Posts Tagged ‘liberal’

SERMON: “Changing Minds” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Philosophers over the centuries have struggled to come to terms with what a human is, at heart: are we rational or primarily emotional beings?  If current research is to believed, it would seem that the answer to that question is “yes”.  Humans are both rational and emotional.  Which means that we are often irrational for emotional reasons.  But, according to Jonathon Haidt (in The Righteous Mind, reviewed this blog), it appears that the notion that we can detach our reason from our emotions is a bit of a pipe dream, as it seems that the emotions are a vital support system for our intellect and reason.

On consideration this makes sense.  After all, both our emotions and our reason have evolved together for a long, long time.  If one or the other were superfluous, one or the other would have been cast adrift (by natural selection) a long time ago.  This by no means tells us that our particular blend of feeling and thinking are the perfect answer to meeting life’s challenges.  It only tells us that this combination is what came of the raw animal materials evolution had to work with, and that it was sufficient to the challenge of our specie’s survival.

There have been a rash of studies of late comparing the so-called “liberal” and “conservative” mind.  I have no doubt that there is validity to the comparisons that show that “conservative” minded people crave stability over novelty, and that the “liberal” minded are just the opposite.  (The potentially nefarious aspect of this news is the way in which this “fact” can be employed as yet one more cudgel to minimize the views of one’s political enemies.  Science is always influenced by the cultural ideas current in the society at large, so I am awaiting the further research that will put these findings in a more complete perspective).

But in the meantime, we are left with the realization that not all human minds work in the same way.  Certainly we are all on a limited spectrum, so we’re not really talking apples and car alarms here, but variations on a theme.  As Haidt points out in his research (described so well in The Righteous Mind), all of us humans have a moral sense, but this sense turns out to act more like a collection of different moral “taste buds” than universally-calibrated on and off switches.  Which means the thing that morally outrages me may only mildly bother you.  This, I think, is clearly true, and it is the main reason that liberals and conservatives can shout at each other all the live long day and not make a dent in each other’s views.

This is the damnable and frustrating thing about this kind of knowledge: it seems to make any idea of human unanimity appear ever more remote.  We may have moved a great distance from our original blood-kin tribalism, but we remain tribal to a large degree, and our current level of tribalism may have moved beyond the nationalism that marked the last few centuries of our history to a more ideological form of in-group identification.  Hence, the rationalist idea that one can simply educate an uninformed person with facts and thereby change that person’s opinion is proving unequal to the challenge of obliterating the many strains of dangerous ignorance that plague our species.

Of course I’m thinking of one of the great current divides, which is that between Islam and “the West” (which could just as easily be called “Christiandom”, though with much qualification).  Never mind that the fundamentalist Christian and the fundamentalist Muslim have much more in common than they would care to admit, they would certainly consider themselves as inhabiting completely opposite world views.

And this is where we can find as good of an example as any of one of the great unacknowledged barriers to a reason-based shift in worldview: identity.

Being the profoundly social animals that we are, we seek out other humans among whom we feel comfortable and understood.  And so we might join a church with a list of doctrines that we can easily assent to, and thereafter shape ourselves ever more like our fellow church members in both our moral likes and dislikes.  It’s easy to see that membership groups like this are not random cross-sections of a variety of people, but tend to be naturally self-selecting populations.  (As my brother Chuck once told me: “A church is a group of people who all share the same sin”).

And so it immediately becomes apparent why any human who has identified with one group or another would be doubly resistant to a radical change in their views on any topic that is important to their inclusion in the group.  Add to this the reality that our brains process information that comes from a trusted source by first believing it without question, and doubting it only after much extra post-hoc effort, and you have a naturally strong resistance to change.

Playing with my "Evolving Darwin" toy set on a Pacific Beach delights me, but would deeply offend others, even though science is on the side of the story these toys tell.

Playing with my “Evolving Darwin” toy set on a Pacific Beach delights me, but would deeply offend others, even though science is on the side of the story these toys tell.

There is, of course, another barrier to consensus, and that is found in those whose worldview happens to be one that does not easily align with physical reality.  I’m talking here about “faith” positions, that allow any and all kinds of physical phenomenon to be interpreted in a way that confirms religious or ideological world views.  For example, a natural weather event such as a hurricane, or the explosion of a meteor over Russia, will be taken as events with a spiritual (as opposed to a natural) cause.  This kind of thinking creates what I’d call an “insulated ignorance”, meaning it is a lack of knowledge that is active in preserving a certain informational vacuum (active far beyond the usual passing discomfort any of us feels when having to admit we were wrong on a fact).  We see this especially with regards to historic worldviews that have been carried forward into a period of history where science continues to present factual challenges that — if these worldviews are to survive — simply must not be accepted.  They are living artifacts of human ignorance, fighting tooth and nail for their very lives.

So when we look at the reality of how most humans really operate, the real question turns out to be not why more people aren’t open to changing their minds, but why we thought people could easily change their minds in the first place?

Liberal or conservative, it turns out that most humans are innately conservative (at least if we consider the “moderate” human to also be “conservative” in relation to the “liberal” members of the tribe).  In evolutionary terms, this mix makes sense.  Every tribe needs risk takers to rise to unusual challenges, but it also needs those who are more attuned to staying home and keeping the woodpile stocked and the tent mended.  And there is a reason that most religious conversations occur among the young (whose personalities are still very much in flux), and much more rarely in adults (who have already begun to “lock in” to their ideology).

I see myself as having become someone who responds to evidence, and who is willing to change his mind about things when facts prove me wrong.  Now, one could argue that I’m no better at this than any other human, but I don’t think that case would be strong.  True, I’m susceptible to all of the quirks of a human brain whose reason is linked to feeling, but I have also taken advantage of the plasticity of the brain and have developed a relationship between my feelings and my thinking so that it actually feels better for me to see that my views are aligned with our physical reality as much as possible.  For a human, I think I do pretty well on that score.  But that’s the thing.  I am still human.

And I can’t assume that others experience anything like the “positive” feelings I do when absorbing certain (potentially) unnerving scientific facts.   For instance, I feel okay accepting the reality that I am most likely not a divine or spiritual being connected to any sort of intelligent creator, or that my body is an evolved version of the body-plan of a lobe-finned fish, or that any and all sense of my self as a distinct personality will cease as soon as my brain stops working.  I’ve worked to make my peace with these evidence-based ideas.

But, then, I am not deeply invested in a church group with the added group-binding agents of a wife and children and extended family.  True, there was a time when my fall from belief was a source of conflict (and led to ruptured relationships) but that time has (mostly) passed.  I do still worry that my words or actions (as they broadcast my deeply-held views) will offend others or damage vital personal relationships.  Because, let’s face it, ours is a culture that is permeated with religious and quasi-religious beliefs, be they Christian or “New Age”, and so my (irreligious) views are always going to be at odds with the majority of my fellow humans (even most of my closer friends).  Fortunately for all of us, part of our innate social sense is to make allowance for those we love, and it is in the space carved out by such selective social blindness that we find room to stay close to each other, even when we hold very different views on important matters.

Plus, knowing that I am not immune to being wrong (I do have a human brain, after all), I have to maintain a certain humility about even the things that I am most firmly convinced are true (especially those things).  And it is this humility among thoughtful people that allows profound ideological differences to coexist without triggering deep social disruption.

There could yet be a wave of reason that will sweep across the globe, dampening the fires of religious extremism or the blinders of ideological dogmatism.  Maybe when that happens there will be enough “safety in numbers” that the more “conservative” questioning humans will be willing to jump ship, confident that they won’t be the only ones foregoing the security of their ideological group.

But in the meantime we are left with the unsettling reality that a substantial percentage of humans are resistant (to a greater or lesser degree) to the penetration into their reason of the scientific evidence as it pertains to their own existence.  Reality may, indeed, have a “liberal” bias.  But humans, most certainly, do not.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

It was while watching the film “The Matrix” that I first began to realize that watching two undefeatable movie foes doing battle was, well, sort of pointless.  After all, if they are so powerful and, well, immortal (thinking now of demigods or vampires or whatever else Hollywood throws into the mix), any slugfest is going to end in a draw with the status quo unchanged.  Any supposed “victory” can only come when the film director decides the story must move on.

And so it also seems when Republicans and Democrats (conservatives and liberals) start shouting at each other.  None of the blows seem to land — and the result is frustration and impotent rage.  But liberals and conservatives aren’t supermen and women by any stretch — just normal, everyday folk.  The “other side” can’t really be pure evil — otherwise our world would be a much different place than it manages to be.  So why are human beings, similar in every way, so divided along political and ideological lines?

That is the question that “The Righteous Mind” seeks to answer.  And it does, I think, answer the question well.  Beginning with the fact that all of us — liberal or conservative – are born with a “righteous” mind — meaning we are predisposed to think in moral terms.  But the differences show up in the finer detail, in the range of “moral taste buds” that are more or less active in the brains we are born with.

Haidt is a psychologist who has developed (with others) the “Moral Foundations Theory” that has generated some press during the last two election cycles.  I found this theory to be a useful tool for understanding the “whys” of our shared (but differing) moral sensibilities.  The book also presents the broader picture of the “hows” and “whys” of our social interactions, from the most individualistic to the most “hive-like”.

“The Righteous Mind” is yet another example of good popular science writing, written by an author who has been involved in the evolution of the field he reports on, and is able to borrow from a solid background of supporting surveys and science research.  The book is also topical, taking time to apply the theory to our current political climate.  I may quibble with a detail or two of his primary metaphor about the relationship between our “head” and our “gut”, but that is a tiny, tiny thing compared to the value this book has in increasing our understanding of how humans make their moral decisions.

(Having read it I do wonder, however, about how we can convert the knowledge contained in “The Righteous Mind” into practical action.  After all, the Moral Foundations Theory is based on an evolutionary model, which will, I think, keep more than a few conservatives from giving it a fair consideration, which, in a way, seems to put the greater burden on the liberal to make an unequal move toward being more understanding — and appreciative — of conservatives.  But that is a question beyond my reach.  I can tell you that this book helped me better understand not only those I disagree with, but my own morality as well, and that kind of shift-in-consciousness outcome is a noble achievement for any writer!)

I think just about anyone would benefit from reading this book.  It is well written, and clearly organized in a way to make the absorption of the concepts presented as easy as possible.  A worthy, timely book from a knowledgeable source.  I can’t ask for better than that.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “Seedlings of the Gods” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

It’s interesting to reflect that it is not only our biology that is shaped by evolution, but also our culture.

By “culture” I mean our language, our technology, our social codes, fashions and religions.  All of it.

I don’t think we generally recognize this.  I think we tend toward a conservative notion that there is a certain way things ought to be in our society — sort of an objective standard — and we ought to just get on with getting there.  The more “conservative” mind assumes that the questions (and therefore the answers to those questions) are limited and simple, the more “liberal” mind has a much higher tolerance for complexity, but still has an underlying belief that we humans are clever enough to figure things out.   In short, we all pretty much think that we (above all other animals) know how to run things.

In that regard, one of the more laughable aspects of our human character is the belief that we should –, with our wisdom and technology — be able to create even the smallest of a functioning ecosystem from scratch.

The scientific reality is that we are now able to assemble life, and will soon be able to “create” it.  The thing is this: that new life (or lives) that we create will then begin to interact with the real world (as it actually exists) and will begin it’s own adaptation as it becomes subject to the laws of natural selection (or will become an agent of the same, displacing other species with which it competes).  In time, a new equilibrium will be established, but no human on earth will have accurately predicted exactly what that will be.

We see the outcome of the sudden introduction of new life into old systems in the myriad exotic species that humans have transported from one ecosystem to another, whether it’s a rat that soon kills a dozen species of birds on a Pacific island, or a plant that takes over a forest unprepared to fight it.

This is what happens in the real world of competition for resources.  The ferocity of this competition is hidden from our view, perhaps, by the ecological balance that we often witness, where thousands of species of plants, animals and insects, in combination with climate, have, after eons, established themselves into a sort of stable order (this is the basis, I think, for much of the passive belief in Creation over Evolution).  But we know from geology and paleontology that such systems have formed over and over again, replacing earlier systems that were wiped away by natural catastrophes large and small.

Societies of humans are no different.  We, too, take our fairly stable American “social ecosystem” for granted, acting as if it has always been so and will always be just as it is, even as it continues to evolve before our eyes.  The utopians among us like to believe that newer, better human societies could be formed best from scratch, guided by this ideological bent or another.  But history has shown the seemingly natural course of every utopian society, and the result is generally a devolution into strife and collapse.

I would venture that there are certain constants in the collective human consciousness that draw us to certain states of living, and that we ignore these at our peril.  Such existential rip currents are the bane of every would-be social engineer.  Economists, it seems, are notorious for basing their predictions on the choices of a mythological “rational actor”.  Unfortunately, none of these “rational actors” seem to actually exist.  And politicians, for all of their demagoguery, are limited in power by the sheer unpredictable force of the masses of the governed.

It’s a funny state of affairs to ponder.  And it’s a state more clear to me, I expect, because I have worked so diligently to engage my own rational brain.  The result has been a new level of clarity about how we humans are partly rational and partly magical in our thinking, and that both of those aspects are our natural birthright.  And to the degree that we rail against one or the other of those two aspects of our selves may be the degree to which we add to our own unhappiness.  For the reality of our situation may be that we need both to be happy.

Now I don’ t take the view that the presence of this duality in our consciousness justifies the idea that “they must be there for a reason for it”.  Such a statement assumes a teleological, purposeful path for evolution.  Of course there is no such thing.  But what our dual nature does tell us is that there is strong evidence that our strange combination of reason and fancy has somehow aided us in our survival as a species.

But, then, one of the most basic aspects of natural selection that many people, I think, fail to appreciate, is that evolution can only work upon the raw material that is already in place (and the range of possible mutations inherent within each living genome).  Therefore, just because we retain a huge dose of magical thinking does not guarantee that it was that magical thinking that brought us through.  (The magical thinking part could just as easily be a side-show that was just never detrimental enough to get us all killed).

More likely, there is something to this imaginative part of our consciousness that has been crucial to our capacity to problem solve, and/or the development of verbal language, and that the rest is, well, extra.  We may never really know.  For now, it is enough to recognize that it is, and that this is the kind of animal we are.  We are not, by any stretch of the imagination, examples of perfection in natural design.  We are, however, examples of success in evolution, which requires only that the beneficial adaptations outnumber the detrimental ones to a certain critical degree.

The human organism exhibits all the complexity, nuance, confusion, mutations and mix of parts that one would expect from millions of years of evolution and natural selection.  Certainly no one sat down and designed us to be this way.  To borrow the creation myth: even the God of the Garden of Eden probably only meant to grow a pretty flower when he planted us.  But once planted, nature could not be kept out of it, and things got a bit out of hand!

Humanity itself feels to me like a sort of multi-cellular organism, pulsing and pushing and pulling against itself and against the limitations of it’s own existence.  And like in the rest of nature, parts of our population expand, rise up, gain education and prosper, even as others seem to be in a race backwards through history.  It’s a maddening thing to try to manage.  But our attempts at social (and self!)management are not entirely futile, for they can and do have effects on the course of human (and our own personal) social evolution.  And so we keep trying.  But as we try, it’s good to recognize that we are as powerless to re-make man according to our wishes as we are to re-make a rainforest from a genetically-engineered seedling and a chemistry set.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: ‘The CRAZY IDEA” by the not-so-reverend bob.

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

I’m compelled on (a regular basis) to run reality checks on my perceptions of things.  Today that involved tuning my truck radio to the AM dial, and listening to Rush Limbaugh.  I know people that listen to Rush.  It is because I know these people (some of whom I consider friends and human beings I’d want on my side in a bar fight) that I have a desire to understand what they are finding in Rush.  I listened long enough to get the idea that Obama’s true agenda is to ruin in four years the America that we and our forefathers took two hundred years to build.  Rush said that we can’t look at what’s going on now in the “normal” way that we’ve always evaluated politics.  This is something different, something unprecedented.  Rush’s opening comment was a rhetorical question: “Let me get this straight: we can’t identify the illegal aliens in this country, but we can require everyone to buy health insurance?” (adding the tag that “If you don’t, Reid and Pelosi will track you down and throw you in jail” — a fiction as there is no criminal penalty for non-compliance with the Health Care Reform Act).  Every Limbaugh sentence was seasoned with dramatic pauses, heavy sighs, and every vocal cue that Rush was wearing himself out trying to point out this web of conspiracies to true Americans and thereby single-handedly save this great nation.

It got me thinking.  In an odd moment of understanding, I realized that the “conservatives” (as represented by Rush and the TEA Party members) are actually the more utopian of the two idealogical camps we describe with the popular duality of “liberal” versus “conservative”.  The conservatives are deeply convinced that — left to their own devices — the rich and the powerful will act in the best interest of “the common good”.  The real problem is government, and too much of it.

I’ve come to think that if “liberals” are guilty of overestimating the rationality and moral potential of our species, the “conservatives” are equally guilty of underestimating our potential for selfish behavior and general mayhem.  Liberalism sees governance as a means of protecting as many of us as possible from the rapacious behavior of the (inevitable) dangerous few.  In a sense this is a blend of optimism with pragmatism.  The TEA Party view seems to be a mix of disparate elements in search of a synthesis: they want to abolish government and yet abhor anarchy;  they call any government involvement in healthcare “socialist”, yet find no inner conflict in utilizing veterans TRICARE, or Social Security and Medicare.

There is in me a pull toward finding connections with my fellow citizens.  I look for a common reference point — something we agree on.  Once established, both parties know their starting point and can get their bearings.  But each time I try to approach the inner workings of my upset conservative fellow-citizens I run into obstacles I cannot readily surmount.  Although I am able to enter into many of the feelings of those who fear domination by an aggressive government (I am an American, after all — it’s in our character to be wary), I am blocked by a boulder-field of odd and irrational beliefs that inhibit my progress toward meaningful, rational connection.

I think it’s safe to say that a high percentage of the TEA Party folks are “god fearing”, and being such, are already exhibiting an increased capacity to believe in things for which there is no more evidence than another’s word on the matter.  How can I find common ground with someone who really believes, deep in their heart, that our sitting President is not an American citizen (despite proof to the contrary), or that he is bent on destroying our economy instead of trying to fix it?  The imagined conspiracies fly so fast and so thick that it is, literally, dizzying.

There must be a certain thing about our minds that is draws us to notions of vast conspiracies.  As a friend pointed out to me, such beliefs engender a feeling of powerlessness (as in the forces arrayed against one are far too great to be overcome, so there is no point in actually trying to engage “it”).  I keep thinking of the “Baloney Detection Kit” video from Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine, where one of the ten testing points is the question: “Does this fit in with what I know about how the world works?”  From time to time I get a letter from the left hinting at vast conspiracies on the right, and a little sensor in my head jumps to life and says “wait a minute — this sounds pretty conspiratorial to me”.  My response, in such cases, is to not take it seriously unless (and until) I get corroborating evidence (and the evidence had better be good for such a large claim).  I’ve learned to ferret out the 5 or 10 percent that is truth and disregard the soaring, rickety edifice of conspiracy that is inevitably built upon an original thin sliver of truth.  I’m calling people on this sort of stuff all the time.  It’s maddening, because I’m just one voice giving one friend shit for some piece of internet crap that they forwarded to their entire e-mailing list without taking two minutes to see if it was bogus or not.

Once again, I think we overestimate our abilities as humans.  The more I try to keep up with science and politics and world events, the more feeble my brain seems.  Rush Limbaugh seems to think we are all super humans being held in check by Liberal-Secular-Humanist-Socialist force fields.  Every mis-step (or perceived mis-step) or lack of immediate overwhelming result from any administration initiative is held up like the severed head of a martyr by some demagogue or another.

One thing about holding a naturalistic, Darwinian view of life is that I take humans being for what we actually are: not what the Bible tells me we are, or the mystics say we are capable of.  My brand of magical thinking is to carry the rosy hope that I have the potential power to bring insights to people in a way that will make them leave aside some of their irrationality and thereby be of more practical help in the heavy lifting of managing the global and local societies we live in.  Embedded in that hope is a belief that humans are capable of becoming ever more rational the more educated they become.  Clearly, there is evidence to the contrary.  Recent survey’s show that a high percentage of the TEA Party membership is college educated.  Which makes it all the more baffling that they believe in so much crazy stuff.

But perhaps I’m unfair to pick on one self-selecting group of politically-motivated people, except insofar as they are perfectly representative of any other group of humans that are drawn together by a particular orthodoxy of irrational ideas.  This seems to be a perfectly common pattern in our species: otherwise rational people who function smoothly in their work and family lives retain for themselves one corner of their thinking for a completely loony idea: the CIA killed Kennedy; the Twin Towers was an inside job; Pterosaurs still live in a remote lake area in Africa; Noah’s Ark rests on a mountain side in Turkey;  President Obama is a Kenyan agent bent on destroying the Constitution.

It is this propensity of the human mind that has me running my reality checks — as a sort of a self-diagnostic — looking for mental “spam” or the virus of a bad idea.  Of course the power of a CRAZY IDEA is that it can never be completely disproved (and of course Science is not in the business of obliterating ideas, only showing where the weight of evidence points us — which is enough for a reasonable person).  The CRAZY IDEA demands that it be not just shown to be unlikely, but proven to be completely impossible.  This is where the CRAZY IDEA’S brilliance and durability lies.  This is why so many people can still deny the evidence for Evolution and Natural Selection with questions that Darwin answered fully over 150 years ago.

This phenomenon of belief is wonderfully skewered by Bertrand Russell’s famous Celestial Teapot analogy:

“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

Of course Russell here is famously going after the idea of God, but leave off that final sentence about ancient texts and you could be talking about the 10 to 20 requests a week to the Hawaii Health Department for President Obama’s (previously verified to the satisfaction of all reasonable people) birth certificate.  Of course, I could be wrong.  Obama could be a Venusian cyborg, perfectly designed to appeal to our human need for a political savior.  Now that would be a CRAZY IDEA.  But somewhere, sometime, I could just about guarantee you, there is a human brain that would (or does) believe it.  How would you or I talk to such a person?

I have no idea.  I don’t speak Venusian.

t.n.s.r. bob