Saturday, December 29, 2012

On New Years Resolutions

Here is just a quick note on New Year’s Resolutions ("nyr"). Some massive percentage of nyrs are broken by the end of January, so my basic advice is don't make any. Making yourself promises that you are almost certainly going to fail at is only going to make you feel guilty, which isn't helpful. I am generally against making promises that you know in advance you won’t be able to keep to, but that's a different story. 

There is a trick I learned a long time ago that is related to how I feel about nyrs. The trick is this: when you are faced with a binary choice that you are not sure about, flip a coin. But instead of doing what the coin decides you pay close attention to your reaction. Sometimes you do care whether you have eggs or pancakes, and it’s easier to tell in reaction to being told which to have. 

And in that theme I would encourage you to think about what kind of resolutions you are inclined to make and see if they shine a light on how you feel about where yourself and your life is heading.

Making one melodramatic (and probably drunken) promise to yourself almost certainly isn't going to get you to go to the gym twice a week. But thinking about what it is you really want out of going twice a week might tell you something about yourself. 

However, if you have goals, and you want to use the event of New Years to help, here is a tip from TED:

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Religious Coexistence

I have recently heard in passing some talk that referenced "winning" the argument with religion or just implicitly referencing and end point to the dialogue between the faithful and the faithless. This got me thinking about tolerance. But tolerance has a lot of baggage that I would rather avoid. So I thought I would ask about coexistence. 

The religious are not going to cease believing and they are not going to leave. The religions have survived more and worse than even the great Hitchens’ acerbic wrath. So I'm asking you all to consider how you think we can coexist with the religious.

How many selves does it take to make a person?

In most situations it is simpler and faster to think of the people around you as a single integrated whole. But this is not actually the case. In healthy individuals under normal circumstances there is no reason to "look behind the curtain". But in order to explain people’s behavior it is sometimes necessary to talk about brain functions at a higher resolution. 

The brain is actually a collection of modules that all work in concert. Sometimes, like in the case of trauma to the brain, one module can be damaged with very strange results. Something similar can be seen in the case of drug addicts who want to quit but cant. When a person wants to quit but is having trouble, it becomes obvious that speaking of a single integrated human being doesn't really do the job. 

Imagine if you will, Sally, a smoker who has just quit for the 3rd time. She has a heart condition and really needs to not smoke, but she still craves cigarettes. And while checking her email she sees a party invitation to the house of a smoker, and her first emotional response is fear. She is afraid that if she goes to the party she will start smoking again. 

Now think about how you would talk about her in this situation. What kind of person is she? Is she strong willed? Weak willed? Is her addiction a thing different from her and inside of her? Is it a flaw in her character? How would You explain it?

Because what we have here is a woman who is afraid of what she will want to do that will be bad for her. Talking about her as a single unified agent causes all kinds of trouble and we have a way out.

We don't need to know what parts of the brain are doing what (which is good because I don't) in order to appreciate that referencing the complexity of the brain and its multimodal setup allows for a more subtle and humane description. 

Sally is neither strong willed nor weak willed by the above description. She is an addict who under some circumstances can manage not to smoke, and under other circumstances will smoke. And she knows, from the experience of trying to quit before, which is which. So she is the person who will not smoke at home, and the person who will smoke at a party, and the person who knows the difference. And it is not necessary to form a single version of Sally that takes all of this in at once.

Ordinarily when neuroscience is invoked, it dehumanizes us. Usually when people pull back the curtain it is a dismissive and reductive act, to speak about people as if they were robots. This is not the only way to use neuroscience, it can also be used to be for forgiving and understanding about people. It can be a route to compassion. 


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Theologically Queer?

The non-religious have been struggling with how to characterize themselves. Atheist, secular, agnostic, spiritual but not religious, etc ad nauseum. This problem, looked at through the prism of David Niose's book Nonbeliever Nation, begins to look a lot like the struggles of queer culture in including ever more marginalized groups. Trans folks and bisexuals still aren't entirely "one of us" in all gay rights groups. And even the term “gay rights” doesn't really describe all the people that movement means to liberate and protect. But they are all queer in respect to a broad and poorly defined set of norms around sex, sexuality, gender, and orientation. What groups them together is there failure to conform to a collection of norms. 

Would it therefore make sense for learn these lessons of the process of including the excluded and group ourselves under the umbrella of religiously queer? I am not sure but there are deep sympathies and similes here that I would love to hear other people thoughts about. 

Edited for having been written on my phone on the bus. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The moral implications of science.

Again the question for me is no longer what do people believe. It is what is it that people actually do that is objectionable? For one thing they vote, act, and speak as if climate change was a left wing conspiracy and not the most important human issue of the next 100 years. There are people who vote for liars and buy gas guzzling cars and complain about the EPA without a glimmer of a thought for the welfare of their grandchildren or yours. And all of this because they feel like it is their duty and privilege to say “I don’t know anything about climate science Except that it is all a lie”.

This is behavior with profound moral and ethical consequences. And the scientifically literate public seems to have no way to point an accusing finger at this behavior. Those of us who believe in science have allowed ourselves to be bullied into believing that we have no right to moral outrage. This needs to end.

We need to call climate denial what it is. It is criminal negligence on a global scale. Americans do not tolerate lead in our children’s toys, fungus in our injections or e. coli in our food. And yet the fate of our entire culture is allowed to be talked about as a matter of opinion. And here we sit in the ivory tower telling ourselves that science doesn’t have a moral component. It does.

Science can occasionally tell us, to a moral certainty, what is going to happen in the future. And when face with potential disaster it is immoral to allow other people to choose disaster for all of us. We must have the courage of our empirical evidence to argue the point.

But what should we do? The misinformed are not amenable to evidence or reason. And let me be clear on a point here. The misinformed are not bad people. They are fellow Americans who are busy, they are tired and they are overwhelmed by their day to day lives. They rely on the news organizations to inform them and instead they are entertained. The authorities that they trust have told them that climate change is a lie and it is those authorities that should be demonized.

The critical link in the chain that has proven responsive to pressure from the public is the media. The religious right has altered programming on network television since its inception through pressure to maintain the “standards of decency” of the country. And I think it is time that we start pressuring them to uphold the standards of the most successful empirical program in human history, science.

Here are three assertions: climate change is real and impacted by human action, vaccines protect other people’s children and do not cause autism, and evolution is real and there is no competitive theory in existence. If you see reporting that says otherwise, if you see a baseless, ass covering false equivalency or a groundless back and forth: Write a letter. We need to take action to change how this country is governed and I think the first step is to exert pressure on the 4th estate to do its bloody job.

People who do not have the ability, time, or inclination to see past this irresponsible reporting are being so badly informed that they are insisting on endangering our future and the future of our children. Take action to establish the moral standing of scientific research. We all need you to. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Hedonism Day (a date idea)

"Oscar, so far as I know, your culture is the only semicivilized one in which love is not recognized as the highest art and given the serious study it deserves."- 'Glory Road' Robert Heinlein

As per my mission statement, I mean to write about the problems that actually impact the people I care about. And one of the most important day to day issues that is the most devastatingly misunderstood in this culture of ours is sex (the verb). Calm, rational, and practical thinking about sex is almost never stated in public, which is an enormous shame. That being said I am occasionally going to write about sex in this vein because as someone who was raised without religion (and without any kind of secular guilt about sex) I have somewhat of an outsiders view on sex; a perspective I plan on sharing.

On to the idea. This is an idea for a date you can have with your lover. This is not a "get to know you" kind of date, this is an "enjoying each other" kind of date. It is very simple, here is what you need:

a) Picnic food that doesn't need to be prepared (think bread, cheese, fruit, finger food).
b) Intoxicants to flavor (again, picnic quality stuff is appropriate here, no one is supposed to get blasted).
c) Light entertainment. Nothing too engrossing, this is a time filler.
d) A domicile to yourselves.
e) No pants, at all, all day.

The plan is that you make out¹ all day, as much as you (can/want to) with enjoyable food and stuff to read or watch while everyone recovers from the intermittent make outs. None of this pretending "we're going to bed" stuff, this is a day set aside for sex with your person. As I have taken to saying recently, anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

This is the kind of idea that comes from a frank and unapologetic enjoyment of sex and your lover. It is not hard to come up with once you admit that sex is a fun and critical part of a romantic relationship. We need to think about sex as what it is, a joyful human necessity. Enough with the guilt and the recriminations and the shame, sex is fun and should be treated as such.

Like many pass times there are risks and the precautions that should be taken, but sex is not in a category of one. Sex is a number of things but one of them is recreation and one of them isn't a sin. This is the kind of conversation that we can have once we stop engaging with the religious conservatives and declare victory. We don't have to listen to them or their "moralizing" nonsense.

¹I generally use the phrase "make out" to mean anything sexy and naked. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Opportunity Cost (the general concept not the technical term)

~ $4000

Opportunity cost is the cost of any activity measured in terms of the value of the next best alternative forgone (that is not chosen). -Wikipedia 

So when you buy a vehicle for your police department that costs $33k when you could have bought one that costs $4k, the $29000 is your opportunity cost. It is not often thought about or talked about and not for no reason. It is not natural to look around yourself and wonder what the other options were and how much they cost. 

But I recently spend a week in Iceland and I saw more guns, more cops, and more security people in the time it took to get out of Logan than I did in a week in Iceland. Further more, every last customs agent had a side arm. These were not rough and ready men standing at the doors with hard eyes scanning the room for terrorists. These were folks looking at produce to make sure there weren't any invasive species getting into the country. And aside from the side arm itself think about the cost of training, certifying and insuring all those glorified bag inspectors. At every international airport in the country, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I'm not much in the way of a smaller government kind of guy, but for fucks sake, these guys look at incoming bratwurst for a living.  

I live in the 17th most densely populated incorporated place in the country and my police department saw fit to buy police interceptor SUV's. Not electric cars, or regular police cars or more bikes, but big shinny, Manly trucks. To what end? What is the benefit? Aside from the masculine pride of my local constabulary? How many kids could we feed, how many families could we put in shelters? 

And these are just the illustrations that point at the larger issues in this country. Eisenhower warned us of this in 1961 but our current media-political system can't tell if adultery or the longest war in our history is more important. So I can't say that I'm surprised that they cant figure out how to talk about the opportunity cost of our overblown military budget. 


**Watch this space for edits from my economist friends who will have to correct me on how I characterized the concept.**

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sex Scandals

I Do Not Want to hear about the sex lives of Generals or puppeteers. Our overreaction to rumors about sex scandals has, and causes, many problems. Not least of which is the loss of one of the best strategic minds of our generation. 

There was a time in our history when getting caught in unforced sexual deviation was a perversely reliable hallmark of mental instability, moral weakness, or general untrustworthiness. This was not for the reasons that people thought at the time, but none the less true. For most sexual deviation there were implacable biological and/or sociological repercussions. If you slept around in the 1890's you were going to get fatally sick and/or be involved in a pregnancy that would ruin families. And if you were homosexual the homophobia was so obviously fatal that anyone who took risks was showing poor judgment in the face of deadly bigotry. 

How this was understood in our Christian culture was very different of course. Such deviation was seen as "of the devil" and a true hallmark of evil. But none the less committing, or being seen to commit, sexual deviation from the norm was a pretty good sign that the person involved had bad judgment and should not be allowed into positions of power. At the time out-of-wedlock sex had similar moral implications to that of drunk driving, people were going to get hurt and you could not safely control who or when. 

But this is no longer the case. We have condoms, women are permitted to work and provide for themselves, violence driven by bigotry is illegal. If you go outside the norms of sexual behavior (if in fact there are any left) all it represents is a difference in preference, not of moral failing or even poor judgment. But our Christian moral tradition leaves us with the basic inference that sexual deviation is a sign of moral deviation.¹

We need to move beyond this bigotry against sex (the act) in the same way that we need to move beyond bigotries of all sorts. It is unfair, immoral and detrimental to punish or discriminate against people for being different. This goes for the color of their skin, the beliefs that they hold, the sex they were born with, the gender they present themselves as, And the sex that they have. 

This is bigotry plain and simple. It is people imposing their own standards of private, personal behavior onto other people, and it is frankly an outrage. 

¹This raises the point, that I will discuss at some later point, that sex has no special moral status. Sex is a behavior like any other, and what makes behavior moral or immoral does not change just because of changes in localized blood flow. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Thinking out loud to a friends question

"The role of "cultural sustainment" is key here. What is the draw (i.e., why does one want to participate? what is the proverbial "honey vs. vinegar" or "carrot vs. stick") to a coherent, collective atheist world-view? An intellectual satisfaction is not enough--it does not sustain nor replace the concept of "soul" or the emotional void that sits at the center of our humanity. The concept of "art" as a means towards this end is a good argument. Not surprisingly, I might identify Heinlein's "love" as a more encompassing ethic, but I think the intent is similar."

What if we created secular communities that were "about" having secular communities? What if we left off of our agenda having a "coherent, collective atheist world-view" and instead had an institution that fostered community and provided services without a supernatural excuse.

I myself have been looking for the consensus world view that we can all get behind as atheists. I have looked in cognitive science, philosophy of science, world religions, and sociology. We don't need One world view to handle all of our daily troubles. We need world views that can get us through. It is exactly the effort to find one value system and build off of that that has been so troubling.

That we are all human is enough commonality to start a community. The churches are freaking out that they can't hold on to the youth in their communities. This lack of "loyalty" or lack of engagement makes them look down on the people who stop coming to church at high school and don't come back until they have kids of their own. What they don't realize is that they are an institution that serves people, not representatives of God, whom people should serve. And the churches don't have anything to offer teenagers that they can’t find elsewhere.

I think that the drive to look for a central tenet of an atheist world view is the response to a bad question or a false premise. Most secularists I know don't need to believe anything in particular most of the time. Not believing anything is the regular state of most people and I don't think that needs to change. What I think most secularists need that they don't have is an institution on their side. And I see no reason that such an institution can't be built out of providing services without a coherent world view.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Request for Stories

After my talk last week I heard that one of the attendees would like to hear some ways to talk about atheism without causing offense. If they bring up their views some of people around them would take offense as if he was attacking his interlocutor’s views. And he is looking for ways around this problem that aren't fighting with people, staying silent, or disowning loved ones.

I myself have never really had this problem. Because I have no firsthand experience with this kind of problem I would love to hear some stories about the kinds of conversations that are difficult for people. Tell me what kinds of arguments you get into, or what subjects get you into the most trouble. Or anything you think is relevant, I just need more to go on to work on this problem.

This kind of work, where I would construct arraignments of ideas for others to use, is one of the best things I can offer in this context. But on this front I don't have enough personal experience to do so. So help me out and tell me a story.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Willfully Ignorant

This idea for a new meme comes out of me listening to some sociology of deviance. Specifically the idea of constructivism where people construct categories of deviance in order to gain social power. Which got me thinking that we should create a new category of deviance for people who take complex matters into their own willfully ignorant hands and screw shit up for everyone.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Beyond Disbelief

"The only meaning that theory can have, in my tradition, is the meaning that the practical struggles of human beings gives it." - Rick Roderick
I have moved beyond the fight over religion and on to the fight for human flourishing. The effort to alter peoples beliefs is not my struggle. It is not even a good proxy for my struggle. What we face is human suffering, human flourishing and the ratio between those two. When I say I do not care for philosophical distinction making or for the truth or falsity of beliefs, even my own, it is because I do not see how those things effect the well being of human beings. Which is my only concern.

Friday, October 5, 2012

My talk from last night and some links.

So I had my talk last night and there is some video of it. Also Zac Bos of the Boston Atheist's who helped put the event together wrote up a nice little piece about the talk.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Saturday Morning Video

This morning's video is from Ted, so I'm sure at least a quarter of you have seen it. None the less, the point I would like to draw attention to is the unavailability of the patternisity problem. If you are going to see patterns in the world around you then you are going to make type 1 and type 2 errors. There is no way around this problem, short of omniscience. And given that you and I are fated to see patterns where there are none, and to miss patterns where there are some, the only reasonable response is humility and courage.

We must have the humility to admit that we will be wrong in both directions from time to time. And we must have the courage to act despite this lack of certainty. Without certainty to fall back on, then we must have some other method to avoid regret. And much like not believing in an afterlife demands that you make the most out of this life, not believing in certainty demands that you make sure that you did your best. Having done your best, no matter how dismal, allows you to sleep at night after a major blunder.

It does you no good to say "but I was certain" after its been proven that you flubbed it. But saying, "I did everything in my power to make sure I was right" lets you off the hook to a large extent. I have made terrible mistakes and had miserable failures in my life. But almost without exception I was doing my very best every day. And I sleep quite well.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

New Policy

Anyone who suggests edits that I take will be listed in the comments as a coauthor for that post.

"Who am I?"

A friend of mine asked me a question today that had "who am I?" as part of it. And it got me thinking about how to answer that question in the general first, and then the specific. And my answer starts with, what you are.

You are an animal. A member of the only species to ever build, and move into, its own zoo. And now you live in the finest cage that money can buy. You have the urges and drives that make sense on the plains of Africa¹, most of which haven't made any sense since the agricultural revolution.  

The story of The Fall, of being ejected from the Garden of Eden has, to my mind, a kernel of truth. For the Christians the thing that explains all of our sinful urges is original sin. That is why we lust and rage and whatever it is we aren't supposed to do. And there was a time before that sin where we lived in harmony with our surroundings and I guess didn't have sex or something. But now we live in a fallen world where everyone is born flawed and disobedient to gods will. 

The kernel of truth that I see² is based in evolutionary psychology. I think that there was a time where we were more in tune with the world. When what we wanted to do was the right thing to do much more often; when our desires did not get derailed by gambling or record collecting; when ennui was obliterated by the bright light of immediate mortality. I do not think that this was a better time to be a human being. I do not think that it is a state to be venerated or sought out. But it was a time when it made more sense to be a human being. And now the demands, capacities, and luxuries that agriculture and industry have provided make for a strange environment in which to be a tribal ape.

Evopsych is a very tricky tool to use, and one should be very cautious when trying to divine "what we should be like." There is no direct evidence to be had, and as the video I linked will show you, even the basics of our evolutionary path are up for grabs. But I don't think it’s risky to say that the environment we find ourselves in does not comport to the basic psychology that we developed evolutionarily. And I think that we would do well to understand that it is not just religion that leads us into maladaptive practices, but indeed our entire environment is at some level, mismatched with us as animals.

Our drives were instilled in us by evolution. Evolution prepared us for an environment entirely different from the one we find ourselves in. I think that part of religions role to date has been to make up stories that helped people cope with this conflict. And I think that the same service can be rendered by secular thought.

This is an opportunity for secular ministry. Religion tells people why the world is unfairly frustrating and what to do about it. In Christianity it is the story of the fall and redemption in the afterlife. In Hinduism there is a story about reincarnation and what to do in this life to improve your next one. But science's story is that we evolved for one thing and now we do this new thing. We can look at human psychology and the world around us and try to modify both, purely on rational grounds, towards an increase of human flourishing. There is nothing morally wrong with us or with the world, but there are endemic problems that can’t be fixed, only coped with.

You are also an embodied autobiography. You have grown and changed in light of your experiences and the interpretation of those experiences. There are the physical ramifications of that; you might be healthy, and you might not be. You might have been born into a body that is different than most, or have a body that was wracked by injury. What you have eaten and how active you have been, what you have smoked and what you have drank all have long lasting effects. And your day to day self is in part a result of those actions and conditions. The point is that you have a body and it matters what condition it is in.   

You also have a mind³. There are stories of all your experiences written in your brain. And which stories you tell, and how you tell them effects how you see yourself and how you behave. There are stories but there are also the interpretations of those stories. What happened to you is what happened to you. But how you feel about it and how you choose to talk about it are variable. A story that ends with a trauma is a sad story. A story that ends with overcoming that trauma is uplifting. And I know, from personal experience that you can change who you are by changing how you interpret the autobiography that you tell yourself.

Some of us were badly mistreated; others taught unhealthy ways to look at the world. Some lucky ones among us must have been treated well and are perfectly adjusted, but I have never met one. And if you are systemically unhappy you should know there are ways out of that unhappiness. I used to give up on people. I used to look at the misbegotten and think “there’s no hope for that one.” But I have seen the hopeless thrive, in time and with help. So much of what we think of people is determined by what sample we use. I think we need to wait until a person is dead to judge their life. To do otherwise is to condemn the redeemable, or to canonize the fallible.

So this is what you are. You are a social ape that lives in the zoo that he built; an ape whose life history, and its key to interpretation, are engraved on his body and mind.

¹I have no idea what to make of this video.
²This idea I've gotten most clearly from this book, which is fantastic for other reasons that I should write about.
³I might at some point try and explain my view vis-à-vis mind versus brain versus body but now is not the time