Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Quasi-factuality & Action Poetry

I have to say, I was quite impressed with the juxtaposition of academic discourse with gotcha journalism in the Jordan Peterson - Cathy Newman BBC Channel 4 Interview this week.

James Lindsay "live" tweet reaction to it got me thinking more about how well Peterson captures, cult like, the disaffection of modern men.  The first 5 minutes or so cover the content.  The eventual trump of rational academic discourse over accusatory social justice sin ensures this disaffected population will continue to rally around this new thought leader.  How many ideologically abused asperger / autistic boys are going to watch this and see Peterson as the ideal of what they would like to be?  A lot.  He is their image.  His turbulent early life captures what many of them have and will go through.

That notwithstanding, the most interesting point to me is the use of quasi-factuality and action poetry (Perkins 2003).  At the start, Peterson presents some obviously broad generalizations and erratically witches between individual level discussions and population level percentages.  There is a definite looseness here.  The practical effect of which is to provide just enough uncertainty and unbelievability so as to be fairly memorable.

Counters at this point of the conversation are the most salient. Listeners are either going to fully dismiss him as a loon (or lobster) or more fully embrace him.

Peterson's style is very much this way.  He takes a strong, seemingly outlandish position, and doesn't back down. He embraces the absurdity of things to an extent not many other pop-scientists do. I suspect this is his appeal. He continually sets up quasi-factuals and makes them seem as sensible as possible.  This is a very unique rhetorical space I've often seen used by popular religious preachers and high-end salesmen.  But, it becomes very interesting when backed by sufficient academic chomps and deliberate admissions about potential data over-extensions. It is a beautiful rhetorical space.

I also think it highlights the very real role quasi-factuality plays in motivation, group formation, group sustenance and discourse.

If you don't see what I mean, look at 3:00 at his use of the word "power"  at 3:25.

"Women want, deeply, men who are competent and powerful.  And I don't mean power in that they can exert tyrannical control over others.  That isn't power that is just corruption.  Power is competence. And, why in the world would you not want a competent partner?"

Classic quasi-factualism.  Religion has perfected this type of night language.  Peterson has as well. It works well for a reason.  (It also ticks off some rationalism for probably much the same reason...)

Monday, January 15, 2018

Religion & Societal Stability

Branches of the new atheist movement have matured enough to precipitate out some useful frames for the role of religion and quasi-religion with respect to societal stability.

The recent dialogue between Sam Harris, Eric Weinstein and Ben Shapiro represents one easy to access avenue into this space.  The Rubin report debate between Dennis Prager and Michael Shermer is probably another (although I haven't watched that and probably won't - religion atheism debates tend to really bore me).  An older Harris - Weinstein conversation represents a bit more nuanced view of religion-as-a-useful-myth (30min onward).

Rates of Change
Most sane people know that you don't need religion to be moral and pro-social.  But it is also pretty obvious that large groups need commonly accepted moral norms (to the right degree of looseness) in order to cohere.  Here's my perspective summarizing where these debates settle. In general, I reference Atran's In God's we Trust for a good-enough summary of the major factors necessary for morally based group coherence.

Creativity's Muse
I must admit, I hadn't seen a formal presentation of this idea until Eric Weinstein's conversation with Sam Harris (from about 38:00 on...  It really hits it at about the hour mark).  Eric's idea (which certainly isn't unique) is that faith or the embrace of non-factual but mentally stimulating beliefs increases the ease with which people can probe beyond the confines of current knowledge and assumptions.  This frame is very similar to Stuart Kauffman's "Reinventing the Sacred".

The key is that you need to be able to switch into and out of these belief sets as needed.  You can't be a 24/7 conspiracy theorists, nor can you be a 24/7 hyper-rationalist.  Innovation requires the spark of creativity and fluidity that hyper-rationalism is poorly suited to provide.

If you are not a genius creative type though, much of the argument is likely to go over your head.  If, on the other hand you are used to tackling wicked, boundary breaking questions, his ideas are fairly reflective of how things actually go.

Harris rejoinder is that hyper-rationality can be just as much a muse as religion, albeit without all the necessary supernatural and a-factual baggage.  A slippery slope argument is employed in this regard (can you imagine a religion similar to yours, but with 1 less counter-factual.  Would it be less of a muse?).

While it is likely that hyper-hyepr-rationalism can function as a muse at the individual level, it is uncertainly to what extent this is true at the population level.  Will pervasive cold hard rationalism inspire the same levels of creativity as pervasive quasi-factualism (however it may be embodied)?  At a population level analysis, I think the answer is doubtful.

This doesn't mean we are at the right level of societal quasi-factualism.  We may need more or less for optimal creativity.  However, question of levels can't be adjudicated theoretically.  There is way too much going.  You have both short and long term feedback that makes everything wickedly complex or perhaps even chaotic.

Micro-morality to Macro-morality
Micro-macro morality aggregation is where Prager and Shermer apparently disagreed.  Prager assumes you need a fairly embodied Big Brother (real or quasi-real supernatural agent) to generate enough cohesive force at the societal level. Shermer obviously disagrees.  He seems to feel individual moralities (micro-morality) can scale up just fine into the societal level (macro-morality).  The assumption is that humans have enough in common to ensure we have a basic level of agreement upon what is right and wrong.  Sufficiently strong rule of law and rationality can make up the difference.

My Conclusion
I think Shermer has the better argument here.  But I think there are some caveats.

  • You need to ensure immigration is sufficiently low. Without this, you are likely to introduce enough new people possessing enough un-maleable cultural factors to swamp a given society's social contracts.  As we're seeing in Sweden, a strong rule of law may not be sufficient to prevent societal bifurcation.  Heavy handed pressure to see different morality purely in terms of criminal rather than existential threats don't appear to work all that well. You quickly develop strongly adaptive sub-groups. Societal decoherence results.
  •  I don't think there are any good reasons why micro-morality scales up into macro-morality. You can have a bunch of individuals who are pro-social to each other, but live in a group that is very anti-social to other groups. This is the essence of human evolutionary history. Shermer makes no case against the rise of competing sub-groups. As any complexity theorist can tell you, this is the crux of such logic. External pressure largely determine the degree of complexity faced by the system. Lots of existential pressure, like severe between group competition, challenges the adaptiveness of the large group, biasing the formation and momentum associated with the formation of sub-groups.  Thus, over short or stable periods, Shermer's argument rings true. Over long or unstable periods, Shermer's argument becomes more error prone.
  • You need lots of interaction and migration within your group in order to keep micro-moralities from tribalizing.  How much is totally unknown.  However, human tendencies for tribalization, especially during severe selection pressures, is pretty high.

Degree of (Utopian) Transformation
This is a point that Harris has hit on a lot.  My interpretation of his view is that he assumes much of our basic biology can be over ridden. While this is certainly possible.  It is equally as possible that it can't.  Future prediction here is uncertain.  All we can really say is we can probably do more than some people think and less than some people hope.

A bayesian analysis suggests progress occurs by having small groups of people try and fail.  Over time, the slight directional arrow humans have toward pro-sociality will result in increasingly stable transitions to higher levels of selection.  But large sized levels do not imply rationality must win over religion.  Look at the size of the Muslim world.  

Maybe belief systems have a size or diversity cap?  However, once you start allowing for substantial transformation toward hyper-rationality and the rule of law you also have to allow for it toward religious unification.  If we can cohere toward hyper-rationalism, why can't we cohere toward Islam?

My Conclusion
I'm utterly unconvinced by transformative change arguments. I've spent lots of time debunking their over-extension in education.  This doesn't mean transformation can't happen. It just means it can't be relied upon in civil discourse without a great deal of compensating pluralistic humility.  Unfortunately pluralistic humility and utopian zealotry rarely go hand in hand.  My conclusion - let people try everything under the sun. Just be very careful about how zealously they evangelize things.

Rates of Change
I think this line of thinking really sums up the entire Religion vs Secularism debate on social stability.  If you know the academic and scientific underpinnings of the issues, this is really all that is left to grapple over.  How much can we throttle or accelerate potential gene-cultural transformation rates while maintaining sufficient societal stability? And, secondarily, how far down the secular-rational road can things go before they destabilize? This latter point is mainly conjecture. No one really knows.  While postulating can be fun and can help elucidate hidden issues, the answer is, we really don't know.  Thus the only really question is the rate/scope of change issue.

The micro-macro morality question is well subsumed in terms of a rate of change question.  Can everyone appeal to their own individually deduced morality? Or do we need some "useful fictions" (like the rule of law really isn't capricious)?  That is a scope question.  A scope question necessarily implies a rate change issue. Can we move to 20% saturation right now, then to a 1% rate of change there after?

Most of the religious folk take the perspective that society, in general, is well cohered by letting pro-social pluralistically oriented religion run its course.  In stable countries, traditional religion is obviously no longer needed as a social glue.  Contrary to what some strident atheists may think, religion, even that which is based on sacred texts, has a decent rate of moral change.  Scriptures tend to moderate change rates, but not eliminate it. Successful world religions tend to have mechanisms to allow for re-interpretaion and revelation.  For instance, many Christians now believe Old Testament injunctions have been fully supplanted by New Testament ones. Religions are dynamic, albeit on generational rather than yearly time scales.

And so, the question is really how much loss of religious like dynamics can a society, under certain between-group competition stresses handle in terms of net gene-culture characteristics and social structures.

My Conclusion
Here is where I differ from Harris, Schermer and others.  I think we have good reason to believe characteristics associated with adaptive group formation and competition are very deep and robust.  We're not dealing with simple culture level factors.  I think how religiously many "nones" now treat politics is a testament to this.  I'd also cite the time lengths required for polity evolution.  How long did it take for Kingdom sized states to solidify?  For the idea of a Nation state to solidify?  We have  a few thousand years for the former and at least a few hundred years for the latter.  

Now religion may be very different from polity size issues.  Data from Norezayan and others who argue for alternating leading and pacing between religious evolution and state evolution probably suggest the two are tightly coupled.  Have they now decoupled? I see no arguments why they have nor why they should. In fact, people like me are tempted to see the rise of secular moral groups as just another iteration of religious innovation.  All that really has been done is to supplant overt supernatural Big Brother embodiment with concrete rule of law and an ephemeral humanistic-based Big Brother.  The degree of embodiment has changed.  And, while that is significant for some, it certainly isn't for me.  To me, cosmopolitan humanism and social justice are just new versions of aspiring world "religions".

Thus the rate of change question really boils down to how quickly can we and should we weaken the factors which resonate to produce adaptive moral based groups?  Again, I'd suggest a homeostasis view here is probably wisest.  If you toss out supernaturalism you need to compensate by strengthening another necessary factor for adaptive group stability.  As the external environment settles down, maybe you can weaken gene-culture sensitivities toward the necessary strength adaptive groups need to muster for between-group strength.  But, I would caution, between-group considerations are very deep seated propensities which probably evolve more on genetic rather than cultural time scales.

I fully support groups pushing the value of non-religious based morality.  While many of these movements may very well be naively dogmatic, naively utopian and even naively religious, society can probably handle most anything which emerges from self-selected movements.  It is very likely that these forays pushing increased levels of rationality will result in, well, more rational less xenophobic, less conflict oriented societies.

What I do worry about though, is naive evangelization of these positions by those with way too much hubris and little to no connection to moral pluralism.  Even then, it is only state sponsorship or full media mono-cultural propagandizing that worries me.  This is because once a critical size is reached, there are going to be a lot of people who think their new moral discovery is the next best thing since sliced bread or the perfect Marxist recipe.  
My humble suggestion is to keep re-inforcing the value of and our connection to true pluralism.  Superficial phenotype diversity, in my mind, really takes aways from this.  It gives the illusion of diversity without much if any true moral-level pluralism.  It is sort of like living on candy and assuming calories are all you need....

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.


Playing along with Sam Harris Part 2

This is the second part of my analysis of the Sam Harris - Eric Weinstein -  Ben Shapiro conversation.

Again, the intent isn't to deconstruct what is said, but respond in real time to the questions Harris raises before other people respond.

48:33-52:30  Let me make an objective claim [based upon Eric’s separation of objective truth and objective truth that is “good enough”].  Example of wealth inequality as framed intersectionaly.  We are a confluence of lots of influences.  Once you admit that you either have won the lottery or not, that conveys a sense of ethical responsibility.

I don’t think knowledge entails moral essentials.  I think it is likely that it bifurcates or binormalizes the population.  But even then we’re not quite sure how much overlap there is between means.  To answer the direct question so that comment may make sense for those not on my same wavelength - If I have perfect, or let’s just say lots of knowledge.  That doesn’t mean I must act ethically.  Not to get all Ayn Rand, but I can know that certain anti-social behaviours may be bad for other people and may harm me due to environmental effects or blowback.  But that doesn’t mean self-interest doesn’t win out.  In fact I would suggest self-interest may be a rather utilitarian position.  It may not be consequential (it doesn’t max things for everyone), but other than environmental effects and blowback why should I be concerned about summing across all individuals? 

You can go further down the rabbit hole and say that pro-sociality is a robust long-term good, but you haven’t made the case for any particular level of in-betweeness.  In effect you’re taking MacIntyrean approach to virtue.  Only perfect virtue leads to non-corruptive behaviour and environmental degradation.  Again in this sense I’d refer you to basic anti-utopian arguments. And, I would note the utter religiousness of your position from this frame.

There is no necessary ethical responsibility that goes with knowledge. It may increase the odds. But self-interest is, as per the multi-level selections in me suggests, is always an option.  If we can fool our genes or evolve them in directions we want, there are no guarantees that the solution we get is always going to be darwinianingly selected for pro-sociality.  It may be likely, but it is not guaranteed. Because it can’t be guaranteed you have a faith based position, albeit one based upon better data than random spaghetti monsters, but it is nonetheless faith based.  Thus I don’t see why worrying about the journey isn’t at least as important as worrying about the destination.

54:10  Eric alludes to the idea of social Heisenberg uncertainty.  You don’t say that quark is being unethical right now.  Morality has to do with some high up level.  Something that is not fundamental.  Each level of observable has effective theories.  Free will conversations get stuck here, mixing up effective theories.  Who denies we have free will to get here?  As if free will is good enough.  Computing large stuff just can’t be handled.  Its why self reflection leads to madness.

Again I think Eric Weinstein nails things here.  And I agree with the basic idea that free will emerges due to complicatedness or chaos in holding things in our minds for processing.  And I think we very much need to respect the “good enough” principle.  Assumptions of ever increasing levels of precision and sophistication is a fairly religious principle.  There is nothing wrong with this. But over-extending it and treating it like a foundational meta-truth that all must accept is wrong. It is classic evangelizing. So I think we need to hedge out bets a bit a get out of this metaphysical hubris.

56:50 Eric says, “The fun part of these conversations comes from making these category errors.  The unfun part comes from sorting it out.

Again, I rather like the Weinstein way of framing things. It is nice to see academics who have obviously thought ideas out but who lack the big pride thing some populists obviously have.

57:12 You’re not disputing that you can transition between layers?

I think micro-macro divides do introduce some very fundamental fuzziness.  The propagation of this fuzziness across levels can produce some rather chaotic effects, especially as you scale across multiple levels. Nothing is guaranteed.

57:30 There is nothing about doing dishes that violates quantum field theory [you knowing that your wife will get mad about doing the dishes does not violate quantum field theory and porting conclusions from that level on upward in terms of the free will debate]

 No.  But I do worry about the conflation of forward prediction and backward rationality.  I think Stuart Kauffman did a very good job in terms of these distinctions.

So I guess I’m not really sure what you are asking.  As you say “you can make a smooth transition between layers that doesn’t usurp your understanding of each layer”.  If that is what you are meaning, then I think I would say you can appear to make a smooth transition between layers, but that probably involves some to a lot of self-deception and ex post facto rationalization.  All the knowledge in the world does not necessarily escape you from these issues.  I mean will all the knowledge in the world get you around the Heisenberg uncertainty principle? If not why are we assuming the same for social phenomenon.  

Maybe the idea is that in these compositions or superposition’s of fuzzy influence and fuzzy knowledge there is no guarantee for the correct arrow of morality to emerge. We are putting on bets on the fact that certain directions which we dogmatically and perhaps utilitarianly like are going to emerge as more probable, but I worry that we’re being naive if we aren’t really relying on our own selective history for pro-sociality.  Once you throw out this frame, I’m not sure you’re guaranteed to be grounded the way you think you are.  

That’s the classic problem with utopianism and transformation.  Its why current Great Awakenings like we’re now in aren’t as predictable as everything thinks.  After all, there is no rational way Trump gets elected, or we knowingly vote in a patently crazy Kim Jong Un in a democracy? Right?

58:10 What I’m interested in a first principles formulation of moving forward into the unknown

I guess I really like Stuart Kauffman here.  Let’s lose some of our own hubris about the rightness of our way, value the essential aspects of our human group nature and appreciate the value and insights each perspective has.

But I know you want specifics.  I think as specific as I can get is to say, don’t move too fast and don’t move too slow.  Keep things in conversation and don’t try to push one-size fits all solutions.

Now I know you’re rejoinder is going to be, “should we respect despotic Khmer Rouge dogmas”.  Great question, but I think it misses the mark. There is a zone of likelies and efficiency.  I think we all take that for granted. But that doesn’t imply that ever increasing narrowness is inevitable or that a certain direction is deterministic.  Complexity tends to rear its ugly head and there may be a zone of probabilities that produces black-swan superpositions that utterly destroy your precision. In that regard I would say I’m rather Peircean.  We can do better but as Eric says there may be a point where it is just good enough.

My issue with what I see as your approach is that it makes some foundational mistakes about precision and accuracy.

So what do we do? In the precise long-looking sense I don’t think it is wrong to say we don’t know. But as per David Snowden and his classic Cynefin framework for organizational solutions to these very questions, I would say keep exploring and don’t get so caught up in our need for absolute precision.  That is itself a very big crutch I think we have to get over.

People need certainty in order to motivate and unify.  The problem is we tend to provide false utopian certainty almost no matter what and no matter our good intentions.  We get back to the issue that we need a little bit of uncertainty and quasi-propositionality.  And here I think you suffer the same flaws, or rather your approach is subject to the same flaws as anything else.

58:35  What I object to about religion is that there was some prior century where we were given the best ideas we could ever have.  You can either locate yourself in a current modern conversation or anchor yourself in an ancient one.

I just think that is a non-sequitur which assumes religion and religious interpretations don’t change and evolve.  I think your direct reference to revelation brings in some connotations, at least from a Mormon perspective, about this.  Revelation opens the door to change and re-interpretation.  Sometimes it is gradual, as per Catholic systemic theology.  Sometimes it is dramatic as per the protestant revolution, or the emergence of any of the world religions.

The idea that only rationalism allows updating of belief just is non-sensical.  

I think what we are arguing about is the relative rates of change.  You seem to be saying more flexibility is ideal.  Canonical religions, or perhaps even religions of any type are too laconically and introduce uneeded supernaturalism and too much quasi-propositional and false belief.

In that I think we just have to disagree.  I think the rate of change should be informed by genetic tendencies and how easy they are for the populations as a whole to change them.  Push too fast because a particular sub-group can handle and excel with loose mores and you also have to watch out about the unintended effects this sub-group and its systems may have on the larger group as a whole. I guess I would sum that up as saying, respect the whole, but don’t be afraid to be different or to advocate for your differentness, but make sure you lose your hubris and learn the skeletons that come with systemic change and moral unfreezing.  Naivete here is just as bad as blind faith.

59:40 We need to get to a common humanity that removes our religious provincialism

Well, I think you just walked into your utopian trap here.  If only everyone would just follow religion X.

But, that is an easy polemical attack that I don’t think is fair to your position.  But, I do think it is the fundamental flaw in your position.  But let me address it directly rather than in terms of its foundational assumptions.

I’d frame what you are saying as a need for us to move to a higher group level - cosmopolitanism if your will.  By moving to a higher group level we should, as per Pinker’s Better Angel’s of our Nature have quite a bit of conflict reduction.  And yes, I know that Pinker would never invoke group selection.  

That certainly might be true.  Just because you have a larger group does not mean that you don’t have sub-group competition.  In fact, I suspect what you find is, as per Richerson, Cordes, Boyd, to sustain a larger group level usually entails loosening of moral norms and the permission of larger levels of freeloading which is offset by the selective advantages of group size, economies of scale, and group directed altruistic benefits by core groups of altruists.  In other words, your idea of a one-size fits all hyper-rational moral theology may be a bit naive. It does not necessarily entail the rational society and dynamics you envision.  You may jettison supernaturalism, something I have absolutely no problem with and suspect is inevitable to one degree or another.  But I don’t think rationalism guarantees the type of behaviour and dynamics you envision.  I think such reasoning is a fallacy.

But that aside, I think what you need is time for gene-culture elements to evolve such that a transition to a new evolutionary level is stable.  That involves, extreme dependency, conflict minimization tools, and coordination.  I don’t think the language problem you allude to is significant enough to make many gains on the coordination level.  I don’t think it induces any extreme dependencies, except for ancillarilarly like how the EU is now stuck to somewhat of a common fate.  And, most importantly enough I don’t think that it causes the development of new conflict minimization tools any more than any other utopian solution proposes to do.  But I will admit that it does make some progress.  But I don’t think the solution is structurally significant enough to do what I think you need it to do.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Playing Along With Sam Harris

I'm having some fun playing along with Sam Harris' recent podcast with Ben Shapiro and Eric Weinstein.  Every time I hear a good probing interview with one of those Weinstein brothers, I come off very appreciative of their level-headedness.  Reminds me of my family a bit.

Anyway, here is my attempt at playing along with Sam's interview.  I've taken his major questions and tried to write a bit of my response to each of them.  I've tried to keep things more like dialogue, but I've also expanded a bit more that I would ever do in a real conversation.  After the first bit, I figured I should add in minute intervals so you can follow along on the original podcast.

Has social media caused today’s extreme polarization levels?

No.  Polarization tends to follow a Father & Son’s cycle.  I look to Peter Turchin’s great historical work here.  I think your’e better off viewing today’s polarization as a somewhat nasty “Great Religious Awakening”.  About every 50 years or so you get a period of moral unfreezing & configuration.  For instance, look to the social turmoil of the late 60’s and the fairly significant left sourced period of politically oriented violence in the early 70’s.  Before that you had some really controversial times during the great depression and then the near civil war in the late 1800’s due to their immigration crisis, real wage decline and extreme income disparity.

Each cycle had different proximate causes, but I tend to view the underlying physics as emerging from the same ultimate cause.  Here I really like Nowak & Sigmund. They have a really great under appreciated Nature paper called Tides of Tolerance which models how slight preference for tolerance leads to sudden temporary phase changes to intolerance. The posit that this occurs when a generation loses direct touch for the reasons of tolerance itself.  I think the term “you can’t be tolerant of intolerance,” is apropos here.

My personal reference for this came from a great book by Chris Beneke on the emergence of religious secularism in America.  When you look back at the religious awakenings of the early 1700’s, late 1700’s and early 1800’s you tend to see many of the same dynamics we are now experiencing.

You have “priests” who lead and pace self-organizing movements.  They articulate new morals and as a natural sweet spot for group formation, push a hard in-group out-group dynamic by labelling anyone who doesn’t agree with them or support their morals as sinners.  When a society’s foundational social contract is questioned, this is a really explosive position to take.  It works, for a time, very well.  But it also produces some nasty paralysis once everyone other than your own group is a sinner who can’t be trusted.  Social capital, or as Ibn Kuhn states it, asabiyah, is real and is foundational for group coherence. 

I tend to think group coherence is slated to be the next global warming issue.  The irony here, is that the political sides on this very real phenomena are ironically switched.

What is the value of religion in social coherence?  What do you believe that I don’t believe?

Religious is a great adaptive tool.  I take David Sloan Wilson’s side and the body of researches studying the Scientific Study of Religion.  You can have beliefs that are factually incorrect but which are more adaptive (fitter) than beliefs which are factually correct.  I believe Brett Weinstein frames this as metaphorical truth, Wilson as practical vs. factual reality, and another pop scientist, Jordan Peterson uses the term Darwinian truth.  Of these I tend most to Wilson’s approach.

I think we do religion a great disservice by casting the baby out with the bath water. In this I guess the safest position is a classic God of the Gaps position. But I also think it is very important to recognize the intertwined role religion (in the group sense of things) and governance have played in the evolution of human society and the gene-cultural evolution of our own abilities to function at ever increasing levels of selection.  Whether you think these levels need to be biologically real or simply ephemerally real is a fairly technical question that I don’t think adds much to the conversation.

But in general I think this generation’s loss of touch with religion and some of the adaptive reasons for religion has left them without many of the pluralistic tools which are needed for effective social coherence at the high levels we now operate in.  Extreme divergence and diversity at our social scale have only exasperated, or rather tried the limits of pluralistic skills.  I’m afraid they are rather lacking.

Now that doesn’t mean I think religion is necessary for society.  I just don’t think the data with atheism stands up to that.  I’m fairly Norezayan there. But it does mean we’re going to have to re-learn pluralism again.  This time without most of the supernatural trappings, but unfortunately with heightened levels of sacredness, blasphemy and sacrosanctness.  This is where I think Trump really hit a home run.

Imagine the world was rebooted.  How would someone rediscover this thing [this particular form of True religion]

Well I don’t think you’d see any particulars re-emerging.  But you would be likely to see some generalities re-emerge.  Sort of like the difference between homologous and analogous structures.  In this I suspect I lean to Peterson’s view of things.  There are some darwinian, if you like, wells in our cognitive architecture.  Some things are adaptive and some things aren’t.  If you look across human societies, get the right scale, worry about the very real effects of cultural evolution you can probably get a pretty good idea of what type of structures are likely to re-emerge.  Of course the colour of things will be complex, but in general I suspect you’d get some fairly common sense pro-sociallty concerns coming up, and some pretty interesting ways of teasing out in-groups and out-groups.

In this I always tend to smirk looking back at the fork the new atheists faced a number of years ago.  They definitely seemed to be poised to start reproducing evangelical like quasi-religion.  I’m just glad Dawkins and some of the others pulled back from that brink. But it is interesting to see some of the atheist “worship” services and such.  There are certain patterns of actions and beliefs that just feel right and just work.

Confronting that is I think one of the big questions of the next decade or so.  The scientific understanding of the role of quasi-factual but adaptive “truth”.  Neat times.

Can’t we just chart a course to greater well being [pro-scoaiity] just from intelligent analysis?  Why do we need an un-moved mover?

Yes. You can certainly try. I think you’ll find that the religious dynamics come up as fairly efficient solutions to most any problem.  Does this always entail supernaturalism? No. I think psychology would say it just needs the right amount of quasi-propositional (slightly exaggerated and slightly unbelievable but very memorable) ideas. I take a homeostatic view here.  It isn’t just the individual ideas or meme’s that need the right quasi-propositionality, its probably balanced out with a variety of other things.  Thus you see atheists in Europe having unbelievably high belief levels in ET’s and new age spiritualism.

But yes, intelligent analysis refined by selection would over time produce many of the solutions we now have.  It would probably produce some very good ones we don’t now have. But over time I think, like you do, we’ll have to face the question about what to do to get past the tribal like berries of conventional religion.  Where we [Sam Harris] differ is probably that I think we might still call this product “religion” where you certainly wouldn’t. 

But I also don’t see much fundamental difference between hyper-rational utopianism and some forms of religious belief.  Hence, what I worry about is more the journey than the destination.  Destination zealots, perhaps because of my religious background, always make me worried. I’m sorry I’m worried about you Sam.  Just kidding.  I think we’ll come to a balance between practical and factual truth sometime.  I just don’t think such a resolution will necessarily be kind to everyone’s sacred values.

It is pure hubris (36:00) to think the 7 billion of us here have pushed what is cognitively possible [or cognitive closed doors] to the limit.  [The assumption here is that religion is a closed cognitive door where what is now here is all that you need]

I think there are some mistaken assumptions here.  The God of the Gaps approach my quick solution.  I don’t think we need an unmoved mover. I’m quite content to think of God as a person who went through everything we did and is far ahead of us.

I think if you take religion and assume that it must be static you’re in trouble too.  The usual answer to this is revelation. But that’s a pretty simple ingenious and deflective answer. I think what fundamentally matters is that the rate of change of beliefs fits adaptive patterns.  Sometimes that can mean some fairly rapid change.  I am a gene-culturist who buys into the fairly extreme position of multi-path inheritance.  I think if you change religion too much and say “hey let’s do atheism and reinvent our moral beliefs based upon some good science” you’re going to get some really nasty things come out of it.  Heck, look at Marxism.  

Science is good at some things. Religion is good at others.  I suspect we’ll see coherence, but I just don’t think our social science is up to the playing field of religion yet.  Look at where we are with inter sectionalism.  I certainly don’t want that pushed as a mandated universal belief system empowered by all these latent religious like intensities people are subject too.  Especially not when those in charge deny the very religious like nature of their movement, making it all too easy to deny the ingrained tendencies that go with it.  I don’t think we need another cycle of religious wars. We did that after Martin Luther.  I don’t think we need to do that again.

But I do hope we get better at the science of religion. For instance, I think its a big shame few people have every grappled in an honest way with Stuart Kauffman’s Beyond Belief book.

Revelation is so limiting because we’re anchoring ourselves to a book that we just know is going to be outdated (37:10)

Yes, fixation can be a problem. But I think it behooves one to ask whether no fixation is also a problem.  Is it?  

It certainly  seems like societies with no moral anchors enable some rather despotic caste formation, moral flipping and nasty abusive freeloading.  See my blog post

I think what you need is the “right amount” of change and re-interpretation.  Re-interpretation that is aware of our Darwinian traps and natural propensities.  I’m a very real believer in abuse and the set-up of systems of abuse.  But that may just be the organizationalist in me talking….

This remind me of the debate I had with Rick Warren where he said without God people would just be out raping and murdering and such.  I just don’t think that is true. 40:00

Well, I think this is the “climate change” moment we have to face.  Would society crumble or not?  I think the answer is we don’t know.  And that type of destruction isn’t something I think should be played around with willy nilly.  There have been some rather horrible world disasters emerging from well intentioned by Darwinianingly naive social engineering.

So I think in your question, would everyone be better off without religion? Some might. Some might not.  But if you go for a long-game argument, in the long-run people would be better off because hyper-rationalism is the most rational solution because it is the quickest way to factual based reality which is highly probable to be the most adaptive as long as we can surprise our natural instincts, I think you necessarily face the same criticisms that get levelled at any utopian styled movement.  Just because something is possible through out naive lenses, doesn’t mean it will actually work out that way.  I’m very practical, in the D.S. Wilson pun of the word, here.

Invoke utilitarianism or consequentialism here if you like, but I think we need to be really careful to maintain pluralism and the ideals of pluralism.  That’s why I think religions are very wise when the adopt a “multi-path” approach and say, yes that path may be better for you, but I like this one and think it will get me to a similar enough spot, but with a much more pleasant-for-me journey.  Sometimes it is the side effects and after effects that we’re after. Religion can have some rather nice pro-social side effects. Even seemingly irrational beliefs and norms, can if viewed right, produce some strong and unique social and pro-social qualities.

I just think we have to watch our own hubris to think that everything can be engineered. But I also think religions tend to go way overboard on denying the utility of science and the scientific process in this regard.  But then again, they aren’t worrying about the individual, they are worrying about the group as expressed by the sum of all the individuals, or even in some cases just as the group as a whole.  But feel free to make another multi-level selection joke here Sam.

43:00 I think Eric Weinstein did a great job summing up my position.  Sam Harris comes across as very religious or quasi-religious at his core.

44:25 Here is how is and ought converge is with a complete understanding. If you have all the information there really is, if that can’t give you a complete picture of what you ought to do then where would you go to get that picture?

I think it is interesting that you just made a mormon theological argument here.  That is what I suspect religions, well at least many formal world religions would say.  Complete understandings can do this. But are we any where near that.  What is the error introduced by what we don’t know? How much should we trust the long arm of evolved selection versus the hubris of modern rationalism? 

I think the two exist in tension. I don’t think putting all your eggs in one basket is good.  Not because middle ground is always the best solution (think of the let’s kill all ethic group X,  can’t you meet them halfway, negotiating cartoon). I think you need tension between elements in a group which are conservative, let’s call them in-group oriented, and elements which are outward oriented, let’s call them out-group oriented.  I think tension between those two perspectives is an essential dialectic. It is adaptive and highly so.

So I fully support your right for your position.  I also fully support the right of others for their position. I do not think the case should get decided based upon who makes the most rational case. That type of solution process is just too subject to gaming. I think we need much more sophisticated checks and balances. And, I think our evolutionary history has given us some rather formidable tools in this regard, and I think we should trust cautions that those systems suggest we take with regard to moral engineering.