Monthly Archives: January 2013

Lance Armstrong and Social Norms

As I write this, the big story in the news is Lance Armstrong’s confession on Oprah Winfrey’s show. The 7-time Tour de France winner now admits to having used banned drugs in all his victories.

This ends more than a decade of vehement denials. During that time, he bullied his accusers, pocketed millions in endorsements that should have gone to the real winners and, despite his all-American image as a cancer survivor and champion, was apparently a really nasty guy.

Three aspects of this affair reinforce my optimism about our progress as a society.

First, you just can’t get away with things anymore. Within my lifetime, the press more or less ignored president Kennedy’s cheating on his wife. Now, the flow of information is so relentless, and the hunger for it so insatiable, that you can’t even get away with cheating in bike races.

That would be cause for trepidation rather than optimism if it weren’t for the second aspect. Our moral norms are becoming more humane. We are more concerned with whether someone has defrauded fellow competitors than whether he has the right sexual orientation, belongs to the right church, or has ever smoked marijuana. I think we’re increasingly pointed in a healthier direction.

Third, our punishments are more humane. Few people care whether Lance Armstrong goes to jail. His public humiliation is so thorough that it’s hard to imagine his life would be made much worse. More constructively, I do hear calls for him to make financial reparations where they’re due. I haven’t heard anyone suggest we amputate his legs à la sharia law or even put him in the stocks.

I’m not happy that Lance Armstrong cheated, but I am happy that our society is functioning increasingly well.

Letting it Go

On a whim, I Googled the name of a college friend yesterday. He had been one of the leaders of our InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and it seems that his faith has not abated. In fact, he has earned both a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry at a well-known seminary. He’s not a pastor; apparently he did this just to increase his knowledge.

My Googling uncovered his blog, in which he offered to answer people’s questions about the Bible. His last entry was in 2008, but I was able to find an email address that is probably recent.

With his email address in hand, I was all set to invite him to address the concerns I raised in my series on biblical slavery. (Long-time readers will recall that I invited several professional apologists to do the same, but none were willing to say anything on record.) I was interested in my friend’s responses, but I have to be honest: I was also rubbing my hands just a little at the chance to bring my crusade (or, really, anti-crusade) to new territory.

But then I paused.

I considered the possibility that he would have something to say that I had not heard before. It was remote.

I also considered how likely it was that anything I said would change his opinions. Also remote.

Finally, I thought about how distressed he would be to hear that I had chucked the whole faith thing. Probably very.

So I did something that is very uncharacteristic of me. I just let it go. Maybe I was a wimp, but I find I can’t be at peace when I’m at war.

What do you think? Have you experienced this sort of transition?

Choosing a Purpose

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. – Richard Dawkins

My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I’m happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right? – Charles M. Schulz

The purpose of our lives is to be happy. – The 14th Dalai Lama

Thinkers great and small have speculated on our purpose. What does the word even mean? Our reflex is to equate purpose with the task for which something was invented, but I think that short-changes the concept.

When I was in school in the 1960s, we were taught that humans are distinct from all other animals because we make and use tools. This has since been disproven by many counter-examples, but the fact remains that we are incredibly prolific at inventing things for every purpose imaginable.

Think about a typical day in your life. Almost everything you touch, from the moment you pick up a spoon to eat your breakfast cereal, until you lay your head on your pillow at night, was invented by a human being for its particular purpose.

Not content to create inanimate objects for their respective purposes, we assign new purposes to living things. We domesticate some animals for companionship, and breed others for slaughter. Plants, too, are subject to our relentless drive to bend nature to our purposes. We directly modify their genes in order to make them more disease-resistant or more prolific, all for the purpose of satisfying our ever-growing appetites.

Being surrounded all day by things whose purpose was conferred on them by their creators (us), we tend to believe that every object’s and every event’s purpose is created for it. It’s a habit of mind that is very difficult to shake.

As a first step away from that, let’s consider the humble screwdriver. Surely a flat-bladed screwdriver’s purpose is to drive slot screws. That’s what we invented it for, and it does its job well.

Now let’s give our little screwdriver the gift of consciousness. Happily ensconced in the toolbox of a carpenter, he knows his purpose every time he drives a screw. He would say his life is filled with purpose and meaning, and we would agree.

The carpenter works hard and gets hungry. He approaches his friend the chef, and trades the tool for a meal. The chef made the trade because he is a kind-hearted fellow, not because he knows anything about screwdrivers. He attempts to use it as a soup-ladle. “There is no way this is my purpose,” the screwdriver says, and he is right.

Realizing his mistake, the chef gives the screwdriver to a house-painter. It turns out that the screwdriver is just as good at opening paint cans as he was at driving screws! And who would deny our little friend his sense of purpose as he happily opens can after can of every imaginable color? Although it is not what he was invented for, it has become his purpose.

We can see that some purposes are more fitting than others, but purpose does not have to derive from a creator’s intent.

But didn’t the screwdriver rely on how a higher being used him? Wasn’t his purpose still given to him?

This is where we get to be thankful that we are humans. We have free will (or, more exactly, we are able to make rational choices). Suppose we were to give the screwdriver not only consciousness, but the same sort of free will we have.

He decides to get the paint cleaned off his blade, get it polished up, and spend the rest of his life reflecting starlight, contemplating the vastness and wonder of the sky.

Who would deny that he has found a true and worthy purpose, even though it’s one that none of us had considered for him?

In the same way, I think we are free to choose our own purposes, and whatever we choose (good or bad) is a real purpose. It is not fake because we chose it for ourselves.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins had the opening quotation of this meditation and I’d like to let him close as well. In a TV special about the purpose of life, he spent nearly half an hour explaining the wonders of evolution by natural selection, and then closed with this.

We can leave behind the ruthlessness, the waste, the callousness of natural selection. Our brains, our language, our technology make us capable of forward planning. We can set up new purposes of our own, and among these new goals can be the complete understanding of the universe in which we live.

A new kind of purpose is abroad in the universe. It resides in us.

That’s his purpose. What is yours?

Let’s Stop Judging Motives

Last summer, I wrote two posts about the importance of using sound method when trying to find the truth. Especially when we “just know,” we must assume our minds are infected with unknown cognitive biases, and do everything we can to identify them and root them out.

I’ve been thinking that the same applies to our relationships with people. We so often jump to conclusions about people’s motives without adequate evidence.

Often, our assessment of others’ motives has more to do with us than with them. If someone is doing something we would never do, we tend to ascribe the motive that we would need in order to do that thing.

Is someone a political liberal? He must hate America … because I love America and I would have to hate everything I stand for in order to take his position.

Is someone a fiscal conservative? She must not care about the poor …  because I care about the poor and I think government programs are the best way to help them.

Has someone walked away from a long-standing commitment to faith? He must be in rebellion against God … because I could never give up my faith except as an act of rebellion.

Has someone chosen to remain with her faith in spite of significant doubts? She must be unwilling to face the truth … because I faced it and came to a different conclusion.

So here’s one of my New Year’s resolutions. I resolve to be skeptical of my ability to read other people’s motives. I want to apply the same evidence-based thinking in that area that we should apply everywhere else.