Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Magical thinking in America

November 7, 2017

Mass shootings keep us revisiting the gun issue. Many Americans want guns for self-protection in the home. But guns in homes overwhelmingly shoot family members. They kill or maim about 7,000 children every year. Intruders stopped: practically none.

Another fantasy is guns protecting our liberties against the government. If the constitution and courts fail, will these gun-toting clowns do the trick? As if the Feds’ firepower wouldn’t obliterate them!

These gun ideas constitute magical thinking. Believing something because you wish to, even if actually — even if manifestly — untrue. We obsess over “keeping us safe” from terrorism, while shrugging off the firearm death toll, 30,000 Americans annually — a hundred times greater. “Right-to-life” is for the unborn, not for gun victims.

Now, it happens that many of these same magical thinkers about guns also believe evolution and climate change (and the human role in it) are lies; that mainstream media disseminate fake news; while Trump tells it like it is. That immigrants are bad for the economy. That corporate tax cuts will create jobs. That the Bible is the inerrant word of a benevolent god watching over us, good people go to Heaven, and bad ones to Hell. Some of these same people also believe whites are a superior race (and victims of discrimination); that confederate statues honor history, not racism; and millions vote illegally.

Is there a pattern here?

The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist recently examined this, citing a forthcoming book by Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, Enchanted America. The Trump phenomenon may be rooted not so much in conservative ideology as superstition. (Indeed, traditional conservative ideology has been turned on its head.) People holding some or all of the beliefs I mentioned are called “intuitionists,” understanding the world on the basis of feelings and gut instincts, not principles, values, or empirical facts (to which they’re impervious).

Fear plays a role, tending to warp rational thought. Oliver quotes his five-year-old son: “If there’s no monster in the closet, then why am I scared?” Clinging to guns for supposed safety is similar thinking.

“How,” asks Lexington, “has such a rich, well-governed place come to this?” He invokes Richard Hofstadter’s famous 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” — a tendency which may be triggered by being on the losing side of cultural conflicts. This applies to religious fundamentalists and rural and rustbelt whites. Their gravitating toward the political right makes the right particularly “the domain of unreason.” (Though there’s plenty of irrationality on the left too.)

Kurt Anderson’s recent book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, finds magical thinking pervades our history. After all, the country began with religious fanatics (the Puritans). Anderson cites, inter alia, Mormonism, Christian Science, Scientology, quack medicines, Esalen, and P. T. Barnum (“the first great commercial blurrer of truth and make-believe, the founder of infotainment”) as well as, of course, the long-running story of protestant fundamentalism. Today, magical thinking is pitched into yet higher gear by economic insecurity, racial resentment, demonization of immigrants, and the psychic discombobulation of social and cultural change. All this turned the GOP into “the Fantasy Party,” imagining they’ll “make America great again” with a creep who’s actually making America rancid.

People with a grip on reality no longer even have a place in the Republican party. Truth-telling Senators Corker and Flake concluded they could not win renomination. Party loyalty is now defined as believing the naked emperor is resplendently clothed. (I quit in May.)

Of course Americans are not alone in magical thinking. It’s common everywhere. Yet today’s America is striking for the broad range of delusions many people hold. The book I recently reviewed about conspiracy theories shows those who swallow one are likelier to swallow others. It’s the way they see the world.

When it comes to religion, I’ve always thought beliefs that would be deemed insane if held by only a few have to be considered normal when held by the many. People compartmentalize, and can be perfectly rational on the whole while their minds harbor ghettoes wherein reason’s writ does not run.

Yet what is insanity if not divorcement from reality? Religious faith may get a pass; but when the magical thinking extends to many additional realms, the compartmentalization concept breaks down, and the inmates have taken over the asylum.


America’s partisan divide trumps all other tribalisms

October 17, 2017

“Humans are extremely loyal to members of their own group. They are even prepared to give up their own lives in defense of those with whom they identify. In sharp contrast, they can behave with lethal aggressiveness toward those who are unfamiliar to them.”

I read that in a book of science essays,* just as I was drafting this piece about about America’s partisan divide. I’ve addressed this before, because it’s hugely portentous.

Humanity as a whole has been gradually overcoming the instinctive tribalism of the quote. Over time our “tribes” have become more inclusive; some people now consider all humankind their tribe. That’s an important factor reducing conflict and violence (as Steven Pinker explained in The Better Angels of Our Nature.) Yet American tribalism still remains strong.

Standard tribalistic divisions entail race/ethnicity; religion; educational level; socio-economic status; language; gender; and age. All these continue to operate in American culture. But another one now trumps them all: political party.

That’s the key takeaway from a recent Pew survey, as well as a Stanford study. It’s not exactly news that partisan divisions have increased, with a vanishing moderate middle (or one that’s out-shouted). Further, like-minded people have tended to cluster together, making red areas more red and blue areas more blue. That’s exacerbated by peer pressure and conformism, as well as partisan gerrymandering. But what’s really striking now is that for a lot of people, political tribalism has become the most important one in shaping felt personal identity.

This may seem strange when percentages supporting either party have fallen. Yet, on the other hand, for those still loyal to a party, it’s become more intense.

Look at Pew’s graph, below. In 1994, party affiliation was already the top factor governing attitudes, though neck-and-neck with all the other tribalisms. Since then, party has gained a runaway lead, becoming totally pre-eminent.

In a sense, it’s a logical development. We sacralize the concept of individualism. And as Stanford researcher Iyengar points out, political opinion is deeply personal, seemingly a conscious voluntary choice — unlike those other tribal markers.** Thus people would tend to see their political stance as more reflective of “who they really are.”

Also, politics is a much better outlet for tribal instincts, in today’s culture, where hostility toward others on the basis of ethnicity or religion, etc., is very much frowned upon. In contrast, flaming someone over politics seems acceptable.

And while messages encouraging tribal solidarity based on race or faith or the like are muted, we’re bombarded with messages from numerous sources (not only Russian) aiming to enflame partisan passions. The internet/smartphone/social media revolution is a big factor.

The Stanford researchers found similar trends in other democracies. However, Americans are distinctive in our outward display of partisan identities — bumper stickers, lawn signs, etc. Those aren’t seen in Europe, with less citizen political engagement. (Their campaigns are much shorter too, whereas America’s political season is year-round.)

Interestingly (in light of my opening quote), Stanford also found that while Americans’ in-group favoritism toward fellow partisans is strong, their animosity toward folks in the opposing party is stronger. The two sides inhabit different worlds — they’re strangers to each other, a recipe for hostility.

I used to find Democrats and the left more guilty of demonizing opponents and their motives; but Republicans have leapfrogged over them. I was no fan of Obama or Hillary, but the intensity of their demonization by Republicans and the right exceeds the bounds of sanity.

Party actually even trumps ideology. You’d think the two go together. But the meaning of “conservatism” has changed radically, while most Republican “conservatives” seem not to have noticed the bait-and-switch. They stick with their label regardless of its altered content. For some time, Republicanism in the South has really stood for guns, God, and whiteness (look at Alabama’s senate race), but now that has spread to the entire national party, submerging its traditional ideology and values. Religious “conservatives” no longer even care about lying, cheating, or pussy-grabbing. Sticking with the team, the tribe, is the guiding principle.

Is all this just a phase, that will pass? I doubt it. Our body politic is thoroughly poisoned. We no longer have political debates, we have shouting matches, with neither side interested in considering what the other has to say. And partisan tribalism really does seem to trump everything else, including truth and reason — again, especially among my former Republican comrades.

Political partisans also seem to embody the Vince Lombardi ethos: “winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.” Yet while battles can be won, the war is unwinnable. Neither tribe can convince their opponents, nor bludgeon them into surrender. With a political cycle where one party or the other holds power only thanks to the thinnest of electoral margins, its legitimacy always under assault, neither can accomplish much in our system of checks-and-balances.

Rational optimism? I continue to believe our species has a bright future. Our country, not so much.

* “Subverting Biology” by Patrick Bateson, in This Explains Everything, John Brockman, ed.

** Religion should similarly be a choice, but in practice it’s less so.

The curse of Ham

September 26, 2017

I have written about Kentucky’s Creation Museum. Should be called the Museum of Ignorance, since its exhibits contradict incontestable scientific facts. Like the dinosaurs dying out 65 million years ago. The museum is off by 64.99+ million years. It shows humans living beside them. This might be fine as entertainment, but not for an institution purporting to be educational.

Earth to Creationists: I’m more than 6,000 years old. Around a million times older.

The museum was built by an outfit called Answers in Genesis. Not content with this slap in the face to intelligence, Answers is now building a replica Noah’s Ark. The project has received an $18 million tax break from the State of Kentucky (specifically, a sales tax abatement). How does this not flagrantly flout constitutional separation of church and state?

Ken Ham

The head of Answers in Genesis is a man named Ken Ham. Please linger upon this name.

For one thing, ham is just about the most un-kosher thing in Judaism. Kentucky’s public support for a Ham-centric project is plainly a gross insult to its citizens of the Jewish faith.

But there’s a much bigger issue. The name of Noah’s third son was Ham. Coincidence? Not very likely. This Mister Ken Ham must, beyond any doubt, be a direct descendant of Noah’s third son. He has never denied it; and it certainly explains his ark fetish.

Now, the Bible is very clear about this fact: Ham was cursed, for a grave insult to his father. Scholars differ in their exact interpretations. Some say Ham castrated Noah; others that he buggered Noah. Either way, it wasn’t nice, and so Ham was cursed by God. Ham’s own son Canaan was the progenitor of the Canaanite people, who of course were later wiped out by a God-ordered genocide; and also of all Africans, which is why they’re all cursed too.

But here is the point. In this Kentucky Ark project, Mister Ken Ham must sneakily be aiming to whitewash the above family history, employing lies to mislead the public and undo the curse that God, in his infinite wisdom and justice, laid upon all of his line. This is out-and-out blasphemy.

Some will say it should be left to the Lord to visit his divine justice upon this doubly accursed latter-day Ham. But of course God-fearing people have rarely been content to defer to that ultimate justice, and have instead so often taken matters into their own hands, with fire and sword.

I’d go with the latter.

Norman Dorsen, Colin Bruce, and mortality

September 24, 2017

One thing that happens as you get old is that the world is increasingly populated by ghosts.

I graduated NYU Law School in 1970. It puts out a yearly magazine, that’s gotten glitzier over the years as the school has grown in stature. Mainly I’ve enjoyed seeing in it news and photos of people I’d known, sometimes classmates, mostly professors. But gradually they have faded away (presaging my own future); the magazine became full of strangers. Yet one face I could always still count on seeing was the eternal, ubiquitous Norman Dorsen.

He was my constitutional law professor. When I opened the latest magazine, I found a full page photo of Norman Dorsen. Because he had died.

My NYU professors were not faceless anodynes; they included some powerful, dynamic personalities I still remember vividly. But even among them Dorsen was a monumental figure. Though never its actual dean, Dorsen came to be the school’s embodiment, and central to its mentioned escalation in stature over the decades.

Fonda as inmate Gideon, preparing to mail his petition to the Supreme Court

He had co-written the Army’s legal brief relating to the Army-McCarthy hearings. He also wrote a brief in Gideon v. Wainwright (Henry Fonda played Gideon in the movie; it still gooses my emotions); in the Nixon tapes case; and helped write one in Roe v. Wade. He was president of the ACLU; and director of NYU’s Civil Liberties Program for 56 years.

Under Dorsen’s leadership, in 1977, the ACLU took one of its most controversial stances: backing the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois. Dorsen considered this a civil liberties litmus test. (I too am an absolutist on freedom of expression.)

Norman Dorsen

Norman Dorsen was a man of rigor and seriousness. One episode sticks strangely in my memory. Law school classes were mainly socratic dialogs analyzing past actual cases. But with grades based solely on the final exam, students were often lax about class discussion. One day Dorsen began the session and quizzed a student, who couldn’t answer. After one or two others weren’t prepared either, Dorsen, visibly pissed off, simply closed his book and walked out.

The only such instance in my law school career. Gosh, almost half a century ago.

The same magazine also has a smaller obit for George Zeitlin, my tax law professor.

Colin Bruce

And the same day’s mail brought World Coin News with Colin Bruce’s. I don’t recall meeting in person but we corresponded over decades. Colin too was a living landmark. He’d been responsible for creating The Standard Catalog of World Coins in 1972. Non-collectors can’t appreciate this. But previously, evaluating foreign coins was mostly guesswork. What a blessing to have listings for every country in one (large!) book. Thank you, Colin Bruce.

Pricing accuracy was still always problematical. And sadly, after Colin retired, the catalog went downhill, accumulating errors and stupidities that never were corrected. Finally I published a broadside detailing the problems — with no response — and resolved to boycott further annual editions. This will make my coin dealing harder. The only consolation is that it won’t be that much longer.

Time was, my life stretching ahead felt so long it might as well have been forever. Now the end feels so near it might as well be tomorrow.

Political extremism and moderation

September 15, 2017

This is a time of extremism. Marchers with torches and swastikas chant “Jews will not replace us,” and the president sees there some “very fine people.” Maybe my own condemnatory blog posts seem extreme. Where today is the space for moderation?

The ancient Greeks deemed moderation in all things a virtue. Yet they valorized some pretty extreme doings — like the Trojan War — perhaps a wee overreaction, that?

American political extremism came to the fore in 1964, with Barry Goldwater labeled an extremist (or extremist-backed) candidate. He pushed back by declaring that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, and . . . moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

He had a point; yet this sidestepped the real issue. As an old song said, “it ain’t what you do, it’s the way how you do it.” It’s not whether one’s views on issues are consonant with liberty and justice (and who doesn’t think so?) or are closer to the political center or the fringes. Either can equally inspire zealotry. The moderation to be sought is not moderation of ideas but of approach. It’s the mentality you bring to the political arena.

David Brooks

A recent David Brooks column is illuminating. “Moderates do not see politics as warfare,” he writes. “Instead, national politics is a voyage with a fractious fleet. Moderation is a way of coping with the complexity of the world.” Here, with my own take, are the aspects of moderation Brooks identifies:

“The truth is plural.” When it comes to big public questions, there usually isn’t a single simple answer. Competing viewpoints may each be at least partially right. Hence “creativity is syncretistic” — combining pieces from varied viewpoints to produce a way forward which, while imperfect from the standpoint of any one of them, is pragmatically workable, given all the political and situational constraints. Again — don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. (Examples included Simpson-Bowles and, yes, Obamacare.)

“In politics, the lows are lower than the highs are high.” The potential for doing harm, particularly by government, exceeds the potential for doing good. Especially given the law of unintended consequences. This suggests restraint when looking to address any problem through politics.

“Truth before justice.” No cause is well served by rejecting or suppressing inconvenient facts. And “partisans tend to justify their own sins by pointing to the other side’s sins.” It’s the “what about” syndrome, as when any derogation of Trump is answered with “what about Hillary this” and “what about Hillary that.” Another refusal to confront truth. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

“Humility is the fundamental virtue.” The world’s complexities defy our understanding. And for all the certainty I feel about some beliefs — evolution, for example — I recognize that people hold opposite beliefs with equal moral certainty. If I think they’re nuts, they think I am, and there’s no intellectual Supreme Court to resolve it. I recall Cromwell saying, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken;” and apply it to myself.


I’d like to add here, “So respect others and their views.” However, I cannot; not when marchers with swastikas chant about Jews. But what I will do yet again is to quote Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is indeed a key principle that is succumbing as American politics polarizes into extremism. There are many reasons why that’s happening. Brooks has elsewhere suggested one: in an age of so much moral uncertainty, some embrace absolutism in an effort to find solid ground. Thus we get the Savonarolas who want to punish and stamp out anyone not embracing their version of truth — as in the recent case of the engineer fired from Google for writing what some read as a politically incorrect memo.

Well, you do not have to respect those you disagree with — like those marching neo-Nazis. You can call them what they are, and condemn their ideas. But what you do have to do is accept their humanity and their right to be who they are. Not fire them from their jobs or jail them — or plow your car into them.

Wage war, if you must, against ideas — not against people. That is the moderation I advocate.

Never forget that if those neo-Nazis can be fired, punished, or repressed, the same principle can be turned around one day and applied to you.

“First they came for the Jews . . . . “

My 70th birthday speech

September 9, 2017

Holding one of my wife’s gifts: my paternal grandparents’ 1910 marriage certificate. It shows their parents’ names, which I’d never known.

My wife threw a lovely party for my 70th birthday, September 7, catered at the State Museum. Everybody was there. Here is the speech I gave:*

Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. (And I don’t even have what Lou Gehrig had.) I literally wrote the book on optimism. And I’ve read a lot of the literature on happiness. Philosophers have endlessly wrestled with the concept. John Stuart Mill famously queried whether it’s better to be a pig satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied.

But one thing I’ve learned is the importance of gratitude. Let me mention two books that greatly influenced me. One was Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. Its key takeaway is that people are very bad at knowing what will actually make them happy. The other was The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. He wrote about what’s called the “adaptation effect.” Whenever you get something you’ve desired, or rise in life, you adapt to that as the new normal. It no longer surprises and delights you. You take it for granted. Your happiness level doesn’t improve.

Well, I’m very grateful for having the kind of personality that makes me grateful for what I have. And I’ve always been steeped in history and world affairs, which especially makes me appreciate by comparison what blessings modern American society bestows. I don’t take any of it for granted.

People complain about air travel. We travel sometimes to California. And flying over the Rockies, I always look down at that forbidding terrain. And do you know what I see? I see a wagon train. We get to California in a morning. Gratitude.

The one thing I’m most grateful for is my marriage to Therese, who made this wonderful party. You know, the adaptation effect often applies to marriages. Newlyweds report feeling surprised and delighted; but it usually wears off. However, not in my case. After 29 years, I’m still surprised and delighted, in fact more than ever. Thank you, Therese.

And thank you all for coming to share with me.

* The official text. The remarks as actually delivered from the teleprompter varied in minor ways.

Was Jesus Christ a real person?

September 4, 2017

Long ago a customer sent me a book, to convert me, titled Who Moved the Stone? I read it. The whole book sought to prove by logic that Christ must have risen from the tomb, and so forth, because that’s the only possible explanation for the events chronicled in the New Testament. My friend was confounded when I told him those events simply never happened. The Bible saying so doesn’t make them true. He’d never considered that possibility.

So how did the story actually originate? How did a minor Jewish sect become, within a few decades, a separate and fairly significant religion? Was Jesus even a real person?


Recently I read various articles (in Free Inquiry magazine) that help clarify the history. I also read Zealot, by Reza Aslan (an Iranian-born scholar who left Islam for Christianity), purportedly attempting to chronicle the “historical” Jesus as distinguished from the Biblical one.

Firstly, if Jesus did exist, he didn’t make much of a splash at the time, didn’t even make the “newspapers.” Of course there weren’t newspapers, but tons of stuff was being written, and nothing contemporaneous even mentions Jesus. One of the articles I read counts (and actually names) 126 writers of the time who, if Jesus had existed, would have been expected to mention him. They did not. Only decades later does the name first surface.

Believers point to a passage in historian Josephus’s writings, that does briefly recap the familiar Jesus story. Josephus wrote in the later decades of the First Century. However, the subject passage only appears in copies of Josephus’s work made centuries later. Not in early copies. It seems obvious it was inserted long after Josephus’s death, to give Jesus false historicity.

Even Aslan begins by conceding “there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus” — he was a Jew who led a popular movement in First Century Palestine; and he was crucified. Yet Aslan’s confidence in even these limited “facts” seems misplaced. He cites only a tangential reference to “Jesus, who they call Messiah” in Josephus, apparently a different passage from the one discussed above, which Aslan does not mention. Plausibly both suffer the same problem. Meanwhile, interestingly, Aslan does cite a whole long list of Jesus-like First Century Jewish rabble-rousers who did certifiably get into the historical record. How did one so initially obscure become so important later?

Despite the lack of documentation for Jesus, Aslan’s book is a quite detailed biography. Where do all his “facts” come from? Directly contradicting his claim to be separating historical Jesus from the Bible, his only source is — guess what — the Bible. That is, the New Testament Gospels. He just blends their stories into one coherent narrative (trying to reconcile their inconsistencies, fleshed out novelistically with loads of made-up detail, including mind-reading of the characters). It should be titled The Gospel According to Aslan.

He does reject as implausible some of what’s in the Gospels — notably their blaming the Jews, rather than the Roman Pilate (who killed thousands), for Christ’s execution. But Aslan has some trouble with Christ’s supposed miracles. He acknowledges that an objective modern reader will laugh at things like walking on water and raising the dead. He struggles to evade the issue of whether Jesus actually did these things or not (or used stagecraft). Instead Aslan confines himself to saying that a miracle-working Jesus would not have been unique in First Century Palestine — lots of guys were running around doing such magic — though normally for a fee — and also that “everybody” in Christianity’s early days (according to Christian writers) accepted Christ’s miracles as fact. Well, that settles it.

Aslan does call the resurrection a matter of faith, not history, and notes that its concept was wholly alien to Judaism. Yet he is impressed that so many of Christ’s contemporary followers are said to have testified to their personal experience of the resurrection. But here again nobody wrote anything at the time; those purported testimonies are all hearsay in the Gospels written by others much later. Meantime, as Aslan himself suggests, the resurrection story was concocted to solve a very big problem: otherwise any idea of Jesus as messiah or divine would seem to be contradicted by an ignominious death. And, most strikingly, Aslan says not even the Gospels talk about resurrection until the nineties CE.

In Aslan’s telling it would appear the Jesus cult originated in his lifetime and was sustained among his followers in the decades after, led by his brother James. This comports with most Christian histories. But this too is based on no evidence save the Gospels. Yet wasn’t Nero blaming Christians and persecuting them for Rome’s great fire as early as 64 CE? Or was he? Upon examination, the actual historical documentation for that too is dubious. Maybe more Christian mythology.

So when and how Christianity became a thing remains a puzzle shrouded in mystery. But it’s impossible that events as public and dramatic as the Gospels story could have occurred without being recorded and commented upon by numerous other contemporary chroniclers. Most likely Christ was a later fictional creation modeled upon that gaggle of familiar Judaean troublemakers Aslan describes.

His first incontestable appearance doesn’t come until Paul’s Epistles, written a couple of decades after the supposed crucifixion. While Paul’s writings apparently did exist in the 50s, there’s again the problem that we don’t have originals, and the texts in the Bible may well differ greatly. But anyhow, here’s the interesting thing: Paul says almost nothing of Christ’s life. He does not seem to be discussing an actual personage. Instead, his “Christ” was an idea, the martyr’s crucifixion as atoning sacrifice presented as a myth that Paul could internalize — “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me,” and “I have been crucified with Christ.” (Note that crucifixion was actually a common punishment, meted out to thousands.) Other very early Christian writers wrote in a similar vein, with no mention of Christ’s earthly story.

Meantime there’s “Gospel Q” from about the same time as Paul and thus also predating the New Testament Gospels. No actual copy of “Q” has survived, but scholars have reconstructed it from later writings that relied on it, mainly the Biblical Gospels. Q — unlike Paul — does talk about the life of a Galilean named Jesus, and his supposed preachings. But here’s the interesting thing: Q says nothing of Jesus’s death! He doesn’t seem to be the same guy Paul was writing about.

And now we come to the Gospel of Mark, still later, dating from around 70 CE. Mark was probably writing down a story that had started as a meme a little earlier. But here for the first time Paul’s “Christ” is melded with Q’s Galilean “Jesus” — by some religious genius (we don’t know the true author; the type recurs, think Mohammad or Joseph Smith). The teachings are put together with the idea of crucifixion and all the mysticism Paul spun around that. And voilà, a compelling story of “Jesus Christ” is created.

To see why that story turned out to have such legs, Aslan does provide the historical context. In 66-70 CE there was a failed Jewish revolt against Rome. It was a national catastrophe. Jerusalem was destroyed, its inhabitants slaughtered, the survivors carried off in chains to slavery. That put paid to the cults of messianic Judaism that had been so rampant. Nobody wanted to be tarred with that stuff now; it was a dead end.

Jesus was, to be sure, yet another of those messiah figures. But with a difference: his cult could distance itself from Jewish pariahdom. His teachings differed radically from those of his insurrectionist predecessors. “Hey, lookit, this is not Judaism here,” its followers were saying. No challenge to Rome. And blaming the Jews, not Romans, for Christ’s death was politic when trying to sell their story in the Roman Empire. The Romans may indeed have tolerated them better than Jews, for a while at least. But nevertheless, it’s easy to see why in Palestine the Jewish revolt’s horrible trauma provided fertile ground to plant the seeds of a new religion. With a new divinity — Jesus Christ.

The Economist: A love letter

August 31, 2017

On this blog I’ve frequently cited The Economist. It’s a news magazine (though Britishly calling itself a “newspaper”). I’ve subscribed for about thirty years. The Economist is my friend, almost a lover even, integral to my existence.

Maybe because I was a socially awkward youth, wordly clueless, I’ve always had an ache for understanding. To know what’s going on, and why. This The Economist provides. It keeps me informed about every corner of the globe (and in today’s interconnected globalized world, it all matters). And much of it is deeply fascinating, like a great global “Game of Thrones” with hundreds of characters and story lines. Take Venezuela’s for example, a dramatic tale (indeed, a morality tale), unfolding for a quarter century. The Economist provides a ring-side seat. Much of this stuff never makes it into newspapers or other sources.

The Economist doesn’t merely report events, it analyzes them. And furthermore it has a definite point of view, not only expressed in its editorials (called “leaders”) but also infusing its news coverage. It is the stance of classical liberalism, the philosophy of thinkers like John Stuart Mill, aiming to maximize human liberty and flourishing, through limited, democratic, accountable government, and openness to ideas, enterprise, commerce, and human variety. Indeed, it was specifically to oppose Britain’s “corn laws” (restricting free trade) that the publication was launched in 1843.

Did I fall in love with The Economist because its philosophy matched my own, or did the magazine shape my outlook? Probably some of both. Anyhow it’s rare for me to disagree with it. (There were some baffling past presidential election endorsements which seemed at odds with the magazine’s editorial stance.)

So far I may have made it sound dry. It is not. The writing is often a pleasure to read and is full of droll wit. I recall one report, quoting Cuba’s Raul Castro saying Honduras should be sanctioned because its president (arguably) wasn’t seated democratically. “Castro said this,” The Economist wrote, “with a straight face.”

So The Economist has no time for cant or hypocrisy. The magazine tells it like it is – often with delicious zingers.

And not just with words. Its covers too can be a hoot. One gem depicted the European nations, when confronted with a threatening Russia, collectively as a quivering jelly mold, with their cringing faces.

The magazine also covers business, finance, science, and the arts, including excellent book reviews. And the final page always provides a parting treat: an obituary. Yes, its obits too are flavorful reading, often about less famous personages, but always interesting ones. Or at least The Economist seems able to make them so.

Depicting France’s Macron; the feet sticking up are Theresa May’s

I’m pleased to have gotten into its pages a few times myself, with letters-to-the-editor. (The latest responded to an article about violence in Baltimore, pointing to the drug war as a major cause.)

I wish more people read it. Many of the world’s movers and shakers certainly do, but not enough of them. It’s dismaying when folks aspiring to (or exercising) leadership are so ignorant about the world. An Economist reader would never have said, “What’s Aleppo?”

The Bonobo and the Atheist

August 20, 2017

Our closest biological relatives are chimpanzees. They’re not as cute as you might think; often nasty and violent. How nice then to have discovered the bonobo — an equally close cousin, but a much better role model. Anatomically chimplike, bonobos behave very differently, very social, peaceable, and they’re sex fiends. A lot of humans are in love with the idea of the bonobo, seeing them as living in a prelapsarian paradise of free love, undarkened by sin. They’re even matriarchal. How politically correct can an animal get?

This evokes Rousseau’s “noble savage” and Margaret Mead’s idealization of Samoan sexual promiscuity (which turned out to be fake news).

De Waal (at right)

The book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, seems to have been written by the bonobo. Actually by primatologist Frans de Waal, who’s studied them. He likes them. Atheists, not so much. Even though he is one himself.

A self-hating atheist, then? No, he sets himself apart from atheists who make a big deal of it. His own attitude is nonchalant — “I don’t believe that stuff, but if others do, so what?” Too many atheists, he feels, are overly obsessed with the question of truth, which he deems “uninteresting.”

De Waal’s critique of assertive “new atheists” (like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) has become familiar. We’re told they do the cause no favor by insulting religious believers. I’ll make three points.

First, through most of history, religious dissent was not only taboo but cowed into silence by the threat of fire. Subjecting religious ideas to serious intellectual challenge is long overdue.

Second, about those fires: many atheists believe religion has done great harm, being a wellspring of violence, and we’d be better off without it. (I recently reviewed a book arguing the contrary.) This too is a debate we need to have.

And third, when billions do believe in religious dogmas (with vast impacts upon human society), their truth is hardly an “uninteresting” matter. Even leaving aside the violence, such beliefs dominate one’s entire engagement with the world. You cannot have a sound conception about the human condition and the issues facing us while being fundamentally mistaken about the essential nature of reality. That truth matters.*

But back to bonobos. For de Waal, they’re Exhibit A for the book’s main point — that morality and altruism do not come from religion. They long antedate religion’s beginnings and in fact are seen among other animals. The bonobo “too, strives to fit in, obeys social rules, empathizes with others, amends broken relationships, and objects to unfair arrangements.” De Waal relates an observation of two young chimps quarreling over a leafy branch. An older one intervenes, breaks it in two, and hands a piece to each youngster! And in a famous experiment, chimps would happily perform a task for cucumber slices, until seeing other chimps getting grapes, a more coveted reward. Then, offended by the unfairness, they spurn the cucumber and go on strike. (Some grape receivers even joined them in solidarity.) The Occupy movement sprang from the same primordial feelings.

Altruism evolved because it was beneficial within the groups that practiced it. De Waal reminds us that the most conspicuous form of altruism throughout nature is often overlooked: parental nurturing and even self-sacrifice. Not surprisingly, the basic trait extends beyond just one’s own progeny.

Altruism is commonly defined as doing something for another at cost to oneself. Yet if that makes you feel good, is it really costing you? And why are we programmed to feel good when acting altruistically? De Waal points out that, logically enough, nature makes it pleasurable to do things we need to do — like eating and copulating. Altruism falls in the same category.

The idea that humans need religion for morality is actually insulting to us. And ridiculous. While religionists say without God anything goes, we could all rape, steal, and murder, nobody wants to live in such a world, and most of us recognize that that means we don’t rape, steal, and murder. Which we wouldn’t do anyway because of our nature-given moral instincts. God is irrelevant.

De Waal doesn’t join those who wish we could be more like our bonobo cousins about sex. He explains that their promiscuity makes it impossible to know who anyone’s father is. That diffuse paternity creates a certain kind of societal structure. We humans went down a different path, with pair bonding and clear paternity, so fathers are invested in protecting and raising their offspring. Emulating bonobos would wreak havoc in human society. Indeed, to the extent some people do emulate them, it does cause social havoc.

De Waal also discusses the religion-versus-science thing. No contest, really; religion comes much more naturally to us, fulfilling deep needs. Science does not, and is a far more recent and fragile invention. He says a colony of children left alone would not descend into the barbarism of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but would develop a hierarchical society as apes do — and likely some sort of religion — but not science.

De Waal suggests that when humans lived in small bands, moral instincts could serve their function effortlessly because everybody knew what everyone else was doing.** But not when societies grew much larger. Thus were gods invented to keep “sin” (i.e., antisocial behavior) in check.

Religion serves other needs too. Some go to church for the donuts. That’s shorthand for all the social togetherness religion entails. For many it’s a matter of finding meaning in an otherwise cold cosmos, and in their own lives. And of course palliating fear of death.

And what’s truth got to do with it? It turns out truth and reality actually rank pretty low on many people’s priority lists. Indeed, many seem to have a fuzzy grasp on the concept. We see this in the political realm, where tolerance for lies is far greater than I once imagined. In religion, people believe things mainly because they want to; and this extends to other aspects of life.

But I’ll repeat: you cannot live an authentically meaningful life if its foundation is lies. And as de Waal recognizes, humanism does enable us to find meaning in life while embracing its reality rather than cocooning ourselves in fairy tales. The essence of humanism is the recognition that life is intrinsically valuable for its own sake, that our purpose is to live it as well as we can, and to make it as good as we can for everyone.

De Waal argues that religion is deeply embedded because of its roots in our biology. But we have overcome innumerable constraints imposed by nature. He does acknowledge a “giant experiment” in Northern Europe’s recent and really remarkably rapid turning away from conventional religion. And these societies have seen nothing whatsoever of the negative consequences that religious apologists warned about for eons. Those Europeans who have largely freed themselves from religion are not going to Hell — neither figuratively nor literally.

* An example of how this messes up thinking is strong support for a moral creep like Trump among the devout, who forget, among much else, the commandment against lying.

** Note the importance of language. If one chimp mistreats another, no one else may know. But in human society, with talking, word gets around. This raises the stakes for violations of social norms.

Feminist PC Thought Police strikes again: the Damore Memo

August 15, 2017

Google engineer James Damore wrote a memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” criticizing the company for suppressing honest discussion about why women are underrepresented in tech workplaces. As if to prove his point, Google fired him.

The politically correct answer explaining women’s underrepresentation is sexism and discrimination. Any suggestion that innate biological differences have anything to do with it is politically incorrect, and that was Damore’s transgression.

This is deja vu. In 2005 Lawrence Summers was pilloried, and ultimately ousted as Harvard’s president, for a similar offense of querying whether biological differences might partly explain women’s underrepresentation in math and sciences.

Is it really the feminist position that male and female brains work identically? In fact, a 1987 book by four female academics argued exactly the opposite, celebrating the differences. Titled Women’s Ways of Knowing, it was considered a feminist manifesto. And Deborah Tannen’s 1990 book, You Just Don’t Understand explicated (to wide acclaim) differing male and female communication styles. I guess it’s feminist when women say such things, but thought crime if men do.

Actually, the problem with Damore’s memo was that it might be read as suggesting that all women are innately less suited than men for tech work, which of course would be stupid. The reality is distribution of mental functionalities along spectrums for both men and women. While the average woman may be more temperamentally suited for professions like psychotherapy than computer coding, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of women way better at coding than most men are. Each woman must be judged on her own capabilities rather than stereotyped. To the extent women felt Damore’s memo contributed to obstacles they already face, they had a point.

It’s argued that Google had a right to fire Damore because the First Amendment protects only against government restricting free speech. And I don’t defend everything Damore said. But allow me to quote Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Google’s action does indeed prove Damore’s point that there is a culture of enforced political correctness, so that instead of debate and discussion, differing opinions are suppressed and even punished.

This is exactly the sort of McCarthyism the left has always yapped against. Their own zeal to crush dissent is breathtaking hypocrisy.

Another recent case: when the subject of adding more women to Uber’s board arose, one guy quipped that that would just mean more talking. Ha ha. Guess what, he’s off the board.

Well, do women talk more than men? Both men and women actually think so. It’s a cultural stereotype, portraying women as more communicative, more in love with verbalizing, whereas men tend to be more buttoned-up.

But science says otherwise. Yes, we have research on this. A large sample of varied groups of university students, outfitted with devices to record their spoken words, found statistically indistinguishable results between genders.

Perhaps that’s what you’d expect in a university setting where roughly equal male and female populations continuously mix socially. In normal life it might be that women speak more words because they tend to more often put themselves in conversational environments.

But maybe we just think we hear women talk more. Another study had men and women read from a script, with their speaking times perfectly balanced, but hearers on average thought the women spoke 55% of the time. (It didn’t change even when the scripts were swapped.)

That again presumably reflected the unconscious social stereotype. But the stereotype may indeed reflect a kernel of truth. As the mentioned Tannen book illuminated, men tend to be more goal-directed, women more connection-directed. Talking about an issue is more important to women than men; men focus more on resolving it. Male speech tends toward conveying information; female speech is more relationship-oriented. But again, these are generalities that mask broad spectrums of difference within each gender.

Well, I’m lucky I can’t be fired for anything I write. This is a free speech zone.

Jefferson had it right two centuries ago. The remedy for bad ideas is not banning them, but answering them with better ideas.