Thursday, April 26, 2018

Native Benedictions, Secularism & Treaty Equity

An interesting development here in Canada is the emergence of First Nation benedictions and blessings on public events. For instance, public education events now usually start with a recognition of whose ancestral land the event is taking place on. Then there is usually a benediction by an Elder. In some rare cases this may involve requests for the audience to participate (say turn to each of the four cardinal directions).

It is great to see our first nations being respected and represented. Canada's reconciliation movement is making significant strides.

The incorporation of prayer into public events present some pluralistic conundrums.

Honouring, Coercion, & Voluntary Attendance

For one, state sponsorship/promotion of religion (via public institutions) is a legal no no.  Well, more technically, sponsorship of a particular religion is a no no. Here's an except of an opinion from Canada's Supreme Court (via this law review)

So is having a prayer given by a certain denomination coercion? This is highly doubtful. There is no force of action. What about peer pressure to follow a requested action, like turning to the four sacred corners? This seems to be more of a grey area. For instance, we no longer allow public prayer in schools, perhaps because of its de facto coercive nature. Are voluntarily attended public events run by government entities any different? By sake of their voluntary nature, the answer is, probably. But there is still the legal opinion that prohibits the government (or its proxies) from involvement in religious matters. Prayers are religious matters.

Teasing out Religion
However, when religion doesn't follow Western separation of culture & religion, interpretations of this can be divided. For instance, perhaps the prayer is a cultural expression of saying "hello, welcome" rather than an overtly religious act?

British / Canadian case law takes a fairly liberal view of things here. This view seems to match my (and others) necessary but not sufficient factor approach (i.e. any 6/10 of the following factors)

Thus the cultural approach may be fine, or it may not. In non distinguishable culture-religions, perhaps it depends upon the intent of the act itself? Is the act a religious ceremony? Is is asking for belief? Is it requesting audience participation? Or, is it just a "hello, welcome"?  Can you say no to the religion without also rejecting or being seen to reject the culture?

I'd suggest, at least in my treaty area, benedictions are usually intended as more of a semi-official treaty partner greeting. But, as we'll soon see, that really depends upon who such greetings are reciprocated. My feeling is that they are not reciprocated appropriately and this is why there is more tension (and head burying) than is needed around these events.

De Facto Monoculturalization

One other way to view the prayer issue is to suggest that no particular religion is favoured. All participants and participant groups have equal standing and equal representation of their religious beliefs as expressed through invitational based benediction honours. This seems to be a very Canadian approach - let each group do their thing. We'll all respect it and not feel threatened by it, but rather celebrate each other's heritage.

But what happens when benedictions become monocultural? Say only seventh day adventists start giving every single prayer at public University dinners?

The most common response I've seen to this issue is to say any steps to reconciliation are good and anything that would suggest otherwise is bad.  The issue I have with this is

  1. I think church state separation is good
  2. I worry about the backlash sticking your head in the sand causes (see Trump phenomenon), especially toward marginalized populations
  3. I think this actually infantilizes / tokenizes Native groups in some rather subtle and insidious ways
  4. I don't think it respects the treaty partnerships upon which many blessings / benediction stories are ultimately based.
In short, I think we can do pluralism better. As one person said to me, "its just not that big a deal. It helps reconciliation". Yes, that is probably true, but that argument is eerily similar to the ones Protestants and Catholics used to use when school prayers were around. After all, you didn't "have to" participate back then either....

Doing It Better

The worst thing about the sacralization of these topics is that it prevents rational conversation. When sacralization happens, intent doesn't matter. Blasphemy is insensitive to both intent and context.

With that in mind, let me propose a better solution....

I think the first big shift one needs to make is to view treaties as a two-way street. In my treaty areas, the treaties aren't simple land - benefit/right exchanges. There was an expectation of growing together. Paying for blessings is not growing together. It is, or rather can be, tokenization. Interactions between two peoples involves the exchange of stories - the sharing of moral understandings and values.

When government entities have a native benediction, what is reciprocated? Money / gifts? The conference content? I don't think that exchange is fair nor honourable. What kind of story is the other treaty partner giving back? When there are no reciprocal expectations, there is no opportunity to grow together. The story shared becomes devoid of true significance, and, I'm afraid through good intentions people might be treating the native groups as a type of curio that gives groups "woke" points.

A benediction story requires an exchange of how both sides will come together as treaty partners. This paradigm offers a chance to share what both value and the actions / promises both make. Thus, respect (having a benediction) may be a start, but it can quickly ossify into de facto state religious sponsorship and tokenization.  Instead, if you are going to ask for a benediction, what stories and treaty related unifications are going to be put forward by the asker?

Words are one step. But we can do better. Actions can do better.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Harris Klein Argument Analysis

Sam Harris (new atheist and hyper-rationalist) & Ezra Klein (Vox editor) recently sat down to hash out some simmering arguments between them.

Harris was upset that controversial science topics are becoming taboo. This prevents people from knowing how to deal with uncomfortable facts which will certainly emerge in the course of natural human scientific inquiry.  He was tarred by Vox, social progressive anthropologists, and voxsplainers as a pseudo scientific structural racist.

As you can imagine the debate didn't go well. It was a fairly big train wreck. Here's my analysis of why.

Mistake #1: Harris Never Let His Points Stand
Harris has a tendency to be very verbose. This prevented any meaningful back and forth from occurring. Harris would make a good point, does non-african Neanderthal DNA make any noticeable difference in traits? Just because there are differences that doesn't imply any moral value statement about difference.  But rather than leave things here, he would go onto pontificate for another 5 minutes.  This clouded arguments, and meant Klein never had to directly engage with major points.  Worse yet, Harris tended to end his diatribes with fairly moral based reasoning. Klein easily one-upped Harris on this front. Klein always kept the moral high ground.  It was a disaster for Harris.

Mistake #2: While Religion was Socially Ostracized, Progressivism is Certainly Not
If you lived through the new atheist movement there is more than a little schadenfreude here. Harris fell back on moral argumentation. However this time, audience and society sympathy was for his opponent rather than against him/her.  I don't think Harris may have realized how much of a difference this might make in appearances. He certainly was aware how radioactive the topic of race & inheritance is, but he probably thought the fight to disentangle morals from data rationality was worth it.

Good on him for trying. But this disentanglement is one of the major critiques of Harris' hyper-rationalist movement.  Because religious-like dynamics in social confrontations work, they are very unlikely to be forsaken. Harris seemed to view Klein's unwillingness to concede this frame as an act of ingenuineness.

Mistake #3: Treating Klein's Progressivism in Rational Terms Rather Than Religious Terms
This was one of Harris' bigger mistakes. Klein was saving people from eugenified scientism. Harris was attacking them with it & telling them these attacks were for a greater good. This is always a losing argument.

Harris just seemed unable to leverage his usual argument trains to handle the novel landscapes Progressive intersectionalized quasi-religion operates within. Klein came across as policy and people oriented rather than as a scientific denialist & sacrilist. To me, Klein's arguments were much more appealing than Harris'.

Mistake #4: Allowing the White vs. Black Frame Rather than the Asian vs. White Frame
Racial conversations are toxic. Punching down (whether intended or not) comes across as horrid. Harris could have avoided this by purposefully avoided the White Black frame as too loaded and counter-productive while still hitting every point of science he wanted by using the Asian White frame. None of Harris' arguments would have changed. But it would have prevented much of Klein's sympathetic moralizing.  Harris would have been "elevating" Asians rather than denigrating Africans.

Harris is going to learn a painful, Murray-esque, lesson here. While I do feel sorry for him - I in no way think he is a racist - it is interesting seeing Harris loaded with some of the aspersions he has cast on religiously oriented folk over the years.  While I strongly suspect he tries to avoid this, thinking he is tackling the rationality of religious positions, the dynamics he has fostered around religiosity seem very similar to the slimes he got from Klein.

Mistake #5: The Compartmentalization  Required by Hyper-Rationalism May Be Functionally Impossible.
This seemed to be Klein's main point. You can never get away from the legacy of how racial data has been used. When you bring it out into the open, you are responsible for the abuses that come from removing its well-deserved taboos.

I have long thought science need to learn to come to terms with the adaptive "irrationality" of religion. Harris and all New Atheists do not. For Harris to have the right tool set for these types of debates, he can either

  1. Humbly learn from Critical Theorists and Intersectionalists.
  2. Figure a world view that accommodates gradual declines in religious "irrationality".
  3. Magically learn how to win a no-win fight against progressivism's moral high ground.

While I didn't watch the first Jordan Peterson - Harris interview train wreck, I have been impressed by how Harris came back from the totality of that and his second interview with increased awareness of the strength of Peterson's positions. I suspect he will eat humble pie and learn from the Klein disaster. But ultimately he may have to learn how to accept the rhetorical and popular strength of moralized religious-like thinking. 

But, he certainly may not. Aspergery people are like that. He might view hyper-rationalism as a hill worth dying over. Perhaps Eric Weinstein can convince him otherwise. But it is certainly easy to see why Harris views Charles Murray's predicament as so relevant to his own hyper-rationalist quest.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Fuzzy Boundaries

Fuzzy Selection Boundaries
One critique of multi-level selection theory is the biological reality (or unreality) of groups*.  Individuals are not fully entwined with the group the way individual cells are entwined with a parent organism. Lack of dependency and coordination challenges the reality of a full biological transition to the group level. The critique is that acting as if a fuzzy transition is "real enough" is just not appropriate. While humans outside of any parent group have significantly decreased fitness, they can still survive. Many evolutionists argue selectionist tools can't be legitimately applied to fuzzily cohered groups.

Boundaries are insufficiently clear, stark, or enduring.

Fuzzy Cultural-Ancestry (i.e. "race") Boundaries
Recently, anthropologists have critiqued geneticist David Reich's recent book arguing for the statistical and hence physical reality of statistical cultural-ancestry (i.e. "race"). One of the major complaints is that "race" boundaries are too fuzzy. Variation between populations is near meaningless compared to the variation within the whole population or even within statistically aggregated sub-populations.

This is another example where the complaint is that of insufficiently clear, stark, and enduring boundaries.

Fuzzy Religion Boundaries
One complaint with my (or anyone else's) necessary but not sufficient factor approach (i.e. 6 out of these 9 factors) for defining religion is that it produces boundaries which are too fuzzy. It also risks including groups which may pass a factor test but common sense would strongly suggest might not be religious (e.g. Amway, most zealous but non ultra fanatical comic fans, etc.)

How Many Socio-Biological Boundaries are Fuzzy?
The counter point to the insufficiently clear boundary critique is that some biological boundaries in the field of evolution are just not as solid as folk intuition might otherwise suggest.

For example, Massimo Pigluicci's seminal paper on An Extended Synthesis for Evolutionary Biology lists numerous levels of selection and multiple paths for genetic inheritance (what affects gene fitness).

 It is now clear that several levels of the biological hierarchy are, at least theoretically, legitimate targets of selection, from genes to individuals, from groups of kin to populations to species (Okasha, 2006)

The current emphasis in genomics research is no longer on the effects of individual genes or of single metabolic cas- cades but rather on the system-level properties of entire networks of gene products (Cork & Purugganan 2004; Wray 2007),  
Along similar, yet independent, lines it has been proposed that there are four, not just one, systems of inheritance affecting the evolu- tion of biological organisms (Jablonka & Lamb 2005): the standard genetic one, an epigenetic component (based on the inheritance of epi- genetic markers, e.g., methylation patterns), a behavioral one (e.g., imitation in some species of animals), and a symbolic one (limited, as far as we know, to humans). This has prompted a rethinking of previously basic concepts in evo- lutionary theory, beginning with the idea of a “replicator” (Szathma ́ry 2006), as well as re- newed efforts at empirical research exploring the extent and importance of heritable epige- netic effects (Chandler & Alleman 2008).

Gene-Culture Boundaries?
The incorporation of culture into evolutionary thinking muddies biological boundaries. This is why critiques of multi-level selection theory and other dual or multi-path inheritance models should not be discarded out of hand. The value gained by dealing with fuzzy edges doesn't necessarily compensate the lack of rigour it costs. Faulty logic may indeed create insidious stumbling blocks which are hard to remove.

On the other hand, reality seems to be all about fuzzy boundaries.

Part of the issue comes from the way people understand (or misunderstand) statistics.  For instance, is anything other than a 1-to-1 match for genes to "racial" group acceptable? I doubt it.  There are issues going from population level descriptions to individual level assumptions. Geneticists know not to do this. The public and many non-mathematically educated, humanity oriented, types may not. Further than this, many activists purposefully misconstrue this boundary so as to fire up righteous resistance. After all, if objective facts can be used nefariously.  In some people's minds, better to create taboos to ensure this can never happen.

In many ways this is reminiscent of academic purity arguments around fuzzy boundary contagion....

This is not to say that "objective scientism" on topics such as "race" / ancestors can't be offensive. It certainly can be extremely offensive. My own Sami / Lap heritage was definitely subject to this (albeit with the addition of "white dis-privilege").

Definite things can still be probabilistic. Anyone who has taken a quantum course knows this. Reconstructing probabilistically determined entities is never going to be a 1-to-1 enterprise. Perhaps the statistical socio-physics literature has produced some work here. I'm not sure, and to me, engaging Luddites on this front tends to boorishness.  The two sides have different utility functions. Both are justifiable. They just represent different Haidt teloses.  Neither should be universally mandated.

While one may be more "real" than the other, they need to exist in tension. Without this, you tend to generate some rather nasty secondary effects (hyper-rationalism which increases the chance of eugenic like perspectives emerging or taboo based anti-scientism / Ludditism / socially approved "facts").  This is partly why I support learning how to live with and work with "religious" ways of knowing. Societal coherence (& survival) requires it.

Here is one physical analogy of the situation. You have an individual item you want to test (cultural/ethnic ancestry, religiousness, group level). It produces some of the same signals as the category you are to test. Let's say you notice a -1 charge. Is it an electron? What about a Tau lepton? (Both have this charge)

You test some properties. It has a half integer spin. What is it guaranteed to be?  (Both have this spin)

At this point you can't conclude. Let's assume other measures are unavailable. You might guess which one it is based upon probabilities. Electrons are more plentiful than Tau's. Has the particle's reality changed?

I think arguments boil down to a couple of scenarios:

  1. Treating the "particle" as set of probabilistically composed options (i.e. a X% chance of an e- and (1-X)% chance of a T-.
  2. Treating them an a single indistinguishable entity that has an inescapable chance of error. (i.e. its always an electron, we're just wrong X% of the time)
  3. Treating them an an indistinguishable entity that, if used, produces an inescapable chance catastrophe.
  4. Treating the system as a single entity (which has the average properties of its entities, say a mass which is the average of the e- & T-)

My own naivete tends to see the anthropological critique of "race" / statistical ancestry as an example of case 4 thinking. I suspect genetic evolutionists see things as a case 1 scenario.

I suspect another major issue with fuzzy boundaries in social science work is the issue of scale.

Scale is rather arbitrary. For example, what is the ideal scale for "race" / statistical ancestry? While it is easy to assume anthropologists are naive of quantitative methods for phylogeny, I doubt that is really the case. I suspect they mainly reject it because of error concerns, utility calculations, and the secondary effects this might have in how they and their systems value people.

And so, while regression can optimize the scale of sub-population groupings, it is always going to be somewhat arbitrary. This is because the scale of distinct lineages varies across the world. People who were genetically isolated (to varying degrees) did not produce groupings of the same size. This makes scales rather arbitrary. Are you looking for distinguishable phenotypes or distinguishable markers? Migration genetics seems to look for anything that produces distinguishable populations so as to track movement. That does not necessarily correspond to distinguishable phenotypical differences. It, of course, may, but this is of course probabilistic.

The heritability and distinctiveness of culture is, I suspect, the nail that seals the fate of anthropological interpretation. If cultural difference is not significant and is so malleable so quickly, "race" can become as trite as assuming the colour of clothes you wear one day to another says anything about who you are. Of course, many people, like Amazon, Facebook, etc. would suggest the clothes you wear on any day enable them to probabilistically say a lot about you. But if you went from a goth to a cowboy to a prep, have you really changed?  Process philosophy starts rearing its complicating head...

However, if cultural difference is significant, and long-lasting enough, then the anthropological interpretation is sealed, albeit in a different direction.  I think gene-culture work, such as the classic lactose problem illustrates the value of this interpretational frame. Similarly, I think the evolutionary synthesis represented by Pigluicci's classic paper, heightens the role of cultural factor influence on genetic phenotypes enough to severely weaken the anthropological interpretation.  However, I don't think it destroys it.

I think both positions are needed for the tension they produce. But as Reich says, the balance is definitely shifting - as painful as that may be some. It is one more thing that seems to be forcing science and society to confront fuzzy boundary issues on sensitive topics.

Here's a sample of the sacralization of the topic. This suggests rational conversation is all but impossible. A reconciliation to Haidt's two teloses seems all but inevitable.

*This is a critique most germane to the MSL1 formulation. MLS2 posits collectives reproducing collectives.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Separation Of (Secular) Church & State

Now that more people are coming to see zealous intersectionality / Social Justice as a de facto new religion, the obvious question is, "what implication does this have for America's tradition of the separation between church and state."

See 1:39:09 in this video for a question

  1. Universities are supporting the promulgation of a specific religion.
  2. Human resource and Diversity offices should be very careful about whether their actions are de facto proselytization's of a specific religion.
  3. Government and private business are, in many cases, explicitly prioritizing a specific religion, albeit for "good ends".
  4. Some Critical Theory departments may best be integrated into Religious Studies departments.
  5. There should be clear distinctions between the study of certain topics and activism on those topics.
  6. How do you accommodate physical "safe spaces" (physical churches) into public post-secondary campuses?
  7. Can current Religious accommodation laws accommodate the needs / interests of this new religion.
  8. Religious and indigenous perspectives should be elevated in value.

I think the major issue is going to be how Universities use the insights from this class of de facto "religions". For instance, religious studies produce unique and valuable perspectives on ethical topics. Whitehead, one of the major proponents of this perspective was clearly influenced by religion. Modern process philosophy emerged.

Also, religious perspectives can, and often do, fertilize the contemplation of ethical questions about theory and practice.  

Similarly, arguments can be made that the quasi-factual nature of religious thinking can loosen system levels constraints which inhibit creative thinking (see Eric Weinstein's arguments in his discussion with Sam Harris). Basically, the allowance for crazy hypothetical holistically biased ideas ensures that systems don't become so oppressively rigid that they stifle idea generation & development.

This also relates to current foci on native knowledge traditions. Objective truth is objective truth, but different perspectives illuminate different aspects and questions. This process engenders greater creativity. It also has the potential to ground things differently. This is especially true around applicational aspects (which almost always intersect socially constructed considerations).

I can't see activism as being overly tenable in state sponsored post secondary institutions. To see this, ask yourself what level of Catholic activism you would be comfortable with from a Religious Studies department? Should these professors be encouraging students to protest Planned Parenthood? Should they be staging protests on campus which push people to follow Catholic specific teachings such as no artificial birth control?

While Critical Theory is fundamentally tied to action, I suspect religious categorization will force some hard exploration of what is and what is not acceptable for a religion to do when many of its priests/professors are directly supported by state funds.

Physical Accommodations
One sore spot with respect to intersectional religion is its racist tendencies. Safe spaces require both ideological purity (no offensive ideas or symbols) and racial/sexual purity (you should be of a non-offensive race, sex or gender construct).  Race and sex purity can, of course be mitigated by correct compensators: wokeness, virtue signalling and appropriate physical/behavioural markers (say the right clothes, piercings, hair colour etc.).  But, generally "safe spaces" seem slightly less publicly welcoming than most churches.  While churches can't discriminate based upon race, it seems safe spaces can.

To see how this might work in practice, imagine if an alpha looking male wanted to attend a "female survivors" of sex assault workshop. Many people would suggest this might not be appropriate. However, this is a clear case of sexual discrimination. Unless you carve out "religious" exemptions, it wouldn't stand fair application of law.

But in post-secondary space, religious exemptions for discrimination are few and far between. The space is public, not self-selected and private.  Thus I suspect safe spaces will not survive separation of (secular) church and state.

Personally, this is partly why I see one-directional oppression logic as all but inevitable. Without it, I suspect these nascent religious movements may find growth problematic. Opponents can easily challenge their dynamics by profaning their sacred tenets via free speech and physical inclusion rights. Thus I'm empathetic to these groups needs for protection (free speech limits, one-dimensional racism, safe spaces, etc.). I just don't think these stand up without purposeful state-sponsorship. The problem is that, from many angles, the state is sponsoring a de facto religion, not a simple social grouping.

Because many people consider the growth of these movements as inherently beneficial to historically marginalized groups, I think the state is willing to overlook the destructive & corrosive hypocrisy that comes from non-uniform rule application.  After all, the intentions are good.....

Unfortunately this is a good recipe for social disaster. As can be seen in the UK and Sweden, it requires increasing levels of "double downing". This inspires ever increasing levels of backlash.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Supernatural Problem in Quasi-Religion

One of the critiques that occurs when applying a religious or quasi-religious lens to modern secular cult like groups is the absence of supernatural agents.  

But, as I've said before, this problem usually comes from trying to generate one-to-one superficial maps onto questions that are best addressed via dynamical similarities. For instance if you focus on modern shirts, what happens when you run into a toga? The superficial features don't match. But the functional features do.  From another perspective, the level of precision used in defining shirts was too great.


In his classic In Gods We Trust, Atran used the term Moral Big Brothers rather than Gods.  While religions often have supernatural Big Brothers, supernaturalism is a sub-set rather than supra-set. Norenzayan has expanded this idea more fully than Atran.

The basic idea is that what matters is what effect an imagined Big Brother has on people.  Embodiment, such as occurs in paganism, simply makes the Big Brother seem more real, facilitating guesses about what they may like or value in any given situation. Similarly, supernaturalism, simply serves to increase the potential punishment and rewards a Big Brother can provide. Plus, it adds a bit of counter-factuality to increase memetic fitness (see this post of mine)


List & Pettit (2011) have done some really good work on Group Agents.  Here's a quote:
Individuals may form a group agent in virtue of evolutionary selection or cleverly designed incentives to act as required for group agency, perhaps within independent cells.  here the individuals contribute to the group agent's performance, but do not explicitly authorize the group agent, the need not even be aware of its existence. (p. 36)
One of the challenges is how to make a Turing machine aggregator "rational".  They take a fairly generous approach here simply saying that the aggregate needs to :
  1. respond to its surroundings (be rational & responsive), and
  2. rationalize its positions (beliefs & desires)
They also add in the need for binary attitudes (but that is more to tie up details associated with a rigorous formal logical approach).

On a whole, this boils down to something like the Turing test.  The aggregator is rational if people ascribe intentionality to it.

While their work has tonnes of depth and fascinating detail,  I'll resist tangent-temptations and pull another quote.
The supervenient relation between the members' attitudes and actions and those of the group can be so complex that the group agent may sometimes think or do something that few, if any, members individually support.  And secondly, the supervenient of the group's attitudes and actions on those of its members is entirely consistent with some individuals being systematically overruled on issues that matter to them a lot.  Accordingly, the kind of control that individual members must be able to exercise in order to enjoy effective protection has to be stronger.  It is not enough for individuals to be able to contribute to what the group thinks or does on the issues that particularly matter to them.  They must be individually decisive on those issues.  Roughly speaking, we say that an individual is 'decisive' on a particular issue if he or she is able to determine fully -  and not merely in conjunction with other individuals - how this issue is to be settled. (p. 130)

This leads to a very interesting (and rigorously argued) conclusion: group agents 'control' individual actors via attitude biasing.  This is in stark contrast to usual definitions of control which assume the application or threat of application of formal power.  Here's another quote on this:

Since our definition of control has taken the group's attitudes, rather than its actions themselves, to be the targets of the individuals' control - the reason being that the group's actions are usually mediated by its attitudes - we can focus, once more on the part of the organizational structure that is easiest to model theoretically: its underlying aggregation function. (p. 136)
As mentioned the aggregation function is based in attitude biasing.  More specially it is a type of espoused, and complexly aggregated, morality.  Here are a few more quotes to take us to the end.
To be a person is to have the capacity to perform as a person.  An to perform as a person is to be party to a system of accepted conventions, such as a system of law, under which one contracts obligations to others... In particular it is to be a knowledgeable and competent party to such a system of obligations.  One knows what is owed to one, and what one owes to others, and one is able and willing to pay one's debts or to recognize that censure and sanction are reasonable in cases of failure... But non-persons cannot be moved by being made aware of obligations they owe to others. (p. 173)
To be sure, group agents are not flesh-and-blood persons.  They are pachydermic and inflexible in various ways, and lack the perceptions and emotions of human individuals.  But they nonetheless have the basic prerequisites of personhood.  Not only do they form and enact a single mind, displaying beliefs and acting on their basis.  They can speak for that mind in a way that enables them to function within the space of mutual recognized obligations. (p.176)


List & Petti's work make no requirement for the degree of bias a Group Agent has on an individual.  It just needs to have some effect.  An inference from this, based on Atran's later work in Identity Fusion, and from the literature on moral groups, is that the degree of identification with a group's morality strongly influences the degree of bias a Group Agent (Moral Big Brother) has on the individual.

For example, highly moral groups usually have more influential Group Agents (Moral Big Brothers) than weakly moral or a-moral groups. It is the dynamics that matter.

In terms of modern secular quasi religions this means its the dynamics of the feedback from the Group Agent to the individual that matter.  Groups that have significant Group Agent feedback combined with sacred values, ritual, costly commitment displays, and steep in-group out-group gradients are highly likely to be "religious".

Is Everything A Religion?

I just ran into an old SlateStarCodex post by Scott Alexander which argues that framing any highly-groupish social systems as religions is problematic, obfuscationalist and pointlessly broad.  Well, maybe he only really said pointlessly broad, but you don't need divine wisdom to get his gist!

Academic definition disagreements in the social sciences often follow some general patterns.  This usually boils down to the following range of options:

  1. Definitions mainly based on a single factor (like supernaturalism),
  2. Definitions based on a couple of clear cut factors (ie. supernaturalism, costly commitment display, group influence on individuals, etc.)
  3.  Definitions based on non-simplistic factor probability mash-ups (ie. 7/10 things from a factor list...)

Scott seem to take the first track (but also seems amenable to 2).  I think religion is definitely a 3.


When you look at religion from a scientific perspective there are a couple of things which make this approach different from conventional religious or sociological perspectives.  For me, its religion's evolutionary history; particular for its (evolutionary) recent disentanglement from culture.

I'd wager that more than a few people assume religion has always had a communicable explicit theology.  It hasn't.  Tribal religion was often highly implicit. While it certainly facilitated out-group relations (Norezayan, 2013), tribal religions didn't tend to have the universalist assumptions nor universal intentions of today's world religions.

Modern world religions tend toward disentangleable (and universalaizeable) theologies.  Some religions, like Islam have minimal cultural-theology separations.  Other religions, like Christianity have fairly strong separations. Tribal religions, like those of the Blackfeet, tend to have minimal to no cultrual-theological distinctions.

Ancient religions (pre-7th century BCE) tend to have theologies which are not designed for rational exposition and immigrant conversion.  Without this bit of background people often interpret religion as an overly-simplistic set of abstract beliefs re-enforced by orthopraxy & ritual.  This naivety leads to interpretations of religion as simple uber-culture (with self-sustaining memetic practices).  However, this approach doesn't capture the whole picture of religion.  Religion has functioned as a steady state solution to a complex Darwinian multi-level selection game (Norezayan 2013, Wilson 2003).  Religion is an optimal solution to group-level competition.

Scott gets the basics* of the religion-culture interface but, like most, misses the Darwinian, multi-level selection component.

The difference between “religion” and “culture” has always been pretty vague. Shinto is the best example; it’s less a coherent metaphysical narrative than a bunch of things Japanese people do and a repository for Japanese traditions and rituals. A quick look at Hinduism reveals that they have no idea what gods they believe in, it’s a bunch of different religions stuck together under one umbrella, but the point is that it’s the sort of thing Indian people do and a repository of Indian traditions. Even though Jews have a pretty coherent religion, the line between “Jewish culture” and “Jewish religion” is equally fuzzy. Religion as distinct from culture seems like a pretty Western phenomenon, the result of a triumphant Christianity colonizing cultures it never originated from, ending out with the modern conception of culture as ethnic food + silly costumes.

Scott's argument is that overly broad conceptions of religions confound culture/community with religion.  Religious-like aspects then get applied to things they shouldn't.  Thus the false application of religious categorization falls somewhere between purposeful obfuscation and academic malpractice.

But I still think it’s unfair to call these communities/cultures “religions”. “Religion” is too easy to use as the Worst Argument In The World here. It’s supposed to imply all of these other connotations of “religion” like “their beliefs are based on magical thinking” and “they use blind faith instead of reason” and “instead of coming up with a world-view based on evidence they just played Bible Mad Libs.” If those are the connotations you’ve got with “religion”, then I think the word “religion” is actively doing harm here, and you should just use “belief-based community” or “movement” or whatever.
When things are defined by their properties, you can never be sure that a list of properties will produce a 1-to-1 map back onto the thing you want.  For instance a cow may have four legs and go moo, but not everything with four legs that moo's is a cow.  Additionally factor combinations tend to fairly subjective: while they are better than pure opinions, final determinations tend to get made by appeals to expert authorities.  This is problematic.  To get around this you can:

  1. Stipulate uni-directionality (But this largely prevents falsification. This makes things VERY unscientific.)
  2. Assume a process philosophy stance: viewing everything as nexus of multiple processes, each of which ebbs and flows over time.  Steady state solutions are possible but function complexly. Properties are the steady state nexuses. (Process philosophy's radical functionalism meshes poorly with scientific methogies and falsification criteria)
  3. Objectify state descriptions by plotting phase change curves (ie. differential effects)

Some science of religion folk, like me, tend to sociophysical approaches. Rather than leaving factor calculus vague and probabilistic (and hence error prone), sociophysical approaches look for phase change signals.  Surprisingly enough, simple tools, like the web-based identity fusion tool (see here for some theoretical background), do a decent job picking up phase changes (although current analysis levels seem to be of the overly simplistic linear correlational type).

So this puts us looking for social/psychological phase changes within a religious/communal/cultural sphere.  In terms of Scott's arguments, religion is characterized by supernaturalism.

Unfortunately supernaturalism, while reasonably good for creating fences, just isn't that good for detecting meaningful social/psychological phase changes.

For example, while 2000's era evangelical new-atheism is certainly a-supernatural, it had a heck of a lot of the social factors people normally associate with religion (including high identity fusion).  Of course many disagree, considering it at best, a community.  This takes us back to Scott's false-positive false-negative quandary from which narrow supernaturalism was supposed to save us!

Unfortunately the supernatural fence is further confounded by the role Moral Big Brother's.  In very groupish secular communities, moral big brothers can play the role of unembodied supernatural agents. For example radical human-right's epistemology has huge levels of moral fusion that clearly exceed what a rational actor's best-world optimization solution would warrant. Many radical human-righter's allude to ideas like Karma or new-age spirituality to defend the arbitrariness of their ethics. Utopian ideas and states are, for all practical purposes, akin to the unembodied supernaturalism of soft Deists. Differences largely reside at the individual level: at the nexus of language, personal meaning and personal influence.

Thus I could be a Deist who's

  • comfortable with supernatural language, 
  • only gets a vague sense of meaning from a weakly embodied Deity and 
  • is not at all influenced by its Moral Big Brother role.  

Or, I could be a human-right's based secularist who

  • rejects supernatural language, 
  • gets a large sense of meaning from a new-age like interpretation of Karma, and 
  • is highly influenced by its Moral Big Brother role.  

Abstractly, the Deist is more supernatural, but practically the secularist is more supernatural! Supernatural exclusivity is a false boundary.  It is not binary!  Supernaturalism is convenient because we're familiar with it and it makes a "good-enough" heuristic.

*While I suspect the distinction between religion and culture probably started with (or was seeded by) Cyrus the Great's  forays into religious and cultural pluralism, Christianity's expanse into multiple cultures was certainly an important decanter.  The Protestant reformation was another major decant.  In America, the 1730's and 1820's religious awakenings and their pluralistic successes further separated the religion-culture interface. In fact, it's probably best to say that the religion-culture interface follows a punctuated evolutionary separation pattern.  Further, I'd suggest that our current progressive culture wars tend to reveal our presence smack dab in the middle/end of another major punctuation.  Current dynamics seem to follow the pattern of prior religious pluralism awakenings.  In our case, the pluralistic part involves the broad acceptance of atheism.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Privilege Fish

From what I understand, privilege is defined in Social Justice / Intersectionality as "advantage(s) conferred on someone due to their phenotype (race, sex, gender expression, etc.)".  Accommodation is also made for physical disabilities, say like accident caused amputations.  Privilege is also situational.  A phenotype which is privileged in one context (say North America) may not be privileged in another context (say China).

Mathematicians and physicists usually test ideas by exploring boundary conditions - what happens at extreme values.

So, let's imagine a white male who is privileged because of race, sex, gender, and able-bodiness.  This is the epitome of privilege. Now let's take a look at an extreme set of experiences for such an individual. To keep things grounded I'll use an example of someone I grew up with.

This white individual of privilege had a lot of negative life experiences.

  • As a child and youth he was continually pimped out to the local police chief and his Hell's Angel's business partners. He was continually abused at home.
  • His attempts to report this information were continually thwarted. In some instances, where things did move slightly ahead, they were met by short periods of punishment/torture as the "system" took care of its own to ensure nothing was exposed.
  • Several of his junior high teachers explicitly denied the possibility of this abuse because "boys can't be raped. Only girls can."
  • He sister committed suicide when he was about 10.  He was the one who found her in a bath tub.
  • He experienced the trauma produced by repeated suicide attempts by his mother.
  • He was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a young teen while living on the street.
  • His family heritage was the Armenian genocide. His specific family stories centred around the Armenian "Trail of Tears".
  • This genocide was and still is denied by his own Government.  It was derided by almost all the people he grew up with.  When his family's genocide was brought up in school it was continually denied by teachers.
  • He eventually committed suicide. My inference is that he had started to propagate this cycle of abuse onto others and couldn't live with himself anymore.
So, because of his skin colour, sex and gender he is more "privileged" than an upper class women of colour with no history of abuse.

Confounding Group Statistics with Individual Implications

One explanation of privilege I have heard centres on the statistical benefits that come with certain phenotypically determined groups. So, for instance, my abused friend will have a (statistically) easier time getting a job, or being respected than other phenotypically determined groups.

One major issue with this line of thinking is how it confounds group based probabilities with what might be true at the individual level.  Statistical benefits may occur due to group stereotypes. But as any population biologist or anthropologist knows, this does not mean any individual necessarily receives those benefits.  For instance, just because men are on average taller than women does not mean any man is taller than any women. That is patently false. Statistical based privilege is similarly false when applied to any single individual.

Application of statistical based privilege is false when applied to any individual. The degree of error  (or accuracy) is described by statistical probabilities.

Parsing Problems
In the case of my friend the white male privilege of having your "opinion respected" did not occur for his most essential item - others belief in his abuse. Statistically speaking a case can be made that his opinion was, however respected (privileged) in other areas.

In the case of privilege however, it is not the individual (the target of privilege) who determines benefit, it is the accuser (the external interpreter of privilege). This is an ironic switch for Social Justice.

This leads to a very significant parsing problem. If a single instance of "opinion respect" can be found, then it is technically accurate to say that individual has the privilege of "opinion respect". There is no net aggregation. This leads to some rather nasty displays.

Thus, there is no escape from privilege. Just like original sin, one can always be found guilty of something.  This then justifies application of the term. Application of the term then enables sociopathic people to leverage the connotations of net aggregation. In you have one instant of "opinion respect" privilege, then, regardless of actual percentage of occurrence or severity of non-occurrence, the label remains technically valid. You are "privileged".

The parsing problem creates an ideal weaponized rhetorical tool.

Singular Positives vs. Net Positives
Net positive conflation is probably one of the reasons many people get so mad at the term. It connotes "net", but is technically limited only to positive "singular" benefits.  Thus if being purple has 99 negatives associated with it and 1 positive, it is still "privilege".  This is sort of like how a number of world religions assume it is not the net sum of your good and bad actions that determine eternal rewards, but the mere presence of one wrong thing.

From this perspective, my friend had lots of privileges. His many life negatives do not negate any of his privileges. This directly counters the way people typically use and understand language.

Further, only the wokest individuals can talk about black privilege or trans privilege, etc.  This is because in most usages privilege is uni-directional. Privilege usually only applied to individuals who hold power intersections (i.e. white cis-gendered males). Objective application across all people is discouraged/anathema.

The dynamical problem with singular privilege is that it can be incredibly rude. For example, imagine telling a Native American, say a male southern Pikani Blackfoot, that colonialism has confirmed upon them privilege. Their entire tribe save one or two individuals were killed. Their matriarchal culture switched to a patriarchy because of "colonialism". And yet, they are privileged because their matriarchy was was forcibly colonized and they now accrue statistical benefits from their "maleness".

Such racial or sex based bigotry is unconscionable. And yet, according to privilege theory, it is technically true.

Privilege can turn some of the most catastrophic events a person experiences and call them "a positive benefit".  For instance, an individual, like my friend, may have been assaulted precisely because of their maleness, but technically the same phenotypical characteristic that led to such pain is properly called "privilege". This is very much like calling Native colonization a "privilege". This isn't to say some good eventually came out of the experience at a statistical level. It is to say your skin colour makes it a benefit for you regardless of anything you have individually experienced.

Of course this is how many people feel about "objective" facts about colonization, race, and sex. Objectivity seeks degree. Privilege, in my opinion, does not.  It seeks taboo (anything that might possibly be "wrong").

My suspicion is that the taboo approach provides marginalized feeling bigots a chance to get even with people they see as powerful. It doesn't matter if that individual has 99 things against them. That 1 target will do just fine...

Needless to say, this isn't a good strategy for anyone worried about societal cohesion....

The Two Fish Problem
I think the most pernicious aspect of privilege is best analogized by Bret Weinstein's whale-fish or two-fish problem. 

Is a whale a fish? A couple of centuries ago fisherman probably would have said, "yes". It's a big animal that swims in the ocean. But most people today know that a whale is actually a mammal.  It is not part of one of the four classes containing fish. But a really dry-witted erudite might say, "yes". The whale has a common ancestor with fish. So if you go back to this division point, fish and mammals converge. So a whale is phylogenetically a fish.

This is where "privilege"can and does produce significant pain, significant societal strain, and righteous-based back lash.

For instance, my friend, an Armenian with white skin was, by most functional definitions, a "minority". He (or rather his lineage) had experienced cultural and physical genocide. This included significant persecution and marginalization. I would suggest the severity of these events was similar to that experienced by many Native Americans. And yet, because of his skin colour, he is denied any recognition of his individual experiences. He is simply judged by his phenotype.

I think the Sami people face a similar burden. This northern Scandinavian indigenous group has faced   similar "colonial" issues other aboriginal groups across the world have. The main difference is that their skin is white.  Thus they are "privileged".

Doesn't this just throw salt into their wounds? They have all the negatives of other groups but are told, by virtue signallers, that they are a "swimming fish" (privileged because of skin colour) rather than a "phylogenetic fish" (marginalized because of their experiences). The technical definition of privilege is strained to accommodate double layered issues.

This is the fatal flaw that singular rather than net definitions of privilege face.

Patent racism and sexism throws salt into the wounds of those, who like my friend have suffered specifically because of the phenotype group they belong to.

By ignoring the 99 things that are punitive so you can decry 1 thing that may be "beneficial", you do a world of harm. Traumatized individuals who are told that their source of trauma is a "privilege" generally don't respond well. Did my friend kill himself over this? Do some white school shooters kill because of this type of salt-in-the-wound dissonance?

Justification that "the privilege lens leads to good ends because it fights the patriarchy and rebalances things" is horrible Maoist reasoning.  It is why the dynamics of "privilege" engender such harsh reactions. It is an utterly sociopathic position that purposively buries individual experience for the sake of blanket generalizations.

It is like walking up to a homeless man who has suffered unbelievable crap and focussing on one good thing he has and then decrying him for that very thing. How contemptible. And yet this is the message that many Aspergery people are taking from this "fight they system" movement.

Why not just treat people as individuals.  Racism of any type is not good... even if it can appeal to "good intentions" and utopian "re-balancing".

Like many people, I hope this cancerous, weaponized rhetorical meme dies before its dynamics destroys what little social asabiyah and good will is left within Western countries.


Is Everyone Really Equal

Intersectionality is not the problem

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Charter Schools: The Small Group Orientation

This post is a follow-up from a previous through experiment applying education as an adaptive group theory to charter schools.

Part 1 - Framing the situation
Part 2 - Large group orientation
Part 3 - Small group orientation
Part 4 - Evaluating other approaches


This post has been sitting in the editing pile for a while. It followed up on a discussions about how charter school scenarios can be framed in terms of Education as an Adaptive Group theory. The gist of this theory involves interpreting charter school tensions via multi-level selection theory and it's large-group vs. small-group orientations.

Advantages of this perspective are:
  • It is based on an underlying causative structure that is empirically verifiable (in principle).  Standard educational perspectives rely on descriptive analysis which suffer many of the dogmatic problems associated with soft social sciences.
  • It elevates the role of dynamic tension.  In doing so it provides a causative model for education's inferred complex orientation behaviour.
  • It makes falsifiable predictions about charter school evolution patterns.
  • It provides a full explanation of why (and when) a charter school can be considered a rational agent rather than just an amalgamation of individuals.

Large Group Orientation Review

My last post on this subject flushed out the large group orientation.  This involved charter school orientation to large-group (i.e. public education) moral mission.  While public education's moral mission resists precise description, it may be reasonable to speculate that it encompasses something touching on social equity.

Large group orientation means a charter school does not engage in nor justify niche focussed behaviour at the general population's expense.  Innovation may stretch the bounds of acceptable large-group sacrifice, but, in vernacular terms, a large-group oriented school won't say "we have no duty to worry about your type here".  A large-group oriented charter school may certainly say, "you may be better off elsewhere,".  However, even this type of response is unlikely.

Large group orientations are represented by behaviour which is generally fitness enhancing for the large group.  This occurs either by maximizing average individual fitnesses (MLS2), or by maximizing the fitness of the group itself (MLS1).  While nested groupings are possible (and likely), this post will try to keep things as simple as possible.


Small-group (individualistic) orientation in charter schools seems to have two modes of expression:

  1. A focus on the school's fitness.
  2. A focus on individual teachers' fitness.  
For simplicity I won't delve into individual teachers' fitness: the extra nesting just makes discussion longer. The school itself is the unit of analysis (just like last post). Therefore, small-group orientation is characterized by doing what is best for the school with minimal regard to (institutionalized) education as a whole.

Freeloading therefore involves superficial compliance with public education's boundaries.  This enables large-group benefits to continue accruing (e.g. funding, accreditation, etc.).

These actions need not be purposefully deceitful.  Indeed, self-rationalization has been shown to be a good tool to prevent freeloader detection. However, self-deceptive rationalization also tends to create background anxiety and guilt (at least if you're not a sociopath).  There are a couple of steady state solutions to this tension:

  • Rationalize away freeloading effects by minimizing their severity on others (downloading that torrent really doesn't affect the movie company because I was going to wait till it came on TV anyway).
  • Devalue the targets of freeloading (The people in my church are so lame. They're lucky to have me. Too bad for them if I don't contribute to any church funds.).  Self separation from a group minimizes the chances you'll get caught freeloading

What We'd See

Going-it-alone for a charter school would involve antipathy to the constraining norms and taboos of traditional public education practice (the large-group).  As norm deviation increases, freeloading is challenged and intentions are tested for moral mission compliance.  Ultimately large-group benefits are revoked.  Revocation might include public funding losses, accreditation losses, or simple ostricization.  Going-it-alone increases selective pressure on the charter school (small-group).  Under high selective forces, adaptation is required.  This might involve niche specialization or direct competition.  Direct competition at the group levels specified involves competition for followers.
    1. Niche specialization means that the charter school isn't seen as a real competitor for the resources sought by the large group.  An example might be a madrassah.  Madrassah practices and memberships doesn't seem to be of much interest to North American institutionalized education.
    2. Direct competition would mean the charter school must be able to offer a product which is of equal or greater value than that offered by the large-group (or in this particular case, a product which is similar but significantly "cheaper").  The competing product may be an alternative accreditation similar in value to that offered by public schools. It could also involve providing their membership with an equal chance of getting into post-secondary school or getting a job.  It should be noted, if norm deviation is large enough, or large-group vs. small-group competition is fierce enough, institutionalized education can curtail alternative post-secondary entrance paths and many job paths from small-groups with devastating effectiveness.
    3. The selective pressures associated with going-it-alone suggests that if small-group amalgamation is possible, it is likely to be favourable.  Thus one would expect to see charter schools which forgo niche specialization bubbling together.  The process need not be fast.  It could simply involve greater levels of interaction between schools, followed by strategic partnerships, followed by small collective action,... until formal or practical unification occurs.

Extra notes

List & Pettit address the locus of responsibility argument by saying that though actions are committed by individuals within the group, not by the group agent itself, the group agent is responsible for biasing certain eventualities, increasing the probability that its intentions get carried out.  An easy analogy is the extent to which Hezbollah is responsible for any single terrorist bombing.  The group has a clear moral mission which is certainly biased toward such acts.  Leadership may facilitate such acts without ever having to ever pull them pin themselves or do all the planning.

Therefore, in terms of a charter school, emotional and cognitive turmoil could be expressed by the charter school's behaviour (if it is an adaptive group).  According to List & Pettit's exegesis, a group agent's behaviour is mainly centered on a single moral mission formed by its laity.  Actions

List & Pettit argue that group agents are rational, seek information,  distinguish right and wrong, and they can and should be held morally responsible for their actions.  In effect, they see rational group agents as a semi-intoxicated dullard who may be slow on the up-take but ultimately knows what is happening and can distinguish right from wrong (based on its own values and in terms of the social environment in which it acts).

Charter Schools: The Equivalent Focus Case

Part 1 - Framing the situation
Part 2 - Large group orientation
Part 3 - Small group orientation
Part 4 - Equivalent orientations
Part 5 - Evaluating other approaches


If there is minimal difference between a large group orientation in Education and a small group orientation in Education, one would expect to see complex cycling between these two orientations.  Neither one is deterministic.

This might involve self-doubt about how far to push innovation or how deep to streamline membership within an orientationally defined sub-group.