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.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like Dennis Prager and Michael Sheerer in their Rubin Report debate hit on similar ground to my position on religion's role as a societal coherer often maintaining "good-enough" rates of moral change (depending upon the religious tradition of course). Shermer addresses this question again at 35:58 in his next Rubin Report

    While I haven't listened to Prager at all (just never found his stuff very interesting nor challenging), it sounds like I differ from him in that I don't see a need for supernaturalism (or supernatural agents) as a focal point for moral coherence and Big Brother "enforced" unifying morality. I think atheism works fine here. In practice you'll usually still get a de facto Big Brother (maybe something akin to human rights), but this agent can be very weakly embodied. I'd suggest it probably could be something as simple as a stable nexus of ideas which can be interpretable as a moral system. I think that is how List & Pettit imagine their group agents. In practice though, I suspect due to human nature, over time, such weakly embodied or idea-only moral agents get embodied more and more. I suspect the reason for this is how we naturally gravitate toward certain levels of quasi-factuality. But, unlike many I'm not so sure these Darwinian wells / modules are as independent as many think. I tend to take a homeostatic view and feel that if we're low on one module, say degree of big brother embodiment, it can be compensated by increases in other modules, say ritual or seld-sacrficial signalling.