A cosmic perspective in everyday life

It can be intimidating to consider the size, scale, and scope of the universe in space and time, and to compare it to the size and length of our everyday lives.  It can make many of our daily concerns seem not merely small and trivial, but utterly irrelevant on the scale of all that happens.  If we’re not careful, it can even drive us into nihilism, or something close to it.  On a cosmic scale, nothing we do ever really matters or seems at first glance to have an impact.  This can be daunting and disheartening.

While I think it’s not useful to go so far as to conclude that everything that happens to everyone is truly meaningless, I do think that taking a larger perspective—even a cosmic perspective—can be both illuminating and useful and might even make us approach life more rationally and more productively. Continue reading “A cosmic perspective in everyday life”

Never hate your interlocutors

There’s a moment in “The Godfather: Part III” when Michael Corleone says to Vincent, Sonny Corleone’s hotheaded illegitimate son, “Never hate your enemies; it affects your judgment.”  These may be some of the most useful words in that whole excellent movie series, words that apply to the world and to human interaction generally, perhaps more than ever before in our modern world of politics and social media.

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time on social media, at least when dealing with political and social issues, has seen the face of the problem this aphorism addresses.  Anyone who has followed politics has also seen it.  We tend to address our issues and disagreements in the real world as though they are zero-sum games—contests in which there can be only one winner and one loser, where any gain by the “other side” is a loss for “our side.”  Perhaps as an automatic defense against the distress of having to face our fellow humans in such a contest, we demonize our “enemies.”  Unfortunately, this approach quickly becomes counter-productive, because—as Michael Corleone rightly points out—to demonize others, to hate them, impairs our judgment.  If we see another person as inherently reprehensible, then to give him or her any ground, at any level, is to seem to reward what we perceive as evil and, given the zero-sum assumption, to penalize the good. Continue reading “Never hate your interlocutors”

The good/evil number line

During the last presidential election (some of you may remember it) occasional memes floated through social media making pronouncements to the effect that choosing the lesser of two evils (e.g. Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump in these memes’ cases) is still choosing evil.  These memes often came from first hopeful, then frustrated, Bernie Sanders supporters, but it’s a notion that’s by no means confined to such groups.  Ideologues of all stripes, from the religious, to the political, to the social-scientific and beyond, fall prey to the classic mental fallacy of the false dichotomy—the notion that the world is divided into two absolute, opposite natures, and that if their own ideas are pure and good (nearly everyone, on all sides, seems to believe this of themselves), then any choice other than the pure realization of their ideas in all forms is somehow a descent into evil.  Many people implicitly believe that even to choose the “lesser of two evils” is somehow to commit a moral betrayal that can be even worse than simply choosing evil for its own sake.

I hope to explode this notion as the destructive claptrap that it is. Continue reading “The good/evil number line”

Stop respecting emotions so much

I’ve said it before in other venues, but it bears repeating:  as a society, we need to stop giving so much respect and deference to emotions.  I’ve gotten push-back on this idea before, but it’s really not that radical, nor that negative, a proposal.

I’m not recommending that we abandon emotions altogether (if that were even possible), or try to suppress them, a la the Vulcans in Star Trek.  Emotions are a real, and significant, part of the experience of life.  Everyone has them, and they are interesting and important.  I don’t want to deny the validity and reality of any person’s emotional experiences, nor to dismiss the real pain and joy that emotional reactions can entail.  The human experience is an emotional one, and emotional states can be useful in many ways.  Joy over a success can lead one to try to repeat it in the future.  Outrage over injustice can drive a person to act against it.  Fear, as Gavin deBecker has eloquently pointed out, can protect us from real danger, which still exists in the world despite all our advances. Continue reading “Stop respecting emotions so much”

Flat-Earthers and “hate speech” are good for us

I don’t know how often most of you notice the occasional noises of Flat-Earthers online, and particularly on social media, but I notice.  Encountering such absurdities can at times lead a reasonably educated person to feel that the world is going mad, that society is collapsing, and that—despite the cornucopia of information available to us—humans are breathtakingly stupid.

However, I’ve recently been reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” and it gave me a new insight:  The fact the we encounter such vociferous and seemingly ridiculous expressions of contra-factual ideas is a sign of the health and strength of our discourse, rather than its deterioration. Continue reading “Flat-Earthers and “hate speech” are good for us”

Treat new laws like experiments

Some years ago, when I first read Carl Sagans’s The Demon-Haunted World, I encountered a notion that stuck in my mind and has grown more prominent as the years have passed.  This is the idea that laws, as made in a democracy, are a form of experiment, but that they are carried out without any of the sensible objective measures and controls that make scientific experiments so useful.  I think this is clearly true, and I think we should all try to petition our legislators to approach laws in this scientific fashion.

Many—perhaps most—new laws are proposed to prevent, or correct, or create some specific situation…presumably altering something that isn’t quite the way we want it to be.  Unfortunately, the way laws are proposed and assessed is through public debate—at best.  As civil and criminal courtrooms demonstrate, when an important matter is addressed mainly through debate, the outcome isn’t necessarily that the best or truest idea is chosen, but that those who are most skilled at rhetoric and manipulation rule the day.  This is not a much more reliable way to make good decisions than by holding a jousting match.  It’s not good in court, and it’s worse in the halls of legislature, where the quality of discourse is often even lower than one often finds among courtroom lawyers (“If the glove does not fit, you must acquit,” is at least mildly clever, as opposed to the appalling spectacle of an elected legislator in the Federal Government bringing a snowball into the Capitol Building as evidence against climate change).

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, with every proposed new bill, the proposer had to articulate what problem was to be addressed by the legislation, and what result was being sought.  Then, in the subsequent discussions, legislators could better focus their inquiries, bringing existing information to bear, including the outcomes of prior, similar legislation.  Also—and here is a key point—each bill could contain specific language detailing by what means its relative success of failure would be measured, how that data would be collected, at what frequency it would be evaluated, and at what point—if ever—the measure would have been found to fail.  We know that most measures, if measured, would fail, based on the experience of science, in which the vast majority hypotheses end up disproven, even when proposed by the best and brightest minds in the world.  How much more likely is it that ideas proposed by the likes of our legislators are going to be shown to be ineffective?

Of course, the real world—the laboratory where each new law would be tested—is a messy place, with innumerable confounding variables, correlations which have nothing to do with causation, unreliable data, and so on.  So, we wouldn’t necessarily want to hold legislative outcome checks to quite the same standards of rigor as those to which we hold particle physics.  But simply requiring each new bill to contain a statement of hoped-for outcomes, of measures by which it would be considered to have succeeded or failed, and a required time of review, could produce better laws, influenced from the beginning by more information and logic than rhetoric.  Even if no definitive answer was available at the time of a planned review, that review might still inspire new ideas about how better to measure outcomes, and perhaps even ways to tweak a law to make its outcome more clearly beneficial.  Most importantly, it would be much easier to recognize and discard the failures.

Of course, to initiate such a policy of lawmaking would require something even more sweeping than a Constitutional amendment.  It would require that we elect representatives capable of bringing a scientific mindset to matters of fact.  This, in turn, would require a voting population with the ability to judge among and select such individuals, rather than the charlatans and hucksters they tend to elect.  This in turn would require both a change in the educational style of the country and a cultural shift in which we give greater precedence to logic and reason, rather than our usual approaches to life, which are only more sophisticated than those of chimpanzees in that they are more complicated, but which are not necessarily any more rational.*

It’s a tall order, I know.  But the possible improvements in our laws, in the way public policy is carried out, and in the general health and well-being of the nation would be potentially vast.

They would also be much more measurable.


*See last week’s post on teaching probability and statistics, for instance.

One little old mayor

There’s an interesting scene in the movie The Dark Knight in which the Joker confronts Harvey Dent in the hospital, and conveys to him what he sees as the misplaced and irrational prioritization of alarm among human populations.  The scene is wonderful for many reasons—it’s well-written, well-directed, and brilliantly acted—but I think it is also conveys an important point about which many of us don’t think carefully enough.

In the scene, the Joker says that he’s noticed that “nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan’.  Even if the plan is horrifying.”  He then adds, “If tomorrow I tell the press that, like, a gang-banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blowing up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan’.  But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!”

This is a deeply important point, because it highlights a profound illogic in our moral prioritization of who is important, who is to be protected, who is an “acceptable loss”, and who is “hands off.”  We become more outraged—or at least more exercised—when one of our “leaders” is threatened or even killed than when soldiers, or even ordinary citizens, are put in jeopardy.  This is not morally defensible. Continue reading “One little old mayor”