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

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Saturday Morning Videos

This is the beginning of a series of videos that I think make for a meaningful part of a foundation for a naturalistic ministry. This video in particular makes the case for church in the absence of belief; church as a call to virtue and community. I found this video very persuasive and would love to hear any thoughts about it, especially criticisms.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Last Day of Summer

Today is the last day of summer, and as much as I an enormously glad to be wearing my big boy pants again, it is also the warning shot for "The Winter Madness". And I would just remind everyone that due to certain biological implications of astronomical events. About 1/5 of the US population will experience seasonal depression or its sub-clinical variation.

It is because of this that I am offering up my household's wisdom on coping with the winter madness. First off is just to know, you might be more depressed this winter, and it will be because of biology. So if your loved ones seem off, or if you seem off to them, it might just be vestigial hibernation. Secondly, exercise helps. It helps a lot. The data says that cardio is better for fighting off depression than strength training. But I prefer picking things up and putting them back down.

The third thing, and this may be the most important, is that the beginning of fall represents an end to Hank Williams season. Hank Williams is just Too Fucking Depressing to be consumed during peak winter madness months. Much like pills and booze, you shouldn't mix depressants; Hank Williams in February could literally kill a man.

But warnings aside, bring on the jeans and boots and fashionable jackets! Fall is here and as my lady informed me this morning "Its leather weather!"

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

An ethic of truth.

During the French Enlightenment some of the most powerful thinkers of the day were trying to move beyond religious thinking and toward a rational worldview. One in particular, Denis Diderot, wrote that "we need an ethic of truth for there is nothing more dangerous than to deceive ourselves about the nature of the world". Further, in a naturalistic and atheistic ethics, the only ethical criteria are pleasure and utility.¹ So what can we get out of this idea?

We can get a simple rubric to think about ethics. It won’t necessarily pass philosophical muster, and it may not defeat theistic bigotry, but it might help us think through some of our day to day ethical conundrums without resorting to "my invisible friend told me” or “it’s just obvious”.

Smelling the roses

The first simple case is where things are useful and pleasurable, the mitzvah case. These are the things that are unambiguously good. The canonical example seems to be getting pregnant. It’s fun and useful. That being said I don't think they were having the overpopulation problems that we are when that canon was written. The second simple example is something that is "anti-useful" and also unpleasant, the sin case. Smashing yourself (or anyone really) with a hammer for no reason. It causes harm and reduces utility. But these cases are too obvious to bother explaining.

The two grey areas are only slightly more problematic. In the first grey area (unpleasant but useful) you can understand the spectrum of possibilities starting with something like vaccines. There is no fun to be had there, but it is clearly useful. Doing your chores or going to the gym are other examples. This utility over pleasure idea can obviously be taken too far. We do not all train to be Special Forces on the off chance we need to defend the nation. We do not route every last dollar into savings and investment.  The second grey area is the mirror image of the first. The case where things that are pleasant but reduce utility. This can be seen on a scale from smelling the roses, which is has long been understood to be a net positive; to freebasing cocaine, which I understand is enormously pleasant, but does have meaningful downsides. We can make sacrifices of utility for pleasure, and do so all the time. Sometimes spending that extra dollar on something that you can’t possibly justify is the right thing to do. Life needs to be enjoyed, and sometimes you have to do unpleasant things to make that possible, but you miss the point of hard work if you don't get to enjoy anything.

Most of us take each of these mixes too far from time to time. We eat too much, we spend too much time at work, we imbibe too much, or penny pinch to the point that it causes upset. Each of us has our vices and the point is not to eliminate them, but to understand the costs and keep our overall long term goals in mind when we make choices. And this rubric of utility and pleasure is meant to help tally the score.

You may have noticed some room for confusion here. For example what if you really like going to the gym and you go so much that you miss out on important things? Is that too much pleasure or too much utility? What if the down side to eating too much is that I get sick? Wouldn't that be pleasure and its opposite fighting it out?  Because we haven't defined our terms pleasure and utility, it has sounded like stuff-we-want and other-stuff-we-want. Simply stated Pleasure is feeling good and Utility is the power to change things. These definitions are probably question begging, but too bad. If you have the philosophical sophistication to tear down concepts like utility and pleasure, then you have issues that I am not addressing here.

There is in these kinds of problems a conflict between the now and the future. There is what you want to do right now (eat chips and watch TV) and what you will wish you had done looking back from tomorrow (gone to the gym). But the reason that you will have wished that you went to the gym is because future you is better off in that case. Thus the chicken and egg problem is perpetual with utility and pleasure, which is fine you just have to pick where you start and end the story.

At the end of the day this is just a specific way to draw up pro/con lists. It is an idea that helps clarify problems. There are, undoubtedly, conundrums that this idea does not help illuminate. And in those cases you would want to use a different interpretation of events to help figure out what you thought was right and what was wrong. But that is another story. 

I hope you find this idea helpful, and its explanation amusing. And I hope that you are now glad that you read this, as opposed to looking at funny pictures on Reddit.  

¹ The last two sentences are basically a paraphrase from this lecture. Birth of the Modern Mind. Which is itself referencing D'Alembert's Dream.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Two quick thoughts.

If it is a problem for theists that they restrict which books they will engage with, then isn't it a problem for atheists that we will not engage with scriptures?

I think when we try and understand the religious we need to be more careful to remember that there is no god, and that organized religions are just social phenomena that have a role in our culture. What do they do? What do they say? What impact does that behavior have? I think we will come to different understandings if we stop focusing on the fact that their books contain fairy tales. Talking about the fact that there are no fairies doesn't seem productive.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

For future reference:

CharacterName of CharacterAlt Code
¹Superscript oneAlt + 0185
²Superscript twoAlt + 253
Alt + 0178
³Superscript threeAlt + 0179

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why we should have Atheist Ministers (Part 1 of N)

The simple version is this: ministers provide services that atheists currently cant get. And in a series of posts I mean to outline what those services are, why we could use them, how to provide them safely, and so on. Today I am going to start with this question: "Who do you go to to help you understand what you believe?"

If you are not inclined to philosophical thought, which is an inclination most people are blessed to be without, then certain ethical, moral and complex pragmatic problems seem vague and intractable. Or even worse they seem like a mix of clear certainties and unanchored opinions. For example most conversations about sexual ethics or the goodness of public policy. I am hard pressed to think of where an atheist could turn to have these questions addressed (not answered, addressed). I've tried to look for secular sexual ethics and found literally nothing. When people talk about it at all, people seem to have no clear ideas, unless they are (anti)religious ideas. And are you going to look to political parties to tell you which policies are right and which are wrong? They will tell you, but it’s a mix of self-righteous assertion and political spin. Or how about the media? Those bastards are beyond useless. So is there anyone who you trust to have thought about these kinds of issues? Do your friends have such a person?

If you're actively church going, then you have a person to go to. A minister. That minister's beliefs are grounded in foundational texts to which you subscribe. And you don't have to take his word as gospel when it comes to welfare policy, but they might be able to frame your questions. You may not like the way religions have handled this responsibility to date. But if you were an atheist when you hit puberty I bet you would have been deeply relieved to have someone you trusted who you talk to. I know it would have saved me a lot of time in high school.

Now you might say "This is exactly what we as atheists are avoiding. Priests and ministers are authoritarian's with values I don't respect and wouldn't trust." But if you consider the general case as I have carefully chosen to describe it, you might see a different possibility. Religious ministers have a mission rooted in theological texts. In order to maintain their credibility they must seem to remain devoted to their foundational texts and the entities presupposed by those texts. What if there was a minister who's "foundational texts" where contemporary research and secular culture? You would have a ministry of science.

A minister of science's mission would be to provide a congregation with an effective and rational understanding of the world as it was empirically knowable. And god knows, with all the flip flopping about the goodness of eggs, red wine and running shoes, we could all the help. An atheist minister would not be offering interpretations of the Bible but interpretations of the research. Someone who would do the reading that you don't have time to do, and the thinking that seems too muddy to bother with and make an honest argument for and against things on secular, ethical, rational grounds.

Taken by itself, this one service sounds more like science journalism than anything else, and that isn't an unfair way to characterize this one service. But as I add other points of service for a secular ministry, it will make more sense. 

And feel free criticize, I need help seeing the other side of these kinds of arguments.