Airplane Chatter and the Bar of Belief

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.


Hope, Despair, and the Need to Believe – An Argument for Reason

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

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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.

From the Mailbag – Taking Aim At The Caveman

Original Post (with comments)
Here’s a comment that was posted to the site recently by a new reader. Without coming right out and saying it, this person pretty much disagrees with my entire Enlightened Caveman concept. So, I’ll mount a modest counter-argument and leave it to you to decide. Keep in mind – my interest here is truth. If someone comes along and reasonably discredits these concepts, I’ll pull the plug right away. But it’ll take more than this offering, I can assure you of that. Here’s his comment:

Just found this blog, so this is a response to your basic thesis and not the above article.
As a species, we are domesticated. The human cranium has decreased in size since “caveman” times. This is typical of any animal that has become domesticated. Dogs have 30% less brain size than wolves. Another trait displayed by domesticated animals is that they retain juvenile characteristics into adulthood. They really never grow up. The instincts disappear. Many of the attributes you are contributing to our “old” brain are actually the result of domestication. We’re not nearly as intelligent as we used to be. Our sensory capacities are pitifully lacking. We are no longer wild…or free. Evolutionarily, we are going down a one way street that’s a dead end. Between the ages of 10 and later adolescence when the brain is done developing, a pruning of the neurons takes place. It’s not our nature for that to happen. We are not receiving the complex stimulation that is necessary for complex neural systems to completely develop. Do some research on the behavior and the proper care of lab rats. The parallels to our society may surprise you. There are still wild undomesticated cultures surviving on this planet, preserving the precious genetics that have taken hundreds of thousands of years to perfect. We have not progressed. What other animal is stupid (or arrogant)enough to completely destroy the environment they depend on for survival? We live in cages, someone else feeds us, and we even have exercise wheels. We are conditioned to peck at the right buttons on the ATM and out comes our reward. Once domesticated, an animal’s survival instincts are gone. It can’t be reversed.

Let me start by saying that cranium size is a major red herring. It’s irrelevant to any discussions of this type, mainly because no one (as far as I can tell) has been able to correlate minor differences with specific differences in mental ability. Here’s what we know. The trend in hominid evolution has been toward larger and larger brains. However, following the last ice age, there has in fact been a decrease (albeit relatively minor) in cranium size, but not just for humans. According to William Cromie of the Harvard University Gazette (read more), “As the severe climate of the ice ages ended, the bodies and faces of most large animals have gotten smaller. In humans, chewing softer, processed food also has contributed to reducing face size by decreasing the largeness of our jaws and jaw muscles. ” But again, even if we call Cromie a hack with an agenda (given his employer – it might be a safe bet), this shrinking human cranium has not taken place since we have been “domesticated.” Ergo, it does not follow that domestication had anything to do with it. (Oh yeah and the softer food and jaw aspect probably explains the dog/wolf thing, too, even though it’s also irrelevant.)

With the amateur stuff out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this discussion. This reader seems to feel that our modern world has dulled our senses and left us less mentally able than our “wilder” ancestors. While I’ll forcefully agree that our cultural evolution has become progressively kinder and gentler, I’m not about to assent to the notion that we are nothing more than genetic terriers when we were once wolves. This sounds absurd to begin with, and then the evidence offered confirms it.

We are not nearly as intelligent as we used to be? Uh. Pardon me? Come again? I realize that our society can come screeching to a halt if Nick and Jessica get into a tiff, but let’s get real – we’re smarter as a species than we have ever been. Not only do we simply know more stuff, but more of us actually know how to think than ever before. That’s probably, and I’m guessing here, the defining trend in modern human cultural evolution – the march toward rationalism. Every year, more and more people choose science over superstition, evidence over revelation, and knowledge over ignorance. So, I’ll vehemently disagree with that point.

A pruning of the neurons? It’s not in our nature? This is where I started thinking maybe someone was playing a joke on me. If, by pruning of neurons, this person means that the number of brain cells decreases after the brain is fully developed, then my response is, “duh.” It’s called aging, and it IS in our nature, since our genes code for this process to happen exactly as it does. It has nothing to do with reproduction so, again, it’s irrelevant to the original point, if there is one.

“We are not recieving the complex stimulation that is necessary for complex neural systems to completely develope. ” (Spelling error that reveals disdain for proofreading – his.) OK, this one we can do something with. The consensus, from my reading, among evolutionary biologists and evolutionary psychologists is that the dominating adaptations of the human mind over other hominids were socially oriented. This is to say that the complex stimulation necessary for our complex neural systems to completely develope (it’s kind of fun to pronounce it like envelope) is interaction with other humans. It was the human ability to figure out how to play well with others that launched mankind to the heights to which he has risen. And it’s true even today.

My son’s pediatrician told me that in his first six months of life, the world alone was enough to wire and myelinate the synapses of his brain properly – he could just hang out in his crib listening, watching, smelling, tasting, and feeling his environment and his brain would put it together perfectly. So we just left him alone in his stroller for hours at a time and you know what, she was right. Just kidding. Seriously, from there, however, she said that it was critical that he get lots of human contact. If he did not, the future would not bode well for him. This is common sense and it’s also anecdotal evidence that supports the idea that our mental focus is, first and foremost, on other humans, which is exactly what’s causing us many of our problems.

“There are still wild undomesticated cultures surviving on this planet, preserving the precious genetics that have taken hundreds of thousands of years to perfect.” Here’s where this intrepid reader betrays his ignorance regarding evolution (and maybe even his allegiance to the sham of multiculturalism). To say that some “undomesticated” cultures are preserving genetics would seem to imply that the domesticated ones are not preserving their genetics. Hogwash. This is no way to think about evolution. It’s simple – is there anything in the genome of any population on earth that is providing either a reproductive advantage or a reproductive disadvantage? If there is, then you can bet Mother Nature is on the scene making her cuts, getting ready for next season, but the answer is pretty much no. Sure, we still have some genetically-based childhood diseases that manage to persist due to their recessive nature. However, for the most part, anyone can reproduce. Or maybe it’s better to say that not being able to reproduce is significantly less likely to be genetic than it is cultural. The bottom line, the most granular idea you’ll find on this site, is that our genes have not changed significantly in tens of thousands of years. This is not my personal thesis. This is widely accepted by folks infinitely smarter than I (though I wonder how we’d compare in terms of cranium size – since that apparently matters now).

At the end of the day, I think I smell a socialist, or at least a multi-culti, anti-capitalist. “What other animal is stupid (or arrogant)enough to completely destroy the environment they depend on for survival?” Before I answer, please tell me the first animal to do this. It certainly isn’t humans, considering the fact that there are more of us now than there have ever been. “Once domesticated, an animal’s survival instincts are gone. It can’t be reversed.” This is operating on the flawed premise that our genetic survival instincts have disappeared. As I’ve said before, they’re there, lurking beneath the surface. If we were to suddenly find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic era, you can be sure that they’d take center stage in short order.

The few survivors would band together and look after each other. Family members would form the tightest circles. Outside the family (even sometimes in the circle), those who betrayed trust would be ostracized. Also, a leader or leaders would emerge possessing the skills necessary to survive in the new harsh environment. All others would pay very close attention to (and defer to) the actions and desires of the leaders, for this would be their life line. Most would die. The ones that lived would be the best at keeping the group strong. This is caveman 101.

This site exists to make the point that even though our lives are comfortable and we are not in a bloody daily struggle for existence, our genetically-driven social tendencies are completely unaware of that fact. They still focus on status and appearances at the expense of practicality and reason. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Sure, “domestication” is a factor, but only in so far as it indicates just how far we’ve come from needing the kinds of solutions our genes have to offer. We can either mount vapid arguments such as this one, insisting that doom and gloom are all the future holds (standard anti-capitalist rhetoric), or we can get to know ourselves and where we come from, and then deliberately decide what we want to be going forward. As I am an eternal optimist, I’ll take the latter, thank you very much.

Thanks for the fodder, lefty.

Musing Between Theory and Practice

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

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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.

A Tribute to Solution Space

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There’s concept in science known as solution space, and it colors my entire perspective. Solution space refers to the sum total of all possible solutions to a problem or question. For example, if you’re asked in which month Arbor Day falls, your solution space is a list of the twelve months of the year. The thing about solution space is that most problems have a massive number of possible solutions. One, or even a few, may be right, but most are absolutely wrong.

There’s more. Solutions that are wrong but not very wrong are often located closer in space to the right solution than solutions that are very wrong. So, since Arbor Day is usually the last Friday in April (I had to look it up, believe me), March is closer, in solution space, than February, which is closer than December. The idea is to kind of visualize an expanse of space and to think of the solution as being located in some tiny locale therein. In this case, our solution space is two-dimensional. But in most cases, when you factor in thousands of variables at work at any given time, the space expands in all directions.

I have found the use of the solution space concept very valuable over the years. For one thing, it keeps me very far from ever proclaiming certainty. Regardless of what we’re trying to explain, there’s a solution space for it and, very importantly, our imaginations play a large role in what areas of solution space we explore. We generally start where we’ve been before and extrapolate from there. Herein lies the wisdom of solution space. The moment we think we’ve thought of everything, we need only remind ourselves that solution space is gigantic and that the odds are very good that we’re missing A LOT. It’s humbling and produces a tendency to keep digging, which bring me to the next benefit of solution space.

Solution space is a creativity enhancer. By understanding that our current way of explaining things is limited to the insights gained from our previous experiences, each located in its own area of solution space, eventually we know where not to look. We’re forced to reject the familiar if our question remains unresolved. We have to find environments that stimulate our brains in new ways. As soon as we experience new things and new ideas, we begin to consider the permutations that surround them in solution space. It’s as if we’re instantly transported to a new area of space with all new possibilities. This is why people go to movies, and it’s also why a lot of people do drugs. Isn’t a big screen experience the ultimate cure for boredom with the familiar? And didn’t John Lennon and pals frequently refer to the mind expanding powers of whatever it was they were on? What the moviegoer and Lennon had in common was the desire to access some previously unaccessed areas of solution space. In looking for explanations for everything from meaning of life to the perfect melody line, the solution space jockey finds the thrill in the chase.

At some point in the internalization of solution space, we come to know that finding what we want may take a while. We develop tenacity to continue searching for solutions. Eventually, when we’ve run down one too many rat holes, it dawns that the most important solution space is the one related to what makes for a worthwhile question. It becomes instantly apparent that the good ones are daunting, where many have tried and all have failed, where the space of possibilities is enormous. But you have to pay your dues and the big questions aren’t big for nothing.

Getting a crack at the biggest expanses of solution space requires years of training. One must learn to tell the difference between a correct and incorrect solution – between truth and fiction, at the end of the day. The base of this skill is the commitment to the notion that possibilities may only be proven wrong, never right. The only thing to do is disprove as many as possible and then evaluate the field that remains. Based upon a certain set of rules, a solution may or may not be chosen as the preferred solution. And preferred solutions are only allowed if they are accompanied by an admission of uncertainty (solution space is big, even for simple things).

The rules that determine if we can even prefer a solution are the same rules that we use to determine if a solution is true or false. These are the rules of logic. Once they are mastered, we must use them to acquire as much knowledge as we can – about a wide array of subjects. The more we learn, the more difficult the questions we can pursue effectively. This is pretty much where I am these days.

I’m on a mission to learn as much as I can about this world. This blog, I hope, will help me do that. I am constantly pondering the role of our genes in our ability to understand our experiences. So I’ll throw out what I’ve encountered in my jaunts through solution space in the hopes that readers might help in the search. And if I stray into politics too much, well I can’t help it – the drama’s irresistible.

This World Is Not Deterministic…

This world is not deterministic. There is no fate. There is no “things happen for a reason.” There is action and reaction. Period. And if there ever was a “grand plan,” we humans would have ruined it long ago. At every moment in time, an infinite number of circumstances, some in whose creation we are accomplices and some that occur randomly, are triggering human emotions that define the nature of the moments to come. Those emotions are the motivators for our actions. When we take action, we influence the outcome of events that are still to pass – else we would not act, right? The thing is that our emotions can be very quirky. In only slightly differing circumstances, the same piece of news can elicit drastically differing responses. The only way you could ever say that the world is deterministic, that there is fate, would be if you could say that the emotional responses of humans can be predicted reliably. Like weather, we can predict that certain things will happen (like rain and temper tantrums), but we have a hard time saying when or where (OK, maybe it’s not hard when it comes to some people.). The point is that we humans and our collective, emotionally-driven actions guarantee against determinism. This is good news.

To say that the world is not deterministic is not to say that there are no laws of nature. There are, and if we isolate enough of the variables, we can see them in action whenever we want. The fact is that there is such a thing as absolute truth; we just can’t observe and/or grasp all of it. So we do the best we can, knowing that the quest to understand our world will serve us well as we navigate it. We call a spade a spade, and we rely upon reason and logic to get us as close to absolute truth as possible. They have worked spectacularly for centuries. Nothing else has ever come close. We can, therefore, anchor our minds with the idea that the best way to discover the truth of any situation is by considering it in a critically rational way, by maintaining a scientific sort of skepticism. And we’re most skeptical of the notion of certainty. There are far too many things for which our explanations are sorely lacking to be strutting around proclaiming that we are certain. The key is that by seeking truth and relying on logic and reason to get us as close as possible, we have a firm foundation from which to pursue our interests in life.

The world’s indetermism is perhaps most profound when it is invoked in pondering what to do with our time here. Many people are hung up about status and background. These people, whether they know it or not, are determinists. They believe rich people lead rich people lives and poor people lead poor people lives. They believe where you come from determines where you’ll end up. They believe that the way things have been is the way they’ll continue to be. For some of them, to struggle against this fate is an act of futility, one that diverts limited resources from the practical responsibilities of life. For others, their ambition is defeated, for whatever reason, and they cling to determinism to justify their failure to achieve. In both cases, these people have missed the boat. Recognizing that the world is not deterministic causes us to reject this line of thinking and replace it with an action, consequence, desire, competence, and opportunity mentality.

If we think of time as unfolding from this moment forward, we can think of every choice we make as having consequences. Most are insignificant, but some reverberate for a while. If we take an interest in truth, we get a serious leg up in accurately predicting events further and further into the future. The fact is that for just about anything you’d ever want to do, there’s information available on how to go about a doing it. And before anyone gets the idea that only sooome people do certain things, there’s information available about real people who routinely disprove this hairball idea. Now, it is true that some information is easily obtained, while some requires considerable investment. We might have to study or pay our dues by doing things we don’t like to get to the information we seek. That’s where desire comes in.

The indeterminist idea implores us to explore our interests to determine how best to take action. We recognize that our actions can impact future proceedings, and our quest for truth has us seeing farther and farther into the future. In short, we are aware of the real power of our actions if we choose wisely and commit to our decisions. All that remains is to figure out what we like. This requires a preference for experience, and an open mind with no tendencies toward judgements. We know right away when we find something we like, so we simply explore the consequences of pursuing it and weigh them against those of our other options. Eventually, hopefully, a dream life appears in our imaginations.

This is where things get good. I would say that a life that allows us to pursue our interests and spend our time with the people we care about is a pretty good template for a dream life. This is a life filled with “want to dos” versus “have to dos.” Visualizing something like this, for the indeterminist, is a substantial motivator. Desire is now properly tuned. All that stand between the desire and the realization of the dream are competence and opportunity. Competence is the practical side of the action/consequence concept. This is where we put our understanding of our world into use. We use the things we know to get to things we don’t know. Sounds a lot like logic, right? This is the investment in information component of the success strategy. Here, we are focused on the deterministic aspects of our indeterministic world. We are students of cause and effect. We are pattern detectors. We are generalizers, and we are synthesizers of random information. Most importantly, we’re goal oriented and we accept the realities that confront us.

If one’s desire is to make a living as a musician, he or she must accept the hours of practice that will be required. If one’s desire is to be a physician, he or she must accept the years of schooling that stand in the way. And, just to be clear, we recognize these hindrances as hurdles, not roadblocks. Every goal can be achieved. It’s all a matter of desire. How much are we willing to pay, and how confident are we in our ability to make the key decisions along the way? Thinking of these as hurdles keeps us optimistic. We need only decide which we will attempt to overcome. Opportunity can play a major role in these considerations.

With goals and the competence to achieve them in hand, we pursue opportunity. We do not await opportunity for we cannot expect it to come to us. We pursue it by understanding it. This is very simple – we study those who have achieved what we desire. Our fluency with the principles of cause and effect will alert us as to the actions that lay ahead. Once again, we weigh them against how much we want what we want. If the desire is strong enough, we do what it takes, create our opportunities, and realize our dreams.

All along the way, we have held tightly to the notion that every moment could go in an infinite number of directions. We have held tightly to the notion that the world is not deterministic. This has emboldened us to consider our actions as supremely meaningful in the unfolding of our lives. Stepping back in awe at our power, we have committed to the judicious use of it. We become knowledgeable and experienced so that we can make the most of our decisions. In a larger sense, we just want to make the most of the time we have. Seeing the indeterminacy of the world is the key to doing just that.

Truth and the Caveman Mind

If we’re going to reject the team mentality and the herd mentality to come to opinions and beliefs that make sense, we’re going to have to make sure we know how to find truth. This, it turns out, is not exactly easy for the caveman mind. Our emotions push us to buy into all sorts of ideas that make absolutely no sense.

The first step is realizing that certainty is a fantasy. Francis Bacon once said, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” I’d say he’s mostly right. However, even when we think we’re certain, we must ALWAYS recognize that we may be wrong. That means that we have to be stingy with our beliefs. We have to be skeptical. Unless we have a good reason to believe something, we are best served if we consider the matter unresolved until such time as things change.

This leads us to the question of how we pursue truth if we can’t ever be certain. The easy answer is evidence. However, not necessarily positive evidence. The approach to take is to determine all of the possible explanations for an idea. For example, if we want to know if the minimum wage is helpful to society, we must consider two main hypotheses – either it is or it isn’t. Then we look at all of the evidence against each hypothesis. The idea that the minimum wage is good for society is refuted by consistent statistics that indicate that high minimum wages lead to high unemployment. Therefore, though some may make a little more, more are out of work. The idea that the minimum is not good for society, on the other hand, has very little to refute it. Therefore, though we recognize that we can’t be certain, we can feel comfortable choosing the latter hypothesis.

This is called Critical Rationalism, and it is the very basis of the scientific method. Scientists put forth hypotheses and then spend their time trying to disprove them. Those that stand up to experiments make their way into theories. Those that do not are rejected (and they usually lead to more hypotheses). This is how man’s knowledge moves forward. We must use the same approach when considering all issues. Even though most of us lack the capability to test all ideas we encounter, we can do a little research to figure out where we stand.

The key is to be willing to say we don’t know. If there isn’t enough evidence either way, it is better to withhold judgement. For example, many people are certain that Michael Jackson is a pedophile. While the evidence we encounter in the news seems to point to his guilt, those of us who have never met him really don’t know. We’re therefore best served if we withhold opinion on the matter.

What makes this hard is the caveman tendency to take sides based upon group affiliation. We saw this most starkly with the OJ trial. Blacks overwhelmingly believed he was innocent, and whites overwhelmingly believed he was guilty. The only way to approach something like this is in a critically rational way. We must have the courage to reject our emotional leanings and look objectively at the evidence. It’s the only way.