Saturday, February 25, 2012

5 Ws

When teaching writing, we remind our students that for a writer to completely capture their subject they need to make sure they've answered the 5 Ws: Who?, What?, Where?, Why? and When?. (hoW is also thrown in here sometimes.) I've had several Ws on my mind over the past few days, though I can't promise that I will hit on all of them. I can promise that there is a connection between them.


The one that got me off on this train of thought, and the one that led me to reflect on the other four, came out of a conversation I had with a good friend of mine, and fellow blogger, over coffee. As we sat and sipped, she told me of a conversation she'd had with a friend of hers, where, for whatever reason, she was talking about myself, and this blog. She said she'd said, “He writes this kinda atheist blog.” This made me cringe, for several reason, most of which should be known to anyone who has been reading this blog for a bit.

The first is, I rather dislike the term “atheist,” and avoid it whenever possible. In fact, now that I'm well past the point of needing to make that aspect of my thinking as clear as possible, I've removed the term from the blog's header. It's not that I find the term offensive (I don't find any term for anything offensive). It's that I think the term "atheist" frames the ideological affirmation of reason, evidence and unrelenting questioning in a negative way. Not negative in the put-down sense, but negative in the sense of missing or lacking something. 

Of course, an atheist is "missing" something from their ideological toolkit- namely faith and/or superstition. But since these things are themselves negative concepts- belief in the absence of, or in spite of, evidence- framing atheism in a negative sense is rather like saying a meadow is "incomplete" because it is not full of holes. Of course, some will assert that the emphasis in the definition of faith should rest not on "absence" but on "belief." This fails, of course, because while there are many reasons one can come to believe something, only faith does it with no reason at all.

Why Not?

Since I have returned to the topic of terminology, I'd like to take a minute to add some thoughts on why, although I dislike the term atheist, I much prefer it to "agnostic." Now, I will be the first to admit that in a technical sense, I am an agnostic on every single question there ever was- there is nothing that I would ever assert I know the answer to, beyond any doubt, and or that there are any questions on which I will never change my mind. ('Cause I'm not a fundamentalist.) However, while this is sometimes thought of as "deep agnosticism" (not "deep" in the "Whoa man, that's deep," sense, but in the "very expansive" sense), it is actually the shallowest sense of agnosticism, since it only asserts the very, very obvious. Because this use of the term is basically the equivalent of pointing out that you are not omniscient, or pointing out that you are human, since both of these imply the same thing.

But calling oneself "agnostic" in reference to the question of the existence of God is very misleading, and inaccurate for most of the people who refer to themselves in this way. Because calling oneself "agnostic" suggests that on the question of God, specifically the Abrahamic God that is foremost in most people's minds, you think the odds are split right down the middle between his existence and non. If this were the case, if someone really thought there was a 50/50 chance that the Abrahamic God existed, in all his retributive, malevolent hegemony, shouldn't you really be taking Pascal's Wager

But most people I know who label themselves agnostic, don't seem to be living their lives under this assumption. They seem to be, like me, living their lives with the conviction that the existence of the Abrahamic God, with all his thought-policing, prayer-sometimes-answering, natural-disaster-as-teaching, and eternal-"rewarding"-and punishing, is very, very, extremely improbable. They also probably think, like me, that there is a somewhat greater chance of the existence of a non-meddling god, one who was genuinely perfect enough to create everything and not need to make any after-the-fact corrections (sending floods, sons, prophets, etc.) And then they may find more or less probable than that scenario (I find it somewhat more probable) the idea that there is no god, not in any sense that that we would recognize from the way he is spoken of on our little planet. (I'm not even considering the use of the term "God" to refer to the "universe" or "all existence" because that is so broad that it loses all meaning.) And of course, there are myriad other possibilities of which we have not or cannot conceive, which we are, technically, agnostic about, to the last.

But if someone is living their life without the thought of God crossing their mind on a regular basis, isn't spending precious hours wondering if they might be wrong, is that really agnosticism, at least in any meaningful sense? Someone attending church service or mass for the first time in many years, not sure what they believe, curious to see what this is all about, and wondering if they really have been missing something in their life, but still not convinced enough to believe, this would be agnosticism on the God Question, in a meaningful sense.

To put it another way, just to be very clear here, let's do a quick thought experiment. I am sitting in the living room of my family's house on the lake (gorgeous in the February still) writing on my laptop. There may or may not be an invisible, incorporeal elephant across the room from me. My non-omniscience makes it so that I am incapable of ever having an absolute, definitive, complete and total certitude on this question, one way or the other. I am technically agnostic about the existence of said elephant. 

But so what? The very, very, very slim possibility that there may be an invisible, incorporeal elephant sharing this view of the lake with me, is not affecting my thoughts, behavior or life in any way. (Beyond his utility for this thought experiment, of course. But the point stands.) So does it mean anything for me to say that I am "agnostic" about the elephant question? It really doesn't, not without utterly diluting the term "agnostic" itself, which is a beautiful term with a great many uses, much more purposeful than this.


In further reference to my friends description of these pages as "an atheist blog:" 

As often as I return to the question of non-belief, and as often as I employ faith as an example of quintessentially non-critical thinking, I've tried my durndest to keep the blog from becoming as single-track as all that. I may have failed. (My wife assures me that this is not the case, but she may have just been saying that.) And it is certainly not my friend's fault for framing it in that way, if that is how she has perceived it.

However, several recent experiences have led me to not think so harshly of writing an "atheist blog," though I'd at least like to switch the term to "a freethinker blog." I've gotten more and more feedback, through the comments section of the the blog itself, through email or RL conversation, that this is the aspect of the blog that has had the most positive impact on people's lives. And if this is the case, then I will continue on that theme less reluctantly than I have done recently.

So the W above refers to Who Do I Write This For? Well, I am number one. I enjoy writing, I enjoy debating, and I find that the process of writing helps me sort my own thoughts. But after that, I am writing for the number of people who find themselves in a position, as I so often do, where faith is assumed, where it is assumed that without faith, one cannot be truly good and where questioning faith is still regarded as one of the most offensive, inconsiderate, disrespectful things one can do.

And I write because it seems to help those people who haven't had the time to ponder these questions quite as much as I have, or read up on the topic quite as much as I have. Or maybe they have, but a different perspective is valuable to them. It seems to have helped some readers articulate thoughts they'd had themselves but couldn't express quite as clearly or succinctly as they wanted to.

Some people are surrounded by a family whom they love, and loves them dearly, but who consistently fail to consider that on some of the biggest questions in life, they don't see eye to eye. Your family may pray before every meal when you get together, and while there is no harm in letting people execute rituals that are important to them, since there is rarely a polite way to excuse oneself from these things if you don't believe in their efficacy, it often puts a freethinker in between the regrettable choices of being a fake or being rude.

Or your family may send you God-inspired well-wishes when you are sick, or tell you that they will be praying for you when you go in for surgery, or labor, or a job-interview. And again, while this is almost entirely harmless (although studies have shown that those who are prayed for recover more slowly), it puts a freethinker in the same undesirable position between dishonesty and rudeness. (I mean, you can say nothing, as I usually do, choosing the least rude rudeness, but even a "Thank you," lacks integrity, to those of us who are picky about such things.)

Or you may be a parent who wishes his children's education to continue free of the distortions and lies that come from a teacher injecting their superstitions into their curricula.

Or you may be a teacher in a public school who is ostracized by his colleagues for pointing out, "Well, no, technically the school can't hang 'Merry Christmas!' banners everywhere, as that violates the separation of church and state."

This blog can't get you out of those sticky situations on its own, but perhaps you, having had a little more time to read, think, and question, can.


This one has come up quite a bit for me personally, lately. When should someone "come out," as it were, to family and friends who assume that everyone they care about shares their unfounded superstitions? While this may sound rather trivial, especially to those who did not grow up in a family or community of strong believers, I have enough personal experience with this to assert that it is not as trite as it sounds.

There are some particularly unfortunate folks who have legitimate reason to believe that if they were to come out and assert their non-belief in the same superstitions that those around them hold dear, that they would be irrevocably shunned by many of their friends and family. There is no easy answer to this. It is a question that each individual must decide on their own, but they need to be cognizant of what they decide between: integrity or acceptance. I would always, always (try to) choose the former, but I am fortunate enough to not feel a deep-seated need to be accepted by more than a small handful of those nearest and dearest to me. Others need more widespread acceptance to fulfill their emotional needs, and find peace and happiness in their lives, and I can respect that. 

But most of us are probably in a slightly easier situation. Our family and friends are not so hard-core that we would be cast out, but we do fear that they would be deeply hurt by the revelation. When this is a spouse or a parent, that thought can be a very strong deterrent. We can imagine the pain and distress of a mother who fears that the souls of her children are eternally damned, even if we believe that fear to be entirely unfounded.  

So here the choice is a bit different, as acceptance is not the major consideration, nor is the question of integrity so black and white. For where does integrity lie, on the side of honesty, or on the side of consideration for others, even if means allowing them to live a delusion? 

This is essentially the choice I was faced with, when questions of faith and its place in the world reasserted themselves in my life with the birth of my daughter. And hence the blog, the most non-confrontational (medium, not content) approach I could take. I figured it would give me space to share my thoughts on this question and others, without requiring me to assert my non-belief to those who might be hurt by learning of it. Those who wish to read it, can. Those who don't aren't required to. (I do not believe that it is read by the people in my life who would be most disturbed by its contents.) And of course, I am always willing to discuss these questions, or any questions, with anyone on anything, at any time, in any place. (I mean real questions, meaningful questions.) 

This passive approach has worked for me, but others may not desire to make their thoughts quite so public, forcing them, ironically, towards a more aggressive approach if they really wish to make them known to those around them. Or not. If you are a freethinker, have shunned superstition and any show of it, chances are pretty good that those who are closest to you already know, or at least suspect, your thinking. It may be best to let them come to you. If they don't ask, it's probably because they don't want to know, and it may be best to respect that. If they do ask, be honest. Hide nothing. Dishonesty never got anyone anything of any lasting value.


Where can we do good? 

This is the question most on my mind as of late. While I think it is vitally important to know what you believe and why you believe it, to be able to articulate and defend it, that is only the very beginning. If we ever wish freethinking to be seen as more than a rejection of venerable institutions of morality, community and philosophy, we must demonstrate what we would put in its place. Destruction is easy. An earnest child who demands real answers would best the most sophisticated theologian in a debate, if it were judged objectively. We can't be content with simply trying to show people why we think they are wrong, or even that their superstitions are inherently harmful. That would be an abdication of the responsibility that comes with moral conviction.

Faith has wrought incalculable damage on this world. It has, and continues to, foster mistrust, hatred, prejudice and reliance on ritual over action. It plays into the absolute worst of the innate human tendency towards the in-group/ out-group dichotomy, where those who are "in" are loved, protected and cared for, while those who are "out" are mistrusted, feared and in extreme (but common) cases, murdered. (And please don't tell me what Jesus taught about loving everyone- when even a majority of his followers are actually practicing that, let me know.) 

But faith is not the only culprit. Life is the struggle for finite resources. Most species, and most of this one, are incapable of seeing beyond their own immediate needs and wants in this. Humans have the capacity to, if this skill is honed. Hone it. 

Because the world grows smaller every day, and there is less and less room for the irrelevant distinctions that have divided our species for the last 200,000 years. There is no more room for divisions based on the color of someone's skin, who they lie down next to at night, or which never-seen deity they bow down to. All distinctions are a product of our perception- the distinctions we envision in our mind exist no place else, even when they are shared with others. 

So let us take responsibility for putting the world back together. Neither Jesus, any other son of David or the 13th Imam are going to be coming back in glory any time soon. Nor is global-warming, financial-armageddon, or the end of fossil fuels going to utterly destroy civilization as we know it, though each will certainly be a test. 

But we have to accept that we will face these tests, or others like them, and that there is no parent in the sky to make it all better on the other side. What we cannot do is hole up with like-minded fellows and expect that we will be the lucky few who will come through unscathed. This would make us no better than a dazed congregation swaying and weeping in anticipation of the Rapture. 

But we also must accept that as the world gets more and more crowded, many will adopt this cowardly attitude. There is little we can do about that, expect set a better example.

So find some small bit of good you can do, and do it. You don't need to do it because you are an atheist, or agnostic or a freethinker, but because it makes the world a better place. And that's good for all of us, yourself included. 

But at the same time, don't forget why you are doing it, and don't be afraid to say it. You're not doing it because you fear punishment, or because you hope for some trivial reward. You're bigger than that. You're doing it because your reason has led you to understand that those of us who have managed to shake off the atavistic prejudices of fear and superstition also have the capacity to do more. 

So do it. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


If you've been paying any attention at all, and have read this blog regularly, you'll have noticed that each post is basically a thesis paper. By the end of the first paragraph, you know that "I'll argue that X is true," or "... that we should do X instead of Y." So I'm going to be upfront with you here, I can't be so clear this time. I don't think I actually have a point to what I am writing about today, though maybe I will by the end. Today, I really just have a bunch of similarly themed thoughts that have been bumping around in my head over the past few weeks. 

What I want to talk about today is intelligence, and the role it plays in human society. I've encountered a number of different discussions, and had a number of personal experiences, all over the last few weeks that have all kept redirecting my thinking back to this question of intelligence. So, please, come along as I try to sort through these out loud.

Intelligence, along with bipedalism, symbolic language, upright posture and opposable thumbs, but intelligence more so than all the rest, is the trait that distinguishes our species from the rest. (OMG I hate Blogger's spell-check- it didn't recognize "bipedalism" or "opposable.") And, from our species-centric perspective, we can't imagine anything more valuable. (Note, the having of a species-centric perspective does not distinguish us from other species at all, as most species seem to share this, each in their own limited way. If you were a bat, what could possibly be a more important trait than the ability to echo-locate? How else are you gonna find dinner?) Nevertheless, this natural favoritism of our most distinguishing trait plays out in complicated ways in human society, as it is simultaneously highly-regarded and deeply mistrusted.

(Before we go on, I should not wish to leave language behind. While symbolic language does not seem to be a prerequisite for intelligence up to a certain point- I just read about pigeons that had been trained to do math with numbers less than 10- it is fairly clear, from the evidence of species on Earth anyway, that intelligence beyond a certain point does require symbolic language. However, while I think language is a huge part of this discussion, incorporating it at every turn would add unnecessary complications, so I will try to simplify my points by sticking to "intelligence." When I finish Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, Language as a Window into Human Nature, I'll surely have a lot to say about language.)

So let me begin by discussing what I mean by intelligence being "simultaneously highly-regarded and deeply mistrusted." The first is more obvious- we all want to be smart, or at least thought of as such. Few things sting more than an insult to one's intelligence. (Except among middle-school boys, where being dumb is cool, though I always tell them that by high school girls don't think it nearly as charming as they do in 8th grade.) We say in awe when we recognize that someone is more intelligent than us in a certain area, "Wow, she's really smart." So while it isn't always the most highly regarded trait- some people would take looks over brains any day, despite the former's ephemeral nature- having it is generally regarded as a good thing.

But at the same time, being too smart, especially in the presence of those who are aware of the limits of their own intelligence, can be seen as something that merits distrust, suspicion, even animosity. Think about the way people talk about lawyers. While some of the distrust and dislike people have of lawyers is directed at the perception that they are greedy (surely some are, but the ones I know are the opposite of that) or that they use the law to manipulate the system for their own gain or profit (again, surely some do, but not all), most of the deep-seated distrust of lawyers stems from the fact that they are "tricky." But what people mean by "tricky" is that a good trial lawyer can force a witness to acknowledge the contradictions in their own statements- contradictions that the witness's own brain hadn't yet perceived. In other words, people distrust lawyers because they are generally smarter than the average person and their whole job is to use that intelligence to prove that what someone else is saying is false, misleading, inaccurate or impossible. (Perhaps Great Expectations' Mr. Jaggers is the epitome of what I mean here.)

This same mode of distrust towards intelligence and the people that have it can be witnessed in subtler ways in society at large. Try this: go out before dawn during hunting season in Maine, or anywhere, stop in a road-side gas station/ diner, saddle up to one of the counter stools, turn to the large flannel clad man in the orange cap next to you, and ask him what he thinks about the homo-eroticism in Shakespeare's sonnets. 

Okay, while there is certainly a cultural divide that factors in here as well, degree of education, and field of education, these are all part of the same discussion. But the point could still have been made with something less provocative, for any soliloquy on your part that tended beyond the monosyllabic in usage would risk your leaving with fewer teeth than you entered with. 

With these admittedly extreme examples in mind, we can surely imagine more subtle instances that we actually encounter in our own lives. I think that the these are the factors at work here- When someone with a more sophisticated intellect tries to explain a complex idea to someone who is struggling to grasp the concept, the struggler adopts an attitude akin to someone who fears they are being conned. Even while they understand on some level that the explainer grasps something they don't, they aren't willing (somewhat understandably so) to take the explainer's word for it, and adopt a defensive attitude of mistrust, often refusing to accept an idea that would have greatly benefited them.

We see this writ large in American society. It has become something of a truism that Americans don't want their president to be too smart; they'd prefer someone they can have a beer with. (If you're in a another country reading this, yes, that is accurate- the American public is willing to trust the launch codes of the world's largest nuclear arsenal to someone who we think would be hoot to shoot a few games of pool with down at the local pub.) At least to some degree, this underlies the current right-wing hatred of Obama, because many people don't feel like he is someone they could talk to, mano-y-mano, despite objective analysis that suggests he is the most moderate president since WWII .

While I am on the topic of the prez, it was actually the man himself that got me off on this train of thought a few weeks back. By any objective analysis, regardless of what you think of his policies, Obama is an intelligent human being (despite the common American usage of the term "idiot" to refer to anyone we disagree with.) In January, Obama gave his third State of the Union address. One of the most common accusations against him is that he sounds to "professorial," that he "talks over people's heads." Well, I guess if your head was up your ass, I can see how he could be talking over it, because each of his three SOTU addresses have been given at an 8th grade level. (Please follow that link, it's fascinating, and relevant to what I am about to say.) In fact, Barry Os SOTUs are all near the bottom of the charts in terms of the complexity of the language, behind even, yes, W. Of course, then begin the accusations that he is dumbing things down too much, being insultingly simplistic (he kinda can't win), except the average American reads at a 7th grade level. Yes, you read that correctly. Seventh grade. In other words, Johnny Tremain or The Old Man and the Sea, both 8th grade lexiles, are a bit of a struggle for your typical voter.

Now, reading level and intelligence are not exactly the same thing, but there is a very high correlation. Besides the obvious fact the literacy increases vocabulary, verbal intelligence and background knowledge (which does play into intelligence- you can build a better car if you have access to more parts), literacy is tied to working memory and the ability to sustain concentration, both essential for understanding complex ideas. And as us educators like to remind our students, "Reading is thinking," and like any muscle, the more practice a brain gets, the more efficient it is.

What it boils down to is this- The United States of America, the most affluent and powerful nation in the history of the world, is guided by the political will of millions of people whose intellectual capacity (and arguably emotional capacity as well) was arrested when the most important thing on their mind was whether or not that zit on their chin would be gone in time for the school dance. And what we look for in our leaders is that they fit roughly into this mold as well. (I don't think the stupidity problem is limited to the US, but such intense hatred of those we think of as "elite" is a particularly American phenomenon.)

You probably find that thought as depressing as I do. But fortunately, the situation is more complex than this. First, we must recall the meaning of the term "average." George Carlin puts a hilarious spin on it with his elucidation of the term in this particular context; "Think about just how dumb the average person is. Just think about that for a minute... and then remember, half the people are even dumber than that!" Fortunately, the opposite of this is also true. Half the people are smarter than the average, and this, probably, is enough to save us from the doom of our own self-inflicted stupidities. 

Let's just talk about this from a statistical perspective for a moment. Let's say you take an IQ test and you get a score of 138 (on the Weschler scale). (Yes, I am aware of the limitations inherent in using IQ as the sole measure of intelligence, but it is one, it is widely accepted, and it shows very strong correlations to the ability to perform all sorts of mental and creative tasks. So for simplicity's sake, I will stick to that here.) This score puts you in the highest category on any conversion-scale (Stanford or Cattel) and says your IQ is in the 99.5 percentile of the population. Well, doesn't that sound extraordinary! Aren't you special? 

Well, not really. Being in the 99.5% on any scale means that out of a sampling of 200 people chosen at random, you should, statistically speaking, have the highest whatever-you-are-measuring. But 200 people isn't really all that much, when you consider the population of the human race. In other words, there are 1.5 million people as smart as you in the US alone, and 35 million of your peers in the world. 

Don't feel so awesome now, do you?

The point is, while there are certainly a lot of truly dumb people out there, there are fortunately, a fair number of intelligent ones. And that may be enough.

Because despite what we think, we human beings are not innovators. We are copiers. (I owe most of what I am about to say to Mark Pagel, evolutionary biologist at Reading. That talk is from, "the world's smartest website." Check it out.) To use Pagel's example, think about how many truly original thoughts, ideas or innovations you have come up with in your lifetime. I'll give you a minute... Let me guess? Zero? If you are like most of the rest of us, that is very likely the number. (I actually thought I had two original ideas myself, both regarding how our evolutionary heritage factors into certain key aspects of the way we view the world, but alas, when I read Dawkin's The God Delusion I discovered that he, and likely others, had already thought of both of them. Not only that, but he even coined, in the book, the exact term I had settled on for one of those ideas. So, back to zero...)

Pagel's not talking about a poem you wrote, or some chords you put together on your six-string, because we all know how heavily influenced all art is by those who came before. He, and I, are talking about truly original, hand-axe, spear, wheel, fire, printing press, telephone, light bulb-type innovations, the kind that utterly and irrevocably change human history. Of course, that is setting the bar awfully high, but isn't that the point? Very, very few of us will be clever enough, or lucky enough, to stumble upon an idea so incredibly history-altering. 

And, the sort-of good news is that we don't need to. Because we have language. And we have writing. And we have long-distance communication. And now we have the Internet and mobile devices. And who knows what will come next? As Pagel points out, our species ability to disseminate a single good idea to millions and billions of new brains is at an unprecedented peak, and is accelerating at an accelerating rate. Much has been made of this, but think back to the Arab Spring. A single fruit vendor immolates himself to protest the abuse of corrupt officials, and, within months, tyrannies that had survived decades fall. 

As Pagel argues, the reason Facebook (not even an original idea itself, just a superior copy, now worth $70 billion) is so popular is that we have an innate desire, even need, to see what others are up to, particularly those who we admire, and imitate them. Not overtly, in a toady kinda way, but in the more subtle, "Oh, my friend that's in a band and knows a lot about music is listening to this band I've never heard of on Spotify. I should check them out, maybe they're good. And if they make it big, I'll be ahead of the curve for once, instead of 'discovering' an artist when they release their third album" kinda way. Of course, our thinking is never so overtly pathetic, but honesty will help you appreciate that something similar to that is going through your mind on a regular basis. 

And we all do it, every single one of us. Even those of us who like to pretend we are different, above all that. Whether you are the most mall and Facebook addicted wannabe, or the most extreme living-off-the-grid anarchosocialist queer pagan, you are a target market. Somewhere out there, an idea, a style, a trend is heading your way that you will snatch up greedily because it will make you feel more like what you envision yourself wanting to be, or at least thinking you want to be. And the chances are very, very incredibly slim that the idea will be your own.

I was reminded of this yesterday when my wife and I actually went to the mall, something we do about twice a year. She was getting dressed, and came down in a leggings, a long shirt that came below her butt, a long open "sweater" (though it probably weighed 3 oz), and knee high leather boots. She said, "Do I look ridiculous? This is what everyone is wearing." Well, I thought she looked smoking hot, so I told her so. But if you know my wife, you know that she is not "trendy" in any way, which is one reason I adore her. Most of her favorite clothes are from the 1940s. But nevertheless, this is the "look" right now, and the allure of that is strong. 

(I am so glad to be a guy, since our styles don't change all that much. I'd wear the same perfectly innocuous , boring, one-in-a-million outfit everyday if I could, because I happen to be of the opinion that if you need fashion (or piercings or tattoos) to show "who you are," there may not be much there to begin with. If an article of clothing or spot of ink can sum you up, you must not have a lot to say. But that's just my own snotty, superior opinion, so, please, don't mind me.)

Okay, so I've gotten from intelligence to fashion, by means of discussing how ideas spread, and how readily our brains take them in. We are copiers, and in a sense, that's okay. This fact does, again, as Pagel argues, have two effects. One, our ability to copy does put a downward pressure on any one individual's necessity, and hence, ability, to innovate. Why do all the hard work of coming up with an original idea when you can just wait for one of the other 7 billion people on the planet to do it and copy it from them? It's bound to happen, and statistically speaking, bound to happen fairly soon. 

For example, my wife is photographer. Using a digital camera requires storing photos on SD cards, which can be corrupted, or get lost or destroyed, before the images are downloaded and backed up. When these photos are of a once-in-a-lifetime event, such as someone's wedding, this is a big deal. Now, when I take a picture on my Android phone, it immediately (if I have it set this way, which I do) uploads that photo to a folder in my Google+ account, where it is private until I share it. So I asked my wife the other day, "When is your camera gonna do that? Why aren't they already making professional digital cameras with 4G connections that immediately store all your photos in the cloud so that they are automatically backed up the instant you take them?" 

That's not an original idea, but it is a combination of several ideas to come up with a new solution to a relatively new problem. I hadn't heard of this yet, and neither had she, but a quick google shows that there are already plenty of cameras that do just that, and more on the way that will do it more efficiently. So even as I was thinking I had come up with something fairly original, products were already rolling off the line that anticipated what I had been thinking. So now, instead of me having to build one for her, she can just go buy one the next time she decides to upgrade. 

Now, if we had been living in the Middle Ages, or any time previous, and this was a problem with, say our plow, we wouldn't have had that luxury. I would have had to analyze the problem on my own, come up with a solution, manufacture the parts on my own and implement the solution. Unfortunately, this would have come at the expense of valuable crop-tending time, time I probably could not afford to lose. So the innovation I had dreamed up for our plow, the one that would have saved us time in the long run and kept us better fed, would have to perish before the more immediate needs of our bellies. If this sounds dour and extreme, recall that it took hundreds of years for Europe to make the transition from two-crop rotation to the vastly superior three-crop rotation.

So, am I dumber than a medieval farmer because I leave it up to others to come up with solutions to most of my problems? Well, first of all, at no point in history was the average person a better innovator than at any other time. That's the whole point. If they were, the idea of three-crop rotation wouldn't have taken hundreds of years to spread, and it would have started much sooner. People are copiers, it is just that back then, ideas transmitted at the speed of donkey, not the speed of light (which is about 185,999.999... miles per second slower.) The average person has always relied on others to do most of his innovating for him.

So, despite the Flynn effect (which shows that the average IQ increases over time, though the tests are always re-normed to 100), we really aren't much better at innovation than our ancestors were, and we may be, according to Pagel, a bit worse. However, as a society, we should expect to see more innovations, and also expect to see these innovations have more rapid and widespread impact on society as a whole.

This is for two reasons. First, as the population continues to increase, hopefully leveling off around 9 billion (if the faithjobs don't have their way stifling the education of women and limiting access to contraceptives and family planning), we will continue to see a greater absolute number of people with high intelligence (though as a ratio it will stay the same). Now, intelligence isn't the sole criterion for innovation, though it would be hard to argue that it doesn't help, and the same ratios would likely hold true for "creativity" if it could be measured in a similar way, which it really can't be. Second, as we have more and more "innovators" out there, more of the rest of us will have more immediate access to their ideas, as communications and travel technology continues to make the world a smaller and smaller place.

So while there is even less and less need for any one individual to be innovative on their own, society as a whole is getting "smarter."

Or is it? Because of course, if individual people aren't all that sharp to begin with, what's to say that bad ideas won't spread just as quickly as good ones? Nothing, of course, and we see the spread of bad ideas taking place all the time. (Yeah, I'm just kinda going with this now. I know this post is absurdly long, but what the heck, right? I've already told Pandora "I'm still listening," about 4 times.)

Take Harold Camping. Twice in the past year, that crazy old loon got a large number of people in this country into a tizzy because he said he knew that the world was going to end on a certain imminent date. He was on the news, trending on Twitter, people in my own family were discussing the likelihood of his prophecies. Think about that. An obviously bat-shit crazy old bastard, who had already pulled this stunt once before years back and been proven wrong then, says that he knows, absolutely knows, based on his reading of a 1700 year old book, about a guy who may or may not have lived 300 years before it was written, and was written precisely to make it look like other prophecies which had been made hundreds of years before that had come true, and based on Harold's reading of this myth, he says that the world is going to end in a few days. And it is on the news. And people are actually a little bit nervous.

Yeah. "Holy shit" is right.

Obviously, people's bullshit detectors suck, which is a lot of what this blog has been about. And there are probably a lot of people out there thinking, "Well, I don't think a lot of people took him very seriously." No, that's probably true. But do you wanna know what the most common argument against Harold's prophecy was?

Not, "Why is anyone listening to someone who belongs in an asylum?"

Oh, no. The most common comeback I heard was Matthew 24:36, "No one knows the day or the hour of His return."

BOOM! Take that! Suck on that Harold, you false prophet you! Burn in hell, sucka!

Yeah, I know. But that was all over Facebook, all over Twitter, all over the news media and the religoblogs. I even saw two people in my own family, after Harold died of a heart attack a few weeks after the world failed to end for the third time, high-fiving over God giving Harold his comeuppance.

So this little example should be a reminder of how quickly bad ideas can spread, just as easily as good ones. Sometimes even more so, because an indulgent lie is often much more comforting than a harsh truth.

So here is where we're at. A regular commentator on here, who writes her own excellent blog, admitted to me that she was a little nervous about writing a post that touched on a something some people might find offensive (it was religion, in that particular case). The short answer I gave her was, "If you say something that makes people uncomfortable, good. People need to be uncomfortable from time to time, or else they just get stuck on unquestioned, often very bad, assumptions."

This post is, I guess, my long answer to her question. You can't take your ideas out of the marketplace simply because you worry that people might be offended. Too much is at stake. Too often, very intelligent, thoughtful people end up being "good idea sponges" that suck suck suck up intelligent, thoughtful positions on issues that are critically important to society as a whole and then... nothing. They don't speak their mind when around others who they know are less informed, and maybe even obviously less intelligent than themselves.

They do this for several reasons. One, they fear being treated with that mistrust people have for those who are obviously smarter than the rest. Two, they know that no matter how clearly they articulate and defend their position, the hoopleheads will just shout louder, use more caps, and take even more extreme positions, rather than simply fessing up to the fact that they are talking to someone who clearly knows more than they do, and understands the topic better.

I see this all the time on Facebook, when the discussion turns political or something equally heated. You can tell the most knowledgeable commenters because they generally have the least to say. They will make a subtle point here and there, or point out a gross inconsistency or contradiction in what someone else says, but they usually drift away long before the most ignorant have tired of screaming hypocritical or irrelevant platitudes in all caps. I personally try my best to make my case when I see a discussion taking a turn like this, and it is on a topic I feel informed about, but I am also usually quick to succumb to the exhaustion of carefully picking apart every line of someone's argument only to have them utterly ignore you and just repeat the same thing in a slightly different way.

So the point is this. We all need to throw our thoughts in the ring, even at the risk of appearing "smart." Because that is how the world works. Most of our ideas aren't our own. Heck, probably none of them are. But the world needs good ideas to compete with the bad. And chances are, if you are smarter than 99.5% of the population, the ideas that got by the "contradiction!" "hypocrisy!" "untruth!" "impossibility!" filters in your own head, have a certain merit to them. That doesn't mean you are always right, or even that most people whose filters aren't as stringent will even listen to you, but we need your ideas anyway.

Or else we spend our time battling lunatics on Twitter with Bronze Age literature as our most sophisticated weapon. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Constitutional Slavery

I often find news articles or snippets of them or quotes and email them to myself as reminders of things to write about when I have a few free minutes, as I do today. As I was searching through my “Ideas” folder in my email, I came across this:

As usual, Thomas Jefferson put it best. In a letter to a friend in 1816, he mocked “men [who] look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched”; “who ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment.” “Let us follow no such examples, nor weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs,” he concluded. “Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before.”

As usual, Jefferson is correct. And in our present age where constitutional fundamentalism is perhaps more highly in vogue than at any point in our nation's history, Jefferson's words are poignant reminder of the Founders' true intent. Perhaps the only irony of this statement is that Jefferson, in his wisdom, was proving himself to have, if not “a wisdom more than human” at least a wisdom greater than many of those who came after.

The Founders of the United States were attempting to establish a society as free of tyranny as had yet been envisioned on this earth. Free from the tyranny of a state-sponsored religion, and equally free of the tyranny of a church-sponsored state. And while the doctrinal Anglican Church and the unsubstantiated “divine” right of kings were the evils most pressing on their minds in the years when the foundations of our nation were being laid, the tyranny of tradition was not far removed from their thoughts.

But some people enjoy tyranny. Many of our current Supreme Court Justices, and presidential candidates, are of this persuasion. Tradition, dogma, tyranny. It is an easy slide from one to the other. They are seductive. They free a mind from that unbearable burden of thinking for itself. (It is no coincidence that those to whom constitutional fundamentalism appeals are often those to whom religious fundamentalism appeals as well.) Why do the hard work of making the best human effort you can to resolve the problems you are faced with in your lifetime, when you can just rigidly adhere to the solutions of a time long gone, and shrug your shoulders at their consequences in this one?

Jefferson argued that the Constitution should be rewritten every 20 years- once a generation. As brilliant a political and philosophical mind as his, was humble enough to recognize that his wisdom, his yearnings for what his nation should be, could not extend beyond the horizon of his own lifetime. We should have the good sense to take one of the fathers of the American Constitution at his own word, and trust his assessment of their own limitations.

One of the other great minds of the age, Thomas Paine said,

"The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also; and as government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it. That which may be thought right and found convenient in one age, may be thought wrong and found inconvenient in another. In such cases, who is to decide, the living, or the dead?"

This statement is so obvious, it warrants almost no comment. There are, however, a few small addenda worth making. First, while slavish adherence to tradition is supreme folly, total disregard of tradition is only slightly less so. Traditions are generally established for some legitimate reason, conscious or unconscious at the time, and casting them out without serious deliberation as to their present utility is done at our own peril.

Second, I would add, “... it is the living, and to a lesser degree, those not yet living, that have any right to it.” We owe something to those who will come after us. This can be asserted from a purely philosophical stance, or made poignant, and very real, when one has children. At the same time, however, human beings are designed to discount the future, and this is rational in the abstract sense, (though our animal faculties often do a poor job with the actual calculations.) $100 now is worth more than $100 a year from now. All other things being equal, the present is more valuable than the future, as we do not know what the later holds. ($100 now may be worth less than $200 a year from now but how much we discount the future depends on myriad complicating factors.)

But Paine's main point remains unscathed. The dead have wisdom to share with the living, but wisdom is not immutable. The wisdom of a previous age may be the folly of this one. And it is up to those in the living, breathing present to decide which is which.

So let us set aside the paradox inherent in what I am about to say, and recognize that both these men passed onto us the one piece of wisdom that may very well be unchanging- That what is right, what is fair, what is just and what is wise, is up to those who stand to gain the most, or lose the most, from their proper, current, evaluation.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

So whatcha got to worry about?

I don't think about death much. I mean, I am cognizant of that fact that it will happen to me someday, the same way I am cognizant of the fact that I have to go back to work on Monday morning. And I feel roughly the same way about my inescapable mortality as I do about the practical inescapablity of that 5:30am alarm; a coming annoyance that will signify the end of something I enjoy. But it is precisely the inevitability of both of these events that implies the futility of worrying, fretting, or growing overly agitated by the fact of their inexorable approach.

But I recognize that this sentiment, or rather, lack thereof, is not universal. And so it is that several readings over the last few weeks had me pondering exactly what feeling the majority of people took towards the one fact of our existence that we all, without any exceptions, have in common; our mortality. 

The first of these was touched on in the previous post; scientific results suggesting that people who have a greater fear of death tend towards conservative political views. And of course, conservative politics has a very strong correlation with religious sentiment, one of the utilities of which is to offer people solace at the thought of their own mortality, by offering (unjustified and unjustifiable) hopes that "they" will somehow survive the death of their brains.

The other was a chapter in Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion on the subject of mortality and how we deal with it. (As a lengthy aside I should make several mentions here. One, to the quality of Dawkin's book- spectacular, as always. Secondly, to my just getting around to reading it. I deliberately avoided reading that book and several others like it until I had expressed my own views here on the blog because I was aware of how similar the subjects would be, and I didn't want to do any more intellectual borrowing than I had already done. This was a wise choice because his arguments essentially cover the same ground as mine have, though I think he is somewhat more civilized than I have been (he is British, after all) though not at the expense of candor.) 

Both of these readings got me to reflecting on my own, admittedly, limited experiences with human death. Since several of the readers of this post are likely to be close friends and family, I will not dredge up the specifics of the passings of their near and dear, but will instead try to generalize from my own experiences to trends that can be witnessed in the population at large.

Before I do this, however, I would like to drag one more complicating factor, though I promise it has relevance to the discussion of this post as well as to the future trend of the blog at large. After an email exchange with a friend, which somehow took a turn to personality types, I ended up taking the Meyers-Briggs Personality Test and was told my personality type was INTJ- Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinking, Judging. (Again, this is relevant, not just self-indulgent blather. I hate that shite.) While I was initially wary of anything that claims to tell you everything about yourself (astrology anyone?) from a few dozen yes-no questions, the more I read the description of my "type" the more I bought into it. When my wife took the same test, and I read her description, as well as my friend's, I was far more convinced by their astonishing accuracy.

The relevant point is this; reading through the descriptions of several personality types, and reading over the results of the studies which were the subject of the previous post, I have developed a greater appreciation for the innate differences in human minds. According to this Jungian archetype, people of my personality tend to be highly pragmatic, discarding sentiment in order to answer one question- "Does it work?" (This should make sense to the blog's regular readers regarding discussions of religion- it doesn't work, because it manifestly fails at the achieving the two objectives it purports to: identifying truth and making people kinder. It is only since it became difficult to argue that it was achieving either of these objectives that people started attributing a third to it, "Well, but at least it makes people feel better.")

But, again, according to the Jungian theory, the efficacy of a system or solution is not everyone's primary concern. To some people, how something makes them feel, actually is, believe it or not (I almost can't) more important. While we all find it difficult to place ourselves in the head of someone who thinks very differently than we do, one analogy has worked well for me, so I will share it here. I think of it the same way I think of people's differing tastes in food. (As a chef of 8 years, I had a lot of experience with this.) We are often marveled when others don't share our love of a particular dish, or in fact, find it disgusting. While we can't imagine what it is like to be receiving information from their taste-buds when eating that particular dish, we can equate it to our own sensations when we eat something we dislike. We can't put ourselves in their shoes, but we can, on a rational level, appreciate that they simply don't enjoy a sensation that we do. 

So this is how I have come to begin to think about the Whys? of how we think. Why is it that some people care waaaay more about how their beliefs make them feel than whether or not they actually have some truth-value? Well, why do some people like pickles and others don't? They just do. Or they don't. They're wired that way. And you can't argue someone into liking pickles. They either do, or they don't. 

As I appreciate this fact more and more, I have less expectation that I, or anyone else, will have a whole lot of success convincing the vast majority of people out there that what they really ought to be concerned with is what works, not just what they want to be true. (I say vast majority because INTJs and the very similar INTPs make up a very small percentage of the population, and are the two of the sixteen types most concerned with the big ideas such as how society should work.) We will likely have as much success as the current First Lady is likely to have convincing people to get of their arses and mix in a salad once in a while. Why would you, when you can wipe the fried chicken grease off your fat fingers onto your shirt while you sit in front of Jersey Shore or American Karyoke? (I know, I know, I pound on those two. I just don't know what else is on TV, because I never watch it. Except Deadwood on DVD. Awesome. Bullock is almost certainly an INTJ.)

But we need to be careful here. I don't think we can get away with saying, "It's just in my personality to go with what feels right for me. So I don't care what's true. I'm just gonna believe whatever makes me happy." First of all, even people who would actually say this (and there are hordes and hordes of them) don't really believe it, not in the deepest sense. If they did, wouldn't they all just believe they were Tom Brady, the Patriot's most recent loss not withstanding? If you were just going to "believe" whatever made you most happy, wouldn't you believe you were a good-looking millionaire winner who is married to an even better looking millionaire winner? 

The reason people can maintain their belief in an almost certainly fictitious afterlife, but would be unable to sustain the illusion that they were Tom Handsome would be the dearth of evidence that they were, in fact, Tom Terrific. Whereas the illusion of an afterlife can be far more readily sustained due to the lack of expectation of finding any evidence until it is either proven true or false to each of us individually, in which case you wouldn't even have to come to terms with your error. 

So even when we acknowledge that some people have a predisposition towards self-comforting illusions, we can also recognize that all but the most insane among them can only pull these off when the illusion concerns something which does not appear in front of them on a regular basis, as a mirror does. (Of course there are people who are convinced that they are Napoleon, and no amount of evidence in the world will sway them.) 

This is where the tired, "Yes, but you don't know what happens after death either, so you have just as little evidence as I do," argument comes in. Yes, but I am not the one positing the existence of something without evidence. Once we accept that then there is no stopping it. If one admits that we are allowed to maintain a belief in anything we can make up, no matter how unlikely (and what could be more unlikely than the idea of an animal that lives forever once its body and brain are destroyed?), just so long as it can't be disproven then we essentially have no firm philosophical ground to stand on. In that scenario, I have every much right to believe that I am God, which you can't disprove, as you do to believe in an immortal soul. But I digress...

So let us return to a reasonable place, where life-after-death is an extremely unlikely proposition, and that fact that a majority of the world's people hope for it is more a testament to their personality disposition than to its likelihood. What is the rationale behind the fear that so many people seem to feel at the thought of death?

Of course, from an evolutionary perspective, fear of death makes perfect sense, and is rivaled only by fear of social rejection, both of which destroy our chances of reproduction. (Is this the evolutionary logic behind the famous #1 fear of adults, public speaking? That you could destroy all future reproductive chances in one fell swoop by appearing the fool in front of the entire tribe? Hmm...intriguing.) And none of us, myself or the most battle-hardened veteran, are immune to the surge of adrenaline and terror that comes over us when faced with the prospect of an imminent and violent death. But this is different than the rational contemplation of our immortality that we are allowed when pondering our lives or watching a loved one's health deteriorate. 

To answer the question above, there is no rationale. Why on earth would someone who claims to believe that they are going to spend all eternity in heavenly bliss be afraid of death at all? Wouldn't it be the most welcome thing in life? (Is this why the Catholics of the Middle Ages had to be so stern about suicide? Because prior to the Enlightenment and in that religion-addled age, there actually were enough zealots who were eager for death? And some religions still glorify it...) In reality though, and studies bear this out and personal experience seems to agree, those who have the least reason to fear death, those who claim it is not an end, but a transition, are very often those who live in abject terror of it. 

We can only conclude that death is to someone of this wiring akin to a very strong distaste for a certain food. There is probably very little chance of alleviating their fear through rational argument, just as there is very little chance of convincing someone with narrowly-aligned taste-buds that they really ought to enjoy a wider variety of cuisine.

And this is too bad. Because while I have had few legitimate reasons to fear for my life (though I have a had a couple, near-misses in a car at 75 mph, etc.) I have tried to regularly force myself to contemplate death's inevitability, without dwelling on it. And there are certainly some things about it I find distasteful. Sitting on my couch writing, with my 4 year old daughter at my side, learning to write her letters on her new "computer," I cannot help but hope that my mortal existence continues long enough for me to witness her growth and maturity, to seeing her learn to write not just letters but words, and maybe even someday put her old man to shame as a writer, since her brain already seems clearly wired in that direction. Equally, I adore my wife, and hope to grow old with her.

But beyond these two considerations, the thought of death is not frightening to me. There are days where I feel the burden of being who I am (a Mastermind, according to the Meyers-Briggs- hilarious) and am exhausted from my tendency to take on roles I don't feel deeply about, but can't stand to see handled poorly, such as I regularly do at work or in social situations or in Left 4 Dead, and the thought of not having to be is even somewhat comforting- ahh, like a good nap.

While some will find that thought morbid, I would disagree. It is simply an acceptance of the inevitable and an attempt to make the most of what we have. And I feel somewhat sorry, hopefully without condescension, for those who can't come to terms with reality in that way. I can't imagine living in abject terror of a moment which is racing backwards in time at you like a locomotive. Of course, people don't actually live in abject terror, that would be paralyzing. Instead they fill their lives with distractions, but this only makes them all the more unprepared to face death when it does arrive, either for them or one they love.

Also, I should add that a parent considering the life (I can't even type the other word) of their child, doesn't really fit into this. That thought is so absolutely horrible that I don't see how one does anything but ignore it in the hopes that they never have to face it. As Theoden says, "No parent should ever have to bury their child." (There's a bone for you, fellow nerds.)

But ultimately, death is something we all must face. And how we plan to face it, whether with fear mingled with false hope or with calm, mature acceptance, goes a long way towards determining how we live all the days between this one and that.

Or, if you've gotten this far in the post, I really could have saved you a lot of time by just posting this: