Opinions: When are They Worth Listening To?

When coming across an opinion in a magazine or on a social media site ask the following questions:

  1. Has the expresser of the opinion ever been responsible for proposing a solution to a problem that had a chance of being implemented?
  2. If the expresser has ever been responsible for proposing a solution to a problem that had a chance of being implemented, was his or her proposed solution in fact implemented?
  3. If the expresser was responsible for proposing a solution to a problem that was implemented, did it make the problem a)better b)worse c)leave it the same, or d)is it too soon to tell?
  4. If he or she was responsible for solving a problem and it was successful was it a problem that resembled the problem he or she is expressing an opinion on?  For example if he or she is expressing an opinion about how to deal with ISIS has he or she ever made a decision about the use of military force, or about the social engineering of large groups of people motivated by a religious ideology, or about say a double-parked van that nobody knows who it belongs to?



A Plea For Guidance!

If you have a sense either general or specific about how to get upon when plagued with risky, uncertainty, confusion, beset by foes, suffocated by friends, one’s own MIND a quagmire of quizzy quicksand kindly provide GUIDANCE! In the comment section below.

Because while others are full of facts and opinions I have none, but am poor, deluded (both by self and other) uninformed, too chicken to make a bold declaration, too vain to admit my chickenhood.

Guide me Internet Friends!

Random people I do not know whom Chance and the Good Auspices of Google Search send to this page, do not be close-fisted.

Let me know what to do!

How shall I live my life?

And politics — what about what other people want of me and demand.  What should I do?

And animals.

And religion.

And other topics I am too confused even to know to request insight.

Let it rip!



Should We Discourage People from Becoming Religious Extremists?

It makes sense in response to the massacre committed by supporters of Isis to ask: how can we discourage people from becoming the sort of people who commit such massacres.  A first approximation of what sorts of people those are would be to characterize them as “religious extremists”.  This raises the issue of which is more important: to discourage people from becoming religious or to discourage people from becoming extreme.

Let’s consider discouraging religion.  One obvious problem is that billions of people find their identity in religion, including admirable ones.  If “we” (and who we is a worthwhile worry, but let’s say it means “concerned citizens trying to avoid future massacres like the recent one in Paris”) declare our opposition to religion as such we alienate them and add credence to the view that what is most precious to them is under concerted attack.  But even assuming we could finesse this political problem and that it would somehow be possible to exterminate religion from the range of human possibilities, it’s not clear that it is desirable.  Religion provides identity and community support by responding to ultimate questions of death and the contingency of human life with ritual, myth, and spiritual practice.   Since it is hard to see why this ultimate questions will ever go away — they’re ultimate after all — it’s hard to see why we should chuck myth, ritual, and spiritual practice.   The burden of proof lies on the person promising to protect us from massacre by eliminating these three coping mechanisms to convince us that they have something better.

Another option would be to eliminate extremism.  We can define the extremist as the person willing ot make big bets in the hope of big future rewards.  His opposite is the timid supporter of the status quo.  Both can agree that the status quo is rife with injustice and inefficiency, but while the moderate worries that big moves run an unacceptable risk of making the situation even worse, the extremist is wiling to take that risk.  They also differ in rhetoric — the extremist says that what we have now is very very bad and what we stand to get is very very good — but these are just sign posts to their differing view of action.

It would be a mistake to try to quell the human impulse to extremism, because its impulses include a perception of the sub-optimality of the status quo, and an ability to imagine better alternatives.  If we eliminate these two impulses we would in the same act eliminate the cognitive and emotional engines for improving our lot.  Take the example of Semelweis who advocated that surgeons wash their hands after performing an autopsy and before assisting in a childbirth.  Semelweis was both an extremist and a martyr; we have him to thank for life-saving hygiene measures.

If neither religion nor extremism can be eliminated without an unacceptable cost, what should we avoid?  Is Isis the unavoidable price to pay for a society that allows the extremism of a Semelweis or the religion of a Martin Luther King?   I believe not, but we need to focus our fire on the real enemies.

The real enemies I believe are Maincheanism and apocalypticism.

Manicheanism is the view that we are engaged in a cosmic struggle of pure good versus radical evil.  Apocalypticism is the view that history is nearing its end.  An individual who believes he and his friends are pure good and his enemies are pure evil will feel justified in commiting atrocities because the lives and views of his victims have no value. An individual who believes history is nearing its end will feel justified in causing mass destruction both to hasten the end, and because since the gameboard will soon be knocked over by G-d no moves really matter other than those that hasten the end.  If we are playing speedchess big showy sacrifices make sense, not so if we are playing chess with an unlimited clock.

If Apocalypticism and Manicheanism are the two fangs of the serpent, how can we pull them? The apocalyptic impulse can be tempered by learning history.  If we acquaint ourselves with the many prophets in the bast who have failed — from Bar Kochba to Sabbatai Zvi to the Taiping Rebels — we will be less likely to put all our chips on the guess that history is ending soon.  The manichean impulse can be tempered by learning comparative religion.  If we learn to see the good and the complexity in people of other faiths we will be less likely to throw them in a big shapeless trash heap called “the dwellers in darkness”.


Akrasia, Money, and the Body

The akratic is the person who wants to abstain from something but gives in to temptation.  So for example the akratic wants to be healthy and believes eating icecream will cause him to be unhealthy, but eats icecream anyway.

A plausible story about the akratic explains the conflict between the desire for health and the indulgence in icecream in biology.  Our brains evolved in a calorie-poor, fat-poor environment.  Consequently eating high calorie foods feels really good.  Our capacity for long term planning and rational thought evolved later and is instantiated in a different part of the brain.  The akratic is experiencing a war within because he is not just a mind but an embodied system that evolved.

This raises the question: would we like to be free of akrasia if we could?  It helps to feel our way through the issue by imagining what someone free of akrasia would look like.  Such a person would feel pain upon failing to get what they desire that was every bit as intense as bodily pain.  For such a person acting in an unhealthy fashion (or otherwise failing to live up to their highest aspirations) would cause a pain as intense as stepping on a tack.  And, not to be overly obsessed with the punitive, the pleasure of successfully completing a project or following a diet would be as intense as bodily pleasures are for us.

How would that work?  We would only need to make two simple changes.  We already respond to loss of money as a sort of pain and gain in money as a kind of pleasure.  We would simply need to be neurologically or psychologically altered so that a significant financial loss caused actual physical pain and nothing else did, and a significant financial gain would cause actual physical pleasure, and nothing else would.  We would also need a rational free market, so that for example if we followed a decent health regimen our health insurance would be cheaper, and if we indulged it would be more expensive.

Such beings would never cheat on their diets because ice-cream would not give them pleasure, but a drop in health insurance premiums would.

Are such beings imaginable?  Realizable?  Coherent?  Desirable?

My guess is that they are not actually coherent and certainly not desirable.  If that is correct than akrasia is not actually a bad thing — it is the inconvenient aspect of a deeper aspect of being embodied humans.


Alienancy, The Apprincess and the Ur Thwum

This is a story that hasn’t happened yet, but I’d be truly surprised if it didn’t some day.   It’s about three people who wanted things — and who doesn’t? — and one of them got what she wanted and one of them didn’t and as for what happened to the third one you’ll have to listen to the end and make up your own mind, won’t you?

Alienancy didn’t know how she got her name.  She thought maybe she found it when somebody wasn’t using it and took it when she was a little kid and she felt bad about it, because whoever it was whose name it was once never came asking for it.  One time she was in the field after the rain and she met a fellow lying in a pool of water all stretched out and she took him out and dried him out.   “Who are you?” she asked.

“I’m Ur Thwum”.

“Ur Thwum meaning what?” asked Alienancy.  “I know that “ur” means “primordial”.  But what is a thwum?”

“That’s not what my name means said Ur Thwum.  It means I am a Wum who lives all day eating the good rich tasty Urth.”

“Do you know what names mean?” asked Alienancy?

“That I do” said the Ur Thwum  “Back in the day they took me out of the ground and gave me a different kind of Earth in my Gangle-ons called “Silicon Chips” and because of the Silicon Chips I know what things mean.  They did that cause they could not be bothered to remember I suppose but who knows.  That was a long long time ago!”

“O” said Alienancy “Can you tell me what my name means?  Does it means I am an exobiolog?  This is what I thought.  That I am from an exoplan and that is my plan.”

“No, Alienancy” said the Ur Thwum “You have mistaken the meaning of your own name.  An “alienans” is an adjective that when you put it on a thing it no longer is that thing.  Example “a fake duck” is no duck “a confused thought” is no special kind of thought “a counterfeit penny” is no penny.  “Fake” “confused” and “counterfeit” are all by them back in the day yclept the alienans.”

“Oh” said Alienancy.  “Then let me tell you a story.”

Alienancy’s Story

Back where I came from we had 3 Kings.  Their names were the Unthought King, the Unspoken King, and the Notspoken About Clearly King.  Well those three kings ruled us well we had love and frolic and fruit trees with

“grapes, papayas, rambutans, star fruit, moon fruit, lichees, lanjis, moonbutans, durains, apples, green apples, pears, peaches, nectarnes, red grapes, green grapes, jackfruit and jillfruit all tumbling down”

not to mention cool sweet water, and chilly juicy wine

but then we thought about the Unthought King and he died

and then we asked about hte Unspoken King and he died

and the other king I don’t even know if he’s at the bottom of the pail or did I get hte pail from the back yet, don’t remind me Ur Thwum or I don’t know what I’ll do


Well the Ur Thwum said “I didn’t get that part about the last king that was a bit unclear can you explain it to me?”

“The hell I will” said Alienancy “If I talk about him clearly then that King will have to go too.”

“That seems pretty clear to me” said the Ur Thwum “What you just said.”

They came running from the castle — Alienancy, Alienancy the Last King is dead! You will have to make you own way in the world and do what you can do to live!

I guess that’s my Q said Alienancy.  Do you want to be my “You”?

Quite!  said the Ur Thwum and he wrapped his own self around the neck of her own self and they went on their way.

Well I didn’t say the first chapter was chapter one but you could have figured it out cause there wasn’t no chapter zero before it, was there?  There never is a chapter zero, at least not these days.  But I would be willing to tell you that when they met Shirty Mouseback that was the beginning of Chapter Three.  There was no Chapter Two because that had been stolen by Shirty Mouseback, cause he is a bit of a Rogue!


“Why are you called Shirty Mouseback?” asked Alienancy

“Cause I wear a shirt.”

“That is no good reason cause everybody wears a shirt and they are not called “Shirty”.

“You best take that up with them” said Shirty Mouseback.

“But why Mouseback?”

“Cause my mouse looks like a back I suppose.”

“That’s not why” said Ur Thwum  “It’s because he got what he lost back.”

“But why the mouseback?”

“It must be because he lost it.”

“Now we are getting somewhere!”

And they went down the road.

Needless to say all three of them tried to do things some of which failed and some of which succeeded, but the best part of the story was years later when they were sitting by the fire rubbing their toes in the skin of the OgreBear who they had killed when they saved the kingdom and eating cups of Cocoa so big I don’t have room enough in this story to describe even the bottom of the cup much less the cocoa it was filled with and they said “What about Shirty Mouseback?”   “Was he in the story at all?”

“I think he was.” said the Apprincess.

“Then why didn’t we mention him?”

“I’d have to say that’s a question for a princess, not me said the Apprincess. I am just aprincessing in this tale.  Once I have learned to be Romantic and to be Rescued from a Tower then I will be able to answer your questions.”

“I think I know that you are a real princess” said Shirty Mouseback.

“And how’s that?” asked the Ur Thwum.

“I checked her fingerprincess.”


Colors and the Inverted Spectrum

Some worry about whether colors might be ineffable qualia and argue that there could be human beings who experience an inverted spectrum — their green is your red, their red is your green — but who use “red” to apply to green and “green” to apply to red.  Others argue that it is a mistake to think there is anything subjective about red and that the concept of “experience” is itself incoherent.  To use “red” competently is simply to respond to things everybody agrees are red with the word “red”.  We can call the first group “phenomenalists” and the second “behaviorists” for want of a better pair of labels.

What both of them — phenomenalists and behaviorists — miss is that red things are alarming and cause us to draw back in alarm, while blue and green things calm us and welcome us in.  An experience is neither just an observable response to an objective stimulus nor a featureless internal presentation that can just as easily be swapped with a different internal quale.  So the notion of an inverted spectrum makes no sense.   The color red could not look green or the color green look red, without a whole lot of other parts of our life being different.

Nobody worries about the inverted hedonic scale problem — the person who feels what we consider painful to be pleasant and what we consider pleasant to be painful but happens to love pain and fear pleasure.   Nobody worries about inverted aesthetic scale problem: the person who thinks all things we consider beautiful to be ugly and vice versa but loves to experience the ugly and hates to experience the beautiful.   Nobody worries about the inverted truth problem — the person who thinks what we think is false to be true but whose beliefs track the false.

Experiences, beliefs, responses and colors hang together with modes of acting and expressing ourselves.  If you want to change one you can but you have to feel your way into all the other things that need to change.  Imagination is not as easy as it looks — it’s not just a random collection of conjectures, but a bodying forth of a coherent new creation.


On the Idea that Life is a Test

Suppose, as a thought experiment,  that a group of aliens with near godlike power and wisdom had come up with the idea of creating a lesser race, and we are that race.  These aliens wanted to learn whether we were worth receiving a very valuable gift — let’s say immortality, and an increase in our cognitive powers to make us as wise as they are.  After deliberation they decided they could not simply tell their creations that they had such a goody in store because working for the purposes of receiving a reward would have bad consequences: perhaps eliciting a servile or insincere or affected attitude.  So they created a situation in which they could observe and judge how we behaved without knowledge of the possibility of reward and gave out the reward based upon our behavior.

In fact what they did was give us the planet Earth to share alongside creatures who bore the same relationship to us as we do to them.  They decided it would be fair to treat us well if we treated our planetary companions well and poorly if we treated our planetary companions poorly.  Our planetary companions of course are non-human animals, and I don’t need to say how well we as a species did on this test!  Suffice it to say that in the afterlife most humans are eaten, others hunted for sport, and the lucky ones castrated and kept as household pets.  A medical researcher who blinded a rabbit will himself be blinded.  Only the very few militant vegans among us were given the reward of immortality and higher galactic consciousness.

I’ve come up with this version of a traditional religious theodicy as a way into thinking about the idea that life is a test.  Some of the features of this idea are:

a)there is a task to be performed

b)there is a right way to do the task

c)crucial facts about the task are hidden from us with the result that the task is harder.

So for example Christians believe that God incarnated as a lowly servant in part to see how we would treat him — if he had come as a radiant king it would not have been a good test.  Orthodox Jews believe the Torah is the right answer but the test includes a built-in evil impulse whispering to us that the Torah is not actually worth following.

In the fanciful case of the aliens for example the medical researcher who blinded rabbits in order to come up with a better understanding of how the eye works has made a mistake and will be punished for the mistake, but the aliens do not tell him that his treatment of rabbits is a test, or that the right answer to the test is “don’t blind rabbits”.

Are the aliens treating human beings fairly in my story?  Is God on the Christian and orthodox Jewish account playing square?

At first blush it seems we could answer “yes” — after all the person who is cruel to animals has endorsed the idea “it’s okay to be cruel to a less powerful and less intelligent creature” so he has no brief to complain when more powerful and intelligent creatures mistreat him.  The human being who disobeys God by failing to follow Torah or mistreating Jesus or the powerless who embody Jesus deserves punishment.  In all cases the human being seems analogous to an office worker who pilfers funds without realizing that he is being observed by a hidden camera.  Upon being fired the worker cannot plead “I wouldn’t have stolen if I knew I was being watched”.  That is admitting what his employers are accusing him of — that he has failed a test.

On second thought though maybe not.  After all it is the aliens who created the conditions of ignorance which caused him to make the mistake, who hid the critical importance of animals in a life full of competing claims and distracting information.

Another sign that things are not quite right.  If a human being snuck out of Earth and listened in on the counsels of the aliens and heard how important kindness to animals was, would that be a good or a bad thing.  On first blush it would seem a good thing — after all such a person would be a prophet, sharing the most important task of human life with his fellows.  But on second thought such a person would actually be no better than a student who snuck the answers to the exam into the examination room.

Perhaps the only fair tests are those we take upon ourselves.  So for example if I am trying to quit smoking I might accept a program in which secret agents would come upon me at various times in my life and ask me to smoke with them.  I would not know who was an agent of the program and who was not.  By observing how well I did passing and failing these tests I could learn something about myself. If I passed them I would learn to trust myself and if I failed learn to be suspicious and try harder.

And yet even this example requires trusting the judgment of the program I willingly commit myself to.  At some time in the future Philip Morris may invent a cigarette that has no dangers to health — it simply makes you look cool.  If I then continue in my program and refuse to smoke I will be passing a test in one sense — I will be sticking by my resolution — but failing another one — I will lose the benefits of looking cool for no reason at all.


A Beneficent Presence

A friend writes:

I have read so much about malign presences.  i would like to share with your readers an experience I had of a presence or entity that was the reverse, namely, beneficent.  I had a sense in some of the less examined regions of my life that there was a presence dwelling there, observing me, and using its powers to affect me in a positive way.   I considered various theories about what this presence was, such as, that it was the soul of a departed family member, an angel, my future self traveling back through time to help me, or that it was perhaps my true self, and I was simply a sub-system or intermittent false consciousness which the presence wished to integrate into a more fruitfully functioning whole.  One theory I find it literally impossible to consider is that the presence is anything other than possessed of a good will.  This idea, although I can entertain it rationally as a possibility, is emotionally impossible for me, much as it is impossible for me to find pain pleasant, or nausea appetite-inducing.  I have on occasion tried to communicate with this benign entity in order to understand it better or learn who or what it is but to no success.

A simple narrative, but one which raises so many more questions than it answers!  I tried to pose them to my friend but before I was able to articulate quite what my suspicion was, and why it was necessary for him to allay it before further entangling himself with this entity, I got exorcised.