Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

My 70th birthday speech

September 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And thank you all for coming to share with me.

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

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Was Jesus Christ a real person?

September 4, 2017

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

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

Aslan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Economist: A love letter

August 31, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bonobo and the Atheist

August 20, 2017

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

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

De Waal (at right)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feminist PC Thought Police strikes again: the Damore Memo

August 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Einstein means to me

August 5, 2017

Having read Walter Isaacson’s excellent books on Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs, I assigned myself his Einstein. Even though, of course, I already knew all about the man and his work. Doesn’t everybody? Actually, some of what everybody knows isn’t true.

One false myth is that he “failed math in school.” This was even featured in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” What is true is that Einstein’s talking was a little delayed, worrying his parents. But in school he did brilliantly, was a precocious mathematical star. Reading about his childhood intensity with math, science, and philosophy, contrasted against my own sleepwalking early life, I could see why he was a genius and I am not.

Secondly, religious believers love to claim Einstein was a believer too, a perfect validation for them. He did give them a lot of fodder, in delphic pronouncements (like the famous “God does not play dice with the Universe”), using “God” in a somewhat metaphorical rather than literal sense. I do that myself; Einstein was no more a believer than I am. He had a spasm of religiosity in childhood, but snapped out of it at age 12 and never looked back. Whatever his quasi-mystical thoughts about the nature of nature, they certainly included nothing like the God of the Bible – a book he loathed as full of lies.

In fact, Einstein’s early liberation from religion was central to his intellectual development. It gave him a deep suspicion toward all received opinion, authority, and dogma. If so many people could be so wrong about something so fundamental, what else could they be wrong about? This empowered Einstein to look at the cosmos from a fresh perspective.

(I won’t expound here the theory of relativity (but see the appendix); however, it doesn’t mean “everything is relative” – the stance of postmodernist relativism, that nothing truly is true. Such nonsense has nothing to do with Einstein.)

Here is what Einstein does mean to me.

Humanity’s quest for understanding uplifts me. At last – a being on this Earth not at nature’s mercy but capable of mastery. Some people actually hate this, calling it hubris, even wicked. I find that sad. To me our quest for knowledge, and the power it brings, could not be more noble.

Nobility lies in challenge. Ancient man, looking at his world, had so much to wonder about, with hardly a clue for finding answers. But undaunted we searched, through thousands of years, and the efforts of thousands of heroic seekers, giving us finally more understanding than anyone at the start could have dreamt of.

You must crawl before walking, and walk before you run, and that’s the history of science. Most of it was to explain what we saw. But gradually we grasped there is a deeper reality unseen. Einstein’s work, more than any other, ended our stages of crawling and walking, and took us into that deeper reality – a depth that those who commenced the great quest could not even have imagined was there to be plumbed.

The hard slog of science through the ages has been all about gathering evidence and decoding what it tells us. Evidence can come from experimentation, or (as in Darwin’s case, or all of astronomy,) observation. Yet Einstein stands out because he performed no experiments, and gathered no observations. It was all done between his own ears, by thinking. That’s what gave us a new and deeper understanding.

And so, in the end, he represents for me not just (just!) our achievement of understanding, but the wonder of our tool for gaining it: the human mind. It’s a gift we all have. I may not be an Einstein, nor you, but we are human, we are part of this great enterprise, and those brains of ours give us a richness of experience beyond measure. Be thankful and use it well.

 

APPENDIX

Two things puzzle me. We see light traveling from a star to one’s eye. But it’s not just one light beam. Light from a star a billion light years away would reach anyone that distant. Envision a sphere with a billion light year radius – its surface area would be 12.56 times a billion light years squared – a very very BIG area. Every spot on that area would receive the light. How can a star emit that much light? As light spreads out from its source, the photons should get farther apart; at a billion light years, they should be so spread out that seeing even one would be statistically improbable.

Secondly, Einstein’s famous equation E = mc 2 posits the equivalency between matter and energy; the “c” is the speed of light. But why is that part of the equation (let alone squared)? I admit I’m not privy to the math behind this; but what does light speed even have to do with it? The relationship applies regardless of motion. Newton’s law that gravity diminishes proportionally with the square of the distance intuitively makes sense to me, but I can’t say that about the matter/energy proportionality with light speed squared.

My psychology re Trump: Crime and Punishment

July 13, 2017

This blog might seem to show a Trump obsession — “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” But I have explained that this is not normal politics, it’s a discontinuity, with huge long-term ramifications. Attention must be paid.

I acknowledge an emotionality to my blogging.* My love for America, and the values I thought it stood for, are deeply felt. Their being trashed elicits correspondingly strong emotion. I feel as if betrayed by a lifelong beloved — and also as if she’s been raped, defiled, degraded.

Throughout my half century of political engagement, I’ve had strong opinions about issues, candidates, and personages. But nothing like this. There’s an added element operating here.

Evolution endowed human beings with strong justice feelings. This enhanced survival for early people living in close-knit cooperative groups. Rewarding behavior good for the group, and punishing antisocial conduct, made groups work better. That gave us pre-installed bad behavior detectors, and desire for punishment of transgressors.

Knowing myself, my own justice settings are on “high.” (At eleven, as Nigel said of the amplifiers in Spinal Tap.) And Trump triggers them in a way no other American political figure ever has.** My politically opposing them never extended to seeing them as moral violators meriting punishment. In fact I always used to criticize that kind of attitude, and the demonization of political opponents, arguing that we’re all sincere in wanting what’s best for our country.

That was then. This is different. In demonizing Trump it would be hard to overstate the case. And for him I do want not just political defeat but punishment. I want to see him suffer for what he’s done. Cellphone shoved down his throat (or elsewhere). (That’s the self-censored version of what I originally wrote.)

He’s the poster boy for the ancient conundrum — why does evil prosper? A man who’s done nothing but evil, cheating and lying his way through life, screwing people, leaving a scorched earth of injured victims (yes, that’s his business history), and reaping nothing but rewards. Indeed, what this narcissist craves most is attention, and has anyone ever gotten more?

I was brought up to believe lies and cheating should be punished. But never mind all his business victims. Of course Trump’s damage to our country is the really grievous crime. His getting away with it all, being rewarded, flouts my sense of justice. Remember too why we have one — to keep society working properly. People seen to get away with crime undermines the very basis on which we all live together. This is a cancer on our body politic. Unlike with normal political to-and-fro, I feel things are now cosmically out-of-whack, as though what I understood to be the laws of nature are scrambled. Trump’s comeuppance would restore the order of the Universe.

The religious might say that evildoers get their punishment in Hell. It was exactly to assuage justice cravings like mine that Hell was invented. But of course that’s as big a lie as any Trump tells.

And most religious Americans actually think he’s doing God’s work. And that God imparts morality!

* But emotion is never actually disconnected from reason. I have written about this.

** Though many in other countries deserve the Ceausescu-Qadafy treatment.

We are all conspiracy theorists

June 30, 2017

Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories starts off saying it won’t be a book cataloguing and debunking them. Instead it aims to explain the psychology underlying such beliefs.

What exactly is a “conspiracy theory?” Real conspiracies, large and (mostly) small go on all the time, but that’s not what we mean. We know Lincoln’s assassination was part of a conspiracy. But a “conspiracy theory,” in common usage, is unproven — by design, Brotherton says. Its adherents think they see something deeper than others do. And — in common usage — they’re whacko.

The book’s key take-away is that conspiracy theories come from psychological quirks that are actually not the exclusive province of whackos, but affect us all. Our brains are products of a long evolution during which our ancestors faced many life-or-death challenges requiring quick intuitive responses. You had to be good at spotting predators. And if making a mistake, better make it on the safe side, of seeing something, even if it’s not really there.

This bequeaths us a highly valuable capability, for pattern recognition. The world is a place of dizzying complexity that bombards our brain with a jumble of information. To survive, to function at all, we have to make order from that chaos — to recognize, for example, that that thing concealed in the bushes is a lion. We literally “connect the dots.” And we’re so good at it that we sometimes connect more dots and see more patterns than comport with what’s really there. Thus are conspiracy theories (and religions) born. Conspiracy theories quintessentially entail seeing patterns and connecting dots.

Despite its opening disclaimer, Brotherton perhaps inevitably does fill many pages with the details and defects of popular conspiracy theories. The JFK assassination gets much attention; a majority of Americans believe it was a conspiracy. This illustrates one psychological factor: we are primed to suppose that big outcomes must have big causes. (Thus dice players, when shooting for a high number, instinctively throw the dice more forcefully.) So we refuse to believe JFK’s death resulted from a lucky shot by a pathetic little twerp, Oswald. And Oswald’s killing by another loser, Ruby, almost begs for a bigger conspiratorial explanation. But would a serious conspiracy have relied on two flakes like those? And as Brotherton also explains, truth can be stranger than fiction. (For the truth about the JFK assassination, click here.)

Another key psychological factor is confirmation bias. I’ve written before how our beliefs become impervious to correction, because we love information that seems to validate them, and shun anything that undermines them. Ironically, smarter people are more prone to this, because they are better at coming up with rationalizations to support their preconceptions and to reject contradictory data. As Brotherton writes, “we’re not always the best judge of why we believe what we believe.”

Our brains’ neuronal wiring changes as experiences are absorbed. It’s a canonical principle that neurons that “fire together wire together.” After finishing this book, I happened to read an article applying that to beliefs. A strongly held belief actually makes your brain’s wiring to go along the same pathway whenever the subject arises. Over time, this “fire together wire together” effect strengthens, as though etching grooves in the brain — making the belief ever more impervious to being modified.

Humans are story lovers, and Brotherton explains how conspiracy theories feed that hunger via the greatest archetypal story line — the underdog hero battling the powerful monster (think Gilgamesh, Beowulf, etc.). The conspiracy is the monster with evil aims. We are also natural born morality seekers, and enjoy exercising that faculty, puffing up our moralistic feathers. Thus conspiracy theories push our psychological buttons.

Not surprisingly, the kind of mind that goes for one conspiracy theory is likely to buy others, even if unrelated. One Austrian study found that conspiracy-minded people would even agree with a completely made-up conspiracy theory. Such theories don’t even have to agree with each other. Brotherton notes that some conspiracists believe Osama bin Laden was actually killed back in ’02 and the fact was covered up, but also in theories that he’s actually still alive. A “Schrodinger’s terrorist?”

And radio nutball Alex Jones never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like — Newtown, 9/11, the Oklahoma City and Boston Marathon bombings, you name it — all faked by government conspirators.

Alex Jones

(The fool in the White House appeared on Jones’s show and said Jones has an “amazing reputation.”)

What makes all such conspiracy theories ultimately laughable is the large number of (otherwise serious and responsible) people who would have to agree to be involved, and who would have to keep mum.

The book explores why some of us are more conspiracy minded than others. It has to do with the lens through which you view the world — how you think it works. A big factor is how much trust you have in general, and the degree of control you feel over your own life. But nobody feels totally in control or has absolute trust; we are all suspicious to a degree, indeed, all paranoid to a degree. This too is an evolutionary inheritance — suspicion was prudent for our ancestors, and surely even today there is much to be suspicious about — like e-mails from Nigeria. Brotherton also points out that the randomness factor in life is unsettling to us. Conspiracy theories are a way to impose some seeming order on a chaotic cosmos.

Belief in them also correlates with other departures from conventional paradigms — like belief in the supernatural, parapsychology, alternative medicine. Common to all is rejection of “what they want you to think,” so you can congratulate yourself as an independent mind. Opposition to vaccination and Genetic Modification fits right in with this too. (It’s “How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World,” as the title of a book by Francis Wheen declares.)

Most conspiracy theories spin together facts and evidence, even if drawing from them tortured conclusions. JFK is again a case in point; conspiracists are fountains of details. But evidence isn’t strictly necessary. For example, the book details the theories of David Icke, who attracts large audiences to his ten-hour lectures. Commonly enough, Icke sees the world being run, behind the scenes, by faceless conspirators for large and evil purposes. But he takes it a step further, postulating that they are actually being manipulated by a deeper “interdimensional” conspiracy of reptilian aliens called “Archons.”

I wrote in the margin, “He knows this how?”

Is liberal democracy really no better than communism?

June 1, 2017

Naturally I endeavored to impart my worldview to my daughter. Most of my lifetime was dominated by the struggle between communism, which I considered a great evil, and the West, whose fundamental values I have sacralized. This she knows well. And so it was as a kind of intellectual provocation that she gifted me with a 2016 book arguing that the system of liberal democracy is really, after all, not so different from communism.

It’s by Ryszard Legutko, titled The Demon in Democracy – Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. That sounded intriguingly timely when, as I have recently written, democracy seems to be going off the rails, with voters making all kinds of bad choices. Though “totalitarian” may be too strong a word; “authoritarian” is more apt. Such a temptation has indeed seduced Turkey; the author’s own Poland; Russia (albeit never a free society) seems drunk with authoritarianism (as well as vodka); and of course America’s electorate has pulled a monumental boner.

But the book does not try to explain these trends; its author has other fish to fry. Legutko is a Polish philosophy professor and former Minister of Education. He was a longtime opponent of the communist regime. But its fall leaves him sourly disillusioned. He hates the new “liberal-democratic” (his usage) dispensation as much as the communist one.*

Both he sees as more or less similarly ideologically oppressive. To his eye, liberal-democratic culture apes communism in ruthless enforcement of ideological orthodoxy — “political correctness.” I myself have written critically in this vein. But as a philosopher Legutko maddeningly writes in abstract generalities, virtually eschewing concrete illustrative facts. For example, one of his pet targets is feminism in all its manifestations. Yet for all his inveighing against feminist political correctness, he never mentions how Lawrence Summers fell victim to it. Nor any other such actual evidence to corroborate his jeremiad.

Legutko

Homosexuality is another of his pet peeves. The remarkably rapid evolution in societal mores vis-a-vis homosexuality has thrown a lot of traditionalists for a loop, and Legutko is one of them. He deems it shameful that what he considers good arguments against gay marriage (though he doesn’t actually recite them) no longer get a fair hearing. (I don’t think they’re good arguments, but thinly veiled prejudice.) But here too Legutko inexplicably fails to mention a perfect example supporting his case, that of Brendan Eich, ousted from a corporate leadership post for backing a California referendum against gay marriage.

Eventually, the author’s principal animus becomes clear. It’s what he sees as the “war on Christianity.” He actually uses those words, likening it, in “liberal-democracy,” to what he says were communism’s horrifying atrocities trying to exterminate religion. Legutko writes that “Christians are — and it must be repeated over and over — the most persecuted religious group in the world.” Seriously?

He calls separation of church and state an American peculiarity that shouldn’t apply to Europe. In a rare instance of concreteness, he cites the Lautsi case, where a European court ruled that Italy’s public schools can’t display crucifixes. Legutko decries the refusal of many governments, including his own, to join in an appeal (but fails to note that the ruling was in fact reversed on appeal).

Nevertheless, he says the case reflected “coldness to the plight of Christians and Christianity,” which he believes merit a privileged public position: “the religion that has been of paramount importance is being equalized with the religions that had no importance at all.” Legutko says Christianity is “not just a religion, but a vital spiritual element of Western identity.” It’s “the last great force that offers a viable alternative to the tediousness of liberal-democratic anthropology.” By rejecting Christianity, “Europe, and indeed, the entire West not only slides into cultural aridity . . . but also falls under the smothering monopoly of one ideology.”

Perhaps Legutko, in his fixation on Christian religion, has failed to notice that Europe and the West today, far from being ideologically monolithic, are in fact politically riven, polarized between radically different ideologies. As witness the French runoff between Le Pen and Macron, who agreed on almost nothing. This highlights too a crucial difference, that Legutko studiously avoids talking about, between communism and “liberal-democracy” — that is, the democracy part. Communist regimes, of course, conducted no such elections. That was true ideological monopolization. Legutko’s effort to equate the two systems is ultimately just ridiculous.

As for religion, he likewise fails to see a crucial difference. Whereas communism sought to defeat religion by force, Europe’s collapse of faith is traceable to a very different cause: the falsity of doctrines which people simply no longer believe. That waning of superstition is a good thing.

* Never mentioned in the book is Legutko’s affiliation with Poland’s reigning “Law and Justice” party — assiduously undermining Poland’s democracy and rule of law. It seems Legutko himself suffers from the temptation of his book’s title.

Does religion cause violence?

May 28, 2017

A congressional candidate physically assaults a reporter — and gets elected. What the f— is happening to this country? And meantime atrocities are committed with cries of “Allahu Akbar!” — “God is great!”

Once again my wife gifted me with a book to challenge me: Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

The rap is that religion, by instilling a notion of absolute truth and a limitless sense of righteousness, inspires violence. As witness all the persecutions, religious wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, all the way to 9/11 and ISIS. Some say this outweighs any good religion does, and we’d be better without it.

Armstrong, a leading historian of religion, has a different take. She aims to get religion off the hook, with (the back cover says) “a passionate defense of the peaceful nature of faith.”

Well, for a book about “the peaceful nature of faith,” it sure is soaked in blood, amply living up to the title. It is a depressing, horrifying read. Yet, in chronicling one atrocity after another, Armstrong’s basic point is that religious belief per se is not their root cause. Instead, religion has often been cover for what is really more about politics, power, and lucre.

In pursuing those, some actors are more cynical than others. And while, for men at the top (and it’s mostly been men) cynicism may have reigned supreme, for the foot soldiers in the killing fields religious zealotry often provided the indispensable motivator.

Armstrong does repeatedly stress what she considers to be the peaceful teachings of most religions. Yet there can be a cognitive disconnect. She puzzles over how the Crusaders, for example, could reconcile what she calls their psychotic violence with the teachings of the faith they were supposedly fighting for. But she also explains how battle and slaughter themselves can inspire a kind of extremist ecstasy. I would add: especially when coupled with a sense of supreme religious righteousness. So religion is, indeed, very much part of the problem.

It is also important to understand that through most of history, political power was not the thing we know today. The idea of the state serving the needs and interests of the citizenry is quite a modern concept. Previously, the state was essentially a vehicle of predation, with whatever good it did being calculated to keep the populace sufficiently submissive that their pockets could be efficiently picked for the benefit of the rulers.

Luther

God was part of the formula by which the powerful ruled, for their self-aggrandizement. Armstrong makes the point that only in modern times has “religion” come to be seen as a thing unto itself. Previously it was integrally bound up with the whole culture, including its political and power structures; “separation of church and state” would have made no sense to those populations. But Martin Luther argued for it, saying that religion should be something private, interior, and that marrying it with state power was an unending source of trouble.

Locke

And the philosopher John Locke made a similar case from the standpoint of human liberty – that it was just wrong to try to compel religious belief. But it took some further horrors (like the Thirty Years War, killing 35% of Europe’s population) to convince sensible heads that Luther and Locke were right.

Note too that before modern times there was really no such thing as economic growth. That meant one state (its rulers, really) could get richer only at the expense of another. A further impetus to warfare in which, again, religious pretexts were very useful.

The emergence of the modern state curbed a lot of the violence that was so endemic. Today most governments do at least try to serve their citizenries, and prosper better through trade than war. This is a key reason why violence has in fact so markedly declined (as well explained in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) A noteworthy exception today is Syria – very much an old time predatory state (if at this point you could even call it a state). And then there’s ISIS, whose demented violence is not really attached to any state, in the modern sense, either.

But that religion per se, religion itself, still causes violence is all too evident. Bangladesh, and especially Pakistan, experience intensifying lynchings of accused “blasphemers.” And it’s not the work of just a few extremists, but a widespread cultural pathology. A Pakistani student was recently dragged from his dorm room, by classmates, and brutally killed, on some vague accusation of blasphemy.

Speaking of violence, I was unable to finish the book – it fell victim to the January Fort Lauderdale airport shooter. I went to Fort Laud for a coin show and planned to fly home that Friday evening. Because of the shooting I could not fly till Sunday. I scheduled a cab for 6:00 AM and a 5:45 wake-up call. The call didn’t come, but I awakened at 5:54, and rushed out. In the rush, the book got left behind.

Niebuhr

I will end by quoting Reinhold Niebuhr: religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.