Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

My credo

January 18, 2017

 

unknownAs our political transition unfolds, I find myself caught between the Scylla of a Democratic party increasingly romanticizing socialist economics hostile to enterprise and trade, and a Republican Charybdis fallen into a dark hole of nativism romanticizing a past that won’t return and shouldn’t. Today’s real divide is between mindsets of openness and closedness. With irresponsible foolishness of every sort running rampant, trampling sound classically liberal principles, I will not give up on them, but will continue to defend them in the years ahead. Here I recap those core principles.

 

  • Democracy and rule of law, so government is accountable to citizens, its powers over them restricted.

 

  • Freedom of speech, expression, and argument. images-1No idea immune from critical examination – even if that offends or discomfits some. This is not only integral to personal freedom, it is also crucial for society to evaluate ideas and progress thereby.

 

  • Limited government, filling only roles that individuals cannot. People able to choose for themselves how to live and act, with society dictating only when its reasons are compelling; basically, only to protect others from harm.

 

  • Free market economics is the best way to grow the pie so all can prosper. images-2Profit-seeking business is how people’s needs and desires get satisfied. That is best promoted when businesses are forced to compete openly and fairly with each other, none gaining advantage through government intervention. Instead government should function to remove barriers to competition and business enterprise.

 

  • This does not mean businesses unregulated. They too are subject to laws to protect others from harm.

 

  • Inequality is the inevitable result of people striving to better themselves, and is not unjust or an evil. Successful people are not the enemy, nor the cause of want. But a market economy generates enough wealth that we can afford to give everyone a decent living standard, out of simple humanity.

 

  • When another country can sell us something cheaper than we can produce it ourselves, we benefit as well as they. images-3Impeding such trade only impoverishes both nations. The gains from freer global trade, through lower consumer prices, vastly exceed the costs in any jobs lost.

 

  • America prospers best in a world wherein democracy, free trade, and peaceful development prevail among other countries, making them too more prosperous; so promoting those values must be the core of our foreign policy. Forces in the world threatening those values must be actively combated.

 

  • Government spending and taxation must be brought into a sustainable balance. Heedlessly piling up excessive debt will not end well.

 

  • Truth and facts should be sought objectively, and should shape our beliefs, rather than our beliefs shaping what we think are facts. unknown-1Confirmation bias is the enemy of reason. We acquire truth through science, a method of rational inquiry which progresses by self-correction as more facts become known and understood.

 

  • No religion is better or truer than any other. All are equally false; and that false consciousness can only impede people in grappling with challenges all too real.

 

  • Human beings are natural animals, resulting from Darwinian evolution. Ultimately the only thing that matters in the Universe is the well being of creatures capable of feeling. All people have equal dignity and worth (except for those who imagine their kind is superior, thereby proving they are inferior).

 

  • Over the centuries, the increasing application of all these principles has made for enormous global progress, with ever more people able to live ever better lives. unknown-2Abandoning these principles endangers that progress.

Chaos, fractals, and the dripping faucet

January 4, 2017

Physicist Arthur Eddington said, “the Universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine.”

Right off the bat are two possibilities: either it always existed, or had a beginning. Either one blows fuses in my brain. (Note: the God idea doesn’t help. The same problem applies to him.)

Mandelbrot

Mandelbrot

Which brings me to chaos.

Religionists imagine God organized creation from primordial chaos; in common parlance that word connotes a state of complete disorganization. But in science its meaning is more subtle, and much more interesting, as famously pioneered by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot starting in the 1960s.

Take the weather. It can’t be forecasted very far because there are so many interacting factors; a tiny change in one cascades into ever bigger changes over time. images-1Thus the proverbial “butterfly effect” – one flapping its wings in Brazil can ultimately cause a storm in Canada.

Mandelbrot posed the seemingly simple question: how long is Britain’s coastline? But it’s not so simple. Measuring it on a map of course can’t account for all the little crenellations. You could take a yardstick and walk the coast, getting a much more accurate answer. unknownBut the coast between two ends of the yardstick is not exactly a straight line, so you’re under-measuring. A foot-ruler would do better, but still won’t capture irregularities within each foot. No matter how finely you measure, the true coastline will always be longer. (Does that mean it’s infinite?)

Coastline irregularities are a kind of seemingly patternless phenomenon found throughout existence. But Mandelbrot’s startling discovery was that there is a pattern. The kind of coastal irregularities you see on a world map are exactly replicated when you focus on a smaller area. No matter how small. unknown-1And this paradigm of like patterns repeating at different scales of examination occurs again and again in nature. The word for this is fractal. It is order hidden within seeming randomness, seeming chaos.

Look at the illustration. No matter the scale, no matter how much you magnify, the pattern persists. If the picture reminds you of a snowflake, it should, because snowflake formation is a good example of the phenomenon.

Environmentalists romanticize a “balance of nature,” an ecosystem in harmonious equilibrium. It turns out no such thing exists. An ecosystem works like the weather, one small perturbation sending it on an unpredictable and quintessentially chaotic path.

Chaos can also affect a system close to your own heart. In fact, it is your heart. Its normally regular beating can sometimes become chaotic in the textbook sense. That calls for attention.

images-3I read James Gleick’s book Chaos hoping for a better understanding. Frankly much of it was way too deep for me. But it described one illuminating experiment, conducted by Robert Shaw at the University of California at Santa Cruz. It involved the most mundane thing: a dripping faucet.

Shaw found that certain flow rates produced chaotic drips, with no regular intervals between them. Then all he did was measure those intervals and plot those numbers on a graph. Actually he used pairs of intervals to produce a graphing in three dimensions. Now, you might expect a truly random distribution, with the dots falling all over, patternlessly. But that’s not what Shaw found. The pattern of dots took on a distinct shape (“resembling loopy trails of smoke left by an out-of-control sky-writing plane”).

Strange attractor

Strange attractor

A shape thusly revealed is called a “strange attractor.” I was puzzled by that term until I realized it’s as though the shape attracts the data points to itself, keeping them from falling elsewhere.

This is extremely weird. While the shape acts like a magnet for data points, of course a magnet is a physical object, but the “strange attractor” is not, it’s just a concept. So what is going on here? What makes the seemingly random, chaotic drip intervals form a certain distinct shape when graphed? unknown-2The hand of God?

Of course not. Surely God wouldn’t bother to carefully regulate the dripping to produce the pattern. Yet it’s as if he did.

But why? That’s what I really wanted to understand. The book doesn’t tell me; Gleick writes as though the question never occurred to him. He even quotes John von Neumann: “The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models . . . [which describe] observed phenomena.” In other words, science reveals what happens, but not why.

With all respect to the great von Neumann, I disagree. Why the Universe exists may be a meaningless question, but why Shaw’s faucet dripped the way it did is not. Another scientist Gleick quotes answered Einstein’s famous line by saying God does play dice with the Universe, and the dice are loaded; “the main objective of physics now is to find out by what rules were they loaded and how can we use them for our own ends.”unknown-3

Science is humanity’s great quest for understanding. Through that understanding we can control our destiny. But that’s almost a mere side effect of the real motivation: we just want to know.

Is reality real?

December 10, 2016

Bishop Berkeley, a 1700s philosopher, was the first to question the existence of a material reality outside our minds. unknownIn my 2009 Optimism book, I quoted an article by Professor Robert Lanza similarly arguing that reality is just a figment of mental activity – literally – “the trees and snow evaporate when we’re sleeping. The kitchen disappears when we’re in the bathroom.”

But (I wrote) if our perceptions create reality, then what creates our perceptions? Though you might question a reality that was yours alone, the fact that we all experience essentially the same reality corroborates it. images-1This isn’t a mass delusion. Madonna was right: we are living in a material world.

Lanza has meantime authored, together with astronomy writer Bob Berman, some books on “biocentrism,” carrying the argument further, and even using it to deem death an illusion. My wife and I debated about this, and she smacked me with an article in The Atlantic, (“The Case Against Reality”), interviewing Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science.

Hoffman starts with the idea that our ancestors whose perceptions best matched reality would have had a competitive evolutionary advantage. Very plausible, he says, but “utterly false.” images-2Evolution, according to Hoffman, really hinges instead on “fitness functions” – “an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness.”

Hoffman invokes here as metaphor a computer’s desktop interface. It might show a blue rectangular icon in a lower right screen position – but those characteristics reveal nothing true about that file or anything in the computer. images-3The icon guides our behavior while hiding a complex reality we don’t need to know. Similarly, if I see a snake, it’s “a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions.”

But, like Lanza and Berman, Hoffman goes further, arguing that experienced perceptions are all there is, and what is perceived doesn’t really exist. This, he says, is what quantum mechanics tells us: “there are no physical objects.” So, “[j]ust like you have your own headache, you have your own moon” that you see. Thus, Hoffman derides most neuroscientists for focusing on “a physical brain,” an idea archaically rooted in 300-year-old Newtonian physics, when we’ve learned from more modern quantum physics “that classical objects – including brains – don’t exist.”

Let’s see if I can demystify this.

Hoffman’s perception-versus-fitness argument entails a false dichotomy. Simply put, accurate perception is one element of fitness. All else equal, an organism with better perceptual accuracy is more fit, and has a competitive advantage. images-4Seeing a snake may be like seeing a desktop icon, in guiding behavior, without needing to know anything about the underlying reality. Yet an ability to distinguish snakes from sticks, and some knowledge of a snake’s underlying reality (how it behaves), are important “fitness functions.”

It’s been said that if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t. This applies to Hoffman, Lanza, Berman, and Deepak Chopra – another philosophical quack who similarly misuses catch phrases from quantum physics to propound nonsensical woo-woo propositions. (I noticed the first blurb for the latest Lanza-Berman book is from Deepak Chopra.)

Specifically, the Hoffman article says experiments have shown “that if we assume that the particles that make up ordinary objects have an objective, observer-independent existence, we get wrong answers.” Hence “[t]here are no public objects sitting out there in some pre-existing space.” But that second sentence simply does not follow from the first; it’s an absurd leap. While quantum physics does tell us some very queer things about particle behavior at the subatomic level, none of that means “classical objects” made up of zillions of particles don’t exist. Nonexistent things can’t have any behavior; you can’t perform experiments on them. imagesFailure to acknowledge that quantum mechanics governs only the subatomic realm, not that of everyday objects, is the fundamental mistake (or flim-flam) here. (And by the other authors mentioned.)

Our scientific understanding of the physics of reality has penetrated very far toward its core. We are not all the way there yet, and the problem gets ever harder because we are trying to see into ever tinier realms. It concerns the deepest structure of the particles at the heart of existence and of the spacetime in which they do their thing. And, true, the deeper we go, the more it’s as if “there’s no there there.” I’m writing this on a desk, seemingly a hard object. But it’s made up of atoms, which are almost entirely empty space, and what’s not empty space consists of particles which don’t seem to be the kind of solid objects we’re familiar with either. Drilling down, we haven’t gotten to where we can put our fingers onto something hard. Yet the desk is hard. How can that be? Or is it really?

images-5And so we have guys like Hoffman telling us “classical objects” like brains don’t exist. But the fact that we don’t yet understand – deeply, at the subatomic level – how their existence works certainly does not mean they don’t exist at all.

And the fundamental contradiction in Hoffman’s idea is that if reality is only a construct of mental activity, where does that mental activity come from, if not the brain? If brains (“classical objects”) don’t actually exist, how can there be any mental activity, any perceptions? It’s a chicken-and-egg tautology.

This is the problem with all philosophies (like Lanza-Berman’s too) that posit some kind of “mind” that somehow exists apart from the physical neurons in the brain. A “soul.” At the end of the day, our minds, our consciousness, our selves, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, all can only be phenomena rooted in the physical functioning of neurons. We don’t yet fully understand how that works either, but it must. There is no other possibility.

When Lanza and Berman tell us death is an illusion, what they’re really saying is that life is an illusion. Our lives – our consciousness, sense of self – may indeed be a kind of illusion generated by the physical interactions of our neurons. And when they die, the illusion dies.

William Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom!

December 5, 2016

sartorisAsked to name my favorite author, I’d probably say Faulkner. I’m reminded of this by finding, at a recent book sale, his novel Sartoris. I’d always meant to read that one – since I happen to be a three-time recipient of the Sartoris medal.*

Faulkner’s work is not easy reading, but worth the effort. It always packs a wallop, plumbing the greatest intensity of human experience.

Faulkner

Faulkner

Its difficulty is exemplified by The Sound and the Fury, whose beginning seems like gibberish. Once when I took my teenaged daughter to a bookstore, she picked it out and asked me about the title. I replied that it’s from Shakespeare: a human life is like “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Not till I said that did I suddenly grasp the title’s full import. The book is – literally – “a tale told by an idiot.”

In this and other Faulkner books it’s not always obvious what’s being talked about. You have to work at it and keep reading. unknown-3In The Hamlet there’s a lengthy sequence involving another idiot, and a cow. Trying to make sense of it, I’m saying to myself, “Is this really what I think it is?” Well, it was.

Faulkner’s oeuvre is set in his own deep South, from around the mid-1800s to the early 1900s; and focuses on its white society. It’s not a pretty picture. Every negative aspect of the human character is unsparingly portrayed.

Now, I am not a cynical misanthrope, and hate misanthropic books. But Faulkner is no misanthrope either. To the contrary: while he does depict all the awfulness of the human animal, he does it with sympathy. His message is not: despise him, condemn him. Rather it is: understand him. And when I wrote my Optimism book, it was a quote from Faulkner that I chose for its epigraph: I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail.

Still, when I read these books, they make me very glad I didn’t have to live in their time and place – even as a white person. The palpable change fuels my optimism. I see the past as dark, and my own time and place as full of light. We have progressed.

Faulkner’s books tend to entail peeling back layers to finally get to the heart of things. This is nowhere truer than in Absalom, Absalom!

imagesThomas Sutpen is a protean character who arrives in antebellum Mississippi from Haiti with a chain-gang of slaves and by sharp dealing with Indians acquires 100 square miles to build his plantation. In time, he marries and has two children: Henry and Judith. At college, Henry meets an older fellow, Charles, who soon courts Judith.

(Spoiler alert: stop here if you want to read the book.)

Thomas opposes the match. He has an excellent reason: it develops that Charles is already married. But, as we eventually learn, that’s not the true reason. It seems the other wife is not an insurmountable obstacle.

However, by and by, a more devastating fact about Charles emerges: he’s actually Thomas’s son, by his own previous Haitian wife.

Incest would seem an amply good reason to oppose the marriage. But, it turns out, that wasn’t the true reason either; for Thomas, a rough character, not even that is an insurmountable obstacle.

unknownNot until near the end do we finally learn the real reason. Can you guess? It’s also the reason why Thomas left behind that first wife in Haiti. A drop of black blood.

This ends badly, for everybody. The lone survivor, decades later, is Charles’s black grandchild – another idiot.

Reading Faulkner makes me better appreciate my own life and family.

 

 

* Awarded by the Albany Numismatic Society, named after a different Sartoris.

Death with Dignity*

November 30, 2016

unknownHow would you prefer to die? While having sex, some answer. But most just want to die at home among loved ones. However, most people die in some kind of facility. We also fear pain. But usually pain can be medically managed. The real issue is quality of life at the end. People want to feel they have some control over what’s happening to them.

Our medical and legal systems work against that. Suicide is not allowed, certainly not with medical help. Some get around this by refusing nourishment. Actually a pretty nasty way to go.

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard was a California gal who got brain cancer at 28. Aggressive treatment failed. Maynard’s end-game looked horrible, and doctors couldn’t help her. So she moved to Oregon, which had adopted a “Death With Dignity” law in 1994. This allowed her to get a prescription for 100 Seconal capsules. Maynard enjoyed the time she had left, and when the disease’s depredations duly overcame that enjoyment, she popped the pills. In five minutes she was sleeping peacefully; in an hour or so, an ex-parrot.

unknown-2But before that, Maynard helped campaign for California legislation similar to Oregon’s. Governor Brown signed it in 2015; the fourth state with such a law. Efforts are underway to get one passed in New York.

My libertarianism says you should be free to do what you want, as long as no one else is harmed. Nothing is more fundamental than your right to control your own passing.

The proposed law has many safeguards. It would only apply after a terminal diagnosis (death expected within six months) confirmed by two doctors; and a written request with two witnesses. The patient must be mentally capable, and while there can be help, the fatal dose must be self-administered.images-1 The patient must also receive counseling on other options. And must wear green shoes.

Some opposition comes from religious quarters – the idea of taking things out of God’s hands. Of course all medical interventions do that. There is also the allied “sanctity of life” argument. But if life is sacred, it is sacred first and foremost to the individual living it. Whatever meaning it has is primarily its meaning to him or her; and they should have the freedom to choose the right time to end it. Denying that autonomy seems indeed antithetical to the concept of life as sacred.

Also, some believers maintain that suffering is redemptive. Fine if the suffering is your own choice. But to demand it for another is not redemptive, it’s just cruel.

Medical organizations have also traditionally opposed these laws. Some doctors see them as fundamentally contrary to the Hippocratic oath (“First, do no harm”), and don’t want to be put in morally ambiguous situations. However, some organizations are moderating that stance; in California, the local one opted for neutrality. In Oregon, under the new regime, end-of-life care has improved, and doctors wound up feeling better about things.

Opposition has also come from advocates for the disabled, who fear such laws could put vulnerable people at risk. That’s a paternalistic attitude – most disabled people themselves actually want to have the choices the law would allow. In polls, they are as much in favor as the general population – which supports such legislation, by large majorities. And while many opponents cite potential abuses, Oregon’s experience fails to reveal a single such case.

unknown-1Then there’s the “slippery slope” argument – if euthanasia is permitted, it could evolve into being required, or people pressured into it. Again, Oregon’s experience rebuts this; after twenty years it hasn’t happened, and the numbers utilizing Oregon’s law haven’t risen over time. But meanwhile all of public policy is a slippery slope. At every point on the slope, we must make choices and decisions. As rational creatures, we can do this.

Little by little, step by step, human beings gradually have been getting better at how to do things, improving our quality of life. “Death with Dignity,” giving us more and better options for controlling our own circumstances, is one example. This is progress. It’s why I’m an optimist.

* Note, this post is based on a talk by Corinne Carey of “Compassion and Choices New York,” a nonprofit working to improve care and expand choices at the end of life.

Thankfulness

November 24, 2016

unknownMany of us feel our world has been shattered, and we’re hurled into an alternate reality – like one of those dystopian future movies where the president is a bizarre mutant. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

But that makes thankfulness all the more important. I wrote recently how one’s temperament is largely inborn; happiness or misery more a personality trait than a consequence of one’s circumstances. And a psychology of thankfulness and appreciation is a big part of it. Being thankful for what you have is a foundation for happiness; coveting what you don’t have, misery. And pity the cynic who sees everything as rotten.

Being thankful is indeed integral to my own personality. And that inborn temperament is greatly reinforced intellectually, because I am so keenly aware of how other people – and creatures – have lived, throughout history, and in so many places today. I am grateful to be human; to live in this time; in this society; and for the mind that gives me that positive perspective. This is what I focus on.

images-2Even beyond what I’ve mentioned, I’ve been exceptionally lucky. To explain more would be bragging, so I’ll limit myself to just one particular: the most perfect wife. Not that she is a perfect human being of course. But she is perfect for me.

Having each other, we can endure whatever happens in the larger world.

On to Mars

November 21, 2016

unknownI was 21. And I vividly remember newscaster David Brinkley, with his distinctive twang, calling July 20, 1969 “a date that will be remembered as long as people remember anything.”

We have always been a race of explorers. Hillary said he climbed Everest “because it is there.” We recently saw a NOVA program about how humans spread to every corner of the Earth. How did early peoples conquer the Pacific? We were shown their boat-making and navigational prowess, that got them all the way to remote Hawaii and Easter Island – tiny specks in a vast nothingness. images-1But how did they know those islands were even there? Someone had to set out first, without knowing, to find them. Imagine getting in that boat.

Setting foot on the Moon took it to another level. Brinkley was right, and so was Armstrong: a giant leap, yet only a first step on a new and monumental journey. This was a rite of passage.

Since then, the journey seems stalled, if not exactly abandoned. Half a century ago, it was spearheaded by government, necessarily so in light of the cost. Since then, governments don’t really have time for the vaulting ambition of space travel, having become mired instead in a more mundane concern trying to reconcile somehow the contradictions of welfare state politics.

But of course human beings are not just creatures of politics and government, and the same impetus that propelled ancient Polynesians across the Pacific still pushes us toward more distant destinations.

unknown-1The Economist recently profiled the Mars project of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a private company. The aim is to make available, in coming decades, $200,000 Mars tickets. This would be cheaper than the Apollo program’s cost to get men to the Moon – 50,000 times cheaper in fact. But SpaceX is developing serious plans for actually accomplishing its goal. They entail a BFR – a technical term, it stands for “Big Fucking Rocket” – dwarfing previous rockets, and reusable besides – to boost on its way a smaller vehicle carrying 100 passengers, which could double as temporary housing once they reach Mars. Necessary supplies and equipment would already have been dropped by previous missions. Thus would begin the human occupation of Mars.

Musk sees this as a much-needed “Plan B” for humankind, lest Earth become uninhabitable for one reason or another – as Cassandras keep warning. But The Economist says it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which making Mars livable isn’t much harder than making Earth livable. (Though that was before Trump’s election.)

Anyhow, “Plan B” isn’t the real reason to go to Mars. It is, after all, there. What more reason do we need? We will go there just as the Polynesians went to Easter Island.

images-2The Economist also says that while some adventurous souls undoubtedly would undertake the huge sacrifice such colonization would entail, to become truly self-sustaining Mars would need a population of around a million, and that would be a heavier lift. And, for all Musk’s hubris, the challenge of getting even one person to Mars does remain enormous.

unknown-2But again I quote our species motto: the difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer. And I remember that some individuals who once deemed powered flight impossible lived to see men fly to the Moon.

 

Rational optimist – or pessimist?

November 12, 2016

On Wednesday morning I changed this blog’s title from “The Rational Optimist” to “The Rational Pessimist.”

unknown-1Psychology research shows that optimism-versus-pessimism, happiness-versus-unhappiness, is largely inborn, and largely impervious to life’s vicissitudes. That we have a set-point of temperament, to which one’s mood reverts, after the immediate impact of some positive or negative event dissipates. I have been blessed with a setting at the far end of the range. It was no coincidence that I literally wrote the book on optimism.

Tuesday night was the worst thing ever in my life. Worse than 9/11. Worse even than when my longtime girlfriend left me. Someone has said that “Never Trump” Republicans (like me) are now the loneliest people in the world. I have agonized about changing my enrollment; but the Democrats will likely continue their leftward march. images-1I’m the man without a party; I feel like the man without a country.

On Wednesday evening, I attended a local gathering (celebrating an election upset 50 years earlier). I wore black. However, as I ran toward the entrance, in the rain, I realized I was already actually feeling cheerful – confirming all that set-point psychology research! (A nod here to my wife and marriage, which have been my rock.)

But my book and blog referenced rational optimism – not a Pollyanna attitude with rose-colored glasses. Another strong personality trait of mine is realism. I see no benefit in deluding myself about things I wish were true. Thus I’ve also written of my “ideology of reality.”

One of the realities I accept is that the cosmos is purposeless, undirected, and our existence is an evolutionary accident. But that means it’s entirely up to us to make the best of our situation; and, unlike every other creature that ever existed, we have great tools for it. Mainly, our incredibly powerful brains. And, using those tools, we have actually done fantastically at making for ourselves lives worth living. unknown-2Especially in modern times, since the Enlightenment, humanity has achieved incredible progress. (Once again I reference Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) This is the heart of my rational optimism.

In that march of progress, building the means for people to live good lives, one of our greatest creations has been the United States of America.

But the realist in me knows that we are not perfect beings, and for all the reasoning power of our brains, we are subject to rampaging emotions and irrationality. What people build people can also destroy – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unwittingly. America is not immune. No God protects her from human folly.

unknownAn enterprise like America can only be sustained if the people in it actually understand what it’s all about. Tuesday showed that America – well, half at least – has lost the thread. It’s freedom and democracy, yes, but also rule of law; pluralism; human dignity; tolerance; openness; generosity; fair play; civility; responsibility; community spirit; and, not least, devotion to truth and reason. What Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” (inspiring Pinker’s title).

Those establishment “elites” whom Trump voters so resent have upheld those values quite well, indeed kept up the momentum of progress (for example with gay marriage). But meantime, lamentably, the rest of America has undergone a long process of civic decline – decline in genuine devotion to its ideals and values, because too few people are educated and acculturated nowadays in what those precepts mean. Too many have reduced Americanism to flag waving and snarling empty slogans.

There are a lot of reasons, a lot of culprits, it’s not a simple story, and a lot of it is actually fallout from some aspects of our progress (like greater racial equality) – but the bottom line is that too few Americans still understand what actually made America great. unknown-4This is why the “Make America Great Again” slogan was so painfully ironic. I wish we could make America great again – like it was before Tuesday.

We heard much talk of voters expressing their pain. I won’t belittle what anyone feels; but surely conditions of life in today’s America are not historically bad. Things in the Depression, for example, were much, much worse. However, voters in the Depression did not fall for such a blatant, un-American demagogue. Nor would have tolerated a candidate with such grotesque defects of character.* That all this was accepted in 2016 bespeaks a sad corrosion of America’s character.

This is why I am so heartbroken. Hearing the national anthem has always teared me up. Now it will be for what’s been lost.

And yet there may be hope, because perhaps strangely, it is older people who most embody the decline, while younger people – more shaped by the trends of modernity I mentioned – seem to better embrace those Enlightenment civic values their elders have forgotten. unknown-5It’s true too of the new arrivals – that’s why I so welcome immigration – people come here because they do crave America’s true meaning, and their coming is a national renewal.

Well, our new first lady is an immigrant.** That’s one thing at least to celebrate.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” images-2Seeing that great trend of history made me an optimist. But it’s never a smooth curve, and America has just bent sharply the other way. But I’m not ready to believe humanity’s whole arc has changed. Nor am I ready to give up on what America used to stand for. I have tried to promote those values on this blog. Now, I will have to work harder at it.

I have restored this blog’s title.

* Please, stuff the spluttering about Clinton. There’s no comparison. Indeed, the very fact that so many failed to see this shows how messed up the country has become.

** Though not the first; that was Louisa Adams. However, also ironically, the first family will include its first Jew.

David Gelernter and the ideology trap

October 19, 2016

unknownDavid Gelernter is a well-known computer scientist, whose talk I wrote about previously. Afterwards, I wanted to speak with him, but didn’t want to buy the new book he was promoting. So instead I bought a previous one, America-Lite, which looked more fun.

America-Lite actually argues a serious point, but is aptly titled, being, well, lite. This is no weighty Closing of the American Mind (which he mentions). Indeed, given my general sympathy with much of what it says, I found the book annoyingly supercilious and off-putting.

WASPs

WASPs

It concerns America’s cultural revolution since the 1960s. Gelernter basically doesn’t like it. He attributes it to two related phenomena. First, “the Great Reform” in higher education. Key here was the breakdown of old efforts to limit Jews on campuses, which changed their WASP culture, as mainly social institutions, to mainly intellectual ones. And shoved them leftward. Meantime, secondly, there emerged “Imperial Academia” – an enlarged influence of the university world upon the broader American culture. This was largely down to sheer heft – a much bigger percentage of today’s population has been through higher education than in past epochs.

unknown-2Gelernter says the old WASP elite has thus been replaced by post-religious globalist intellectuals – “PORGIs” – who now run the country. Not everyone in academia buys this intellectual stance, but its influence is leveraged by the fact that non-subscribers care much less about politics and just go along with the flow, taking on board the indoctrination, while nonconforming viewpoints are cudgeled into silence and delegitimized by the PORGIs’ political correctness policing.

unknown-3The result is what Gelernter relentlessly labels PORGI Airheads (always with a capital A) – people full of received wisdom but empty of factual knowledge. Indeed, he sees much of PORGI-ism as contrary to fact, but uninterested in learning as much. After all, it’s far easier to reach judgments from preconceived ideas than from factual analysis.

For Gelernter, President Obama exemplifies the PORGI Airhead. He denies Obama is an ideologue – saying the President’s thinking doesn’t even rise to that level, being instead a zombie-like slavishness to the PORGI theories about the world that, like so many other students of his era, Obama had installed in his brain while at Columbia and Harvard.

I’m no Obama fan; but willing to give the Devil his due. Gelernter’s book itself epitomizes a lamentable trend in American political discourse: the notion that our side thinks and the other does not. Indeed, the left is inordinately fond of this gambit too, always casting itself as coolly rational whereas the right is a bunch of unthinking automatons. Al Gore even wrote a book titled Assault on Reason with that exact theme.

unknownNo. You may disagree with how the other guy thinks. But don’t imagine that you are thinking while he is not – a grossly arrogant self-delusion. While I am certain anti-evolutionists are wrong, I never forget they are equally certain I am wrong.

That said, it is true most people seem to view the world through pre-shaped lenses of bias. I have written about trying to base my beliefs upon what I see to be facts – my “ideology of reality” – whereas most people do it the other way around, letting their beliefs dictate what they see as facts.

Gelernter is right that many have beliefs about the world because those beliefs fit ideas they like, not because they’re actually factually true. A perfect example is GM food. It must be bad, on principle, a certain mindset holds; so the science must support that view. The Albany Times-Union recently editorialized that the issue remains open and some scientists see dangers. False! The newspaper commits exactly the sin for which it repeatedly pillories climate change deniers. They too see that issue as scientifically unsettled – because that fits their preferred picture.

unknown-4And like small children, bedazzled by shiny objects, the left in particular is bedazzled by labels – like “socialist.” It’s like putting lipstick on a pig, convincing them of its beauty – like Venezuela’s vile regime, or Mugabe’s.

In all these cases, the idea trumps the reality. The left sees itself as holding lofty ideals. They’ll burble on about inequality and the 1% making people poor – which is factually untrue – while failing to notice how “socialist” regimes do make people poor. Or how their prejudice against GM food, factually baseless, condemns millions of poor people to malnutrition and starvation.

They just think differently than me.

Meantime, Gelernter’s whole shtick about “Airheads” seeing the world through a veil of theory uncontaminated by facts was hard to take seriously – when one perspective whose waning he laments is the religious one. Gelernter, an observant Jew, doesn’t see how people can figure out moral issues without religion. unknown-5Well, I can. In fact, atheists without religion’s prepackaged answers are forced to think that much harder about moral issues. And if ever there was a belief system impervious to factual realities, surely it’s religious faith!

Does science prove rich people are jerks?

October 13, 2016

Left wingers obsess over inequality partly because they hate that others are rich and they’re not. It’s more than just envy, but a sense of injustice: they feel morally superior, yet it’s the rotten rich who are rewarded.

unknownSocial science is rife with evidence showing that the rich and powerful are nasty. Is it that being nasty helps one get wealth and power – or that wealth and power corrupt one’s character?

Pertinent here was Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment. Student volunteers were assigned to role-play as prisoners or guards. The latter soon became so brutal toward the former that the experiment was stopped. Taken as evidence that power corrupts.

unknown-1A recent article by Matthew Sweet in The Economist’s “1843” magazine starts with a study analyzing behavior at traffic intersections. People in fancier cars behaved worse. And Sweet cites a different Berkeley study summed up as “science proves rich people are jerks.”

But – he says – not so fast.

A 2010 analysis by three European academics, using much larger data sets, found opposite results: privileged individuals were more generous and charitable, more likely to volunteer, more apt to help a struggling traveler, or look after a neighbor’s cat.

But here’s where the story gets interesting. They submitted their paper to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which had published the Berkeley work. “We thought,” said one of them, Boris Egloff, “naïve as we were, that this might be interesting for the scientific community.” The paper was rejected.

 images-1The researchers thereupon extended their analysis to data from America and other countries, becoming more confident they were on to something important. Rejected again. Eventually it was published in an online journal. But meantime Egloff was seared by the experience. “Personally I would have loved the results of the Berkeley group to be true,” he said; that “would provide a better fit to my personal and political beliefs and my worldview. However, as a scientist . . . .” He vowed never to touch this subject again.

But why do studies disagree so diametrically? Sweet suggests this sort of research may be inherently problematical. In 2015 the journal Science reported on a group of 270 academics attempting to replicate 100 psychological studies, succeeding in only 36 cases. unknown-2And this work too has been faulted by yet another group of academics led by Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert (whose book Stumbling on Happiness influenced me greatly). Sweet says Gilbert has a vendetta against replicators, and when questioned on this by a journalist, he hung up.

Comes now Jonathan Haidt (another writer who influenced me greatly with The Righteous Mind), co-authoring a 2015 paper saying that over-representation of left-wing opinion in psychology faculties distorts the research results they report. This helps explain the Egloff paper’s rejection. As I’ve written, academia is becoming a fortress of enforced opinion defensively hostile toward non-conforming ideas.

“Might a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogeneous field undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends?” the Haidt paper said. “We think so.”

images-2In plain words, researchers often find the results they want. During my days as a PSC judge, I recall one hired-gun economist whose analysis attempted to show that something that had quite obviously occurred had not, statistically speaking, happened at all. It prompted me to quote, in my decision, Mark Twain on the three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Meantime, the reliableness of scientific results more generally is becoming a widespread concern. Much gets published, it seems, that doesn’t hold up. A lot of biases, not just political, operate. For example, researchers like to publish positive results – We found it! : -) – but not negatives ones — We didn’t find it : -(

However, the lesson is not that all science is suspect. New insights or data are not going to overturn something like Darwinian evolution. Instead, it’s that scientists are human, and must not let beliefs compromise objectivity. Take care against telling yourself (and your political bedmates) what you want to hear.

images-3So – are rich people nicer or nastier? I think it’s hard to say – and to generalize. I’m comparatively rich. And very nice.