Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The cognition of a single ant

The solitary human being may be the wrong unit of analysis. Cooperation is so fundamental to our survival strategies that as a species under analysis, the individual may not be the sensible subject of study. We evolved to succeed together, and our strengths and weaknesses may be incomprehensible when looked at one person at a time.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Right but Foolish, Wrong but Wise?

Or why I stopped thinking of shared beliefs as the most important thing.

I started being involved with secular culture about 6 years ago after reading Dan Dennett & Sam Harris. It had never occurred to me that there was a cohesive worldview that was separate from religion. I was raised an atheist and figured that "we" just didn't have a place to go on holidays; that we just got the day off from school or work and spent time with our friends and families. But I found the idea of secular community very exciting.

While I was meeting and learning about other nontheists I was also listening avidly to On Being (which at the time was called Speaking of Faith). On Being is a fantastically generous and thoughtful interview program about "the big questions at the center of human life." Krista Tippet interviews pretty much anyone with something to say on the subject of big questions. Anyone from Bishops, to Mathematicians, Buddhist Monks to science fiction authors.

And so I was going out for drinks with a collection of self-avowed atheists on Saturdays and listening to engaging interviews with theists on Sundays. And I found things I wasn't expecting.¹

What I found so surprising was that there were atheists, people with whom I agreed on almost all metaphysical claims, who's judgement was all-but completely untrustworthy. And there were people who had life long careers working for Team Zombie Jesus who were profoundly wise people.

I was not expecting to meet people I agreed with about the nature of the universe who I wouldn't let walk my dog; while listening to interviews of people who's beliefs I find literally laughable who I might let raise my children.

That isn't to say that there are not atheists who are great people (I agree with Dan Dennett about basically everything I've ever heard him talk about) or that there aren't theists and theologies that I find downright malignant (the Catholic Church for example). But it is Possible that you could agree with me and be daft, or disagree with me and be wise; even by my own standards.

And this led to some soul searching for me. I realized that if I can disagree on the conclusions but agree on methodology then something very strange is going on. Part of the conclusion is the title of this blog, in order to capture the qualities I find important about other people, I must talk about meta-beliefs.

How do people use their beliefs, how do they come to conclusions? These are more interesting questions to me than what do you believe about the afterlife or what do you think started the universe. If someone believes in the resurrection of Christ but uses that belief to serve their own capacity for human kindness, then that person is kind first and a Christian second. If someone uses some iron age law book as an excuse to attack innocent people on the street, then that person is a violent felon first and a Fundamentalist Christian second. And if a person uses their education in formal logic to call other people stupid then he is a Jerk first and Correct second.

We have been exhorted to look at the content of peoples character before more superficial qualities. And while I think the original exhortation was more straightforwardly the right thing, I do think that it is in our interest to pay attention to how good we are as people and not how skilled we are as Metaphysicians.

¹Let me take a moment here to contextualize what I am about to say. I am about to describe some people based on their labels, I am going to talk about atheists and theists and their qualities. I will be talking about individuals and not whole groups. The point of what I am about to write is to point out that what I observed is possible not that it is universal, or even probable.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

My alternative to de Botton's commandments

Edit: Here is what I'm responding to http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/the-10-commandments-for-atheists-20130205-2dw83.html

Edit #2: de Botton never said commandment or atheist. He called them virtues.

I really didn't care for the set up that de Botton used here. He is an immense thoughtful writer and is a massive influence on my thinking in these areas, but 10 commandments? I didn't like it. So I wanted to point out the direction I would have gone with this idea.

I think that there is room for a return of virtue ethics in our world. I see a way to use evopsych, neuroscience, and philosophy to build a secular ethic that would help guide people who run the risk of making mistakes of judgement or execution in their lives.

But this kind of sign posting, which is one way to look at this kind of blanket advice, always happens in a context. And if you are going to give someone advice without knowing them or their situation then you should allow for the possibility that your advice might be, not only unhelpful, but make you look stupid.

And one of the things about virtues that has always bothered me is that all too often I see them in toxic abundance in my friends in loved ones. The girl who prides herself on being self-sacrificing who takes on so much care taking that everyone around her ends up helping her. The man who boastfully can put up with anything, and then does, much to his own disfavor.

So I have written a couple of pairings, that talk about virtue continuums. These are things you don't want to be too far on either side of, instead of things that you Must do, or Cant do.

Tolerance and Intolerance. 

You should be able to withstand what you need to overcome in order to accomplish what you value. But you should not be so inured to discomfort that you are able to ignore serious problems.

The runner must run through pain, discomfort, early mornings, bad weather, sickness and stress. But if he runs through the pain of tendinitis then he is going to be injured. Giving up isn't the only mistake you can make.

Selflessness and Selfishness.

It is important to give of ones self at times. For your kith, your kind, or your brothers in arms. Sometimes diving on the grenade¹ is the only right thing to do.

But you must know when to look after yourself first. With airplane oxogen masks it is pretty strait forward, you wont stay conscious long enough to put the mask on your child if you don't put yours on first. But in day to day life it is more complicated. Sometimes you must put yourself first for the sake of those you care about. A dead man feeds no children.

Forgiveness and Anger

It is important to see the other persons point of view, and to understand why they have done what they have done. It is important to be able forgive and let go when you are insulted, or harmed. The effects of carrying a grudge can cause more problems than the original insults ever did.

But anger is an important motivator, and a valid emotion. Segregation was a moral outrage, and could not have been addressed without anger. And what sense does it make to forgive an ongoing assault on your freedom and dignity?

¹Important point of note, contemporary grenades are so powerful that this doesn't really help the way it used to.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

"I don't want to be called an atheist"

A friend of mine recently told me that they do not want to be called an atheist because most of the self identified atheists she new were too preachy about it. She wanted another word for someone who doesn't believe in God but was less confrontational about it.

I find there is an absence here, that there is a collection of beliefs that I share with other atheists but that there is no label that talks about what we agree about. And there is great distrust in atheists about having a collective set of beliefs at all.

I wonder what you all think?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Agenticity in language

Many times people speak about the world as if the objects within it have agency. "Be careful around that lamp, it wants to fall over." "My car is very fussy, she doesn't like the rain." This kind of talk is part of the ubiquity of metaphor in speech. Neither of my examples posit some kind of animism, or point at my own softheadedness; they both explain something about an object.

The first sentence uses agent like language to warn my house guest that the lamp is unstable. And the second sentence is something I could say of my car even if I knew what the electrical problem was and could describe it. The fact that "agent talk" and narrative description make easy sense to our very social brain does not mean that when we use this kind of talk that we have totally lost our wits.

It can be dangerous thinking, one can fall in for some kind of animism because "the car really does seem fussy". But it bothers me when I hear critiques of peoples thinking when all that is being critiqued is a manner of description.

And let’s not miss the advantage of agent like description. My lamp might look sturdy but fall over easily, so describing it as an agent that desires to fall over tells the listener how to interact with the lamp in a way that "that lamp's center of gravity is too high for size of its base" wouldn't obviously convey. And telling someone about the wires in my car doesn't tell you what to look out for. Bad wiring can do almost anything in a car, so the "fanciful" description of my car as a stuck up little princess who won’t start in the rain is, for the person interacting with my car as a driver, more informative than the formal diagnosis.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Wareham, MA

We live in the richest, most powerful nation in the history of our species and yet we fail to provide the basest basics for the most challenged among us. 

It makes me very sad. 

I just spoke to a man while waiting for the bus. He asked me if I had any rolling papers. Then he asked me if I could spare some change, I gave him $0.50. Then he started to explain to me this theory about the planets, the mbta buses, Martha's Vinyard and which judge the MBTA police take you to. He was interrupted by the arival of the bus. 

He had very few teeth, and they looked like the kind that cause you more problems then do you any good. I think the bus driver made him pay. As he passed me to his seat he said thank you with real gratitude in his voice. When some other people got off the bus he said "God bless you" in a very sad and serious voice. 

This man is demonized when people rail against welfare. This poor lost soul is a "taker" and not a "maker". He is outside, right now, and he is not sure what planet 
he is on; but he does know the judge the MBTA police take you to is in Wareham.