30 August 2013

Panem et Circenses

Toothpaste For Dinner nails it:

My preference would be for the American citizenry to react to our slide into autocracy with rebellious disobedience. Barring that, I might actually prefer full-throated, populist approval from the rabble to what we've actually got: bored yawns and shrugs.

29 August 2013

Religion and Mental Illness (pt 2)

I didn't want to have to grapple with Sean Thomas article mentioned in my previous post, but it got the better of me.

(This is where you can picture my shoulder angel whispering "battle not with monsters, SB7, lest ye become—" at which point his opposite number cuts in with "Oh shut up, you winged twit! Someone on the internet is wrong!")
The Telegraph | Sean Thomas | Are atheists mentally ill?

So which is the smart party, here? Is it the atheists, who live short, selfish, stunted little lives – often childless – before they approach hopeless death in despair, and their worthless corpses are chucked in a trench (or, if they are wrong, they go to Hell)? Or is it the believers, who live longer, happier, healthier, more generous lives, and who have more kids, and who go to their quietus with ritual dignity, expecting to be greeted by a smiling and benevolent God?
If anyone at Sherwin-Williams or Valspar is reading this, could you please supply Mr Thomas with a broader brush? I'm not sure he's generalized quite enough here.

I mean... wow. Even Dante had some good things to say about Virtuous Pagans.

(Side note: how did I not know of Gustave Doré until earlier this year? He's such a boss.)

I can't even begin to explain what's wrong with that paragraph. The slightest life experience ought to show anyone that not all, or even most, believers go happily to their graves. Nor, obviously, do all non-theists die alone and afraid. Does Thomas really not know any good, smart, healthy, happy people outside of his church? If not, the guy needs to get out more.
Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.
— Epicurus, "Letter to Menoeceus"
Thomas ratchets up the invective:
Obviously, it’s the believers who are smarter. Anyone who thinks otherwise is mentally ill.

And I mean that literally: the evidence today implies that atheism is a form of mental illness. And this is because science is showing that the human mind is hard-wired for faith: we have, as a species, evolved to believe, which is one crucial reason why believers are happier – religious people have all their faculties intact, they are fully functioning humans.
This really grinds my gears. The mind is wired for nothing. The brain is wired for a lot of things. Things like attending to moving objects in the visual field. Transform-invariant facial identification. Irrational risk assessments. Tribalism. Violence. Just because there exists an anatomical structure correlated with something doesn't make that thing a good idea.

We've evolved to do a whole lot of things. Most of us aren't even evolved to drink milk or eat wheat, barley or rye. What relation does eating grilled cheese sandwiches on white bread have to either mental illness or divinity? Things like dyslexia, schizophrenia, ephebophilia, and ADHD are in many senses "evolved." Most of what Christians consider sins are evolved behaviors. (Sloth: conserving energy when possible can be evolutionarily advantageous; gluttony: stockpiling nutrients in your body when possible can be evolutionarily advantageous; lust: seizing breeding opportunities when they present themselves can be evolutionarily advantageous.)

To be clear I do think religion is a good idea. But don't feed me some bullshit hackery about "the brain is wired for blah blah blah..." Don't hide behind that pseudo-science chicanery.

Even if the brain was "wired for faith" that doesn't tell us anything about whether faith is good or bad. The brain is barely capable of coping with the modern world. Barely. The fact that we've dragged along some anatomy or function from the last million years tells us nothing about the value of the associated behavior.

I don't have any patience for the Dawkinsian "God Delusion" rhetoric either. Can we all just calm down and realize that there are good people and there are bad people and there are people in between, and all of those types exist both within and without our own little tribes and parties and sects?

I'd like to see the DSM to try to define this one

Mangan | Are atheists mentally ill?

Much like the fact that no vegan society exists, since such a society would fail to make use of vital resources, and would be vulnerable to malnutrition and outside attack by stronger people, so with atheist societies. If any exist now, they probably won't for long. They fail to make use of a vital resource, religion, leaving themselves vulnerable to all sorts of ills.
(1) On the one hand, "when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything." Chesterton is usually given as the source, but I believe it was actually one of his biographers.

In addition, life is too complicated to go through without some cognitive scaffolding to help you understand it, and inventing your own scaffolding is difficult, so you might as well rely on some of the structures that have already been generated and tested. And many of those structures are religious.

So yes, I think religion is useful for a society.

(2) On the other hand, Mangan is being fallacious. It would have been as easy to assert at various times and places the same thing about there being no societies without polytheism, or monarchy, or slavery, or tribes, or nomadic lifestyles.

With veganism we can actually point to physical resources that are being underutilized, and we know what those resources do for us and how. We know what the alternatives to those resources are, and what their relative costs and benefits are.

Smart people have been arguing about what religion is, and what it's for, and what its effects are since at least the pre-Socratics. As much as I loved my theology classes, I can't say all those smart people have come to much in the way on conclusions. In contrast, we know pretty damn well what amino acids are found in a pork chop, and what we need them for, and what happens when you don't get them.

These resource that a vegan society fail to use (i.e. animal products) also — at least until a generation ago — had built-in stabilizers that prevented people from consuming too much of them. Namely, they were too expensive. It's difficult to eat too little meat, because it's tasty and easy relative to a vegan diet, and it is (or was) difficult to eat too much meat, because it costs a fair bit of coin. Religion has no such feedback mechanism to prevent people from falling into either the excessive or insufficient vices.

I think it was Daniel Dennett who posed the following scenario: suppose there are two armies, both equally matched in skill and weaponry, but one side is composed entirely of economists, and the other fanatically believes that God is on their side. Who do you imagine would win? Who would you want as allies?
Honestly, I don't know. There have been thousands of battles lost when people took foolish risks because their religion made them overconfident. For every brave paladin wading fiercely into battle with a prayer on his lips there has been a crazed zealot who didn't bother to sharpen his sword because he thought God was going to provide.

Thomas states that atheism is a form of mental illness, and that could be close to the mark, since belief or unbelief does not appear to be a choice. We are compelled to believe, or compelled to disbelieve. We cannot choose, consciously at any rate.
Wait... what? How does "atheism is a mental illness" follow from "belief/unbelief is not voluntary"? I don't think I voluntarily like spicy food or fair-skinned redheads. I don't choose to believe those two things are good. Does that mean I have two more mental illnesses? Or am I the healthy one, and everyone who prefers bland food or brunettes are sick?

I'm truly struggling to follow the logic here. If something is good for you, and you don't do it, but your failure to do it is compulsory, then you have a mental illness. Shouldn't we be more concerned about people consciously deciding to reject something beneficial? This is going to rapidly descend into a sticky mess of metaphysics, theology, free will, predestination, mind/body problems, and who knows what else.

(5) How does framing this in terms of mental health, which already struggles to cope with describing and defining thoroughly-studied neurochemical and behavioral conditions, help us understand religion? Our esteemed psychiatric professionals have already managed to define everything from temper tantrums to gluttony to boyhood as diseases. Do we really want to mimic the APA in this trend? Or is this just some columnist dressing up their pet theory in a lab coat to give it a veneer of 21st century respectability and authority?

What's next? Cops and firefighters writing letters politely asking serial arsonists not to burn buildings?

Isn't the very fact that they asked pretty disturbing?

Hey... ummm... excuse us, Mr. President sir? Could you please, you know, maybe, ummm... consult us about that war thing? You know that whole "Constitution" thing? The one you swore to protect and defend? You see, we think we remember seeing this bit in Article One — somewhere around Section Eight maybe — about us being the ones to declare a war.

We don't want to be rude or anything, it's just that this seems an awful lot like a war to us, what with the firing missiles into another nation and all. And that's sort of our thing. Declarations of stuff, not the rockets. Most of us honestly don't even know which end you're supposed to point at the other guy.

So you know, you're not too busy giving speeches or working on your fantasy football draft, could you maybe, perhaps, if you get a minute, please consult with us? Because if you don't, we're going to have to... well... write another letter I guess.

Yeah! We're gonna write another letter. But this one will be slightly angry. Mostly still polite, but you can count on their being a minor undercurrent of hostility. Maybe not hostility, per se. But definitely some prickliness. Because of the whole "violating the constitution which you solemnly swore to uphold" issue.

That's sort of a big deal. Well, it's a medium sized deal. A deal of some size, anyway. Maybe not as big of a deal as what Roger Clemens was injecting into his acne-scarred ass cheeks. We spent ages worrying about that. Can you imagine if we paid that much attention to a potential war, or passing a budget, or actually writing legislation instead of passing everything off on you guys over in the executive branch to hash out? Ha! We wouldn't have any time left to hustle for donations or get in front of a TV camera. What a mess that would be.

Where were we... uh... oh! Yeah, the letter situation! We really don't want to have to write another letter. So maybe just, you know, ask us next time? Or at least pretend to? All we really get to do over here on the Hill is talk about stuff, and this would make for some great kabuki Democracy in Action!™.

27 August 2013

Is TV's Golden Age more of a dark ecru?

Bloomberg View | Megan McArdle | Why Is the Golden Age of Television So Dark?

Crime and war are the only two places where the stakes are still life and death, or exile. War has been, um, done to death, and it’s expensive to shoot well. So what makes the perfect television drama for the novelty-seeking sophisticate? A crime drama -- told from the point of view of the criminal
I think this is why high school dramas remain and will remain popular. To adolescents — even the ones who see through the ridiculous facade to the vapidity and impermanence underlying — everything is vitally important. You might realize on some level that who makes the baseball team or who you go to the dance with or how well you do on you History final isn't actually that important, but that's not the way it feels to you. Adolescence gives a story-teller built-in stakes.

I think McArdle is definitely on to something here. Stakes matter a lot. I'd also endorse the end of the 'graph I quoted above:
... often a criminal with a surprisingly ordinary, bourgeois domestic life, which serves to heighten the novelty. Not to mention the dramatic tension offered by a secret life.
I'd add another factor to the explanation though: television's inferiority complex. The TV industry has spent decades as "the idiot box," "the vast wasteland," etc. At best TV has been Film's idiot little brother, and Film itself carried the stigma of being "not really art" into my lifetime. I don't think it's a coincidence that HBO got the modern TV renaissance off the ground and that this was their tagline:

They wanted to distance themselves from TV, the "chewing gum for the mind." Hence the enthusiasm initially for shows which are "gritty," "dark," "morally ambiguous," "ethically uncomfortable," etc.

Throw on top of that the follow-the-leader way that media is developed, and you get an (almost) self-sustaining crop of dark shows.

14 August 2013

Moral Overlearning, Liberatianism, and Arete

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | Libertarianism as Moral Overlearning

"Overlearning" is a key idea in educational psychology. One good explanation:
Overlearning is a pedagogical concept according to which newly acquired skills should be practiced well beyond the point of initial mastery, leading to automaticity.
In experiments, researchers often test the effects of overlearning by (a) making subjects practice until they reach 100% accuracy, then (b) practicing some more. Intuitively, though, the idea is simply to make perfection routine. [...]

Libertarians often argue that they are merely holding governments to ordinary moral standards. It's wrong for a private individual to physically attack other people who are behaving peacefully. It's wrong for a private individual to take other people's property without their consent. So why is it OK for government to do these things? Yet non-libertarians usually find these observations unconvincing.

My claim: The fundamental difference between libertarians and non-libertarians is that libertarians have overlearned common-sense morality. Non-libertarians only reliably apply basic morality when society encourages them to do so. Libertarians, in contrast, deeply internalize basic morality. As a result, they apply it automatically in the absence of social pressure - and even when society discourages common decency.
I think what Caplan is describing is "Aretē" — variously translated as "virtue" or "excellence of character." The idea of virtue, as I understand the Aristotelian usage, is not just doing Good things and refraining from doing Bad things. It is more about making good decisions as a habit. You should not only have good intentions, nor simply make good decisions. The good decisions should be routine.

You don't have to contemplate deeply, nor construct lengthy pro and con lists, nor engage in tortuous casuistry, nor consult expert exegesis, and certainly not refer to opinion polls. Virtue, character, Aretē, or moral overlearning make all these things superfluous.

Caplan concludes:
The "libertarianism as moral overlearning" framing is self-congratulatory. I freely admit it. [Me too! —SB7] Perhaps the real story is that libertarians stupidly generalize narrow moral principles to situations where they're entirely inappropriate.* Either way, though, the concept of moral overlearning deserves your attention. If you only apply moral principles when other people encourage you to do so, how much about right and wrong do you really know?

* If that's what you think, I highly recommend Mike Huemer's The Problem of Political Authority, which explores these questions forwards and backwards.
I think Caplan is right, but I'll go a step farther. If you only apply moral principles when society encourages you to do so, and you apply them in the same way everyone else does, then answer me this: how confident are you that the morals and mores and norms of our society are perfect?

What is the probability that we have hit upon the optimum set of moral guidelines? And if we haven't, shouldn't you be operating in contradiction to the particular ways the majority would have you apply moral rules? Isn't it a near certainty that society has rules that either need to be changed, abandoned, introduced, or modified in scope? Which ones do you think these are? How can you tell? And which version of these rules to you act according to, the extant, flawed but popular version, or your own version? How consistently? How publicly?

Edited (15 Aug '13): I should point that I'm more interested in the connection between moral overlearning and Aretē than in the connection between moral overlearning and libertarianism.

09 August 2013

Behavioral Econom{ics, ists}

Bryan Caplan | EconLog | Nudge, Policy, and the Endowment Effect

I believe in behavioral economics. But behavioral economists deeply disappoint me.
One thousand times: Amen!
They ought to be paragons of rationality — to puritanically avoid the foibles they so ably document. In practice, however, behavioral economists are all too human. They use nudge to rationalize a little extra paternalism, when they ought to use their insight to systematically rethink paternalism from the ground up.
I am a big believer in epistemic and cognitive humility, not only when it comes to economic modeling, political philosophy or policy debates, but in all aspects of living. I appreciate behavioral economics for emphasizing these and related concepts. But I will find it hard to truly respect the field until they turn their scopes on themselves and begin considering not only the bounded rationality and finite knowledge of citizens and consumers, but of regulators and rule-makers as well.