Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Things We’re Not Allowed to Say

October 7, 2015

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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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

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



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

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

Social Democracy

The alternative to free market capitalism

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

Muslims Killing Muslims

September 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Quantum Mechanics, Cabbages, Kings, and Carpets

September 8, 2015

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

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

Bear with me here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Life, and Death

August 13, 2015

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

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

Laura and Danielle (Times-Union photo)

Laura and Danielle
(Times-Union photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christians, Gays, and Sin

July 5, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worry about your own sins.

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

Yosemite Rocks

June 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

“Too many kids.”

“How many is that?”


“I agree, too many. How old are you?”

“That’s an inappropriate question!”

“Well, seems relevant to having five kids.”

“Thirty six.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

April 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!


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