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.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

post adolescence

As one grows up and develops an identity it is frequently enough to fight against things. To define one as not like your parents, not like what the school officials want. But as one gets older more is demanded, more is required. A positive position on subjects becomes necessary to function in the world. Thirty year olds calling home to tell mom that they went out drinking and there is nothing she can do about it rather misses the point of being an adult.

This is how I feel about much of atheism at the moment. So what that religion is wrong and probably so? So what that you can not believe and still function as a real human being? What now folks; what now?

We can do and believe anything we want for any reason we want. So what are we going to do?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Lets talk about who's being responsible, not who's right

I think that talking about the value of different epistemological preferences in terms of civic responsibility is the way to go. Let us forget for the moment who is right and who is wrong about the resurrection of Christ, I frankly don't care to have that conversation ever again. Lets talk about who's a responsible voter and who isn't.

Are your methods for evaluating who you vote for any damn good? Do you know why you believe the things you do? Do you know why the authorities you trust say the things they do? These are much more actionable questions that might even be more tolerable to hear from an opponent.

Friday, February 14, 2014

An unusual valentines day gift

There are several problems the the idea of monogamy as it stands in our culture. Not least of which is the needless suffering its supremacy causes. It is widely believed (assumed?) that monogamy is a precondition of a stable long term romantic relationship. This belief stands on nothing other than tradition and traditions typical allies. To this unsupported ideal we sacrifice many things; all needlessly, passionately and wrongly.

The most obvious and damning complaint about monogamy is that it basically never happens. It doesn't happen in human marriages, it doesn't happen in animals that bond for life, it happens very rarely. And it fails to make pragmatic sense to hold people to a standard that is itself the exception. It would be like calling death before the age of 85 a moral failing and people who didn't make should be shunned. Such a move would add a layer of guilt and recrimination to funerals of people who merely succumbed to their biology.

The second issue with the universal permanent demand for monogamy is how cruel and selfish it is. We all want to sleep around to one extent or another, and done properly and responsibly the occasional dalliance is incredibly enjoyable. And to deny those pleasures to your partner purely out of a combination of ill founded insecurity and unfounded tradition seems to me to be the antithesis of caring about one's partner.

There is more to fidelity than exclusivity. Caring about and staying true to your partner includes caring about their sexual pleasure, which can not be totally satisfied by a single person for the rest of you life (or until the divorce). Both parties in a relationship are going to want to stray from time to time and forming a mutually assured destruction pact about that fact, not only causes a lot of heartache and misplaced blame; but it doesn't even get the mutual exclusivity that we are told that it will. Chances are you're either going to get dumped or cheated on anyway. So why can't we be adults about it and pull the gun away from the head of our relationships? Why can't we discuss what we want and negotiate a new solution to the problems of sex in an overcrowded culture. It can be done, it's not always fun and it's not without its risks, but we must admit that the status quo for monogamous relationships is a dreadful sham.

So on this Valentines Day, think about giving your partner an unusual gift, novelty.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Against Sin

Why are we obsessed with food?    
   Because our survival depends on it.
Why are we obsessed with violence?
   Because our survival can depend on it.
Why are we obsessed with sex?        
   Because the survival of our species depends on it.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Self Calibration

When I was a kid I had a strange temper. I would flare up in a rage quickly only to return back to normal shortly after. It would happen in the face of frustration, or when I was hungry. But the thoughts of anger would be clear, well articulated in my mind. And those angry thoughts would seem totally unbelievable in the clear light of post meal blood sugar. This can only go on so long before you start to take your own thoughts with a gain of salt. I learned early that my anger could not be trusted, which lead to an internal critical eye.

Ever since I've watched out for trends and common mistakes. I kept track of when my instincts would lead me astray and when they proved to be insights even when I had little or no support for their conclusions. I have a short list of things that I'm usually wrong about and usually right about. (all of these are subject to confirmation bias just like everything else, but there is only so much you can do)

There is an assumption in folk psychology that introspection is infallible. This isn't talked about or believed in any formal way, its just that people tend to think that when they think something about themselves they are right. While this is more or less an OK way to live out your day to day existence, it is important to remember that this is not true. You can be wrong about yourself and your feelings. If you've ever tried to quit something you know this to be true.

When I quit smoking what finally made quitting possible was when I realized that the voice in my head saying I wanted another cigarette wasn't, properly speaking, me. It was the part of me that was hooked on nicotine and needed to be refuted, ignored, and ultimately forced to shut up.

What I recommend is that you look back at your life and check for patterns of errors in judgement and keep track. If you have a list of mistakes you are likely to make that you have at hand, you are less likely to make them. A thermometer that reads 10 degrees too hot in the sun isn't useless, you just need to remember to subtract 10 when its in the sun.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What is religion and is there any part of it we still need?

When I think about the role of religion in our lives I think about three things. Our evolved cognitive abilities that are effectively static; what I will call our "intuition". Our cognitive abilities that are malleable, upgradeable and learned; or our "rationality". And lastly our environment, past and present.

When belief, argument, logic and storytelling were invented by nature they were there to support and augment instinct, emotion, and reflex. Lets call these two categories of mental tools I just mentioned "rationality" and "intuition". Our intuition was built to guide us in our original environment, not the one we has since created.

When we started to alter our environment radically, as we did with agriculture, our environment and our intuition started to fall out of synch. What we want to do at our basest level, is what would be good for us in the environment that evolved in(1). But as we got further and further away from the stimuli and behavioral choices and outcomes that we grew up with, we needed more and more cultural support to keep our behavior in line with our environment.

Eventually some of our base instincts came to be seen as evil impulses that needed to be controlled. But these instincts were just the instincts that no longer had good outcomes. Our inborn attitudes toward the four F's (food, fighting, fleeing and mating) are the most critical, the most resistant to change. But because we moved into villages, towns and finally cities, our base instincts became increasingly problematic as our environment was increasingly altered.

I don't know what exactly our unalterable instincts are, what our original evolutionary context was, but all I need to point out here is that our intuition (our original guide to successful behavior) is too slow to alter and couldn't keep up with the changes that we made to our surroundings. And so we put to use our rational capacities to figure out how to make sense of a world in which what we wanted led to disaster and what we loathed lead to success.

What we needed then was a set of cultural technologies (2) that would get us to behave in successful ways for the situation we were in. But in the same way that brains aren't truth machines, religions are not cosmology describers. Religions were a sort of instinct prosthesis, a guide to behavior that could be altered faster than the speed of evolution.

And it was the best technological solution to the problem that we had that was available. It kept our behavior adaptive in a world that had changed radically. But in this role religion must remain somehow empirical to stay useful. And for a long time what kept this more or less true was multidimensional. 1) the culture and technological innovation wasn't all that fast 2) the church used its power to actively dissuade change 3) the church used changes in interpretation to change what the religion meant to keep up with what changes did happen.

What has really damaged religion in the last ~200 years is that it wasn't agile enough to cope with the explosion of technological and cultural changes that have happened in that time. Religion really has failed us in the last couple of hundred years, but one of the roles that it was supposed to serve, that of instinctual prosthesis is still necessary. We are still apes with shoes, assault rifles and the instincts that nature imbued us with before we invented the ax.

Since religion has lost its adaptive edge (either the enlightenment or the modernist period, I'm honesty not sure which) the fight has been against the institution of religion. And not for no reason, the church has many problems and a lot of cultural power to cause those problems. But what that fight has ignored more often than not is that there is both baby and bathwater.

But the question is now posed, what can we use to help ourselves out? We are out of our element from and evopsych perspective and the tool that we built (religion) isn't up to the task anymore. God is dead, now what?

Basically what I am saying is that we needed religion to survive the agricultural revolution and we need something better to survive the industrial.

(1) I am being deliberately nondeterministic here, I don't feel like we know for sure what that environment was.
(2) technology includes techniques as well as objects