Monthly Archives: May 2012

Software Patches for the Brain

Buried in the middle of Richard Carrier’s essay, Goal Theory vs. Desire Utilitarianism, are two paragraphs that stopped me cold.

This strange, flawed phenomenology of mammalian desire-computation results in the fact that we often have two sets of desires: our actual desires, and our present desires. And they don’t always align. What we happen to want at any given moment (to sleep in, for example) is not what we really want most (such as, to get to work on time and keep our job, so we can get paid and meet all our other desires with the resulting income).

A straightforward, correctly designed computer would never have this problem. Its present desires would always be its actual desires. But we aren’t designed that well. So we need a technology, kind of like a software patch, that fixes our broken computation routines, and makes us run correctly. One of those technologies is morality. (Others, by the way, are logic, science, and mathematics, which we also invented (1), and use to correct various other errors of computation in our badly designed brains.)

Logic is a software patch? I never thought of it that way, but he has a point.

Our brains are what a computer scientist would call neural networks. That is, they take a plethora of inputs, process them in a way that is messy and completely mysterious, and come up with “answers” that may not be optimal, but have proven reliable enough to get on with 99% of the time.

Continuing the computer-science metaphor, we can say that our default process is intuitive and lazy. Shortcuts like “This just feels like the right thing to do” or “This is just how I was taught” usually carry the day. We find comfort in tradition and readily succumb to prejudice.

It has taken millennia, but our faulty brains have started to realize their own shortcomings. As Carrier suggests, we have invented software patches.

Savvy computer users know that if they fail to apply the latest patches to their operating systems, they risk being invaded by viruses. The human equivalent is infection by memes – scraps of cultural material that are good at replicating themselves, but are not necessarily sound.

Unfortunately, patching our brains is not as easy as patching a computer. There are no automatic updates. We must work at it. Richard Carrier writes elsewhere,

Philosophy means “the love of wisdom.” … Many a non-expert is a true philosopher. But after two thousand and five hundred years of trial, error inquiry and debate, we now know there is a certain sequence this pursuit should follow. …

It should be … obvious that if you don’t employ a sound method routinely and vigorously, then your entire belief system will be unsteady and imperfect.

…the “pursuit of wisdom” is the very activity of studying language, logic, and method, and of employing these tools to construct a comprehensive and intelligible — and ultimately useful — view of yourself and the world. …

Philosophy is therefore no idle pastime, but a serious business, fundamental to our lives. It should be our first if not our only religion: a religion wherein worship is replaced with curiosity, devotion with diligence, holiness with sincerity, ritual with study, scripture with the whole world of human learning. The philosopher regards it as tantamount to a religious duty to question all things, and to ground her faith in what is well-investigated and well-proved, rather than what is merely asserted or well-liked. … Above all, she commits herself to the constant study of language, logic, and method, and seeks always to perfect, by testing and correcting, her total view of all things. (2)

(1) I would say we discovered, rather than invented, logic and math, but whatever.
(2) Sense and Goodness without God, pages 23-26.

Marriage Is Not the Government’s Business

President Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage
has gotten people talking. I am late to the party, so maybe I can toss in a question that few people are asking.

Why should anyone need the government’s permission to marry?

The whole thing smacks of feudal times, when serfs needed their lord’s approval to marry. Today, we have freedom. Shouldn’t we be free to make a basic commitment to each other without the government’s say-so? We don’t need the government’s permission to commit ourselves to a particular god; why should it decide which interpersonal commitments are up to snuff?

Let’s get government out of the marriage business.

Wherever government now relies on marriage to determine something, let it use a civil contract. And I’m not talking about civil unions. What I have in mind is much more fine-grained. There could be contracts to establish a household for tax purposes, inheritance contracts, living will contracts, contracts to raise adopted children together, and so on. In each case, the restrictions on who could execute the contracts would be based on the relevant factors for that type of contract, not on the religiously charged concept of marriage.

If you talk with those on the Religious Right, who style themselves as the most ardent defenders of marriage, it’s clear that for them marriage is a religious institution, and their faith makes it especially hard for them to accept the idea of same-sex marriage. But can we not see that even in the context of faith, marriage means different things to different people?

Our country is supposed to allow everyone to practice their faith (or lack of faith). How do we have freedom of religion when we prohibit Muslims from following their custom of polygamy? And have we forgotten that the founders of the Judeo-Christian tradition were polygamous as well? (Yes, Abraham, Moses and many of the other patriarchs had multiple wives.) Finally, does anyone else see irony in the fact that the Republican platform of 2012 will almost certainly include a “one-man-one-woman” plank, and standing squarely on that plank will be … a Mormon?

Did you know that the Bible nowhere defines what it takes to be married? Certainly heterosexuality is assumed, but it’s remarkable how little the Bible actually says about the mechanics of getting married. There is no particular ceremony to follow, and no particular vow to take. And it isn’t until the New Testament that monogamy is unambiguously held up as the ideal. More to the point of this post, no government is invested with the authority to “declare you husband and wife.”

How have we Americans, of all people, ended up with a government that arrogates the right to define marriage not only according to one particular religion’s definition of it, but a late-arriving definition at that?

The first amendment  to our constitution expressly tells government to stay out of the religion business, but we have taken a long time to realize the full implications of that wisely drawn boundary.

  • The first prayer of the Continental Congress (admittedly predating the First Amendment) closes with, “All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and our Savior.” Recent prayers  are generally less sectarian.
  • The history of blasphemy laws  in the United States may surprise you. As late as 1977, Pennsylvania used its law to prosecute a man who named his business I Choose Hell Productions, LLC. My own state’s general statues still threaten jail time for those who “reproach Jesus Christ.” Yet, one by one, we are realizing that these laws are unconstitutional.
  • It wasn’t until the 1960’s that many people thought twice about things like prayer and devotional Bible reading in schools. Now most Bible advocates realize that a time of silent reflection is probably the most that our constitution will allow.

We have gradually realized that the government does not belong in the prayer business, nor should it police blasphemy. Isn’t it time to realize that it should get out of the marriage business, too?

Let’s go back to the traditional practice of marriages that are covenants between free people – people chosen by each other, not by the government.

Those who want religion to be part of their marriage can enroll a religious leader to conduct a ceremony; those who don’t can pledge their commitment in front of friends or all by themselves. Most marriages will still be between one man and one woman, but a minority will not.

If it’s important for some groups of people to maintain a distinction between their brand of marriage and others, they could copyright a design for special rings.

Wait. That would be kind of like where we are today. Well, I’ve gotta go. One of my kids is asking me to read The Sneetches.

The Wedding Ring

I recently attended a concert by a solo classical guitarist. I have been acquainted with this musician for many years, and know he is gay.

“So?” you say.

I thought I was at the point of being able to say “So?” too, but I would soon learn otherwise. Sometimes a prejudice keeps one claw hooked into the mind when you think you have ripped them all out.

As I was waiting for the concert to begin, I was thinking about the performer and assumed – with no evidence at all – that he was promiscuous, and possibly a vector for disease. I wasn’t even aware that I was thinking like a bigot until he appeared on stage … wearing a wedding ring.

In an instant, my perception of him changed. I pictured him in a faithful relationship, enjoying quiet evenings at home, just like me.

And I finally grasped one reason why homosexuals care so much about the marriage issue. Being married is the only way that a couple can declare to society that that they have a faithful union.

Beyond that, marriage says to society, “You can trust me. I’m just like you.”

Homosexuals must struggle to climb many hills that the law declares do not exist. Why, in addition to that, should they have to waste one once of emotional energy worrying that bigots like me will make unwarranted assumptions about their sex lives?

Does that mean I favor gay marriage? Yes, but not in the way you might think. That will be the subject of the next post.

Appropriate to Evidence and Cost

You may have seen this video of chimpanzees who were raised in a research lab, and released to the outdoors for the first time in their lives.

Sometimes I feel like those chimpanzees. I blink and wonder at new virtues I see in the landscape of freethought. What I see is sometimes so unfamiliar that I cannot name it.

So it is with the virtue I propose for your consideration in this post.

It’s the virtue of urging change on others only

  • in proportion to the solid evidence for your idea, and
  • in inverse proportion to the cost that your change will exact.

Jesus had the right idea when he encouraged people to “count the cost” before signing up as his disciple. Even if a person really needed what Jesus had to offer, and was eager to have it, Jesus preferred to send him away with nothing if he was not willing to give up everything.

Too many people, myself included, have breezed past the ethical imperative of letting people know what they’re getting themselves into.

I would add that those who proselytize for high-cost spiritual programs (cost in terms of money or cost in terms of lifestyle change) ought to have plenty of evidence that their ideas are true. Not just that they “work” or “change lives” but are factually true.

How do you know they’re true? Do your ideas allow you to make predictions that can be fulfilled in front of people today? Have you proposed ways that your ideas could be proven false, and encouraged others to try those experiments? Do your ideas fit comfortably with what you see in the world, or do they force you into ad hoc appeals to the mysterious plans of invisible beings? Have you listened carefully to the best arguments from those who disagree with you? Have you actually read their books, or have you allowed your own side to summarize them for you? Have you given your opponents credit for being intelligent, sincere human beings, or have you demonized them as unenlightened and morally compromised because they disagree with you?

I once attended a group of spiritual seekers and one of the women there opined that it didn’t matter whether the system on offer was technically true; what mattered was whether it made you feel better. So astonished that I lost my manners, I blurted out, “Then just take drugs!”

I say from experience that the sweet feelings, warm social atmosphere and exalted morality of a spiritual system will turn bitter, uncomfortable and dark if the foundation on which they were based proves false.

So let’s rotate our own volume knobs counterclockwise if we don’t really have evidence for what we’re saying. Let’s be especially cautious if we’re asking a lot of those we are trying to convince.

P.S. – There’s one more aspect of this virtue that I will save for its own post. We should make special accommodations for people who are not equipped to evaluate the evidence. They may include children, the philosophically unsophisticated and people who have suffered deep psychological wounds.