Monthly Archives: December 2011

You’re an Idiot and a Genius

Someone recently asked me what I had learned in my 54 years on this earth. I realized that it has come down to this:

If you know that you’re an idiot, you can be a genius.

Human beings are idiots. Our brains are a kludge: layer upon layer of evolutionary adaptations to conditions that vanished millenia ago.

Cognitive biases rule the day. My own afflictions have included  congruence bias, expectation bias and the hostile media effect. Even more virulent have been the just world hypothesis (something I believed even before I believed in God) and confirmation bias (the tendency to embrace evidence that agrees with what I already believe and deflect that which does not).

It’s no wonder that many religions caution us not to trust our own brains.

Yet somehow we have stumbled upon ways to overcome our biases. Sir Karl Popper‘s take on the scientific method is entirely an exercise in bias-fighting: don’t even entertain a hypothesis unless you know how it might be disproven, and continue to be cautious even after the hypothesis has survived many attempts to discredit it.

We have discovered the importance of a skeptical, free press. We know that nothing is more dangerous than the suppression of those who disagree with us and have enshrined an invitation to dissent in the first and most beloved amendment of our constitution.

That is how you become a genius — by refusing to trust even yourself. If your epistemology gets beyond “I have a burning in my bosom” you can learn a lot. We must question and test constantly.

Only by lacking confidence can we gain the right to confidence.

Only by listening to others do we become qualified to listen to ourselves.

Only by admitting that we’re idiots can we become geniuses.

The Selfish Gene – Part 2

<< Previous in this Series: Part 1 (Chapters 1 through 3)

Continuing to blog an unfairly brief summary of each chapter in Richard Dawkins’ famous book, The Selfish Gene

Chapter 4 – The Gene Machine

To promote their survival, genes have engineered bodies. They control their bodies much like a computer programmer controls a chess game through his software: he builds in some behaviors that he hopes will lead to victory, but he cannot affect every move.

A chess program appears to behave purposefully, but it is not as conscious as it seems. Bodies are only purposeful in the same sense. Still, such behavior is indistinguishable from what some would call “real” purpose, so what’s the difference? (I have blogged about this before, in the series on artificial consciousness.)

Chapter 5 – Aggression: stability and the selfish machine

It is naive to think that “survival of the fittest” means survival of the most aggressive and ruthless. Game theory demonstrates that constant aggression can expend too much energy relative to the reward. Unvarying pacifism will also be punished. The strategies that we observe in nature, such as “cooperation unless provoked,” are smarter.

As genes mutate, the ones that stumble upon ways to program their hosts for smart behavior will flourish. Those that program either hyper-aggressive behavior that invites retaliation, or wimpy behavior that is taken advantage of, will be at an evolutionary disadvantage.

Chapter 6 – Genesmanship

When we say that the unit of evolution is the gene, we do not mean one particular copy of the gene, but all copies. If I have three children, and each one’s genes are half mine, it pays for me to sacrifice my life for their sake. I save one and a half copies of my genes while sacrificing only one copy. Even if I have only one child, it might still pay, for that child has a longer reproductive future than I do. It might even pay to save several more-distant relatives, who each carry a smaller fraction of my genes.

Of course, we usually have neither the time nor the training to perform such calculations. Compounding the difficulty, we don’t always know who has our genes and who doesn’t.

However, we have apparently evolved rules-of-thumb, for this calculated altruism is exactly what we observe. Even though we think we believe that “all men are brothers” the reality is that we are more altruistic toward our real brothers than toward people of different nations or races.

>> Next in this series: Part 3 (Chapters 7 through 9)

Get Out of My Bathroom!

To a newcomer like me, one of the most mysterious themes in the Tao Te Ching is acting by not acting. For example, take Chapter 37:

The Tao is constant in non-action
Yet there is nothing it does not do

If the sovereign can hold on to this
All things shall transform themselves
Transformed, yet wishing to achieve
I shall restrain them with the simplicity of the nameless
The simplicity of the nameless
They shall be without desire
Without desire, using stillness
The world shall steady itself.

A Type-A personality like me reads that and asks, “How can non-action leave nothing undone? How can the world steady itself unless I make it steady?”

I may have inched a little closer to understanding this last night. I dreamed that I wanted to take a shower, but people kept coming into the bathroom. (Yes, it was one of those what-if-they-see-me-naked dreams.) I kept getting angrier and angrier. The last group was an electrician and his entourage. They wanted to ask questions about the wiring or something, but they just would not get it through their heads that I wanted some privacy. I finally grabbed one of them by the neck and shouted, “Get out of my bathroom right now!” At that point I woke up.

Often, we dream solutions to our waking-life problems, but this time it was the reverse. When I awoke, I had the solution to the problem in my dream.

I realized that all I had to do was leave the bathroom, wait for everyone to follow me out, politely answer a few questions and then explain that I would answer any further questions once I had had my shower. I had the sense that they would not have followed me back in.

By working with people’s nature (letting them follow me out and being courteous) rather than against it (grabbing them by the neck and shouting), I would have been in the spirit of Chapter 17:

The highest rulers, people do not know they have them
The next level, people love them and praise them
The next level, people fear them
The next level, people despise them
If the rulers’ trust is insufficient
Have no trust in them

Proceeding calmly, valuing their words
Task accomplished, matter settled
The people all say, “We did it naturally”

Experts in the Tao, what do you think? Am I starting to understand?

The Selfish Gene – Part 1

The Selfish GeneIf we got here by “survival of the fittest” why are most of us so nice? How could altruism have evolved in a world where everyone is trying to beat the competition and get all the mates for himself?

This is one of the questions that Richard Dawkins answers in his book, The Selfish Gene. I’m reading it and thought I’d whet your appetite for reading it, too, by blogging some highlights along the way.

Chapter 1: Why Are People?

A misconception persists among the lay public that animals behave the way they do “for the survival of the species”.  As we will see shortly, nothing could be further from the truth.

Chapter 2: The Replicators

Evolution did not begin with a one-celled organism. What got things underway was the chance emergence of one or more molecules that had the remarkable property of catalyzing their own replication from the surrounding prebiotic soup.

For a long time, there was enough prebiotic soup to feed all the molecules but eventually resources became scarce. At that point, competition began: the survival of the fittest molecules.

Chapter 3: Immortal Coils

As competition intensified, selection pressure forced the replication strategies to become more and more clever. Fortresses were built. Alliances were formed. Eons later, we now call the replicators genes and they navigate the world in robots that call themselves bodies.

Genes are the unit of evolution. Evolution takes place for their survival, not the survival of individual bodies, much less of entire species.

Next time: Game theory starts to explain behavior.

Biblical Slavery Postscript: Where Were the Apologists?

If you’ve been with me since the initial post of my series on biblical slavery, you may remember that I planned to invite some Christian apologists to respond. You might wonder what happened with that.

Coincident with the start of the series, I did invite three full-time Christian professionals to comment on it: the author of the AIIA article that served as the springboard for the series, a man I’m acquainted with who runs an apologetics ministry and who has written about biblical slavery, and a former pastor who now works full-time to combat modern-day slavery and sex trafficking.

One of them was kind enough to spend an hour on the phone with me midway through this series. I wrote a summary of our conversation and emailed it to him so he could verify that I had represented him accurately. I told him that I would post the summary if he would approve it. He promised to send me some minor revisions, but so far I have not heard from him. It has been over 2 months, so I think he has moved on to other things.

I had a short correspondence with another one of the men by email. Since he chose email instead of public comments on this blog, I don’t feel at liberty to post our exchange. Suffice it to say that he did not say anything I had not heard before.

I have not heard anything from the third man. I should note that he never promised even to visit the series, let alone comment on it.

So, there was some dialog, but nothing for the record.

You may also be interested to know that long before the series started I sought the input of three pastors besides my own. One of them I knew personally. The other two were recommended by close acquaintances as intelligent and thoughtful, able to answer questions like mine. I wrote each one a letter explaining why I was troubled by the Bible’s teachings on slavery and pointing out some of the key verses. Each one promised to reply. None of them did, even after multiple requests from me.

I finally canceled my questions. I sensed that they didn’t have an adequate response to my arguments, and they knew it. I thought we would all be more comfortable if I just let them off the hook.

I think evangelical Christians know deep-down that it would be wrong to defend the acts and commands of God that we have seen in this series, but they can’t bring themselves to admit it — even to themselves. They are too heavily invested in the inerrancy of the Bible. I have compassion for the bind they’re in because I’ve been there myself.

Incidentally, the series started out as an “invitation to a dialog.” I really did hope that there might be some back-and-forth. As the series progressed and none of the professional apologists were willing to comment for the record, I sort of gave up on the dialog and settled for a diatribe. I hope you enjoyed it.

It’s All My Fault

This post goes out to anyone who has ever said, “It’s all my fault” … when, really, it’s not.

Maybe you have a child with a so-called birth defect. Maybe you were mugged. Maybe your child was in a car accident.

In situations like these, the universe seems senseless just when we’re the most desperate for it to make sense.

We don’t want to live in a universe that’s insane, and the solution is simple: We assert the sanity of the universe at the expense of our own.

It’s no accident that sanity and sanitary come from the same Latin root. We want things to be clean and orderly. So, we assert karmic forces and/or gods that reward good and punish evil, relentlessly and perfectly. When bad things happen to me, it’s my fault. Harsh, yes, but at least the universe is in balance. It’s all very tidy.

Ironically, this very pursuit of sanity for the universe causes us to lose our own.

First, we go out of our minds asking, “What did I do to deserve this?” In all likelihood, you did nothing. If you have ever looked for a lost item, you know that there is no surer way to go insane than to look for something that’s not there, especially if you think it ought to be.

Second and more sinister is what happens to our moral faculties. Maybe you did do something wrong, but it was very small compared to the tragedy. Maybe you only thought about doing something, and you fear that the thought itself is being punished. Now, in order to continue believing in the justice of the universe, you must believe that those minor offenses are on a par with what happened to you. You lose all sense of moral proportion. Soon, you will find yourself believing that if you merely call someone a name, you are in danger of eternal hell.

So please, if something bad happens to you and it’s not your fault, then it’s really not your fault. Keep your sanity.

Consider Compassion

My doctor and I were recently talking about stress in my life. He suggested, “When you’re in those situations, consider compassion.”

Consider compassion. There is so much that’s right about that.

He did not say, “You ought to try to be more compassionate,” as if I don’t already have enough stress in my life without “trying” to do one more thing.

He did not tell me what, specifically, compassion would mean. That would have added more “ought” to my already heaping plate.

He did not worry that I would do it wrong unless closely supervised.

He just put something out there for me to consider and trusted the idea itself to be sufficiently persuasive. I love it.

“What can I do if I don’t feel compassionate?” I asked.

“You can observe how you do feel, acknowledge it, and choose compassion instead if you wish.”

I’ve been experimenting with that, and in most cases it really is that simple. So, I thought I’d pass this along for you to consider.

By the way, with better diet, more exercise and more compassion my blood pressure is waaaay down. I don’t dare say how much because I’m afraid it’s a fluke. If it’s still low at my next visit (end of January), then I’ll blog more about it.