Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Why Trust Science?

March 26, 2023

Why Trust Science? — a book by Naomi Oreskes — was reviewed at the Albany Library by Sherrie Lyons, herself a science author.

Ours is the age of science. Yet the book’s title question seems very timely, with burgeoning distrust of things science tells us and produces. Part of a revolt against experts and elites more generally. A perverse result of greater education — making many people imagine themselves smarter than they really are — and an internet spreading information but also a ton of misinformation, often put there with bad motives. Inability to judge who to trust or distrust looms large.

Anti-science stances are not a monopoly of the right, denying realities about Covid, climate, evolution, etc. The left is not immune, with anti-vax hysteria and GMO demonization. And meanwhile “scientism” has long been a rhetorical term of opprobrium, denoting a supposed undue religion-like faith in science as an exclusive source of knowledge, an idea that’s decried.

A key point for Lyons is that scientists are not to be trusted just because they’re “scientists.” They are human, fallible, and can be biased. Rather, what’s to be trusted is science as a collective enterprise, a method for gaining knowledge.

Epistemology concerns how we know things. The reliability of knowledge has always been recognized as a problem. Only gradually, eventually, did the scientific method, as we now understand it, evolve.

Philosopher Karl Popper put falsifiability at its heart. That means subjecting a thesis to tests capable of disproving it. If no such tests are possible — or if a theory’s proponents rebuff them — then it’s not science. (Generally true regarding religious and other supernatural constructs.)

Lyons noted that actually, what qualifies as evidence in such testing can itself be problematic. She quoted science writer Henry Bauer, that all good theories start out “underdetermined” by anything that can be called facts or evidence. Nevertheless, the key is still facts and evidence being adduced by investigation and experiment, to either confirm a theory or scuttle it.

Thus science is not akin to revelation. It’s a cumulative step-by-step effort, building from observation. Not accepting dogma but always subjecting ideas to scrutiny.

Kepler was an astronomer keen to prove his theory that planets travel in perfect circles. To that end he amassed mountains of data. Whose analysis made him realize he was wrong. Thus he discovered the true laws of planetary motion (in ellipses). Now that’s science.

Lyons emphasized that answers produced by science are never final, but always to be seen as provisional, that is, subject to modification based on further evidence. And central here is the building of a consensus within a broad scientific community — strengthened by diversity within that community, an antidote to groupthink.

Still, a scientific consensus can be wrong. Lyons cited the Earth-centered Ptolemaic model of the Universe, which held sway for many centuries until a better theory — supported by observation — finally dethroned it.

But if you’re hoping a similar Copernican-style revolution will overthrow Darwinian evolution theory, don’t hold your breath. Unlike in Copernicus’s 1500s, any modern scientific consensus rests upon centuries of methodical foundation building. In fact, Darwin’s theory was not “underdetermined” by evidence, but grounded in a vast base of biological knowledge. His using that knowledge to figure out how nature actually works was one of the greatest ever achievements of human intellect. Darwinian evolution theory gets tweaked around the edges by new information, but there’s zero chance it’s fundamentally wrong.

Lyons noted the rich irony of anti-evolutionists sending in their DNA for genetic analysis. Indeed, she observed that nobody is really anti-science in toto. Everyone cheerfully partakes of all modernity’s amenities that are the product of science — monuments to the power of the scientific method. People only reject the bits that somehow conflict with what they wish were true.

“The Value of a Whale” — Capitalism and Climate

March 22, 2023

Adrienne Buller is a thirtyish British think-tanker. Her 2022 book, The Value of a Whale, is subtitled On the Illusions of Green Capitalism. Referring to tackling climate change through market-based approaches, incentivizing needed actions, as with a carbon price, carbon tax, cap-&-trade scheme, or carbon offsets, and “socially conscious” (ESG) investing, etc. All critiqued as flawed and ineffectual, no way to tackle what Buller deems an extreme crisis facing humanity.

The value of a whale was actually the subject of an International Monetary Fund study. We are of course meant to think that the very idea of putting a dollar value on a majestic living creature is crass and tacky. Thus the book’s title — embodying its ethos of prioritizing planetary health above money-grubbing “capitalism.”

True, the planet is beyond price — money is meaningless if Earth becomes uninhabitable. But that’s an extreme (and, so far at least, extremely unlikely) scenario. More realistically the question is the extent of environmental degradation and what we’d have to sacrifice to forestall it (or cope with it). Life is about tradeoffs. A choice between lower living standards and a worse environment is not obvious.

Buller notes that the IMF researchers came up with $2 million for a whale’s value, based on its contributions to eco-tourism and, mainly, carbon capture, reducing global warming. Hence they suggested investment in whale conservation, costing, she writes, “a modest $13 per person on Earth.” And this, on the first page, shows Buller’s mindset. Thirteen bucks may seem “modest” to an affluent brainy Brit. But masses of people earn less per day — or, indeed, per week. They might not be so ready to give up even one dollar for whales.

The book is full of voiced concern for the world’s poor. But they seem like an abstraction. Not flesh and blood.

“Green capitalism” Buller indicts as mostly greenwashing; just another gimmick for finance folks to make money. Surely much truth there. And she’s surely right that, by themselves, such measures won’t halt climate change. Yet so intense is her hatred for “capitalism” that she seems to reject market-based measures altogether, even as part of a larger toolkit. If climate change is such a huge menace, shouldn’t we try using every possible remedy?

Buller also doesn’t think technology can help much. For example, we’d need a lot more lithium, vital for many low-carbon technologies like electric car batteries; but she blasts lithium extraction as environmentally nasty. So she excludes that too.

Her answer instead — though she won’t plainly say it — is reducing living standards. She doesn’t face what this would actually entail for actual human beings — especially all those who’ve struggled to escape the poverty she bemoans. There’s no recognition of what she’s really asking them to sacrifice.

Even the affluent are asked to live, well, less affluently. We hear much about air flights adding to carbon emissions. But such travel has great value for us, it enhances quality of life. That’s just one example, illustrating what Buller refuses to confront. She wants people to accept poorer lives today for the sake of ones in the future whom they’ve never met. People naturally resist that. It’s the key reason why the sort of climate action she envisions is such a hard sell.

It should be imposed by force, Buller is really saying. Rejecting, again, market-based and incentivizing climate approaches, she thinks instead governments must lay down the law, requiring people to do what they can’t be induced to do voluntarily. She may be right that otherwise, we’re not biting the bullet. But nor does she bite the bullet of what she’s really advocating, in all its draconian coerciveness.

Furthermore, the left’s eternal faith in government is astonishing given how often it betrays their ideals. Buller forgets that the market-based measures she critiques are themselves government creations. Why expect government to be more brilliant imposing non-market schemes? And more fair to the poor? After all, the affluent and moneyed interests have far more influence over anything governments do. The kind of “direct regulation” Buller advocates is always vulnerable to capture by the very interests being “regulated.” Not to mention the law of unintended consequences. (My whole professional career as a government regulator gave me a healthy skepticism here.)

Like many climate warriors, Buller is also scathing toward fossil fuel producers. As though they’re villainously extracting oil and gas solely to make money, unnecessarily foisting their products upon us. She’s oblivious to the obvious: fossil fuels are extracted, sold and consumed because people need them. Yes, we should be weaning ourselves off them. But that’s a long process. In the meanwhile, stopping use of these energy sources would crash our economies and living standards. Berating oil companies for supplying needed oil is just idiotic. If tomorrow they all declared, “Greta is right! No more oil! We’re stopping now!” — it would be Mad Max time, wrecking civilization far worse than climate change.

Similarly, Buller condemns economic growth, as though it’s some sort of deranged obsession. Of course it’s true that economic growth is, ceteris paribus, bad for the environment. That’s the tradeoff we’ve always made — we could never have risen from the “nasty, brutish, and short” lives endured by our Stone Age ancestors without exploiting Earth’s resources. There’s no free lunch.

But what’s really jarring is Buller (like many left wingers) denouncing economic growth in the same breath as denouncing the lot of the world’s poor. Almost as if blaming the latter on the former. When in fact, of course, economic growth is the great poverty fighter. The powerful economic growth since WWII has converted the world from one where most people lived in extreme poverty to one where only a small fraction still do.

You’d never guess that fact from reading this book, which makes it sound like the opposite has been happening, “the rich get richer and poor get poorer.” Buller flays global financial systems and machinations as designed to suck wealth from poorer nations to richer ones. Which you might thusly think is the cause of world poverty. Never mentioned is the huge factor of lousy governance and institutions, rife with corruption and exploitation by indigenous elites, which so often afflict the poorer nations and keep them poor, with vast inequality. Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe jump to mind; there are plenty of others. It’s surely those countries themselves (not Buller’s first-world capitalist whipping-boys) bearing the most blame for their stunted economic picture.

It is true that the fruits of economic growth do not equally benefit all people, the richest doing best. But there is no conceivable economic system in which some people won’t do better than others. That would mean the rich getting richer and the poor poorer — absent economic growth. But with economic growth, even while the rich get richer, the poor can too. Because there’s more wealth to go around, so the poor can get a share, even if it’s not a fully equal share. That’s how poverty is reduced.

Buller types seem to think, instead, that the answer is to just take wealth from the rich and redistribute it to the poor. In fact, taxation does that to a degree. But good luck if there’s a no-growth zero-sum world where everyone is fighting over slices of a static (or shrinking) pie, so nobody can gain without someone else losing. And as world population rises (until, with birth rates falling, it levels off and eventually declines), economic growth will be necessary just to maintain current living standards. Opposing economic growth means favoring mass impoverishment.

And what produces economic growth? Not socialism. Global average real dollar incomes have risen something like sixfold since WWII, with again a massive poverty reduction and improved living standards. This gain has been concentrated in nations participating in a globalized, (relatively) free-trading, market economy, where people can improve their own lot by producing goods and services others need or want. Not a zero-sum world. “Capitalism,” if you will. (Marx’s biggest error was failing to foresee how capitalism would, rather than grinding the masses into deeper poverty, produce mass affluence.)

Yet distaste for capitalism, once more, pervades this book, for all its lamentation that some people are still poor. And of course, as with all indictments of capitalism’s evil, you will search in vain for any glimmer of an alternative system that would similarly make the masses richer rather than poorer. In fact, Buller does seem to endorse impoverishment, fatuously mooning about how life could actually be better, somehow, if we all decided to be satisfied with less.

Tell that to the world’s poor she keeps gnashing her teeth about. If governments did, as she seems to advocate, impose lower living standards, she’d be the first to lament that the rich would find ways to cope and thrive in that Brave New World, while the poor as usual get the short end of the stick.

Anyhow, there’s no attempt whatever to sketch out what her imagined “better” world would look like. Nor how we could conceivably get from here to there. But none of this deters her from demanding “bold changes,” positing “boundless possibility for things to be different.” Ah, the idealism of youth!

By the way, Buller types never seem to grasp that most people in the world earn their livings, and living standards, by working to produce stuff other people need or want. If we all did decide to cut back on “consumerism” and make do with less, a lot of people’s jobs would disappear. They in turn would be forced to cut back and spend less too. Eliminating yet more jobs. Economic growth gone savagely into reverse. A Brave New World indeed.

Meantime — yes! — climate change is a huge threat. And, at this point, rising temperature is baked in, there is no way we can avert some very severe harmful effects. No conceivable amount of emissions reduction can do the job — another reality this book refuses to acknowledge. So while it’s true that “green capitalism” won’t do it, the book’s own approach of imposing extreme governmental action and poorer lives won’t do it either. That too is an illusion. (Even aside from the question of whether voters in democracies would stand for it.)

Dealing with the now-unavoidable effects of climate change will require a lot of resources. Resources that economic growth can provide. If we really want to save ourselves (and especially the poorest), we’d better grow our economies as much as possible.

Religion Wrecking Israel

March 14, 2023

We’re often told religion provides “comfort.” It’s understandably comforting to imagine death isn’t death. Though a more authentically meaningful life can be lived by grasping its realities. But whatever may be said of religion in inner life, it’s bad for societies and nations. That might not be so if everyone held the same faith. However, we don’t, making religion an endless source of division and conflict.

Look at Israel.

Originally set up as a homeland and refuge for Jews in the wake of the unpleasantness they’d experienced in the Holocaust. Most nations are indeed ethnically defined. But while Jewish ethnicity is closely entwined with a religion, Israel was established as a democratic and basically secular state, closer to the American blueprint than to Iran’s theocracy.

Yet one difference from the American model has been the special status accorded to “Ultra-Orthodox” or “Haredi” Jews, a separate caste in Israeli society. Their education is solely religious, and they spend their whole lives immured in religious study rather than societally useful occupations or other productive work. This uselessness is coddled with taxpayer-funded subsidies. Furthermore, they’re exempted from the military service required of other citizens. Many of whom resent it all.

Perhaps this craziness was no big deal when the Haredi were only a small minority. But they have way more children than the Israeli average, so their population share inexorably grows. And in one key respect they’re not separate: they vote.

Mostly for parties representing their sectarian viewpoint and protecting their cosseting. Israel does not have a two-party system, no party ever wins a majority, and governments are coalitions. This often gives the Haredis outsized political clout as kingmakers. In modern times, the king they’ve made is Netanyahu.

Israel is closely divided politically — between liberal minded people favoring peace with (the Muslim) Palestinians through a two-state solution, and Jewish chauvinists whose attitude is “Fuck Palestinians.” Haredis are in the latter camp, and in the forefront of the “settler movement,” promoting expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank territories Israel has occupied since 1967. The settlements encroach upon the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants.

Those Jewish chauvinists imagine they can somehow forever keep the Palestinians down, with no real rights, confined as virtual prisoners, under grating and deeply hated Israeli occupation. Even while Palestinians too reproduce faster than the Israeli average. Israel is ultimately on a march toward national catastrophe.

The close electoral divide has made for chronic electoral stalemate. After the latest election, Netanyahu managed to return to power with a bare majority coalition by folding in the most extremist right-wing elements, giving them key cabinet posts, notably Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Jewish Power Party (its actual name), the most hard-line anti-Palestinian, put in charge of overseeing the occupied territories.

Now Netanyahu has advanced a plan to “reform” the judiciary — basically ending its independence and the separation of powers, giving the government of the day control over judicial appointments, and removing the Supreme Court’s ability to override the Knesset (parliament). Netanyahu most immediately wants to stymie corruption charges against him, working their way through the system. But it’s widely felt that this “reform” would destroy checks-and-balances. Emulating Hungary, where the Orban regime likewise gutted checks upon it, producing what Orban himself labeled an “illiberal democracy” — that is, a democracy in name only.

The last part of the 20th century saw a great global democratic flourishing. Since then there’s been a great democratic recession. If it sweeps Israel too — for so long a pillar of democracy — that’s really frightening and depressing. The sane half of Israeli society does see clearly what’s afoot, sparking massive protests against making Israel yet another authoritarian state. The outcome hangs in the balance.

Religious zealotry is a key factor in the sickness assailing the Israeli body politic. While our own U.S. Supreme Court is working assiduously to tear down our wall of separation between church and state. God help us.

Freedom of Speech — Can of Worms

March 4, 2023

Elon Musk said he was taking over Twitter in the name of free speech. Twitter was faulted for trying to keep a lid on harmful craziness. Notably, its banning Trump (as did Facebook) in the wake of his election lies and incitement to January 6.

This was cast as part of “cancel culture,” America’s political right feeling its freedom of speech imperiled. I’ve favorably reviewed Robert Boyers’s book, The Tyranny of Virtue, under the heading “Woke Gone Wild,” criticizing the censoriousness of today’s hard left.

But while the left censors higher education, the right wants to do it for lower grades — passing laws like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill barring educating kids about realities of sexuality, a key aspect of life. And “Critical Race Theory” (not even taught in any public schools). They even query why kids need to hear about slavery. Well, maybe because it shaped American history and its reverberations still bedevil us today — as shown by Republicans tying themselves in knots over the issue.

Musk (who seems to be a right-wing nut job himself) has found the whole free speech problem a lot more complicated than he’d imagined. This self-styled free speech warrior soon found himself censoring content and even banning (“cancelling”) people he doesn’t like. Twitter’s supervision of content has now become one big hell of a mess, its rationale a muddle.

Interestingly, as The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist recently put it, “America has no problem with speech. It has a problem with listening.”

He quotes The New York Times, editorializing about a Yale Law School incident where students claimed to be exercising their free speech rights in shouting down a free speech discussion. Because one panelist was a conservative Christian. Americans, said The Times, are losing “the right to speak their minds . . . without fear of being shamed or shunned.” But Lexington comments that The Times itself is in the shaming and shunning business — protected by the First Amendment.

Which, we often forget, bars only government censorship. Anyone else has a right to “shame and shun” those they disagree with. That itself is an exercise of free expression. And you do have a right to express your opinion — but not a right to be free of any other people’s reactions, blowback, shaming and shunning.

Yet it is the shaming and shunning that is often the problem — for those who do it. Because it means they’re confining themselves within self-made prisons of thought, walled off from the free flow of ideas that makes for a vibrant and healthy discourse. Thus has higher education in particular become a total antithesis of what we long imagined it should be, with student minds expanded by their exposure to a wide spectrum of ideas, best enabling them to develop their own. Instead of that we get an intellectually impoverished landscape of enforced received “wisdom,” not to be questioned.

Of course those “cancelled” are harmed too. People have lost jobs. But at the end of the day it’s not really a case of speech being stopped. If you want to say something, there are plenty of opportunities to say it. Like my blog; I’ve encountered “shaming and shunning” but it hasn’t stopped me saying what I please. So, again, Lexington’s point: the real problem is not lack of speech but lack of listening; it’s people closing themselves off from divergent voices; making them intellectually impoverished. And thereby impoverishing our whole culture of ideas.

The latest kerfuffle is the idiotic Youtube rant by “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams saying Black people are a hate group whom whites should shun. Equally idiotic is Elon Musk’s agreeing with Adams and defending him on free speech grounds.* Again, “free speech” is not the issue here. Nobody denies Adams’s right to say stupid stuff. Criticizing him is also freedom of speech. And Adams has no right to say stupid stuff with no consequences. No right to have his cartoons continue being bought by newspapers who find them, as well as him, hateful.

There’s now a case before the Supreme Court challenging the legal structures that exempt platforms like Facebook and Twitter from liability for stuff third parties post on them, and also allow them to quash content they deem unacceptable. Without these protections, it was felt, such platforms could not function at all. Now nixing those rules could blow up the internet as we know it, as a venue for public debate.

Also under legal challenge here is the use of algorithms** to display and push content, like Facebook’s mis-named “News Feed.” Barring platforms from thusly prioritizing some content over others could destroy internet search — with googling, rather than presenting the most relevant hits first, showing a mishmash of mostly useless garbage.

These are complex issues and it doesn’t appear that the Supreme Court’s judges are tech-savvy or have a good handle on them. Let’s hope they don’t try to “fix” the internet, with all the unintended consequences that could entail.

* Musk is responsible for some terrific achievements, with Tesla and SpaceX. How can it be that he’s such a jackass?

** BTW, my favorite band is Al Gore and the Algorhythms.

The Philosophy of Train Derailments: Stuff Happens

February 28, 2023

Firstly regarding the train derailment, it’s a sickening cheap shot for Republicans to fault President Biden for being in Europe, not Ohio. The derailment affects one community; the war in Europe threatens the whole world’s future. Besides, the federal government quickly tackled the derailment. And Republicans nitpicking that are doubly hypocritical because they were the ones who cut back on train regulation, a factor in this disaster.

The derailment spilled toxic chemicals with nasty environmental and human impacts. But a newspaper commentary I read* said it’s something even worse: a national security issue. Saying society’s main task is keeping us safe, and it’s failing. Our infrastructure is not up to snuff. Worse disasters could happen. The piece’s whole tenor was that no such accidents should ever happen.

I disagree.

I recalled a decades old case, Central Hudson Gas & Electric Company’s costly Danskammer outage; a giant installation got badly damaged. The State Public Service Commission ordered an investigation, and I presided as administrative law judge. The facts showed Central Hudson had in place multiple safety backstops that should have prevented the disaster, but in the particular circumstances those safety features unforeseeably thwarted each other. My report posited a concept of normal accidents. In any big complex enterprise, a certain incidence of mishaps must be deemed normal. Part of the cost of doing business. Perfection is an unattainable standard. Stuff happens. And finding no way in which the utility’s management could be held negligent or culpable, I recommended no penalty.

The Commission disagreed and made the company eat the cost. Unwilling to be seen as a toothless watchdog exonerating the utility.

The Ohio derailment, we’re told, was preventable. Maybe so. But the train was below the speed limit; sensors functioned properly and alerted the crew to a dangerous overheating situation; they took action and braked. But that failed to prevent the derailment.

Of course the full picture is more complex. We’re also told the train was under-staffed. Balancing safety versus cost is a constant challenge in any operation. You can always be safer, but that has a cost, which can actually be not a prudent investment but a waste of resources. And it’s easy to second-guess such a judgment after an accident.

Those commentary writers did, again, talk about America’s aging infrastructure as a factor here, and that’s a valid concern. There, as a generalization, we aren’t optimally balancing cost and safety. President Biden’s trillion-plus infrastructure program is a significant rectification step, for which he’s not getting enough credit. Mainly because the results aren’t (so far at least) very visible. Which, in turn, is a consequence of a deeper problem, our sclerotic civic culture, making it hard to get anything big done, with infrastructure projects hobbled by nimbyism and pervasive regulatory quicksand.

Yet the Ohio derailment — like Danskammer — ought to be seen as a normal accident. Imagining that such things should just never happen is fundamentally wrong. Of course we should study such episodes with an eye to preventing recurrence. But we’ll never achieve an accident-free world.

If we didn’t have trains, we’d have no derailments. But if we do have trains, we have to expect occasional derailments (or other sorts of accidents). Having such a complex operation with nothing ever going wrong is a fantasy. Danskammer was a perfect illustration of how, despite all prudent precautions, accidents still happen, it’s in the nature of things.

Planes sometimes crash, but we don’t stop flying. Actually, the rarity of air crashes, in relation to miles traveled, is astounding. Given how inherently dangerous it must be reckoned to send multi-ton contraptions miles high, traveling hundreds of miles an hour, in all sorts of tumultuous weather. Here at least it seems we’ve got the balance of cost and safety pretty much right.

Cars crash too — driving is in fact far more dangerous than flying — but we don’t stop driving either. Darn courageous when you think about it.

These examples characterize the entirety of the human enterprise. We have indeed built a stupendously complex civilization, full of all sorts of inherently risk-laden operations — like airplanes, cars, railroads, power plants, and so much else — all of which works really remarkably well. With accidents, mishaps and failures, in the big picture, acceptably rare. While giving us a rich rewarding quality of life.

I don’t take it for granted. To me it’s all a veritable miracle. I’m thrilled by the world we’ve made.

Yes, stuff does happen. People even die.

But life itself is inherently dangerous, and everyone dies in the end. Before that, we face the dangers and live the best lives we can.


The Trump Shitstorm, my book talk March 7

February 27, 2023

I will talk about my new book —The American Crisis: Chronicling and Confronting the Trump Shitstorm — on Tuesday, March 7, at noon, at the Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Avenue. 

Please come! I’ll try to make it lively and provocative. The 247-page book is an edited selection of my blog essays from 2015 to 2022, trying to analyze what was happening. It’s $12.95 and can be ordered (+ $4.50 shipping) by credit card, Paypal, or check to me at Box 8600, Albany, NY 12208.  

“A tremendous book, the best ever — believe me! A huuuuge best-seller, not on the failing New York Times bestseller list because the list is rigged, a giant fraud! I’ve been treated very very unfairly, it’s a witch-hunt! People who don’t read my book are dumb losers! And if you buy it, Mexico will pay for it!”

Sam Harris on the Evil of Religion

February 19, 2023

Sam Harris was one of the famous “four horsemen” of “new atheist” writers (along with Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens). He’s actually not materialist enough for me. Reviewing his Waking Up, about meditation, I was repelled by so much mystical moonshine in it.

He published Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006. I wasn’t keen to read it, not expecting to learn anything. But a copy came my way. It’s bracingly straight talk about religion’s malign influence on human life.

So powerful is Harris’s argument that I was struck with the thought that if a religious believer would just read this — really read it, let it sink in, test their beliefs against it — they’d surely be convinced. Yet I know nobody ever does that.

So deeply is the worm of religious belief nested in many brains that it’s not easily extracted. I heard John Compere relate how, as a Baptist preacher, he rehearsed a sermon about all non-Christians burning in Hell. Suddenly he stopped and asked himself, can this possibly be true? That epiphany wound up unraveling the whole thing for him — he related this at a humanist conference. For many people, a little doubt is like a crack in a dam, starting them down a long torturous path before the scales do finally fall from their eyes.

But it can be sped up by reading Harris’s little book. It’s only 91 pages — small ones — with big print and wide margins. It wastes no words and pulls no punches.

One point is glaringly obvious. How can any thoughtful religious believer get past the simple fact that billions of people believe with equal fervor in very different faiths? Like Hindus with their vast pantheon of gods that might seem laughably ridiculous — to non-Hindus. How can you be so certain your faith is true and all the rest are false? It seems intellectual arrogance to an insane degree.

No doubt some will jeer, “Ha ha, you’re just as guilty, believing in atheism against all other faiths.” That common trope is fundamentally wrong. Atheism is not a faith. It’s the absence of any. It doesn’t entail “believing” in anything. (As Steven Pinker has said, “I don’t believe in anything you have to believe in.”)

Another false notion smashed by Harris is that great evils have been perpetrated by “atheist” regimes: Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s, etc. Hitler actually professed Christianity. But all such regimes were really religions in other guises, worshipping state power as their god, with ideologies mirroring religion in all their messianic pretensions and millennial bombast. This certainly characterizes Putin’s regime, folding Russia’s Orthodox Church into what sounds a lot like a religionistic crusade apotheosizing a cult of Russian culture and power — to justify the deranged horror unleashed upon Ukraine.

So much evil in the world has been connected, in one way or another, with religion. Life would be so much nicer without it.

Says Harris: “The problem with religion — as with Nazism, Stalinism, or any other totalitarian mythology — is the problem of dogma itself. I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.”

At the heart of any debate about religion is morality. This is indeed central to Harris’s book, and he’s crystal clear about it.

A religionist might say morality is embodied in the will of God. But what could that actually mean? Suppose, for sake of argument, that God exists. Why would he create human beings (and other creatures) with capabilities for suffering and other feelings? That would have to imply some meaning to such feelings. And while God may or may not be real, suffering is certainly all too real. Thus suffering is morally consequential regardless of God.

Yet religion divorces morality from realities of suffering and other feelings that sentient beings experience. This is exemplified in the disgraceful Book of Job. His undeserved sufferings are related as though he were an unfeeling object — not to mention the sufferings of his children who were killed, and of people who loved them. God thought he was making it all okay by ultimately compensating Job. What a moral ass.

Religion’s divorcement of morality from realities of human feelings is nowhere more obvious than regarding sex. That divorcement is total. Christianity’s notions about sex are rooted in the Bible, reflecting the preoccupations of an iron-age society where women were literally property, jealously hoarded, for their sole value in procreation. With considerations of their human suffering or joys irrelevant. This so messes up heads about sex that Christians even feel a little dirty doing it in marriage. Harris says you’re “not worried about the suffering caused by sex; you are worried about sex.” (His emphasis.)

Talk about suffering: meantime the Catholic Church is a nest of child molesters, their enablers, and their cover-up masters. Yet congregants nod piously when these frauds preach about “morality.”

In most European nations, belief in God, Heaven and Hell, redemption through Jesus, and all that nonsense, has fallen almost to zero. Simply because people are getting too smart for such fairy tales. And those European societies have not become cesspools of immorality. On most such measures they do a lot better than the God-crazy United States. (Where, moreover, less god-ridden states do better than the Bible belt.)

Harris’s book is too small to cover all the myriad ways religious belief flouts the manifest reality of the cosmos and human existence. But the basic point comes through loud and clear: you cannot live an authentically meaningful and moral life while laboring under fundamental delusions about those realities. We coddle such delusions only because they’re so widespread. If just a few were preaching Christianity’s preposterous doctrines, they’d be considered lunatics.

Why You Can’t Trust Your Brain

February 11, 2023

I heard a talk by Dr. Caleb Lack, a clinical psychologist and author. His topic: Why You Can’t Trust Your Brain.

Well, whose brain can you trust? Actually, the brain is an extremely complex organ, with 86 billion neurons (give or take maybe a dozen), and 100 trillion connections. But it’s easily fooled — by itself.

Dr. Lack said “doubting yourself” has negative connotations, but it’s the hallmark of an enlightened mind. Being a critical thinker and skeptic is hard to actually do. The problem is the human brain being “logically illogical.” That is, there are reasons why it does what it does, programmed by evolution.

Two key factors are cognitive biases — predictable patterns of judgment — and mental heuristics — shortcuts or general rules of thumb to decrease effort in decision-making. These tend to oversimplify reality and cause systematic decisional errors. But they are not all bad. We don’t always make bad decisions. In fact, there’s a “less is more” effect — folding too many factors into a decision may impede a positive outcome. And we can never have access to all the information, and must act on what we do have. That means “good enough” decision making. As opposed to investing too much effort in a decision. That’s why we did develop these seeming cognitive quirks — they are actually adaptive in balancing between effort and result.

I myself have come to believe that agonizing over a decision and trying to carefully weigh factors does not tend to improve upon one’s initial gut reaction. Indeed, there’s a lot going on, in the unconscious, to produce that first gut response. (I think I have an excellent gut. A certain president relied entirely on his gut, but the problem was that his gut was a snakepit of pathological bilge.)

Dr. Lack focused on two related metal biases: confirmation bias and belief perseverance. The former is the tendency to welcome information confirming already held beliefs or ideas. Such information sticks in memory, and we discount any problems undermining it. Whereas information at odds with one’s belief is discounted, nitpicked, and soon forgotten. The more emotionally charged a belief is, the more deeply held, the more confirmation bias applies. This is why we developed the scientific method, whose raison d’être is subjecting hypotheses to attempts to disprove them.

Belief perseverance is the related tendency to stick with an initial belief despite disconfirming information. Which actually causes people to “dig in.” That’s why it’s generally useless to argue with persons adhering to a certain political party or personage. Not to mention religious believers.

Dr. Lack spoke about three manifestations of belief perseverance. One concerns self-impressions, beliefs we hold about ourselves. Another he called “social impressions,” beliefs about other groups of people — like, oh, I don’t know, maybe certain ethnicities. The third is “naive theories” about how the world works. As an example he gave the Sun appearing to move around the Earth. Though many of us have gotten wise to this.

He also spoke about illusory correlations — seeing relationships between things not actually connected. The word pareidolia applies to interpreting random stimuli as being something particular. An example was the “face on Mars,” a geographical feature which, photographed in certain light, looked like a human face. We are in fact especially apt to see faces everywhere, a biological adaptation, because interacting with other people is so important for our thriving. More generally, we are subject to patternicity, seeing all sorts of patterns where they don’t exist. Also adaptive: you’re better off wrongly seeing a bunch of pixels as a predator than making the reverse mistake. And agenticity is when you see patterns as having a cause. Like a deity. These cognitive quirks are big reasons why we have religion.

Another example Lack discussed was a ’70s and ’80s idea that Rock music had “backmasking” — Satanic messages when played backwards. Lack played an example. He deemed it pretty far fetched to imagine musicians actually managing this trick — or anyone being influenced by messages almost impossible to perceive.

A final phenomenon he spoke about was priming — the influence of “implicit nonconscious memory” — stimuli in one context affecting behavior in another. He displayed a woman’s face. Then an image which could be seen as either a saxophone player or a woman’s face. Having been primed by the first image to see a woman’s face, that’s what we saw in the second.

Dr. Lack concluded by saying we can’t rid ourselves of cognitive biases but can decrease their effects. One must examine one’s own beliefs, and use tools like the scientific method. And humility, he said, is crucial to critical thinking.

Christopher Hitchens’s Pen is Envy Inducing

February 4, 2023

Christopher Hitchens died of cancer in 2011 at 62 — a stupendous loss. He was best known as one of “new atheism’s” “four horsemen” for his book God is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything. A powerful indictment.

But Hitchens wrote so much it defies belief. And though I think of myself as well informed, I feel humbled* when reading Hitchens, who knew (and understood) everything about everything, knew everyone, had been everywhere, seen everything, done everything. And while I fancy I write well, I wish I could write like him. (A cup of coffee “tastes as if it were sucked up through a thin and soured tube from a central underground lake of stagnant bile.”)

I met him once, outside a humanist conference where he was to give the keynote address. I warned him it was a hostile audience, because he defended America’s overthrow of a monstrous tyrant, Saddam Hussein. But Hitchens was of course unfazed by the warning. (At the same event I also met, in the men’s room, the actual Schempp of Abington Township v. Schempp. Banning school prayer — is that still good law?)

Recently I read Hitchens’s Love, Poverty, and War, a 2004 compendium of previously published pieces. One critiques Lydia Davis’s translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way. I’ve met her too, several times, and read the book (bought from her), which I thought nice enough. Hitchens did not. His review not only showcases his own deep immersion in the Proust oeuvre, but meticulously compares passages in Davis’s translation with previous ones, explaining just how he finds hers inferior. A typically incisive Hitchensian lit crit bout.

Unlike a 500+ page lit crit book, which Hitchens disembowels, by Christopher Ricks on Bob Dylan’s lyrics. Negative reviews are much more fun to read than encomiums. Dylan himself comes in for some knocks — Hitchens disparages his singing ability — but gives plaudits for the words. Ricks though is called a fool. Hitchens also refers to “the sappiness, in both ‘sap’ senses, of adolescence.” That required some work to unpack, but it’s so spot-on. It seems Hitchens could write like that without even getting out of bed.

Another joy to read is his slicing and dicing of Michael Moore and his typically morally blind film Fahrenheit 9/11. Proving beyond peradventure that Moore is totally an asshole. I mean, like, totally, dude.

His essay about his visit to the Gettysburg battlefield is richly and deeply considered — more so than mine. He (unlike me) had the benefit of watching re-enactors. His musings on that whole scene; on Gettysburg’s historical significance; on war itself; and even on maleness all make this a great read.

We also both went, in the weeks after 9/11, to New York’s World Trade Center site. Everyone masked, prefiguring a later affliction; there it was defense against searing acrid air. I’d often conducted hearings in those towers, as well as attending an annual international coin show. But my 2001 pilgrimage was mainly as an American. So too for Hitchens — newly emigrated from Britain. His lines that spoke most to me were about patriotism which, he says, is universalist (denying that “all politics is local”). Hitchens would stand here, with these people, “the only place in history where patriotism can be divorced from its evil twins of chauvinism and xenophobia.” He ends thus: “Shall I take out the papers of citizenship? Wrong question. In every essential way, I already have.”

Yes, the America Hitchens loved is the one I love too. His kind of patriotism the one in my own soul. Something of which, he writes, the 9/11 hijackers had no idea. Nor, alas, do so many Americans today who wave the flag and flaunt their “patriotism” even as they dance around a bonfire of all the good this nation represents.

A related essay is Why Americans are not taught history. Its focus is upon conflict over how and what to teach. Of course there’s no canonical version of history. And always tongue-clucking over boringly teaching “names and dates.” But when a majority of high schoolers can’t say what century the Civil War occurred, we’re in trouble.

Hitchens wrote in 1999. Since then the curriculum battles have intensified while ignorance compounds. He approvingly quotes amateur textbook writer Joy Hakim’s intro that “learning about our country’s history will make you understand what it means to be an American.” Too many today are unencumbered by that; a key reason why what Hakim and Hitchens (and I) thought Americanism meant is in that bonfire.

My libertarian heart loved Hitchens’s account of trying to break as many laws as possible in a day. This was in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York. Oddly here, Hitchens never uses the term nanny state, but does call it “petty” when so many piddling “offenses” can be leaped upon by cops with arrest quotas. Like the guy fined $105 for sitting on a milk crate outside his place of employment. “Unauthorized use” of a milk crate being a punishable offense. Ownership of said crate being immaterial. Hitchens apparently eluded capture in his own crime spree, which did include a crate-sitting atrocity. “The essence of tyranny,” he wrote, “is not iron law. It is capricious law.”

Unsurprisingly he takes on religion. Fear of death is the heart of it. Hitchens explains that those who face its reality can better invest their lives (and humanity’s) with meaning — a false fantasy must fail at that. He also argues for atheism’s moral superiority, reasoning one’s way to ethics, as opposed to behaving in fear of Hell — when all is supposed to be controlled by God anyway. With the cognitive dissonance of crediting him for everything good in the world while confounded how to think about all its evils. And, if God does control everything, his followers acting as enforcers seems absurd. Hitchens sees there a connection between the religious mentality and the authoritarian/totalitarian one — partly accounting for the latter’s incorrigible prevalence.

Discussing Mel Gibson’s 2004 slasher film, The Passion of the Christ, Hitchens dwells on the crucifixion as God’s doing — which is indeed the very core of Christianity. Hard to figure then demonizing all Jews as Christ killers (not disavowed by the Vatican until the 1960s). Without Christ’s death there’d be no Christianity. But Hitchens doesn’t note the worst moral absurdity here — that God would snuff his son to expiate all humanity’s guilt for one person’s (Adam’s) supposed sin. What concept of justice could rationalize such collective guilt? And why not simply forgive it? And anyhow, Jesus did not “die for our sins.” He got resurrected. WTF?

Hitchens also had tackled Mother Teresa in The Missionary Position. Actually invited by the church to testify as “devil’s advocate” in her beatification proceedings, he was asked to swear an oath on the Bible. Given the setting, he opted to comply without demur. His indictment is mainly that Mother Teresa, rather than working to relieve poverty and sickness, actually fetishized them as gifts from God. Thus her “clinic” provided scant medical care. Hitchens notes that his Mother Teresa documentary was (against his wishes) titled Hell’s Angel. Prompting a trademark violation complaint from the similarly named motorcycle organization.

Not everything in the book is wonderful. His hit-and-run attack on the Dalai Lama — little more than two pages — mostly discusses crimes by other Buddhists (like Myanmar’s military, and that was before it declared war on the whole society). If this is Hitchens’s best shot, it confirms my view of the Dalai Lama as one of the world’s best people.

* Using the word in its correct literal sense. Most people saying they’re “humbled” actually mean the opposite — they’re bursting with pride.

Democrats and Non-white Voters

January 27, 2023

I wanted to scream, hearing a recent radio panel discussion about voting rights legislation. The talk was all about “politicians” not caring enough to pass it.

I’m so fed up hearing such stuff. It’s not generic “politicians” blocking that legislation. Or gun regulation. Or immigration reform. It’s Republicans.

In fact, for Democrats, voting rights legislation is life-or-death. While for Republicans, blocking it is life-or-death. Both sides understand that every vote counts, in this closely divided nation. The more Black, Hispanic, and poor people vote, the more Democrats will win. That’s why Republicans have striven to make voting harder for those demographics. That’s why Blacks often must wait hours on line; rarely do whites.

Those minorities do favor Democrats. But not as strongly as they once did. In 2022, the Black vote for Democrats was down to 86%. One in five Black males backed Trump in 2020. His Latino support was 38%. Given, again, the closeness of the overall national partisan split, that erosion of Democrats’ key voting base is ominous. If Republicans add enough non-whites to their white nationalist base, they can win.

And why do any non-whites vote for what is in essence the party of white nationalism? It seems perverse.

Part of the explanation is cultural. Of course, while the GOP used to be the fat-cat party, and Dems the party of the downtrodden, that has largely reversed. At least Republicans have conned “forgotten Americans” by talking a good game, though without doing much for them. Trump even claimed to love the uneducated.

While Democrats have become the party of the educated. I hesitate to say the party of the intelligent; though they are more planted on Planet Earth, whereas Republicans are in comprehensive denial toward reality. But anyhow, even while non-whites continue being crucial in the Democratic party’s base, its educated segment — heavily white — looms ever larger, and increasingly to the left of where non-whites are.

Non-whites actually tend to be more conservative, when it comes to politics and economics, but also, especially, culturally. More religious than the average Democrat. Maybe not exactly hostile to all things LGBTQ, but uncomfortable with it, and thinking it’s too much in their faces. They’re also receptive to Republican immigrant-bashing, feeling their own status precarious, and thus sensing some economic threat from newcomers. Hispanic voters cannot be assumed to feel solidarity with Hispanic migrants.

You might suppose on one key issue, policing, non-whites would be all-in with Democrats. But that’s not so simple either. Blacks do want less ill-treatment by police — but not less policing. Republicans’ harping on crime resonates with them, since Blacks in fact are crime’s biggest victims.

Education is another major issue, and here Democrats (captive of teacher unions) seem deaf to Black interests. Opposition to school choice, with the standard line about “draining” resources from public education must strike many Blacks as a cruel joke, because their public schools often stink. That’s a key reason why racial economic and quality-of-life gaps persist. Poor schools aggravate non-whites’ societal disadvantage. While many “woke” Democrats are bedazzled by the fraught nonstarter idea of paying reparations for slavery, the nation cries out for more practical reparation in the form of decent schooling for Black kids.

The party’s left keeps insisting it can win by unabashedly offering red-meat left-wing nostrums. But that, as all the foregoing suggests, is more the problem than the solution. This is basically a center-right country, repelled by wokism’s extremes. It’s not the left-wing firebrands who do best electorally, but Democrats in the sensible center. The left isn’t helping.

I keep wishing America will come to its senses and reject the extremes on both sides. (But especially the crazed, dishonest, racist, downright un-American Republicans.) What we really need is a strong responsible centrist party. Fat chance. Meantime, for me, the Democratic party will have to do. At least they’re sane.