Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Straw Vulcan

This is a bit of fun with philosophy from Julia Galef. Julia did not invent the term “Straw Vulcan” but she explains it very well. She may not look like the stereotypical philosopher, but she is first rate. She brings some fun to a discipline that really needs it.

The term comes from “straw man” which means an argument that is against a caricature of your opponent’s argument. To bolster your argument, you create a weak version of their opponent, then attack it. “Vulcan” is a planet from the Star Trek series. Citizens of that planet are said to be very logical. They solved their problems of modern warfare by adopting a culture that taught emotions are bad. The “Straw Vulcan” says that this version of a person who thinks logically is problematic.

If you have watched Star Trek, you know that Spock, the primary Vulcan character, is always getting in trouble because he over emphasizes the use of logic. Because he does not consider the emotions of others, he makes bad decisions.  Other characters refer to him for facts and help with weighing the odds, but in the end, they trump his advice based on their intuition. What Julia explains is, this is not an argument for why we should value emotions over logic it is an example of someone who uses logic poorly.

Rational thinking has become associated with focusing on utility and quantifiable things such as money, productivity and efficiency. Emotions are said to “get in the way” of rational thinking. There is some truth to that but it also shows a misunderstanding of why we are trying to think about anything in the first place. If you are trying to figure out how to pay for your kids’ college it’s not because you want them to take care of you when you’re old. You might want them to do that, but their education is for them. The desire is first an emotional one.

I think you’ll enjoy it, especially if you are a Star Trek fan but you don’t have to be. She goes through 5 fallacious behaviors that are associated with the Vulcan characters. These are typical misconceptions about what it means to act rationally and what is wrong with rational thinking.

The straw man version of rational people….

1.       expect others to act rationally.
2.       wait until they get all the information before making a decision.
3.       believe anything tuition based is irrational.
4.       believe being rational means not having emotions.
5.       value only quantitative things.

Oddly enough, there is a very rational, scientifically based therapy that flies in the face of this. If someone wants to change their behavior, like stop drinking or procrastinating, a therapist might use something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT recognizes that our feelings affect our actions and that we can’t always control them. But it doesn’t attempt to suppress them instead it recognizes them and looks for ways to start new behaviors. In other words, it’s perfectly rational to be aware of your emotions.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

It takes two wings to fly

I heard this great discussion on the radio last year and couldn’t stop thinking about it. It drags at a few points, but the highlights are well worth it. Jim Wallis provides the most insightful aspects. Click the link above, then on the page, click the speaker icon near the top where it says “LISTEN”. It’s about 50 minutes long.

It is a discussion about activism, cynicism, the role of government, how we decide who to help and how much. And within that, they look at the problem of The Left and The Right misunderstanding each other. It is one of the most balanced and useful political/religious discussions I’ve ever heard. There is ample religious language, but it doesn’t require the kind of translation that religious discussion often does.

 It’s really a political discussion, but it is from the point of view of the people not the politicians. As Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman says, “You can’t legislate people’s heart, only their actions.”

One major theme is expressed in a quote provided by Jim Wallis originally from Abraham Joshua Heschel, “There are few who are at fault but we are all responsible.” When there is a problem that we don’t think we caused, we look for scapegoats. When there is something that we want to fix, we look for silver bullets. If we find either one, we don’t look back at the outcomes of those choices. A short term solution usually ends up with more problems and blaming others rarely helps anyone.

In the middle of the talk there is some discussion of the “nones”. Those are people who, when they are polled about their religion, check the “none” box. This gets interrupted by a commercial and I’m not sure if anyone got their points across, but it leads to a political discussion about the differences between conservatives and liberals.

Jim Wallis says the best idea the conservatives have is to focus on personal responsibility. It’s true that people don’t lift themselves out of poverty without taking personal responsibility. He also says the best idea liberals have is social responsibility. People can’t lift themselves out of poverty if there is no pathway.

They all agree the war of political ideologies makes no sense. They see too much emphasis on social responsibility creating a sense that individuals should not bother to have hope and too much emphasis on personal responsibility leading to blaming the victims. Either the system is so rigged that there is nothing you can do to better yourself, or people are so lazy there is no point in paying them any attention. Neither approach works. Paul Slack sums up how it should be, society builds the schools and the kids have to do the school work.

Jim has applied what he preaches too. He talks to kids in inner city schools and he doesn’t talk to them about political change. They are too young to vote and don’t need a long of explanation of how oppressed they are, they already know that. He talks to them about personal responsibility. They know they don’t have as many chances as a kid from a rich suburb, but they need to recognize a chance when one appears. He also has a great story about connecting a suburban church to those schools.

Scattered throughout is a theme; we all just need to keep working at it. I think it is a fault of Americans to believe that things can be fixed and then no maintenance is required. Truth is, the fight is always ongoing. We constantly protest our government and we throw people out of office all the time. It’s called an election. But we have come to focus too much on single issues and personalities and we’ve forgotten what we are really working towards. We all want healthy smart kids. We want safe streets and clean water. We need to be talking about balance, not polarizing over our differences.

Stories of people escaping poverty abound, but those are stories of individuals, they don’t add up to anything equal to the numbers still impoverished. People who are against giving kids another chance point to a program that failed or a person who was helped then returned to their self defeating ways.

But is that it? Isn’t that the problem? That these kids only kid get one big opportunity in their lives? If they miss it, too bad. “Having opportunity” means having multiple chances, it means having a safe place to return to after failure, a chance to assess what you’ve done. It means hearing the basic lessons of life from more than one person until it sinks in.

The handful of people on this program understand that. They don't care if you label it liberal or conservative. Hopefully their ideas will spread. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Google and Reason

I usually do a New Year’s blog, laying out some goals that only get roughly met. This year, I watched a Bill Moyer’s interview that talks about the research I wish I had found by simply surfing the web. But it’s too complicated for that. It involves about 100 years of history as well as the 200,000 year history of human beings. It starts with the teaser, “politics is religion”. This goes back to one of my earliest stories about the liberal interpretation of the Parable of the Talents.

Instead of finding insightful talks that make us think while casually surfing we find what we want. For example, I was never comfortable with GMOs being called “Franken-foods” but still I was stuck for years seeing Monsanto as an evil corporation that was raping the earth. Liberals, listen up, you’re going to be told that you are worse at listening to the opposition than they are at hearing you. Conservatives, you’re not off the hook, you are less caring. The interview is much more nuanced than that, and it includes solutions.

Solutions are rare in these days of cold scientific facts. The data is presented without much help for how to absorb it. Jonathan Haidt relates the problem of tribalism to things we can relate to like football games. He also covers how we went from that to a polarized nation in a pluralistic world.

One suggestion; don’t demonize. When we hear someone express an opinion on gay rights, welfare, the Pope or inequality, we think we instantly know much more about that person’s motivations and opinions on other issues. Thing is, we’re often right, but declaring it or just thinking it before the person has said it, creates a divide and that’s wrong. It may be that no value could have come out of a lengthy conversation, but more often that conversation is never had. Each walks away knowing they are right.

Another solution; understanding the scientific method. I know I’ll lose a few there, but hang on, he also says that, given human nature individual reasoning is not reliable. It comes a little after the half hour mark and it’s a great explanation. He doesn’t talk about evidence or the principle of falsifiability. He talks about bringing together people who disagree, actually seeking out people who disagree with you. There are some rules about how you disagree but basically, you don’t get to call your idea or research “fact”, if you haven’t had your peers review it. They used to do this in Congress. We used to do it at the kitchen table. You can see it on reruns of Archie Bunker. In TV shows today the kitchen table has some junk on it and people are running in and out shouting their opinions at each other.

Haidt uses a prevalent metaphor of The Matrix. In that movie, humans are asleep, slaves to the machines. It is consensual hallucination. The machines created it, but the humans had to accept it to remain asleep to reality. The computer generated agent explains to the human Neo that the first time they created the Matrix they made it a utopia but people kept waking up. We intuitively know that we can’t all agree on everything, so we knew it was not real. To keep us occupied, focused on conflict with each other, unaware of our real fate, they made a modern world with some comforts but with conflict and disparities.

We see so many people telling us we are in la-la land while we believe we have it right and it’s them that are deluded. Fast forward to 19 minutes to see the data on the worldview of the two sides. He also spends some time reviewing symbols and signs held up by each. See which push your buttons. I love that he uses “Protestant Ethic” and “Kharma” interchangeably. He is able to say that something is wrong with America without blowing away capitalism or saying we should let the free market go unfettered.

Another teaser, he says conservatives are more in touch with human nature. But being a better moral psychologist doesn’t make you a better person. He shows this with Newt Gingrich’s GoPac memo and Grover Nordquist’s pledge to not for vote for any new taxes as well as the failure of the way Democrats present their policies.

When you’re done, ask yourself; are you the ant or the grasshopper? Who are your sacralized groups? What is the proper role of government