Sunday, March 15, 2015

On being wrong.

I just heard on NPR's radio show The Moth a story by June Cross. It ends with her recounting being at a Johnny Cash show and hearing "I Walk the Line". And she hears a song about her life of being biracial, and the harsh choices of being either black or white that she was faced with. A song about how she might be able to find her way in the middle of those two choices.

Don't be too scrupulous about being right all the time, sometimes if you listen very carefully, you'll hear what you need to hear, no matter what other people think they mean.

Some questions if you have time.

I'm working on a talk that I'm giving next sunday, if you have time could you answer four questions for me (here or privately)?

What are virtues that are important to you?

What are some things that you wish you did more of?

What are some things you wish you did less of?

What, if anything, inspires you towards these virtues and actions?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"What Morally Anchors Secularists?"

"What Morally Anchors Secularists?"

I heard a similar question asked today on the radio. The commentator, Phil Zuckerman, PhD, did not have a good response queued up, at least not the way that the question was phrased and this post is my response in the vein of "should've said".

Religions, the question presupposes, are moral anchors. Rooted in a history of moral teachings, the great religions offer a center point that is removed if one no longer believes. There are a lot of responses to this about the failures of religion throughout history, and why such institutions are poor places to look for guidance in this day and age. But none of that really gets to the point: we need no such moral anchor.

There is a correlation between religion and morality, I'll grant you. But as we all know correlation does not equal causation, even if it winks and nods at it. The question implies that religion causes morality, and I think one of the things that makes secularism possible is that the opposite is true. Religion is the byproduct of human morality, not the source of it.

Homo sapiens evolved to cooperate. We evolved to tell explanatory stories. We evolved to feel empathy, moral outrage and to have a sense of fairness. Throughout our history we have tried to makes sense of the world around us and how we felt. We created stories that explained these things. Sometimes these stories became the seeds of religions. Our moral sensibilities created religions, not the other way around.

The reason we don't need religion in order to be good is the same reason horses don't need carts to move forward.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Lessons from Feminism for Atheism (A Bob's Burgers Story)

There are very few examples of young women who are clearly focused on in popular media. Teenaged sexuality is largely a taboo subject, but an unflinching view of female puberty? I've seen it twice. Both interestingly in cartoons. Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: The Clone Wars the other, and more interesting on is Tina Belcher from Bob's Burgers. 

Tina's depiction is unflinching when it comes to the awkward mess that everyone is during puberty. She isn't the object of ridicule, her budding sexuality isn't there to serve as a moral lesson about how bad female sexuality is. She is a (for a cartoon) a very honest presentation of a character who happens to be a crushingly awkward teenager with crushes that don't make sense and feelings she doesn't know what to do with.  

Her presentation is a powerful feminist act, and the show never, ever mentions it. And that fact is the point of this essay. Bob's Burgers is one of the most feminist shows I've ever seen but all of the feminism is implicit, none of it is explicit.  Social criticism has an important place in any struggle, we need people to state the problem and to create a cohesive theory about the dynamics at work. But we need to internalize those statements and theories and act.

So much of what I see of atheism is all social critique and meta-discussion. "Why don't we have a voice?" "Why aren't we treated equally?" But I have to date seen very little action taken as atheists. What would an atheist say? What would an equally treated atheist act like? 

One of the best answers I've seen to these kinds of questions is Sunday Assembly. It is an unapologetic action without any self referential hangups. It's motto is "Live better, help often and wonder more". A perfectly secular sentiment, but without the shrill handwaving that would drive away everyone but the choir. But is an honest presentation of what a secular community would value. It humanizes it's members by engaging them at the level of what people need out of a community.

Recently the President of the Boston Chapter of Sunday Assembly asked me, as I'm on the Board of Trustee's, to think of "categories of services that a person might need (counseling, addiction recovery) etc. that could potentially come in a secular variety." And it made me think of writing this essay. It is very challenging for me to make the transition from thinking about the nature of the problem to thinking about acting past the problem. Sunday Assembly should provide the services that its congregants need in a secular way. We would do well to internalize our values and act on them, irrespective of the struggle for equal footing with religions. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

There are Two Edens

We have two Edens, neither exist.

The first Eden is the obvious one, the low hanging fruit of hedonism one. Where you only eat cake, have sex all the time and are drunk everyday. (or whatever your preferences are) Everyone can describe this place all you have to do is ask them "What would you do, if you could do anything without consequences?"

The other Eden is more complicated to describe. It is the lifestyle that would optimize your physical and psychological health. It is the world where you slept just enough, ate exactly what your body needed, spent enough time connected with loved ones. You'd wake up happy, healthy, body buzzing with natural endorphin's. A perfect balance of stress and relaxation, fulfilling activities during the day. But all the simple pleasures in the first one would be denied you.

Look at how different these two places are. One is easily described by anyone in an instant, the other would be a matter of some great debate among all kinds of health professionals. Not to mention all the spiritual and psychological opinions you could collect on the subject on the perfect life balance and proper kinds of relationships. But there is in principle an accurate description of that second Eden. Its just that we don't know what it would be like, or how to get there.

Furthermore both are impossible in their own ways. The simple Eden leads to immediate trouble. Embracing your Id's demands like that would be a disaster. You'd all but instantly have ruined health and relationships, even in a magical world where you could do anything you wanted the physical and emotional reality would crush you. And the enlightened Eden would be ruined by the constant temptation of small deviations from the ideal. Surely one drink, or beer couldn't pull you away from the idea, but that you could not longer stay up late or eat badly would drive you crazy.

But consider the purpose of each ideal, from an evolutionary perspective. The easy Eden is a collection of drives and desires that is available to introspection. This collection of instincts got us from our evolutionary home to where we are now. There is a context in which these desires mesh with our ideal state. The second Eden isn't knowable to each person, because it wouldn't have been necessary to our forebears. In a world with no technology, processed food and mass media, all those desires that we currently count as unhealthy, or prurient, or sinful, would have lead (and in fact did lead) to evolutionary success.

Your Id isn't an insane force for destruction, it is a compass on the wrong map. These two Edens were the same place in our evolutionary past, it is only the contemporary context that has split them. We still have the drives and instincts that made sense 40,000 years ago.

The story that we are fallen and sinful is a destructive and misleading myth. We are not bad, or weak or morally corrupted, we simply are no longer where we grew up. Cut yourself some slack and know that you are not mislead by some inner darkness, but guided by instincts that are out of date.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Map is not the Land

The map is not the land.
The perception is not the object.
The belief is not the truth.
The instructions are not the actions.
The advice is not the attitude.
What could God tell you, if he could.

Monday, March 17, 2014

the difference between skills and virtues


One way to encapsulate the ancient Greek idea of a virtuous man is someone who wants to do what is right. And a skill is know how, having the ability to perform a task. I've heard a lot of discussion in the last couple of years (months?) about teaching people more than just know how. "Soft skills" is one heading for these "non-cognitive" skills. And I have been thinking that at least the reporting is missing a clear distinction that would help make this new category of teaching make more sense.

The "soft skills" are things like being on time, self presentation and certain interpersonal skills. This morning we heard all about grit, and its importance. The thing that makes grit something other than a traditional skill is it contains an idea of what is right and what to expect for doing it. It is a virtue in the ancient Greek sense.

The whole idea of determination is that if you stay on a problem and don't quit then you will succeed. And a kid who has grit will not only be able to stick to a problem, they will want to. They will have the virtue of determination. But everyone knows how to be determined, you just don't quit, but how do you teach someone to want to be gritty? By teaching them that they can expect a pay off for it.

Staying with a problem can be painful, boring and embarrassing. You fail and fail and fail; there has to be at least the expectation of a light at the end of the tunnel otherwise quitting is the thing to do. And the way to build that expectation is by repeated experience. Repeated experience is how the brain builds up expectations, if you are shown a reward for persistence enough times you will find persistence rewarding.

That's not a skill, its not a know how, it's wanting to do what's right. What we are talking about with these non-cognitive skills are affective-skills. Teaching kids to enjoy the adaptive behavior so that they want to do the right thing. You can't just explain it, you have to instill it, and the method for that is operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning is changing animals behavior by controlling the outcomes of actions, rewarding or failing to reward behavior. Rewarded behavior is strengthened and unrewarded behavior is weakened. Its how you teach your dog to sit or roll over and it works with every animal on the planet. We need to reward what we value, to reward what will be valuable. And if we do then our children will become virtuous through wanting to do what they should do.