists.

images-1In fact, China actually has an official in charge of religious matters, Zhu Weiqun. It was he who insisted that Dalai Lama reincarnation is a governmental decision.

If you think we have over-mighty government in America, just imagine a government that claims the prerogative of regulating one’s reincarnation. We are fortunate to be living in a free country where reincarnation is still a private matter. I sure don’t want some government bureaucrat telling me who, if anyone, will inhabit my soul in my next life.

They might have me come back as a religious nut!

Embellishing Reality: Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, and Frank Robinson’s Moon Walk

March 11, 2015

imagesRecently news personalities Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly, and VA Secretary McDonald, have been assailed for embellishing the truth about some war zone experiences. Now I wish to set my own record straight.

Previously I had submitted poems to a local publication, Up The River. A brief biography was required. Here’s what I sent:

Unknown-1“Frank S. Robinson is a former New York State administrative law judge and author of seven books including Albany’s O’Connell Machine, and The Case for Rational Optimism. He writes the ‘Rational Optimist’ blog and is married to the poet Therese Broderick. In 1969, he was the first man to walk on the Moon.”

That last claim is one I have made from time to time. It is an exaggeration. I have never walked on the Moon, and wish to apologize now for saying so.

images-2People think memory works like a video recorder. It does not, as these cases illustrate. What the brain records is only a general idea of an episode; when called upon to remember, it fills in the details by basically making them up. And with each act of remembrance, it changes a little, so over the years the distortion can become significant. Writing an autobiographical memoir showed me how this had happened to some of my own memories, when I consulted things I had written down closer to the events in question.

So Brian Williams went from remembering being near a helicopter under fire to remembering being in one. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, that’s very understandable and doesn’t make him a bad person.

images-1I might similarly claim that my memory of watching the first Moon walk on TV evolved into a memory of doing it. But frankly that would be disingenuous. The truth – which I must finally reveal – is that the government faked the whole thing. I apologize to anyone who may have been misled.

“Far From the Tree” – Parenting Non-normal Children

February 27, 2015

images-2Sometimes while reading I must stop, and shut my eyes, to absorb, process and recover from some shocker. This happened a lot with Andrew Solomon’s 2012 book, Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. It concerns non-normal children – mostly with deficits – deaf, autistic, disabled, etc.

“Deficit” is already a fraught word; the subtitle’s mention of “identity” is telling. We see here an element of identity politics, that is, based not on interests or beliefs but, rather, personal characteristics like ethnicity or sexuality. UnknownA major example is people who see their deafness not as a problem but as their identity. Indeed, there is deaf chauvinism, opposing medical ameliorations of deafness (mainly, cochlear implants), even equating them with genocide (killing deaf culture by depopulating it).

The argument is that they’re not defective but different, and it’s understandable that a deaf person might resent the concept of “cure” as implying something wrong. True, deaf culture, within its own boundaries, is a rich one, and adds to the overall diversity of human culture, which might be seen as diminished were deaf culture lost. imagesBut, to quote Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” – and deaf culture lies behind one, sealed off, not completely but partially, largely inaccessible by the rest of human culture. And, politically incorrect though it may be to point out the obvious, four senses are less than five.*

Pluralism is central to the concept of a truly democratic society. And everyone should be empowered to live the best lives they can. However, when we see “neurodiversity” advocates holding in effect that autism ought to be honored as though it were a lifestyle choice, that goes too far. Sure, autistics can and should live rewarding lives. But there is something very important missing. No one should argue this is not tragic.

Central to this book is what parental love is. It’s easy enough to bloviate all day about the ordinary kind. images-1But the book’s numerous personal stories often depict extraordinary circumstances, that stress-test the concept. Loving deaf children is no surprise, but then there are the children from Hell, turning their parents’ lives into painful, grueling ordeals.

Yet even they are loved. One can understand parents accepting responsibility toward even the most unresponsive, even anti-responsive, offspring; but love? What’s to love? one’s rational mind wants to ask. But while love often does have a (perhaps unconsciously) rational component, of course love is not entirely a manifestation of human rationality. Often it seemed the love depicted in the book existed for its own sake. Parents love children from Hell because, well, they just do. (And sometimes children love parents from Hell.)

Thus one striking impression from this book is that the world is full of saints. Unknown-1Now, admittedly, some selection bias clearly operated; Solomon talks only about people who were willing to talk to him; and few (at least in the medical-type situations) were non-affluent or culturally from the other side of the tracks. But I’ve never believed well-off or upper class people are inherently “better” than others. So if those in the book behaved well, that speaks about human universals.

And in fact, in case after case, people thrown-for-a-loop with an unexpected non-normal child rallied their inner resources and responded to the situation in ways they could never have foreseen. Yet I was not surprised; having long since grown to understand this human characteristic. Again and again, people do rise to the occasion, with an extraordinary capacity for responding to extraordinary situations in extraordinary ways.

Then there’s the chapter about children of rape. Few saints here; a parade of horrors and depravity (refer back to my first sentence). Of course we mustn’t “blame the victim.” And yet Solomon was struck how often being victimized and abused reflected an inability to foresee danger in one’s choices. “Every bad thing that befell them, even at the hands of previous aggressors, came as a surprise. They could not tell the difference between people who warranted trust and those who didn’t.” Why? Their childhood experience. “They did not know what caring behavior felt like, so they were unable to recognize it.”

Unknown-2What a contrast – the loving parental nurture of even profoundly disabled children, versus parenting of initially normal children that turned them into emotionally disabled people. But even some of those latter stories had good redemptive endings, with protagonists ultimately able to rise above all that had gone wrong in their lives. The good outweighs the bad; the tears of love outweigh those of rage.

That’s the human story. It makes me a humanist – a lover of humankind – and an optimist.

 

 

* I’m normally a stickler for the distinction between “less” and “fewer.” But sometimes rules must be broken. Here, “less” is the more fitting word.

If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands

February 17, 2015

images-2The concept of happiness has eternally bedeviled thinkers. Nothing is more important, but defining and understanding it is a conundrum. Cass Sunstein reviewed two recent attempts in the New York Review of Books.

Sunstein is a prominent law professor who served President Obama on how government might actually improve lives. images-1Whenever I encounter his name, I can’t help thinking “Cass Sunscreen;” and when I hear the word “sunscreen” I think “Cass.” This amuses me; makes me happy.

Happiness theoreticians see two very distinct aspects to it. One is experiential – how you feel while experiencing life from moment to moment. The other is evaluative – how you feel about your life as a whole. Obviously they can diverge dramatically. Suffering a toothache won’t change a feeling that life is good; enjoying a cookie won’t change a belief that your life stinks.

One of the books Sunstein reviewed is Paul Dolan’s Happiness By Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. A key insight concerns the salience of how you focus your attention – how much something affects your happiness depends on how much importance you give it. images-4And Dolan thinks the experiential aspect – how one actually feels during an experience – trumps the evaluative aspect. However, your experienced feelings are greatly influenced by the larger picture of how you see your life as a whole, and how the experience fits into it.

The evaluative aspect has traditionally been seen as worthier, emphasizing a “life well lived” of value and purpose (the Greeks’ eudaimonia), as opposed to mere animalistic pleasure or pain, associated with hedonism. UnknownAs John Stuart Mill famously queried, is it better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied? But “better” in what sense? This gets us back to the conundrum of what happiness really means. Dolan is on to something in suggesting that whether it’s hedonic or grounded in loftier conceptualization, what really matters is how you feel at a given moment; and a life is just a whole lot of moments. Thus Dolan says people should trust their actual experiences over their desires or beliefs. (Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness showed we are very bad at anticipating how fulfilling our desires will actually affect how we feel.)

images-5Sunstein notes that marriage generally gives people a big boost, but that tails off over time. While newlyweds focus on the marriage, later “even happily married people are less likely to think, with surprise and delight, about the fact that they are married.” Well, I actually still do. I had a hard time with the ladies, and then a very difficult twelve-year relationship. That history so shapes my psyche that I do have a permanent and continuing sense of surprise and delight at my marriage, even after 26 years. This isn’t just in the background of my consciousness, but something very much in the foreground, upon which I continuously focus. Maybe even obsessively.

My wife

My wife

But giving it such great importance does make it a big component of my happiness. Contrariwise, I try not to focus on unpleasant things, at least not until I have to.* Like death (which, paradoxically, loving life so much makes worse). But brooding about it will do me no good, so I don’t. Thus I’m truly following Dolan’s prescription: allocating my focus so as to sustain positive feelings.

Happiness studies show that most people have a built-in set-point that’s somewhat impervious to life’s vicissitudes. A good or bad episode might move the needle temporarily, but it tends to go back. Thus our ability to adapt to adversity is greater than we realize (exemplified by Viktor Frankl in the concentration camp). My own needle is set way toward the happiness end. (I did literally write the book on optimism!) Even during that long pain-filled relationship, I still felt good about life. But it sure helps now to have a fantastic wife.

However, Sunstein disputes Dolan’s central assumption that “happiness is all that matters in the end.” imagesHe says people often do something not because it makes them happy but because they see it as the right thing to do; there are “activities that we pursue for their own sake, not our own.” I found this part of Sunstein’s essay bizarre, clueless about elementary human psychology. Surely feeling that you’re doing something that’s right or worthwhile enhances happiness. Perhaps, indeed, there’s no such thing as pure altruism, and good deeds are done only because doing them makes one feel better than not doing them (if only to avoid guilt). This could be true even for someone giving his life for others – he might not want to live with himself if he didn’t. That may be stretching the point, but Sunstein is denying the obvious – that the only thing that can matter in the cosmos is the feelings of beings capable of feeling, since every other consideration ultimately comes down to that. imagesAnd how human actions affect such feelings is the only ultimate basis for evaluating them.

(For an elaboration of the latter point, click here.)

 

*That applies to my personal life, but not the world. I don’t shut out unpleasant news, but strive to understand world reality.

Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do

February 9, 2015

UnknownWas America founded as a Christian nation? Robert Boston* equates that view of history with the creationist view of biology – both being equally uncontaminated by facts.

The Constitution never mentions Christ – nor even God. It mentions religion just twice: in the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) and in Article VI barring any religious test for office. Mighty odd if they were setting up a “Christian nation.”

In fact, as Boston points out in his book Taking Liberties, the founders wrote the First Amendment with no thought of Christians versus non-Christians. Unknown-2Rather, their concern was to protect Christians from each other! The “Christian nation” idea would have made no sense to them in a milieu dominated by conflicts among Christian sects: Roger Williams exiled from Massachusetts for annoying the reigning Puritans; Quakers hanged on Boston Common; Virginia preachers jailed for promoting the wrong kind of Christianity; and, before that, Tyndale burned at the stake for publishing the Bible in English, and Europe’s Thirty Years War with mass slaughter of Christians by Christians. “Enough!” they said. The America they created would be different – in fact, unique in world annals till then. They were not anti-religious but very much anti religious persecution. That’s what the First Amendment was written to prevent.

It’s a supreme irony that while religious zealots view the First Amendment’s separation of church and state as some kind of thumb in their eyes, a crime against religion, in fact it’s the best thing that ever happened for religion in America. It’s often debated why religion remains so strong in America while dying throughout Europe. Some say it’s due to Europe’s cushier welfare state versus U.S. “harshness.” That’s nonsense – those differences are marginal. The bigger difference is that whereas state-backed religion in Europe has stultified and grown irrelevant to people’s lives, America’s constitutional secularism has forced religious sects to compete for congregants by staying relevant.

images-1As Boston says, while people basing their politics on religion invoke what they deem universal truths, not even all Christians agree about such alleged truths – as evidenced, again, by all the Christians massacred throughout history over such disagreements. But such differences of opinion are “kind of the point of America,” Boston writes. We “built a framework that allows us to disagree, yet still live together in peace.”

The book’s key theme is that U.S. fundamentalist Christians exploit claims of religious freedom for what are really efforts to preach to captive audiences (like school kids) and force their religion on others, often by resort to deception and lies. Boston wonders if they’ve actually lost faith in their faith – in their ability to spread their message because it’s such a good message. Certainly fundamentalists have ample means for doing that. But is their message so inherently weak that they must resort to coercive and deceptive means to spread it?

If you want to believe in God, believe you’re going to Heaven and I’m going to Hell, I don’t agree, but I get it. But what I never can get is why people with such beliefs so often have felt a mission to torture and exterminate those believing differently. That’s exactly what ISIS is doing. If you really believe in an omnipotent God, why would he need you to deal with heretics? Why wouldn’t his own arrangements amply and appropriately sort out such problems, with no need for human intermeddling?

Unknown-3Just like most people, I believe my own dogmas are true and right. But the one dogma I hold above all others is the libertarian principle against forcing others to think or act as I would prefer.

* Boston works for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He also collects ancient coins and has bought them from me for many years.

How Big is a Googolplex?

December 30, 2014

K.C. Cole is an award-winning science writer, whose 1998 book The Universe and the Teacup—The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty, I typically found at a used book sale. UnknownMy wife chided me that it could now have only antiquarian interest. But I figured mathematics can’t have changed that much in 16 years. Two and two still make four, no?

The book broadly (and somewhat poetically) talks about the intersection between mathematics and life. It has some good stuff. One chapter discusses how goofy our risk perceptions can be. People worry about pesticide residues on fruit (annual U.S. death toll: zero) but not going for a drive (death toll: 30,000). Similarly, those terrified of child abduction drive kids to school – exposing them to the vastly greater auto accident risk. (All this echoed the “Freedom from Fear” chapter in my own very excellent book, The Case for Rational Optimism.)

However, not only did I also find some things I disagreed with, but some major bloopers.

Unknown-1Cole brings up one of my favorite paradoxes: “This sentence is false.” It contradicts itself. If the sentence is true, that means it’s false, so it can’t be true; but if it’s not, then it is true. However, Cole concludes this is no more paradoxical than the conflict between an American who thinks June is a summer month and an Australian who calls it winter. But that paradox is resolved with just a little more information. No additional information will resolve “this sentence is false.”

imagesAnd how about this: “Those of us reared on Euclid swallowed without thinking all those axioms about the obviousness of such propositions as: two parallel lines never meet. Yet one only needs to look at the lines of longitude – which are parallel at the equator – to see that they do.” Hello? That’s non-Euclidean geometry! Euclid’s geometry applies only to flat surfaces, not curved ones (like the Earth’s).*

Then Cole says a googolplex is “a googol multiplied by itself a hundred times.” I’m no award-winning science writer, but even I knew this is wrong. (To confirm that, I googled it, of course.)

Unknown-2A googol is the number 10 to the hundredth power; i.e., 10 multiplied by itself a hundred times; i.e., 1 followed by 100 zeroes. A googolplex (contrary to Cole) is the number 10 to the googol power; i.e., 1 followed by a googol zeroes.

These are very big numbers. Cole observes that we have trouble grasping how much bigger a billion is than a million, or a trillion than a billion. A billion is 1 followed by nine zeroes; a trillion by 12 zeroes; a quadrillion by 15 zeroes, and so on, for every three zeroes, through quintillion, sextillion, septillion, etc., each a thousand times bigger than the last. But we run out of those “illion” names long before reaching the end of all hundred zeroes in a googol.

Unknown-3(NOTE: The following has been modified, from what I originally posted, based upon helpful comments from my friend Professor Judy Halstead).

Now, I asked myself, might Cole’s definition of a googolplex – a googol to the hundredth power – actually equal (the correct) 10 to the googol power? I didn’t think so, but how can one do this math? Not on a calculator! Too many zeroes. Indeed, there literally would not be enough space in the Universe for all the zeroes. But one can do it using exponents. (Since I don’t know how exponents might be displayed on your screen, I will use the notation “10^100″ to stand for ten to the hundredth power).

Ten to the googol power (a true googolplex) can be written as 10^(10^100). Cole’s false googolplex, a googol to the hundredth power, would be (10^100)^100. images-1To multiply a googol by itself once, you add the superscripts; 100+100=200; that is, you get a number with 200 zeroes. Twice, and it’s 300 zeroes. So a googol to the hundredth power would be 1 followed by 10,000 zeroes. And that, of course, is way less than 1 followed by a googol zeroes!

 

By the way, yes, Google was named for googol, to evoke the vastness of the information accessible. But they inadvertently (?) got the spelling wrong!

images-2When my daughter Elizabeth was eight, I explained googol to her. She was fascinated. Then she asked if the Universe would last a googol years.

Not a simple question. So I answered, “possibly.”

“Well,” she said, “if I’m eight now, then I’ll be a googol and eight.”

Now there’s an optimist for you.

* In fairness, Cole later does discuss non-Euclidean geometry.

 

 

 


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