Monday, October 26, 2009

What We Ought to Do

"But [whether or not we have free will] is PURELY IRRELEVANT because the knowledge that we lack free will does not displace that introspective awareness that we have of it. If the realization of a fact has no impact on what or how we think or do or say, then who cares?"

I completely disagree with this sentiment. I think it does have a profound on what we should think do or say. Sure, we are still determined, but we are the agents of the larger social organism and although we must do as it has created us to do, the fact that we are humans is integral to its vision - our vision - for what we ought to do. We are using this insight to extrapolate our localized behavior with our loved ones - how we wish to treat and be treated by them - to our larger community of fellow humans.

I came to my current position on free will (that we have none) from purely political and social considerations. How was it, I asked myself, that such inequality exists, especially in America as we have such a relatively robust infrastructure for personal success? As a liberal, I was troubled by conservativism's main argument for maintaining the status quo: that success is there for those who choose it. But many people don't choose it, and I began to see patterns.

When broken down by demographics, certain groups have very predictable life experiences. By adjusting variables, you can easily put life outcomes on a scatter plot and they will be highly determined.

At one end of the scale, we might have a white male born into wealth, with highly educated parents who love him and nurture him, push him academically and basically give him an optimal upbringing. On the other, we might have a black male who's father is in prison, his mother on drugs, whose school is filled with others from similar backgrounds, and he falls farther and farther behind in school.

It is obvious which child stands the better chance of success in life. Yet for all practical purposes, when the first child starts his own business and lives a life of rich luxury, we say it was his own choice - that he earned it. And when the second child drops out of school, begins selling drugs, and commits murder, we say it was his own choice - that he deserved it.

We have enormously complex social policies set up based on exactly that premise - that both of these men had a choice in their lives. Sure, occasionally individuals will perform outside the norm for our crude parameters. But the exception doesn't prove the rule, it simply calls for a more nuanced and detailed look at what those particular cases involved.

If people did indeed have free choice, we would be unable to come up with predictors for social outcomes. Education, family, neighborhood, income, etc. would have no relationship with outcomes. Every individual would be just as capable of breaking the rule, thus disproving it.

So if we are to truly take a determined view of human social behavior, we must be prepared to radically revision how we structure our society.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Teaching NFW to Students

I think one of the most powerful insights kids might have into causality and consciousness, and the most productive use of the idea of NFW (no free will) might be through conflict analysis. Kids face incredible levels of conflict on a daily basis. Imagine having to sit next to someone everyday who might, for no apparent reason, wack you on the head or stomp on your foot! This is at all grade levels.

There will always be kids who, for whatever reason, come to school with all sort of destructive baggage. As a teacher, a large part of your job is creating and maintaining a safe, positive environment for learning. This is not only egalitarian, but positively impacts learning for the whole class.

Yet teacher training and expectations routinely neglect this crucial aspect of teaching. In schools with few low SES (socioeconomic) kids, this tends to be less of an issue. Higher SES students come from homes with lower rates of absent fathers, incarceration, drug abuse, poverty, education, etc. Students thus bring less baggage with them into the classroom. But in areas with high rates of low SES students, classrooms are completely different. This is then compounded as a culture of low-performance, stress, hostility, etc. pulls kids farther and farther behind as they age.

The way teachers deal with this disparity generally falls under the umbrella term "classroom management". There are many styles and techniques used, and each teacher will have a style that works best for them. But most of the emphasis is placed on control and behavioral maintenance. A much smaller proportion of time is devoted to explicit teaching of emotional cognition and social skills. Occasionally a curriculum will be adopted, but often without specific training. With high-stakes testing, the schools with the lowest scores will be under the most pressure to spend MORE time on core math and language skills and LESS on emotional/social curriculum. These schools are also going to be less likely to have the funds for any extra programs in this department.

Now, I'm not familiar with efficacy studies of any of these types of curriculum or materials. The variables going into why kids behave the way they do are vastly complex. But we know how to target at-risk students, we just have to find out the best way of going about it. Also, the role of families in the equation can not be stressed enough. Certain types of parenting support has been shown to increase academic performance, especially starting at an early age - as young as 1.5 years.

But now we're getting into large-scale policy questions of investment, ultimately reaching back to the public's worldview regarding human behavior and what people are capable of, which then gets us to FW vs. NFW as a point of origin for this stuff. Do these poor parents have the capacity to prepare their children better on their own, or does society need to reach out and help them learn how to do what is best for their children?

No one really argues that kids have FW, as it is something supposed to have developed by the "age of reason", although I'm not sure how they determine what that age is and how it is any different than other previous ages. Yet by declaring FW in their parents, they are basically saying that these parents are "choosing" to set their kids up for a life of poverty. I'm still not sure how we can allow kids to suffer for their parent's failures. But at the very least the kids ought to be given proper curriculum to try and make up the social/emotional skills they have often been denied.

To me all of this is applied naturalism. I'm more concerned that students have the emotional cognition needed to process external stimuli appropriately. In this sense, NFW memeing may indeed turn out to be an effective conceptual construct for them to use. I'm interested in hearing and seeing more from people who have experience in developing and using naturalist principles with their students and what outcomes they have observed.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The New Atheism Pitchforks

Occasionally there is heard from certain New Atheist quarters a good deal of vitriol against all forms of religion. It is one I fully understand - ever since I first heard Sam Harris on book TV a number of years back, boldly calling for an unflinching response to the sheer absurdity of religion and asking why we are always asked to approach it with kid gloves.

And soon after we began hearing about the New Atheists and their supposedly radical agenda. Although whatever that agenda was was a matter of debate. To some, it simply meant "coming out" and actually openly declaring themselves atheist, or dropping the agnostic moniker that has served as a sort of spiritual cover - a sort of peace offering to bridge the gap between the absurd and the agnosticist "possibility of the absurd".

And others began to go further. Instead of simply adopting a principled, yet passive posture, they went on the attack. They sought to actively promote their Atheism to the blindly religious masses. The famous books were written making the case that, while quite difficult to offer proof that God does not exist, there is actually ample evidence that he is an entirely human construct, and what's more a contradictory and illogical drawn one at that. Articles were written engaging the New Atheists in dialogue. Movies were made. Billboards erected.

I cheered them on. I still do. I admit I had always felt a need to hide my atheism. The history of oppression and social ostracism is real and powerful. But as science has steadily built up a vast body of data and theory on what people are and why we do what we do, people are more and more becoming skeptical of religion and its increasing anachronism.

But there was also a sort of self-righteousness that irritated me. It seemed like the old human game was being played where people feel like they need to take sides and form teams. This has long been a part of any social struggle - regardless of its legitimacy. There's an aspect of strategy and tactics to it: strength in numbers, hold the line, surround the enemy, put them on their heels, distract them.

This can all be very effective. But it draws its strength from a deeper human emotion and can end up bypassing reason. Part of its strength lies in just this fact. When reason and reflection come into the equation they can dampen that raw emotional energy and cause people to question whether they ought to keep up the fight. This is what demagogues have always exploited. Pitchforks don't pump as vociferously through calm rationalism as they do through certainty and allegiance to the cause. And of course we all know what happens when arguments lose reason.

A powerful idea emerged from the New Atheism that, while maybe not originating through emotion, has certainly been weakened by it - effective as it has been as a sort of dark magnet for the cause. This is the idea that religion is not just a negative force, but dangerous. So dangerous in fact that it presents an urgent threat to modern civilization. I think this was triumphantly illustrated by Bill Maher's Religulous, when near the closing credits images flashed across the screen of religious zealotry and violence while a rousing score blasted (was it Wagner?), tied together in a modern propagandist display of fearmongering. This was the bypassing of reason at its most forceful.

I personally don't buy it. Sure, I think religion, combined with desperation and ignorance that leads to fundamentalism, can do horrific things. I also thing it is, on its face, stupid. It encourages magical thinking, when thinking should be anything but. It codifies oppression and degradation. It sews division and dischord.

But it is also incredibly human. That is, evidenced by its near universal adoption throughout human history, it seems to come directly out of the way our brain is wired for consciousness and processing of external stimulus. One must begin then to tease out what religion is. In one sense it is a very rational set of rules and beliefs that have their own internal logical structure. But in another it is a purely sensory and irrational experience that allows one to quiet the mind and exist in a state removed from the confines of ordered consciousness.

Religion is both of these things. One exists to serve the other. What are different religions but different ways of organizing how one might tap into that "spiritual" state of unconsciousness. These are all accomplished in degrees. At one end you might have a simple and short re-framing of a conscious experience by appealing to a magical thought, i.e. "That bastard just stole my parking spot. Sweet Jesus have mercy on his soul."

Now, this example could highlight two very different responses to the same event, with two very different conscious outcomes. The driver, obviously angered by being wronged, appeals to her religion to salve the wound. Instead of allowing the complex to linger, continuing to affecting her conscious state, she does a sort of jedi-mind trick on herself, in the form of obedience to religious teaching, and she moves on.

But two people could perform the same ritual with two very different outcomes, based largely on interpretation owing to emotional and cultural development. Person A might curse and make the same "prayer", and self-comfort with the notion that "we are all God's children" and that "they know not what they do". Situation explained, cognitive dissonance resolved. Persona B might also self-comfort, but instead with the notion "they will burn in hell because they are sinners". Situation explained, cognitive dissonance resolved.

Both appealed to the same religion, but different versions of the dogma. One could be said to have left with kindness, while the other with anger and hostility. While a simple parking-lot annoyance is quite trivial, at the other end of the spectrum we have serious matters such as war and conflict. Yet one could also make the case that for every warmongering Osama Bin laden, or George Bush, there are those who identify with the religious traditions highlighting pacifism and diplomacy. For every Palestinian suicide bomber or Jewish settler, there are aid groups in Africa or soup kitchens downtown.

Ayan Hirsi Ali, no doubt owing to her personally horrific religious experience, finds many examples of ways in which the Koran explicitly lays out suggestions that only require a simple interpretation to lead believers to commit heinous acts. This may indeed be true. But while religious texts may be dangerous, and magical thinking may lead to conflict, it also has the power for much good. In many cases, religion may be the one thing that is keeping more harm from coming.

Now, the bad may certainly outweigh the good, and thus as a philosophical position is principled. But the reality is that we just aren't anywhere close to the eradication of religion. We live in a world in which religion is tied up in ethnicity, and cultural tradition is tied up in a complex web of reason and spirituality that does good and harm simultaneously.

This is why I find the argument that some in the New Atheist movement make, that religion is urgently dangerous and needs to be cast completely out of society, both false and impractical. It is certainly sometimes dangerous, but also often very helpful, and in any event deeply tied into cultural and ethnic patterns of thought that aren't easily separable. For this reason it just isn't practical to rid society of religion, even if the threat it posed warranted such hostility.

Religion has been compared to other social ills, such as racism, or unjust political movements. But this is reductionist nonsense. Sure, there are specific tenets of specific religious dogma that one can certainly call unjust
and wrong, and intolerable (homophobia being a prime example). But to cast a net over the entirety of religious thought is reaching a bit.

People will always be ignorant and small-minded, with or without religion. They will really on logical fallacies in their thought, they will ignore complexity for easy answers. Religion can certainly contribute to this behavior. But it can also offer people a way to transcend it, or at least the complexities of consciousness that would encourage it.

And so in this way I think it should be given respect. At the very least as a part of one's cultural behavior that they should not be made to feel ashamed of having accepted. By doing so we are not tolerating any specific ideas or practices that are unjust or directly cause harm. We are tolerating the right of each individual to find their own way in peace.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

CCFW and the Nanny State

Richard Carrier has a review on his blog of Tom Clarke's primer on Naturalism, Encountering Naturalism. He's largely in agreement, but doesn't see how Contra-Causal Free Will has much to do with anything. That's a sentiment that makes very little sense to me.

Carrier: "Once you allow the argument "because we don't have freewill, therefore the majority can make decisions for us," you create a monster that will destroy far more than it will ever protect."

I think this disagreement is exactly why we need to sort out whether CCFW exists: we need to determine what will is and how people get it.

As far as I can tell, CCFW is some magical mechanism of consciousness that allows people to A) have prior knowledge of things they before did not, and thus B) then make decisions that over-ride impulses they are not sufficiently aware of while simultaneously predicting the outcomes of those decisions.

It seems entirely relevant to any debate relating to human behavior that we first decide whether CCFW exists.

I'll give you an example from my kindergarten classroom. I assume that my students have no CCFW (as I think most people would). This means then that every action they take is a direct result of their particular cognitive and emotional state at that time.

Were they to have CCFW, their actions could be the result of them having special knowledge of things they did not, and thus the ability to over-ride impulses they are not aware of, as well as accurately predicting the likely result of their action.

So when the child acts like a "typical 5 year old" (i.e. emotion & cognitive state recognized), I adjust my response accordingly. Sure, they knew it was wrong to smack their playmate with a book - but they had not developed enough of a neural framework to process & contain their emotional impulse.

Thus I - acting in the role of a "nanny state" - make all sorts of arrangements to nudge my students in the right direction. I don't leave candy out on the tables. I don't lecture them for an hour straight. I require them to walk in the hall instead of run.

Of course, human adults in general have more developed cognitive and emotional systems. The need for regulation is less severe. Yet we generally agree there ought to be some. Hence traffic laws, drug laws, etc. These are instances in which no negative consequence has yet resulted, but the possibility of one occurring is deemed to warrant deterrence.

The degree to which one believes the public can self-regulate is in direct proportion to the degree one believes in state-regulation. Unless of course one believes in CCFW. Because, it would logically follow, that everyone is necessarily capable of self-regulation. Although I'm not sure if kindergartners are included - I think there may be a cutoff age, but I'm not sure.

Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg regarding social justice. What I think is just as important is to what extent people have a right to take credit, and thus be rewarded for what they have achieved. But that's a whole 'nother discussion.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Conservatism Vs. Racism

Of course the thinking is that if one is an economic conservative, one isn't necessarily a racist. I mean, duh, right? What a convenient ad hominem attack to substitute for serious policy disagreement.

But I'm not so sure.

My thinking is that modern "liberalism" and "conservatism" are really more about views on human nature than anything else. This is why you tend to get such circular positions on so many issues; the details seem to be secondary to the political philosophy. We are not really discussing policy - we are discussing conflicting assumptions.

We all know that while most conservatives are not admittedly racist - or at least not in theory, all conscious racists are pretty much conservative. Why is this? Just some cultural coincidence?

I think not. It occurred to me that the conservative view of human nature - that we are all free agents, acting of our own free will, and personally responsible for our relative successes or failures in life, if true requires a racist explanation. For it is a statistical fact that minorities are quite disproportionately responsible for crime, drug abuse, poverty and general lack of success. To the racist, this is obviously because there is something inherently wrong with their race, or at the very least their ethnicity.

The conservative however, unable to simply blame race, instead defers to the magical substance he calls "free will". Somehow, though free as any other man to not engage in destructive behavior, the minority continues, year after year to make that choice. If this is not profoundly convincing evidence of racial inferiority, I'm not sure what more evidence one would need. Yet consciously admitting to oneself that one is indeed racist is a cognition in dissonance with modern social morality.

So the conservative, propelled as he is into racial hatred by the geometry of his political calculations, crawls deeper and deeper into it's philosophical hubris. Themes such as "freedom" and "markets", impenetrable in their vast shallowness, provide sophisticated cover for what has become an idolatrous cult of majoritarian self-improvement. Like Narcissus, he gazes out over his fellow man, yet only ever sees his own sheltered self. Compassion has been transformed into Onanism: instead of accurately reproducing renditions of the trajectories of others, he draws lines that resemble little more than poorly sketched version of himself, or others like him.