The Enlightened Caveman


I Fight Authority…Authority Always Wins…OK, Not Always
January 31, 2005, 4:33 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Hijinks

Original Post (with comments)
One of my close friends, a cycling buddy, is what I would call a born contrarian. He has a knack for putting his finger in the wind, determining which way it’s blowing, and then concluding that we should ride into it, not with it. If there’s a mainstream trend brewing, he’s aware of it early, and he hates it long before it ever makes it to prime-time TV. That’s his personality, and it makes him a cutting edge, cool guy to be around. I’m more of a self-made contrarian.

Given the choice to follow the crowd or make my own way, I’ll always prefer to make my own way unless…I don’t perceive an agenda or a lemming-like mass movement mentality. (Sometimes, the masses are right. Not too often, but sometimes.) In any case, these are, in my view, the two primary reasons why erroneous and/or worthless ideas get traction in our society. Erroneous ideas, like what is fashionably and musically in, are great examples. In so many cases, those who have authority in our culture, celebrities, set the agenda. They do something out of the ordinary and whamo, a new fad emerges. But hey, it’s cool to be different, so the lemmings get on board, only to ultimately end up being carbon copies of one another. Fortunately, the harm done here is purely aesthetic, for the most part. Agenda-driven ideas, on the other hand, do considerable harm.

Take, for example, the global warming debate. In case you missed it (click here), the recent evolution versus creationism debate veered off into this territory. My argument is that there is a vast conspiracy among academics to support the notion of human induced global warming. This is because the issue is so far from definitive that the political aspect of the debate has clouded the judgement of many reputable scientists. As we all know, academia is replete with left-wingers. In short, there is an agenda behind this fraud. I, therefore, despite the arguments of my critics that those in authority cannot all be wrong, dissent.

The point of this is to suggest that we are ill-advised to take the word of so-called authority figures simply because they are “reputable.” This is nothing more than the “question authority” concept. To say that something such as human induced global warming is true because a preponderance of credible academics say it is is to stand at the precipice of a slope that is dripping with 30-weight motor oil. Once you use this rationale to buy into something, you’re far more likely to do it again and again. But, given the obsession of this blog, I would argue that there is a genetic component to this.

We are driven to pursue status in our interpersonal endeavors. This makes us particularly vulnerable to being duped by those who have it. Given the choice between believing an idea put forth by someone we believe to have high status and believing an idea put forth by someone with questionable status, our genes will push us to the former. This is true when it comes to everything from religion to politics to economics, but it need not be this way.

I am a constant advocate of critical rationalism because I think it gets us out from under this problem. We have to consciously choose to put our status-oriented biases aside and consider matters in critically in terms of evidence. And we also have to be aware that our best efforts at objectivity can still be confounded by our caveman emotions. That’s why it is so key that we understand them – what they were designed to get us to do and how we can go about compensating for them. From this emerges the self-made contrarian, the one who thinks about the mass mind as flawed and not to be trusted, the one who rides against the wind, not with it.

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Airplane Chatter and the Bar of Belief
January 23, 2005, 4:29 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Philosophy

Original Post (with comments)
I very rarely get chatty with people on airplanes. I am generally nose down in a book or I’m crashed. But this afternoon, for some reason, I got to talking with the guy next to me, and we ended up talking for the entire 80 or so minutes we were in the air. He noticed that I was reading (still reading – it’s taking forever, for some reason) Susan Jacoby’s, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, so he asked what secularism was. I never got the guy’s name, so we’ll call him Jimbo (He seemed like a Jimbo to me.).

Jimbo said that he watches “The O’Reilly Factor” and that O’Reilly regularly talks about the war between Judeo Christians and the secularists. He said he’d been wondering what it was and that, since I had a book on it, he figured he’d ask me. So, I explained to him what it meant to be a secularist, and I expressed that I thought O’Reilly’s fear that a secular world would be a moral vacuum was overblown. I really expected him to be a Christian, but Jimbo said he wasn’t religious, that he just concentrated on being a good person. My kind of guy. So we proceeded to discuss all kinds of topics, and it quickly became apparent to me that Jimbo was two things:

  1. An alcoholic
  2. Not very discriminating in determining what he believes

I counted five beers on the short ride from Atlanta to Memphis. Now, far be it from me to call someone an alcoholic without cause, but five beers in 80 minutes by yourself on a Sunday night before a work day raises a red flag. Then, after I explained that my wife is in the medical field, he went on to reveal that his doctor told him he has a fatty liver. Yikes – that’s the condition that precedes cirrhosis. Anyhow, it was Jimbo’s reaction to this news (“Doc says I should stop drinking, but I don’t really drink that much.”), along with his comments about several other things that led me to believe that he believes what is comforting to him, rather than what makes sense.

For example, Jimbo only drinks “purified water.” He says it is “ionized, deionized” (whatever that means). Jimbo says it means they inject extra oxygen into it, which, as everyone knows, is good for you. I asked Jimbo what made him think that was better. I asked him what he thought the primary oxygen in-take mechanism in the human body is. He correctly noted that it was the mouth and the nose. OK, Jimbo, after that. He looked a little puzzled so I helped him out. It’s the lungs, buddy. The blood that courses around the lungs is picking up oxygen. The blood cruising around the stomach isn’t worried about oxygen, I said. One thing I really liked about Jimbo was that he didn’t ever feign certainty. To my comments, he just said, well maybe there’s something else going on there. Wisdom comes out of nowhere sometimes.

Jimbo also told me that he has been doing a lot of reading (on the internet) about homeopathic medicine. He explained that pharma companies aren’t interested in curing anyone because it cuts into their profits. As I happen to consult in the pharma industry, I took the opportunity to probe a bit further. It seems that Vitamin C is the cure for cancer, but the drug companies have managed to successfully keep that information from the public. So, I asked Jimbo how he came to find out this well-guarded secret. He said he just looked around on the internet. So, I asked why he thought Rathergate exploded through the internet while the cure for cancer sat there, with very little public awareness. He just gave me a quizzical look. I told him that I believe that the personal benefits that await any individual associated with curing cancer would render the cure all but inconcealable. Quizzical again, he said, “Yeah, I guess it’s really hard to know what’s true and what’s not.” There’s that wisdom again.

When we initially started talking, talking about religion, I explained that believing in religion is expensive, because it forces people to go to a lot of trouble to live a certain way, a way that does not come exactly naturally. I said that if I was going to buy in, it’d take a lot of convincing. He was on board with that. So, as the plane was about to land, I remarked to him that just about any belief has a cost, and that some of things we’d discussed have very serious ones (He said he didn’t have much use for regular doctors, especially the one who told him about his fatty liver.). I think he agreed with this, at least in principle. As we parted ways, I asked Jimbo to promise me that, if he ever got cancer, he’d see a doctor AND eat his vitamin C. He smiled and nodded his head as he walked into the bar to catch the last two minutes of the Atlanta/Philly game. Nice guy. Misled, but nice.

As I walked on, all I could wonder was how many Jimbos are out there. How many really cool, really friendly, really ethical people are saddled with an inability to tell truth from fiction? How many people have the best of intentions, the discipline to do what’s right, but lack the wisdom to know when their minds are choosing ideas that give them the illusion of control in a chaotic world. (Vitamin C? Purified water?) Whatever the number, it’s too high. My quest is enlightenment for the Jimbos of the world. I wonder if he’ll think about what we talked about. I know I did.



Life, Einstein, and Texas Hold Em
January 15, 2005, 4:23 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Living, Hijinks, My Theories

Having been in Las Vegas for the week on business, my mind has been swirling around gambling. Something occurred to me as I was watching some folks play cards in the MGM Grand. Actually, as my main objective was to get a bit loose, I was trying to do the math on which was the better financial move – dropping $10 a drink every half hour or losing money gambling while getting free drinks. This kind of absurd contemplation is not abnormal for me – I often don’t realize it’s happening until something shakes me from it. This time, it happened when I realized that there are insights to be found in thinking about life as a hand of Texas Hold Em poker (hereafter simply referred to as “poker”).

I’ll admit up front that this analogy is limited in its reach, however, the similarities are actually pretty interesting. In “poker,” players are dealt two cards face down. Think of those as genes. Then, the dealer proceeds to reveal three cards, known as the flop. Then another card, the turn, and then a final card, the river, are revealed. The flop, the turn, and the river are communal cards, so players combine any three of them with their two cards to make a hand of poker. In between each of these revelations, players have the opportunity to bet on their hand, even though they don’t know the outcome until they see the river card. Think of communal cards as the environment. So, essentially, the object of the game is for players to play their two cards in conjunction with the right combination of communal cards to win the hand. Here we see stark parallels between “poker” and life.

The first and most dramatic similarity is this – even if you start out with the best two cards available (two aces, for example), it’s still possible to lose. On the other hand (forgive the pun), you can start out with what appears to be nothing (say, a two of hearts and a four of clubs) and end up winning. Such is life. But before we get too far, maybe it’s worth considering what it means to win.

In poker, there’s no confusion about this. In life, however, not so. To some people, a lot of people, winning means getting rich or becoming powerful. To others, winning is being well liked. To still others, winning means nothing more than not losing. To me, winning means spending as much time as possible living the good life, which is living a life inspired by love, guided by knowledge, and free from unnecessary constraints. The love and knowledge part, which is the most uncommon of common sense, comes from Bertrand Russell (“What I Believe,” essay from 1925. Now found in Why I Am Not A Christian, Touchstone, 1957). The freedom from unnecessary constraint part comes from me.

I believe people erect all sorts of mental barriers to their enjoyment of life. They buy into social pressures and unreasonable traditions without fully examining them, which dramatically reduces their assessment of the options available to them. Take, for example, the notion that you must have a 9-5 job to be responsible. It is a rare case indeed for someone who chooses an “unorthodox” career to not be inundated with warnings and disapproving advice from people who supposedly have their best interests at heart. And these are the few who make it over the barrier. We’ll never know how many aspire to, but do not. But this is about “poker.”

Suppose you’re dealt two aces right from the start. This would be the equivalent of being born with natural talent and/or good looks. But in life, just as in poker, the environment ultimately tells the tale. You can be very smart and/or good looking and it will amount to nothing if you’re born into poverty in a place where upward mobility is all but impossible. In poker, two aces will end up yielding a measly pair if the communal cards don’t work with them. (It’s such a letdown to see 3,5,7,9,10 when you start out with such a bang.) But sometimes, you can start with nada and come out on top.

Say you’re dealt a two of clubs and five of hearts. This isn’t encouraging. Many people will fold, which is not at all insignificant. In life, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that winners are winners because they’ve had it good from the start. Sure, this is the case sometimes. But, especially in America, how you start out has a lot less influence than what you do with what you’ve got.

In “poker,” with a two and a five, if the flop shows three fives, you’ve got yourself four of a kind, regardless of what happens with the turn and the river. It’s very likely that you’re going to win, even though you started with pretty much nothing. Oh, if life could be so easy. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes it is, sometimes, for some people. But, usually, life comes with the following sinister complication: you may indeed have a winning hand (that is, your genes and the environment in which they find themselves), yet you may never enjoy the fruits of it. This is where the limitations of this analogy begin to reveal themselves. Luckily, however, other poker games offer the opportunity to further mix some already slightly pureed metaphors.

In Texas Hold Em, at least from what I’ve seen, after the river card is shown, you reveal your cards and it’s obvious who has won. If it isn’t, the dealer makes the call. But there are some poker games, like seven card stud, where you have to proclaim what you have in your hand. If you mistake what you have, you can lose, even if your cards are better than anyone else’s. As a silly example, if you claim three of a kind when you have a full house, you’ll get beat if someone has something better than your three of a kind, even if it won’t beat a full house. This is a lot like life.
I’ve known so many people with wonderful talents and attributes who didn’t recognize them because they were focused on the talents and attributes they didn’t have. Far from making the best of the cards in their hand, they spent their time lamenting that they did not have the cards they wanted. And in those occasional moments of truth, they looked down at their cards and saw a pair when they had a straight. They acted accordingly…and lost, which means they failed to realize their aspirations (which were misplaced to begin with). It needn’t have been this way.

The value of the poker analogy (strained as it is in places) is that we can infer two very practical rules about winning at life. The first is simple – it aint over till the last card is overturned. Things may not start out pretty, but that doesn’t mean we’re destined to lose. From this, we derive determination and hope. Conversely, if we start out with all the cards, we should take care not to assume that we will still have all the cards when the chips are pulled from the middle of the table. From this, we learn humility and an appreciation for accomplishment. The second big takeaway is a mandate of sorts.

In the card game of life, we must play the cards in our hand, not anyone else’s. We must play them; we cannot allow them to play us. Our environment will, in many cases, be beyond our control. Our best chances for winning come from working with it, not against it. Therefore, we must make the most of our cards, which, more than anything else, requires us to see them for what they are. If we start with a five and a two off-suit (or bushy eyebrows, crazy hair, and an ostensible inability to mentally focus on anything for long), we can’t be shooting for a royal flush (or a life on the red carpet). It will never happen, so any communal cards that offer false hope to that end must be ignored – better to see our cards for what they are and be on the lookout for communal cards that compliment them. Einstein produced some of his most remarkable work as a patent clerk in Switzerland. Had he lamented that a teaching position was not in his cards, he may not have had the motivation or energy to dwell on the toughest questions that have ever faced mankind. Instead, he exploited his environment to make the most of his extraordinary genes, and we are all the better for it.

As for me, I took a seat at the bar. The cards in my hand were shaped like dollar bills and I didn’t have enough of them to risk my buzz on bad luck. Such is life in pursuit of the option



Hope, Despair, and the Need to Believe – An Argument for Reason
January 7, 2005, 4:21 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Philosophy, Science

Original Post (with comments)
I want to follow up on a comment about the post from two days ago. Michael Gersh (of Zero Base Thinking fame), has this to say about the opinions of many of secularists who come off more as anti-religious than agnostic:

Maybe I have missed something here, but isn’t religion, or at least the need to believe in that which we have no logical answer for, hard wired into the human brain, by the same forces of evolution that shaped the rest of our ouvre? Smug secularists posting here might believe themselves to be above this basic human need, but I think that this is a distinction without a difference. While many so-called rationalists might disbelieve the Bible’s miracles, they merely believe in something else. Maybe global warming, or other environmental belief, that Michael Crichton has so presciently perceived as akin to religious belief. Maybe it is some sort of overreliance of other human constructs, such as the social contract, or even the supremacy of rationality itself.

None of us are immune to this human tendency to believe in some specific explanation for an essentially unknown, and perhaps unknowable condition.

I don’t think we necessarily have an inherent need to believe in the inexplicable so much as we have a hard-wired need to explain our environment, if for no other reason than to connect cause with effect. Before we can associate a certain set of conditions with a certain outcome, we have to be able to identify and categorize what we perceive. If a caveman witnesses the mauling of a fellow tribesman by a lion, his mind notes the existence of a furry and ferocious entity. It then categorizes it as an entity that can kill humans. The next time he sees one, even if it looks a little different (perhaps it’s female and the first was a male), he will generalize that he is in danger. This is key mental adaptation for survival, one that is well distributed throughout the animal kingdom. But with humans, there is a layer of cognition that does not come installed in the brains of our animal brethren. This is where the belief problem comes from.

In my view, non-human animals, though driven by emotion, are supremely rational in their perception of their environment – water is wet, always. They cannot be otherwise. Humans, however, have the free will to choose to interpret their world irrationally. A human can decide that a cobra is not dangerous, even when his animal emotions drive him to act as if is. Though this free will undoubtedly serves us well, it has a downside. We can fall victim to false hope.

In a paper called, “The Evolution of Hope and Despair,” University of Michigan professor of psychiatry and psychology, Randolph Nesse, lays out the idea that hope and despair are simply emotions driven by our appraisals of whether or not our environment will favor or disfavor the realization of our goals. Like other emotions, they serve to drive us to do things that will keep us alive long enough to reproduce. They are sort of the uber-assessors of our surroundings. If we find ourselves in circumstances that bode well for us, we have hope, so we stick around. Alternatively, if our circumstances look grim, we feel despair, which pushes us to change our situation. But what happens when we cannot explain our environment? What happens when we have no categories for the phenomena we witness?

As an absurd example, suppose a caveman stumbles upon a spaceship. Neither he nor any of his tribesmen have ever seen anything even remotely like it, so they are perplexed, to say the least. But uncertainty does not make for decisive action, which, in harsh times, is an utter necessity. Indeed, in a heated competition for survival, prolonged contemplation of the unknown is often a grave mistake. Conclusions must be drawn so that decisions can be made. The human mind, given the choice between choosing an explanation for the unknown, even if it’s a bad one, and choosing to leave the matter unsettled, will, therefore, choose an explanation. But how?

Our rational animal perceptions will provide us with competing explanations for what we observe. Then, we will decide which one to believe – by choosing the one that offers the most hope. Just as we’re emotionally drawn to situations that give us the warm, fuzzy feeling in our stomachs, so are we drawn to hopeful situations. So, while I’m not prepared to say that we have inherent need to believe in irrational things, I will say that our need to explain our world coupled with our attraction to hopeful situations sets us up to fall victim to irrationalism, and not just with respect to religion.

The lottery is one of the ultimate examples of false hope. We’ve all seen poor people in line at convenience stores spending money that would more intelligently be spent elsewhere on scores of quick picks and scratch-off games. In fact, on more than one occasion, I’ve heard people say, “When I win the lottery, I’m going to…..” Now, it’s one thing to say this in jest; it’s quite another to believe it. Many people really do, and this is a shame because I am convinced that this false hope removes much of the necessity to recognize reality for what it is and to act accordingly.
It is a fact of life that many people are born into terrible circumstances. Those who rise above them are the ones who see and accept their plight for what it is. This acceptance is the first step in determining how to overcome whatever impedes their achievement of their aims. False hope blurs reality and fosters inaction, or worse yet, useless action. The same is true of irrationality.

I think there are two types of secularists – the ones who apply rationality to all things, including religion, and the ones who happen to be rational about religion, but have no particular allegiance to it in other matters. I am one of the former. Michael, I think the smug secularists you refer to would find themselves among the latter. In any case, there is one staggeringly straight forward fix for the problems that come from the need to explain and the attraction to hope. It is called critical rationalism.

We start by admitting that we can be certain about nothing. Nothing. Then, we decide to put everything into one of three categories – things we believe, things we do not believe, and things we choose to leave unsettled. To determine what we believe and what we do not believe, we demand evidence, and we favor evidence that disproves assertions over evidence that proves assertions (since we can never really prove anything). We weigh the evidence for possible explanations and decide what to believe and disbelieve, and when the evidence is not compelling one way or another, we abstain. We are not cavemen, which means ambiguity is not dangerous for us. We do not have to act or die. This means that we can (and must) become comfortable with uncertainty. If we are successful at being critically rational, we are immuned from the perils of false hope and irrationality. But rationalism for the hope-addicted mind does not always come easy.

At the end of the day, each of us must decide how we will think. If we do not, we will vacillate opportunistically between rationality and irrationality – invoking either one based upon personal convenience. But deciding to be rational at all times is like deciding to be nice all the time. It’s an aim, an intention. We will, from time to time, falter. However, as long as we recognize the value of rationality, we will get back up and keep moving forward. That’s life. It’s best if we focus on our own journey and leave the arrogance to the certain, who always learn sooner or later that nothing is certain.



Musing on Logical Consequences and the Absence of Religion
January 4, 2005, 4:11 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Living, Philosophy

Original Post (with comments)
Some people, and I am one of them, have so internalized rationality that we carry out the logical consequences of what unfolds before us in everyday life. This is a good thing and a bad thing, mostly good. On the bad side, it is easy to get distracted by playing out scenarios in your head – you can easily miss the big picture. However, good discernment skills (that is, being good at separating the important from the unimportant) can easily nullify this problem. On the good side, being the “logical consequence” type affords one an infinite amount of practice at prognostication.

Just sitting on a sidewalk observing a city, you can find countless things to observe and predict, especially if you’ve seen most of them before. You see a guy backing up from a news stand and a woman hustling along looking for a cab, and you predict that they will collide. If they do, check, you were right. If they don’t, your mind determines the reason and then catalogs it for future consideration. Maybe this sounds like its bordering on OCD, but I can assure that it happens to me with no effort whatsoever. I watch my 14-month old walk (he’s still pretty sketchy) and feel myself cringing as he approaches an obstacle that I know he’s not accounted for. Down he goes. I’m not conscious of what my mind is doing until I feel my shoulder muscles tightening up to my neck. Logic, I think, can often be used in the same way to predict human behavior, especially considering the evolutionary history we all share.

By considering the social nature of the human animal, we can make interesting predictions about hypothetical scenarios. Betrand Russell once asked what would happen if we could all suddenly read each other’s minds. After a time painful disillusionment, he predicted that we’d eventually have to accept each other for who we were, warts and all. This is because the alternative would be living a solitary existence. Sounds about right to me. Humans don’t do well with loneliness and will do most anything to avoid it. (I love the part in Isaac Asimov’s, I Robot, where in comparing the robots to humans, he mentions that they almost instinctively crowd together in the dark. Such insight.) What else can we learn from our nature?
Suppose all religion (not spirituality) was suddenly gone from the world. What would happen? Would humans fall into mass moral depravity, inevitably destroying the environment, and killing each other off? There are many who would say yes. In fact, this is one of the chief arguments against secularism. Just today, Dennis Prager penned a column entitled, “Better Answers: The Case for Judeo-Christian Values” (Read It). He is apparently embarking upon a quest to make a rational case for Biblical values, making sure to contrast them with other available value systems. (Good luck, Denny – brighter minds have failed time and again.) He claims that secularism was responsible for the horrors of Nazism and Communism. Aside from the fact that a major component of the anti-semitic sentiment in Germany had its roots in the belief that the Jews killed Christ, the notion that secularism was to blame is preposterous.

Secularism is nothing more than the absence of belief in superstition and the irrational. If anything, it was secularism (via the use of reason), much more than religion, that made a stand against communism. It was the simple acknowledgement of the fact that the communist ideology results in massive human oppression, death, and unhappiness that stirred men to resist it…with force. And I think rationality would accomplish just as much in the absence of religion.

Once again, humans are social creatures. We are genetically programmed to cooperate and seek the approval of those we admire. This, in conjunction with the quest for status, is sufficient to order human society, and it was doing a fine job long before religion ever came along and co-opted, codified, and extended the social rules created by the notion of safety in numbers. Groups of early hominids that adopted rules of morality simply fared better than groups that did not. Over time, the socially forward-thinking emerged as the winners by default – there were no hominids left but humans. If religion is all that stands between us and the decline of civilization, then someone needs to explain how mankind even made it to the inception of monotheism. Oh, that’s right. Our creation signaled the emergence of the one true God. Isn’t that convenient? Myths aside, by current accounts, we should have killed ourselves off millennia ago. No, the golden rule and all its accoutrements are merely elaborations on the concept of reciprocal altruism, a concept that we are wired to make work. And so we would in the absence of organized religion. But perhaps not without a bit of adjustment time.

The logical consequence of the absence of religion, admittedly, may very well be the immediate presence of a moral vacuum. Just as a mind reading population would initially recoil at the thoughts of their contemporaries, it’s fair to say that our society may indeed see an initial decline in morality. But, just as human nature would come to rescue in the case of mind readers, so would it in the absence of religion. Pragmatism would take over, and logic is the preferred tool of the pragmatist. Contrary to what religious apologists would say, the rules of social conduct would quickly avail themselves. Most of us would avoid stealing, killing, raping, or cheating because it simply doesn’t make sense to do so, like some do now. Others would avoid those behaviors because of fear of social consequences (which, of course, would include punishment), like most do now. Still others, those who occupy the outer fringes of the bell curve, would operate sociopathically, as all do now. But the social order would emerge – it’s in our blood. And it would likely be a great deal better than the social rule set with which we currently find ourselves shackled.

In a way, the social rules of a rational, non-dogmatic society would resemble the invisible hand in economics – non-coerced, distributed, self-centered decision-making that resulted in the overall good of society. Indeed, religion is not unlike socialism or communism in that it centralizes the decision-making of the masses, forcing them to conform to the system or risk great peril. So, for my part, when I imagine the logical consequences of a world without religion, I am not disturbed at all. I am heartened. Alas, this is nothing more than a thought experiment.
Ours is world that is, and has been for many centuries, dominated by religious views. Even though we may envision the quasi-utopia of a rationally conceived social order, we have no choice but to recognize that we can’t there from here. We, the secularists, are the minority, and the majority has a vested interest in discrediting us. This does not mean we wage war, for we are on a quest for individual freedom, the corollary of which is the notion that all people should be taken as individuals. This implores us to give credence to the reasons by which real people embrace religion. We can daydream of a world without it, but we can’t let our fantasies lead us to galvanize ourselves against all things religious. Instead, we must engage open minds in thoughtful debate. For some folks, abandoning religion simply costs too much. Unless we’ve walked in their shoes, who are we to judge? This is the high road, the enlightened road, in my view.

And as for the religious who will remain vigilant in their assault on our views, we can take comfort in knowing that, though they have shrouded their laws in supposed divinity, it is still a fact that Hester Prynne did not wear the scarlet letter for God; she wore it for man.



Musing Between Theory and Practice
December 21, 2004, 4:01 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Philosophy

Original Post (with comments)
Yesterday’s column raised some eyebrows. I got a few notes from folks who felt it was totally out of character and even somewhat irrational. They were concerned that I was standing atop one of the slipperiest slopes known to man. Indeed, they were right. I am, but it’s no cause for alarm. It seems to me that the difference between conservatism and liberalism is often the difference between theory and practice, and predictably, I come down somewhere in the middle. I really think it’s possible to be a compassionate hard-ass.

Bertrand Russell is my favorite philosopher – hands down; it’s not even close. The things he observed and codified about humanity were so prescient that it’s somewhat eery to read them this many years later. One thing he harped on a bit was the treatment of criminals. In a brilliant little book entitled What I Believe (1925 – I have it as an essay in the book, Why I Am Not A Christian – 1957), he wrote:

I merely wish to suggest that we should treat the criminal as we treat a man suffering from the plague. Each is a public danger, each must have his liberty curtailed until he has ceased to be a danger. But the man suffering from the plague is an object of sympathy and commiseration, whereas the criminal is an object of execration. This is quite irrational. And it because of this difference of attitude that our prisons are so much less successful in curing criminal tendencies than our hospitals are at curing disease.

Now, Russell was not so naive as to overlook the valuable deterrence that comes with criminal punishment. His point was, however, to say that, “The vindictive feeling of ‘moral indignation’ is merely a form of cruelty.” This is where I’m coming from in suggesting that even the most economically conservative among us should be careful in simply dismissing the bad decisions of the poor and ignorant as “their problem.”
The liberal theory, the one that underlies much of Russell’s thinking (he had serious socialist tendencies), is that it is unfair to hold people responsible for all of their actions if there are mitigating circumstances. The conservative practice is that this is exactly what we must do if it is an orderly society that we seek. I think there’s middle ground here.

What often gets lost in these kinds of discussions is the fact that the history of the human condition has been most characterized by Mother Nature and social groups holding individuals accountable for their actions, regardless of circumstances. Either you provide for yourself or you die. This is the harsh reality of our animal heritage. And while it is a true that it is now possible for people who do nothing toward their own self-preservation to survive and even prosper, we should only see this as an achievement if it does not unravel the system that gave rise to it. This is where practicality rules the day.

It is clear that the rule of law is the tie that binds a free society. If we lean too far left, it is the rule of law that perishes, even as the wards of the state (and the guilt-ridden achievers) applaud the victory of theory over practice. When we distort the nexus between actions and consequences with proximate causes, we subvert the role of our criminal justice system and invite chaos into order. Practicality, therefore, requires us to be compassionate hard-asses when it comes to attitudes about economic stratification.

We should think of our economic system as an anonymous one – anonymous in terms of individuals operating within the system and anonymous in terms of the forces that shape the free market (the invisible hand). Capitalism, by taking advantage of human nature, is based upon this very idea. We recognize at the outset that there will be winners and losers, but we also recognize that our system produces more winners than any other ever devised. The question is what to do when anonymous losers become real people with real problems.

Lefties will, whether they know it or not, advocate changing the system to eliminate losers entirely – this is the vision of the welfare state. It is, quite obviously, impossible, which is why liberals are so often accused of living in fantasy land. My recommendation is that we come up with a means by which we deal with losers once they appear on our radar screen. We should consider it an ancillary benefit that capitalism will alert us to the existence of those who are not faring well under it, not as indication of its cracked foundation. We cannot control a person’s starting point in life, which means we will inevitably come upon folks who cannot make the wise decisions that are the prerequisites to economic success in a free market society. This is not a bad thing. It’s a reflection on reality. What we do next is what matters.

I am vehemently against handouts of pretty much any sort, except in extreme cases. I think a good quid pro quo beats a handout most every time, so despite my compassion towards those who are hurt by our system, you’ll never hear me argue for more welfare benefits. The solution, I believe, starts with separating the truly needy from the able but mentally unprepared. The truly needy, the insane and disabled, are the exceptions to the handout rule. If they cannot reciprocate, compassion dictates that we help them anyway. It is the able but mentally unprepared who have no business getting handouts in my book.

This is where the time horizon of maturity concept comes in. If we can say that the primary feature of being mentally unprepared to thrive in a capitalistic society is being unable to envision and internalize the consequences of future actions, and I think we can, then disdain has no place in these discussions. “Their problems” are our problems, in more ways than we think, which means it is incumbent upon us to try to solve them…without disturbing the economic incentives that underlie our system.

We must introduce a quid pro quo function into the provision of welfare benefits, and I’m not talking about means testing. Means testing will tell us if someone needs help, but it will not tell us why, and it will not tell us what kind. The trick is to provide benefits that sustain life, but with a catch – they diminish unless educational milestones are met, but not just involving traditional concepts of education. The curriculum must, first and foremost, be designed to resolve the time horizon problem. This is the first filter, so to speak. We can’t forget that among the losers in our society, there will always be able-bodied individuals who do not possess the time horizon problem but simply will not act on their own behalf. (If we must dole out disdain, and I’m not saying we must, it is to these souls that it should be aimed.) I am convinced that most people, if properly grounded in the actions/consequences concept, will rise above their plight. The right kind of education is the first step.

The test will come when we then become hard-asses, forcing them to do what it takes…like everyone else. Those who pass, meaning they take responsibility for their lives, get to become anonymous again. Those who do not then go through another evaluation to determine if they’re really needy or just shiftless. The needy get the handouts; the shiftless get to experience the consequences they care so little about. It’s not perfect, but it’s ethical and, most important, it’s fair – we can’t change the system for a few bad apples, but we can at least be rigorous in the separation.
The tricky thing about straddling the line between theory and practice is that solutions often come out half-baked. I’ll admit that this one is. But it’s still better than considering the non-achievers among us as losers without a second thought. We’re better than that, so I’ll hold out hope that a fully-baked solution, one that embraces compassionate hard-assism (please add another hokey coined phrase to my credits), avails itself in due time.



Being Poor is Whose Fault? The Time Horizon of Maturity Reprise
December 20, 2004, 3:59 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, My Theories, Philosophy

Original Post (with comments)
Neal Boortz, my favorite radio guy, is fond of saying that poverty is a mental disease, that poor people are poor because they keep doing things that make people poor. It’s all about choices, says the talkmaster. I tend to agree, but there’s more to it than that. I concede that making bad decisions is the fastest way to get poor and stay poor. However, the question on my mind has to do with the culpability of people who consistently make bad decisions. What if the reason so many folks make consistently bad decisions is beyond their control? Then what? Then is it reasonable to advocate a social system that dooms these truly unfortunate souls to the perpetual motion machine of poverty?

I can almost hear the gasps. Here I am, one who pleads regularly for more personal responsibility, taking the blame off the individual. Allow me to elaborate. As I’ve mentioned before, a major component of human development is what I call the time horizon of maturity. This basically refers to one’s ability to project him or herself into the future to actually envision the consequences of actions that are being taken in the present. Children have a very short time horizon, and this is mostly a function of their limited understanding of the concept of time in general. As they grow up, however, they come to understand time, and if they’re raised in the right kind of environment, they come to be able to imagine themselves in the future. This is the key to making good decisions.

Many liberal-minded people think of conservatives as heartless because conservatives don’t often display a great deal of sympathy for people who have had the chance to do something with their lives but they simply haven’t. Indeed, as I myself have said many times, I went to public school. I could have kicked back and lived the high life (literally) every day , but I wanted a future that would not allow it. How is it fair that someone should be rewarded with part of my success (in the form of benefits that come from my tax dollars) for doing nothing, for contributing nothing? Though it has been a bit discomforting, the idea has been steadily dawning on me over the last year or so that maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the libs have gotten this one right…at least partly right – they’ve correctly identified the problem.

Imagine an 8-year old white boy named Jimmy. His father left shortly after he was born. His mother, Lila, has tried to work but she’s been fired again and again for poor attendance – some due to looking after Jimmy, some due to looking after herself a little too much. Now she’s on welfare. She gets food stamps and a check every month. They also live in government housing. Jimmy’s neighborhood is tough, even for 8-year olds. Most of the kids hate school and ditch it whenever they can. Jimmy is no different. When the school calls home to notify Lila, she’s too engrossed in daytime TV to care. Besides, she never exactly liked school herself. Now, the question, the one I can’t shake is this: when 20 years goes by and Jimmy is a derelict in his neighborhood (if he’s still alive), was it his fault that he never got his act together?

The answer revolves around whether or not he possesses the ability to see the future…with himself in it. I am more and more convinced that most people in poverty simply do not. If you say to someone, “You must study for this test in order to pass this course,” it means nothing if passing the course means nothing to that person. Passing a course is not an end in itself. It is the means to an end. In order for one to be motivated by this line of reasoning, he or she must be able to internalize the personal significance of passing the course. More importantly, the significance has to be more powerful than whatever immediate gratification must be foregone in the studying. So you can’t just pound home the platitude that you have to stay in school to succeed in life. It’s like a foreign language to one who cannot see the future, and we cannot hold this person responsible for not speaking a language that they have no experience with. This, more than anything else, is the poverty problem, and our society is not addressing it at all.

What are we to do? This is the big question. Here, I must side with my fiscally conservative brethren in saying that income redistribution is not the answer, at least not as it is done today. You can’t give money to someone who lives for today and expect them to do anything but spend it as fast as possible. This is the phenomenon that explains the staggering number of lottery winners who end up in jail for failing to pay taxes on everything they buy and for defaulting on massive debts. No, money is not the answer. We need widespread prognostication education.

One way or another, we have to get to the people currently in poverty and teach them to envision themselves experiencing the consequences of their decisions. We have to teach them to teach their children the same thing. We have to go back to basics. It’s all about action and reaction. As we do when teaching anything complex, we must start small and work our way up. We need to be able to diagnose where people are and then get them in a program to see further and further into the future. When we have a nation of amateur prognosticators, we can feel justified in holding them accountable for their actions. Until that time, we should be careful with our judgement. We should thank luck and circumstance that it is not we who see tomorrow so much fuzzier than we see today.