Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Individual Versus the Collective

I've finally published my book, so I think it's time I got back to blogging for a while.

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I've just finished reading a couple very interesting books that catalogue various insights from modern psychological research and how they impact society at large.  The first one was The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker.  The second was Evolution 2.0, by Joseph Heath.

What is fascinating about both books is the way they encourage the reader to break down the Cartesian idea that human beings exist as individual, discrete entities who influence the world around them but are influenced very little by it.

Pinker's main thesis is that human society has become increasingly less and less violent over that past three or four hundred years.  He cites lots and lots of evidence for this argument, which is why his book is so long (over 700 pages.)  One startling part of this evidence is to show how social mores have changed over time.

Everyone is aware that public executions, horrific torture, etc, used to part of everyday civic life in ancient and medieval Europe.  What they don't understand is how brutal day-to-day life was.  For example, one form of "good clean fun" involved nailing a live cat to a wall and then having two people compete in battering it to death by butting it with their heads---while trying to avoid having their faces ripped to pieces or being blinded.  The point Pinker makes is that people nowadays would not only think that such a thing is cruel, they would be hard pressed to see how anyone could find the spectacle worth watching.  People's attitudes have evolved.

Another example he cites is the growth of table manners.  It used to be that people routinely belched, farted, picked their noses, etc, while eating.  In many circles people would get up and relieve themselves against the wall in the dining hall.  One particular point he makes is that the reason why  it became the custom to use dull knives while eating is because at one time people would simply use their daggers to cut their food.  The result, the times being what they were, it was frighteningly common for people to lunge across the table with their daggers at people they were arguing with.  This resulted in a significant number of people with their noses cut off!  We use dull knives to cut our potatoes now and it is rare to see someone without a nose.

Heath's book focuses more on the nature of human reason.  He argues that the ability to reason things out is a sort of epiphenomenon (something that arises accidentally from another process) in human beings.  Our brains have been selected to let us act instantly when we hear a rustling in the grass so we can avoid leopards.  That means we jump to conclusions before considering all the facts.   Evolution has also selected people to only think of family members as "us" and all other human beings as "others" so we maximize the chances of DNA similar to ours being passed on to future generations.  As a result, we demonize the "other", which causes racism and indifference to the suffering of people.

What we know as "reason" primarily exists, according to Heath, through cultural mechanisms.  For example, our judicial system has evolved to understand that police, prosecutors, judges and juries have an innate tendency to jump to conclusions and are indifferent to the plight of the "other".  As a result, a series of "work arounds" have been added to the criminal justice system to try and force individuals to stop their natural inclinations and do something that is unnatural---be fair.  One example is the concept that someone is innocent until proved guilty.  Another is the fact that all police officers have to read people their rights when being arrested.  Another is the right to be represented by a lawyer, who is bound by his professional code of conduct to defend the defendant to the best of his ability.  There are rules about what evidence may or may not be admitted, how someone is allowed to argue their points, what items a jury may consider while coming to a verdict, and, mechanisms for appealing findings that might have been unfair.

Similar sorts of work arounds exist all throughout society.  Peer review helps catch bad science.  Unions exert some control over the excesses of capitalism.  Governments have rules governing decorum and "checks and balances" to minimize the amount of bad laws being passed.  So on, and so forth.

The important point for me for all of this is that what we "are"---the choices we hold and the values we embrace---comes from equal parts genetics and culture.  "OK, nature and nurture", you might say, "so what?"   Well, the difference is that most folks have felt that nature and/or nurture created who you are and at some point the "you" it created took over and you became an autonomous human being capable of making your own choices as a discrete, atomic entity.  Pinker and Shaw are saying something significantly more radical than that.  They are saying that the milieu you inhabit has a constant and critical role to play in how you make decisions on a day-to-day basis and until the day you die!

Policemen are not ordered to read people their rights because the odd bad policeman either doesn't want to be or is incapable of being objective in the pursuit of their duties.  They have to read them their rights because absolutely every police office is non-objective at least some of the time.  The human brain is wired to jump to conclusions because when you hear a noise that might be a leopard getting ready to pounce on you, if you misread it and the noise was something else there was no real penalty.  But if it was a leopard and you didn't jump to that conclusion, you just won a Darwin award.  No DNA replication for you, dear boy.

But cultures evolve as well.  And any band of hunter/gathers who didn't develop mechanisms for forcing reason onto their collective decision making in one form or another also won Darwin Awards. It might be that the only way people overcame indifference and hostility to the "other" was by pushing it outwards to large and larger groups (ie:  people who are not part of your nation instead of anyone outside of your family), but it still meant that the group you identified with got much bigger and more powerful than the old hunter/gatherer bands.

What is the Dao?  I hear many people who describe it in terms that sound suspiciously like "God".  I don't like the idea of "God" because the more I think about it, the less think I understand.  But if we see the Dao as being "the sum of all that is", then every time we gain a little more insight into the world around us, we can gain a little more insight into it as well.  I would suggest that the cultural influence that the Dao manifest in the way we make decisions is one more way of reinforcing the Daoist worldview.

One last point.

I recently got into a bit of an argument with a fellow named Gary Weber  who was a guest on KMO's excellent podcast channel C-Realm, Radiant Sun. Weber has developed a meditation program that he believes can solve the world's problems by having people learn to shut down their individual thought processes (not all, of course, just the chattering of the "monkey mind".)   My belief is that this is naive.  It is a good idea to learn to cut down the horrible back-and-forth that goes on in one's mind.  (When my beloved wife is in a psychotic episode it appears to me that the monkey-chattering becomes deafening and is a major part of the problem.)  But it isn't, IMHO, sufficient.   That's because a very significant part of how our minds operate is because of the cultural context we inhabit.   Who we are, how we think, and what we believe comes from the cultural "work arounds" that govern the milieu we inhabit.  And the problem I find with most people who follow a spiritual or religious path is that they turn their backs on that cultural milieu because they decide that it is irrelevant to their progress.  That's because they cling to that Cartesian idea that we are all distinct, atomic individuals who can freely choose any course of action from the plate before us.

This belief allows them to disengage from society and stop working at the political and social process.  This is wrong, wrong, wrong.  Political and social reform is the way we create those "work arounds" that allow us to slowly, collectively improve the way our minds operate.  And as evidence of this improvement, Pinker offers beyond the staggering decline in violence in human society, the amazing fact that human IQ has been increasing.  This is called "the Flynn Effect" after one of the people most associated with identifying it.  There is controversy about what is causing it, but one of the reasons that Pinker suggests is that with an increase in education people are becoming better at doing abstract reasoning, which is one of the key elements of IQ measurement.  More importantly for me, Pinker also suggests that the cultural work arounds that we use to keep our innate impulsiveness under control and help our emergent reasoning work more effectively are constantly accumulating.  For example, consider the  huge difference in trying to figure out a complex mathematical problem using Roman numbers versus our current Hindu-Arabic system.  It was such an improvement that almost the minute people in Europe understood how it works they adopted it.  As we culturally accumulate more and more of these things, our minds become both more disciplined and we have an easier time communicating in a rational manner with other people.

What this says to me with regard to spiritual practice, therefore, is that the cultural milieu that we inhabit as people who meditate and try to increase our wisdom has a direct bearing on the progress we make.  Paradoxically, the reason why I practice as a hermit is not because I want to become isolated from the wider culture and other people, but because I do not want to be free from having to limit myself to one particular subculture and keep the others at arm's length.  At the time I walked away from various institutional groups I didn't have a clearly articulated argument about why I was making this move. But I did have a vague feeling that I didn't like way these groups built themselves up by isolating themselves from others.  Now, thanks to Pinker and Heath, I can articulate why I think that this is a good idea.

This brings up one last thing.  Two of the really good "work arounds" that Heath identifies are books and blogs. They allow people the opportunity to concentrate and work through very complex arguments without being distracted.  This is something that biological evolution has not prepared us for, but which are absolutely essential to cultural evolution.  I hope you enjoy this work around and that it expands your consciousness.  ;-)  


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Finally published: Walking the Talk: Engaging the Public to Build a Sustainable World


I have finally published the book I've been working on for the past five years. It is for sale at SmashWords, Kobo and Kobo affiliated distributers (such as Chapters/Indigo.) I've decided to not publish on Amazon for various reasons (my understanding is that the company is not the best corporate citizen.) If you have a Kindle, you can download a copy that will be compatible with that device (mobi files) from Smashwords. If you aren't sure that you want to buy a copy right away, but are interested, you can download the first 20% from SmashWords just to see what it's like.






Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Journalists and Global Warming

(Howdy readers.  I've spend the last two years away from this blog working on my book, Walking the Talk:  engaging the public to build a sustainable world.   Since then I've started working on smaller projects.  Here's the latest one.  It is a response to all the jackass reporters that I've talked to over the years who seem to think that their paper should give equal time to climate change deniers.  The original piece has a lot of footnotes, most of which I haven't bothered to make into hypertext links on this posting.  If anyone is interested in seeing those references, please contact me and I'll email  you a copy of the original.  

I don't have any high hopes, but if anyone thinks that this collection of words might have some influence on either professional journalists or the lay public, feel free to contact me about having it published or even have me on a guest on a podcast or something.  I think that what I've written below needs to be said and I'm only writing it because no one else seems to have done it first.

As always rational comments and links to are always warmly appreciated.)  

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Hollywood Science
“I don't care what the blind fools of the academy say!   I know that I'm right!  My research shows it!”   Victor's eyes lit up.  I couldn't tell if they shone with mental brilliance or mere insanity.
“But Victor, how can you be right and everyone else wrong?”
“Science progresses by such means.   Don't you know about Galileo?  Sentenced to house arrest for the crime of disagreeing with conventional wisdom?  Or Christopher Columbus?  People knew that the world was flat and that he would fall over the edge of the earth---until he proved Them wrong.  Every theory that exists is only true until someone proves it wrong.  After all, even Newton was proven wrong by Einstein, wasn't he?”  Victor cast an arched eyebrow in my direction, he had me there.
“They wouldn't publish my experiments in their damned journals.  'Too wild.'  'Too speculative.'  'Where's the proof?'  Well here in my laboratory you have the proof!”
And it's true, there upon the table lay the creature, proof that Victor was right and all the others had been terribly wrong----.
 

Look at most mainstream newspapers, magazines or websites;  listen to 'professional' radio or pod casts;  watch television news when it deals with scientific issues;  and you will invariably see reports by journalists who have been influenced by the above clichéd vision of science.  That understanding of the scientific method is profoundly flawed and badly distorts public discourse on a wide variety of issues, most particularly with regard to climate change.

This essay is an attempt to concisely explain to working reporters, editors, publishers, TV producers, and the general public why their preconceived notions about how science works are wrong and how this terribly distorts our collective conversation about how to deal with the existential crisis of climate change.  I also hope to offer some suggestions so they can stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.

Scientific Credentials
The first thing that reporters get wrong about science reportage is how they view scientists.  Often, they refuse to understand the very thing that makes them what they are, their credentials.  When someone graduates with a Masters or a Doctorate there is a special ceremony that takes place, one that more than anything else looks like the medieval process of being knighted or being ordained as a priest.  When I received my Master's degree, for example, I wore a special gown, went in front of the Chancellor of the University, kneeled on a special cushion, and had a hood drawn over my head.  I also received a document that stated that I had been granted “the degree of Master of Arts with all its rights, privileges and obligations”.  (My emphasis.)

In effect when anyone graduates from a program at a recognized University, they are recognized as having achieved a level of understanding that places them in a different class than the general public.  That's why there is a ceremony---it attempts to make obvious that there is a very important right of passage taking place.  It is also why the diploma says “rights, privileges and obligations”.  It means that society expects something more from people who have graduated from this process and in exchange offers more to them.

Why does society do this?

Primarily, it is because the opinion of someone with a graduate degree is expected to have a certain degree of trust-worthiness with regard to specific subjects that the general public (or even undergraduates) does not.  This means that if someone with a graduate degree is asked to give an opinion on the subject that they studied, it is expected that they will not lie and instead will restrict themselves to opinions based on evidence and logical inference.  In other words, someone with a graduate degree is a professional.

A “professional” is someone who is paid to render expert opinions on a given subject.  They are expected to live up to a specific code of ethics for their profession, and the trust that comes from that expectation is part of what they are paid for.  Lawyers, doctors and accountants are paid to give expert opinion about specific things that they know a lot about. We have to trust what they tell us, or else it would cause chaos in their profession that they follow.  In exchange, we usually listen to what they have to tell us.

So that is what the line “rights, privileges and obligations” on my diploma is all about.  Someone with a graduate degree has earned the right and the privilege to be listened to when she makes a pronouncement about a subject in her area of expertise, and, in turn she has an obligation to not lie, exaggerate, or, speak authoritatively outside of it.   The granting of a Masters or Doctorate degree recognizes this fact by being the basic requirement for being able to teach at the University level.

To be punk and plain, to get a graduate degree makes you a member of an elite.  That's why granting the degree has similarities to being knighted.  This rubs a lot of people, including reporters, the wrong way.  Why should the opinion of someone with a graduate degree in climate science be more important than mine?  Isn't this still a democracy?

Yes, it is still a democracy.  And all people still (at least in theory) have equal rights before the law.  But these rights are defined as rights of opportunity not rights of outcome.  That is to say, anyone (at least theoretically) who can pass the entrance requirements and get the funding to attend a university program has the opportunity to work for years and years and, if they pass the tests, graduate with a Masters or Doctorate degree in a specific field.  More importantly, it is almost impossible to get a graduate degree from a recognized institution through influence or money.  The important points are doing the work and passing the tests.
 
The Hollywood trope of scientific research almost never gives any idea about how much mind-numbing, “scut work”1 is involved in doing academic research of any type.  This involves doing extensive literature searches to read everything possible on the subject you are studying (this is much easier now with computer search capabilities than when I was a grad student, but still very time consuming.)    In my case, for example, one semester as one of several tasks, I had to read 900 thesis abstracts on “joy indicators” research for a prof who had a contract with the UN to do quality of life indicators research.  Grad work also involves learning the proper “finger exercises” necessary to be able to perform a technically demanding procedure consistently.  For example, I once met a grad student at a party who said he'd gotten a new position to work on an experiment.  His first order of business was to do 1,000 rat dissections in order to build up his surgical skill to the point where he could start the actual experiment.  It also often involves having to learn an entirely new area of expertise.  For example, many grad students have to teach themselves computer programming simply to be able to manipulate experimental data.  Once the more exciting work of designing the experiment is done, then the student will often have to engage in the process of selling it to a granting agency in order to find the money needed to actually do it.  And once this is done, the student often has to repeat it over and over again to create a large enough data set to be able to make any sort of broad generalization.  Finally, once the experiment has been done, he will have to write it up in a form that will be acceptable to both his thesis advisors and the peer reviewed journal he wants to publish his findings.

Getting a graduate degree usually involves doing a huge amount of work that is often numbingly boring, but when someone graduates with that degree, they enter into a specific body of intellectuals who have all been recognized as being “peers” and who are qualified to authoritatively comment on their specific area of expertise.  This small number of people who actually know enough to both understand an esoteric line of research and intelligently critique methods and claims made about it, are the only people who are qualified to make any sort of authoritative judgment about a specific statement made in that field of research.   So when a scientist writes a paper and sends it in to a scholarly journal the editor submits it to a number of experts in the field, the “peers”, who then look at the design of the experiment, the evidence presented and the reasoning of its analysis, and then decide whether or not the paper is worthy of publishing in the journal.  Once an article has been published in a peer reviewed journal, then it becomes part of the ever-expanding storehouse of human knowledge and other people use it as a building-block for doing their own research.

It drives people with graduate degrees to distraction the way reporters usually seem to totally misunderstand the importance of credentials when they write on issues like climate change.  In pursuit of that strange journalistic artifact known as “balance”, they routinely cite quotations and print op-ed pieces by people who have no credentials at all in opposition to people who have busted their butts in order to get them.  The only reason why that scientist is making a statement about climate change is because they have worked extremely hard to be able to be in the position where they have an informed opinion.  So it is profoundly insulting for a journalist to let someone else----who hasn't put in a similar amount of work on the subject---simply swan in and offer an opposing opinion.

I have mentioned this fact to reporter friends and they have replied that it is not their job to ascertain the credentials of people who issue press releases and submit articles for publication.  They simply go to a media event and report what is said.  But this is totally disingenuous. The fact is that editors routinely make decisions about which events get reported and who does and doesn't get quoted in the media.  That is why “balancing stories” never include quotes from janitors and why auto mechanics are never invited to write opposing op eds.  Instead, editors seem to decide who gets to have a platform based on two main criteria.

First, editors will send reporters to record statements by powerful and important people.  They will not send people to record the pronouncements of the janitor who cleans their washroom.  But if a man makes a huge amount of money running a cleaning company, and then uses that money to create a phony organization and hire glib spokespersons with bogus credentials, then they have no problem at all reporting on their every utterance (think Fraser Institute.)   The majority of reporters will not only not ask the people speaking what specific credentials empower them to speak authoritatively on the subject and whether the findings being cited had been published in a generally recognized, peer reviewed journal----they will usually get angry with anyone who suggests that that should be part of their job.  Moreover, they will often get positively indignant if you suggest that if these people do not have relevant credentials that should be a prominent part of the story or even grounds for not reporting this event at all.

Secondly, editors solicit and publish op ed stories on the basis of the above criteria and also because of the ability of a person to predictably write concise, easily understood and witty pieces of a prescribed size.   On television, the skill consists of producing short, easily understood “sound bites” on demand.  The problem with this is that the ability to do this has absolutely nothing at all to do with whether or not the person writing actually knows a damn thing about what they are talking about! Indeed, part of the process of learning how to be a scientist involves learning how to write in a specific, technical manner that emphasizes accuracy over all other criteria.  Moreover, in order to explain complex ideas it is often necessary to refer to procedures and use language that requires a lot more work to understand than the prescribed reading level that the mainstream media allows.  This means that given the existing criteria that are used to select for people to write opinion pieces or act as pundits in the mainstream media, there is a very strong bias against anyone with proper credentials being allowed to participate.

In the last American presidential election, the contrasting predictions of statistician Nate Silvers and the existing “pundit class” showed this problem in stark detail.  He was able to use scientific methods to accurately predict the outcome of the election months ahead of time.   In contrast, the media pundits chosen by mainstream media editors and producers were left sputtering on election night with predictions that were all over the map.  (Funny thing, though, none of them seem to have lost their jobs because of this fact.)  The same thing happens all through the mainstream media where “rock star” commentators like David Frum and Margaret Wente blather on endlessly about subjects that they know damn near nothing about, while people with real credentials are almost never seen.

Editors and producers might argue that these two criteria are perfectly adequate.  Rich and powerful people are, by definition, newsworthy simply because they are rich and powerful.  Society is controlled by these folk, so people want to read what they have to say.  The problem with this, however, is that science doesn't proceed on the basis of the relative wealth or political influence of the experimenter, but rather on the quality of their reasoning and the results of their experiments.  And the stories that deal with science, such as climate change, directly turn on the issue of science, not wealth and power.  Moreover, the stories that reporters present invariably frame scientific issues as if what is being reported is scientifically valid---even if the real reason why they are at the news event is because of the wealth and power of the people speaking.

Reporters have also told me that with regard to op eds, I am confusing “news” with “opinion”.  That is to say, reporters are supposed to tell the “truth” when they write something for the first page, but this isn't expected on the editorial page.  I find this distinction disturbing.  All opinions should turn on an understanding of the world of facts or else we call them “hallucinations”, “delusions”, or “lies”.  If we let people get away with writing op eds based on either ignorance or falsehoods, it profoundly distorts public debate.  With regard to an existential social threat, like climate change, this cavalier attitude towards public debate seems totally irresponsible.

It is irresponsible because people actually read this stuff and a lot of them also believe what they read.  I used to do some free lance journalism, have a graduate degree in philosophy (something that I have heard described as the “ultimate bullshit detector”) and am fully aware of how much stuff in the mainstream media is out-and-out baloney---and I routinely get sucked into believing stupid stuff.  How in heaven's name can the editors and publishers who shovel this cornucopia of crap into the body politic possible believe that it is totally harmless?  And need I remind anyone that in the case of climate change we are talking about the fate of the earth!

Hypothesis and Theory, or, Consensus in Science
I have had reporters counter that it would be wrong for them to pay too much attention to the pronouncements of establishment climate scientists because scientific “truths” are commonly disproved.   Even if 98% of them say that climate change is real, there is always the chance that the 2% who disagree are right and the others wrong.  Since all scientific pronouncements are ultimately provisional---a theory is only true until it is disproved by the next guy---what difference does it make if the reporter quotes someone without “establishment” credentials?  This notion---which is appallingly common amongst reporters---has everything to do with Hollywood science and nothing at all to do with the real thing.

The first part of understanding this is to understand the difference between a “hypothesis” and a “theory”.  People routinely confuse the two terms, and that confusion has tremendous implications.

The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, suggested that in the vast majority of cases it is far easier to prove something wrong than to prove another thing right.  Primarily, this is because if your understanding of a situation is correct you can make predictions about what will happen.  For example, because Pavlov consistently rang a bell while feeding his dogs, he believed that the dogs would eventually begin to salivate when he rang the bell whether or not food was presented.  If he had not been able to show this result, it would have suggested that his understanding of how dog training works (what psychologists now call “operant conditioning”) was wrong.  It might be that there were other reasons why the dogs salivated, which is why, strictly speaking, philosophers of science do not like to say that an experiment proves an understanding as being correct.  But if the dogs had not salivated, it certainly would have shown that specific understanding of Pavlov was wrong.2

Please note that in the above paragraph I have been very careful to not use the words “hypothesis” or “theory” and instead have substituted “understanding” and “believed” instead.  I've done this because most people confuse the two and that dramatically affects their view of science.   In the case of Pavlov, his “hypothesis” was that if he trained his dogs in a certain way, they would begin to salivate when he rang his bell.  The “theory” is the psychological understanding of “operant conditioning” that resulted from a large number of experiments that he and other psychologists performed.  It is a consensus based upon the coalescing of the opinions of all the scientists who had the relevant credentials to be able to have useful opinions about the experiments that he had performed and his understanding that explained the results.

Let me reiterate, a “hypothesis” leads to a specific prediction that is based on an proposed understanding of a phenomenon.  Pavlov's hypothesis was that when he rang the bell his dogs would salivate because of how he understood what happens when he trained them.  The “theory” of operant conditioning is the collective understanding that has emerged from the work of all the scientists who have done similar experiments and come to similar conclusions.

Because people conflate “hypothesis” with “theory” they come to the conclusion that a theory is extremely provisional.  Experiments are designed to see if a hypothesis can be proved wrong.  And they often are.  But a theory is an emerged consensus amongst the scientific community that is nowadays almost never proved wrong.  Instead, theories are modified, expanded, or, limited.

I suspect that the reason why many people---and it seems, especially reporters---have problems with this idea is because they have a naïve understanding of the world that tells them that there is a very clear distinction between the two realms of “fact” and “opinion”.  The problem is, however, that every step that society has made to gain a greater understanding of the world around us has undermined this point of view.  Lots of things that are “obviously true” turned out to not be so.  The earth looks “obviously flat”, but it's really round.  The sun “obviously rises in the East”, but really the Earth rotates.  Etc and etc.  The obvious “facts” ended up being replaced with “opinions” that were based on a consensus amongst experts.

It is important to understand that what I am talking about is the development of a specific form of consensus amongst a specific set of people. There is a critical thinking fallacy called “argumentum ad populum” or “the appeal to the people”.  This is the fallacious idea that the trust-worthiness of a statement can be arrived at simply by finding out if a majority of people believe in it.  But the consensus building exercise that scientists use to develop a theory doesn't involve the general public.  The people in question are people who have the relevant credentials.  These are the people who have done all the nasty scut work at university and have really looked at the issue in question from a professional point of view (i.e. done the research.)  This is totally different from hiring a polling agency to call a sample of ordinary citizens on the telephone.

Skepticism and Truth
Reporters are often described as “skeptical” people, but truth be told, scientists are the real skeptics. Reporters look for a sort of TRUTH that exists before human beings ever existed and has nothing at all to do with the fallible activity of human kind.  This naïve epistemology3 means that they find it very odd when someone suggests that society should base public policy decisions on something as “soft” and “squishy” as the consensus of scientists from the relevant field of study.  But the fact of the matter is that that is all humanity has to go on.  It is what supports the technology of computers, space flight and everything else.  Sadly, this divide in understanding is also what creates so much terrible opinion writing and commentary.

Scientists understand that what they are doing is having an extended conversation in order to build a consensus amongst themselves---one that is based on careful observation, experimentation and logical discourse between people who are doing the same sort of work.  This means that they are not in the habit of making broad declarative statements or snappy “sound bites”.  Instead, they like to be precise and careful in their language.  But editors and producers don't like that mode of expression because it seems hesitant and boring, which they believe implies that someone doesn't really know what they are talking about.  Sadly, the opposite is almost always the case, hence the prominence of people like Margaret Wente and David Frum.  The people who sound the most sure of themselves are the ones that usually know the very least.    

Change in Scientific Theories
In the above discussion I mentioned in passing that scientific theories (as opposed to hypotheses) do not get proven wrong, instead they get modified. People routinely fail to understand this distinction when they say, for example, that “Einstein proved Newton wrong” or “Gould's notion of stepped evolution proves that Darwin was wrong”.    Then, based upon that misunderstanding of how science works, they go on to suggest that we shouldn't pay much attention to what scientific consensus says about issues of profound significance to the community, such as climate change.  After all, that 2% of the scientific community that is quoted as denying climate change could be right----.

But the problem with this view is that Einstein didn't prove Newton wrong.  Instead, he showed that Newtonian physics wasn't complete.  That is to say that Newton's equations work very well in a given context, but do not in others---such as situations of extremely high gravity and speeds approaching that of light.  Einstein's theories do not mean that you can no longer use Newtonian mechanics to describe the actions of billiard balls on a pool table with enough accuracy for pool “sharks” to be able to make a living.  But they do explain some minor ways in which the actions of the solar system's planets interact with the world around them.

For example, based on Newton's theories, earlier scientists had hypothesized that because of gravity, light from stars would be bent around the sun in a way that would make them appear in a different place than where they “actually” are.  (Think of the way water will create the illusion that a straight stick is bent when half of it is submerged.)  Einstein's theory of relativity also hypothesized that the light would bend, but twice as much as Newton's theory suggested.  Unfortunately, the sun is so bright that the light from any star that appears near it's edge will be overwhelmed, so both hypotheses are not testable under normal conditions.  However, during a total lunar eclipse the moon passes in front of the sun (relative to an observer on earth.)  This blocks the sun's light, making it possible to look at the stars who's light travels close to the sun's gravitational field.  Einstein predicted that the stars would appear in a different place than where Newtonian mechanics would.  This was tested during a total lunar eclipse in 1919 and the Newtonian prediction failed where Einstein's passed.4

This is an important point.  Science proceeds not only by consensus but also by increments.  In 1962, the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn wrote a book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that talked about the idea that science progresses through “paradigm shifts”. Unfortunately, this book has been tremendously influential in that broad swaths of the population now believe that science progresses through wild revolutionary changes.  But in actual fact, even Kuhn admitted that in most cases science progresses through incremental improvements.  And even when change happens very fast---as with the Newtonian revolution---there very rarely seems to be the sort of violent clashes that the general public associates with a “revolution”.  Perhaps some people smacked themselves on the fore-heads and exclaimed loudly when they read Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy5), but bye-and-large Newton's work was acknowledged as brilliant and useful once it was first read and understood.

Unfortunately, one of the things that the media absolutely loves is conflict.  The cliché from the newsroom is “if it bleeds, it leads”.  The fact is that for evolutionary reasons people are “hard-wired” to instantly pay attention to sex and violence, so their hormones kick in and focus on any depiction possible.  That's why newspapers will show totally irrelevant pictures of violence (if possible with a scantily-clad, vulnerable looking woman as the victim) on the front page.  It is also why newscasts routinely put on “teasers” talking about a future violent car crash or robbery with “full details” later on in the newscast.

Unfortunately, real science doesn't give a lot of opportunities for conflict, simply because it proceeds through boring hard work, consensus and incremental advancement.  But by golly, that doesn't stop editors and producers from working as hard as they can to produce conflict if they possibly can do it!  If they cannot create a “debate” amongst people with credentials, then why not invite someone who doesn't have any to “stir the pot”?  If someone complains, then you can toss around the old canard about “balance” being required to ensure “objectivity”.

Of course, the fact that the naïve general public is left with the impression that the most important public policy issue of their lifetime is part of a wild debate instead of a pretty clear consensus, seems to be irrelevant.

Anger at the Press
Recent surveys of public attitudes have shown that public trust of the media has declined quite dramatically during the past few decades.6   Consider, if you will, the following quote from a 2011 Pew research report:

The widely-shared belief that news stories are inaccurate cuts to the press’s core mission: Just 25% say that in general news organizations get the facts straight while 66% say stories are often inaccurate. As recently as four years ago, 39% said news organizations mostly get the facts straight and 53% said stories are often inaccurate.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons why people do not trust the media any more.  It has fragmented, and there seems to be very obvious influence being exerted by wealthy interests in some reportage.  At the same time, there are well-financed campaigns to create mistrust against the so-called “liberal media”.  But I would suggest that at least a significant fraction of the distrust comes from the very things that reporters believe will gain them trust:  their commitment to “balance” and “objectivity”.

Balance
One of the key rules of “responsible” journalism is to always balance one “controversial” point of view against another.  The important point in this case is “controversial”.  No one, for example, would expect a journalist mentioning the time of sunrise in a weather forecast to “balance” this statement with another opinion from someone who believes that the sun will not rise at all the next day.  It is possible, therefore, to parse out all statements in news stories as belonging to either the class of “controversial statements” or “non-controversial” statements.   The president of the United States is a man who's father was an African.  This is a non-controversial statement and doesn't require a balancing rebuttal every time a journalist states it in either an article on the front page or an op-ed in the editorial section.  In contrast, whether or not NATO should intervene in the affairs of a specific Eastern European country is controversial and there are usually a wide variety of arguments one way or another about it.  In this case, it is right and proper for editors and producers to find a wide variety of sources and opinions to talk about all the different elements that should be considered.

Let me reiterate for emphasis: whether or not an issue ends up in one set or the other involves an implicit statement of fact.  If someone decides that a point of view is so controversial that it requires “balance”, they are saying that there is no consensus yet about what the truth of the matter.   So, in effect, when journalists say that a story talking about the existence of climate change requires “balance”, they are saying that there is no consensus in the scientific community about whether or not it is happening.  As such, the fact that they have parsed this issue into the set of “controversial” issues that requires “balance” is in itself a statement of fact---one that is flat out wrong if not bordering on being a bald-faced lie.  In effect, when editors and producers order reporters to find a “balancing” point of view they are fibbing about the issue at hand.  I know that amongst many of my friends this is one of the things that gets me absolutely furious with professional journalists.  We see it as evidence that “professional journalists” have nothing but contempt for the truth in an issue of tremendous importance to the public welfare.  

Objectivity
Some journalists spend time trying to be “objective” in their reporting.  The Wikipedia says the following about it “Journalistic objectivity is a significant principle of journalistic professionalism. Journalistic objectivity can refer to fairness, disinterestedness, factuality, and non-partisanship, but most often encompasses all of these qualities”.7

The first thing I'd like readers to recognize about this statement is that there can be a significant contradiction between these elements.  For example, what if the facts fall all to one side in an intensely partisan discussion?   Is an editor being “partisan” if he prints stories that show that one political party is flat-out wrong on a significant public policy debate?  If he crosses his fingers and publishes statements that are demonstrably wrong on his Op-Ed page, then what is his commitment to “factuality”?   What if he simply doesn't dig very hard because he knows that if he does he's probably going to find out that the important politician is lying?  How “fair” is that to the other side?

I have read arguments that suggest that the way to deal with these problems is to simply give up on the principle of “objectivity” and just let journalists be as partisan as they want.  If people don't like what they read, they can go to another news source.  I've always felt that this is more than a little self-serving, though.  Why can't we suggest that journalists should be factual first and let the other issues fall to the wayside?

Work Load
Journalists will often complain to me that they are so over-worked that they just don't have the time to do all the research that I am suggesting that they need to do in order to write good stories about things like climate change.  There is a significant amount of truth in this, but I would suggest that there are some things that they could do to dramatically increase their productivity while at the same time lowering their workload when it comes to dealing with science stories.

First of all, I'd suggest that journalists create the equivalent of a prostitute's “bad john list”.  That is, they need to create a website where professional journalists can list potential sources who have been caught making statements that are significantly not true.  These can include people who have been caught speaking outside of their area of expertise, making flat-out false statements, fudging their research, etc.  Cite their names, their source of funding if relevant (it often is) and the reason that they have been nominated as being “bad johns”.   In addition, this site should also cite bogus citizen's groups that have been created by disinformation campaigns, phony think tanks and non-peer reviewed journals devoted to publishing “junk science”.

This way when a journalist has a quote from someone that seems legitimate, she can then look the individual and citation up on the “bad john list”.  If he is there, she can either decide to not use the quote, or, look into the reasons listed for the citation and decide either to dismiss them as not being correct (and hopefully add an addendum to the shit list stating why she did this) or, make the fraudulent credentials or disinformation in the quotation a significant part of her story.

Creating the journalistic “bad john list” would significantly change reporting because it would introduce an element of collegiality to the profession and allow it to begin to make incremental improvements in the store of social information.  It used to be that journalists lived in a specific community and go to learn who could and couldn't be trusted to give an honest and informed quotation.  Nowadays, they get transferred from place to place and often do not even live in the community they serve.  This means that they rarely get the chance to create an informal network of trusted sources.   Formalizing this previously informal process could serve as a useful correction to the cornucopia of crap that gets showered on them daily by self-serving BS artists, crack pots and public relations flacks.  

In addition, journalists can do what many intelligent readers do when they read a story that doesn't smell right, they can go to Professor Google.  I routinely do Google searches that say something like “problems with X” or “critiques of X”.  I am amazed at how often stuff falls into my lap that dramatically undermines the “truthiness” of what I have just read.  I am not saying that journalists should believe everything that they read on line, but if professor Google says something stinks, it should be followed up in order to truth test the quotations or statements in an Op Ed piece.

Also, news media need to make up their minds about factual issues and stop giving platforms for people who are making factually incorrect statements.  To cite a precedent, the “Los Angeles Times” has a policy of refusing to publish letters that suggest that climate change is not taking place.  The letters page editor, Paul Thornton, made his case very succinctly.  “Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying 'there's no sign humans have caused climate change' is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy.”8  There is no reason at all why any news organization cannot make a similar decision about all parts of it's platform.  It routinely does this sort of thing with regard to racism, sexism, crackpot ideas about the earth being flat and the moon being made of green cheese.  Why not exclude equally loopy ideas about climate change?  Think about how much easier it would be for journalists if they simply didn't have to report stuff that is crap without having to come up with reasons why it is crap every time someone makes a wild statement?

If someone argues that this sounds suspiciously like censorship, I will counter by asking if his news organization prints every single opinion and statement that comes its way?   There is always a criteria used to filter out some stories.  I am just suggesting that it be done in an open and honest way using something like a rational criteria.  This will allow journalists the freedom to start asking questions like “Why is this person pushing this false narrative?”  or “What is the best way to prevent the worst elements of climate change?” instead of endlessly perpetuating a “debate” that has been settled long ago by the people who actually know what they are talking about.

Bogus Credentials
I mentioned above that graduates have an obligation to not “speak outside of their area of expertise”.  It is tremendously important for journalists to understand exactly what this means.  Just because someone has a graduate degree in one discipline doesn't mean that they are equipped to make expert pronouncements in any other field.  No journalist would cite quotations from a 'Class A' auto mechanic with regard to heart surgery, yet they routinely give time to the prognostications by economists on climate science.  Why is this?

Perhaps part of the reason is because journalists don't understand how much science is based on reliance of those “picky details” that were learned when those graduate students did all that “scut work” at university.  To illustrate this point, consider the case of the “hockey stick graph controversy”.

In a grotesquely simplified nutshell, the “hockey stick” is a graph that shows how global temperature has slowly declined from about 1000 AD to the beginning of the industrial revolution, where it started to increase at a much faster rate than it had been declining.  That's pretty much what one would expect to happen if climate change exists and it is being driven by industrial processes.9  The “controversy” comes from a concerted push by various climate change deniers who argue that the graph is a result of incompetence, malfeasance or a combination of both among professional climate scientists.

Now, let's look at one of the key pieces of “evidence” that is used to cast aspersions on the hockey stick.

In 2003 a retired mining executive with a Bachelor's in mathematics and some graduate work in economics, by the name of  Stephen McIntyre; and an economics professor by the name of Ross McKitrick published a paper in a journal titled “Energy & Environment”.  It was titled  “Corrections to the Mann et. al. (1998) Proxy Data Base and Northern Hemispheric Average Temperature Series”. It was published in “Energy & Environment”.10  Later on, in 2005 there was a reference to their work published in “Geophysical Research Letters”.11

Now, there are several things about what I have written above that journalists have to understand if they are going to make sense of the science involved.  First of all, McIntyre and McKitrick are not climate scientists.  They have a background in economics.  This should set off wild alarm bells in the minds of any journalist that gets a press release or op ed about climate science with their names on it.  This is because they didn't do all the picky “scut work” involved in getting a post graduate degree in the subject of climate science.  They are auto mechanics telling you how to do open heart surgery.  McIntyre and McKitrick are commenting on a technical subject that is outside of their area of expertise, which is a total no-no.

Secondly, journalists should have taken a look at the two journals that I mentioned above, namely “Energy & Environment” and “Geophysical Research Letters”.   The first thing to remember is that “Geophysical Research Letters” makes no real attempt to be peer reviewed.   The first thing to remember is that while "Geophysical Research Letters" is peer reviewed, it is not strictly speaking a scientific journal. Instead, it is meant to publish brief “head's up”s from researchers about the work that they are doing so if anyone else in the field is interested in the same thing they can connect with them to ask questions and share information.  Of course, editors have to use discretion about what they do or don't publish, but the burden of proof to get published in this journal is not as high as it might seem.

Also, McIntyre and McKitrick shopped around their paper to various journals who refused to publish it.  Eventually, they sent it to “Energy & Environment”, which did.  The thing to remember is that that journal is not listed as either a climate science journal or even a “hard” science journal at all.  Academic librarians use various tools to keep track of academic journals in order to help researchers.  One tool is the “Web of Knowledge” database.  One of the things it does is assign a specific category to a journal, and “Energy & Environment” is not listed in its science database but rather it's social science category.  So strictly speaking, McIntyre and McKitrick not only are not climate scientists, but their article wasn't printed in a journal of climate science, or physical science of any form.

If you look at “Energy & Environment”'s website you can see the following description of it's purpose.

Energy and Environment is an interdisciplinary journal aimed at natural scientists, technologists and the international social science and policy communities covering the direct and indirect environmental impacts of energy acquisition, transport, production and use. A particular objective is to cover the social, economic and political dimensions of such issues at local, national and international level. The technological and scientific aspects of energy and environment questions including energy conservation, and the interaction of energy forms and systems with the physical environment, are covered, including the relationship of such questions to wider economic and socio-political issues.12

Clearly, this is not a technical journal devoted to climate science, but rather something more concerned with social and economic issues.  In publishing a technical analysis of the mathematics behind the Hockey Stick graph, it was stepping outside its area of expertise, which is a real no-no too.

Finally, journalists who write about science should understand that all academic journals are not created equally.  Some are very prestigious, and some are totally ignored because they are either considered at best not terribly useful for future research or at worst, repositories of junk science.  It is not a trivial task to find an objective criteria to do so, but there are systems that can be used. Two systems have been developed for measuring the importance of a journal are “Impact Factors”13 and the “Eigenfactor”14.  Doing a search using the Web of Knowledge I sought out the highest ranked journal devoted to physical chemistry and the top scoring one is “Nature Materials” which has an Impact Factor score of 35.749 and an Eigenfactor score of 0.22815 . When I looked up “Energy & Environment” the Impact Factor was 0.319 and the Eigenfactor of 0.00045 .

OK.  The authors were not experts and they published in a journal that has no expertise in selecting and refereeing complex articles about climate science.  So what?

Well, this is so what.

An blog by the name of “Real Climate:  Climate science from climate scientists” exists to try and sort things out for the interested lay person.15  It's statement of purpose is as follows:

RealClimate is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists. We aim to provide a quick response to developing stories and provide the context sometimes missing in mainstream commentary. The discussion here is restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science.16 

“ReaClimate” has published extensively on the McIntyre/McKitrick paper.  I will attempt to summarize what they say in the following.  I am not an expert, and I make no claims about being one, but I suspect that unless I try to come up with something like what follows, some readers will simply dismiss what I have to say about McIntyre and McKitrick out of hand.

The gist of McIntyre and McKitrick's complaints against the hockey stick is that the temperature data that was used to create it came from ground-based weather stations that had been contaminated by localized heat coming from nearby economic activity.  If a local temperature testing site is next to a city that has a lot of heat radiating from things like parking lots (the “heat island effect”), for example, that will skew the numbers in the direction of showing increased global temperatures.

The first problem that RealClimate cites is that McIntyre and McKitrick didn't acknowledge any data that had been added into the hockey stick analysis that came from sources that could not possibly be attributed to the heat island effect.  This includes things like temperature data from satellites and the sea.  The heat island effect certainly exists, but it cannot be used to explain increases of temperature measured in the middle of the tundra and North Atlantic.  

Secondly, the computer software that they used made a fundamental error in estimating the area of land being sampled.  In effect, it was found that the software calculated area based on radians and McKitrick entered the data in degrees.  This is comparable to confusing gallons and litres of fuel when loading an airplane with jet fuel----and the results are just as catastrophic.

Finally, the author looked through the methodology that McIntyre and McKitrick used to analyze the data from ground-based temperature measurement and found that they did not use proper statistical procedures to manipulate their data.  He then went on to test their results by re-running their own models using a standard test that others use, and found that when this was done, the results that the authors identified disappeared.17

I am aware that I am not doing this argument justice and may have balled things up.  I have never studied statistics and am not a climate scientist.  But the point I am trying to make is neither are the journalists who refuse to defer to expert opinion on climate change stories.  We lay people simply do not know enough to be able to judge a statement on its own merits.  And the opinions of experts about McIntyre and McKitrick is clear---they are at best a couple of buffoons who don't know what they are talking about, or, at worst con-men who are actively conspiring to sow confusion and doubt in the public in order to prevent any serious attempt to deal with climate change.  Serious editors and producers should never quote, publish or interview anything at all that comes from their mouths.  THEY HAVE ZERO CREDIBILITY.  

Crappy academic journals exist and they publish rotten papers.  And they are ignored by the scientific community and rarely cause any stir.  But the difference with McIntyre and McKitrick's offering was that a very powerful public relations machine kicked into over-drive and promoted it to the mass media, business leaders and the political classes.  And because the editors and producers who's job it is to ascertain the worth of a particular piece of news were totally asleep at the wheel, this piece of poisonous crude was allowed to set back public debate about an existential threat to the human race.

Let me repeat one more time for emphasis, journalists simply do not know enough about things like statistics and other aspects of science to adequately decide whether or not a statement is true or false.  Sorry if that sounds elitist, but higher education and scientific research are elitist in nature.  What journalists can do, however, is learn how to distinguish between sources that have adequate, relevant credentials and those that do not. That means when you are writing quotes, soliciting op eds, and so on about climate science, the only people you should be quoting are climate scientists with a relevant credentials who work for some sort of mainstream institution.

A Note About My Credentials
At this point no doubt some readers are thinking to themselves “he goes on and on about the necessity of credentials, what exactly are his?”   Well, I am not a climate scientist.  But I have a Master's degree in philosophy, something that probably almost no one reading this essay will know much about.  So let me give you the short explanation about why I think I am qualified to write this essay.

Simply put, philosophy is training how to tell a good argument from a bad argument.  Part of that includes the study of how science works.  Another element is the study of how the human psyche influences how people differentiate between truth and falsity.  Yet another is trying to understand how  human culture influences the discovery and dissemination of knowledge.  On a practical level, philosophy students also learn many of the academic “tricks of the trade”, primarily, how to use an academic library for research.

Finally, I do have a certain amount of experience writing for newspapers.  I wrote a weekly column for my local daily for three years and sold a fair number of free lance opinion pieces before the market for free lancers dried-up in the late 20th century.

How Journalists Can do a Better Job Reporting Science
When an editor gets a press release or an op ed submitted to them the first thing that they need to do is think about the credentials of the person involved.  Do they have the actual piece of paper that says that they know what they are talking about?  If they don't, then the first thing they should do is ask the people involved what gives them the right to speak authoritatively on the subject.  If the response is some sort of rhetorical tap dance about freedom and fairness, or, a blizzard of confusing statements that you don't know enough to evaluate or even understand, they should be shown the door.

Secondly, no matter who sends the story, the journalists need to have it vetted by an expert.  There should be a list of experts on file that the news organization can trust.  Universities are full of people, paid for by the tax payer, who are experts on given fields and who are often quite happy to help a reporter figure something out.  Call them on the phone or send them an email.  Forward what you have in hand and ask them if it passes the smell test.  It might be a good idea to consult Professor Google to see if some expert doesn't have a blog where he has gone to great lengths to show some chicanery behind the slick press release.

Third, keep some sort of running tally for the entire journalist community.  If some person or organization gets caught deliberately playing fast and loose with the truth, then put them on a “bad john list” and refuse to publish anything from them ever again.  Bogus “think tanks” and “astro-turf” organizations shouldn't be able to constantly pitch stuff over and over again at journalists in order to see what they can get away with.  All knowledge ultimately comes down to trust between individuals with specialized experience.  Once we allow individuals to betray that trust, we imperil the entire edifice of information.  Fool me once, shame on you---fool me twice, shame on me.        

If you think that this is too much work and takes too much time, then think about how you can make the work you do on truth testing cumulative.  In addition to the “bad john list”, have a central expert list that every reporter can use.  That way reporters can benefit from the work of all the other reporters in the area or field.  Also, make editorial decisions and stick to them.  Take your thumbs out of your butts and make a statement that says “climate change exists, it is being caused by mankind” and simply state that you will no longer give a platform to anyone who says it isn't because they are either misinformed or lying.  Period.  With this decision, the reporters don't have to do any work trying to disprove every crackpot or public relations hack that darkens the door.

Finally, pay attention to the comments you receive when you publish a story.  Sad to say, the overwhelming majority of comments on most stories are moronic.18  But fairly often someone will make a comment that shows that they really know what they are talking about, and they have found a huge mistake in a story.  I almost never seen journalists acknowledge or fix an error, or use the comment to generate a follow-up story.  Sad to say, more often, I've seen them delete a comment that makes them look foolish.  Usually, they just ignore it.  This is terrible practice and totally unprofessional.  It is one of the things that infuriates the public about the media.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Acceptance

I've been working on my book for the last while, which is why I haven't been making any posts.  But it's "in the can" now, awaiting art work.  When that is finished, I plan on publishing it myself on the Kobo website.  It's title is Walking the Talk:  Engaging the Public to Build a Sustainable World.  Eventually, I will have to start publicizing it, which will involve a note on this blog.

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Right now I'm sitting at the dining room table of my wife and mother-in-law's home in St. Louis.  I'd been looking forward to this visit for a long time.  Unfortunately, Misha is afflicted with a psychiatric illness that results in one or two psychotic episodes every year.  She's in one right now.  Since she is primary care-giver to her invalid mother, when she is in one of these states the household starts to become chaotic.

As a result, I have been doing a fair amount of work cleaning up various messes that have resulted from a combination of neglect, attempts to shock, and, "fengshui". This latter bit involves things like leaving Coke cans in various places, dirty laundry strategically strewn around, and so on.  Part of the problem is that she always opposes anything I do.  I'm learning that she usually doesn't seem to mind once the job is done, so I'm just going to start doing things without asking.

The problem is that I have a hard time thinking of the woman I love as someone I need to "manage" and "humour" instead of someone that I can engage with as an equal.  It doesn't help that she has a very well-developed sense of outrage when she thinks that I am treating her like a child.  I suppose this is the hardest part of it.  I keep wanting to talk to her and instead I get some sort of bizarre mixture of the old Misha and some sort of wild, obstinate child with totally illogical fixations.

All of this has unleashed a maelstrom of emotions and thoughts in me.

Part of me is feeling sorry for myself and wondering if I was wrong marrying her.  When that happens, my rational mind kicks in and says that all through my life I have avoided relationships with women because I thought that they had some sort of mental disorder.  I define this quite broadly.  I've had lovers who eventually suffered from full-blown schizophrenia through various forms of emotionality to someone who was simply far too attached to a middle-class lifestyle (I also consider this a very bad thing.)   The point is I came to the conclusion that if you want to have a relationship you have to accept that the person you spend your life with is going to have problems and this is going to cause discord and chaos in your life.

I had this fact driven home to me a couple weeks ago.  A man who had been a quite close friend came to my door while I was watching a movie.  He came in and told me that his wife had recently died of liver cancer and he would like me to come to her funeral.  He had lost my phone number, so he came over in person.  He told me about how hard it was to watch her die, all the regrets he felt about the way he'd treated her, and, how his three sons were angry at him----because they had to be angry at something and he was the only person available.

Sometimes I find myself becoming angry with Misha.  Her illness makes my life more complicated than I would like it to be.  I have my own ideas about what I want to do, but the sheer unavoidability of her wilful mental illness gets in the way of that.  It means that I have to accommodate myself to her crazy moods.  And I keep forgetting that she is not herself and try to have a rational discussion with her, which never ends well.

This gets me thinking about a great many things.

For example, mortality.  Mortality is more than just accepting death.  More importantly, it is about accepting that life is fundamentally flawed.  Buddhists say "Life is Dukkha", and I understand that this is part of what they are going on about.  I get old, my joints ache from arthritis, my bowels ache from colitis, no matter how much I wish I would stop doing it, I still find myself needlessly annoying the people around me.  And my wife cannot stop going mad every once in a while.  That is the Dao.

I would dearly love to not have the people around me bent and determined on ruining the planet, but they still do it.  I would love to find the magical means of having people listen to me when I suggest that there is a better way to live our lives, but they ignore me.  And I cannot even find a way to live permanently with the woman I love.  That is the Dao.

When we read about the ancients it is easy to forget how gawdawful a lot of their lives were.  The earliest of the "Old Ones" that we identify with the name "Laozi" and "Zhuangzi" were still alive when important leaders were burying their retainers alive at funerals.  Punishments were meted on entire families instead of just individuals.  Wars were usually genocidal.  Slavery was rampant. Starvation a fact of life.

The philosophy of Daoism wasn't some sort of trinket that people played with when the important stuff of life was done for the day.  It was grim life-and-death stuff that sustained you when your were hanging onto a cliff face by your fingernails or burying your family.  It is so easy to forget this fact.    

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dao of Time

I like to watch cheesy science fiction shows and some of my favourites come from the "Stargate" franchise.  A while back I watched a rerun and found myself thinking about some things.

The plot involved a woman finding an ancient time machine and using it to go back 10,000 years in time to visit an advanced race of people who had built an ancient city.  In her time, she was part of a group of explorers who discovered the abandoned metropolis, but in doing so set in motion a process that resulted in the destruction of said city and the death of everyone else in her group.  In order to prevent this from happening, once she settled in among the original inhabitants she made some changes in the way the city was organized and put herself in slowed-down animation so she could come out and do some maintenance from time to time over the ten thousand year wait.  The plan worked, when the expedition arrived, its members didn't destroy themselves.  Eventually they found the woman in her preservation capsule, but by then she was the equivalent of 120 years old and she died soon after explaining what had happened.

There are two interesting points that the episode brings up.

First of all, the people who built the city were talking to the time traveler and going about their lives just as if the future wasn't known or even of concern.  This makes sense, but jars against my intuitive understanding. If someone comes from the future, then the people in the past are already dead.  Moreover, their lives have already been lived.   But yet they eat, talk, make decisions, have dreams, etc.

Secondly, the woman who lived out her life in a pod that slowed down her aging explained her situation to the younger version of herself that survived because of the work she did to prevent the catastrophe.  This younger expressed regret that the older had lost her life sitting in slowed down animation.  But the older one refused to accept this interpretation.  "No, you are me.  I still get to live a full, rich life.  We just did this thing in order to save everyone else."

What I'm wrestling with here is how we understand "time".  I think that insofar as most people think about time, the see it as some sort of "one damn thing after another".  But when I was at university I came to the conclusion that it makes more sense to think of it as another dimension.  Think of it as something like a ruler with a cursor point that slides up and down the index, like an old-fashioned slide rule.


The line on the transparent piece of plastic is how we experience the "now" of existence.  But that doesn't mean that all the stuff that has happened in the past has ended or the future doesn't exist at all.  Instead, we are just being aware of the "now" at any given point.  

The "nowness" was what the aged woman was getting at when she told her younger self that she was going to live a full rich life through her counter part.  She understood that for everyone----time traveler or not----all we experience is NOW.  The past is a memory and the future is anticipation.  And as modern science tells us, even memory is to a large part as much a created, illusory experience as our anticipation of the future.  So it is literally true that the physically separated body of the time traveler has as much connection to the younger woman before her as if they shared the same body instead of two identical ones.  

I first seriously thought about this issue when I came across some essays by philosophers who were trying to undermine naive assumptions about life.   Two arguments come easily to my memory, so I thought I'd share them.  

The first is a response to the question of "What evidence could we have that time is a spacial dimension?"   Briefly stated, the argument starts out by asking how a being who inhabited in two dimensional space would be able to conceive of three dimensions.  The answer is to think about congruent triangles which look different.   


These two triangles have the same angles at the corners, and could easily have the same length of sides (this was the best example I could easily find), but they are different.  That's because they have been "flipped" through a third dimension.  That is to say, if they were actual pieces of cardboard to make them overlap perfectly (assuming they are the same size), you have to turn one of them over.   This is how someone who lived in just two dimensions might begin to think that there is a third dimension beyond the two he perceives.  In a similar sense, if you look at your two hands---left and right----you know that they are the same.  Yet, they are very different.  One is the mirror image of the other.  The argument is that they are the same but "flipped" through a fourth dimension.

The second argument comes from a question that immediately comes to mind when we think about time as a spacial dimension.  We can easily change our direction and go back in space, why can't we do the same thing with time?  The answer comes from thinking clearly about what we mean when we decided to "reverse our gears" and move backwards.  When I decide to turn around and go backwards I'm actually doing nothing of the sort.  In fact, what I am doing is going forward in a new direction.  Indeed, "backwards" is a totally a subjective definition.  It has to do with what particular direction we arbitrarily describe as where we want to go.  If we look at things this way, it seems to me that our inability to go backwards in time is no more odd than our inability to go backwards in space.  
Nicolas of Cusa

Most people reading this will probably think that what I am talking about is about as important as the old medievalists debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  But a book I was assigned to read at university got me seeing this sort of thing in a different light.  Said book, On Learned Ignorance by Nicolas of Cusa,  (you can read a translation here) goes through a range of confusing questions and suggests that a little humility is a good idea when it comes to understanding the world around us.  I find that when I contemplate things like the nature of time a similar humility presents itself to my consciousness. 

This sense of humility has recently come to light from following various "skeptical" blogs and discussion lists that I spent some time following a while back.  While I've always been interested in organizations that debunk a lot of the bunkum that we can find in everyday life, such as "truthers", anti-vaccination types, etc, I have noticed a really arrogant tendency of various supporters to "dumb down" and dismiss any understanding of the world that doesn't fit into a simple, 19th century materialistic reality.   One example that really got me thinking about his was a blanket dismissal of the whole category of "organic agriculture" that degenerated into a sort of "frat boy pile on" once I suggested that while the term is ambiguous, many important things in life are not easily defined.   One particularly brilliant response to my suggestion was when a fellow suggested that someone once offered him a dog turd which was fine because it was "organic".  Alas, I have come to believe that there is not much difference between many "true believers" in skepticism and those supporting many other dogmatic belief systems.  

The Daoist Zhuangzi obviously connects to this sort of thing.  His book is full of discussions about how little it is we actually know about the world around us and how much humility we should have about what we know.  Some of his analogies have become part of the universal culture of the world, and illustrate the limits of our understanding.  He was the man who said that he didn't know if he was a man who was dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.  He also suggested that what we know about the world around us is as limited as that of a frog who has spent it's entire life at the bottom of a well.  Thinking about time helps me remember this important point.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Life of Dust, or, Zhuangzi and the Turtle

I recently read the book Dead Man Walking by sister Helen Prejean.  For those of you who haven't heard of the movie, the book deals with the capital punishment in the USA as told by a Roman Catholic nun who gets involved in the lives of several prisoners on death row and decides to devote her efforts towards eliminating the death penalty.

Its a gripping book, but a couple small parts of the story really struck home for me.   One involved Prejean meeting with the head of the Louisiana parole board, a Mr. Howard Marsellus.  In this initial meeting, she explained the research that had been done on both the death penalty in general and the case of this particular prisoner.  It is clear that it is imposed in a capricious and racist manner.  For example, murders who kill non-whites almost never get executed, and, wealthy defendants (who can hire competent lawyers) never end up being sentenced to death.  Mr. Marsellus, who is not an ignorant man, readily admits all these things are true and Prejean leaves the meeting feeling that the parole board may recommend clemency to the Governor, who can commute a death sentence to life in prison.

When the verdict comes down, however, it is clear that not only did Marsellus not convince the other members of the board to suggest a pardon, he himself did not vote for one.  Prejean is flabbergasted.

Years later, the nun finds out that Marsellus has been convicted of taking bribes while sitting on the parole board and has been sent to prison.  After he served his time and came out, she contacted him and asked for an interview. He agreed and explained his actions to her.

It turns out that the parole board was never designed to actually deliberate and suggest pardons and paroles for prisoners.  Instead, its purpose was to create "plausible deniability" for the Governor and his political machine.  When Marsellus was hired, he was told that he only had the job as long as he was willing to vote the way he was told to vote.  That meant that the Governor could still make unpopular decisions regarding paroles and pardons, but that he could blame the board for them.

As for the bribery, it turned out that when wealthy convicts wanted to buy a parole, they were asked for large sums of money that were turned over to the political machine, which in turn was used to fund election campaigns.  Some of the money went back down to Marsellus (partially to keep him quiet, but probably more to make sure that he took the fall instead of someone higher up the food chain.)   Money was then used to get members of the state legislature to change their votes on certain bills and put forward the Governor's legislative agenda.

Marsellus went along with all of this because he realized that any hope he would ever have of getting ahead in politics was tied to his ability to show loyalty to the party machine.  If he ever refused to "play ball", he'd just become another "nobody".

Another small part of the puzzle involved a conversation she had with a Major in the guards of a prison she visited.   This fellow had the unenviable job of being the guy who officiated over the mechanics of execution.  He got to know the condemned men and he watched as he was strapped in and electrocuted.  He found the experience intensely distasteful.  He also had serious doubts about the fairness of the system and suspected that he had even killed innocent men.

Prejean asked him about his personal sense of responsibility and he said that he didn't create the laws or make sentence people, he just followed orders.  She suggested that at the very least he could find another job.  He was close to retirement, so he didn't feel that was an option, but he did transfer and died of a heart attack shortly after her talk.

Several ideas come to me from these little stories.

First of all, I suspect that because Prejean is a nun, she has privileged access to people in positions of authority.  I know a few people in authority and none of them would ever have opened up to me, and I suspect anyone else I know, like this.  (She is probably also a remarkable personality, too.)  I've found that one of the key supports of "the system" is the way people become isolated in their own particular little social "bubble".   Managers don't talk openly and honestly with non-managers.  Working class people learn early on that they cannot speak their minds with people in authority---if they ever get a chance to meet them at all---because there will be severe consequences if they do.  People high up the chain also develops habits of conversation that ensure that no one ever does tell them the truth.  This enforces the "distance" necessary for command.   One of the most common is a tendency to bully people lower on the food chain by having an explosive reaction whenever someone says something that doesn't fit into the higher ups view of things.  And people learn early on that many managers are far from fair and will carry a grudge for a long time if they take a dislike to someone.

As a nun, Prejean is in a strange position of being almost part of the elite.  She was also somewhat protected from retribution, which allows her to say honest things to people that they rarely could hear from anyone else without being able to inflict pain on them.

Secondly, Marsellus and the Major were not just isolated individuals.  I suspect that a great many other individuals in the execution machine had similar qualms about what is going on.  But they had that little bit of extra conscience that allowed them to speak more honestly to Prejean.  I also suspect that they had that little extra bit of self-awareness and sensitivity that allowed them to face up to themselves how idiotic and cruel the system truly is.  Probably there are expanding rings of people in any system of power.  Some folks feel that everything is just fine as it is.  Others probably have profound misgivings, but cannot voice them to anyone else.  Others feel that the whole system is a crazy mess, but that the voters (or "powers that be") wouldn't allow anything else so you have to "play the game".  Others still probably think that the system is sick and twisted, but if they don't get involved someone far worse will and ultimately if they amass enough power they can start changing things for the better.

I suspect that all our institutions are filled with people following all these different personal strategies.  They don't honestly talk to each other, because that would make them vulnerable to manipulation.  So collectively they work together to create a system that almost all of them feel is an abomination.

There is a strain in Daoism that believes that an essential part of being a human involves retaining the ability to make spontaneous decisions outside of constraints of human society.  That is where all the stories of Daoist recluses and eccentrics come from.  But it is important to remember that this was a response to a society that involved wrapping everyone in chains of loyalty to family and empire.  The Daoists couldn't rebel collectively against this sort of thing, because to do so would involve creating an institution that would start the whole process all over again.  Indeed, it probably is a very "human" thing to wrap ourselves up in these sorts of collective fantasies and delusions that lead to things like death houses and prisons.  But there is still inside many of us a subversive, irrepressible element that glows like embers in the forest duff---waiting for a strong wind to burst back into flame.   The following story is a one of those embers.  It still glows after thousands of years.



Chuang Tzu Story - The Turtle

Chuang Tzu with his bamboo pole
was fishing in the Pu river
The prince of Chu sent two vice-chancellors
with a formal document:
We hereby appoint you prime minister
Chuang Tzu held his bamboo pole still.
Watching the Pu river, he said:
“I am told there is a sacred tortoise offered
and canonized three thousand years ago,
venerated by the prince, wrapped in silk,
in a precious shrine on an altar
in the temple.
What do you think?
Is it better to give up one’s life
and leave a sacred shell
as an object of cult
in a cloud of incense
for three thousand years,
or to live as a plain turtle
dragging its tail in the mud?”
“For the turtle”, said the vice-chancellor,
“better to live and drag its tail in the mud!”
“Go home!”, said Chuang Tzu.
“Leave me here
to drag my tail in the mud.”
                   

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Dao and Pessimism

I've always been concerned about the state of the earth.  Frankly, I cannot understand people who are not.  But I think it's very important to think rationally and logically about this.  I raise this point because someone very close to me recently stated that she thought that because of climate change in fifty years there will be no more multicellular life left on the planet earth.

Major Extinction Events
I looked around a bit and tried to figure out whether or not there is any reason to believe such a thing.  Perhaps the best argument against this point of view is to put a little energy into reading up about past extinction events from the geological record.  A good summary, as usual, is on the Wikipedia.   Basically, there have been many extinction events in the past.  Several explanations are offered, including gamma-ray burst from super novas, volcanic activity leading to massive climate change,
asteroid impacts, and so on.   The thing to remember about these is that many of them are far, far more damaging than anything human beings are capable of doing, and none of them came close to killing off all multi-cellular life.  Indeed, the mass extinctions that took place mostly involved elimination of species that were peculiarly adapted to the pre-existing climactic conditions and unable to thrive in the new.  For example, in times of warming, species that were able to survive under tropical conditions thrived and those that had adapted to the cold failed.  As a general rule "weed species" that survive best when a climax ecosystem is disturbed tended to do well.  (Since humanity is the ultimate "weed species", this bodes well for human civilization.)

IMHO, this gets the "science bit" of this discussion out of the way.  That allows me to deal with what I think is the real issue at play.  I think the real problem isn't the environment but rather the existential dread that some sensitive modern people feel when they reject the existence of  God.

As I see it, a fair number of the most intelligent, sensitive and conscientious people that are alive today find themselves in a significant bind.  They can see that the "old way" of being-in-the-world just doesn't work anymore.  Intelligent people can no longer simply believe that God is going to make all things right.  Nor can they believe that some sort of Marxist Utopia is going to arrive because of blind historical laws.  Neither can they believe that science is going to bring some sort of "Star Trek" inter-stellar paradise.  Instead, all they see is the same old stupid human species mucking things up on a greater and greater scale.  This is a profoundly depressing state of affairs.  Given this background, is it any wonder that the human imagination takes the next step and projects that life is not only not going to have any meaning but that it also will no longer exist?

George Orwell
I've just finished reading the collected essays of George Orwell and they serve as an interesting vantage point to think about this problem.  Most people who don't know him well tend to think of him as an ardent anti-communist.  This is accurate up to a point, as he was the author of probably the two most devastating critiques of Communism ever written:  Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.  But if you read his other work, you will see that he was just as hard on Capitalism and Colonialism.  For example, his short essay "Shooting an Elephant" (which you can read here), explains how colonialism forces a class of men, colonial administrators, into doing certain things in order to exploit people in other countries.  His essays about the life of the poor, such as "How the Poor Die" (also available on line), illustrate how badly the poor of England and mainland Europe were being treated under the capitalist system of the day.  In fact, Orwell always described himself as a "democratic socialist".

This put Orwell in a very delicate position during his time.  Most intellectuals had decided that you had to choose one way or the other----either capitalism or communism.  Orwell would not compromise, however, and steadfastly refused to excuse the excesses of either in favour of their supposed benefits.  Indeed, he even refused to "opt out" in favour of the sort of pacifist "third option" that people like Gandhi were offering.  He fought as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil war, for example, and clearly described the vile infighting, the secret police, etc, that riddled the Spanish Republican Forces----yet still argued that the war was just and had to be fought.

I'm sure that George Orwell was a royal and mighty "pain in the ass" to just about every organization that he came into contact with because he adamantly and absolutely refused to avoid seeing uncomfortable and painful realities.  I'm sure that this unwillingness to avert his gaze also caused him personal anguish.  He certainly had a very bleak vision of the future, which he thought was bound to be dominated by totalitarianism.  Think about this quote:  "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face---forever."  Isn't this vision as bleak as my dear friend who contemplates the extinction of all multi-cellular life within fifty years?

I raise the example of Orwell because I want to suggest that the problem that both he and my dear friend face are similar in nature and also come from the same source.  I suggest that they come about because both of them have totally rejected the existence of God, yet hold onto a sort of "ur philosophy" that goes with it.  It seems to me that this places them in an intolerable position and would like to suggest a way of looking at the world that will help them out of their pessimistic outlook.

I mentioned before that this sort of affliction only affects the especially sensitive and intelligent.  This lets almost all people who believe in God off the hook.  After all, if there is an omnipotent "Daddy in the sky" who is totally involved in our day-to-day lives, can't he fix everything?  Even if there is a real apocalypse on the horizon, won't a post-death life in Heaven make everything all right?  I suspect that most atheists also have nothing to worry about, as the overwhelming majority are the type who don't give much thought to the issue one way or the other, but just reject God as "so much bosh" and leave it at that.  Most folks who can just dismiss religion this way have an equal facility to dismiss just about everything else that doesn't relate to them personally and immediately.

So if an intelligent sensitive person rejects God, what is it that I believe they hold onto that makes their life miserable?  There is a Sanskrit saying that sums up the problem succinctly:  "Tat Tvam Asi", or, "That art Thou".   The phrase comes from the Chandogya Upanishad and refers to the idea that in some sense the concept of "self" and/or "soul" is directly linked to the idea of "God".   I think that there are two key issues at work.  Our naive assumptions of life are a:  that there is this single, atomic entity known as the "self" or "soul" that b:  exerts something called "free will" in order for us to choose one action over another.  This is the "ur philosophy" (or, naive common sense view) that just about everyone in our society holds even if they have long since turned their backs on the "daddy in the sky".

The problem with it is that it posits an enormous burden of responsibility on people.  If you are intelligent, you can see just how incredibly bad the state of your world can be.  And again, if you are sensitive, you feel an enormous responsibility to "do your bit" to make the world better.  In Orwell's time this responsibility extended itself for people to fight against the excesses of Capitalism (made manifest during the Great Depression), and, the dangers of Hitler, Fascism and totalitarianism in general.   People devoted their lives to "the party", they went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, they went underground and joined the resistance, they joined radical organizations and suffered real repression.  My experience from reading about people did do good things like organize unions, hide Jews, etc, is that most felt that they were morally obligated to do so.  Indeed, it is also my experience that the various projects I have undertaken over the years as an environmentalist and community organizer also come from a personal sense of obligation to "do the right thing". 

For people in Orwell's generation this sense of obligation came with the added burden of their feeling that often had to make soul-destroying moral compromises based on the principle that "the end justifies the means".   This meant that many people supporting what they thought was a good thing---socialism---had to find ways to justify things like secret police and show trials in the Soviet Union.  During World War Two, they also found themselves having to justify the non-aggression pact that Stalin signed with Hitler after a decade of proclaiming that the Nazis were the worst danger that civilization faced. They did these things because the context they inhabited seemed so absolutely bleak that they were forced to choose between two different options, neither of which seemed terribly appealing.  If you didn't support the Soviet Union, then you were supporting the capitalism that was destroying the working class, exploiting the colonies and building up the Nazi menace. Trying to exist as a sensitive intelligent person in that sort of moral landscape was absolutely degrading because many felt that there was only two choices and you had to choose one or the other.



In the same way, anyone with a well developed social consciousness who lives in the modern Western world has to understand how they are personally participating in a process that is undermining our environmental infrastructure and will result in a great deal of horror for all living things.  We have a direct experience that seems to tell us that we are independent beings with the ability to choose one course of action over another, we see how badly we are abusing the earth----and yet we continue to participate in this abuse through the simple act of living our lives. The feeling is inescapable that the very act of life commits us to killing the future.

The problem with this intense feeling of personal responsibility, however, is that there are devastating arguments, both ancient and modern, against it.  This is because the feelings that we have of as independent "souls" exercising "free will" are fundamentally illusions.

The ancient argument against the soul was developed independently both in the East and the West.  This involved the use of careful self observation which resulted in the insight that there really isn't any single unitary thing that could be called the "soul".  Instead there are just momentary, fleeting thoughts. In the West, David Hume pointed this out.
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic'd reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu'd, which he calls himself; tho' I am certain there is no such principle in me.
In the East, Buddhism came across the same insight, which they described as "anatta", or, "no self".

The modern argument is based on modern research into brain physiology.  Various experiments have shown that what we call "self awareness" is a sort of overlay that exists on a wide variety of different processes.  This can be shown experimentally.  For example, if a person has their brain cut in half (this is done as a last resort to treat a terribly debilitating form of epilepsy----I'm not referring to Nazi medical research here) different parts of her brain will no longer be able to communicate with each other.  This includes the eyes, each of which will each be associated with parts that control different aspects of the body----such as the hands and voice.  So if the eye associated with the hands is given one picture, those hands will pick up one specific object to represent it.  If the eye associated with a different part of the brain, such as the voice, is shown a different object at the same time, the voice will say that the object is something different.  If both are shown at the same time, the conscious mind will attempt to reconcile the incongruity by hypothesizing some sort of special example.  The main point is that what we call the "soul" is not a simple atomic entity, but rather a virtual construct that organizes a collection of different, fundamentally independent activities.

A second important failure of common sense is the idea that we each have some sort of personal freedom to choose one course of action over another in most aspects of our daily life.  The ancient argument against this comes from an analysis of the concepts of "freedom" and "causation".  If we are free to choose one particular act over another, then surely we must also be able to freely choose one idea over another.  That's because if I choose to make a cup of tea, for example, that choice is only "free" if I can choose to have that particular thought (i.e. to have a cup of tea.)  If the thought just "pops into my head", then it hardly seems free as I am constrained by whatever process results in this happening.  But if I can freely choose to have this idea (which is not what, on self-reflection, seems to be happening), then surely for that choice itself to be "free", would I not also have to choose it too?  The ancient argument against free will indicates that the concept either leads to some mysterious agency that simply creates ideas out of nothing, or else some sort of infinite regress where we are forced to believe that we choose to choose to choose to choose, etc, for everything we do. Neither of which seems palatable.

The modern argument against free will comes from modern psychology which shows that a great many of the higher order decisions that people make in their life seem to be strongly influenced by the chemistry of the brain or the environment in which they developed.  For example, it is pretty clear that a certain percentage of people who are given certain types of anti-malaria drugs will exhibit violent behaviour.  In the same way, a significant percentage of people who have traumatic experiences will go on to make very bad life choices while in the grip of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  How free are these "choices" if you can predict their frequency based on the specific chemistry or background of the individual in question?  In fact, I find it pretty hard to continue to believe in the existence of free will when I am confronted by someone suffering from just about any form of mental illness.

How exactly does giving up on the idea of a soul or free will help someone who is upset and pessimistic about the world around them?  Of course, the whole problem with casting doubts on free will is the fact that you could argue that we are constrained to still believe in it.  And the same thing goes for the soul----we still have the feeling that we are a single, atomic person and may be constrained to believe that it actually exists.  As I see it, however, even if we don't have the ability to choose to think one thing or another, the fact that I am thinking that I may not have free will and you are reading about this idea, means that might actually be possible to turn our backs on the idea and develop something of an improvement on the concept.  

 The first thing that occurs to me is that if we discard the idea of a "soul" and instead believe that this is an illusion caused by the integration of a whole range of sense impressions mediated by the brain over a period of time, we could also extend this notion to include culture.  That is, I am not only the sum total of my sense impressions, but also of the concepts that I have been exposed to in conversation with other people and through things like reading books and watching movies. 

Another way of thinking about this is to consider our naive assumptions about "personality".  We assume that the boundary between who we are and all the people that surround us is a very hard shell that cannot be penetrated.  But in actual fact, we are constantly absorbing ideas and feelings from the people around us.  If we didn't, how would culture ever change?  Where would fads and fashion come from?  Would love between people be possible?   I think that this is at least partly what John Donne was on about when he wrote that
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

As I see it, I am not just a single "soul", but am also connected in a real sense to my wife, my family, the guys I work with, and everyone else that I've ever met.   They talk to me and that influences the way I see the world around me.  This interaction flows both ways, so when I talk to them, I influence how they see the world.  And, in a similar way, I'm also connected to people like David Hume and George Orwell, and every other writer that I have ever read and tried to understand.  And, in the same way, anyone who reads this blog is also influenced by by me. 

This interaction is what I see as being a substitute for "free will".  I don't "choose" to have a cup of tea.  Nor do I "choose, to choose, to choose, a cup of tea".  But now, when I make a cup of tea, I make it with loose tea and a tea ball instead of a tea bag, because my wife talked me into doing it this way.  Similarly, she now drinks more tea than she ever did before she met me and had to accommodate her American self to my Canadian ways. 

This is a long way from the extinction of all multicellular life or a future of endless boots grinding endless faces into the mud.  But what it does do for me is take some of the pressure off.  I am not an individual "me" who is watching the human race run like lemmings over a cliff.  Instead, I am part of the human "process" that is working its way through a problem.  And that problem could be described as:  "How does a species gain the wisdom to make the transition from being a passive part of nature to becoming the most important force of nature?"   Another way of saying it would be "How does life make the transition from being unconscious and governed simply by physical natural selection to being conscious and advancing through cultural processes?"

In a sense, what I'm saying is that I'm beginning to see myself as part of the Dao.  This "Dao" isn't some sort of replacement for God, it is not some sort of pantheistic deity.  I am simply referring to the sum of all parts of the universe.  Probably not even all of them, just the relevant bits of my culture, personal history, physical surroundings, etc.  They aren't self aware, they don't have a personality, will or anything else.  But they are what give me the illusion of choice.  And, they are what are calling the shots, not any sort of  "soul". 

The practical upshot is that I when I think of this notion I remind myself not to get too upset with myself for not living up to some sort of ideal.  I do what I do because I am part of the Dao.  When I remember I also remind myself to not get upset with others for what they do.  They do what they do because that is what their part of the Dao is all about.  And when I remember it, it try not to get upset about the future, because that too is just part of the Dao. 

What this looks and feels like is the sort of fatalism that conventionally religious people have.  "It's all in God's hands."   This attitude does allow people to feel better about the future and dissipates enormous amounts of pessimism.  Unfortunately, if it is attached to the notion of "soul", "free will" and a supernatural deity, it brings all sorts of poison into the world.  But if I cut them all away and just think of the Dao as the sum of all the universe, I can have the same sort of freedom. 

Embrace the Dao!   Hold onto this One!   Fast the Mind!