Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Playing along with Sam Harris - part 3

Here is my final part.  Again, I wish Weinstein had spoken more.  I find myself agreeing with most every point of his.  I have a feeling such agreement may tend to similarly strong religious roots.  It tends to ground one to pluralism.  I think today's new atheists, social justice warriors and hyper-rationalists are at risk of "losing the reasons for pluralism"


59:40 - 1:03:00 We do not need free will for reason to work.

I’d agree with this point.  Ben seems to not quite get it.  I suspect Ben is trying to say if we only rely on reason then we lose morality.  Sam would say this is true, but the morality which survives this is rational morality. This would probably be some form of consequentialism.

I think we should agree with Sam here, but suggest that this framing does not guarantee that moral-rationalism will win.  If I wasn’t in an actual debate, I would readily accept his premise, suggest that people’s gene-cultural traits are not yet sufficient for this to work out, but agree that it is a reasonable utopian position and that some people who are ready for such a move should definitely make it.

My main problem with moral-rationalism  (hyper-rationalism) is that I don’t think a complete divorcement between biology and reason is ever possible without all the trappings that go along with utopianism.  Should we act hyper-rational in order to increase the chances of it sticking for future generations? I guess my problem is that I don’t see much of a way around the freeloader (self-interest) problem in hyper-rationalism.  The only way to escape this is to excise it from our biology so that it is not even probable.  As MacIntyre suggests, even the tiniest bit of self-interest corrupts.  I would suggest Harris’ argument is subject to this flaw.  I would further suggest that it would take a VERY LONG time to remove even the vestiges of self-interest.  Otherwise, they are likely to crop up.  I’m also not sure that even the best laid systems could suppress these tendencies.  Any system which could suppress such emergent tendencies would, scare me.  I don’t think rationalism is nearly as perfect an escape here as hyper-rationalists assume.  

There is the very real chance that an imperfect system is more optimal than a perfect system.  Theoretically this doesn’t seem to make sense, but I think may just be due to some major naivete  on our part.  After all, remember when we thought optimizing assembly lines could be done by optimizing each machine?  Then we discovered that having some looseness in the line and just having each robot stay aware of its neighbours increased actual output more than any of the best theories?  I suspect we’re in the same boat here.  Harris is an engineer, and a socially utopian one.  I’m a pragmatist.  

Eventually the two may become indistinguishable, but I think there are many thousands or hundred of thousands of years of evolution required to get to that point.  I also very much worry about the journey.  Sometimes becoming the type of person who can resist the allure of anti-social traits is more important than having a system that prevents the possibility of selecting anti-social traits.  The latter really scares me.  I suspect it is the reason hyper-rationalism also scares many others.  It has a theoretical solution that is hard to argue against, but a practical implementation that is downright stalinesque.

For example, Mormon theology is very clear on this point.  And while I don’t think Harris is advocating for a structural solution that controls the expression of “anti-social” behaviours, his system does not address the practicalities of how to get past this in an imperfect world.  His only apparent solution is to trust on hyper-rationalism’s long game.  To me this is very naive.

1:05:00 to 1:07:00 I really like Eric’s presentation here

1:08:40 Reason is the only thing that scales and allows us to have conversations that will lead to agreement.

This is a really good point.  Again I would suggest its achilles heel is that it assumes we need hyper-precision.  It also assumes that we can not tolerate any room for people to be different.  I think that is a fundamentally bad idea.

As a larger group we need the ability for people to be wrong.  That entails some very real cost to the group.  But it also opens up the door to more efficient discoveries of things that are truly novel.  For an analogy, think to our body’s reaction to background radiation.  We certainly could have a mutation rate that is much lower.  We don’t.  Why?  The cost of mutation is offset by the advantage of an occasionally successful mutation.  Is rationalism the master or pragmatics?  Hyper rationalism seems to have a unique ability for group think that is even more insidious than the religious systems you are critiquing.  They may have factual errors and group think.  But they don’t seem to be so susceptible to the human dynamic problems that jump out at me with hyper-rationalism.  Ironically enough, they are as naively faith-based as your dogmas.

1:12:00  Weinstein - There is some sort of conserved prototypical religion that each of our religions are some instantiation of. You still have something that needs to connect with this.  That’s why all three of us are living in some kind of tension between reason and that other thing.  That other thing is hard to talk about in the language of reason.

1:12:53 The departure from reason is pretending something that is great evidence actually isn’t.  You can triangulate on any tradition to find points you disagree with.  [inferred assumption that the only thing that is left is rationalism]

I think the inferred point here is the most interesting.  Is pure, probably watered down, rationalism all that remains?  Or are there elements of quasi-factualism and moral “spaghettis” that remain?  

We need to get there first to find out.  Assuming hyper-rationalism is what will remain seems to be an overextension of logic.  Perhaps it is a good over-extension.  Perhaps it plays out as a bad one.  I just don’t think we have the knowledge necessary to make any definitive comment and so I think a pluralistic approach must be accepted.  Anything else is false hubris.

But as you say, this doesn’t prevent us from critiquing certain traditions as likely ineffective or actually problematic.  It prevents us, however, from guaranteeing that they are.  Then the question becomes what should one do if a system is bad for most people and only good for a few?  Are we justified in pressuring for its removal?  

I think moral appeals here are just a really bad idea.  Hence the stalin references.  Group based appeals are fine.  We don’t like nation X, therefore if they are doing something bad to us, we can wipe them out.  I would rather have that level of national appeal than some phone moral rationalism that lets us see those actions as eugenically moral rather than the nation state actions which are probably more easy to be viewed as greedy nationalism. One deludes us less than the other and hence is less likely to get carried away in self-deluded religious zealotry.  We have not reigned in those tendencies nearly enough for me to trust them.

1:17:10 Every possible facet of your well being is improved by [factual reality] appeals to reason

I think this is demonstrably wrong (e.g. people who have faith in an afterlife have less stress and are reportedly more happy).  However on a long-time scale it can be hard to argue against.  But I’m not sure if that is because the argument is sound, or if you just provides a utopian-like excuse to remove any and all skeletons from the system you propose.  In reality, they will still be there, but you get to deny them on utopian long-range grounds.

1:20:00  Weinstein - We get into truth-mania, a place where we don’t realize we always trade off against truth [say gender pronouns which don’t correspond to biological sex]

I think that is a very good point.  At some point we hope the degree of required trade offs will lessen.  Hence we hope objectivity can survive the hyper-sensitivities of social justice wars.

The question seems to be, will this happen more with hyper-rationalist religion or with pluralism?  I’d lay my bets on changing us.  On each person becoming more pluralistic than on finding the “right system”.  I think hyper-rationalism sets itself up to be yet another “right system”.

1:20: 50 Is lying to yourself the only way to get the meaning, truth and grace that you want?

I think it can often be the most efficient.  Like you say, Harris, the issue is how much it entraps you.  What recourses do you have to escape it?  Christian religion has repentance, atonement and being born again.  Hyper-rationalism has rational appeals or logic tests.  Is my worldview coherent?  Where is it illogical and unfit?

I just would again suggest that overly optimized solutions aren’t always the most optimal when one takes a larger systems view.  So scale becomes a question.  Do you take a narrow frame, an infinitely broad frame or something in the middle.  I see something in the middle as the solution.  I interpret you as saying the infinitely larger view is the solution.

1:21:00 If you find meaning in something that no one else does, then that is craziness.  [if the bush only burns for you]

I would say that is often the way humans advance.  I see nothing wrong in letting madness have a space because it frees us up from our own limited confines.  Too much is bad.  Too little is bad.  What is the right amount?  And what scale are we using to judge this.  It is better to be loose here than too tight.

1:21:30 Weinstein - it is important to stay in touch with madness to guard against it.

I fully agree.  Risk aversion is hugely problematic.  Maintaining contact with something slightly beyond our grasp is key to optimize creativity, both at the group level and at the individual level.

1:22:20 But that is a happy spiral which is not the same thing as delusion or sustained delusion.

But you can only judge that based upon the outcome.  You can only bias your chances of escaping from it.  I don’t think anything with full guarantees here really will fully work.  Or rather I might say, anything with full guarantees here is likely to be systemically unstable.  I think you really do have to risk it all in order to find greatness.  I think that is a very religious lesson.

1:24:20 I think the only way to play the language game is to have the object of adoration to be appropriate [something that works and scales]

That is a really good point.  I just don’t think we are at that point of human organization where such unification is necessary.  We can certainly bias ourselves in that direction.  I would say rationalism (scientific method and objectivity) is indeed a good direction.  We just have to be wise in how we get there, not overstate the final destination, nor assume that it is guaranteed to be a clean and pure as a rationalized logical philosophy may need it to be, nor should we give up on the fact that ugly and counter-productive pluralism may be the ideal place to stop.


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