The Enlightened Caveman

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.

A Tribute to Solution Space
December 7, 2004, 3:52 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Living, Philosophy, Science

Original Post (including comments)
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
June 19, 2004, 2:39 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Caveman Concept, Philosophy

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.