Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Dear Abby

August 20, 2019

I love reading “Dear Abby.” For the letters; not the advice dispensed. The original “Abby” was great, but she passed on and the column is now done by her daughter, who is frankly uninspired. Too often her “advice” is like, “Tell your husband exactly what you said in your letter.” Well, thanks a lot for that brilliant solution. And too often her answers really miss the boat.

Recently a single column had two in that category. Here are the letters (slightly condensed), “Abby’s” verbatim responses, and what I’d have said —

DEAR ABBY: My boyfriend and I have been dating for nearly two years. He would literally do anything for me. He’s incredibly affectionate and supportive, and a lot of women would love to have someone like him.

My problem is we see the world through completely different eyes. I’m an artist. I want to go out and explore the world and do crazy things. He’s more comfortable at home with video games and he’s not comfortable mingling with crowds. He can be overprotective sometimes . . . . We live together and are dependent both financially and emotionally. Honestly, I would like to stay with him, but I’m torn about what to do. Should I leave someone I should be grateful for in order to chase selfish dreams? Or should I stay and encourage him to change?

ABBY: Your boyfriend isn’t going to change. If you can’t accept him the way he is, then it would be better for both of you to separate.

FRANK: What exactly are these “selfish dreams” you want to chase? Is your boyfriend stopping you? Can you “go out and explore the world and do crazy things” yourself, and then come home to his affection and support? Is he okay with that? But meantime there’s a certain word conspicuously missing from your letter. It’s “love.” People with very divergent personalities can love each other and accommodate to each other’s differences. But without love, that will ultimately fail.

DEAR ABBY: For our anniversary, I bought my wife a $1,500 necklace, and told her that if she wanted, it could be exchanged at the store. She went out and came back with a different piece of jewelry that cost an additional $800. Besides the financial aspect, I’m feeling hurt that what I gave was not adequate enough for her. Am I being too sensitive here?

ABBY: You are a generous and loving husband. You should not, however, feel hurt that your wife exchanged the necklace. You told her she could, and she took you up on it. Perhaps next time you should consider asking her what she would like, so you can choose the gift “together.”

FRANK: She did that without even asking you? That was not an “exchange,” it was an upgrade, which you did not authorize. Simply inexcusable. Tell her to return the item. She does not deserve to have it; nor deserve you.

Sentinel: The Statue of Liberty

August 17, 2019

In 1986, when the Statue of Liberty was being refurbished, I made a donation. Later, receiving another solicitation in the mail, I said to myself, “No, I already gave.” But I read the thing anyway. And guess what? I wrote another check. Love that gal.

For Christmas I received Francesca Lidia Viano’s book Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty. A 499-page tome delving deeply into the monument’s cultural, historical, mythological, iconographic background. It ominously begins with the story of the Trojan horse!

The statue was a gift from France, though no Trojan horse. Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was the sculptor and chief promoter of the project. Less well known was the key role of Edouard de Laboulaye, a political and intellectual activist, collaborating with Bartholdi. Viano explores what they were thinking — and it had nothing to do with welcoming people to America.

They called her “Liberty Enlightening the World.” The torch obviously fit with that. Yet even that name seems to have been something of an afterthought. The book’s title, Sentinel, is more to the point. The lady was really meant to be a guardian. Thus her stern expression. She may even have a concealed weapon.

This has more to do with France’s cultural context than America’s. Her 1789 revolution was more of a societal upheaval than ours. And France had further revolutions, in 1830, 1848, and 1871. They also had Napoleon, long looming over the French psyche. Consequently, for them, Liberty had to be a combative figure. This is epitomized by Delacroix’s painting of the 1830 revolution, Liberty Leading the People. In that uprising by commoners, women were prominent; Viano suggests Delacroix’s Lady Liberty may have been a prostitute. Ours is that same gal (albeit more modestly clothed), with combativeness still part of her essence as originally conceived.

Bartholdi actually started with an idea for an Egyptian monument, but couldn’t sell it as such, so he Americanized it, as embodying friendship between his country and ours. But he soon realized it needed a larger moral meaning. As “Liberty” she has that, but ultimately Bartholdi envisioned even more. The statue may be seen as representing America itself, giving all humanity a new dawn.

Or as a memorial to Revolutionary war dead, both French and American. Celebrating sacrifice and regeneration. A monument to U.S. industrial strength; to maritime commerce; to global free trade. Her spiked crown may have been inspired by Victor Hugo’s poem Stella; it may represent a “morgenstern,” a medieval weapon, a club topped by spikes; or Christ’s crown of thorns. Or she could embody Hermes, messenger of the gods. A torch-bearer was a canonical figure in Masonic ritual. Or the torch could stand for the Promethean gift of fire; or, says Viano, she could represent “An Orpheus shedding light on man’s painful condition.” The lady did appear to have quite the dark side; there was something of the underworld about her.

And meantime, Bartholdi seems to have been much the momma’s boy — with a lot of her in the statue too.

All the foregoing actually doesn’t begin to dissect everything about her mythological, iconographic antecedents, as explored in the book. But all of that became somewhat beside the point, because America embraced the statue differently from what its progenitors imagined.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Emma Lazarus’s poem trumped everything else — imbuing the monument with a new, positive, humanistic, uniquely American meaning. Viano (perhaps too embedded in her Francophone story) gives Lazarus scarcely a page, saying that whereas the French vision was concededly too dark, hers “was much too benign.” She even mocks Lazarus’s reference to the lady’s “mild eyes,” when people at the time actually noted their severity.

But it’s her torch that’s really her essential feature; what she now represents being a synthesis between that physical image and the reflective imagery of the poem. The lamp lighting the way to the golden door.

And today, I see defiance in her pose; and if her eyes are tough, defiance in them too. Steely-eyed, she stands sentinel, more so now than ever. Our still undaunted guardian of what America means.

* * *

Postscript: Trump’s immigration worm, Stephen Miller, in a White House briefing, spat on the Lazarus poem, insisting it “is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.” The other day new strictures on immigrants were announced, denying green cards if they access any public benefits.* I heard on the radio someone said the poem should be changed to read “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” I assumed that was sarcasm from an administration critic. But no, it was said by Ken Cuccinelli — the acting head of ICE. He also said the poem referred only “to people coming from Europe.”

In fact it states, “From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.”

This administration’s sadistic treatment of suffering migrants is a crime against humanity.

* To which they’re lawfully entitled. Had Congress, in enacting these programs, meant to limit them just to citizens, it could have so stipulated. It did not.

“Science for Heretics” — A nihilistic view of science

August 10, 2019

Physicist Barrie Condon has written Science for Heretics: Why so much of science is wrong. Basically arguing that science cannot really understand the world, and maybe shouldn’t even try. The book baffles me.

It’s full of sloppy mistakes (many misspelled names). It’s addressed to laypeople and does not read like a serious science book. Some seems downright crackpot. Yet, for all that, the author shows remarkably deep knowledge, understanding, and even insight into the scientific concepts addressed, often explaining them quite lucidly in plain English. Some of his critiques of science are well worth absorbing. And, rather than the subtitle’s “science is wrong,” the book is really more a tour through all the questions it hasn’t yet totally answered.

A good example is the brain. We actually know a lot about its workings. Yet how they result in consciousness is a much harder problem.

Condon’s first chapter is “Numbers Shmumbers,” about the importance of mathematics in science. His premise is that math is divorced from reality and thereby leads science into black holes of absurdity, like . . . well, black holes.* He starts with 1+1=? — whose real world answer, he says, is never 2! Because that answer assumes each “1” is identical to the other, while in reality no two things are ever truly identical. For Condon, this blows up mathematics and all the science incorporating it.

But identicality is a red herring. It’s perfectly valid to say I have two books, even if they’re very different, because “books” is acategory. One book plus one book equals two books.

Similarly, Condon says that in the real world no triangle’s angles equal 180 degrees because you can never make perfectly straight lines. Nor can any lines be truly parallel. And he has fun mocking the concepts of zero and infinity.

However, these are all concepts. That you can’t actually draw a perfect triangle doesn’t void the concept. This raises the age-old question (which Condon nibbles at) of whether mathematics is something “out there” as part of the fabric of reality, or just something we cooked up in our minds. My answer: we couldn’t very well have invented a mathematics with 179 degree triangles. The 180 degrees (on flat surfaces!) is an aspect of reality — which we’ve discovered.

A key theme of the book is that reality is complex and messy, so the neat predictions of scientific theory often fail. A simplified high school picture may indeed be too simple or even wrong (like visualizing an atom resembling the solar system). But this doesn’t negate our efforts to understand reality, or the value of what we do understand.

Modern scientific concepts do, as Condon argues, often seem to violate common sense. Black holes for example. But the evidence of their reality mounts. Common sense sees a table as a solid object, but we know from science that it’s actually almost entirely empty space. In fact, the more deeply we peer into the atomic and even sub-atomic realms, we never do get to anything solid.

Condon talks about chaos theory, and how it messes with making accurate predictions about the behavior of any system. Weather is a prime example. Because the influencing factors are so complex that a tiny change in starting conditions can mean a big difference down the line. Fair enough. But then — exemplifying what’s wrong with this book — he says of chaos theory, “[t]his new, more humble awareness marked a huge retreat by science. It clearly signaled its inherent limitations.” Not so! Chaos theory was not a “retreat” but an advance, carrying to a new and deeper level our understanding of reality. (I’ve written about chaos theory and its implications, very relevantly to Condon’s book: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/01/04/chaos-fractals-and-the-dripping-faucet/)

After reading partway, I was asking myself, what’s Condon really getting at? He’s a very knowledgeable scientist. But if science is as futile as he seems to argue — then what? I suspected Condon might have gone religious, so I flipped to the last chapter, expecting to find a deity or some other sort of mysticism. But no. Condon has no truck with such stuff either.

He does conclude by saying “we need to profoundly re-assess how we look at the universe,” and “who knows what profound insights may be revealed when we remove [science’s] blinkers.” But Condon himself offers no such insights. Instead (on page 55) he says simply that “we are incapable of comprehending the universe” and “there are no fundamental laws underlying the universe to begin with. The universe just is the way it is.” (My emphasis)

No laws? Newton’s inverse square law of gravitation is a pretty good descriptor of how celestial bodies actually behave. A Condon might say it doesn’t exactly explain the orbit of Mercury, which shows how simple laws can fail to model complex reality. But Einstein’s theory was a refinement to Newton’s — and it did explain Mercury’s orbit.

So do we now know everything about gravitation? Condon makes much of how galaxies don’t obey our current understanding, if you only count visible matter; so science postulates invisible “dark matter” to fix this. Which Condon derides as a huge fudge factor. And I’m actually a heretic myself on this, having written about an alternate theory that would slightly tweak the laws of gravitation making “dark matter” unnecessary (https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/there-is-no-dark-matter/). But here is the real point. We may not yet have gravitation all figured out. But that doesn’t mean the universe is lawless.

Meantime, you might wonder how, if our scientific understandings were not pretty darn good, computers could work and planes could fly. Condon responds by saying that actually, “our technology rarely depend[s] on scientific theory.” Rather, it’s just engineering. “Engineers have learnt from observation and experience,” and “[u]nburdened by theory they were . . . simply observing regularities in the behavior of the universe.”**

And how, pray tell, do “regularities in the behavior of the universe” differ from laws? In fact, a confusion runs through the book between science qua “theory” (Condon’s bete noire) and science qua experimentation revealing how nature behaves. And what does it mean to say, “the universe just is the way it is?” That explains nothing.

But it can be the very first step in a rational process of understanding it. Recognizing that it is a certain way, rather than some other way (or lawless). That there must be reasons for its being the way it is. Reasons we can figure out. Those reasons are fundamental laws. That’s science.

And, contrary to the thrust of Condon’s book, we have gained a tremendous amount of understanding. The very fact that he could write it — after all, chock full of science— and pose all the kinds of questions he does — testifies to that understanding. Quantum mechanics, for example, which Condon has a field day poking fun at, does pose huge puzzles, and some of our theories may indeed need refinement. Yet quantum mechanics has opened for us a window into reality, at a very deep level, that Aristotle or Eratosthenes could not even have imagined.

Condon strangely never mentions Thomas Kuhn, whose seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions characterized scientific theories as paradigms, a new one competing against an old one, and until one prevails there’s no scientific way to choose. You might thus see no reason to believe anything science says, because it can change. But modern science doesn’t typically lurch from one theory to a radically opposing one. Kuhn’s work was triggered by realizing Aristotle’s physics was not a step toward modern theories but totally wrong. However, Aristotle wasn’t a scientist at all, did no experimentation; he was an armchair thinker. Science is in fact a process of honing in ever closer to the truth through interrogating reality.

Nor does Condon discuss Karl Popper’s idea of science progressing by “falsification.” Certitude about truth may be elusive, but we can discover what’s not true. A thousand white swans don’t prove all swans are white, but one black swan disproves it.

And as science thusly progresses, it doesn’t mean we’ve been fools or deluded before. Newton said that if he saw farther, it’s because he stood on the shoulders of giants. And what Newton revealed about motion and gravity was not overturned by Einstein but instead refined. Newton wasn’t wrong. And those who imagine Darwinian evolution is “just a theory” that future science may discard will wait in vain.

Unfortunately, such people will leap upon Condon’s book as confirmation for their seeing science (but not the Bible) as fallible.*** Thinking that because science doesn’t know everything, they’re free to disregard it altogether, substituting nonsense nobody could ever possibly know.

Mark Twain defined faith as believing what you know ain’t so. Science is not a “faith.” Nor even a matter of “belief.” It’s the means for knowing,

*But later he spends several pages on the supposed danger of the Large Hadron Collider creating black holes (that Condon doesn’t believe in) and destroying the world. Which obviously didn’t happen.

**But Condon says (misplaced) reliance on theory is increasingly superseding engineering know-how, with bad results, citing disasters like the Challenger with its “O” rings. Condon’s premise strikes me as nonsense; and out of literally zillions of undertakings, zero disasters would be miraculous.

***While Condon rejects “intelligent design,” he speculates that Darwinian natural selection isn’t the whole story — without having any idea what the rest might be.

Democrats and America’s soul

August 5, 2019

In the debates, the Democratic candidates had much to say about policy issues. But that isn’t what this election is about. It’s about America’s soul. What the country stands for. What it means.

Only one of the debaters really seemed to get it. Ironically, the one all the rest beat up as yesterday’s man, out of touch, not getting it. In fact, he’s not on their wavelength — but the right one. That’s Biden.

It’s not as though the others are oblivious to Trump’s monstrousness. Yet they seemed to focus more on criticizing Obama’s administration than Trump’s. (As a Republican I criticized Obama plenty myself.) This shows how far left they’ve veered, pandering to the party’s activist base of zealots. Not even Obama met their purity test.

So we hear policies like decriminalizing unauthorized border crossing*; free healthcare for everyone including the undocumented; free college, ditto. And slavery reparations.

To politically correct “progressives” these might seem no-brainers, but to most Americans they’re brainless. This plays into Trump’s hands, eager to portray Democrats as crazy socialist radicals.

Biden was if anything too timid about separating himself from all that.** He can let the others divide the hard left vote, and scoop up the moderate centrist vote.

But again this election is not about policies. As news commentator Dan Balz said, there’s too much “I have a plan for that,” not enough “I have a vision for America.” Democrats should be full-throated in defending our fundamental values that Trump is shredding. Only Biden is really focused on that. We’re a nation defined by its motto, e pluribus unum —out of many, one. Enriched by its diversity, an open society, sufficiently confident of itself to welcome the newcomers who refresh our culture, and for full engagement with a globalized world, leading the free nations and standing for what’s right.

Not a society mired in resentful white nationalism. Trump won last time partly on economic populism, but hasn’t delivered on those phony promises, so now he’s going full Monty on racism and cruel xenophobia. This is the battleground he’s chosen.

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Let’s have this battle. Trump is betting that half of Americans, at least, are as hateful as him. The insane political strategy of a deranged fool. I’m betting decency will prevail.

* A point that seemed overlooked is that crossing the border to apply for asylum has never been illegal.

** He even caved on the TPP. Trump’s exiting the TPP was nuts. But Democrats are so muddled themselves about trade policy they failed to criticize the madness.

William Kennedy and magical realism

July 9, 2019

William Kennedy (now 91) is the great Albany author. Others (like Melville) have had Albany connections, but in Kennedy’s oeuvre, Albany itself holds center stage; it’s called his “Albany cycle.”

In 2018 Paul Grondahl and Suzanne Lance of the New York State Writers Institute published Bootlegger of the Soul: The Literary Legacy of William Kennedy, which includes several critical essays.

I’ve read it, and many of the novels, but have nothing profound to add. I just want to comment on a recurring theme applying the “magical realism” label.

In great part that’s because ghosts appear in Kennedy’s books; notably a veritable convocation of them in Ironweed’s opening. In Legs, the title character has much to say after being shot dead. Maybe this is pedantic, but I don’t consider this “magical” because I don’t think the reader is expected to suspend disbelief and imagine those ghosts are real and speaking. A world in which they did would be an alternate reality (as in Garcia Marquez’s magical realism), but Kennedy is writing about our actual world. And it’s peopled by many ghosts, in the sense that the dead are still with us, haunting us not as cartoon spooks but as personages whose relationships with us we continue to process after they’re dead. That’s certainly what’s happening in a novel like Ironweed. To me it’s a form of realism because it’s really getting into a character’s head. The ghosts are a literary device for doing that.

In fact Ironweed in particular I consider the realest realism. The protagonist is a homeless bum in 1938’s Albany, and the lives of such people are shown to us in full intimate grittiness, with no romanticizing. And in full humanity. Francis is not “just” a bum. He is a man haunted by ghosts, wrestling with them. That’s the reality shaping his life.

By the way, I always thought Ironweed a great title. While the plant of that name actually has little resonance for the book’s content, the name’s two components are redolent with connotations that do.

I myself wrote a book about Albany, in 1973, but oddly never crossed paths with Kennedy until 2011, when he had a signing for a new novel. When I handed him my copy and identified myself, he started writing . . . and wrote quite a lot. The recognition was very gratifying. Kennedy is not only a great writer but a gracious human being.

He has also been an inspiration to me, quite literally. At a 90th birthday celebration there was a film about his using his MacArthur grant money to create the Writers Institute. That was a great thing. It made me want to do something great too, with the money I’m fortunate to have. And one of the resulting grants likewise involves writers — Secular Rescue, protecting them from harm in intolerant societies.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire

July 3, 2019

(A condensed version of my June 18 book review talk)

In this 2017 book Kurt Andersen is very retro; believes in truth, reason, science, and facts. But he sees today’s Americans losing their grip on those. Andersen traces things back to the Protestant Reformation, preaching that each person decides what to believe.

Religious zealotry has repeatedly afflicted America. But in the early Twentieth Century that, Andersen says, seemed to be fizzling out. Christian fundamentalism was seen as something of a joke, culminating with the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial. But evangelicals have made a roaring comeback. In fact, American Christians today are more likely than ever to be fundamentalist, and fundamentalism has become more extreme. Fewer Christians now accept evolution, and more insist on biblical literalism.

Other fantasy beliefs have also proliferated. Why? Andersen discusses several factors.

First he casts religion itself as a gateway drug. Such a suspension of critical faculties warps one’s entire relationship with reality. So it’s no coincidence that the strongly religious are often the same people who indulge in a host of other magical beliefs. The correlation is not perfect. Some religious Americans have sensible views about evolution, climate change, even Trump — and some atheists are wacky about vaccination and GM foods. Nevertheless, there’s a basic synergy between religious and other delusions.

Andersen doesn’t really address tribalism, the us-against-them mentality. Partisan beliefs are shaped by one’s chosen team. Climate change denial didn’t become prevalent on the right until Al Gore made climate a left-wing cause. Some on the left imagine Venezuela’s Maduro regime gets a bum rap.

Andersen meantime also says popular culture blurs the line between reality and fantasy, with pervasive entertainment habituating us to a suspension of disbelief. I actually think this point is somewhat overdone. People understand the concept of fiction. The problem is with the concept of reality.

Then there’s conspiracy thinking. Rob Brotherton’s book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories says we’re innately primed for them, because in our evolution, pattern recognition was a key survival skill. That means connecting dots. We tend to do that, even if the connections aren’t real.

Another big factor, Andersen thinks, was the “anything goes” 1960s counterculture, partly a revolt against the confines of rationality. Then there’s post-modernist relativism, considering truth itself an invalid concept. Some even insist that hewing to verifiable facts, the laws of physics, biological science, and rationality in general, is for chumps. Is in fact an impoverished way of thinking, keeping us from seeing some sort of deeper truth. As if these crackpots are the ones who see it.

Then along came the internet. “Before,” writes Andersen, “cockamamie ideas and outright falsehoods could not spread nearly as fast or widely, so it was much easier for reason and reasonableness to prevail.” Now people slurp up wacky stuff from websites, talk radio, and Facebook’s so-called “News Feed” — really a garbage feed.

Andersen considers “New Age” spirituality a new form of American religion. He calls Oprah its Pope, spreading the screwball messages of a parade of hucksters, like Eckhart Tolle, and the “alternative medicine” promoter Doctor Oz. Among these so-called therapies are homeopathy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, reiki, etc. Read Wikipedia’s scathing article about such dangerous foolishness. But many other other mainstream gatekeepers have capitulated. News media report anti-scientific nonsense with a tone of neutrality if not acceptance. Even the U.S. government now has an agency promoting what’s euphemized as “Complementary and Integrative Health;” in other words, quackery.

Guns are a particular focus of fantasy belief. Like the “good guy with a gun.” Who’s actually less a threat to the bad guy than to himself, the police, and innocent bystanders. Guns kept to protect people’s families mostly wind up shooting family members. Then there’s the fantasy of guns to resist government tyranny. As if they’d defeat the U.S. military.

Of course Andersen addresses UFO belief. A surprising number of Americans report being abducted by aliens, taken up into a spaceship to undergo a proctology exam. Considering the nearest star being literally 24 trillion miles away, would aliens travel that far just to study human assholes?

A particularly disturbing chapter concerns the 1980s Satanic panic. It began with so-called “recovered memory syndrome.” Therapists pushing patients to dredge up supposedly repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. (Should have been called false memory syndrome.) Meantime child abductions became a vastly overblown fear. Then it all got linked to Satanic cults, with children allegedly subjected to bizarre and gruesome sexual rituals. This new witch hunt culminated with the McMartin Preschool trial. Before the madness passed, scores of innocent people got long prison terms.

A book by Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise, showed how increasing formal education doesn’t actually translate into more knowledge (let alone wisdom or critical thinking). Education often leads people to overrate their knowledge, freeing them to reject conventional understandings, like evolution and medical science. Thus the anti-vaccine insanity.

Another book, Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, focuses on our culture’s anti-intellectual strain. Too much education, some people think, makes you an egghead. And undermines religious faith. Yet Jacoby also notes how 19th Century Americans would travel long distances to hear lecturers like Robert Ingersoll, the great atheist, and Huxley the evolutionist. Jacoby also vaunts 20th century “Middlebrow” American culture, with “an affinity for books; the desire to understand science; a strong dose of rationalism; above all, a regard for facts.”

Today in contrast there’s an epidemic of confirmation bias: people embracing stuff that supports pre-existing beliefs, and shutting out contrary information. Smarter folks are actually better at confabulating rationalizations for that. And how does one make sense of the world and of new information? Ideally by integrating it with, and testing it against, your body of prior knowledge and understanding. But many Americans come short there — blank slates upon which rubbish sticks equally well as truth.

I also think reality used to be more harsh and unforgiving. To get through life you needed a firm grip on reality. That has loosened. The secure, cushy lives given us by modernity — by, indeed, the deployment of supreme rationality in the age of science — free people to turn their backs on that sort of rationality and indulge in fantasy.

Anderson’s subtitle is How America Went Haywire. As if that applies to America as a whole. But we are an increasingly divided nation. Riven between those whose faith has become more extreme and those moving in the opposite direction; which also drives political polarization. So it’s not all Americans we’re talking about.

Still, the haywire folks are big shapers of our culture. And there are real costs. Anti-vaccine hysteria undermines public health. The 1980s child threat panic ruined lives. Gun madness kills many thousands. And of course they’ve given us a haywire president.

Yet is it the end of the world? Most Americans go about their daily lives, do their jobs, in a largely rational pragmatic way (utilizing all the technology the Enlightenment has given). Obeying laws, being good neighbors, good members of society. Kind, generous, sincere, ethical people. America is still, in the grand sweep of human history, an oasis of order and reasonableness.

Meantime religious faith is collapsing throughout the advanced world, and even in America religion, for all its seeming ascendancy, is becoming more hysterical because it is losing. The younger you are, the less religious you are likely to be. And there are signs that evangelical Christianity is being hurt by its politicization, especially its support for a major moral monster.

I continue to believe in human progress. That people are capable of rationality, that in the big picture rationality has been advancing, and it must ultimately prevail. That finally we will, in the words of the Bible itself, put childish things away.

Fantasyland — My talk Tuesday, June 18

June 10, 2019

Next Tuesday, June 18, at noon, I will give a talk at the Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Avenue, focused on Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. It’s about the whole phenomenon of false and wacky beliefs. This will be fun, I promise!

I’ve been told the free cookies and brownies should be better than usual this time too.

Hate, love, humanism, and (of course) Trump

June 4, 2019

I’ve been called a hater, in blog comments. My extensive political analyses written off as simply hate. As though Trump hate is somehow built into me; a pathology; a cause rather than an effect.

It’s an easy way to dismiss someone’s opinion you don’t like. But do I actually have some blind irrational hatred for Trump?

“Nonjudgmentalism” has been a big cultural trope, like it’s wrong to judge anybody for anything. Yet we evolved as judgment making machines. Because survival depended on judgments about threats. This was the context of our social evolution — harmful behavior threatened the group. So we evolved a powerful detector for that — our sense of justice — with a proclivity to make the judgments that go with it. Thus hate for wrongness is deeply embedded in human nature, it’s integral to our social makeup, and it is mostly a good thing.

Except we’re not always right about what’s wrong. “Better safe than sorry” causes too many false positives. There’s a difference between hating something truly wrong, and hating something (or someone) for the wrong reasons.

Furthermore, psychology comes into it. Obviously people vary between sunnier and darker dispositions. The latter predisposes one more toward hate. And the more that’s the case, the less likely the hate will be rational, the more likely to be directed at wrong targets. Certainly true when it comes to ethnic hatreds (aggravated by another evolutionary trait, suspicion toward people unlike us).

I myself am far at the sunnier end of the spectrum. Indeed, I literally wrote the book on optimism. When I started work on what became that book, it forced me to examine and think through my beliefs, more deeply than I’d never done before. I am a humanist. This valorizes, first and foremost, human life, and what I call the human project, to achieve the best possible quality of life for us all.

Thinking trough this humanism heightened my love for humans, both collectively and individually. I’ve spoken of making judgments. But absent full knowledge of any given person, the likelihood, the default assumption, is that they’re a good person. It’s usually true.

I think I’m a good person, but it’s easy for me as I’ve had an extremely fortunate life. Most others have not; for them it’s much harder. Yet most are nonetheless good. Struggling with life’s challenges, trying very hard to live good lives. For this I love them.

Of course nobody is a saint, and some do bad things. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is often wisdom. However, there are people deserving harsh judgment. And while I do look upon most others with love, it’s also the case that my own judgment module, my injustice detector, is set on “high.”

Partly this is a further consequence of how fully, by now, I have built the ideas and principles I apply to the world. And the objectivity I’ve also cultivated, striving to see things as they really are. I also try to stay extremely well informed (with genuine news, not Facebook garbage). All this makes me confident in my judgments, grounded in a sound rational outlook. So when I see something as wrong, I am very clear on how and why it’s wrong.

Like most human beings, most Trump supporters are not bad people. I don’t hate them. They too struggle with life’s challenges. They’re very misguided, led astray by an unscrupulous con man who plays their vulnerabilities and anxieties like a violin. They’re short on the knowledge and intellectual equipment to see through the blizzard of lies. They have misdirected hatreds. They’re human; all these are very human failings. Overcoming them is part of the great human project. And, in the big sweep of history, we’re making much progress.

A beacon of that progress has been the United States of America. Playing a huge role in leading the rest of the world into a better place. On my wall is a picture of our postage stamp proclaiming “America’s light fueled by truth and reason.” Dimming that light is tragic.

For this Trump bears grave responsibility. A rare person whose own flame burns pure with wickedness. Hate the sin but love the sinner? Is he, indeed, a pitiable victim of a twisted character he cannot control? Maybe some truth in that; yet we have enough free will to be responsible for who we are. Still I might merely pity him were he not doing such vast harm. If there’s anything properly to be hated in this world, it is such consequential wickedness.

The hatred not a cause, but an effect.

What Love Becomes

June 1, 2019

Love triumphs. They marry and live happily ever after. The End.

But not always. In Jan Marin Tramontano’s new novel, What Love Becomes, we meet two fortyish couples two decades later, and it’s not happily ever after. None of these people got what they’d envisioned. Both wives are tortured by regret.

One connects with the other’s husband, they fall in love, and plan for a new life together. But on the very night it was to start, a terrible car crash intervenes.

That’s just the prologue. I was expecting the narrative to proceed from there. But the author instead, interestingly, now goes to backstory, more fully and intimately chronicling the two marriages, and what went wrong. That’s the meat of the book. Only near the end does the tale pick up again from the crash.

Obviously, this is the antithesis of a standard romance novel. No bodice-ripper. In fact, one sex scene is given in all its yucky disappointment. This is a book about real life, and Tramontano does a great job drawing the reader in to the characters and the troubles they grapple with.

People are complicated, and when the complications of one are multiplied by those of another, it’s meta-complexity. That was true in my own history, with which this novel had considerable resonance. Its bust-up was sudden in comparison to mine — a messy, protracted process, consuming years. But a lot of the feelings depicted in the book are ones I’ve felt. And ones my ex felt.

In the novel, Blake has his bags packed, planning to lower the boom on his unsuspecting wife and decamp to rendezvous with the other. I had such a night myself. Blake’s plan is up-ended by the car crash. Mine by the woman’s rejection. Eventually the boom did get lowered — on me. Though by then I saw it coming.

The novel has a contrapunto, a third couple, not married but finally heading there (slowly). And the two spurned spouses, though marooned, are finally making progress against their respective demons. So a happy ending of sorts, after all.

Tramontano’s final passage is lovely. She’d opened with parasailing as a metaphor for marriage, saying the day may come “when we cut our own towline.” The ending returns to that metaphor: “Believe that the wind helping you glide through the air will push you in any direction you wish to go.”

It may not. But “believe” is key. One has to believe that, despite all the buffeting winds, one isn’t powerless to set a path. That’s what the book’s characters do. It’s no fairy tale, but in the end their lives are in their own hands.

For twelve years I tried with that gal. I failed but maybe that was necessary for me. So next time was better — far better. That’s how human life works. Ideally.

Humans becoming gods — or chips in a cosmic computer?

May 23, 2019

Yuval Noah Harari is a thinker of Big Ideas, with a capital B and a capital I. An Israeli historian, he wrote Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind, about how we got where we are. Where we’re going is addressed in the sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

The title implies man becoming God. But there’s a catch.

Harari sees us having experienced, in the last few centuries, a humanist revolution. With the ideas of the Enlightenment triumphant — science trumping superstition, and the liberal values of the Declaration of Independence — freedom in both the political and economic spheres — trumping autocracy and feudalism. As the word “humanist” implies, these values exalt the human, the individual human, as the ultimate source of meaning. We find meaning not in some deity or cosmic plan but in ourselves and our efforts to make our lives better. We do that through deploying our will, using our rationality to make choices and decisions — both in politics, through democratic voting, and in economics, through consumer choice.

But Harari plays the skunk at this picnic he’s described. The whole thing, he posits, rests upon the assumption that we do make choices and decisions. But what if we actually don’t? This is the age-old argument about free will. Harari recognizes its long antecedents, but asserts that the question has really, finally, been settled by science, something he discusses at length. The more science probes into our mental processes, there’s no “there” there. That is, the idea that inside you there’s a master controller, a captain at the helm, is a metaphor with no actual reality. We don’t “make” decisions and choices. It’s more like they happen to us.

As Schopenhauer said (Harari strangely fails to quote him), “a man can do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”

And if we humans are not, in any genuine sense, making choices and decisions through a conscious thinking process — but rather are actuated by deterministic factors we can neither see nor control — in politics, economics, and even in how we live our lives — what does that mean for the humanist construct of valorizing those choices above all else?

There’s a second stink-bomb Harari throws into the humanist picnic. He says humanism valued the individual human because he or she was, in a very tangible way, valuable. Indeed, indispensable. Everything important in society rested on human participation. The economy required people engaged in production. Human agents were required to disseminate the information requisite for progress to occur and spread. A society even needed individual humans to constitute the armies they found so needful.

But what if all that ceases being true? Economic production is increasingly achieved through robots and artificial intelligences. They are also taking care of information dissemination. Even human soldiers are becoming obsolete (as will become true too of the need for them). Thus Harari sees humans becoming useless irrelevancies.

Or at least most of us. Here’s another stink-bomb. Liberal humanist Enlightenment values also rested fundamentally on the idea of human equality. Not literal equality, of course, in the sense of everyone being the same, or even having the same conditions of life. Rather it was equality in the ineffable sense of value and dignity. Spiritual equality, if you will.

And indeed, the Enlightenment/humanist revolution did go a long way toward that ideal, as a philosophical concept that was increasingly powerful, but also as a practical reality. Despite very real wealth inequality, there has (especially in the advanced nations) actually been a great narrowing of the gap between the rich and the rest in terms of quality of life. Earlier times were in contrast generally characterized by a tiny elite living poshly while the great mass of peasants were immured in squalor.

Harari thinks we’re headed back to that, when most people become useless. We may continue to feed them, but the gap between them and the very few superior beings will become a chasm. I’ve previously written about prospects for virtual immortality, which will probably not be available to the mass underclass.

What will that do to the putative ideal of human equality?

Having rejected the notion of human beings as autonomous choice-makers, Harari doesn’t seem to think we do possess any genuine ultimate value along the lines that humanism posits. Instead, we are just biological algorithms. To what purpose?

Evolutionary biology (as made clear in Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene) tells us that, at least as far as Nature is concerned, life’s only purpose is the replication of genes. But that’s a tricky concept. It isn’t a purpose in any conscious, intentional sense, of course. Rather, it’s simply a consequence of the brute mathematical fact that if a gene (a set of molecules) is better at replicating than some other gene, the former will proliferate more, and the world will be filled with its progeny. No “meaning” to be seen there.

But Harari takes it one step further back. The whole thing is just a system for processing information (or “data”). As I understand it, that’s his take on what “selfish gene” biology really imports. And he applies the same concept to human societies. The most successful are the ones that are best at information processing. Democracy beats tyranny because democracy is better at information processing. Ditto for free market capitalism versus other economic models. At least till now; Harari thinks these things may well cease being true in the future.

This leads him to postulate what the religion of the future will be: “Dataism.” He sees signs of it emerging already. This religion would recognize that the ultimate cosmic value is not some imagined deity’s imagined agenda, but information processing. Which Harari thinks has the virtue of being true.

So the role of human beings would be to serve that ultimate cosmic value. Chips in the great computer that is existence. Hallelujah! But wait — artificial systems will do that far better than we can. Where will that leave us?

Here’s what I think.

Enlightenment humanist values have had a tremendous positive effect on the human condition. But Harari writes as though this triumph is complete. Maybe so on New York’s Upper East Side, but in the wider world, not so much. Far from being ready to progress from Harari’s Phase II to Phase III (embracing Dataism), much of humanity is still trying to get from Phase I to Phase II. The Enlightenment does not reign everywhere. Anti-scientific, religious, and superstitious beliefs remain powerful. Democracy is under assault in many places, and responsible citizenship is crumbling. Look at the creeps elected in Italy (and America).

Maybe this is indeed a reaction to what Harari is talking about, with humans becoming less valuable, and they feel it, striking out in elections like Italy’s and America’s and the Brexit vote, while autocrats and demagogues like Erdogan and Trump exploit such insecurities. In this respect Harari’s book complements Tom Friedman’s which I’ve reviewed, arguing that the world is now changing faster than people, institutions, and cultures can keep up with and adapt to.

Free will I’ve discussed before too. I fully acknowledge the neuroscience saying the “captain at the helm” self is an illusion, and Schopenhauer was right that our desires are beyond our control. But our actions aren’t. As legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen has observed, we may not have free will, exactly, but we do have free won’t. The capability to countermand impulses and control our behavior. Thus, while the behavior of lighting up is, for a smoker, determinism par excellence, smokers can and do quit.

You might reply that quitting too is driven by deterministic factors, but I think this denies the reality of human life. The truth is that our thought and behavior is far too complex to be reduced to simplistic Skinnerian determinism.

The limits of a deterministic view are spotlighted by an example Harari himself cites: the two Koreas. Their deterministic antecedents were extremely similar, yet today the two societies could not be more different. Accidents of history — perhaps a sort of butterfly effect — made all the difference. Such effects also come into play when one looks at an individual human from the standpoint of determinism.

Harari’s arguments about humans losing value, and that anyway we’re nothing but souped-up information processors, I will take together. Both ideas overlook that the only thing in the cosmos that can matter and have meaning is the feelings of beings capable of feeling. (I keep coming back to that because it’s really so central.) The true essence of humanist philosophy is that individual people matter not because of what we produce but because of what we are: beings capable of feeling. Nothing else matters, or can matter.

The idea of existence as some vast computer-like data processor may be a useful metaphor for understanding its clockwork. But it’s so abstract a concept I’m not really sure. And in any case it isn’t really relevant to human life as it’s actually lived. We most certainly do not live it as akin to chips in a cosmic computer. Instead we live it through feelings experienced individually which, whatever one can say about how the brain works, are very real when felt. Once again, nothing can matter except insofar as it affects such feelings.

I cannot conceive of a future wherein that ceases being true.