December 13, 2017

Why are good people divided by politics and religion?

I know I'm late to the party, but Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, published in 2012, is the most important books I've read in 2017.

Haidt's assertion that "anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason" (page 104) neatly summarizes the book's first part. What he means by this is that we don't make judgements based on reason. Instead, we have a feeling about things, and we use reason to justify that feeling. Our reason is like a press secretary: Their job it is to come up with justifications for whichever statements and decisions the president has made, no matter how nonsensical they are. In this metaphor, the president is our subconscious gut feeling.

We're therefore unlikely to arrive at the truth by relying on reason alone, because reason will just confirm what we've felt all along. However, if we put individuals together the right way, they can use their reasoning power to disconfirm each other's claims. Finding the truth therefore must be a social enterprise, and one manifestation of such an enterprise is Science. Democracy would ideally be another one.

The second part of the book is about moral dimensions, or what Haidt calls Moral Foundations Theory. Many people, and especially those on the liberal end of the political spectrum, think there are only two moral rules: Don't harm others and don't cheat.

However, there are others too: Be loyal! Respect authority! Honor! Sanctity! Those additional dimensions have in common that their emphasis on self-control over self-expression and on duty over rights is likely to benefit families and groups rather than individuals. Ignoring those additional dimensions will results in an incomplete picture of morality and of how society works. Conservatives as well as many non-Western cultures value those moral dimensions more highly than do liberals, hence the conservative focus on "family values". Liberals put themselves at an electoral disadvantage by dismissing those dimensions.

I'm not convinced by Haidt's arguments regarding group selection, which is the theory that natural selection acts not only on individuals but also on groups. He tiptoes around the subject, but ultimately suggests that group selection is the most likely explanation for most aspects of human morality. This is problematic.

First of all, evolutionary theory indicates that group selection is only possible under implausibly narrow conditions that are unlikely to ever be met in reality. Haidt doesn't address this issue.

Secondly, his assertion that group selection is necessary to explain many aspects of morality is unconvincing. For example, that we feel moral outrage toward bullies can adequately be explained by individual selection. Allowing others to bully you isn't going to improve your fitness in the evolutionary sense. It's simply not necessary to resort to groups selection to explain this. 

However, Haidt's views on group selection are a relatively minor issue as the rest of the book holds up no matter how morality arose in the first place. I recommend The Righteous Mind to anyone who wants to understand why people on the other end of the political spectrum, but also in other cultures, have such wildly divergent opinions on moral issues. I'm also looking forward to the forthcoming The Coddling of the American Mind, which will likely expand on his somewhat controversial essay from 2015. This time, I won't wait five years to read it.

November 27, 2017

What have I been reading?

In The Berlin Project, Gregory Benford, who is deservedly known for writing some of the best hard science fiction around, asks what would've happened if the United States had developed a nuclear bomb early enough to use it against the Nazis during World War II. The book is very well researched, well written, plausible and makes you think. What more do you want from alternate history? Recommended.

Max Steele doesn't even have his own Wikipedia page. I feel that this is an injustice and that he should be more well known, but not strongly enough to actually do something about it and start that Wikipedia entry. Also, I don't know anything about him beyond what I can guess from reading two of his books, both of which I suspect are vaguely autobiographical. Debby plausibly describes what the inner life of a person with intellectual disability might look like. However I liked the short stories in the collection The Hat of My Mother even more, and it's one of the best books I've read all year. Hat tip to my mother for recommending this one to me.

Because of where and when they're set (1930s South), Steele's books reminded me of one of my all-time favorite novels: Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe.

Mary Beard in SPQR provides an overview of the history of ancient Rome from its founding to the first century AD. She clearly knows her stuff and I learned a lot (for example I wasn't aware how much the Romans where sticklers for the rule of law), but I can't say I enjoyed the book because her prose is a little dry. If you're interested specifically in what ancient Rome can and can't teach us about what's going on with America, I highly recommend Vaclav Smil's Why America is Not a New Rome.

I picked up a copy of Vince Flynn's thriller Act of Treason that another passenger had left behind when deboarding a plane. It's a rather entertaining action novel starring the all-American CIA operative Mitch Rapp, giving some terrorists what he thinks they're deserving (death in most cases). The blurbs make it obvious who the intended audience is: Glenn Beck thinks it's "Captivating", Rush Limbaugh thinks it's "Just fabulous" and Bill O'Reilly thinks that "Every American should read this book". One good thing that came out of doing just that was that it made me avoid the Mitch Rapp movie that recently came out. Thanks Bill.

The central thesis of Iron John by Robert Bly is that men don't do themselves or society any favors by repressing their wilder side. Iron John contains some interesting ideas, but its central contradiction is that it massively, comically overthinks what it means to "be a man".

More reviews to come soon.

January 12, 2017

Which scientific concepts ought to be more well know?

The answers to John Brockman's annual question on Edge are always worth reading. This year, the question was which scientific concepts ought to be more well know. If you haven't done so already, I recommend that you take a look at what the more than 200 contributors thought here.

With all those excellent essays, what resonated with me most were a handful that emphasized the importance of humility, not only in science, but in societal discourse more generally.

For example, Barnaby Marsh writes:
You might not think of humility as a scientific concept, but the special brand of humility that is enshrined in scientific culture is deserving of special recognition for its unique heuristic transformative power ... Scientific humility is the key that opens a whole new possibility space -  a space where being unsure is the norm; where facts and logic are intertwined with imagination, intuition, and play
Oliver Scott Curry:
Fallibilism is the idea that we can never be 100% certain that we are right, and must therefore always be open to the possibility that we are wrong ... Fallibilism is also the guiding principle of free, open, liberal, secular societies
Nicholas G. Carr:
if our intellect is bounded, we can never know how much of existence lies beyond our grasp
And finally Sam Harris:
Our scientific, cultural, and moral progress is almost entirely the product of successful acts of persuasion. Therefore, an inability (or refusal) to reason honestly is a social problem. Indeed, to defy the logical expectations of others -to disregard the very standards of reasonableness that you demand of them - is a form of hostility.
Do read the whole thing though.