Category: Religion

The Ethics of Knowing

In the modern American political climate, I’m constantly finding myself at sea in trying to unravel the motivations and thought processes of the Republican Party. The best summation I can arrive at involves the obvious manipulation of the electorate—but that is not terrifically new—combined with a persistent avoidance of evidence and facts.

In my day job, I research a range of topics trying to get enough of a grasp on what we do and do not know such that I can form a plan that innovates from the known facts towards the unknown. Here are a few recent investigations:

  • What is the state of thinking about the origins of logic? Logical rules form into broad classes that range from the uncontroversial (modus tollens, propositional logic, predicate calculus) to the speculative (multivalued and fuzzy logic, or quantum logic, for instance). In most cases we make an assumption based on linguistic convention that they are true and then demonstrate their extension, despite the observation that they are tautological. Synthetic knowledge has no similar limitations but is assumed to be girded by the logical basics.
  • What were the early Christian heresies, how did they arise, and what was their influence? Marcion of Sinope is perhaps the most interesting one of these, in parallel with the Gnostics, asserting that the cruel tribal god of the Old Testament was distinct from the New Testament Father, and proclaiming perhaps (see various discussions) a docetic Jesus figure. The leading “mythicists” like Robert Price are invaluable in this analysis (ignore first 15 minutes of nonsense). The thin braid of early Christian history and the constant humanity that arises in morphing the faith before settling down after Nicaea (well, and then after Martin Luther) reminds us that abstractions and faith have a remarkable persistence in the face of cultural change.
  • How do mathematical machines take on so many forms while achieving the same abstract goals? Machine learning, as a reificiation of human-like learning processes, can imitate neural networks (or an extreme sketch and caricature of what we know about real neural systems), or can be just a parameter slicing machine like Support Vector Machines or ID3, or can be a Bayesian network or mixture model of parameters.  We call them generative or non-generative, we categorize them as to discrete or continuous decision surfaces, and we label them in a range of useful ways. But why should they all achieve similar outcomes with similar ranges of error? Indeed, Random Forests were the belles of the ball until Deep Learning took its tiara.

In each case, I try to work my way, as carefully as possible, through the thicket of historical and intellectual concerns that provide point and counterpoint to the ideas. It feels ethically wrong to make a short, fast judgment about any such topics. I can’t imagine doing anything less with a topic as fraught as the US health care system. It’s complex, indeed, Mr. President.

So, I tracked down a foundational paper on this idea of ethics and epistemology. It dates to 1877 and provides a grounding for why and when we should believe in anything. William Clifford’s paper, The Ethics of Belief, tracks multiple lines of argumentation and the consequences of believing without clarity. Even tentative clarity comes with moral risk, as Clifford shows in his thought experiments.

In summary, though, there is no more important statement than Clifford’s final assertion that it is wrong to believe without sufficient evidence. It’s that simple. And it’s even more wrong to act on those beliefs.

Build Up That Wall

No, I’m not endorsing the construction of additional walls between the United States and Mexico. There are plenty of those and they may be of questionable value. Instead, it is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday and I’m quoting from Christopher Hitchens (who shared his birthday with Jefferson) in repurposing and inverting Reagan’s famous request of Gorbachev. Hitch promoted the Jeffersonian ideal of separating out the civic from the religious:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

from Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

A rather remarkable continuation of Enlightenment concepts that derive, typically, from a notion of “natural rights” and, even in the Virginia Statue, from religious concepts: “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free.” With the following paragraphs noting that human rulers are fallible and have tended to create false religions down through time, apparently regardless of God’s wishes.

Natural rights are an interesting idea that re-occurs in the Declaration of Independence and were also championed by George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The notion that natural rights did not extend to slaves was something that Jefferson was conflicted about, according to Hitchens, until the end of his life, with the issue of state’s rights a pragmatic basis for opposition to an institution that he both profited from and found morally repugnant.

Natural rights might also be derivable from something like Rawl’s  “veil of ignorance,” which, in this capacity, just reiterates what might be more simply considered a method for minimizing the interference of people in the behavior and thoughts of other people. This concedes that evolving perspectives on interference may reduce the universality of any claim concerning those rights. But an interference model only accounts for specific categories of rights.  The right to schooling provided via taxation would not be covered, nor would the right for equality in dealings in the civic space. In fairness, Rawls’ argument about rights is greater than this minimal fragment, but both show how jettisoning a deontological approach to ethics yields testable hypotheses.

Michael Boylan’s “Are there natural human rights?” in the Stone Reader covers the controversy in some detail, describing the agency and capability theories, as well as objections from Chinese and Islamic sources. The latter rise to the level of problematic, for if the individuals within a society complain that outside perspectives on natural rights are not their own, is there any sense of universality in natural rights? Oppressing women is Allah’s will, after all, and is therefore “natural.”

And so, on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, I have to commemorate one of the greatest contributions to our modern world: a secular state with definable rights of conscience and radical freedoms, regardless of how natural that might be.

Bayesianism and Properly Basic Belief

Kircher-Diagram_of_the_names_of_GodXu and Tenebaum, in Word Learning as Bayesian Inference (Psychological Review, 2007), develop a very simple Bayesian model of how children (and even adults) build semantic associations based on accumulated evidence. In short, they find contrastive elimination approaches as well as connectionist methods unable to explain the patterns that are observed. Specifically, the most salient problem with these other methods is that they lack the rapid transition that is seen when three exemplars are presented for a class of objects associated with a word versus one exemplar. Adults and kids (the former even more so) just get word meanings faster than those other models can easily show. Moreover, a space of contending hypotheses that are weighted according to their Bayesian statistics, provides an escape from the all-or-nothing of hypothesis elimination and some of the “soft” commitment properties that connectionist models provide.

The mathematical trick for the rapid transition is rather interesting. They formulate a “size principle” that weights the likelihood of a given hypothesis (this object is most similar to a “feb,” for instance, rather than the many other object sets that are available) according to a scaling that is exponential in the number of exposures. Hence the rapid transition:

Hypotheses with smaller extensions assign greater probability than do larger hypotheses to the same data, and they assign exponentially greater probability as the number of consistent examples increases.

It should be noted that they don’t claim that the psychological or brain machinery implements exactly this algorithm. As is usual in these matters, it is instead likely that whatever machinery is involved, it simply has at least these properties. It may very well be that connectionist architectures can do the same but that existing approaches to connectionism simply don’t do it quite the right way. So other methods may need to be tweaked to get closer to the observed learning of people in these word tasks.

So what can this tell us about epistemology and belief? Classical foundationalism might be formulated as something is a “basic” or “justified” belief if it is self-evident or evident to our senses. Other beliefs may therefore be grounded by those basic beliefs. And a more modern reformulation might substitute “incorrigible” for “justified” with the layered meaning of incorrigibility built on the necessity that given the proposition it is in fact true.

Here’s Alvin Plantinga laying out a case for why justified and incorrigibility have a range of problems, problems serious enough for Plantinga that he suspects that god belief could just as easily be a basic belief, allowing for the kinds of presuppositional Natural Theology (think: I look around me and the hand of God is obvious) that is at the heart of some of the loftier claims concerning the viability or non-irrationality of god belief. It even provides a kind of coherent interpretative framework for historical interpretation.

Plantinga positions the problem of properly basic belief then as an inductive problem:

And hence the proper way to arrive at such a criterion is, broadly speaking, inductive. We must assemble examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously properly basic in the latter, and examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously not properly basic in the latter. We must then frame hypotheses as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of proper basicality and test these hypothesis by reference to those examples. Under the right conditions, for example, it is clearly rational to believe that you see a human person before you: a being who has thoughts and feelings, who knows and believes things, who makes decisions and acts. It is clear, furthermore, that you are under no obligation to reason to this belief from others you hold; under those conditions that belief is properly basic for you.

He goes on to conclude that this opens up the god hypothesis as providing this kind of coherence mechanism:

By way of conclusion then: being self-evident, or incorrigible, or evident to the senses is not a necessary condition of proper basicality. Furthermore, one who holds that belief in God is properly basic is not thereby committed to the idea that belief in God is groundless or gratuitous or without justifying circumstances. And even if he lacks a general criterion of proper basicality, he is not obliged to suppose that just any or nearly any belief—belief in the Great Pumpkin, for example—is properly basic. Like everyone should, he begins with examples; and he may take belief in the Great Pumpkin as a paradigm of irrational basic belief.

So let’s assume that the word learning mechanism based on this Bayesian scaling is representative of our human inductive capacities. Now this may or may not be broadly true. It is possible that it is true of words but not other domains of perceptual phenomena. Nevertheless, given this scaling property, the relative inductive truth of a given proposition (a meaning hypothesis) is strictly Bayesian. Moreover, this doesn’t succumb to problems of verificationalism because it only claims relative truth. Properly basic or basic is then the scaled contending explanatory hypotheses and the god hypothesis has to compete with other explanations like evolutionary theory (for human origins), empirical evidence of materialism (for explanations contra supernatural ones), perceptual mistakes (ditto), myth scholarship, textual analysis, influence of parental belief exposure, the psychology of wish fulfillment, the pragmatic triumph of science, etc. etc.

And so we can stick to a relative scaling of hypotheses as to what constitutes basicality or justified true belief. That’s fine. We can continue to argue the previous points as to whether they support or override one hypothesis or another. But the question Plantinga raises as to what ethics to apply in making those decisions is important. He distinguishes different reasons why one might want to believe more true things than others (broadly) or maybe some things as properly basic rather than others, or, more correctly, why philosophers feel the need to pin god-belief as irrational. But we succumb to a kind of unsatisfying relativism insofar as the space of these hypotheses is not, in fact, weighted in a manner that most reflects the known facts. The relativism gets deeper when the weighting is washed out by wish fulfillment, pragmatism, aspirations, and personal insights that lack falsifiability. That is at least distasteful, maybe aretetically so (in Plantinga’s framework) but probably more teleologically so in that it influences other decision-making and the conflicts and real harms societies may cause.

Lucifer on the Beach

glowwormsI picked up a whitebait pizza while stopped along the West Coast of New Zealand tonight. Whitebait are tiny little swarming immature fish that can be scooped out of estuarial river flows using big-mouthed nets. They run, they dart, and it is illegal to change river exit points to try to channel them for capture. Hence, whitebait is semi-precious, commanding NZD70-130/kg, which explains why there was a size limit on my pizza: only the small one was available.

By the time I was finished the sky had aged from cinereal to iron in a satire of the vivid, watch-me colors of CNN International flashing Donald Trump’s linguistic indirection across the television. I crept out, setting my headlamp to red LEDs designed to minimally interfere with night vision. Just up away from the coast, hidden in the impossible tangle of cold rainforest, there was a glow worm dell. A few tourists conjured with flashlights facing the ground to avoid upsetting the tiny arachnocampa luminosa that clung to the walls inside the dark garden. They were like faint stars composed into irrelevant constellations, with only the human mind to blame for any observed patterns.

And the light, what light, like white-light LEDs recently invented, but a light that doesn’t flicker or change, and is steady under the calmest observation. Driven by luciferin and luciferase, these tiny creatures lure a few scant light-seeking creatures to their doom and as food for absorption until they emerge to mate, briefly, lay eggs, and then die.

Lucifer again, named properly from the Latin as the light bringer, the chemical basis for bioluminescence was largely isolated in the middle of the 20th Century. Yet there is this biblical stigma hanging over the term—one that really makes no sense at all. The translation of morning star or some other such nonsense into Latin got corrupted into a proper name by a process of word conversion (this isn’t metonymy or something like that; I’m not sure there is a word for it other than “mistake”). So much for some kind of divine literalism tracking mechanism that preserves perfection. Even Jesus got rendered as lucifer in some passages.

But nothing new, here. Demon comes from the Greek daemon and Christianity tried to, well, demonize all the ancient spirits during the monolatry to monotheism transition. The spirits of the air that were in a constant flux for the Hellenists, then the Romans, needed to be suppressed and given an oppositional position to the Christian soteriology. Even “Satan” may have been borrowed from Persian court drama as a kind of spy or informant after the exile.

Oddly, we are left with a kind of naming magic for the truly devout who might look at those indifferent little glow worms with some kind of castigating eye, corrupted by a semantic chain that is as kinked as the popular culture epithets of Lucifer himself.

Against Superheroes: Section 18 (Chapter 15)

Against SuperheroesThe sessions with Sakara were illuminative and intimate. She asked me about what I remembered from before the transformation. I sat in the chair across from her, the susurration of the air conditioning that seemed to feed the field projectors as much as our comfort was a constant presence beneath our discussion. I remembered very little: hints of childhood, more about the dig at Mt. Hasan, bits of Ela’s sexual mystique, strange flashes of schools and lights. Interrogating this past revealed very little new or surprising to me. I was candid about my limitations concerning the changes to my memory. I was also candid about how with the loss of a personal history came, inevitably, a loss of the essentials of being human. We are continuitities of experience. I can’t describe who I am except as part of my memories and the feelings that surround and enervate them. The protracted calamity of religious ideas that Sakara raised, from ethical concerns about harming others to the status of the unborn all unravel with this consideration. A baby is alive but only tentatively human in the strongest sense. A god knows this—can even feel it as a ribbon into the future—but humans just arbitrarily assign categories that are driven by misunderstandings of these cognitive postures.

Why were the gods so capricious, she asked me. Why were they so inhuman? They were good human questions but the answer hardly raised above this faint echo of incapacity. If your mind is subsumed in this web of temporal flux, if you recognize the flammability of experience, and where there are other islands of experiences too, like for a human that there is only instead a moving arc of intransitive expectations and plans, then what is left is the broader permamence of an ineffable now. She tried to pin this to the Eastern experience, wrapping it like a crèche Jesus in the swaddling of Buddhist and Taoist language. They are partially there, I explained, but so are the ardent Penitentes or the Hindu self-mutilators. Sure, of course, that is what they think they see, what we as gods see and experience. It is confounded by the lustful futurism of the human condition. I don’t care if I live or die. I am not even sure I can. I only care about injustice through a willful effort to define and engage with my human past. I’m not sure any other gods ever did.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, when asked why God might be so cruel as to not only drown the entire world but to also kill all but some hundred thousand elect who will join Him in heaven, respond that we are like ants to Him and cannot know His morality. It is true, I realize and scare Sakara with this revelation, that Yahweh, if he was as real as I am, necessarily had a moral code that was indifferent to humanity. That any creation act was just a likely contigent effect of some greater, unknowable temporary perspective, a new technology almost built out of these fields and rhythms. He didn’t care and his confused expressions were recorded by his followers like imbecile ants trying to see beyond the pheromonic trails that took them in their daily cycles. Losing those gods to just myths and history was critical to developing freedom, but we kept reappearing in theosophy, in mysticism, in alien encounters, in superheroes imbued with superpowers. The gods lived on in our aspirations until they were actually discovered again.

Yes, re-engaging with humanity, becoming a force for good regardless of the edge randomization, was something that I wanted to do after a while. It was maybe loneliness—sure Sakara—I wouldn’t deny that diagnosis, that analysis. Discovering how to be human again brought the ability to quell the Tiamat within me, and the capacity to grok that vast, limited double-cone of past and future that comes with that humanity.

The sessions went on and on. I began marking the passing of days on the walls of my cell with a red crayon they granted me. A television arrived a week later and I asked Sakara if it was some kind of gift for being a good little god. She said she though it might help with boredom. I had little of that even now, maybe something like it at the edges, though. Holding the crayon in my hand late in the night, watching the unchanging shadows from the now-dimmed lights, I continued to work on the corners of those tubules, enlarging them against the pervasiveness of the suppression field. I felt like I understood its mechanism more in interfering with my penetration of the ensembles of microstates. It was like static that disrupted the realizations. By flexing a bit I could lift the edge of the gauzy veil without setting off alarms. I had begun in my cell but tried again during a session with Sakara to test my theory. No alarms, no stunguns.

By the third week Sakara asked me if there was anything I needed and I told her answers, just all the answers that I was waiting for. That was all I needed. She agreed at that point but said that I had to remain in the field for a bit longer. I was surprised that they were even considering lifting the field from me, and briefly suspended my own experimentation on it, fearing I would dissolve that trust that we had built together through these seemingly irrelevant chats. She smiled at me and told me I had been remarkably forthcoming and didn’t seem to be trying to manipulate her at all. I hadn’t, admittedly, though not telling her that I could probably throw off the effects of the field and break the building into pieces was not particularly forthcoming in the sense she was using the term. I thought briefly about telling her or showing her what I could now do. I wanted her trust, too. She was a wonderfully delicate woman doing some of the most fascinating and risky work in the human universe. And she was doing it competently in the face of incredible ambiguity and uncertainty.

I reached out, then, as I acknowledged her trust using the standard English symbology, a wrapping of idiosyncratic semaphors that conjoined our emotional transaction. Information was always secondary to the feeling, to the stance. And then as I felt through the field’s matrix of spongey sequenced variables, I touched the side of her face, disturbing the plumule like a gentle, cool breeze that can flow through any room, when an air conditioner comes on or a colleague passes near, but this was a controlled cell, a womb, and there was no motion outside our own flexing and re-arranging, and her right eyelid twitched and then pulsed reflexively, her searching about at the anomaly. But it was just that once, and I relented, satisfied with my cryptic stalking for that slice of time.

She continued then, though with a loss of certainty to her patter, a temporary hesitancy, until she excused herself to use the bathroom and I waited, watching the tile floor and the multiple shadows radiating from the complex of reflected lights bouncing through the room. When she returned she began to describe what they knew and what they were still trying to understand.

Free Will and Thermodynamic Warts

Free WillyThe Stone at New York Times is a great resource for insights into both contemporary and rather ancient discussions in philosophy. Here’s William Irvin at King’s College discoursing on free will and moral decision-making. The central problem is one that we all discussed in high school: if our atomistic world is deterministic in that there is a chain of causation from one event to another (contingent in the last post), and therefore even our mental processes must be caused, then there is no free will in the expected sense (“libertarian free will” in the literature). This can be overcome by the simplest fix of proposing a non-material soul that somehow interacts with the material being and is inherently non-deterministic. This results in a dualism of matter and mind that doesn’t seem justifiable by any empirical results. For instance, we know that decision-making does appear to have a neuropsychological basis because we know about the effects of lesioning brains, neurotransmitters, and even how smells can influence decisions. Irving also claims that the realization of the potential loss of free will leaves us awash in some sense of hopelessness at the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical reality of an objective moral system. Without free will we seem off the hook for our decisions.

Compatibilists will disagree, and might even cite quantum indeterminacy as a rescue donut for pulling some notion of free will up out of the deep ocean of Irving’s despair. But the fix is perhaps even easier than that. Even though we might recognize that there are chains of causation at a microscopic scale, the macroscopic combinations of these events—even without quantum indeterminacy—becomes only predictable along broad contours of probabilistic outcomes. We start with complex initial conditions and things just get worse from there. By the time we get to exceedingly complex organisms deciding things, we also have elaborate control cycles influenced by childhood training, religion, and reason that cope with this ambiguity and complexity. The metaphysical reality of morality or free will may be gone, but there is no need for fictionalism. They are empirically real and any sense of loss is tied to merely overcoming the illusions arriving from these incompatibilities between everyday reasoning and the deeper appreciation of the world as it is, thermodynamic warts and all.

Rationality and the Intelligibility of Philosophy

6a00d83542d51e69e20133f5650edd970b-800wiThere is a pervasive meme in the physics community that holds as follows: there are many physical phenomena that don’t correspond in any easy way to our ordinary experiences of life on earth. We have wave-particle duality wherein things behave like waves sometimes and particles other times. We have simultaneous entanglement of physically distant things. We have quantum indeterminacy and the emergence of stuff out of nothing. The tiny world looks like some kind of strange hologram with bits connected together by virtual strings. We have a universe that began out of nothing and that begat time itself. It is, in this framework, worthwhile to recognize that our every day experiences are not necessarily useful (and are often confounding) when trying to understand the deep new worlds of quantum and relativistic physics.

And so it is worthwhile to ask whether many of the “rational” queries that have been made down through time have any intelligible meaning given our modern understanding of the cosmos. For instance, if we were to state the premise “all things are either contingent or necessary” that underlies a poor form of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, we can immediately question the premise itself. And a failed premise leads to a failed syllogism. Maybe the entanglement of different things is piece-part of the entanglement of large-scale space time, and that the insights we have so far are merely shadows of the real processes acting behind the scenes? Who knows what happened before the Big Bang?

In other words, do the manipulations of logic and the assumptions built into the terms lead us to empty and destructive conclusions? There is no reason not to suspect that and therefore the bits of rationality that don’t derive from empirical results are immediately suspect. This seems to press for a more coherence-driven view of epistemology, one which accords with known knowledge but adjusts automatically as semantics change.

There is an interesting mental exercise concerning why we should be able to even undertake these empirical discoveries and all their seemingly non-sensible results that are nevertheless fashioned into a cohesive picture of the physical world (and increasingly the mental one). Are we not making an assumption that our brains are capable of rational thinking given our empirical understanding of our evolved pasts? Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism tries, for instance, to upend this perspective by claiming it is highly unlikely that a random process of evolution could produce reliable mental faculties because it would be focused too much on optimization for survival. This makes no sense empirically, however, since we have good evidence for evolution and we have good evidence for reliable mental faculties when subjected to the crucible of group examination and scientific process. We might be deluding ourselves, it’s true, but there are too many artifacts of scientific understanding and progress to take that terribly seriously.

So we get back to coherence and watchful empiricism. No necessity for naturalism as an ideology. It’s just the only thing that currently makes sense.

Non-Cognitivist Trajectories in Moral Subjectivism

imageWhen I say that “greed is not good” the everyday mind creates a series of images and references, from Gordon Gekko’s inverse proposition to general feelings about inequality and our complex motivations as people. There is a network of feelings and, perhaps, some facts that might be recalled or searched for to justify the position. As a moral claim, though, it might most easily be considered connotative rather than cognitive in that it suggests a collection of secondary emotional expressions and networks of ideas that support or deny it.

I mention this (and the theories that are consonant with this kind of reasoning are called non-cognitivist and, variously, emotive and expressive), because there is a very real tendency to reduce moral ideas to objective versus subjective, especially in atheist-theist debates. I recently watched one such debate between Matt Dillahunty and an orthodox priest where the standard litany revolved around claims about objectivity versus subjectivity of truth. Objectivity of truth is often portrayed as something like, “without God there is no basis for morality. God provides moral absolutes. Therefore atheists are immoral.” The atheists inevitably reply that the scriptural God is a horrific demon who slaughters His creation and condones slavery and other ideas that are morally repugnant to the modern mind. And then the religious descend into what might be called “advanced apologetics” that try to diminish, contextualize, or dismiss such objections.

But we are fairly certain regardless of the tradition that there are inevitable nuances to any kind of moral structure. Thou shalt not kill gets revised to thou shalt not murder. So we have to parse manslaughter in pursuit of a greater good against any rules-based approach to such a simplistic commandment. Not eating shellfish during a famine has less human expansiveness but nevertheless caries similar objective antipathy,

I want to avoid invoking the Euthyphro dilemma here and instead focus on the notion that there might be an inevitability to certain moral proscriptions and even virtues given an evolutionary milleu. This was somewhat the floorplan of Sam Harris, but I’ll try to project the broader implications of species-level fitness functions to a more local theory, specifically Gibbard’s fact-prac worlds where the trajectories of normative, non-cognitive statements like “greed is not good” align with sets of perceptions of the world and options for implementing activities that strengthen the engagement with the moral assertion. The assertion is purely subjective but it derives out of a correspondence with incidental phenomena and a coherence with other ideations and aspirations. It is mostly non-cognitive in this sense that it expresses emotional primitives rather than simple truth propositions. It has a number of interesting properties, however, most notably that the fact-prac set of constraints that surround these trajectories are movable, resulting in the kinds of plasticity and moral “evolution” that we see around us, like “slavery is bad” and “gay folks should not be discriminated against.” So as an investigative tool, we can see some value that gives such a theory important verificational value. As presented by Gibbard, however, these collections of constraints that guide the trajectories of moral approaches to simple moral commandments, admonishments, or statements, need further strengthening to meet the moral landscape “ethical naturalism” that asserts that certain moral attitudes result in improved species outcomes and are therefore axiomatically possible and sensibly rendered as objective.

And it does this without considering moral propositions at all.

On Killing Kids


Mark S. Smith’s The Early History of God is a remarkable piece of scholarship. I was recently asked what I read for fun and had to admit that I have been on a trajectory towards reading books that have, on average, more footnotes than text. J.P. Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans kindly moves the notes to the end of the volume. Smith’s Chapter 5, Yahwistic Cult Practices, and particularly Section 3, The mlk sacrifice, are illuminating on the widespread belief that killing children could propitiate the gods. This practice was likely widespread among the Western Semitic peoples, including the Israelites and Canaanites (Smith’s preference for Western Semitic is to lump the two together ca. 1200 BC because they appear to have been culturally the same, possibly made distinct after the compilation of OT following the Exile).

I recently argued with some young street preachers about violence and horror in Yahweh’s name and by His command while waiting outside a rock shop in Old Sacramento. Human sacrifice came up, too, with the apologetics being that, despite the fact that everyone was bad back then, the Chosen People did not perform human sacrifice and therefore they were marginally better than the other people around them. They passed quickly on the topic of slavery, which was wise for rhetorical purposes, because slavery was widespread and acceptable. I didn’t remember the particulars of the examples of human sacrifice in OT, but recalled them broadly to which they responded that there were translation and interpretation errors with “burnt offering” and “fire offerings of first borns” that, of course, immediately contradicted their assertion of acceptance and perfection of the scriptures.

More interesting, though, is the question of why might human sacrifice be so pervasive, whether among Yahwists and Carthiginians or Aztecs? On Patheos, Chris Hallquist comments on the brilliant Is God a Moral Compromiser? by Thom Stark (free PDF!) that runs through the attitudes concerning the efficacy of human sacrifice for achieving military goals. And maybe you can control the weather or make your crops grow better. Killing one’s own kids sets up a dilemma for evolutionary psychology in that it immediately reduces your genetic representation. So the commitment to the gods must override the commitment to family and its role as a proxy for biology. Sacrificing other people’s children is less incomprehensible, though it does affect the tribe and larger political constructs as well.

Looking at the story of Abraham and the emergence out of the Yahwistic cultic mlk, we might see even more evidence of the effect of multi-level selection overriding the individual’s biological urges. Order, obedience, tribal practices, and one’s identity as part of the group overrule preservation and familial bonds, and society gradually emerges as the lawmaker and orchestrator of human interractions.

Language Games

Word GamesOn The Thinking Atheist, C.J. Werleman promotes the idea that atheists can’t be Republicans based on his new book. Why? Well, for C.J. it’s because the current Republican platform is not grounded in any kind of factual reality. Supply-side economics, Libertarianism, economic stimuli vs. inflation, Iraqi WMDs, Laffer curves, climate change denial—all are grease for the wheels of a fantastical alternative reality where macho small businessmen lift all boats with their steely gaze, the earth is forever resilient to our plunder, and simple truths trump obscurantist science. Watch out for the reality-based community!

Is politics essentially religion in that it depends on ideology not grounded in reality, spearheaded by ideologues who serve as priests for building policy frameworks?

Likely. But we don’t really seem to base our daily interactions on rationality either. 538 Science tells us that it has taken decades to arrive at the conclusion that vitamin supplements are probably of little use to those of us lucky enough to live in the developed world. Before that we latched onto indirect signaling about vitamin C, E, D, B12, and others to decide how to proceed. The thinking typically took on familiar patterns: someone heard or read that vitamin X is good for us/I’m skeptical/why not?/maybe there are negative side-effects/it’s expensive anyway/forget it. The language games are at all levels in promoting, doubting, processing, and reinforcing the microclaims for each option. We embrace signals about differences and nuances but it often takes many months and collections of those signals in order to make up our minds. And then we change them again.

Among the well educated, I’ve variously heard the wildest claims about the effectiveness of chiropractors, pseudoscientific remedies, the role of immunizations in autism (not due to preservatives in this instance; due to immune responses themselves), and how karma works in software development practice.

And what about C.J.’s central claims? Well I haven’t read the book and don’t plan to, so I can only build on what he said during the interview. If we require evidence for our political beliefs as much as we require it for our religious perspective we probably need to have a scheme for how to rank the likelihood of different beliefs and policy commitments. For instance, C.J. follows the continued I-told-you-so approach of Paul Krugman in his comments on fiscal stimulus; not enough was done and there is no evidence of inflationary pressure. Well and good that fiscal stimulus as a macro-economic stabilizer has been established in the most recent economic past. The non-appearance of inflation was somewhat surprising, actually, but is now the retrospective majority opinion of economists concerned with such matters. It was a cause for concern, however, as were the problematic bailouts that softened the consequences (if not rewarded them) of risky behavior in pursuit of broader stability.

The language game theory of politics and religion accounts for most of the uncertainty and chaos that drives thinking about politics and economics. We learn the rules (social and pragmatic impact as well as grammatical rules) and the game pieces (words, phrases, and concepts) early on. They don’t have firm referential extension, of course. In fact, they never really do. But they cohere more and more over time unless radically disrupted, and even then they try to recohere against the tangle of implications as the dust settles. This is Wittgensteinian and anti-Positivist, but it is also somewhat value-free in that there is no sense for why one language game should be preferential to another.

For C.J., there is a clear demarcation that facts trump fantasy, and our lives and society would be better served by factually-derived policies and factually enervated perspectives on the claims of most religions. But it is far less clear to me as to how to apply some rationalist overlay to the problem of politics that would have consistent and meaningful improvements in our lives and society save the obvious one of improving general education and thinking.

I recently irritated and frustrated my teen son in questioning him about some claims he was making about bad teachers in the local school system. The irritation came as I probed into various rumors about a teacher who had been fired because she was, according to him, sexist and graded boys poorly. It turns out he only had a handful of rumors about everything from the teacher’s firing to the sexism. It looked more likely that one of his friends made it up in conjunction with other boys who were doing poorly in the teacher’s class. They created a meme in a language game and it propagated. My son was defensive about the possibility of the whole story and I admitted it was possible but that it was sufficiently unlikely as to not warrant concern. The attachment of levels of likely veracity and valuations were ultimately the only difference in the end.

I apologized for making him mad but didn’t apologize for my skepticism and, later, there were signals that his network of beliefs had been moved a bit, the vile evil sexist teacher drifting out of focus among the other shades of consideration.

And that is how the language game is played.